Light Motifs: Hockney hosts an opera-scored tour of his art

“When I go to the opera I want to have something to look at,” painter David Hockney says, explaining the motivation behind the stage designs and costumes he’s produced for 11 operas over the past three decades in David Hockney: The Colors of Music. This delightfully sensual documentary gets inside the artist’s creative process while also treating viewers to glorious music by the likes of Wagner and Satie. Opera, usually visually inert, and artists, often recondite and reclusive, rarely make for good cinema. But Hockney is no wallflower—a marvelous raconteur, he’s happy to host a tour of his own oeuvre—and the operas come alive with brilliant color and movement. The fact that the artist was going deaf during the two years of filming, as he worked on his final productions, lends his passion for music a particular poignancy.

The film could have used a bit more editing; Hockney makes the same point about his innovative lighting technique repeatedly. And one wishes the directors had penetrated the veil covering his private life; a peek inside his California villa proves tantalizingly brief. But the most moving scene—a metaphor for the transcendent power of imagination—shows schoolchildren playing amid the red-brick row houses of working-class Braddon, where Hockney grew up, while the soundtrack soars with Puccini’s La Boheme, an opera devoted to the artistic milieu where his dreams came true. LESLIE CAMHI


Directed by Elmar Fischer

Films Philos, opens April 8, Village East

Preparation for the 9-11 attacks largely took place in Al Qaeda cells acting as Islamic student groups, including the one in Hamburg, Germany, headed by tactical commander Mohammed Atta. Elmar Fischer’s The Friend fictionalizes this situation, studying those left behind who knew nothing of their friends and relatives’ aims. Here the Muslim radical grows out of fun-loving Yemeni student Yunes (Navíd Akhavan), who shares a Berlin apartment with party boy Chris (Antonio Wannek). Though liberal-minded, Chris is unable to accept his friend’s budding fundamentalism—growing a beard, obsessing over pork products, joining a shady Islamic group. After Yunes disappears on September 6, 2001, Chris and his girlfriend struggle to understand how little they may have known about their supposedly close acquaintance. Shot on DV, the film looks awful, but this homemade quality fosters an authenticity that allows for startling suspense as Yunes’s secret life comes to light. First-time filmmaker Fischer examines the issues of Islamic extremism, Western decadence, and fraternal bonds, producing a compelling story that uses character and story ambiguity to appraise the fallibility of thinking one can ever truly know another. DAVID BLAYLOCK


April 7 through 12, Anthology

Clocking in at under 25 minutes, Jennie Livingston’s Who’s the Top? could have been called Dude, Where’s My Feature? Arriving a decade and a half after Livingston’s legendary Harlem drag ball doc Paris Is Burning, it plays like a demo reel for a longer film that never transpired, with narrative pathways leading nowhere and a few well-acted scenes given scant breathing room. Set in the East Village of 1996, Top tells the story of Alixe (Marin Hinkle), a sexually frustrated dyke zinester who begs her girlfriend to dominate her, a Savage Love-worthy conundrum that leads Alixe into a spank-filled hookup with a swaggering she-lothario (Shelly Mars). Alixe’s bedroom-philosophy musings and some New Queer Cinema-style black-and-white fantasy sequences tip Top just inside the borders of MIX’s experimental bailiwick. Though only a few other films were previewable, past editions indicate that the live events, curated shows, and retros hold the choicest goodies—this year, a soiree hosted by interboro It girls LTTR and revivals of polysexualists Abigail Child, Michel Auder, and Andy Warhol. Royston Tan’s feature 15, set in the brutishly homoerotic world of Singaporean street gangs, is visually inventive, but marginally queer. More explicit Asian man-love is provided by a sampling of Japanese yaoi—stylized but hardcore guy-on-guy anime made for female enjoyment. As a hunky sarariman rear-mounts an androgynous male model in Level C, viewers will have no problem figuring out who’s the top. ED HALTER


Directed by Rick King

Cinema Libre, opens April 8

This poorly organized mishmash of archival war films, scholarly chatter, and literary quotations looks at the age-old relationship between war and poetry. At its best no more than standard History Channel fare, Voices in Wartime quickly irritates by repeatedly jumping back to the (admirable, if retroactively depressing) 2003 efforts by contemporary poets to organize against the war in Iraq. The stunningly obvious, never acknowledged root problem is the inherent contradiction of making a film about poetry in that most prosaic of all forms, the lefty video doc—indeed, the only moments of lyricism come from the old combat footage, an irony that might have been explored further (cf. Godard’s recent Notre Musique). More strangely still, the glamorization of battle by the “entertainment industry” is represented by clips from The Thin Red Line, a genuinely poetic meditation on war that exemplifies what this movie can only talk about. JOSHUA LAND


Written and directed by Josh Sternfeld

Paramount Classics, opens April 8

While TV shows like The Wire have no problem simply air-dropping us into complex plots with minimal exposition, lots of movies still insist on having intimately acquainted characters speechify to one another about things they should know cold (“if you hadn’t been fired from the old steel mill and our son Joey didn’t have leukemia, blah blah”). What makes Winter Solstice, a nice little Jersey vignette about a widower and his two teenage sons, so striking is writer-director Josh Sternfeld’s respect for the verbal shorthand of family interaction. The low-key plot—grieving dad tentatively starts dating again, his older son prepares to leave home, his younger struggles through school—is less important than the way families speak, the codes hammered out over time, the lived-in language of grunts and fragments.

Sternfeld also allows his working people to do a significant amount of work on-screen. Scruffy but dignified patriarch Jim Winters (Anthony LaPaglia) is a landscaper who hauls real sod, enduring the class slights that come with the manicured territory. Restless Gabe (Aaron Stanford) logs overtime in a grocery warehouse while space-case Pete (Mark Webber) toggles between rebellion and haunting the house like a stoner ghost. If the family’s neighbor-hood is a little too snazzy for dilapidation cred, or new flame Allison Janney is a smidge too hot for her desperate-house-sitter role, the natural rhythms of these relationships make up for it. LAURA SINAGRA