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This Week's New Releases

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HOUSE OF D Not entirely mawkish.

Winter Solstice
dir. Josh Sternfeld
Opens Fri April 29.

Sundance bait from the word go, Josh Sternfeld’s downbeat character study Winter Solstice glories in the moments between conflicts which most films take great pains to dispose of. Flashy it certainly ain’t, but there’s no discounting the value of a decent story well told, especially these days.

Set in a sleepy Jersey suburb, the narrative centers on widowed landscaper Jim Winters (Anthony LaPaglia, whose character’s surname thankfully represents the movie’s one and only case of the cutes). With one son straining to leave the coop and head to Florida, and another seemingly content to spend the rest of his days languishing in summer school, he strikes up a tentative romance with a housesitter down the block (the always welcome Allison Janney). Nothing much else happens, which is probably both the film’s greatest strength and commercial weakness.

Throughout, debuting writer/director Sternfeld displays a keen ear for naturalistic dialogue, especially in regards to the tricky way that pauses in family conversations can, given the moment, either seem comforting or maddening. Combined with a savvy knack for withholding information until needed, his script could serve as a model of unshowy grace for future filmmakers jonesing for a dose of reality. Sternfeld also scores in the acting department: In addition to the dependably sturdy LaPaglia (who, weird as it sounds, is beginning to resemble a troll-doll version of Alec Baldwin), he draws strong performances by Aaron Stanford and Mark Webber as the younger family units. Special credit, however, goes to Webber’s history teacher, portrayed by Office Space’s Ron Livingston as a hilariously blasé mope who just happened to wander by the cameras during filming. Get this man a spinoff, and quickly. ANDREW WRIGHT

House of D
dir. David Duchovny
Opens Fri April 29.

For fans of crash-n-burn, narcissistic, train-wreck cinema, few things are as loaded with queasy potential as actors directing themselves. The opening frames of House of D, a semi-autobiographical '70s life-slice from writer/director David Duchovny, may hint at a calamity of Costner-sized proportions, yet settles down in the middle stretch to become a heartfelt, if wildly uneven, character piece. Consider it a case of freshman slump, and hope that his next effort proves to be a little less mirror-bound.

Sporting Bat Masterson facial hair, the director appears in the framing device as an American artist in Paris, wrestling with an unresponsive wife, kid, and a major case of ennui. As he struggles to justify his current state of emotional deadlock, his memories drift back to his Greenwich Village childhood as a horny Catholic-school-scholarship kid saddled with a cancer-obsessed, chain-smoking mother (Téa Leoni, who really deserves a chance to cut loose). First love, family tragedies, and countless life lessons are quickly unearthed, along with some choice tracks from Van Morrison and several huge ungainly chunks of feeling.

It may sound like big-league mawk material (and the director does it no favors by festooning it with what may well be the most wooden voice-over delivery since Ford in Blade Runner) but Duchovny demonstrates a nice, unshowy touch with the period details, and a gentle rapport with the younger actors, particularly with Anton Yelchin as the younger him and Zelda Williams as a wry uptown girl. He's far less successful from a screenwriting standpoint, however, shamelessly telegraphing every heartstring pluck and Important Moment. When even Robin Williams seems vaguely embarrassed by his role as a mentally challenged delivery boy, it should be taken as a clear sign to throttle back on the sentiment. ANDREW WRIGHT

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
dir. Alex Gibney
Opens April 29.

The scariest thing about Enron's fraudulent business plan was this: Corrupt mastermind, CEO Jeff Skilling, was likely onto the future model of the American economy. With the collapse of traditional industry, it's possible that 21st-century American companies--like Enron in the late 20th century--will be trading purely in abstractions, dealing in virtual commodities and virtual profits.

Enron got caught first. And this accessible, damning documentary shows us the corporate double-speak in action. Problem is, while it's certainly a pleasure to listen in on a conference call shortly before the gig was up--where a skeptical analyst demands that Skilling cough up a balance sheet (Skilling calls the guy an asshole)--I can't help but think that Enron's subterfuge was a prescient version of our future economy.

After all, the SEC approved Skilling's main ploy--mark-to-market accounting, where the company guesstimated future profits on a given deal and instantaneously reported those "profits" on its quarterly earnings statements. This wasn't a sloppy oversight by the SEC. Skilling repeatedly had to make the case for mark-to-market accounting to the SEC to win government approval, and when the SEC finally did sign off, Enron celebrated the scheme publicly. Everyone knew what Enron was doing--and a cynical reporter even criticized the model early on. However, when the company started "making money"--which they evidently did in the billions, with Wall Street watching and cheering--the company's model became a self-fulfilling prophecy. It was another Enron exec, CFO Andy Fastow, who pushed Skilling's SEC-approved ploy to its criminal outer limits (by using Enron's fake profits to set up fantasy companies) that eventually upended Skilling's abstractions. If not for Fastow…

What scares me about this film then, is not so much its presentation of Enron's criminal behavior (that's been known for nearly four years now), but more, the movie's sense of outrage. I'm worried that Skilling's vision of using abstractions, rather than actual goods and services, as trading commodities, is all America's economy has left, and this earnest film will become a quaint, idealistic plea of the past. JOSH FEIT

Short Cut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela
dir. Maurizio Benazzo and Nick Day
April 29-May 5 at the Varsity

Every 12 years, an event whose estimated size is larger than the combined populations of São Paulo and Mexico City occurs at the point where two great Indian rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna, meet. The event is called Kumbh Mela; it is the largest religious festival in the world, and also considered to be the oldest, dating back thousands of years. Indeed, the very size of the festival gives the impression that it has always been there, that it has no beginning or end.

In just over 80 minutes, the documentary Short Cut to Nirvana by Maurizio Benazzo and Nick Day offers what amounts to a snapshot of the infinite. The Kumbh Mela that is documented happened in 2001, and one imagines that the filmmakers' first problem was finding a point to enter it, and then, once inside the spiritual city, locating an exit. The directors were rescued by a young monk, Swami Krishnanand, who wears wire-rimmed glasses and guides them through the gurus and their followers, the musical and theatrical performances, the street dancers, the dust, the heat, the cold, the tents, the religious robots, the Internet kiosks, the babble, chanting, singing, preaching, praying, and the burying of live persons. One guru does amazing things with his superhuman penis, another explains that every country has its specialty--for India it's spirituality, for Japan it's electronics, and for America it's money (America might be fine with that breakdown of things, not so sure of Japan). Early in the documentary, the young monk tells us the oldest story in the world: He was once a man of the world, but he abandoned all of that to pursue the truth, the infinite, the highest awareness. This is the story of Buddha, the immemorial story of renouncing the world, and millions upon millions gather down by the riverside to retell and relive it. India is God's country. CHARLES MUDEDE

 

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