Rock of underages: Kids get Zap-tized by tyrannical tutor

The short-fused motormouth who runs the Paul Green School of Rock Music, an after-school program for nine-to-17-year-olds in Philadelphia, has claimed, not unreasonably, to be the inspiration for Jack Black's character in School of Rock. But where Richard Linklater's movie approached its central incongruity—the idea that anti-establishment rock can and should be schooled—with a breezy mix of ironic farce and fuck-the-Man feelgoodism, Paul Green, the frustrated musician and self-proclaimed "really good teacher" at the center of this documentary, embraces the same philosophy with grim, cranky resolve. Students like Madi, a Quaker folkie, and Will, the resident depressive, attest that rock school is a misfit sanctuary and that Green's manic tantrums serve a motivational purpose. In any case, as Will deadpans, "It's a lovable quirk that he's mentally disturbed."

But with his Hannibal Lecter impersonations, Vietnam P.O.W. re-enactments, and borderline abusive teasing, Green tends to be more actively unpleasant than amusing. He almost gets misty-eyed envisioning a 2007 issue of Rolling Stone: "Where did all these bands come from? All of a sudden they start tracing stuff back to me." Given that Green's curriculum is even more ossified than his fictional counterpart's, this immodest forecast assumes the resurgent popularity of Frank Zappa-style art-prog. There's plenty of talent on display—12-year-old guitar prodigy CJ kills every time he's on—but as the kids dutifully make the pilgrimage to Germany's tribute-band Zappanale, it's depressingly clear whose dreams they're acting out. (Is it really fair to be force-feeding drug music to listeners who aren't, um, properly equipped to enjoy it?) Don Argott's lively documentary, ostensibly a paean to alternative pedagogy, extends its subject a long leash, and he in turn does his damnedest to sabotage the project. Rock School ends up being a movie about just how little fun rock 'n' roll can be. DENNIS LIM

photo: Joann Malandro/Newmarket Films


Rock School
Directed by Don Argott
Newmarket, opens June 3

June 3 through 12, Brooklyn Museum

The Brooklyn International Film Festival aims to popularize its borough as a refuge for cinephiles and to provide a safe haven for the latest in independent cinema—two goals that aren't exactly compatible, simply because indie directors tend to be unknown quantities. This eighth edition, dubbed "Opinion_8," has nominally been compiled as a showcase for films that tackle current events and politics. But rather than celebrating freedom of expression, the features previewed suggest young directors adhering to tried-and-true, often lurid formulas. In Erosion, a bored thirtysomething and her oily seducer break into other people's houses for Last Tango-style trysts, albeit with clothes usually in place. Illicit sex also provides the thrust, so to speak, of You Are Alone, in which a Yale-accepted prostitute—decked out in Exotica schoolgirl costume—gets lukewarm and heavy with a moralistic neighbor. Steal Me observes adolescent yearnings in a blah American heartland setting, where a young kleptomaniac is taken in by the family (particularly the mom) he always wished he had. Oedipal tension rears its head again in A Perfect Fit, a sub-De Palma Hitchcock homage about another unbalanced but hunky boyfriend, predicated on psychology already dated when the master made Spellbound. Freudian notions of the unconscious are put to better use in Nightingale in a Music Box, a taut brainwashing thriller in which a federal agent sifts through an amnesiac's fragmented memories, separating the real from the programmed. Like last year's Primer, the movie evokes a quasi-futuristic milieu through overlit interiors and a torrent of expertly deployed technobabble. Ultimately a tad inconsequential, Nightingale nevertheless has its screws tightened—director Hurt McDermott is aware of his limitations and more than capable of thriving within them. BEN KENIGSBERG

Directed by Paolo Virzí
Empire, opens June 3, Metro Twin

Junior high is often so terrible because it's a preview of adult life's internecine struggles for power. In Paolo Virzí's dark comedy, a Roman middle school presents in microcosm the ills afflicting Italian society. Newcomer Alice Teghil stars as Caterina, a teenage girl, who moves to Rome from the provinces with her sweet, ineffectual mother (Margherita Buy) and her father (Sergio Castellitto), an embittered accounting teacher who believes that in the capital his literary talents may finally get their due. On her first day bemused Caterina learns that her eighth-grade class is divided between the hippie daughters of radical-chic intellectuals and the spoiled brats of reactionary industrialists and politicians. Soon her father is trying to use her glamorous acquaintances for his own social climbing. Caterina adores him, but even she begins to notice something amiss. Pitch-perfect performances and a light-handed but razor-sharp script keep this satire brisk and biting. LESLIE CAMHI

Directed by Konstantin Bojanov
June 1 through 7, Two Boots Pioneer

A documentary of degradation, Konstantin Bojanov's Invisible interviews six heroin addicts in Sofia, Bulgaria, over a three-year period. It disposes with social concerns and lets the individuals speak for themselves—and the regrets, rationalizations, and jerry-rigged morality they express are often fascinating. Vicki and Stani, two moped-up kids who drift weightlessly through the film, speak in hazy circles about their addiction, embarrassed about their excuses for lost loves and family fortunes. Kamen, charismatic and nihilistic, constructs an idealist philosophy (reality lies only in the mind) to justify his actions—this leaves his body open to all kinds of humiliations, including powder-blue nail polish. He endures a stretch in prison, and the interview before his release finds his relativism firmly in place, except now he exudes an Olympian calm and a belief in healthier illusions. The subtle transcendence of this turnabout is marred by Bojanov's last-act impulse to shock, as he shows another addict overdose. His camera lingers on the lolling head, a repulsive moment of exploitation that cannot be redeemed when, minutes later, he asks if they should call an ambulance. R. EMMET SWEENEY

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