La Commune (Paris, 1871)
dir. Peter Watkins
Fri Feb 25 and Sat Feb 26 at Consolidated Works.

When it comes to Peter Watkins, who specializes in megalengthy, fiercely serious mockumentaries, the standard digs about over-obsessive directors barely seem to apply. His La Commune, a 345-minute historical reconstruction with over 200 mostly untrained actors crammed in a single set, is, if nothing else, one of the darndest cinematic experiences ever to come down the pike. Filmed in 2000, the film explores the Paris Commune, a loose-knit group of working-class insurgents who briefly (and tragically) overtook the French capital in 1871, with the novel, vaguely sci-fi conceit of the event's being covered by an existing television news team.

Noble sentiments and genuinely fascinating media-related digressions aside, there's no denying that the film can often be a very long slog (especially in the first few hours), with mammoth handheld takes that, while organizationally impeccable, all too often consist of unsteady actors screeching high-minded improv at one another.

Those on the fence should be advised, however, that things do perk up mightily in the second night, as the fourth wall gets repeatedly breached with intertitles that detail the number of takes of upcoming scenes, actors who break character and comment on present-day events, and even the occasional jab at companies that refused to help with the film's funding. For viewers feeling adventurous and packing NoDoz, it's a maddeningly ambitious and uniquely immersive experience. Crazy as it sounds, you might even want to see it again. ANDREW WRIGHT

Imaginary Heroes
dir. Dan Harris
Opens Fri Feb 25.

Writer-director Dan Harris is 26 years old, has the screenplay to X2 under his belt, and has been tapped to write the upcoming remakes of Superman and Logan's Run, as well as the screenplay adaptation of Ender's Game, approximately the greatest sci-fi novel ever written. Apparently, the man is a prodigy at working with characters that already exist--but he sure as hell can't come up with them on his own.

Imaginary Heroes is a syrupy, sniveling little formula-fest posing as an art-house film. It takes virtually every single element taught in Indie Filmmaking 101, chops them up, and packages them in a shimmering wrap of meaningful glances and tender strains of music. We have our dysfunctional family unit with its repressed MILF Sandy (Sigourney Weaver), its sexually confused-but-lovable teenager Tim (Emile Hirsch), and its remote and embittered patriarch Ben (Jeff Daniels, who needs to face the fact that he will never give a better performance than he did in Dumb and Dumber).

We have our tragedy that hangs over the family like a pall--the oldest son commits suicide at the film's outset--and we have the requisite meltdowns as each character deals with things in their own special way. Weaver's Sandy (gasp!) starts smoking pot, and Hirsch's dullard Tim smokes pot, too, tries to keep his bangs out of his face, and makes out with his best male friend while on Ecstasy.

Meanwhile, Daniels' Ben is such an irredeemable asshole for so long that his half-assed attempts to make amends in the end are downright angering. The fact that his otherwise intelligent family actually accepts them is downright pathetic, a loose-ends-tying plot twist that could only spring from a writer truly embedded in the Hollywood Machine. It's nice that Harris got to make his little pet project while in between multibillion-dollar projects--but couldn't we save entrées into this field for people with something new to say? JUSTIN SANDERS

Diary of a Mad Black Woman
dir. Darren Grant
Opens Fri Feb 25.

If you've already seen Woman, Thou Art Loosed, another recent movie Tyler Perry had a hand in, and you watch Diary of a Mad Black Woman, which Tyler Perry wrote and cast himself in (three times) and in which his 26-bedroom McMansion features prominently, you may get the feeling the man is trying to launch a new genre single-handedly. It would be called the gospel revenge film, and just as the Western is identified with John Wayne, the gospel revenge genre would be inseparable from Kimberly Elise.

In Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Helen (Elise in awful pancake makeup) is a trophy wife who is literally dragged, kicking and screaming, from her palatial exurban home of 18 years (the previously mentioned Tyler Perry property) while a bitchy usurper installs a new designer wardrobe in her walk-in dressing room. Having signed a prenuptial agreement with her asshole lawyer husband, Helen soon finds herself exiled to her mother's house in the Atlanta ghetto, a land where people eat barbecue, smoke copious amounts of marijuana, and do the Electric Slide.

Her mother, one of three characters played (very, very broadly) by thirtysomething Tyler Perry, is named Madea--which is supposedly short for "Mama dear" but sounds an awful lot like Medea, the pagan sorceress who famously murdered her own children. Madea incites Helen to take blistering, profane revenge on the usurper and her husband.

Then Helen finds a man and discovers God, or, as she puts it: "Dear Diary, Somewhere out of all the pain came a man who is strong, beautiful… and Christian." They do not consummate their virtuous love. Instead, Helen learns to swallow her rage and wear a pretty hat to church, where her crack-whore sister's daughter (I'm not kidding) is singing in the gospel choir.

Diary of a Mad Black Woman flouts critical scrutiny so flagrantly that it feels redundant to call it a bad movie. Every last scene in the film is grotesque and overstuffed; it constantly undermines its own morals. That said, if Diary stays in theaters longer than a week, I am fully prepared to call Tyler Perry a genius. ANNIE WAGNER

The Animation Show
dir. various filmmakers
Fri Feb 25 through Thurs March 3 at the Varsity.

Pervy technology marches on: In an era where non-work-safe toons can flood an unwary inbox in a nanosecond, the demand for cel-drawn xxxtreme sex and violence may have reached its twilight. Cannily, for their second installment of The Animation Show, presenters Mike Judge and Don Hertzfeldt (both of whom are scheduled to be in attendance on opening night) have chosen a more rarified air; while those in the mood for spring-loaded intestines certainly won't be disappointed, there's enough genuine upward-aimed art to satisfy the wary. Somewhat shockingly for a shorts program, there's nary a clunker to be found.

Of the 12 offerings on display, top prize has to go to Peter Cornwell's insanely detailed clay opus Ward 13, which blends Cthulhoid blobs, Von Trier's The Kingdom, and early-era MAD magazine sight gags into a hospital-bound swashbuckler that Never. Stops. Moving. (At nearly 15 minutes, though, it does at times come perilously close to complete synaptic overload.) Running a strong second is Fallen Art, in which Polish director Tomek Baginski turns what is essentially a very sick wartime joke into something eerily beautiful, with a song-and-dance number that's impossible to get out of one's gourd afterward.

Others of note include the CGI pulp-sci-fi epic Rockfish, with an attention to minute gadgety detail that should delight tech geeks and set studio execs salivating, and Stranger Genius Award winner David Russo's Pan with Us, which more than compensates for its slight narrative pretension with some absolutely stunning tracking shots. Cocreator Hertzfeldt, a cult figure for doodlers since 2000's much e-mailed Rejected, closes out the program with The Meaning of Life, an ADD-suffering scribbler's version of Fantasia whose scope is only mildly hinted at by the title. For fans of ink and paint, we're talking nirvana. ANDREW WRIGHT

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