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Ashland Independent Film Festival Here are a few of our favorites

Without Hollywood budgets, special effects, focus-group endings, independent films at their best can be provocative, moving and sometimes even — of all things — surprising.

More than 90 independent feature films, documentaries and shorts will be shown at the Ashland Independent Film Festival today through Monday in Ashland. Most will be shown several times (for a schedule, visit www.ashlandfilm.org).

Here are some of our picks, based on advance screenings. To not be included in this list is not the same as to be lacking in excellence. Alas, we didn't have time to see everything.

"Expiration Date"

It's fate, is what it is. Charles Silvercloud III's father and grandfather were both killed by milk trucks on their 25th birthdays, and the young American Indian man is about to turn 25 himself.

He prepares to die. But his plans are upset by a free-spirited young Seattle woman and a dog named Roadkill, whose favorite trick is playing dead. Charlie finds that his path leads to the mother of milk truck plants, and also back to his roots. Director Rick Stevenson has used a frame story that may remind you of Peter Falk and Fred Savage in "The Princess Bride." It's light-hearted and family-friendly. Shows at 3:40 p.m. Friday, 9:40 p.m. Saturday, 12:40 p.m. Monday.

"Wristcutters: A Love Story"

What if, if you commit suicide, you go someplace worse than the life you were fleeing — you know, this one — someplace where everything is shoddy and funky and dysfunctional to the max and there's no sex and no smiling? That's where a young man named Zia goes in Goran Dukic's wildly imaginative tale of a different sort of afterlife.

Zia becomes friends with another guy, and the two set off with a beautiful young woman, all of them seeking something that eluded them here (she's determined to find the People in Charge). What follows is strangely compelling and even kind of uplifting in a weird way.

Singer Tom Waits has an amusing role and acquits himself well. Shows at 6:40 p.m. Thursday, 6:40 p.m. Saturday, 9:40 p.m. Sunday.

"Steel Toes"

What happens when a liberal Jewish lawyer becomes the court-appointed attorney for a neo-Nazi skinhead who stomped a Pakistani man to death for no good reason? Except for its narrow focus and a certain grittiness, Mark Adam and David Gow's tightly woven drama has an almost-Hollywood look, partly due to the presence of Academy Award-nominated actor David Strathairn, who is terrific. Shows at 12:40 p.m. Thursday, 9:40 p.m. Friday, 3:40 p.m. Monday.


"Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox"

This film goes behind the rambling rant that has for decades adorned the labels of the soap, which is found in just about every health or natural food store anywhere. Bronner was a master soapmaker whose Jewish family fled the Nazis. After that the story gets hazy, but it involves a self-styled rabbi, Albert Einstein and an escape from a mental institution.

All the wacko stuff notwithstanding, the company appears to stand as a humanistic alternative to the dominant, greedhead corporate cultures of today. No Bronner today makes more than five times what hourly employees make. Son Ralph Bronner plans to attend and take questions. Shows at 9 p.m. Saturday, 10:10 a.m. Monday.

"Everything's Cool"

The consensus that humans are changing the climate by burning fossil fuels is overwhelming, but a gap between scientific opinion and public opinion persisted for years. This was no accident, according to this film, but the result of a carefully planned, well-financed disinformation effort involving prominent climate change deniers paid by foundations financed by the petroleum and coal industries. The deniers need never win a debate. Their goal is to simply gain access to media alongside the mainstream science in order to give the man in the street the impression that there's still a debate.

Rick Piltz held senior positions for a decade in the government programs that keep climate change data. In March 2005 he resigned in protest of the Bush administration's use of a political appointee — a former representative of oil companies — to alter the reports of scientists.

If you thought "An Inconvenient Truth" was must-see filmmaking, check this one out. Piltz, who won a whistle-blowing prize from the National Press Club, plans to be on hand for all the screenings of the film: 10 a.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. Sunday.

"Wetback: the Undocumented Documentary"

Whatever your view on illegal immigration, this film will change, if not your position, at least your perspective. It follows migrants from hardscrabble poverty in Honduras and El Salvador through Guatemala and the length of Mexico on the extremely dangerous journey to what they hope is the American dream. An estimated 3,000 a day start the journey, and fewer than 300 make it.

Like sea turtles who must run a gantlet of ravenous sea birds to make it to water's edge after hatching in the sand, poor migrants face dangers at every step: gangs and thuggish policemen that rob, rape and even kill. Many migrants simply disappear. One priest calls Mexico "a cemetery without crosses."

One harrowing scene was shot in a clinic full of young men with missing limbs after accidents on the freight trains migrants ride in an effort to avoid trouble.

Those who make it to the Rio Grande face the U.S. Border Patrol, vigilantes armed with guns and walkie-talkies, hostile ranchers, hidden cameras, motion sensors, cops and more.

The film's main strength is its focus on the human story of the journey. Sadly, the two young men it was following were robbed and returned to poverty in Central America. Two men the film switched to near the U.S. border were caught after crossing, then deported. Those who make it become a cheap source of labor for American companies and a major source of income in their native lands. Shows at 9:20 p.m. Thursday, 12:20 p.m. Friday, 9:50 a.m. Saturday, 3:20 p.m. Monday.

"The Danish Poet"

This animated parable is the story of a girl who realizes that without a Danish poet, a rainy summer in Norway, a slippery barn plank, a careless mailman, a hungry goat, a broken thumb and a crowded train, her parents would never have met. And we'd not have this little picture, which might be a shame, but not a major loss. Shows at 10:10 a.m. Saturday, 10:10 a.m. Sunday.

"Dead End Job"

Newspaper obituary writer Abigail Slay has a knack for summing up the lives of others. But what will she be remembered for? A friend gets involved, things take a surprising tack, and death can wait. Charming. Shows at 6:20 p.m. Friday, 12:20 p.m. Saturday, 3:20 p.m. Sunday.

"The Tube with a Hat"

In a gritty story that warms as it goes, a poor boy and his father journey from their village in Romania to the TV repair guy with a broken-down TV set. The meaning of the title, and more, becomes clear after a one-day odyssey. Refreshing. Shows at 6:20 p.m. Friday, 12:20 p.m. Saturday, 3:20 p.m. Sunday.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.

“Expiration Date” is a feature about a man who believes he will be killed by a milk truck when he turns 25.