10 films to see at deadCENTER film festival

A BAG OF HAMMERS

Its plot may stretch the boundaries of believability, but damn it, director Brian Carno nails the alternately comedic and dramatic tone of the appealing “A Bag of Hammers.”

Jason Ritter and co-writer Jake Sandvig star as best buds Ben and Alan, two con men who make money off a valet-parking scheme. But other than that, they’re really nice guys. The axis of their felonious world shifts when they meet a boy who moves into the neighborhood with his single mom, who is unemployed and barely able to scrape by.

Midway in, Carno throws quite the wrench into the story, which changes everything. A diner-set scene follows in which Ritter delivers an extended monologue that’s fall-to-the-floor heartbreaking. (His father, John, would be proud.)

Containing some famous faces in Amanda Seyfried, Rebecca Hall, Gabriel Macht and Sally Kirkland, “Hammers” is not only one of the more star-studded entries at deadCENTER, but also one of the brightest. —Rod Lott

BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN

The 1925 silent classic “Battleship Potemkin” is critical viewing for any film scholar. Director Sergei Eisenstein essentially created modern movie editing with his theories about montage.

Commissioned for the 20th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the picture that dramatizes an ill-fated mutiny in 1905 remains a marvel of Communist propaganda. Its influence has reverberated through everything from “The Godfather” to “The Untouchables.”

But why should the casual movie buff care? Because for all its historical significance and studied artistry, “Battleship Potemkin” still packs an emotional wallop. And its justly ballyhooed Odessa Steps sequence, in which Czarist soldiers coldly mow down throngs of townspeople, has lost none of its mesmerizing brute force.

Moreover, “Battleship Potemkin” is getting the — pardon the expression, Bolsheviks — royal treatment at dead- CENTER with an all-new restoration. In 35mm for the first time and boasting its original music score, the film remains a monumentally revolutionary work. —Phil Bacharach

BLANK CITY

Gritty, grainy and resolutely skeezy, the documentary “Blank City” is a big, moist kiss to the No Wave underground filmmaking movement that flourished in New York from the mid-1970s through early ’80s. It was a vibrant and vulgar scene, and one irresistibly captured by filmmaker Celine Danhier.

Stitching
together a generous amount of archival footage and film clips, “Blank
City” is more of a valentine than examination, but that’s all right.
Danhier’s enthusiasm for the period and atmosphere is infectious, and
she bolsters her case in interviews with a host of luminaries from that
bygone time, including Jim Jarmusch, John Waters, Steve Buscemi, Debbie
Harry, Thurston Moore and Lydia Lunch.

Shoehorned
somewhere between punk and hip-hop, No Wave embraced the ramshackle,
rat-infested, drug-addled, perversely deviant netherworld of the Lower
East Side before Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani cleaned up the joint. As one
“Blank City” observer puts it, “It was all about trying to push yourself
to the edge and to cheat death.” The do-it-yourself filmmakers didn’t
quite succeed, but long live their effort. —Phil Bacharach

THE DEAD INSIDE

No
matter how many zombie movies you’ve seen, you haven’t seen one quite
like “The Dead Inside.” For starters, it’s a zombie musical. For
another, what is essentially a two-man show takes directions one would
not expect.

Sarah
Lassez and Dustin Fasching headline as Fi and Wes, live-in lovers who
find themselves in individual creative ruts. He’s a photographer; she’s a
writer of undead fiction, and blocked. On occasion, they break into
song, like a Calypso-style number addressing why a zombie apocalypse
would be good, and these scenes are funny and inventive, whereas “Repo!
The Genetic Opera,” another horror-oriented indie with tunes, was
tiresome and off-putting. It’s like “Little Shop of Horrors” with lots
of F-bombs.

Or at
least at first. The more metaphorical writer/director Travis Betz’s work
gets, the less joyous the proceedings; fact and fiction blur as the
film takes some very disturbing turns. Hold on for a dark, demented
ride, with two solid performers as your guide. This one’s destined to be
an audience pleaser. —Rod Lott

ELEVATE

Like
a West African “Hoop Dreams,” director Anne Buford’s debut documentary
focuses on four young men whose dream is playing basketball in the NBA.
At 7 feet tall, they certainly look the part.

From their hometown of Senegal, where less than a quarter of
the population even attends high school, the teens attend an elite
boarding school in hopes of gaining acceptance at American prep
institutions. When one of them is moved to tears at having his visa
approved, viewers will feel the chill of a fantasy one step closer to
becoming reality.

Watching them assimilate into
American life is interesting, as the boys cope with the restrictions of
their Muslim religion (sorry, no hot dogs allowed) while learning new
skills, like driving a car. While not as powerful as “Hoop Dreams,”
“Elevate” has a thriftier running time, and you may find yourself
rooting for these guys more. —Rod Lott

FORDSON

All
racists and xenophobes, just know that “Fordson” is a documentary
centered around a Michigan high school where the good ol’ American game
of football reigns supreme! Go see it, and stop reading now!

For everyone else, the above is true.

What
I didn’t tell them is that it’s set in Dearborn, which has the nation’s
largest population of Arab-Americans for a city of its size. That’s
right: There are lots of Muslims in this school.

And
guess what? They’re just like you and me! The educators are concerned;
the parents are loving; the jocks can be arrogant jerks. The only
difference is these community members put up with a lot of hatred they
shouldn’t have to, as the opening moments make painfully, embarrassingly
clear.

In other words, it’s kind of as if “Friday
Night Lights” were a documentary, but with a Ramadan subplot wedged in.
“Fordson” contains no startling revelations, no world-shaking
developments, but isn’t that kind of the point? We’re more alike than
most are willing to admit. —Rod Lott

PARADISE RECOVERED

Can
a devout Christian and an agnostic fall in love? That’s the most
immediate question at the center of “Paradise Recovered,” but this
sweetly rendered film also concerns itself with matters of faith and
skepticism.

Granted, director Storme Wood and
screenwriter Andie Redwine stack the deck a bit. The aforementioned
Christian, a nanny named Esther (Heather del Rio), isn’t mainstream so
much as she is a fundamentalist whose spiritual leader is a domineering
crackpot. By contrast, the resident agnostic is so kind and gentle, he
could be mistaken for a Jeff Buckley song come to life.

But
“Paradise Recovered” is imbued with a warmth and earnestness that
compensates for the occasional simplicity or on-the-nose line of
dialogue. And the young cast is excellent, with del Rio particularly
arresting as the guarded young woman who begins to question everything
she has known. —Phil Bacharach

PRESSPAUSEPLAY

In the last 20 years, both creative technology and
distribution methods for music and film have become available to almost
anyone. What will happen to art? The documentary “PressPausePlay”
allows positive and negative opinions on the issue to emphatically
(almost histrionically) weigh in.

Author Andrew Keen
proclaims, “We are on the verge of a new Dark Ages,” while author Seth
Godin states, “There has never been a better time to be an artist.”
Musicians, founders, filmmakers and more make interesting contributions.
This is an indie film — which almost proves one side — but the
narrative shows light and dark as it follows composer Ólafur Arnalds
through his first full-orchestra performance.

The
opposing ideas’ polar nature makes it jarring at times, but
“PressPausePlay” is lovingly constructed and neatly shot, making it
worth the time. —Stephen Carradini

TROLL HUNTER

With
found-footage films all the rage in Hollywood — “Cloverfield,”
“Quarantine,” “Paranormal Activity,” to name just a recent few — it was
inevitable that the rest of the world would catch on. Enter Norway, with
the shock-andmockumentary “Troll Hunter.”

It’s exactly
how it sounds: A cameraarmed group of students track down trolls. These
creatures aren’t the trolls that hide under a bridge, however, because
they’re too big; they could use bridges as toothpicks.

With
its sharp wit, it reminded me of “Rare Exports,” last year’s twisted
Christmas film from Finland; with its excellent effects on a tight
budget, it reminded me of “Monsters,” minus the moroseness. Don’t let
the fact that you have to read subtitles put you off seeing “Troll
Hunter,” because it’s worth putting in a little work for a lot of fun. —Rod Lott

VIRGIN ALEXANDER

The
filmmakers behind “Virgin Alexander” obviously have seen “Risky
Business” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” a couple of times, but the
resulting work is less an amalgam of those movies as it is an indie
perspective on them.

The titular character is a
26-year-old nebbish (Rick Faugno) railroaded into buying his
grandfather’s house. No sooner does he do so than Alexander learns the
bank is about to foreclose on the property. In an effort to keep the
place, he and his buddy transform it into a brothel. They lure a bevy of
local hookers led by Ruby (Paige Howard), incurring the wrath of their
pimp (Bronson Pinchot).

High jinks ensue. Some of it
works; some doesn’t — but the film lets their quirky setup lead to
interesting places. Pinchot (a “Risky Business” alum, incidentally) is
central to one of the ickiest bachelor parties captured on film. And you
have to tip your hat to any movie in which a key psychological
evaluation of a character is delivered by a topless prostitute. —Phil Bacharach

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