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Reviews: New Orleans Film Festival selections

Will Coviello, Lauren LaBorde and Alex Woodward on About Cherry, Compliance, Informant, Side by Side and Now, Forager

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Ashley Hinshaw and James Franco in About Cherry, which screens at Chalmette Movies several times this week as part of the New Orleans Film Festival.
  • Ashley Hinshaw and James Franco in About Cherry, which screens at Chalmette Movies several times this week as part of the New Orleans Film Festival.

From Thursday's opening night screening of The Paperboy, a crime drama starring Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey and John Cusack, to closing night's The Iceman, about an infamous assassin, the New Orleans Film Society presents a diverse and plentiful array of films at its annual film festival. Curated from major studios and culled from more than 1,200 submissions, there are major features and documentaries, highlighted Louisiana films and filmmakers, screenings of classic films and showcases of short films, animation and experimental films.

  Screening venues include The Prytania Theatre, The Theatres at Canal Place, Chalmette Movies, Contemporary Arts Center, Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center and others. There also are panel discussions and parties at various venues. Visit the website for the full schedule and details. Reviews of several of this week's films are below; Gambit's Oct. 16 issue will include films not screening until that week (including Bettie Page Reveals All and Gayby).

About Cherry

(8:30 p.m. Sat., Oct. 13; 6:30 p.m. Mon., Oct. 15; 8:45 p.m. Tue., Oct. 16; 8:30 p.m. Wed., Oct. 17; Chalmette Movies, 8700 W. Judge Perez Drive)

  Anyone considering making a mainstream drama about porn should cast someone as alluring as Ashley Hinshaw. About Cherry is the story of a young woman from Long Beach, Calif., who flees two alcoholic parents to live independently in San Francisco. Her job search takes her from cocktail waitressing in a strip club to fetish modeling and porn. Dressing Hinshaw in a school girl's outfit here, a rubber nurse's uniform there and progressing toward full-contact porn provides more than enough titillation to keep the audience's attention, and it may help that the film has vanilla ideas of what fetishism looks like. What's both surprising and disappointing is that co-creators Stephen Elliott and Lorelei Lee have sex work and porn credentials between them and they deliver a film that follows Hollywood formulas — with some moderately risque fetish costumes and lesbianism — and they keep it skin deep.

  Hinshaw looks perfect for the role of Angelina (who goes by Cherry on set) and does a credible job with what little the film demands: staring at the camera and cooing softly about how she loves to have guys watch while she touches herself and acting creeped out by the loathsome and rich lawyer effortlessly provided by James Franco. Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, The Newsroom) tags along as Angelina's platonic friend Andrew.

  Elliott is a former sex worker and an accomplished writer, receiving high praise for The Adderall Diaries. Lee has appeared in more than 60 porn films (including Ass Parade 12, Face Time! and Milk Nymphos, as listed on the Internet Adult Film Database). She's also written about sex and culture in academic publications, and Hustler magazine named her one of the 10 smartest actresses in porn.

  In About Cherry, however, Elliott and Lee don't have anything particularly interesting to say about porn and see it more as just another job. Angelina seems to have no personal hangups (relating to booze, sex, money, friendships with men, etc.) or inhibitions. Apparently, it's just a good paycheck for a high school dropout.

  The film was shot at the site of Kink.com's massive studios in San Francisco, and the movie version comes off as the best work environment one could imagine. At worst, a few open-minded sex workers share too much information about what turns them on. The enclave may be less threatening to them then some of the creeps who hang out in strip clubs, as personified by Franco. Doing porn comes off as far less toxic than spending time with the coke-addicted, self-loathing lawyer, who also happens to be an extremely well-connected member of San Francisco's high-rolling art world. The climax of the film is a juxtaposition of Angelina's embrace of full-blown porn with Franco's efforts to escape the emptiness he feels in his socially respected career and personal life. They seem to get what they want, even if it's not really each other. — WILL COVIELLO


Compliance
  • Compliance

Compliance

(7:30 p.m. Fri., Oct. 12; 6:30 p.m. Sun., Oct. 14; 8:30 p.m. Mon., Oct. 15; 6:30 p.m. Thu., Oct. 18; Chalmette Movies)

  Compliance spends most of its first half-hour drawing viewers in with the lurid threat of a strip search, and even if there is an extremely bare-bones storyline, the tension is brilliant and the menace is palpable throughout the movie.

  Director Craig Zobel's film is based on an actual event. In the film, Sandra (Ann Dowd) is a manager at a suburban Ohio fast food restaurant. She's nervous because the restaurant has had some problems, and she thinks secret shoppers sent from company headquarters are observing the staff. Then the phone rings and a man who says he's a police officer says he's investigating a theft at the restaurant. He describes a young woman at the register, and asks if Sandra can assist in his investigation. She eagerly calls Becky (Dreama Walker) into the office and questions her as prompted. He says Becky will have to empty her pockets and have her purse searched. When nothing turns up, he asks Sandra if she can perform a strip search. Becky protests, and the voice on the phone suggests there must be a reason for her resistance. Sandra agrees and things get tense.

  The voyeuristic camera stays on Becky, but as the film goes on, it's clearly about the psychology of people under stress and in control. Several people find themselves drawn into the problem and juggle the strange mix of fear, compassion, self-defense, authority and aggression. It's a riveting and troubling psychological drama. — WILL COVIELLO


Informant

(2:30 p.m. Sun., Oct. 14, Prytania Theatre, 5339 Prytania St.)

  In Jamie Meltzer's gripping profile of infamous FBI informant Brandon Darby, the subject acts as an unreliable narrator to his own story, following an extended metamorphosis from teenage runaway to militant anarcho-activist to reluctant anti-hero to backstabber and right-wing patriot.

  The film's bookends illustrate the sharp divide between, and the gradual conversion to, the tea party brand of conservatism he now trusts and the radical anarchism and community building he once embraced as an impassioned mission.

  The troubled Pasadena, Texas teenager watched his family get sick from nearby chemical refineries. "I watched no one get in trouble for it," he says. Darby co-founded Common Ground Relief in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures, acting as some of the first boots on the ground in the devastated Lower 9th Ward. Darby and allies Robert King Wilkerson, a former Black Panther, and Scott Crow — who all are interviewed separately — don't deny the work Darby did during the "glory days" of the organization, despite then-NOPD 5th District Commander John Bryson's belief the group was "there to overthrow the government." But after a mysterious trip to Venezuela, Darby was tired and jaded — and with Bryson's gradual cooperation, he began to see police in a new perspective. He sought "help" by reporting potentially violent or corrupt comrades, like a Palestinian man he suspected was supporting terrorist groups.

  "As much as it seems crazy that a revolutionary would work with the FBI at some point," Darby says, "under the circumstances, I don't think it's that crazy."

  His cooperation with FBI agents led to the four-year prison sentence of protestors arrested at the 2008 Republican National Convention, and when he was outed, Darby immediately alienated and infuriated the post-Katrina activist community he helped build.

  Meltzer lets Darby offer a candid glimpse into his political schizophrenia, constantly reminding himself and others how they should perceive his thoughts and actions. Lower 9th Ward resident Ken Gaspard says, "The community? We love him. We'd take him back with open arms. The activist community? They might try and shoot him." — ALEX WOODWARD

Shopping for Molotovs from Songpoem on Vimeo.


Side By Side

(6:30 p.m. Sat., Oct. 13, 6:30 p.m. Wed., Oct. 17; Chalmette Movies)

  Director Chris Kenneally sets up a very simple battle in Side by Side: film versus digital video. But the documentary almost immediately sheds the notion of a battle for supremacy, and it becomes a chronicle of the evolution of digital filmmaking, computer effects and technology.

  The documentary is interspersed with scenes from landmark films, and it begins with an homage to brilliant cinematography and the age of film. But it soon refocuses on the rise of computerized filmmaking, from the earliest digital camera prototypes in 1969 up to the James Cameron extravaganza of 3-D moviemaking in Avatar.

  That progression started with higher definition cameras, post-production computerized additions, CGI effects and three-dimensional filmmaking techniques. Cameron and George Lucas are interviewed extensively, and both are clear advocates of pushing technological methods as far as possible.

  There are many filmmakers and cinematographers who talk about their love of film, from its graininess and inherent visual qualities to its "authenticity" (and that's a well-debated point on both sides). But any sense of competition between the two mediums is quickly laid aside. Directors from David Lynch to Steven Soderbergh to Lena Dunham have points to make about why they have certain preferences, but Martin Scorsese seems to moderate the issue best, simply saying that different people will best use the tools they choose to try to make the film they envision.

  This is a documentary for people who love the process of making movies. Many interview subjects offer insightful observations about the nuts and bolts process, from being able to see a shot immediately on a video monitor to the limits once imposed by shooting reels with 10 minutes worth of film. Several directors talk about the tension created on set by the sound of expensive film whirring through the camera. John Malkovich says he finds film acting difficult because of the constant start and stop process.

  There's one overindulgence in the documentary, and that's the presence of producer Keanu Reeves (The Matrix, Speed, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure). He narrates and serves as on-camera interviewer, and there are far too many shots of him dramatically formulating questions (in a distracting array of haircuts, facial hair looks, wardrobe). Perhaps it takes a grand vision to make a film or push technological boundaries, but some of Reeves' preening should have been left on the cutting room floor. Film editing is an important skill too. — Will Coviello


Now, Forager
  • Now, Forager

Now, Forager

(7:30 p.m. Sat., Oct. 13, The Theatres at Canal Place, 333 Canal St., third floor; 4 p.m. Thu., Oct. 18, Prytania Theatre)

  In Now, Forager, married couple Lucien (Jason Cortlund, who also directed the film with Julia Halperin) and Regina (Tiffany Esteb) work as mushroom foragers, selling their finds to high-end New York restaurants. When the film first exposes their marriage, it's already a little moldy. The life of foraging excites the fungi-obsessed Lucien, but because they are at the mercy of seasons and picky chefs, Regina worries about their unstable income. It's difficult for the audience to root for the couple because it's difficult to unearth the good in the relationship.

  When Regina worries about the impracticality of foraging, she takes on a series of kitchen jobs while Lucien forages further into the woods. In their respective pursuits, both begin to question their decisions. Regina takes a job at an "authentic" Basque restaurant that is anything but; Lucien, after an unsuccessful mushroom hunt in the Washington, D.C./Maryland area, is forced to take a catering gig with an unreasonable, WASP-y client. There are some subtle comedic moments during those parts, especially for foodies who will appreciate that Thousand Island dressing is not a suitable dipping sauce for Basque cuisine.

  Food connoisseurs will appreciate the film most. Pristine shots linger on Lucien preparing a big, fresh-caught fish, or wild mushrooms that Lucien's voiceover describes in detail. And anyone who has worked in the restaurant industry will relate to the struggles that can take a toll on a relationship. But from the start, Lucien and Regina's relationship seems unloving and lacking in passion — mostly because of Lucien, a smug, insufferable man whose first, and maybe only, love is fungi. Lucien seems never able to be fully satisfied and by the end of Now, Forager, neither are we. — Lauren LaBorde

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