Los Angeles Times

Independent moments of breakthrough

The Method Fest, spotlighting breakthrough performances in independent movies, opens Friday with the romantic drama "Dreamland." Along with screenings of 22 features and 40 shorts, the festival hosts seminars and panels and will present lifetime achievement awards to Julie Harris and Ruby Dee.

Like many of the films in the festival, "Dreamland" features a good cast of actors doing strong work in a film whose parts are greater than its sum. Agnes Bruckner ("Blue Car") stars as Audrey, a recent high school grad who channels her disappointment with life into poetry. Prone to putting others before herself, Audrey is resigned to remaining at Dreamland, the surreal New Mexico trailer park where she cares for her alcoholic father (John Corbett) and ill best friend Calista (the ebullient Kelli Garner) while working at a convenience store and bedding her slacker co-worker (Brian Klugman).

Everything changes when a new family arrives for the summer. The basketball-playing son, Mookie (Justin Long), and Audrey are immediately attracted to each other, but she reflexively steers him toward Calista, whose unrealistic dream of becoming Miss America and declining health are in need of an infusion of romance. The remainder of the story plays out predictably, but Tom Willett's lyrical script and Jason Matzner's direction create a comforting bubble of quixotic melancholy.

On the darker side of the independent spectrum, Lee Krieger's "December Ends" also features a soulful youth caring for an alcoholic father. Chris (Josh Janowicz) is a quiet student who drops out of college and works in an art bookstore until his cousin Brian (Barrett James) persuades him to take a job as a high-class drug courier for Hayden (Justin Matthews).

Chris becomes smitten with Hayden's girlfriend Audrey (Alex Thayer), a painter. Although Chris is able to stay detached from the drug dealing, his feelings for Audrey pull him deeper into Hayden's downward spiral of violence. Krieger's cast appealingly underplays the melodrama, but the plot's accelerated climax feels at odds with what preceded it.

Writer-director Rick Stevenson's "Expiration Date" is spun as a fable told by an elderly Native American man to an adolescent who has given up tribal dancing and plans to leave the reservation. The story he tells concerns Charlie Silver Cloud III (Robert A. Guthrie), a Seattle barista making preparations for his fateful end. Both his father and grandfather were killed by milk trucks on their 25th birthdays. Charlie is eight days from his own 25th and prepares by dumping his girlfriend, purchasing a plot for his grave, a coffin and a nice suit, and having an estate sale.

Sascha Knopf plays a young woman who shakes up Charlie's routine and inspires him to try to end the family curse. The dark comedy has its charms — notably its deadpan tone and Knopf's enthusiasm — but it is also overly broad at times, which makes much of the humor feel forced.

Jewish Festival"When Do We Eat?," a dysfunctional family Passover comedy starring Michael Lerner, Lesley Ann Warren and Jack Klugman, opens the first Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival on Saturday. A mix of comedies, dramas, documentaries and animation, the festival has programmed films from around the world for its modest observation of the Jewish experience.

Joe Lieberman, the first Jewish candidate for vice president of the United States, is the main subject of Ron Frank's documentary "Only in America," which also examines the recent experiences of Jews in the U.S. The film includes compelling background on Lieberman's family but is structured around the history-making 2000 campaign, culminating with the contentious election, which supplies an ironic twist on the film's title.

Alternative ScreenDelving deeper into Jewish history — albeit in less than 20 minutes — is Tiffany Shlain's documentary short "The Tribe," screening as part of the American Cinematheque's Alternative Screen series. Subtitled "An Unorthodox, Unauthorized History of the Jewish People and the Barbie Doll," the film takes an abridged, ultra-fast-paced tour of Judaism using the ultimate plastic shiksa — created by a Jewish woman — as its lens. Peter Coyote wryly narrates the cleverly written and edited piece that shares a similar smart tone with Shlain's "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness," a meditation on a woman's right to choose.

REDCATFilmmaker and historian Barbara Hammer profiles the gender-bending couple Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore in "Lover Other," an involving exploration of bohemian lesbian culture. Born Lucy Shwob and Suzanne Malherbe, respectively, the pair were stepsisters who became lovers and deeply involved in 1920s and '30s Parisian Surrealism. Archival materials and re-created vignettes using actors (including Broadway star Kathleen Chalfant) parse the couple's relationship and their later life on the Isle of Jersey. Also screening is Hammer's 1990 found-footage short, "Sanctus."

7 Dudley Cinema"The Assassination of JFK Jr. — Murder by Manchurian Candidate," provocateur John Hankey's follow-up to "JFK II: The Bush Connection," attempts to link the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. in a 1999 airplane crash off Martha's Vineyard to President George W. Bush's sudden rise to power.

Hankey intriguingly argues that Kennedy was a political threat to the military-industrial complex and that there is convincing evidence that foul play and a governmental cover-up were involved in what was ruled an accident.


The Method Fest

"Dreamland": 7 p.m. Friday (Mayer)

"December Ends": 5:30 p.m. Sunday (Viewpoint)

"Expiration Date": 7 p.m. Tuesday (Viewpoint)

Where: Louis B. Mayer Theatre, the Motion Picture and Television Fund, 23388 Mulholland Drive, Woodland Hills; Carlson Family Theatre, Viewpoint School, 23620 Mulholland Drive, Calabasas

Info: www.methodfest.com

Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival

"When Do We Eat?": 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: WGA Theater, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills

"Only in America": 7:30 p.m. Monday

Where: Laemmle's Town Center, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino

Info: (818) 464-3300 or www.LAJFilmFest.org

Alternative Screen

"The Tribe": 8 tonight

Where: Lloyd E. Rigler Theatre at the Egyptian, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

Info: (323) 466-FILM, www.egyptiantheatre.com


"Lover Other": 8 p.m. Monday

Where: Disney Hall, 2nd and Hope streets, downtown L.A.

Info: (213) 237-2800, www.redcat.org

7 Dudley Cinema

"The Assassination of JFK Jr. — Murder by Manchurian Candidate": 8 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Sponto Gallery, 7 Dudley Ave., Venice

Info: (310) 306-7330

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