Spring Film Roundup

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Throw Down Your Heart 

Anticipation can be a joyously agonizing pastime. In the case of Sascha Paladino’s documentary about banjo maestro Bela Fleck’s journey to Africa to explore the origins of that instrument, the wait will be worth it. Paladino’s first film won the Audience Award at the 2008 South by Southwest Festival and it opens no sooner than April 24 in New York and June 5 in Los Angeles. But Fleck, who has won 11 Grammys in more categories than anyone in music history, let his music, as well as that of musicians in Uganda, Tanzania, The Gambia and Mali, speak volumes, rather than having an intrusive voice over.

It is the perfect decision, for the easy-going, almost shy Fleck has an innate ability to merge his prowess with others in a magical cohesiveness, whether it is with a twelve-foot ground-based xylophone, with the akonting, thought to be the original banjo, or with the heartbreaking, beautiful voice of Mali singer Oumous Sangare. There are some gorgeously edited sequences, courtesy of Paladino, Fleck and Scott Burgess and no one will ever be able to question the expertise sound mixers Wellington Bowler and Dave Sinko, who get crystalline sound whether outdoors or in a rudimentary and crowded hut. www.throwdownyourheart.com

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Adoration

Atom Egoyan has a history of adapting work to film that has novelistic twists and character complexities, as in his astonishing version of Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter. Here, Egoyan writes, produces and directs, again with an eye toward the malleability of truth and personal responsibility. A young man, Simon (Devon Bostick) is encouraged by his teacher (Egoyan regular Arsinee Khanjian) to use his imagination in the telling of a horrifying tale: that of an unknowing woman whose husband plants a bomb in her baggage as she boards a plane, in an act of sub rosa terrorism. Simon, in trying to understand his own fractured family history,then pretends this story, told in a classroom, really took place and disseminates it in an Internet chatroom, prompting an outpouring of strong responses from the community.

Egoyan is a master at gradually connecting character histories and Adoration is no exception. Khanjian as always impresses and Bostick, despite his youth, has a dark-eyed, intense charisma that the camera loves. As with The Sweet Hereafter and Ararat, Egoyan’s complex rumination on the Armenian genocide of 1915, Adoration plumbs the depths of his characters’ psyches without ever seeming to be subject to the often tedious laws of exposition. (Sony Classics, May 18)

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Sleep Dealer

On a limited budget, writer-director-editor Alex Rivera has crafted a disturbingly imaginative science fiction nightmare that takes on virtual reality, immigration, global water rights, the exploitation of Third World labor and more. Rivera and co-writer David Riker create a world in which Mexican laborers get “node jobs,” ports inserted into their bodies so that they can remotely do industrial labor jobs in the US while actually working in virtual reality factories south of our border. Memo Cruz (Luis Fernando Pena) leaves his tiny village, where one must pay to get access to water at a high-tech, militarized dam, and heads to Tijuana. His father was killed by US missiles, after Memo tapped into a military network with electronic equipment.

Instead of “coyotes” leading Mexicans illegally across the border, “coyoteks” lead poor Mexicans to the new Tijuana, in search of better-paying but dangerous work in virtual factories. It is here Memo meets Luz Martinez (Leonor Varela), a failing writer who secretly publishes tales of Memo’s life, inadvertently connecting Memo to the Mexican-American pilot (Jacob Vargas) who killed his father. Admittedly, Rivera cuts some corners regarding, ironically, plot connectivity. But Sleep Dealer is the kind of film that is so startling in its vision, especially a perfect ending image, that its weaknesses are easily forgiven and its concepts not easily forgotten. (Maya Entertainment, April 18)

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Hunger 

Previously reviewed at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Hunger is in current release. The directorial debut of Irish visual artist Steve McQueen is nothing less than mesmerizing, telling the story of the Irish Republican prisoners in Belfast’s Maze prison in 1981, and the decision of Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) to starve to death in protest against British policy. The film is elegantly shot, with stunning bursts of raw anger and just when you think you have a handle on the directorial style, a brilliant mid-film discussion between Sands and a priest perfectly explores both sides of Sands’ commitment. (IFC Films)

The Housewife as Show Biz Goddess

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[Corinne Dekker, Jayme Lake, Jamey Hood, a.k.a. The Housewives] 

If you pay attention to the house music before the beginning of the musical comedy It’s the Housewives!, you will clearly hear a polished parody of Pete Townshend of The Who’s rock opera, Tommy. The music is played by Laurence Juber and his wife, Hope, updates the lyrics to fit the domestic frivolity about to come. Townshend had poor Tommy lose the power of speech and hearing after his father killed his mother, prompting a psychiatrist to sing, “He seems to be completely unreceptive/The tests I gave him show no sense at all.” Ms. Juber has brought it home, in more ways than one: “She seems to be completely undomestic/The tests I gave her show no skills at all.”

The skill of the Jubers is incontestable. He played lead guitar for Paul McCartney’s Wings and has 14 CDs of his own. She directs and writes with the comedic instincts one would expect, as the daughter of TV’s Sherwood Schwartz (Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch.) And what could have seemed like an obvious and straightforward take on the fantasy life of some average housewives really becomes something big. Because the hit group The Housewives has broken up and ex-star Becca (Jamey Hood) tells her plumber (Tony Cicchetti), who recognizes her, the story of her band’s breakup; we are treated to dead-on song style parodies that the Jubers have totally down.

They include the scorching blues number “Ironing Bored,” the self-explanatory “The Reynold’s Rap,” and, when The Housewives were in their New Wave mode, the completely uproarious “Domestiphobia,” with delightful, goofy, robotic choreography, courtesy of Kay Cole. Ms. Juber, with Ellen Guylas, has fashioned a book far cleverer than one might expect. The inevitable reunion concert is a satirical take on musical groups who break up and are forced to tour again. In this case, conniving Lynn (Corinne Dekker) and ditzy Lexie (Jayme Lake) make up with Becca onstage, after resolving the source of their disruption, namely who makes the best guacamole.

The three femme leads all blend voices smoothly and Hood, especially and appropriately, has a knockout voice and can really sell a song with her physicality. In fact, the Jubers manage not only a glossy, fun musical but something that will come as a surprise to men and women alike: the ability to wring sexual innuendo from moments as simple as taking off an oven mitt.

[It’s the Housewives! at the Whitefire Theatre, Studio City, though March 29.]