The ZIP Code for Sidney, Ohio, a city of 20,000 northwest of Columbus, becomes the title of Turner Ross and Bill Ross' "45365," a graceful, affectionate yet clear-eyed portrait of daily Middle America small-town life in which no individuals are interviewed but instead are observed with detachment as they go about their lives.
In many ways, Sidney suggests that Norman Rockwell's America still exists. The town center is still dominated by a grand Second Empire-style courthouse, and many well-maintained vintage structures, strung along tree-lined streets, survive.
FOR THE RECORD:
"The Red Baron": A review of the film "The Red Baron" in the March 19 Calendar section credited the real-life German World War I pilot Baron Manfred von Richthofen with 20 kills. Known as the Red Baron, Von Richthofen had a record 80 combat kills. —
The typical citizen is cheerful and friendly, and the filmmakers capture many traditional community events and entertainments -- a puffy Elvis impersonator, a carnival. The Rosses spend time with, among countless others, a local DJ, a judge campaigning for reelection and a man assuring his friend he knows someone who can rid his large storage shed of bats.
The film suggests that some parts of America's heartland seem to have escaped the wrenching and often destructive changes that have beset so many other communities. But it's not all hearts and flowers. An apparent drug dealer accuses a customer of stealing from her purse, a reminder that, as inviting as Sidney seems, it exists in the real world -- and in this case, a place chronicled before the recession hit.
-- Kevin Thomas
"45365." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. At the Downtown Independent, downtown L.A.
Time passes slowly in a diner
It's safe to say nothing good comes of being stuck in a roadside diner for the length of a low-budget indie, especially one as molasses-slow-and-thick as the thumb-twiddler "The Killing Jar."
The seven poor saps biding their time on a hot, rainy night -- including the sad-eyed waitress (Amber Benson), the traveling salesman (Harold Perrineau), the quiet regular (Kevin Gage) and the dumb deputy (Lew Temple) -- get breaking news of a slaughtered family and a black pickup being spotted, but when a mysterious stranger (Michael Madsen) shows up, it takes forever for anyone to go outside and actually see what color his ride is.
Instead, what dribbles out is a series of repetitive, dull, clichéd showdowns until most of the cast is gruesomely dispatched and the twist-that-isn't-a-twist is revealed.
Writer-director Mark Young, perhaps having gone stir crazy from his one set, mistakes endless insert shots -- coffee poured, blood-spattered countertop, jukebox coin insert, etc., etc. -- for drawn-out tension. Benson, meanwhile, is so terrible her close-up line readings feel as inconsequential as the insert shots, and Madsen, it must be said, finally looks exasperated with playing grumbly psychos. At times he looks as helpless as his hostages.
-- Robert Abele "The Killing Jar." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. At the Beverly Center, West L.A.
Very essence of identity
The high school reunion is hardly a unique entry point for a story, but for filmmaker Kimberly Reed, the return to her Montana hometown was an especially loaded event.
For starters, she'd be facing former classmates who knew her as Paul the football captain.
Yet Reed's transgender coming-out to old friends is the least part of this stirring and provocative documentary.
At the heart of "Prodigal Sons," a family drama in the form of a succinct, eloquent personal journal, is a sibling rivalry whose reverberations touch upon the very essence of human identity: what we inherit, what we learn, how we move forward and to what degree we look back.
Reed receives a warm reception at her 20-year reunion, but she's on eggshells with one of her classmates, her adopted brother. Since he was left back in preschool, Marc has been the struggler to her high achiever, his behavior problems exacerbated by a brain injury. He's on multiple meds and given to hair-trigger explosions that he says aren't the real him -- even as Kim looks at pictures of herself as a boy and says with certainty, "That wasn't me."
Marc's research into his biological roots leads to the revelation, 30 minutes into the film, that he's the grandchild of two of the biggest names of 1940s Hollywood.
This tantalizing twist may provide answers, but it doesn't prevent Marc's deepening mental illness or quell his conflict with Kim, who comes to understand that "we were both haunted by the same ghost."
Reed insists on pursuing difficult questions, and this is a film not easily forgotten.
-- Sheri Linden "Prodigal Sons." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes. At Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood.
'Red Baron's' personal tale
Writer-director-producer Nikolai Muellerschoen's "The Red Baron" is a handsome, meticulously detailed epic emphasizing the character even more than the legendary exploits of Baron Manfred von Richthofen, credited with a record 20 kills as a pilot with the German aerial combat forces during World War I. The largely German cast is headed by the talented Richthofen lookalike Matthias Schweighöfer.
Schweighöfer is well supported by Til Schweiger as a seasoned lieutenant, Lena Headey as a nurse drawn to Richthofen despite her abhorrence to his lethal combat skills, and Joseph Fiennes as Canadian aerial ace Roy Brown, a formidable enemy with whom Richthofen shares a deep mutual respect. If the film is intelligent and thoughtful, it is unfortunately lacking in energy and passion; it is more a somber, highly familiar reflection on warfare and its toll than an action movie. Also, the film's aerial dogfights will not erase exciting memories of those in such World War I classics as "Wings" and "Hell's Angels" or the much-later "The Blue Max."
Schweighöfer's Richthofen, who famously paints his Fokker red to scare the enemy, emerges as a tragic hero, an example of a self-aware aristocrat at his most chivalrous.
-- Kevin Thomas "The Red Baron." MPAA rating: PG-13 for war violence, some disturbing images and brief suggestive material. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. At selected theaters.
Deaf, dreaming of stardom
As if it's not hard enough to make it in show business, producer-director Hilari Scarl's absorbing, intimate "See What I'm Saying: The Deaf Entertainers Documentary" explores the added struggle a quartet of deaf performers must go through to achieve starry goals.
What this video diary lacks in cinematic polish it makes up for with its passionate and engaging subjects: C.J. Jones, an African American comic eager to succeed beyond deaf audiences; Robert DeMayo, a versatile actor and American Sign Language expert who is HIV-positive and, for a while, homeless; Bob Hiltermann, an aging drummer who reunites the members of his band, Beethoven's Nightmare (the world's only deaf rock group) for a concert at L.A.'s El Rey Theatre; and T.L. Forsberg, a punkish, hard-of-hearing rock singer sometimes labeled "not deaf enough" because of her relatively clear speech and less fluid signing skills. Scarl follows these four performers -- whose paths occasionally cross -- over the course of a year, documenting their personal and creative highs and lows while touching on many key aspects of deaf culture, particularly the various types and uses of sign language (the film is open-captioned).
Though this inspirational movie often cuts away too quickly from its characters' stage performances, it's a significant look at a vital, underreported segment of the entertainment world.
-- Gary Goldstein "See What I'm Saying: The Deaf Entertainers Documentary." MPAA rating: PG-13 for some thematic material and language including sexual references. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. At Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood.
'Stolen' is lost in a time warp
A leaden murder mystery with a clunky structure that swings back and forth between 1958 and 2008, "Stolen" wastes the talents of a reasonably good cast. One must wonder exactly what director Anders Anderson used to garner such people around Glenn Taranto's dopey script -- surely Josh Lucas, Jon Hamm, James Van Der Beek, Rhona Mitra and even a pre-"V" Morena Baccarin must have had better things to do with their time.
The story revolves around a modern-day police detective (Hamm), whose son was abducted some years ago, being pulled into the case of identifying a boy's body found buried in a box. Tracing back through the years, he uncovers clues that draw him closer to the identity of that boy but also, he believes, closer to solving his own son's disappearance.
The back-and-forth between the time periods is an uninvolving device, constantly pulling the viewer out of either story rather than drawing the audience further in. In trying to draw a connection between the two stories, poor Van Der Beek's character, having been a college boy in 1958, is shown in (minor spoiler alert) old-man makeup for 2008. As is so often the case with aging effects, it's tough not to just marvel at how awful he looks.
The only upside to "Stolen" is that it proves what a brilliant confluence of actor and role Hamm's part on "Mad Men" truly is, as here the restraint and mystery that make his Don Draper so indelible are nowhere to be seen, replaced by an unconvincing sense of self-pitying sadness. This isn't to say Hamm can play only the troubled ad man but merely that he is needing (and deserving of) better material and direction than he gets here.
-- Mark Olsen "Stolen." MPAA rating: R for a scene of sexuality. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. At the Sunset 5, West Hollywood.
Screenwriter war stories
You don't have to be a screenwriter to appreciate the highly enjoyable "Tales From the Script," but it helps. This straightforward documentary, mainly a collection of talking-head interviews with a wide array of both newer and veteran film scribes, manages to be fun and informative without tipping too far into the dark side; it favors war stories over horror stories. This approach wisely keeps the focus on process and daily realities, providing ample doses of cautionary advice to aspiring screenwriters and many relatable moments for professionals.
Divided into pertinent chapters and punctuated by amusing clips from such Hollywood-centric films as "Barton Fink" and "The Muse," director Peter Hanson (who also co-wrote and produced with Paul Robert Herman) has assembled a frank, articulate, often crisply funny group of scribes.
The likes of Shane Black, Frank Darabont, Paul Schrader and William Goldman recount their own twisty work histories and offer stranger-than-fiction anecdotes, with many acknowledging the screenwriter's illogical place on the bottom of the industry totem pole (or as "Ghost's" Bruce Joel Rubin specifies, "the part they stick in the ground").
How screen scribes historically achieved that distinction goes unexplored here, though, in truth, the thorny topic could probably fill its own documentary.
-- Gary Goldstein "Tales From the Script." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. At Laemmle's Music Hall, Beverly Hills.