HOMECOMING: THE FORGOTTEN WORLD OF AMERICA'S ORPHANAGES
This documentary found its genesis in an article that UC Irvine professor Richard McKenzie wrote for The Wall Street Journal about the strong criticism Newt Gingrich faced after he suggested that instead of sending orphans to live with foster families, America should reopen its orphanages. McKenzie, who was raised in an orphanage himself, felt orphanages were being unfairly denigrated in the debate, and he eventually decided to make a film that would present an even-handed look at the orphanage experience. McKenzie (who co-executive produced the film), director George Cawood and their crew assembled an assortment of seniors who spent their youths in orphanages around the country, and they let them tell their stories without a lot of interference or editorial fuss. The tales they tell are surprisingly upbeat; although a few of the interviewees do have grim experiences to recount, in general, these are moving, nostalgic stories told by a sweet and lively bunch of seniors. Far from being damaged by their childhoods, these people seem unusually grounded and open-minded, defying stereotypes about bitter old folks at every turn. While I'm approaching orphanages as an outsider and the prospect of agreeing with Newt Gingrich on anything at all makes me swoon with horror, Homecoming is highly persuasive without being even slightly polemical. (Greg Stacy) (Edwards Island. Tues., 4 p.m.)
In the Realms of the Unreal
IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL
Henry Darger was a reclusive Chicago janitor who secretly filled his small, lonely boarding-house room with In The Realms of the Unreal, quite possibly the strangest, saddest work of art ever created. Realms consists of both a 15,000-page novel and a series of Darger's own enormous, crude yet powerful illustrations, and it chronicles the adventures of the Vivian Girls, pious Catholic children who wage perpetual war against the Glandelinians, a race of malevolent men in mortarboard hats. Sometimes the little girls in Darger's world have wings or horns or tails, and when they appear naked (as they often do while frolicking in paradisiacal gardens or being bloodily tortured by the Glandelinians), they have penises. His work was not discovered until shortly before his death in the early 1970s, and the more you learn about the man, the more questions you'll have. I've been enthralled by Darger's work since I discovered it 10 years ago, and since then, I've read whatever books, magazine articles or websites I could find about him. So I went into Jessica Yu's new documentary, In The Realms of the Unreal, assuming I already knew most of what it had to tell me. I was wrong. Yu has assembled the few people who crossed Darger's path in his later life, and the portrait they offer of the strange little old man who lived down the hall is full of contradictions but nonetheless absolutely mesmerizing; Darger was a terribly damaged man who could barely speak to his fellow humans, but it's plain that his presence left a deep mark on his neighbors, who speak of him today with respect and a certain baffled affection. The film brings sequences from Realms to life through some very effective animation, and Darger is allowed to speak for himself through excerpts from his autobiography, read by Larry Pine. It's terribly compelling stuff, easily one of the most fascinating documentaries you will ever see. (GS) (Edwards Island. Sun., 11:30 a.m.)
"Do you not think that history is really a whore?" asked Dmitri Shostakovich, and he ought to know. Few groups have had a more serpentine history than the artist in Soviet, particularly Stalinist, Russia—always treading softly, trying to create without raising the ire of officials, issuing forced apologies and self-denouncements, until no historian can differentiate the public survivor from the private artist. Peter Rosen's thorough documentary attempts to understand this duality in composer Aram Khachaturian, publicly denounced in 1948—along with Shostakovich, Prokofiev and others—for leading Russian music down a decadent Western path of "excessive formalism." Fortunately for Rosen, the Soviets scrupulously documented their public persecutions, so we can see the terror on the bespectacled composers' faces as they are harangued from the podium. Using this and other archival footage, over narration from Khachaturian's memoirs, Rosen attempts to reconstruct a fragmented life, paying special attention to the composer's Armenian heritage, and how these roots grounded him during his lowest points in the 1940s and '50s. But it is the composer's "comeback" work, the ballet Spartacus (1954), that provides the coda for the film, the poignant "Adagio" a better glimpse than any words or images into the inner pain of the artist forced to dance with that whore, history. (Jon Strickland) (Edwards Island. Mon., 1:30 p.m.)
This year's Newport Beach Film Festival is big on Christopher Guest-ian mockumentaries about the humiliations of small people pursuing big dreams; there are so many, in fact, that I'd be tempted to declare a moratorium if so many of these pictures weren't so damn good. Memron is a black gem about the former employees of a nefarious corporation (if the title sounds familiar, it should) who band together to start their own tiny corporation based in a cluttered suburban garage. Every single damn thing that can go wrong does, and everybody in the film is just sleazy enough that we can laugh at their misfortunes and just human enough that we can feel guilty for laughing. This is a movie where just about every character is subjected to some sort of ghastly humiliation. The nice people seem to get it even worse than the true creeps, although Michael McShane (the rotund improv genius you may have seen on Comedy Central's airings of the BBC version of Whose Line Is It Anyway?) is particularly funny as the former Memron head. Now reduced to waddling around the grounds of his estate under house arrest, cheerfully oblivious to the looks of frosty contempt from his trophy wife, McShane makes you feel pity for a man who has screwed countless people out of their livelihoods. Memron is a sharp, uproarious satire that unfortunately gets a little less funny every day here in Dubya's America, so see it now before you get laid off yourself and are too busy dropping off rsums to have time to go see a movie. (And be sure to stay through the credits, where some of the biggest laughs in the whole picture are hidden away.) (GS) (Edwards Island. Fri., 5 p.m.)
MY SASSY GIRL (Yeop Gi Jogin)
Korean filmmaker Kwak Jae-Yong's 2001 continental blockbuster began life as an online diary, in which Kim Ho-sik detailed his relationship with his off-the-wall college girlfriend. At face value, Kwak's movie is a low comedy of humiliation, with a whiplash romance gradually developing between baby-faced schlub Kyun-woo (Korean pop singer Cha Tae-Hyun) and a maddeningly sadistic waif (Jeon Ji-Hyun). When they first meet on a late-night subway, she's drunk and, just before passing out, looks up and calls him "honey." The other passengers, assuming Kyun-woo to be the nameless girl's boyfriend, demand he look after her. So he does, and they eventually wind up at a motel. But the longer Kyun-woo sticks with her, the more he is intrigued by her sorrow. Unfortunately for him, once this "sassy girl" realizes she's got him wrapped around her finger, she becomes even stranger, unleashing dramatic mood swings and sociopathic behavior. But underneath her brash exterior, it becomes obvious she has genuine affection for him. The Sandlerian yocks eventually boomerang toward an investigation of grief—and the suffering beneath the surface of all screwball. The turnabout can be devastating enough to make you dread the upcoming DreamWorks remake, which Bend It Like Beckham helmer Gurinder Chadha just signed on to direct. (Michael Atkinson) (Edwards Island. Thurs., April 22, 1:45 p.m.)
If you have ever been lucky enough to visit LA's wonderfully strange Museum of Jurassic Technology (MJT), all I have to tell you is that this film would make a perfect exhibit there and you'll know this is something you absolutely must see. Of course, if you've never been to the MJT, Proteus becomes a much trickier sell. By all rights, David Lebrun's documentary about 19th century artist/biologist Ernst Haeckel should be astonishingly dull stuff, and in the hands of most filmmakers, it easily could be, but Lebrun takes a lyrical approach that's completely hypnotic. Through the use of limited but supremely effective animation and some tersely poetic narration read by Marian Seldes, we are introduced to the life and work of Haeckel, the man who coined the word "ecology" and whose name was once a household word, but who is now known only to a handful of geeks. The pacing is handled wonderfully, and every time your attention threatens to wander, the microscopic undersea creatures that Haeckel studied and drew will begin to flash by at a near-subliminal rate, so unutterably alien and beautiful that you can instantly understand why Haeckel was more than willing to spend his life behind a microscope. But even if your tiny mind can't take it all in, this is the kind of picture you can feel free to just sit back and bask in, letting all those fascinating images and pretty words wash over you. The film takes us back to an era when the depths of the sea where as mysterious and exciting as outer space is today . . . and makes it mysterious and exciting all over again. (GS) (Edwards Island. Tues., 5:30 p.m.)
With a wry pH balance between Kaurismki and Paradjanov, this Armenian comedy about a post-Soviet mountain village, its boondocks cemetery, its single bus and two sexagenarians finding love in the ruins is a wonder, filthy with eccentric images, unpredictable relationships and an acerbic but generous view of life on the pauperized edge of nowhere. With no work in town, the best, brightest and most of the youngest have left, and everyone left behind hustles to scrape together an existence, selling prized (and unprized) possessions, including marriageable daughters. As bleak as the film makes the town out to be, Paris-based Kurdish filmmaker Hiner Saleem packs in enough warmth and humanity to prevent Vodka Lemon from leaving a sour taste in your mouth. In other words, the omnipresent sense of melancholy is offset by the dignity shown toward people watching their hometown become a ghost town. Through it all, Saleem displays the visual confidence and subtle screwball rhythms of a master. (MA) (Edwards Island. Fri., 8:30 p.m.)
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Super Size Me
SUPER SIZE ME
You might say Ronald McDonald took a beating at the most recent Sundance Film Festival. In Super Size Me, the fest's most popular doc, director Morgan Spurlock embarks on a monthlong McDiet and videotapes its fouler effects by way of proving that a Big Mac attack is as real as cancer. The question is whether this relatively little movie will manage to reach the type of folks whom Spurlock captures largely from the waist down, his occasional shots of their faces blurred in postproduction so as to obscure the issue of consent. No doubt the bulk of these super-sizers lack the slumming filmmaker's close medical supervision, and Spurlock, who plays his repeated blood and cholesterol tests for big laughs as much as statistical evidence, doesn't seem to include the awareness of de facto corporate food poisoning as being among his many privileges. Important nonetheless, the film may be most effective in convincing time-crunched visitors to the Golden Arches that, on a short lunch break, it may be preferable to starve. (Rob Nelson) (Regency Lido. Tues., 5:30 p.m.)
Edwards Island Cinemas, 999 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach; Regency Lido Theater, 3459 Via Lido, Newport Beach; festival info: (949) 253-2880. Screenings are $5-$10. For full schedule, visit ocweekly.com or newportbeachfilmfest.com. Need more reviews? See The film section in Calendar.