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From Nessie and Piaf to Calcutta (continued)


Edith Piaf was the voice of France, the tiny singer in a black dress who mesmerized her audiences with the passion, pathos, and power of her songs. Raquel Bitton, who’s regarded as one of her best interpreters, channels the Parisian chanteuse in this live stage show that’s been turned into documentary directed by George Elder. Bitton intersperses songs with tales from the Sparrow’s harrowing life, from being abandoned by her mother, raised in a bordello by her grandmother, and performing on the street with her acrobat dad to being picked up to work in one of Paris’s swankest cabarets, becoming the highest-paid performer in the world, and dying destitute at 47. Footage from a luncheon with Piaf’s friends, family, loves, and composers at a bistro near her grave is woven throughout the film. Stories flow, and you might get the sense that there’s much from these conversations you don’t get to see. Although Bitton’s performances evoke the singer, additional footage of the people who knew Piaf in place of a song or two would’ve been more revealing. (94 minutes) Screens tonight at 7 and 9:30 p.m. and tomorrow at 3 and 5:30 p.m. at the Boston Common. Raquel Bitton will be present at tonight’s 7 p.m. show.

— Nina MacLaughlin


Christian Johnston’s debut feature degrades both the memory of September 11 and the documentary form. As eight video tapes are purported to have been discovered on the Afghan/Pakistani border, the film records the attempt by a determined (as he keeps reminding us) journalist, Don Larson (George Calil), to hunt down Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice. The result is a kind of Rambo-esque computer game, with each tape requiring another level of skill as "Lars" and his cameraman and faithful, if anxious, translator Wali make contacts with bounty hunters and get closer to their quarry, ultimately swapping the camera for an AK-47 and some serious ass kicking. The point-of-view cinematography, shot apparently on location and in the hallucinatory style of Michael Winterbottom’s In This World, does not make up for the pseudo–Apocalypse Now voiceover narration or the bogus manipulation of grief, anger, and fear. (95 minutes) Screens tonight at 8:15 and 10:15 p.m. at the Copley Place. Christian Johnston will be present at the 8:15 p.m. show.

Peter Keough


Does good taste in movies make up for murdering your wife? Jerry Harvey was programming director for the Z Channel, the legendary, pioneering LA cable station that in the early ’70s started to broadcast independent, foreign, and esoteric Hollywood films to an audience consisting largely of Hollywood cognoscenti and the powers that be. He chose films that formed the sensibilities of such auteurs as Quentin Tarantino, showcased new talent like James Toback, resurrected forgotten films like Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and salvaged director’s cuts of such mangled movies as Heaven’s Gate, Once upon a Time in America, and 1900. Director Alexandra Cassavetes (daughter of you-know-who) has put together an oral history from many of the above-mentioned as well as Harvey’s friends, colleagues, and lovers. (More interesting, perhaps, is who’s omitted: where are Bertolucci and Cimino?) She integrates all this with lengthy clips from Harvey’s favorite films and sizable digressions into the śuvre of Antonioni and the like. Instructive, perhaps, but not as compelling as what prompted Harvey to shoot his second wife in 1988 and then kill himself. Obsession gets to those events eventually, but I’d like to see another director’s cut of this film in which the subject is more Harvey’s madness than his mania. (121 minutes) Screens today at 2:30 and 5 p.m. at the Boston Common and Thursday September 16 at 7:15 and 9:45 p.m. at the Copley Place.

— Peter Keough


***A Phoenix Pick***


Neither the title nor the description invites much confidence: a comedy about the assorted revelers at a cookout celebrating Israeli Independence Day in 1988, the year of the first Palestinian Intifada. But Yossi Madmoni & David Ofek’s The Barbecue People is a comedy the way Pulp Fiction is, as the directors employ Tarantino’s mordant irony, not to mention his skewed structure. The film starts near the end and moves sideways, weaving together the stories of family members, the interrelated narratives connecting at key moments repeated from a new point of view. A Jewish Iraqi immigrant travels to New York to find a witness who can prove that he was a hero in the Zionist underground. His wife receives an overture from her distant past. His son in Manhattan gets deported when his slasher movie cuts too close to home. And his daughter debates whether to tell her parents she’s pregnant or just have an abortion. The film’s tone starts out bumptious, then grows more sinister, and the proceedings beguile even after the line of plausible coincidence is crossed. That may be because unlike Tarantino, the filmmakers root their world not in movie esoterica but in local color and clamor. There’s something reassuring about a movie in which the fates of its characters, and the nation at large, hinge on the price of meat. In Hebrew with English subtitles. (102 minutes) Screens today at 1:30, 4, and 7 p.m. at the Copley Place.

— Peter Keough

***A Phoenix Pick***


A camera might not be able to redeem reality, but sometimes it can save the soul of the person snapping the picture. Photographer Zana Briski took the red-light district of Calcutta as a subject and lived there for a few years, getting to know the prostitutes and their families, several generations of prostitutes often living and working under one roof. The plight of the children touched her, and being at a loss for any other way to help them, she taught them her craft. In many cases, they responded with enthusiasm and genuine talent, and a handful of the brightest are profiled in this moving and inspiring documentary Briski directed with Ross Kauffman. As touching as it is to see a waif-like 10-year-old girl escape the fate of her mother and her grandmother and enter a prestigious boarding school, it’s more impressive to look at the beauty, pathos, and magic these kids with their cameras discover in their sordid surroundings. Although the film indulges at times in stylized, sitar-backed montages, Briski comes across as a compassionate artist and humanitarian. Screens tonight at 7 and 9:45 p.m. at the Boston Common. Zana Briski will be present at the 7 p.m. show.

— Peter Keough

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Issue Date: September 10 - 16, 2004
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