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Art attack: A DIY cat-murder doc challenges objectivity

In deliberate, clinical fashion, Zev Asher’s documentary catches up with a notorious Canadian case of art versus animal cruelty. In May 2001, Jesse Power and two friends brutally killed a cat under the auspices of an art project, videotaped it, and were turned in by a cash-seeking junkie roommate. When the press leaped on the story, Power et al. became Toronto’s Most Hated. Asher interviews the perpetrators, but also animal rights activists, policemen, artfucks, and concerned citizens, and finds each engaged in his or her own “casuistry”—the science of justifying one’s actions in one’s own mind—a word that the charismatic Power recalls reading in Crime and Punishment.

At the time a lapsed-vegetarian student, Power’s a doe-eyed, dough-headed version of Hermann Nitsch and resembles a young Ben Affleck (he’s just as good an actor). As he had done in an earlier project with a chicken, Power planned on eating his victim to illustrate humankind’s hypocrisy in its treatment of animals. It’s not until Casuistry‘s home stretch that Asher details the parts of the equation elided by media reports. The “art experiment” was conducted under the influence of datura, a natural hallucinogen, and without adequate training in feline vivisection: One person’s torture is another’s gross incompetence.

At the Toronto festival, Asher’s DIY doc was the subject of its own media frenzy, with placard-waving activists protesting the screening; recently, it was pulled from a film festival in Tampa. In no way condoning Power’s actions, Asher allows all sides to present their biased evidence: What’s shocking is the film’s questioning of objectivity, represented foremost by the neutral language of the police transcript tape, which scrolls up the screen in its entirety throughout. Asher contrasts this cold-eyed view by editing his subjects in multiple exposures, implying it’s necessary to view these events from as many angles as possible. New York’s ASPCA concurs: They’re considering using Casuistry in workshops for police and mental health workers. MARK PERANSON


ANOTHER ROAD HOME

Written and directed by Danae Elon

GeoQuest, opens April 29

“I don’t believe in home,” Israeli author Amos Elon declares in his daughter Danae’s documentary. Her moving film follows her search for Mahmoud “Musa” Obeidallah, the Palestinian man her parents hired to care for her as a child in Jerusalem. Danae, who now resides in New York, seeks out some of Musa’s eight sons, who have also emigrated and live in New Jersey. They are like shadow siblings to her; during their childhood, their father spent most of his time with her, earning money to send them abroad to study. Her own father was busy writing. Born in Vienna, raised in Palestine, and now residing with his wife in Tuscany, he’s long been an outspoken critic of the Israeli occupation. Politics hover at the edges of even the most affectionate encounters among Danae, her parents, and the Obeidallah family. Amos Elon’s negativity regarding the future of the Jewish state mars the film, yet Another Road Home moves beyond dark predictions. “From the milk we drank together, something of my blood, my life is in you,” Musa tells Danae. And in that fact, there’s hope. LESLIE CAMHI


CENTENARY OF JEAN VIGO

April 29 and 30, MOMA

The everlasting Keats of cinema history, Jean Vigo lived sweet, died young, and left less than three hours of film behind him, and yet he remains one of the medium’s most seductive ferrymen, guiding generations of nascent film lovers into the dreamland of cinema. Son of a famous anarchist and half-hearted surrealist, Vigo was also an intuitive poet and the one great early-sound filmmaker for whom neither sound nor overcoming its technical handicaps caused much concern. Zéro de Conduite (1933) is as rough as an Oklahoma fence post, but its spirited schoolboy’s revolution is one of the 20th century’s great cultural myth-ideas, a homemade hand grenade whose shock pulses are still rippling across adolescent transoms everywhere. No film has ever spoken to the reckless hearts of boys with the same sympathy. Just as unpolished, his masterwork L’Atalante (1934) is a romantic anti-romance involving a barge, a marriage, Dita Parlo, too many cats, and a pair of pickled hands; the film is so passionately ambivalent that it seems to index the spectrum of human experience, from inside of a sleeper’s past-befogged skull. Born a century ago, Vigo is having his birthday honored not only with his finished films—including his Vertov-inspired shorts, À Propos de Nice (1930) and Taris, Roi de L’Eau (1931)—but 20 minutes of unedited rushes from L’Atalante, which his producers re-edited before the filmmaker died of leukemia at the age of 29. MICHAEL ATKINSON


DEATH OF A DYNASTY

Directed by Damon Dash

TLA, opens April 29, Loews State

Rapper Nas once venomously wondered, “Is it Dame Diddy, Dame Daddy, or Dame Dummy?” With Death of a Dynasty, Dame Director proves no dunce, having already realized a synthesis of signifier and signified—he’s at once the symbol and embodiment of what he’s hawking: his lifestyle. The film’s thrust—cornball white reporter seeks juicy exposé of rap label—rests on one line: “At the end of the day, it’s all hip-hop . . . and you can’t knock the hustle.” Well, that’s right. Knocking it involves name-checking it, and let’s leave that to the first MC to Big Rap his favorite burger for a dollar. Both parody of and paean to vertical integration, the movie double-services itself as both self-aware music biz satire and self-congratulatory collar popping. Dynasty is less interesting as a film than as a winking gloss on hip-hop’s assembly line of beats, beefs, and B-list lyricists. That said, Capone does a killer dancin’ Dash, James Toback’s Lyor Cohen is a riot, and multi-credited comedian Kevin Hart should have his own Chappelleian series. It’s not enough to say that Dash is a relentless self-promoter when promotion defines the near entirety of his existence; in Dynasty, even caricature becomes commodity. PETER L’OFFICIAL


LADIES IN LAVENDER

Written and directed by Charles Dance

Roadside Attractions, opens April 29, Paris Theatre

The week’s only movie to feature two Oscar-winning dames, Ladies in Lavender would have been destined for the Masterpiece Theatre doily drawer if not for the intervening stardom of Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. Set in a quaint English seaside town during World War II, the film follows two elderly sisters who live in peaceful seclusion in their oceanfront cottage. One day, a young Polish man (Daniel Brühl) washes ashore and the good sisters take him in, nursing his broken ankle and attempting communication with their English-challenged patient. The male presence heats up the henhouse, though Dench’s flighty spinster is more smitten than Smith’s hand-wringing widow. When the invalid turns out to be a virtuoso violinist, the whole town takes an interest, especially artist-siren Natascha McElhone. As directed by British actor Charles Dance, Ladies is so tastefully subdued it makes Merchant Ivory look like Gaspar Noé. And while they never look bored, Smith and Dench are clearly slumming, having played these roles in other costume pics. But given their contributions to Harry Potter and James Bond, the dames have more than earned this tea break from CGI drudgery. DAVID NG


THE TUNNEL

Directed by Roland Suso Richter

Home Vision/Avatar, opens April 29

It’s distressing to learn how much German television looks like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. The Tunnel, based on true events and originally a three-hour miniseries, has all the trappings of screenplay-by-numbers Hollywood: a cast of types instead of characters, kooky mistaken identities, and a love triangle torn asunder by the horrors of war. Harry (Heino Ferch), an East German swimming champion, escapes to the West and decides to rescue his sister by tunneling beneath the recently built Berlin Wall. Director Roland Suso Richter skillfully wields the wall as a metaphor for isolation, but his pacing needs work: He cuts from an emotional death to a rowdy scene of sex on a kitchen table. Well, that’s one way to mourn. Unmotivated events like these suggest the protracted narrative controls its characters, not the other way around. Any similarity to actual drama, real or imagined, is purely coincidental. MATT SINGER


WINNING GIRLS THROUGH PSYCHIC MIND CONTROL

Directed by Barry Alexander Brown

In release

Winning Girls is best appreciated for Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s convincing performance as a man possessed by a quartet of supernatural beings. He plays Sam, a drummer who buys the titular audiocassette in the hopes of improving his sex life. Instead, it imbues him with an otherworldly spirit that gets its kicks feeding existential questions to Sam’s buddy Devon (Perfect Strangers‘ Bronson Pinchot). Santiago-Hudson, altering his voice and posture to effect the transformation, is more compelling than any special effect. Too bad he must play sidekick to gloomy Devon, who bogs down the film with a lost-love subplot made worse by Pinchot’s gesticulating excesses; his performance is hardly worthy of the Dance of Joy. Director Barry Alexander Brown never reconciles the outlandish premise with the screenplay’s schmaltzy dialogue. During an argument Devon yells, “We’re not that far from success!” Perhaps, but we’re not that close either. M.S.

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