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Moving a house in the shifting South

When Southern-born, New York-based film critic Godfrey Cheshire learned that his North Carolina cousin Charles Silver was going to literally uproot the family’s ancestral mid-19th century plantation home called Midway and haul it to a quieter location -- far from the encroachment of real-estate developers -- Cheshire’s documentary instincts kicked in. And thankfully so, because “Moving Midway,” his engaging chronicle of the physical, historical and psychological effect of the undertaking, is also an invitation for a film buff to meditate on the antebellum South’s mythic power in stories and film (from “Birth of a Nation” to “Roots”), and a personal genealogical inquiry that uncovers a parallel family line of slave-descendant cousins he’d never met.

One is New York University professor Robert Hinton, whose insight from the African American perspective is enriching and often funny, as when he challenges Cheshire’s steel-magnolia mom at a Civil War reenactment on her love of the typically white-only spectacles, and the notion that the conflict was about states’ rights more than slavery. Says a smiling Hinton to Cheshire later, “I’m perfectly happy to have them keep fighting the war, as long as they keep losing it.”

In this potentially monumental election year for racial progress and demographic change in North Carolina, “Moving Midway” and its house-relocating metaphor plays its own quirky yet thoughtful part in the question of how much the South has truly moved. Wide load indeed.

-- Robert Abele

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“Moving Midway.” MPAA rating: unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. At Laemmle Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.

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Politics and the tainting of youth

Luke Eberl’s “Choose Connor” is a real stunner, an unusual coming-of-age story that packs a wallop in unexpected ways. It is all the more remarkable because writer-director-editor and co-producer Eberl was only 20 when he made it.

Eberl has both a dryly cynical grasp of how the world of politics can work and a gift for complex characterization coupled with an ability to draw from actors spot-on portrayals of much range and depth. He can suddenly unleash a jolting fear yet not let his film lapse into a standard suspense thriller; he is skilled at the visual as well as the verbal, a filmmaker of formidable powers of persuasion.

After a prologue that is daringly disturbing, Eberl cuts to a middle-school graduation where U.S. Senate candidate Lawrence Connor (Steven Weber) gives a speech and presents 15-year-old Owen (Alex Linz) with an award -- and ends up recruiting the admiring Owen as the spokesman for his youth campaign. Owen is a brainy but innocent idealist bedazzled by a glib politician who sees himself heroically walking a tightrope between high principle and necessary compromise.

That Owen learns politics can be a dirty business -- and hidden within that world much darker secrets -- is not all that shocking, but what makes “Choose Connor” so special and unsettling is the consistent adroitness and perfect timing with which Eberl makes his revelations. As equally impressive as Weber in the role of Connor is Escher Holloway as his troubled adopted nephew, a talented artist of dark visions.

-- Kevin Thomas

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“Choose Connor.” MPAA rating: unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes. At the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.

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Everything isn’t connected in this

“Mattie Fresno and the Holoflux Universe” could have been the name of your music nerd cousin’s high school synth-pop experiment. It’s actually a slick but muddled indie (that only sounds as if it was scored by the aforementioned hypothetical band). Pitched as a crypto-scientific yet sentimental satire about perception and reality, it’s really just an unfunny, jumbled Charlie Kaufman-esque rip-off centering on the titular character (Angela Pierce), a public relations worker who -- despite being accused of murdering a famous talk show host (Carol Alt), having a controversial physicist grandfather (Orson Bean) communicating from beyond the grave, and occasionally experiencing rabbit-hole hallucinations -- is a dullard as a protagonist.

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Co-writer-director Philip Gerard Gallo is an ambitious cook prone to gross overseasoning, throwing in Eastern European perfume factory explosions, conversations about theoretical physics, goombahs masquerading as fashion designers, television show parodies and Ellen Cleghorne as Mattie’s narrative-prodding cellmate. You may wonder why it all adds up to a smiling Bean gooey-ly preaching how everything in the universe is connected, especially since the movie itself is so hopelessly disjointed.

-- Robert Abele

“Mattie Fresno and the Holoflux Universe.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. At Laemmle’s Grande 4 Plex, 345 S. Figueroa St., downtown L.A., (213) 617-0268.

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Hearts, minds and gay marriage

With “Saving Marriage,” documentarians John Henning and Mike Roth make acutely suspenseful a series of events whose outcome is already known -- events that resonate strongly in California today. Soon after the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal in November 2003, the Massachusetts Legislature held a Constitutional Convention to decide whether to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would ban it -- even as thousands of gays were able to start marrying by May 17, 2005.

The filmmakers inject fresh life into that familiar device for generating suspense -- the countdown -- first, to the Legislature’s initial vote in March 2004, and then, in keeping with Massachusetts law, a second vote, in late 2005, that would put the amendment on the ballot in a general election in 2006. What emerges is a far-ranging portrait, a virtual how-to manual for how a minority can pull together in a committed, well-planned and very brave effort to try to change enough hearts and minds so that it can at last achieve equality with the majority.

Against a broad backdrop, Henning and Roth zero in on some impressive individuals, such as seasoned gay activist Arline Isaacson, and Carl Sciortino, a 25-year-old gay healthcare worker who decides to defy homophobia to run against a burly veteran state representative and foe of gay marriage. There are two other representatives, Kay Teahen and Barbara L’Italien, from conservative communities, who risk their political careers to support same-sex marriage.

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L’Italien reports that her priest gave a sermon that made her feel that “I was no longer welcome in my own church.”

-- Kevin Thomas

“Saving Marriage.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief strong language. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. At Regent Showcase, 614 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood, (323) 934-2944.

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Sailing adventure loses its ‘Light’

Producer and sailing enthusiast Roy E. Disney says it twice in “Morning Light,” his documentary baby about 15 college-age men and women learning to race the 2,500- mile open-ocean sailing competition known as the Transpac: It’s “really about the journey.”

But if you’re not a boat geek, director Mark Monroe’s detail-deficient storytelling and hyper-editing means endless, unexplained shots of people turning cranks, pointing at computer maps and climbing up sails while the “journey” stuff suffers for lack of interpersonal drama or even a sense of who these excited chosen are.

After the Australian guy who’s made skipper, the African American man doing it for his late mother and the broken-arm girl -- because she’s one of two women -- everyone else is an interchangeable blur spouting endless variations on how tough it all is, and how it’s the experience of their lives. (Even reality TV series elicit more personality and inner thoughts from their contestants.)

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Naturally, there’s a lot of perfunctorily scenic photography of the Pacific, and of the team’s high-tech sloop cutting through the water like a shimmering shark fin, but if the makers were hoping they’d chronicled a metaphor for life’s struggle, they probably weren’t counting on the struggle being monotony.

-- Robert Abele

“Morning Light.” MPAA rating: PG for some language. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. In general release.


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