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A&E: Take your seats: Best of the fest

April 21, 2008

OK, so maybe what follows isn't the absolute best of the Indianapolis International Film Festival. After all, with 137 movies in the lineup, it would be a full-time job to screen everything being shown at this year's event, which runs April 23-May 3.

However, we did get our eyes on many of this year's offerings and picked films well worth your festival time. Think of these widely varied films as strong anchors for your IIFF experience this year.

Look for additional commentary and updates at Lou Harry's A&E, the IBJ arts blog at ae.ibj.com. For a festival schedule, visit www.indyfilmfest.org. And, FYI, while this is, indeed, an international festival with films from Israel, Italy, Hong Kong and more in the mix, there's plenty here for the subtitleresistant as well.

'Turn the River'

Atmosphere and strong, subtle performances highlight this story of a pool hustler (Famke Janssen) determined to be reunited with her young son-even if she has to kidnap him and leave the country. A slightly confusing coda mars an otherwise compelling character study.-L.H.

'Trying to Get Good'

There's a good chance that the name Jack Sheldon doesn't ring a bell for you. But if I say, "the guy who sang 'I'm Just a Bill' for 'Schoolhouse Rock,'" then a voice might come to mind. For another generation, the same reaction might come from saying "the funny trumpet guy on 'The Merv Griffin Show.'" What this musical documentary shows, though, is that Sheldon is one of jazz music's great trumpet players. Yet his cheery demeanor and L.A. roots have conspired to keep him from getting the respect he deserves. Can a guy that jovial, the thinking goes, be a serious musician? A good film about an interesting guy-and filled with terrific music.-L.H.

'Lapsus'

As I stated above, I haven't seen everything in the fest. But I'm willing to bet that this is the most compulsively re-watchable short in this year's collection. See, there's this minimally animated nun ... and some white space ... and some black space. And some problems with shifting shapes. Does it mean anything? I hope not. Is it fun? Absolutely.-L.H.

'Torn from the Flag'

Talking heads are a staple of documentary filmmaking. This film has its share. But they are fascinating voices, combining with well-chosen footage (some shot by legendary cinematographers Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zigmond) to See A&E next page bring attention to a lesser-known period of history. The film looks at Hungary, post-World War II, from the Soviet takeover through the 1956 uprising and beyond. Fascinating throughout. -L.H.

'Iron Ladies of Liberia'

Even if you don't know much about Liberia, this film, a week-by-week look at the first year of the presidency of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman to be freely elected a head of state in Africa, will bring you up to speed and inspire you to learn more. To further humanize the country's story, between shots of the president and her staff the film offers a glimpse into the life of its co-director, Liberia native, journalist and mother of two Siatta Scott Johnson, who faces her own struggles in a country rebuilding after two civil wars spanning two decades.-Rebecca Berfanger

'Operation Filmmaker'

An Iraqi film student is interviewed on MTV. Actor Liev Schreiber, directing a film in Prague, decides to invite the guy to work on the set. If you were writing the rest of this story, you might have the student realizing the magnitude of this break, working hard, proving his worth, and appreciating everything Schreiber and company did for him. Well, that's not exactly how things work out. You may well cringe through a fair amount of this film, but that's because its main character steadfastly doesn't do what viewers-or the filmmaker-want him to do. Which makes for compelling viewing. -L.H.

'The Tribe'

In its seemingly free-associative, tangentriding style, this film packs a lot of information into a small package-and makes this intro to Judaism both entertaining and interesting. Here's hoping that the creative minds behind it will have a go at many other topics. If they do, the series could become the cinematic equivalent of the "For Dummies" books.-L.H.

'The World in Two Round Trips'

When the Schürmann family of Brazil decide to recreate explorer Ferdinand Magellan's journey around the world, they don't leave anything to chance. Unlike the original crew-who didn't all make it to the Spice Islands-the Schürmanns get there with a global positioning system, radar and satellite Internet to guide them to 19 different countries. This film captures the family's day-to-day life at sea, and a touching story about their daughter, Kat, who has taught the family to see the world through a child's eyes. -R.B.

'Spinetingler!'

A cinematic genius? No, not really. But William Castle was quite the showman, dressing up his B movies with gimmicks, such as seats wired to administer electric shocks. What's most interesting about the film, though, is what happens when Castle acquires the rights to a bestseller and tries to rise from the schlock to make a first-class film. Surprisingly moving.-L.H.

'Psycho Hillbilly Cabin Massacre!'

Spoofs are at their best when they faithfully re-create the genres they are ribbing. In this short, the atmosphere is just right-which makes the shocking twist even funnier. -L.H.

'Spider'

Speaking of twists, you won't see this one coming.-L.H.

'Mr. Dial Has Something to Say'

There are a number of documentaries in this festival that capture interesting artistic achievements. "Bending Space," for instance, documents the process of George Rousse, who turns abandoned factory space into beautiful illusions. And "1000 Journals" tells of a project that releases the title books loose into the world, tapping into the artistic powers of the people they encounter. What makes "Mr. Dial Has Something to Say" stand out, though, is that it tells a compelling "what's gong to happen next" story. And in the process, we are also learning about an underappreciated genre, meeting fascinating, multifaceted characters, and being asked tough questions about art and the art world. The basics: Self-taught artist Thornton Dial is discovered by art collector Bill Arnett. But just when a Cinderella story looks to be playing out, "60 Minutes" comes calling. Look for brief appearances by the Indianapolis Museum of Art's Maxwell Anderson.-L.H.
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