Five Film Grab Bag

1. Capturing The Friedmans
(7/21, Oriental Theater, Milwaukee)

I’ve rarely felt so perplexed after watching a documentary. Andrew Jarecki’s account of the pedophilia and molestation charges that rocked and eventually destroyed a suburban Long Island family is no less unsettling or provocative than Bowling For Columbine; what makes it a superior film is that it never cheapens or smirks at what it exposes and dissects. The Friedman’s case itself is presented as a layered tapestry, with shrewdly placed revelations that tend to excite, illuminated and sicken—often all at once. The vintage video and audiotapes (mostly taken by eldest son David) overplay the tragic aspects of the case, but are harrowingly effective. The film is a quest to uncover the truth of what went on at Arthur Friedman’s computer classes, and although it is frustratingly unable to provide an answer, it reveals worlds on hysteria and the culture of fear that Michael Moore acknowledges but doesn’t have a whole lot to say about. I could have done without the sentimental music montages, and question the placement of a few revelations (especially one involving the patriarch’s brother), but the film leaves such an unshakable impression that you wish the bulk of “reality TV” could reach this shining potential.

2. Whale Rider
(7/24, Downer Theater, Milwaukee)

This New Zealand import is the summer’s breakout art house hit. It concerns Pai, a young Maori girl who tries to overcome the prejudices and sexist traditions of her tribe to prove she can be a “Whale Rider”, a warrior of sorts who has the gift to communicate with and train the great aquatic mammals, a designation originally meant for her twin brother (who died at birth) to achieve. Fortunately, it’s not nearly as hokey as it sounds. It does get off to a slow start, however, that all the idyllic, exotic scenery in the world can’t mask. It works best when Pai’s onscreen, for Keisha castle-Hughes gives a wonderfully unaffected performance, almost the Maori equivalent of Raven Goodwin, the plump black girl in Lovely and Amazing. I think I need to see this one again; I remember dozing off through most of it, only really getting caught up in the riveting conclusion and former Dead Can Dance-ster Lisa Gerrard’s fluid, ethereal score.

3. Finding Nemo
(7/25, Fox-Bay Cinema Grill, Whitefish Bay (how appropriate), WI)

I tend to avoid most things with Disney stamped on it (and to prove my point, I can’t think of a single current ABC show that I watch on a regular basis). This is their fifth CGI film, and only the second I’ve seen, next to Toy Story, which I haven’t seen in seven years. So, top-ten-grossing-film-of-all-time and all, why did I go to a theater to see this one? Ellen DeGeneres. I heard she was brilliant as the voice of Dorrie, a forgetful blue-fin, and she sure was. She’s as funny and nuanced in delivery here as in any of her stand-up performances, and it’s further proof that she needn’t have to do a sitcom ever again. Plus, there are no songs. Hallelujah! The plot’s grand outline is predictable and old-Mickey-Mouse-hat, but the way it gets there is really inventive, almost breathtaking at times. The CGI animation just keeps on getting better, so much so that the once groundbreaking Antz seems like Underdog in comparison. And, it’s appealing to both kids and adults without condescending to either; I even liked the surfer dude-talking turtle. But, if they should decide to do a sequel, please, please bring Ellen back.

4. Northfork
(7/28, Kendall Square, Cambridge, MA)

Without a doubt the strangest film I’ve seen all year, it also has the best cinematography. Imagine a Montana drained of most of its color, until you’re left with lots of white and gray and faded out neutral greens, yellows and browns, and you’ve got Northfork, the third film by Mark and Michael Polish. It’s more ingenuous and less exploitative than Twin Falls, Idaho; it has something to do with a small town that is about to be flooded by an ominous irrigation project, and follows a band of six black-suited evacuators who are promised prime “lakefront property” it they meet their quotas. There’s also Nick Nolte as a tender but possibly mad preacher and the sickly ten-year-old boy whose dreams of consorting with a band of otherworldly eccentrics (including Anthony Edwards and Darryl Hannah!) may be more than visions. Not weird enough yet? How about a heapin’ helpin’ of David Lynch/Coen Brothers surreal deadpan? Northfork is a film someone like Ebert loves to call “startlingly original”, and while it’s a little too smugly precious for its own good at times, it’s also unquestionably like no other film at the art house multiplexes right now. Time will tell how well this bizarre but oddly beautiful fable ages, but I can already imagine getting at least a little pleasure out of subsequent viewings.

5. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of The Black Pearl
(8/3, Loews Boston Common)

Just as Finding Nemo wouldn’t seem so fine without DeGeneres, The Pirate Movie (as Kate Sullivan calls it) would seem like an abomination without Depp (or something akin to The Time Machine with Guy Pearce, who could use another Memento right about now). Depp, chameleonic and vivid as always, makes the thrill ride watchable as Captain Jack Sparrow, a fey, foppy and uproariously funny fixture who crosses Jagger and Richards for all its worth and gets away with it. As for the rest of the well-shot, shoddily directed extravaganza? Well, it’s not the disaster months of nondescript theatrical trailers suggested, or even all that bad--just kind of unexceptional. Sharp as he looks, Orlando Bloom makes you remember why he has more pretty face than personality, and I don’t even know (or care to look up) the female lead’s name. Geoffrey Rush is OK, but he’s been much better (and much worse) elsewhere. Oh well, it’s probably the first bearable pirate movie in cinema history, but not as much fun as the much-maligned Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.