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The Three Rivers Film Festival

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The 23rd annual Three Rivers Film Festival, presented by Pittsburgh Filmmakers, continues through Thu., Nov. 18. Tickets for most films are $7 each; exceptions are the closing-night event with photographer Duane Michals ($10) and the screening of Sunrise with live musical accompaniment ($10). A Six Pack festival pass offers six single admissions for $35, plus a free T-shirt. All films screen at the Harris Theater, Downtown; the Melwood Screening Room, North Oakland; or the Regent Square Theater, Edgewood. For more information, call 412-681-5449 or see www.pghfilmmakers.org.

 

Following are reviews and descriptions of films screening Nov. 10-18.

 

 

BALZAC AND THE LITTLE CHINESE SEAMSTRESS. During China's Cultural Revolution, two young men from the city are sent to the country to be re-educated in Maoism. There, they fall in love with a seamstress and read to her from forbidden Western works. Dai Sijie directs this elegant drama. In Mandarin and French with subtitles. 9:15 p.m. Tue., Nov. 16, and 8 p.m. Wed., Nov. 17. Regent Square

 

BAZAAR BIZARRE. It's both refreshing and a bit frustrating that Ben Meade's audacious documentary about 1980s serial killer Bob Berdella makes little effort to plumb Berdella's past for clues to what drove him to torture, rape, murder and dismember at least six young men in his bland-looking Kansas City home. But that's probably the point: Unnervingly playful yet disturbingly candid, Bazaar Bizarre uses harrowing (and almost unsparingly graphic) dramatic recreations as well as talking-head input from sources including the late Berdella himself; Meade, flaunting a real affinity for the dark and twisted, laces it with merrily macabre humor, even tossing in a couple music videos of original songs about Berdella. But the lion's share of provocation comes from death's-head philosopher James Ellroy: The writer has lots to say about Berdella, but he's skeptical enough about human nature to convincingly suggest that "sicko" is insight enough. 4:15 p.m. Sat., Nov. 13, and 2 p.m. Sun., Nov. 14. Melwood. Meade will appear at both screenings. (Bill O'Driscoll)

 

THE BIG ANIMAL. A small-town Polish couple adopts a camel with unexpected results in this political allegory directed by Jerzy Stuhr, working from a 1970s script by Krzysztof Kieslowski (Red, White, Blue). In Polish with subtitles. 7:15 p.m. Thu., Nov. 11, and 6:45 p.m. Sat., Nov. 13. Regent Square

 

BRIGHT LEAVES. An examination and sly critique of the culture and business of tobacco from documentarian/cinematic diarist Ross McElwee (Sherman's March). McElwee, a tobacco-state native from North Carolina, traces his own connections to the influential weed (his great-grandfather created the Bull Durham brand, then spent his fortune suing the Duke Big Tobacco family), intertwining his family's story with larger realities including tobacco's economic power and its devastating health effects. Filmmaker Ross McElwee will present his film. 8:30 p.m. Sat., Nov. 13, and 9 p.m. Mon., Nov. 15. Regent Square

 

CATERINA IN THE BIG CITY. In this comedy-drama from Paola Virzi, a rural teen-ager moves to Rome and finds her life suddenly more complicated: fitting into her new school, sorting out her parents' marriage -- and meeting a boy from Australia. In Italian with subtitles. 6:45 p.m. Sat., Nov. 13, and 8 p.m. Mon., Nov. 15. Harris

 

CHAIN. Jem Cohen's experimental film poses as documentary footage and illuminates the bland landscapes around us, places that could be anywhere and all marked by similar totems of corporate retail -- from shopping malls to sad roads of failed shops; from deserted nighttime parking lots to shoppers moving in a zombie-like shuffle. Chain comprises three sections, intercut to form one meditation on where and why we exist in such soulless spaces. One thread follows a young Japanese businesswoman researching "entertainment real estate"; another purports to be the video diary of a runaway, living in the hulls of abandoned properties and killing days at the mall. In between is ample footage Cohen shot worldwide that is desperately sad in its sameness: Is that Pizza Hut in Poland or Peoria? The film, produced by members of Washington, D.C., indie DIY band Fugazi, was shot by Cohen on 16 mm over six years. 7:15 p.m. Mon., Nov. 15, and 9:30 p.m. Wed., Nov. 17. Melwood (Al Hoff)

 

DEAR FRANKIE. Shona Auerbach makes her feature debut with this gritty but sweet kitchen-sink drama set on the dirty industrial fringes of Glasgow, Scotland. Nine-year-old deaf Frankie (Jack McElhone), his struggling young mother, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer), and her cranky mum move from one cheap flat to another; Lizzie's on the run from Frankie's abusive dad. To sustain the sensitive and lonely lad, Lizzie drafts fake letters purportedly from Frankie's dad, whom she explains is away at sea. Only hoping to inspire Frankie, Lizzie pays a stranger (Gerard Butler) to be Frankie's dad for one day, with results that are both heartwarming and heartbreaking. It's a bittersweet fable about a wee lost boy finding a father, and in some respects, Dear Frankie is as fanciful as any fairy tale spun from wishes. Yet with its strong cast and quiet naturalism, the film manages to feel emotionally grounded and is ultimately quite affecting. 9 p.m. Sat., Nov. 13, and 2 p.m. Sun., Nov. 14. Harris (AH)

 

DISTANT. Nuri Bilge Ceylon's gently but acutely observed feature follows quiet, simple Yusuf from the Turkish countryside to Istanbul, where he seeks work while rooming with his relation Mahmut, a bedraggled cosmopolitan photographer with a corporate sinecure. But the film's less a bemused report on their odd-couple relationship than a study in contrasting parallels: In his own way, each man is deeply isolated, a condition only heightened by life in a modern, quite urban and Westernized Turkey. With echoes of great contemporaries such as Angelopoulos and Kiarostami, and explicit nods to Tarkovsky, Ceylon outlines their lives with a beautifully light touch, minimal dialogue and unexpected humor. His technique -- compositions in depth, an eloquently motionless camera alternating with elegant pans -- is flawless; you get the sense he picks each shot like a prize olive. In Turkish with subtitles. 4:30 p.m. Sat., Nov. 13, and 4 p.m. Sun., Nov. 14. Harris (BO)

 

DUANELAND. McKeeport's Duane Michals is one of the most important living artists in contemporary photography. At 72, the wily artist shows no signs of slowing down, yet somehow local producers/directors Stephen Seliy (Mon Valley Education Consortium) and Joseph Seamans (WQED-TV) traipsed after him over the past two years to make this inspiring documentary. The film cleverly integrates interviews, footage of Michals working, his still photos and signature quirky handwriting to create a portrait of the artist -- his biography, philosophies and inspirations -- that is illuminating, deeply personal and visually compelling. In one of the film's most poignant threads, Michals visits his alma mater, 55 years after graduating, to speak to students, demonstrating his unapologetic rebelliousness by broaching subjects such as his homosexuality and disbelief of Christianity, to the simultaneous discomfort of attending teachers and glee of his young audience. If you're interested in art, artists, literature, humorous old men, documentary films, philosophy or just the city of Pittsburgh, you must take a trip to Duaneland! Co-directors Seliy and Seamans, as well as Michals, will attend the 7 p.m. closing-event screening ($10). 7 and 9:15 p.m. Thu., Nov. 18. Regent Square (Heather Mull)

 

GUERRILLA: THE TAKING OF PATTY HEARST. Robert Stone's documentary charts the bizarre and fascinating story of some 1970s domestic terrorists, the Oakland, Calif.-based Symbionese Liberation Army, and their highly publicized kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, who briefly became a convert to the revolution. Guerrilla screens with a 30-minute documentary from Richard Pell, Don't Call Me Crazy on the Fourth of July, paying homage to a Pittsburgh oracle, the late Bob Lansberry. For a quarter-century, Lansberry took to the streets to alert citizens about his fears of government control ("Where's my mail?" "Does silent radio control your mind?"). 5:30 p.m. Wed., Nov. 10, and 8 p.m. Thu., Nov. 11. Harris

 

JANDEK ON CORWOOD. The numbers seem unlikely: Over the past 25 years, the musician known as Jandek has released 35 albums, granted one interview about his music (in 1985) and performed live once (last month, unannounced, unnamed, at a festival in Scotland). The only info he releases is on his record sleeves -- song titles and the Houston postal-box address of his single-artist record label, Corwood Industries. Jandek on Corwood, the beautiful debut film from director Chad Freidrichs and producer Paul Fehler, examines Jandek in a way befitting his enigma. No attempt to interview Jandek was made -- Freidrichs wrote a warning to Corwood announcing when they'd be filming in his post office -- just a host of illuminating and enticing interviews with writers, musicians and fans, all done in the sad, sparsely beautiful visual tone of Jandek's cover art and bizarre, abnormally tuned music. Fans will revel in its aesthetics; newcomers will wonder at its subject -- Jandek on Corwood is as finely crafted an arts documentary as you'll see this year. To be screened via video projection. 9:15 p.m. Thu., Nov. 11, and 7:15 p.m. Fri., Nov. 12. Melwood (Justin Hopper)

 

MONSIEUR N. Antoine de Caunes' historical drama focuses on the mysterious circumstances during Napoleon Bonaparte's exile and subsequent death on the island St. Helena. In English, and French and Coriscan with subtitles. 9 p.m. Thu., Nov. 11, and 2 p.m. Sat., Nov. 13. Regent Square

 

MOOG. Trading solder and wire for strings and wood, Robert Moog spawned a musical revolution with the invention of the Moog synthesizer in the early 1960s. In Hans Fjellestad's documentary, Moog comes across as the quintessential American genius: mad with his shock-white hair and spiritual philosophies, at 70 still slaving over a hot theremin in his western North Carolina home. But Fjellestad comes across as an aimless documentary fanboy, more interested in filming Mix Master Mike performing than in exploring any kind of story. At the end of Moog you've learned that Rick Wakeman loves Bob Moog, and seen some fine modern music that owes plenty to him, but that's about it. Moog's own philosophy -- he understands circuits the way Stradivari understood wood -- compels a more spiritual film, nodded to in scenes of Moog in his organic garden, with his family, and playing theremin by the river. But for that we'll have to wait. 7:15 p.m. Wed., Nov. 10. Melwood (JH)

 

NOTRE MUSIQUE. In this cinematic essay, filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard questions art, politics and their intersection in three provocative segments: a symposium of artists in Sarajevo, archival footage of 20th-century conflicts, and a beach guarded by U.S. Marines. In various languages with subtitles. 9:30 p.m. Fri., Nov. 12 and 4:45 p.m. Sat., Nov. 13. Regent Square

 

RECONSTRUCTION. Danish director Christoffer Boe's Reconstruction begs repeated viewing, both for its challenging narrative and its artful aesthetics. In a "story within a story," candy-for-the-eyes photographer Alex (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) is drawn away from his girlfriend and into an alternate version of his Copenhagen life by a mysterious woman, leaving the viewer to decide what to believe. The film's first portion is a gorgeous nocturne, rendered with varying and experimental visual techniques that suck you in, only to spit you back out into the harsh light of day, where the nature of Alex's reality begins to waver. Actress Maria Bonnevie's dual role as both women adds to the confusion, her appeal rendering Alex as sympathetic, rather than just another celluloid cad. Indeed, all characters are sympathetic within the chaos, including Alex's lover's cuckolded auteur husband, who could very well have penned the whole mess. Or did he? In Danish with subtitles. 7:15 p.m. Wed., Nov. 10, and 7:15 p.m. Fri., Nov. 12. Regent Square (HM)

 

 

 

RESISTING PARADISE. (See review.) 7:15 p.m. Thu., Nov. 11, and 9:15 p.m. Fri., Nov. 12. Melwood

 

ROBBING PETER. Mario F. de la Vega's debut feature owes several debts to the indie crime-film conventions of the '90s -- nonlinear structure; sad, ordinary men caught up in trouble; the dusty nowheres of border motels; the quirky villain; and deadpan dialogue. But where its antecedents had a tendency toward dramatic pyrotechnics and bang-bang action, Robbing Peter unspools at a languid pace, marked by lengthy silent passages and a distinct lack of flashy anti-heroes. Told in four distinct acts, the larger story takes while to gel, but when the pieces come together, it's quietly satisfying. Robbing Peter also features a mournful soundtrack, complete with corrido, from punk-rocker-turned-neo-traditionalist Alejandro Escovedo. In English, and Spanish with subtitles. 4:15 p.m. Sun., Nov. 14, and 7:15 p.m. Tue., Nov. 16. Melwood (AH)

 

SAINTS AND SINNERS. Edward DeBonis and Vincent Maniscalco were two gay men with a dream -- to get married in a church. Though raised Catholic, they had to settle for a union ceremony in an Episcopal Church officiated by a gay Catholic priest. They had another dream as well -- to make the world's most public wedding video. Documentarians Abigail Honor and Yan Vinzinberg turned the ceremony, and the events leading up to it, into this film. A by-the-numbers end product, Saints and Sinners shows the love, commitment and abiding faith shared by DeBonis and Maniscalco. It is short on any "opposing viewpoint" talking heads, most notably when some family members balk at attending the ceremony though we never hear, firsthand, the reasons why. Considering how explosive the subject of same-sex marriage is these days, Saints and Sinners is surprisingly commonplace ... which may just be the point. 9 p.m. Wed., Nov. 10. Melwood (Ted Hoover)

 

SEX IS COMEDY. A film director (Anne Parillaud) attempts to direct an awkward sex scene for her new film: The actors are at odds, and the director herself is involved with the male lead. Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl) directs. In French with subtitles. 6 p.m. Sun., Nov. 14, and 5:30 p.m. Tue., Nov. 16. Harris

 

SHORT FILMS. The winners from among the more than 200 entries in the film festival's Juried Shorts Program will be shown. To be followed by a reception. 7:30 p.m. Fri., Nov. 12. Harris

 

SHORTS: PROGRAM I. A selection of 13 films from the film festival's Juried Shorts Program will be shown. The program runs 112 minutes. 9:15 p.m. Tue., Nov. 16. Melwood

 

SHORTS PROGRAM II. A selection of 12 films from the film festival's Juried Shorts Program will be shown. The program runs 99 minutes. 7:15 p.m. Wed., Nov. 17. Melwood

 

SMALL VOICES. The American poster blurb for Gil Porte's Small Voices could read: "The Bad News Bears of Philippine singing movies!" So sweet a story -- a rag-tag chorus of farm kids enters an annual school music competition -- could have easily become a feel-good monstrosity were it not for the director's ability to incorporate the gritty reality of a rural people struggling against poverty, bloody civil unrest and the futile assumption that their children's lives will offer nothing other than the pessimistic status quo. Based on a true story, a novice teacher (Alessandra di Rossi) arrives in a village where students are permitted to attend classes only when there is no hard labor to be done, and where the older teachers have given up hope for both their students' prospects and their own. With production values as modest as the people it portrays, Small Voices is no less triumphant, but much more bittersweet, than the tale of kiddie baseball's Bears. In Tagalog and Filipino with subtitles. 8 p.m. Wed., Nov. 10, and 5:30 p.m. Thu., Nov. 11. Harris (HM)

 

SUNRISE. German director F.W. Murnau's 1927 silent feature melded his expressionistic style of filmmaking with the glittery stars of Hollywood and produced what many film historians regard as the greatest film of the silent era. Virtually eschewing inter-titles, Murnau employed some of the purest techniques of the art form -- editing, light, camera movement and superimposition of images -- to evocatively portray a time-honored melodrama: Will the decent rural man (George O'Brien) succumb to the temptations of the big-city vamp and abandon his loving wife (Janet Gaynor)? Philip Carli will provide live piano accompaniment. 8 p.m. Sun., Nov. 14. Regent Square. $10.

 

TARNATION. In a perverse yet highly watchable form of therapy, thirtysomething filmmaker Jonathan Caouette creates his own autobiography -- a trippy mish-mash of home-video footage, snapshots, film clips, various sound recordings and songs -- all tossed together on his home computer. Such a self-indulgent, deeply personal venture might not have worked, but for the grim horrors -- presented in deadpan titles -- of Caouette's youth (a mentally ill mother, foster homes, drugs, suicide attempts, rages) that make his very survival compelling. The openly gay Caouette finds refuge early in acting, new wave and goth culture, music and filmmaking -- and remarkably he manages to draw strength from his unquestionably screwed-up family, with whom he maintains close contact. Tarnation is raw and at times unfocused, but its strange flicker draws you in -- and you may even find the film, despite its air of frantic desperation, inspiring. 7:30 p.m. Tue., Nov. 16, and 5:30 p.m. Wed., Nov. 17. Harris (AH)

 

TWO MEN WENT TO WAR. During World War II, two Britons -- Sergeant Peter King (Kenneth Cranham) and Private Leslie Cuthbertson (Leo Bill) -- landed on the beaches of France, went behind enemy lines, sabotaged Nazi communications and transportation targets, and returned across the channel to England. An act of bravery made remarkable -- nay, bizarre -- by the fact that these soldiers were British army dentists; neither was assigned to combat duty; and the pair's invasion of occupied France was a self-made mission done AWOL. In John Henderson's film, King and Cuthbertson's true story becomes a somewhat twee tale of frustrated failures whose eccentric idea succeeds at bringing them love, glory and the respect of their fellow soldiers (signified -- sigh -- by slow clapping). The lead-up to the mission wants to be a grown-up Hope and Glory; the invasion itself a slapstick, English-eccentric Dirty Dozen. But despite good performances from Cranham and Bill, and a few hearty chuckles, it's all a bit muddled by a script too hurried for such potentially excellent true material. 2:45 p.m. Sun., Nov. 14, and 7:15 p.m. Tue., Nov. 16. Regent Square (JH)

 

UNKNOWN SOLDIER. In Ferenc Toth's directorial-debut feature, a Harlem hood story, the thing to pay attention to are the steps. Main character Ellison (named for author Ralph Ellison) is learning the steps to manhood when his father Sam -- known in the community for his strong work ethic -- passes away. An early scene shows Sam struggling up a flight of stairs while riffraff blasts past him on the way down. Later, Ellison and his friends tumble down steps while a mother works her way up with her baby in stroller. Without his father around to support him, Ellison becomes a ward of the streets -- even though he's none too street-smart. Confirming a Michael Moore theory, he even tries enlisting in the military, though unsuccessfully. Drug dealing becomes his last resort, but his conscience interferes. His final recourse is undetermined in the movie. Just watch his steps. 8:30 p.m. Sat., Nov. 13, and 9:15 p.m. Mon., Nov. 15. Melwood (Brentin Mock)

 

UNTOLD SCANDAL. This 2003 film is a translation of Dangerous Liaisons with the setting changed from 18th-century France to 17th-century Korea. It's a costume drama in which spectators thrill to the nastiness of its aristocratic protagonists as they conduct their sexual conquests. Lord Cho (Bae Yong-jin), a notorious womanizer, seeks to corrupt two young women in an attempt to seduce his cousin (Lee Mi-Suk), who plays the Glenn Close part. The interiors are sumptuous, and director E J-Yong filigrees the action with some mist-shrouded landscapes. But where Dangerous Liaisons was a satire of mannered decadence, Untold Scandal is harsher and more tragic. In the end, the game's protagonists become its pawns, but that seems like paltry justice indeed. In Korean with subtitles. 5:30 p.m. Mon., Nov. 15, and 7:30 p.m. Wed., Nov. 17. Harris (Chris Potter)

 

WATERMARKS. Yaron Zilberman's documentary reunites a group of Austrian women swimmers who in the 1930s, despite their athletic prowess, were banned from sports under the Nazi regime. Six decades later, the women, now in their 80s, persevere, meeting socially and swimming daily. In English, German and Hebrew with subtitles. 5 p.m. Sun., Nov. 14, and 7:15 p.m. Mon., Nov. 15. Regent Square

 

THE WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL. Judy Irving's affirming documentary follows Mark Bittner, a homeless street musician in San Francisco, and his ongoing relationship with a flock of wild parrots. 6:30 p.m. Sat., Nov. 13. Melwood

 

YEAR OF THE BULL. If the recent film Friday Night Lights put a somewhat glossy Hollywood spin on the high-pressure boiler that is high school football, Todd Lubin's spare documentary will make the activity's contradictions painful clear. For disadvantaged kids like Miami's Taurean Charles, a decent kid and a gifted athlete in a sports-intensive school, football -- and its attendant college scholarships -- surely represents opportunity. But the costs are also immediate and high: Charles isn't getting any smarter; he's badly injured; he's treated like a commodity by the school, to be smacked and humiliated into performing, and like a celebrity by the community; college recruits ply him with promises, and locals slip him cash for making plays. Lubin's film follows Charles' senior year, when the biggest nail-biter isn't a play on the field, but whether Charles can finally pass an SAT test. Todd Lubin will present his film at both screenings. 2 p.m. Sat., Nov. 13, and 6:15 p.m. Sun., Nov. 14. Melwood (AH)

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