Whisky Romeo Zulu
dir. Enrique Piñeyro
Thurs May 26 9:30 pm, Harvard Exit; Sun May 29 11 am, Harvard Exit

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Films based on real-life events generally come to the gate with a considerable handicap; how, after all, can cinematic hokum ever match up with the immensity of reality? Focusing on the 1999 Buenos Aires air tragedy (in which a loaded flight crashed during takeoff, killing 80 people), writer/director Enrique Piñeyro's utterly damning docudrama comes off as both a searing factual indictment of Argentina's passenger-flight standards, and a crackerjack thriller in its own right. Piñeyro, a former pilot whose whistle-blowing efforts to increase safety measures led to black-sheep pariah status within the industry, was actually there, and his pedigreed viewpoint gives his recounting a reality that's tough to dispel. It also helps that he proves to be an instinctive filmmaker, employing an intriguingly fractured, minutely detailed take on the material, which hopscotches between events leading up to the easily avoidable incident, and a harried investigator's efforts to make sense of the flight recordings afterward. The considerable tension generated does falter a tad when he turns his attention to his childhood romance and unsteady home life, but what ultimately sticks is the genuinely pissed recounting of the inner workings of a business where pilots work upwards of three years without a vacation, crew members are trained to ignore fire warnings, and the necessity of life jackets is constantly weighed by the penny-pinching bigwigs on the ground. Outrage like this can survive the occasional melodramatic, self-serving dunking. ANDREW WRIGHT

My Stepbrother Frankenstein
dir. Valery Todorovsky
Fri May 27 7 pm, Harvard Exit; Sun May 29 1:30 pm, Harvard Exit

Sins of the past have a way of catching up to the present, both in politics and personal lives. Yulik (Leonid Yarmolnik) heads a typical upper-middle-class family in modern Moscow. He and his wife have settled into their roles together, while his son is entering his teen years with sensitive goth tendencies and the youngest daughter hasn't yet lost her inquisitiveness. Twenty years prior, Yulik had a short relationship with a young woman that ended before he ever knew he got her pregnant. The fruit of that fling was Pavel (Daniil Spivakovsky), who grew up to join the army and fight for Russia, and has emerged from war scarred and missing an eye. When his mother dies he heads to Moscow to meet the father he never knew.

If Yulik's family is a stand-in for civilized Russia, Pavel represents the morally questionable political battles that Russia would rather ignore. In America, it would be like having a Vietnam or Gulf War veteran bringing the war back home. Pavel is a good soldier who takes orders well, but he's also been trained to be a killing machine and is quick to exploit weakness if he believes his survival may be on the line-which is more often than you would think. Needless to say, Pavel's presence upsets the balance of the family. Yulik's wife is dismayed to learn about the previously unknown dalliance, while Pavel's macho confidence puts the son on edge and fascinates the daughter.

With elements of comic satire mixed in with some drama, what really makes this movie work is Spivakovsky's magnetic presence as Pavel. Even when he's just standing in a train station or sitting on a bench, you can't take your eyes off of him. Then, when he starts interacting with the family, his military directness makes him alternately endearing and scary. Even if the inevitable conclusion isn't as satisfying as it might have been, this is one of those foreign films that is ripe for an American remake, so you may as well see it now before Pavel becomes a soldier returning from Iraq. ANDY SPLETZER

Saving Face
dir. Alice Wu
Thurs May 26 4:45 pm, Egyptian; Fri May 27 7 pm, Egyptian

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Every festival has its calculated wannabe-mainstream crowd-pleasers, chock full of enough easy laughs and precious moments to set even the most complacent critic's back molars a-grindin'. Saving Face, Seattle native Alice Wu's directorial debut, certainly traffics in plenty of the standard ro-com conventions (needlessly complicated and easily resolved love-life snafus, wacky best friend, the constant threat of a group sing-along) yet amazingly doesn't chafe, courtesy of some well-timed wisecracks and consistently excellent performances. Wu's script throws some intriguing, same-sex curveballs at the standard Hanks/Ryan/Prinze Jr. formula: A harried, bookwormy NY doctor's tentative attempts at romance with a free-spirited ballerina are scuttled when she becomes roomies with her newly shamed, mysteriously pregnant mother (the great Joan Chen, blending stunning and frumpy in equal measures). The ultimate results may still be easily predictable, but are enlivened throughout by the director's ability to document her native community's unique quirks without ever quite falling into Greek Wedding grotesquery. Blue Ribbon honors, though, must go to the unforced, charming lead performance of the gorgeous Michelle Krusiec, who handles both the emotional heavy lifting and comedic demands with equal, gawky aplomb. Whether fidgeting through her hospital scrubs for vending machine change, tearfully giving the reluctant dust-off to a partner, or delivering the mother of all spit takes, she owns the screen. ANDREW WRIGHT

More Picks: Absolut (Thurs May 26 2 pm, Harvard Exit), Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (Fri May 27 4:45 pm, Egyptian), Murderball (Fri May 27 9:15 pm, Egyptian; Mon May 30 11 am, Egyptian), This Charming Girl (Sun May 29 4:15 pm, Harvard Exit; Tue May 31 5 pm, Neptune), and Pucker Up (Mon May 30 4 pm, Broadway Performance Hall; Tue May 31 4:30 pm, Broadway Performance Hall).

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