VALLEY OF TEARS
Directed by Hart Perry
Seventh Art, opens November 28, Two Boots Pioneer
Most of the best moments in Hart Perry's latest documentary can be found in its opening half-hour, a vivid record of a 1979 strike by Mexican American migrant farmworkers in the onion fields of Raymondville, Texas. Perry's camera lingers affectionately over images of strikers singing labor songs, suggesting Salt of the Earth as a neorealist musical. While the rest of the film dutifully emphasizes high points in the workers' struggle for equal rights over nearly two decades, the episodic narrative allows a sense of melancholy to intrude, with the passage of time itself taking center stage. One poignant dissolve, in which an activist ages 20 years in an instant, encapsulates the long-term nature of political struggle, while the now dilapidated building that served as the strikers' headquarters stands as both a monument to past victories and a reminder that their work remains unfinished. JOSHUA LAND
Directed by Wayne Kramer
Lions Gate, opens November 26
Taking a page from the Sin City cinema revisionist's handbook, The Cooler mimics the Vegas insider's perspective of Casino (without Scorsese's fetishistic attention to detail), the seedy/saccharine insouciance of FX's Lucky (devoid of quirky chutzpah), and the couch-potato glitz of NBC's Las Vegas (sans commercials for Friends every 9.4 minutes). What's left never gels as fantasy, drama, or romantic comedy. The skimpy story chronicles the redemption of "cooler" Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy)the Typhoid Mary of rotten luckwho's paid by casino owner Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) to piss all over high-rollers' parades. Hot-to-trot cocktail waitress Natalie (Maria Bello) falls for Bernie and alters his self-image, as hot-to-trot cocktail waitresses are wont to do. Like Bernie, The Cooler wants desperately to be liked but doesn't hold out much hope for its chances; so, like Macy, whose sad-sack persona revs on cruise control here, it defaults to brittle formula. First-timer Wayne Kramer brings pathos to Bernie and Shelly's fraught relationship, but his film never amounts to more than a cute idea stretched to poker-chip thinness. MARK HOLCOMB
INDEPENDENT SPIRITS: FAITH HUBLEY/JOHN HUBLEY
Directed by Sybil DelGaudio
Opens November 28, Quad
An unimaginative look at two of American animation's most influential innovators, this talking-heads-and-archival-footage number barely generates the pizzazz of a DVD bonus feature. Its primary value resides in the copious clips from the Hubleys' career: John's wartime films and TV ad work ("I want my Maypo!"), the couple's remarkable string of jazz-soundtracked indies voiced by Dizzy Gillespie and the Hubley children, and Faith's painterly feminist myth-films. Though Spirits covers the essentials, including John's strike against Disney and subsequent blacklisting, the Hubleys' life is handled in an almost parodic PBS-y white-gloves fashion that dulls their real-life drama into medicine-spooned educational television. ED HALTER
MY FLESH AND BLOOD
Directed by Jonathan Karsh
Strand/HBO/Cinemax, opens November 28, Angelika
Single motherhood has seldom looked as daunting and enervating as it does in this unsentimental documentary about 53-year-old Susan Tom and her 11 kidsall of whom are adopted and suffer debilitating physical handicaps. For this motley clan, life consists of all too frequent hospital visits, internecine brawls, and Herculean Costco runs. At its calm center, Susan presides like a biblical saint, her superhuman will repeatedly tested by those she loves. But Jonathan Karsh's film is not all plucky perseverance. Loneliness has taken its toll, not just on Susan (who admits to not having had a date in 22 years), but also on the elder children like 18-year-old Margaret, who wants to move out, and 15-year-old Joe, who suffers from cystic fibrosis and blames his physical isolation on his family. Hurling obscenities at the camera and at one point threatening to kill his sisters, Joe embodies the chronically ill's unseen dilemma: From constant physical suffering often comes mental illness, which can prove even more painful and destructive. DAVID NG
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