Directed by Danny Boyle
7 p.m. Sunday, November 14 at the Hi-Pointe
Watch what James Franco — actor/sleepy grad student/tepid writer/viral video comedian/ conceptual artist/aficionado of gender fuckery — can accomplish when he actually focuses for a couple of weeks. In Danny Boyle's latest, Franco plays Aron Ralston, who in 2003 cut off his own arm after being stuck for five days under a rock in a Utah canyon. The boulder drops about twenty minutes into 127 Hours. Ralston begins devising clever systems of survival and, he hopes, mechanisms of freedom, all the while narrating his predicament into the video camera he's brought along, a device that seems awfully blunt at first, but becomes a fascinating window into how a smart, funny, non-action-hero guy might behave as he tries to think his way out of a catastrophe. Soon enough, the descent into delirium begins. As Boyle's film flits from the real world — the heavy reality of a man in a canyon, pinned, near death — to the world of hallucinations and memories, so Franco's performance transforms, encompassing both universes. Unlike Boyle's flashback-dependent Slumdog Millionaire, we're not meant to draw explicit lines from past to present — there's no scene of a young Ralston, like, learning to tie a double overhand stopper knot. Instead, the glimpses of his past build an impressionistic picture of a young man so devoted to the pursuit of experience that he's left human connection behind. It's fitting that the film likely to turn Franco — dilettante, enigma, artistic adventurer — into an unapproachable celebrity is itself a passionate, bloody argument for engagement with the world.
— Dan Kois
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector
Directed by Vikram Jayanti
9:30 p.m. Saturday November 13 at the Tivoli
A portrait of a pop music genius as (pre-)convicted murderer, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector lives up to its grandiose title. Vikram Jayanti's BBC production is culled from 50 hours of interviews made during the reclusive Spector's first trial — he was accused of sticking one of his many guns in actress Lana Clarkson's mouth and blowing out her brains — but it's less a documentary than a Top 40 opera. The Agony begins with Spector bitching about the jury and the judge (not fair that he keeps reminding the court that somebody died). Then Jayanti segues — bang! — to a vintage kinescope of the Ronettes performing songwriter Spector's infectiously plaintive "Be My Baby." Pure ecstasy! And so it goes for the next 100 minutes, as Spector's discourse is interwoven with his greatest hits, often played in their glorious entirety. Spector's rage is constant, his grudges are boundless (Tony Bennett seems to be a particular bête noire), and his paranoia (persecuted because he created the '60s) is indistinguishable from his self-importance. The artist refers to his early-'60s hits as "little symphonies for the kids" — hardly an exaggeration. To have been in junior high school when rhapsodic fugues of yearning like "Uptown" or "Be My Baby" first poured from the radio is to have a sensibility, if not a fantasy life, in some way molded by this monster of self-absorption. To see The Agony and the Ecstasy is to be haunted by the specter of that long-ago innocence.
— J. Hoberman
Directed by Suzan Beraza
3:30 p.m. Sunday, November 21, at the Tivoli
Most of us are guilty of shoving plastic bags into other plastic bags while our (well-intentioned!) eco-friendly ones sit forgotten in the car. This is how it began for "average guy" Jeb Berrier, too, until he decided to dramatically decrease his dependence on plastic. Interspersed with cartoon graphics, interviews and an awful lot of shots of Berrier looking into the camera, smirking and shrugging (á la Jim from The Office), Bag It takes an exhaustive look at how plastic has become something of an invasive species itself: Plastic bags float in the oceans like algae, plastic caps are found in the stomachs of dead fish and birds, and some research even points to its negative impacts on human health. It's an admittedly one-sided look at the plastics industry that sometimes intentionally (and sometimes not) lapses into preachy filmstrip-speak. But if its creators' intent was to entertain and educate consumers while dispensing a healthy amount of guilt, then they've got it, er, in the bag.
— Kristie McClanahan
The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek
Directed by Wendy Jo Cohen
2 p.m. Saturday, November 13, at the Tivoli
A Civil War "documentary" of the Ken Burns school — lots of pan and scan photos set to folksy music, melodramatic recitations of old letters and a host of talking heads — Wendy Jo Cohen's The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek uncovers a forgotten battle that was won by Jonathan Franklin Hale, the Union Army's only openly gay officer. This skirmish was forgotten not only because of Hale's sexuality, but also because his cohorts include an aged Chinese general/laundry magnate, a nerdy escaped slave and a vengeful one-armed teen prostitute disguised as a drummer boy — not your typical (white, male, heterosexual) soldiers by any means. The subtlety with which Cohen weaves these elements together slips away so gradually that it's difficult to determine when the film veers into anarchic silliness. Is it the photo of a Civil War pimp or the moment when history expert Sheeba Lejeune is revealed to be a prostitute herself or when the battle is fought with hot air balloons armed with laundry-detergent bombs? A delightfully wry film that satirizes Civil War fetishists, history buffs, PBS-type programming and America's lingering racial and gender issues.
— Paul Friswold
Breaking and Entering
Directed by Benjamin Fingerhut
3 p.m. Sunday, November 21, at the Tivoli
These are the rules of "joggling": You must juggle every step. If a ball is dropped, juggling must resume behind the drop point. Any three objects may be used, as long as they are juggled in a cyclical pattern. Oh yeah, and you have to do all this while running a marathon. Breaking and Entering, a documentary directed by Benjamin Fingerhut, follows the stories of more than a dozen people — including, yes, two jogglers — in pursuit of the glory of holding a Guinness World Record. Fingerhut wisely takes a pass on turning his subjects' goals into a farce, instead highlighting the dedication and level of human achievement they all possess and making this a surprisingly affecting film. Whether the record holder is Boo McAfee, the man who felt hopeless after a divorce and did "the most impossible thing I could think of" (the world's longest drumming marathon), or Ashrita Furman, who holds the world record for holding the most world records (fastest mile traveled on a kangaroo ball, most apples cut in mid-air in a 60-second period with a Samurai sword, fastest mile while rolling an orange with the nose and 98 astonishingly strange others), Breaking and Entering shows not what humans should do, but what we can do, if we put our minds to it. Bring tissues, for moments of both laughter and (seriously) tears.
— Kase Wickman
Casino Jack & The United States of Money
Directed by George Hickenlooper
8 p.m. Thursday November 11 at the Tivoli
Passionate Republican, fervent Orthodox Jew, ruthless wheeler-dealer, super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff at his height fashioned himself into a human ATM machine who lined the pockets of politicians on every side of the aisle. Sooner or later, everybody from Tom DeLay to Patrick Kennedy was at least marginally in his debt. His meteoric rise and fall may seem on its surface to be yesterday's news, but as recounted here by filmmaker Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), the man's uniquely dramatic career still has much to reveal about how power malfunctions in America. Getting everybody around his subject to open up (Abramoff is still in prison, unavailable for interview), Gibney presents a thorough history and then maps, as per his movie's subtitle, The United States of Money, which made (and makes) such corruption possible. Abramoff fleeced Indian tribes of millions, while affecting to represent their interests; he entangled himself with murderous characters while launching his own fleet of gaming-boats. More chillingly, as Gibney's relentless X-Ray of a movie magnifies in detail, Abramoff leads politicians on junkets that hallow the sweat-shop archipelago that are the Marianas Islands as "a triumph of free enterprise." Gibney makes the case that the U. S. sponsors and protects traffic in slave labor that continues to this day. The blindfold that allows us to tolerate this (if only tacitly, in our ignorance) is the very mad-money ethic for which Abramoff was the ecstatic ambassador, and convenient fall guy.
— F.X. Feeney
Directed by Valdís Óskarsdóttir
In Icelandic, with subtitles
7 p.m. Monday, November 15 and 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, November 16, at the Hi-Pointe
Two buses full of wedding guests — with the bride, Inga, in one, and the groom, Bardi, in the other — meander through the desolate Icelandic countryside en route to the ceremony. The buses (inevitably) get lost, and Country Wedding dissolves into a wash of well-worn wedding clichés: There are the veiled references to the bachelor party, the fighting bride- and groom-to-be and kooky Grandma who keeps wandering away. But what's most interesting about this film is that the actors worked with a loose script left open to improvisation. At times, the natural back and forth approaches Curb Your Enthusiasm levels, but just as often it falls flat. Maybe something is lost in translation, or maybe it's just all too familiar: Like so many weddings, the film concerns itself with mundane details while the ceremony itself is nothing but an afterthought.
— Kristie McClanahan
Do It Again
Directed by Robert Patton-Spruill
8:15 p.m. Saturday, November 20, at the Tivoli
Boston Globe reporter Geoff Edgers, fast approaching 40, decides that instead of enjoying the usual mid-life crisis, he will reunite the four original Kinks — Peter Quaife, Mick Avory and brothers Dave and Ray Davies — so that they can play together one more time, even if it's only for one song. He claims his mission is spurred by a desire to familiarize a younger audience with one of the world's greatest, most underappreciated bands; during the course of Robert Patton-Spruill's documentary, it becomes clear that Edgers' reasons may also include hiding from the reality of the failing newspaper business and attempting to regain some of the fire he had when he was himself a young musician. Edgers' difficulties in even making contact with Ray Davies to arrange a meeting are juxtaposed with a series of interviews with current musical stars inspired by the Kinks — Sting, Paul Weller, Zooey Deschanel and the members of the Venus 3 — wherein he gauges their interest in seeing a reunion and attempts to play a Kinks' song with each subject. On the day Edgers is informed by his union representative that he'll be receiving a 23 percent pay cut effective immediately, he joins Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey in an achingly raw performance of the Kinks' "Get Back In Line," a song about the Davies' brothers long struggle with the American Federation of Musicians and how it impacted their ability to make a living. Moments like these show the redemptive power of our favorite music and how much we rely on our personal soundtrack to get us through life.
— Paul Friswold
Facing the Storm
Directed by Doug Hawes-Davis
5:30 p.m. Sunday, November 14, at Webster University's Winifred Moore Auditorium
Besides being an enduring symbol of the Great Plains, the buffalo is also an emblem of survival. For nearly 10,000 years these animals were the driving force behind Native American culture and economy; then, in the nineteenth century, their numbers plummeted from the tens of millions to fewer than 1,000. Though they've been saved from extinction, recent history hasn't been so romantic for the buffalo, as their storied past has given way to an uncertain future tied up in the realities of land management, bureaucracy, court trials and town-hall meetings. Today, even as buffalo unite Indian tribes under a common cause, they divide hunters and conservationists, lawmakers and constituents, as America continues to argue what, exactly, home on the range means for the buffalo. Facing the Storm analyzes these ongoing challenges in a beautifully shot film that combines interviews with Native Americans, conservationists and ranchers with sweeping panoramas of the plains, simple yet effective animation and not-for-the-squeamish scenes from slaughterhouses. Thoughtful and thought-provoking, the film's look at North America's history and future serves as a poignant reminder that civilizations are at their best when the land and its people live in mindful accord.
— Kristie McClanahan
Directed by Marc Meyers
6 p.m. Sunday, November 21, at the Tivoli
Robert Loggia gives a charming performance in this feature written and directed by Marc Meyers as Siv Monopoli, patriarch of a squabbling Italian family somewhere in New England. It's unfortunate that Harvest concerns Siv's decline and death, so that scenes of the old man happily riding his bike through town and amazing everyone with his joie de vivre alternate with scenes of him lying in bed in mortal agony. (Kudos to the makeup crew for making Loggia's skin look like that of an actual dying person.) Sadly, there are more bed scenes as the movie goes on, as Siv is tended to by his two bickering sons, his martyr of a daughter and his mopey college-age grandson, who can't believe he has to spend summer vacation with the old folks instead of with his friends at the beach. Sure, life is tough, but we couldn't help but wish Siv had passed on some of his good cheer to his offspring.
— Aimee Levitt
Made in Hungária
Directed by Gergely Fonyó
6:45 p.m. Tuesday, November 16, and 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, November 17, at Plaza Frontenac
With his perfect-coiffed DA, shades and Hawaiian shirts, Miki (Tamás Szabó Kimmel) looks like every other teenager in mid-'60s America. Too bad he's back in Hungary after four years in the USA, where he worshiped at the altar of Jerry Lee Lewis. Unable to blend in with the cold, gray realities of life behind the Iron Curtain, Miki causes trouble for his father (suspected of being a spy by the government) and his friends as he tries to impart some good ol' teenage rebellion to a society that demands conformity. Loosely based on the life of Eastern Bloc pop star Miklós Fenyö, Made in Hungária is part biopic, part musical, featuring a half-dozen or so delirious production numbers powered by Jerry Lee Lewis-esque rockers performed in a mix of English and Hungarian. Kimmel has a genial charm — he's half Eddie Haskell, half Wally Cleaver — and Iván Fenyö delivers a convincing performance as Röné, the local King of the Juvenile Delinquents whose social position (and band) are unwittingly usurped by Miki.
— Paul Friswold
Most Valuable Players
Directed by Matthew Kallis
7 p.m. Wednesday, November 17, at the Tivoli
In Most Valuable Players, Matthew Kallis' directorial debut, a handful of high school musical-theater superstars are given their moment in the indie documentary spotlight. Kallis' camera follows the cast members of three high school musicals in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley in the weeks leading up to the Freddy Awards, the so-called high school Tony Awards. In this era of obsession over TV's Glee and the High School Musical franchise, this film is sure to reach a wide audience. And it's even better than its fictional counterparts: These are real kids, with acne and anxiety. There's tension (two of the schools, just five miles down the road from one another, choose to perform Les Miserables on the very same weekend), drama (a beloved Freddy Awards producer is diagnosed with cancer) and divas galore (two of the high school actresses kvetch about their director, then turn to look at each other. "Are we bitches?" one asks. "You are," the other responds). There's even a conspiracy theory: Should one high school be allowed to compete in the "Best Costumes" category if they rented their costumes instead of creating them? The film jumps around and can be confusing at times, but ultimately, the charisma and heart of the performers will draw you in and leave you fascinated until curtain call.
— Kase Wickman
The Queen of Hearts
Directed by Valérie Donzelli
9:15 p.m. Tuesday, November 16, and 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, November 17, at Plaza Frontenac
If the French film The Queen of Hearts gets remade in America, it will star Kate Hudson, and it will be unbearable. What else can you expect from a movie about a childlike woman who gets dumped by her boyfriend and left without a job, a home, friends or even a change of clothes — and now must figure out how to get a life? Fortunately, Valérie Donzelli, who wrote, directed and stars, rescues this story from cliché by treating her heroine Adele like a real person, capable of being surprised by developments in her own life, instead of just a silly ball of quirks. Jérémie Elkaïm plays all four men in Adele's life and makes them believable as individuals instead of four look-alikes in different costumes, and Béatrice De Staël is touching as Adele's eccentric cousin Rachel, who sets the plot in motion by encouraging Adele to get over the breakup by sleeping with a new man. (Who hasn't suffered from that bit of advice?) There is singing, but don't worry, it's charming. Maybe bad breakups — and movies about them — are more fun if they happen in Paris?
— Aimee Levitt
Ride Rise Roar
Directed by Hillman Curtis
8:45 p.m. Sunday, November 14 at the Tivoli
In October 2008, ex-Talking Heads leader David Byrne brought his Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno tour to St. Louis' Fox Theatre. A seven-piece band and three dancers — all clad in crisp white outfits — interpreted TH classics and songs from Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, his 2008 collaboration LP with Eno. The playful spirit and musical achievements of that wonderful show permeate Ride Rise Roar, a concert film based on this tour. Performance clips alternate with behind-the-scenes practice footage, interviews with the tour's choreographers, musicians, dancers and collaborators, and even insights into Today from Byrne himself. These black-and-white interludes help the audience understand how the well-choreographed tour came together but don't detract from the wonder of Rise's live-performance clips. New tunes such as "Life Is Long," where Byrne and his trio of dancers use office chairs for a symbolic dance, and the somber "My Big Nurse" possess depth that only comes with age. But Byrne's Talking Heads-era tunes sound just as fresh and vital; highlights include the rhythmic explosion "I Zimbra," deep-funk "Houses in Motion" and new-wave classics "Life During Wartime" and "Burning Down the House."
— Annie Zaleski
Superstonic Sound: The Rebel Dread
Directed by Raphael Erichsen
9 p.m. Wednesday, November 17, Webster University's Winifred Moore Auditorium
This brief documentary on DJ/filmmaker/radio host Don Letts — a '70s UK punk-scene denizen who directed the Grammy Award-winning documentary The Clash: Westway to the World — begins with a bold claim: The first-generation Brit, whose parents were Jamaican immigrants, is "credited with introducing punk to the reggae bass line." Letts later downplays his legacy using historical precedent; in part, the "tradition of young white kids looking to black music for their rebellious fix" spurred the genre pollination just as much as his DJ nights at punk club the Roxy. Such insightful observations about music, politics and culture dominate this film, although Letts' humble perspective makes any discussion refreshingly free of preachiness. Accordingly, director Erichsen doesn't just focus on his erudite protagonist. Instead, Letts' story unfolds in tandem with that of his son Jet, an ambitious dubstep producer/DJ. The contrast between the father's successes — cofounding Big Audio Dynamite with ex-Clash guitarist Mick Jones, becoming a successful filmmaker and radio host — and his son's burgeoning career is a boon for character development; facets of Letts' personality and philosophy emerge in organic, revealing ways. Superstonic Sound: The Rebel Dread covers an era that's been documented ad nauseam, but the film's methodology and Letts' affable demeanor give the film grace and depth.
— Annie Zaleski
Waiting for Forever
Directed by James Keach
7 p.m. Saturday, November 13, at Webster University's Winifred Moore Auditorium
It's the romantic comedy formula we've seen so many times: Boy and girl are childhood best friends; one of them moves away; they meet again as adults after many years apart, and rekindle their flame. Except Waiting for Forever knocks the usual script a little off-kilter: The boy isn't usually a transient street performer who exclusively wears pajamas and secretly stalks the girl from afar for years, like Will (Tom Sturridge). And the girl isn't usually a B-list television actress with a dying father and violent boyfriend, like Emma (Rachel Bilson). When Emma goes back to her childhood home to be with her ailing father (the excellently caustic Richard Jenkins), Will follows her, determined to confess his love after following her from town to town for years (though, as he says, he's not following her, he just "goes where you are"). Director James Keach has made a film full of charming characters that manages to shake off its rom-com shackles every once in a while and acknowledge that the whole unrequited love/ mooning-in-the-distance thing is, well, pretty creepy and not so plausible in the real world. Though the movie ends firmly in genre territory, it's an enjoyable ride on its way there.
— Kase Wickman
Directed by Debra Granik
7 p.m. Sunday, November 14 at Washington University's Brown Hall
"Never ask for what ought to be offered," 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) tells her brother in Winter's Bone, Debra Granik's dark and flinty Ozark fairy tale. Those are words to live by for Ree and her people, scattered across the hardscrabble southern Missouri woods. But in Winter's Bone, a tough-minded girl is forced by circumstance to demand exactly what no one wants to offer: the truth. Ree lives in a small house with her siblings and their mentally ill mother. When the sheriff brings news that Ree's father put the family's house up as bond after an arrest for cooking meth — and that he has subsequently gone on the run — Ree goes looking for Dad to convince him to turn himself in. Met at every turn by narrowed eyes and tight lips, Ree soon gets the picture that asking questions is, as one neighbor puts it, "a real good way to end up et by hogs." But while the first half of Winter's Bone is essentially a slow-paced procedural with a pint-size detective, Ree is no Nancy Drew. She gets by on instinct and determination rather than wit, and we come out the other end of Ree's quest impressed, but also disquieted, by her strength. It's uncertain to what end that strength might be used. Ree is tough enough, and mean enough, to rule those woods in a few short years if she sets her mind to it.
— Dan Kois