Weekend roundup: Movies not to miss

A funky, lovely weave of Philly tales; an S/M hustler turned safe-sex pioneer; a heavy-metal saga in Old Norse; a Denver slacker turns to crime, and more.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 21, 2009 10:30AM (EDT)

Images from (clockwise from upper left) "Severed Ways," "Explicit Ills," "Skills Like This," "Sex Positive."

It's a completely miscellaneous grab bag of indie openings this week, and let's just say my enthusiasm is temperate on a couple of these movies. But we're feeling generous at Beyond the Multiplex Towers this week, or else just blown away by the embarrassment of riches that is zero-budget American filmmaking at the moment. Even if some of that zero-budget American filmmaking involves Scandinavian death-metal bands and dialogue in Greenlandic.

Also opening this week: Steve McQueen's "Hunger" and Cary Joji Fukunaga's "Sin Nombre" (both already covered in Salon); John Malkovich and Colin Hanks in "The Great Buck Howard"; fashionista documentary "Valentino: The Last Emperor"; and the rerelease of Peter Davis' great Vietnam-era doc "Hearts and Minds."

"Explicit Ills" This gentle, lovely and consistently surprising survey of life in a Philadelphia inner-city neighborhood that's gradually succumbing to gentrification, an under-the-radar hit at South by Southwest last year, marks the writing and directing debut of 28-year-old actor Mark Webber ("Jesus' Son," "Storytelling," "Hollywood Ending," etc.). Lustrously photographed by Patrice Lucien Cochet, "Explicit Ills" features an all-star roster of Webber's indie-actor peers, including Paul Dano as a hipster artist turned drug dealer, Rosario Dawson as a working-class mom, Lou Taylor Pucci as a semi-unemployed actor and Tariq Trotter as an African-American family man and entrepreneur. (Webber himself doesn't appear in the film.)

While the first-time filmmaker wears his lefty politics on his sleeve, there are worse sins than that, especially when the acting is so good and the interwoven stories so compelling. This movie might remind you of "Crash," if "Crash" had been rooted in genuine emotion rather than canned sentiment and dumb coincidence. OK, there's some liberal preachifying at the very end, but the alchemical mixture of race, class, sex and money in "Explicit Ills" tastes pretty sweet going down. Even amid this talented cast, the heart of the film is found in child actor Francisco Burgos, who will break your heart. (Now playing in New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, with more cities to follow.)

"Skills Like This" A cheerfully anarchic indie-slacker comedy that transcends at least some of the genre's clichés, mostly through the appealing lead performance of Jewfro-sporting actor-writer Spencer Berger as Max, a Denver lad-about-town and aspiring playwright who discovers that his real gift is for crime. His first bank robbery goes so well that the cute bank teller (Kerry Knuppe) flips for him while handing over the garbage bag full of cash, and from that point forward Max's deadbeat hipster existence, along with those of his two dimwit burrito-parlor compadres, is animated by a new urgency.

Honestly, there's nothing breathtaking and new about "Skills Like This," but Berger appears to be a potential breakout talent, turning a character who could be endlessly irritating into an oddly charming, self-effacing rogue. There's also something indescribably genuine about the project, which is apparently the first fully local feature-film production in Denver history. (For all the junk produced by the low-tech indie revolution, the fact that features can now be made far from the coasts -- in physical, financial and spiritual terms -- can only be a good thing.) Whether Berger and director Monty Miranda use "Skills Like This" as an Indiewood calling card or a jumping-off point remains to be seen. (Now playing at the Angelika Film Center in New York. Opens April 3 in Los Angeles, with more cities to follow.)

"Sex Positive" Maybe it took a filmmaker with no investment in the sexual-culture wars of the 1980s, like 20-something documentarian Daryl Wein, to rediscover a lightning-rod figure like safe-sex pioneer Richard Berkowitz and present him without prejudice. A onetime S/M hustler turned safe-sex evangelist, Berkowitz and his friend Michael Callen, supported by controversial AIDS researcher Joseph Sonnabend, began urging gay men to avoid unprotected anal sex as early as 1982. For this almost prophetic foresight, Berkowitz and Callen were treated as traitors and pariahs by some members of the mainstream gay community -- and 20-odd years later, the wounds haven't necessarily healed.

Callen is dead and Sonnabend has been marginalized by the scientific consensus that HIV infection is the sole cause of AIDS. (In fairness, Sonnabend was never an HIV-denier, only a supporter of the still-debatable hypothesis that AIDS was a multifactorial disorder.) As for Berkowitz, I got to meet him last year at South by Southwest, and he remains a fascinating, prickly, funny and decidedly unsaintly character, a survivor of America's still-underdocumented plague years. Wein's film provides a fascinating and crucial slice of traumatic sexual history that's all but invisible to younger generations. (Now playing at the Quad Cinema in New York, with more cities to follow.)

"Severed Ways" Impressive and also absolutely ludicrous, this is the movie you need to recommend to that suburban metalhead cousin in desperate need of having his mind blown. Purportedly based on an episode from the Vinland Sagas, in which two 11th-century Norsemen are left on their own to fend for themselves in unknown North America, writer-director-actor Tony Stone's "Severed Ways" is something like a DIY combination of black-metal video, Italian horror film, "The Blair Witch Project" and some really slow, nature-obsessed art movie like "Old Joy."

Story and setting reflect a noble, if crazy, level of ambition and the widescreen, digital-video Maine landscapes shot by Nathan Corbin and Damien Paris are impressive. Most of the dialogue is purposefully inaudible; when we do hear our studly pair of Viking marauders talk, it's in badly dubbed pseudo-Norse, bearing no obvious relationship to the dudelike English subtitles. Evidently they're not the first Europeans to get here after all, since they encounter a couple of seafaring Irish monks (whatever) before being outfoxed by invisible Indians with magical powers (double whatever). Indian point-of-view is rendered via sloshy, out-of-focus binocular vision, perhaps to indicate that Native Americans were tripping on hallucinogenics 24/7. And while I guess I knew that the Dark Ages kind of rocked, I didn't understand until now that they literally rocked. (Now playing at the Angelika Film Center in New York, with more cities to follow.)

"We Pedal Uphill" Earnest, ambitious and fueled by noble intentions, writer-director Roland Tec's "We Pedal Uphill" is a hit-and-miss series of vignettes staged and shot in many different states, meant I suppose to form a composite portrait of America facing (or not facing) its post-Bush moment of crisis. A Nashville recording session goes oddly awry, a mother and adult son spar over the civil rights era in Mississippi, a post-Katrina reunion hits the rocks of racial unease, a rich corporate john tries to entice a male hooker into a week of cracked-out bliss, a shuttered Connecticut factory echoes with the voices of its immigrant workers, and so on. Some of these episodes cut right to the bone while others feel like drama-class exercises. More damaging is the fact that no narrative momentum ever emerges, and overhanging the whole thing is a penumbra of left-liberal apocalyptic thinking that isn't terribly interesting. (Now playing at the Cinema Village in New York, with other engagements to follow.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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