A modest, formulaic day trip from Kazakhstan, produced and co-written by Russian mainstreamer Sergei Bodrov, Schizo observes the placid coming-of-age of a teen (Olzhas Nusuppaev), bearing the titular nickname and a seemingly misdiagnosed illness, through the hinterlands of semi-industrialized crime and poverty. Protagonists of international indies following this template tend to be passive to the point of dead-houseplant dull, and Guka Omarova's hero is no exception—as if the fashioning of a lively personality for the poor kid would've been too much bother. As it is, Schizo meets his deficit of life options by trailing his mother's roguish boyfriend into petty crime and illegal fistfights. It's here, amid the obligatory, spittle-flecked Russian mobsters, that Schizo watches a bloodied boxer die (seemingly of boredom), and delivers his earnings to an older woman (Olga Landina) on the town outskirts, with whom he begins to dally.

Omarova's film is full of lazy padding (walks on the beach, staring out of windows), but she has a decrepitly beautiful, nearly post-apocalyptic Soviet-scrap landscape to roam through, littered with rusting machinery and stray dogs and monstrous public works decaying into the earth. Unfortunately, Schizo's familiar trials could have, and have, played out anywhere else. Some Central Asian movie could put this dead-empire-skeleton geography to use as a spectacularly metaphoric film set, but we haven't seen it happen yet. MICHAEL ATKINSON


CANADIAN FRONT
March 16 through 23,
MOMA
The state of decay: Nusuppaev
photo: Picture This! Entertainment
The state of decay: Nusuppaev

Details

Schizo
Directed by Guka Omarova
Picture This!, opens March 18, Angelika

Judging from MOMA's second annual salute to the Great White North, you'd think there's an explosion of lurid homegrown entertainment bombarding Canada's multiplexes. While it might be desirable for Canadians to project the image that they're making hipper films for savvy audiences, these audiences by and large ignore them. This nine-film, geographically representative (and culturally disrepresentative) sample shows genre efforts with twists, and a multicultural society still grasping at its identity.

Taking Cronenberg's horror out of the body and grafting it onto the skin, the Rabid-alluding La Peau Blanche (White Skin) deals with Quebecois racism mostly by proxy, focusing on a Montreal succubus and the country boy who loves her, despite her predilection for human flesh and his aversion to pale-skinned redheads. Race is matter-of-fact in Noam Gonick's Stryker, which follows a mute arsonist off the reservation and onto North Winnipeg's mean streets. An Ed Lachman-shot gangbanger between Filipinos and natives, Stryker plays like a Fukasaku film with male strippers-turned-thugs and tranny crack whores: Take that as you will.

Regurgitated from the headlines of a notorious case of a juror who slept with a murder defendant, Bruce McDonald's shameless The Love Crimes of Gillian Guess is literally an explosion of genres. The fitfully amusing Phil the Alien has actor-director Rob Stefaniuk's visitor from outer space—another metaphor for multiculturalism—crash-landing in white-trash northern Ontario and going on an alcohol-fueled bender.

Canadian Front launches with its blandest offering, Ruba Nadda's Sabah—a culture-clash romance with Arsinée Khanjian ably meeking herself up as the titular Syrian-Canadian old maid. But the series' highlight comes in Caroline Martel's The Phantom of the Operator. A haunting oral history of old-time female telephone operators culled from found industrial films, it's the kind of intelligent and dedicated work that will live on for much longer than the flavors of the moment. MARK PERANSON


FACE
Directed by Bertha Bay-Sa Pan
Indican, opens March 18, Village East

Set in immigrant New York, Face (2002) treads the somewhat familiar ground of culture clashes affecting three generations of Chinese women. The leads in Bertha Bay-Sa Pan's expanded 1997 student film give sympathetic performances, and the director renders the family's Queens and downtown nabes with warm detail. Bai Ling plays a young girl victimized not only by an acquaintance rape that leaves her pregnant but by the strict community codes that obligate her to marry the father. When she ditches her baby with Mom (Kieu Chinh) and splits for Hong Kong, the film jumps a decade and focuses on the teen romance of her hip-hop rebel daughter (sexy, convincingly willful Kristy Wu) and the off-limits black DJ boyfriend (a low-key Treach) whose existence eventually sparks a dustup with traditionalist Grandma. As the loving but intransigent matriarch, Chinh pitches some great fits; her scenes with scowly Wu and smoldering Ling are the strongest moments. But as the soundtrack pulses with that kind of spoken-word trip-hop that instantly pegs it to the year of its origin (the characters still use pagers too), the movie never really finds a fresh groove. LAURA SINAGRA


THE FLOWER THIEF
Written and directed by Ron Rice
March 18 through 24, Anthology

In Ron Rice's baggy-pantsed beatnik artifact The Flower Thief (1960), Warhol superstar in training Taylor Mead traipses with elfin glee through a lost San Francisco of smoke-stuffed North Beach cafés, oceanside fairgrounds, and collapsed post-industrial ruins. Boinging along an improvised picaresque up and down the city's hills, Mead teases playground schoolkids, sniffs wildflowers, gets abducted by cowboys in the park, and has a tea party on a pile of rubble with a potbellied bathing beauty. Rice captures his antics on gravelly black-and-white 16mm (reportedly army surplus aerial-machine-gun camera stock), setting the near nonsensical whole to a serenade of classical kitsch. According to Anthology staffers, this print restores dialogue on the audio collage soundtrack that had long been muffled.

By all accounts a wild character himself, Rice died in Mexico at age 29, after completing a handful of underground movies with Mead and Jack Smith. For consummate subcult critic Parker Tyler, Rice's "dharma-bum films" work by discarding the distinctions between art and life. They "bear resemblance to the lunatic romps of the Marx Brothers, only now the actors are not in comic uniforms, as if the parody were part of real life, not a movie fiction." Today, Mead's Flower Thief uniform—tight hoodie, button-down shirt, three-stripe tennis shoes, and beat-up jeans—can be seen on many an L-train habitué, en route to neo-Bowery facsimilies of post-war cafés, and so the parody has been reversed; such are our own meticulous restorations of the fantasies of other people's youth. ED HALTER


HOLLYWOOD BUDDHA
Written and directed by Philippe Caland
Northern Arts, opens March 18, Village East

Of the four movies Philippe Caland has previously produced, just one found a distributor—the legendarily terrible Boxing Helena, which bankrupted Kim Basinger when she was sued for $8 million after wisely backing out of the project. In Hollywood Buddha, Caland, playing himself, attempts to rescue his uncompleted hillside dream house from imminent foreclosure through a Hail Mary effort to sell Dead Girl, his unreleased 1996 Val Kilmer vehicle. The necrophilic premise is simple: "Dead girl getting fucked."

Hollywood Buddha is no satire of Tinseltown mores, although occasionally that seems to be its intent. Larry David travels the same karmicly treacherous geography on Curb Your Enthusiasm, using a similarly postmodern, DV-vérité format. But whereas David's persona mocks his own quixotic pettiness, writer-director Caland plays himself as a provocateur Job smote by uncaring studios. The movie, as an exercise in narcissism, is breathtaking. Caland, who otherwise dresses in that peculiarly California style of athletic gear and hippie chintz, takes pitch meetings bare-chested and oiled. Oh, and the film is also about enlightenment. BENJAMIN STRONG


MILK AND HONEY
Written and directed by Joe Maggio
Wellspring, opens March 18, Quad

Those unmoved by The Life Aquatic's insouciant take on midlife meltdown may find Milk and Honey a more agreeable exploration of the subject—insofar as it appeals to anyone who's not straight, white, male, and over 45, anyway. This no-budget DV romp through downtown and way-uptown Manhattan (with a creepy foray into the Jersey hinterlands) follows Rick Johnson (Clint Jordan), an insufferably self-absorbed stockbroker stretched to his emotional limits, through a night of soul-searching precipitated by the suspicion that his wife (Kirstin Russell) is fooling around. The setup is no more novel than the film's Soho milieu or the stale Fischerspooner ditty on the soundtrack, and Milk and Honey piles on improbable coincidences; the plot weaves together a decades-old photo, a well-used love nest, a crybaby performance artist, and a beefy crime-scene tech (Dudley Findlay Jr.) with problems of his own. But director Joe Maggio is a deft storyteller with a keen sense of restraint, and even the rather thin performances he coaxes from Jordan and Russell bolster the atmosphere of gentle absurdism. In the end, Milk and Honey's contrived connections blossom into a disarmingly effective reckoning with loss and regret. MARK HOLCOMB

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