Christopher Zalla's "Sangre de Mi Sangre" (Blood of My Blood) is a great, impassioned immigrant odyssey in which the desperation of illegal immigrants to make it across the Mexico border at any cost drives a compelling, suspenseful fable of innocence and betrayal. Juan (Armando Hernandez) and Pedro (Jorge Adrian Espindola) arrive in New York City in a tractor-trailer packed with undocumented immigrants. Naive Pedro has shown his cunning new friend a sealed letter from his mother that is to serve as a letter of introduction to the father he never knew, whom he believes to be the prosperous proprietor of a French restaurant. Pedro awakens to find that Juan has stolen his belongings along with the precious letter.
Assuming Pedro's identity, Juan discovers that Pedro's father Diego (Jesus Ochoa) is but a restaurant kitchen worker who rejects him outright, letter or no letter. But Juan, a con man as facile as he is desperate, displays a terrier's tenacity in his determination to attach himself to Diego. In the meantime, the sweetly feckless Pedro tries to latch on to the coke-sniffing street prostitute Magda (Paola Mendoza) for help in finding his father. Shot mainly in New York's meanest, murkiest streets, "Sangre de Mi Sangre," is intricately and imaginatively structured, building to a powerful climax of complex irony.
-- Kevin Thomas
"Sangre de Mi Sangre." Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes. At the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.
Culture clash in inner Mongolia
Wang Quan An's "Tuya's Marriage" exudes an infectious vitality as it vigorously plays humor against pathos amid the raw splendor of the steppes of inner Mongolia. Beneath the liveliness of the film's hearty, earthy spirit, Wang reveals how the caring communal traditions of a harsh, ancient way of life are endangered by the encroachment of the highly impersonal, often ugly modern world. Tuya (Yu Nan) is a strong, resilient wife and mother whose beloved husband's crippled condition has, after three years, forced her to accept that she must divorce him and remarry to provide security for herself and her young children. The only condition: Her husband must stay within the new family, a proposition that sends Tuya off on a daunting quest.
"Tuya's Marriage" is thoroughly gratifying in its consistent inventiveness and has a grasp of human nature so universal that there's no feeling of the exotic about the film and its people.
"Tuya's Marriage." Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. In Mandarin, with English subtitles. At the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; One Colorado Cinemas, 42 Miller Alley, Pasadena, (626) 744-1224; the Rancho Niguel, 25471 Rancho Niguel Rd., Laguna Niguel, (949) 831-4359.
'Heavy Metal' meets war
Directed and produced by Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi, "Heavy Metal in Baghdad" is about just that, the struggles of the one and only (according to the film) heavy metal band in the beleaguered, war-torn capital of Iraq. In 2005, Moretti and Alvi assisted the band, called Acrassicauda, in putting on what would be their last show to date in the city. More than a year after that they all met face to face. The film's footage was shot under dangerous conditions that are oddly hilarious only in safe retrospect, so its ragged shaky-cam construction can be forgiven after the heart-and-soul dedication of the band members begins to come through in hi-def, rock-solid clarity.
More than just another Iraq-doc, "Heavy Metal" is a surprisingly up-close look at the toll of the war on young people, and how they still have dreams and still want to jam, party and get down. If "Once" was about the romance of creativity, "Heavy Metal in Baghdad" is about the total, unrelenting obsession. They have no choice. They must rock.
-- Mark Olsen
"Heavy Metal in Baghdad." Unrated. 1 hour, 24 minutes. At Laemmle Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.
A chronicle of Jews, oppression
It's astounding to think a mere two decades ago, before the Iron Curtain fell, 1.5 million Jews living in the former Soviet Union were unable to emigrate to their country of choice. How that reprehensible fact came to be and the 30-year international human rights struggle that followed, is stirringly chronicled in Laura Bialis' documentary "Refusenik."
Packed with an extraordinary amount of archival material, the film offers a fascinating, if occasionally dense look at a grass-roots movement that became the world's chance to retroactively fight Hitler's Holocaust. Bialis is blessed with an array of interview subjects here, from such notably persecuted "Refuseniks" (Soviet Jews refused exit visas) as Anatoly Shcharansky, Vladimir Slepak and ex-Kirov Ballet dancer Valery Panov, to the largely American college students (including L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky), housewives and community leaders who became activists on their behalf. The filmmaker even sits down with former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev, who still seems conflicted over the unthinkable Communist policy that crumbled under his regime, after worldwide pressure led by the Reagan administration. "Refusenik" passionately reminds that the mantra "Never again!" must never be forgotten.
-- Gary Goldstein
"Refusenik." Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes. In English, Russian and Hebrew with English subtitles. At Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; and Laemmle's Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 981-9811.
The birth of cool at an L.A. gallery
"The Cool School" is a vital and essential look at the way scenes are born, the happenstance confluence of people, places and ideas, focusing on the one that sprouted around an art gallery in Los Angeles as the 1950s blossomed into the heady experiments of the '60s. The Ferus Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard, run at its peak by Walter Hopps and Irving Blum, held the first exhibition of Andy Warhol's groundbreaking soup cans, but more notably gave a home to such artists as Ed Kienholz, John Altoon, Billy Al Bengston and Ed Ruscha, who were burgeoning from the expanding cultural nexus of L.A. itself.
Directed by Morgan Neville, who also wrote and produced the film with journalist Kristine McKenna, a longtime chronicler of fringe culture, the film is thrilling and inspiring, a jazzy mix of recent interviews and archival footage. The names, faces and works of art whiz by at a dizzying clip, and for those not already familiar with the scene it can be difficult to keep track of who's who and what's what. It is a tribute to Neville and McKenna that the film's 86 minutes prove all too brief and leave one wanting more. "Cool School" is the single-disc hits sampler that makes you realize how desperately you want the ridiculously exhaustive box set.
"The Cool School." Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes. At the Laemmle Grand 4-Plex, 345 S. Figueroa St., downtown L.A., (213) 617-0268.