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Guardians of the Galaxy

In many respects, “Guardians,” directed and co-written by indie wit James Gunn, and starring buffed-up former schlub Chris Pratt and Really Big Sci-Fi Blockbuster vet…

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War Story

Director Mark Jackson’s drama is a chilly study in grief starring Catherine Keener as a war-zone photographer shattered by her experiences in Libya.

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Monsieur Hire

Patrice Leconte's "Monsieur Hire" is a tragedy about loneliness and erotomania, told about two solitary people who have nothing else in common. It involves a…

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Black history written with lightning

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"The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975" plays on PBS's "Independent Lens" Thursday, February 9, 2012. Check local listings. It is also available on DVD, Netflix Instant and Amazon Instant.

After viewing "The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975," I stumbled out of the theater and into a blinding, mid-afternoon New York City sun, every nerve in my body ablaze. All my neurons seemed to be firing at once, and my brain was so full of thought I sought some way to collect myself. I started to walk, focusing more on reconciling my thoughts than a navigational direction. With no destination in mind, I walked for what seemed an eternity, trying to put my emotional responses together. I was jolted from my mental process by an old woman standing next to me on a Manhattan street corner. I must have looked shell-shocked, because she touched my arm as we waited for a Lower East Side traffic light to change. "Honey, are you alright?" she asked, genuine concern on her face.

Fully back in reality, I said "I'm fine, ma'am. Thank you for asking."

My reaction requires an explanation. Swedish journalist and filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson's documentary took me back to the days when I came to a mature understanding of the implications of being Black, male, and broke. My adolescence was full of reading the speeches and works of Black leaders besides Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I chose to do this after my uncle took me to a Black-owned bookstore and suggested several books I should read. He avoided MLK not out of some form of militant stance, but because footage and information about King were everywhere. He was the star of every Black History Month on TV, and those who rejected the message of non-violence were either marginalized, demonized or ignored. I devoured works by people whose messages were downright terrifying to mainstream America: Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, and Huey P. Newton.

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A killer thriller that spills into horror

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"Kill List" is available on demand through select cable providers. Check IFC On Demand for availability in your area.

by Kevin B. Lee

Few things bring out the worst tendencies of Hollywood than the genre mash-up, as evidenced by two of last year's worst films, "Cowboys vs. Aliens" and "Battle: Los Angeles" (aka "Independence Day" filmed as part Iraq War documentary, part video game). The "movie-x-meets-movie-y" mentality seems to inspire little more than z-level creativity in the land of big budgets and small minds. And yet, somehow the British have a better track record at bringing together disparate elements into a compelling whole. One of the best British crime movies, "The Lavender Hill Mob," is also one of their best comedies. Their most famous horror movie, "The Wicker Man," is actually a trifecta of horror, crime thriller and musical. And now there's Ben Wheatley's "Kill List," which takes seemingly familiar genre elements and offsets them in ways that can be confounding, but leave an unforgettable impact. And by impact, I'm not just talking about a scene involving a tied-up librarian and a hammer.

Before we delve into that moment, some set-up: Jay (Neil Maskell) and Shel (MyAnna Buring) are an ex-military couple trying to play house in the Yorkshire suburbs. Judging by their opening screaming match they're having a rough go of it: Jay's been out of work for eight months, their savings drying up. All they can do to vent their frustrations is hold swordfights on the lawn with their son and host a rollercoaster of a dinner party with Jay's war buddy-turned-hitman Gal (Michael Smiley), leading to smashed dishes in the dining room, plans for new contract killings discussed over beers in the basement, and Gal's mysterious date carving a hex into the back of the bathroom mirror.

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Phil Ochs: All the news that's fit to sing

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"Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune" plays Monday, January 23, at 10 pm EST/PST on PBS American Masters. It will thereafter be available via PBS On Demand, and is currently on Netflix Instant and DVD.

"Mistakes are lodged like harpoons and fish hooks in an intelligent person's soul," says one friend of political folk singer Phil Ochsof the deep depression that eventually led him to suicide in 1976. Och's friends are like that, eloquent and insightful. His mentor Pete Seeger, in particular, speaks like he sings, modulating his voice to give anecdotes a mythic luster and heartbreaking resonance. But after watching "Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune" take a measure of the man's adult life, it seems that some friends put too much emphasis on generic therapist's reasons for his downward spiral -- schizophrenia, alcoholism, declining popularity. It seems that Phil Ochs' fall was inevitable, given the fact that his singing career began when he was barely out of his teens, when JFK's assassination was a couple years off, and crashed after every progressive movement for which his protest songs provided spiritual fuel was crushed.

This is not a standard pop star rise-and-fall story. Ochs was physically involved in the antiwar and social justice movements he sang along with. He headlined, organized and even spontaneously showed up at a staggering number of rallies for various causes. His investment was evident in his performances, presented here with shocking audiovisual fidelity. Even though it's captured on a black-and-white kinescope, a performance of his song "When I'm Gone" feels as clear and urgent as a live event. So, too, is his strumming and crooning at the 1964 Newport Music Festival. (Simply amazing sound and image restoration here.) The sonorous voice and wide, earnest eyes could just as easily belong to a Wall Street occupier serenading Zuccoti Park.

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Stop making senses: An epidemic love story

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"Perfect Sense" (89 minutes) is now available via IFC On Demand and can be rented or downloaded via iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, SundanceNOW, XBOX and PlayStation 3. The film will also begin a limited release in theaters on February 3rd.

by Jeff Shannon

The cause of the disease is unknown, and there is no cure. It could be a cluster of diseases, nobody knows for sure. The experts say it's not contagious, but that's just a futile ploy to prevent panic. It's spreading throughout the world as a full-blown epidemic. The symptoms are brutal and unrelenting: Slowly but surely, your senses fall away -- first you lose the sense of smell. Then taste, and eventually hearing...panic strikes you anyway, and the world around you ceases to make any kind of sense. How can you possibly survive the onslaught of sensory deprivation? What can you do when you're overwhelmed by an escalating sense of infantile helplessness?

Welcome to the apocalypse of "Perfect Sense," an imperfect yet deeply affecting film from David McKenzie, a British director who's been quietly building a list of respectable credits (his latest is the rock 'n roll comedy "You Instead") since 1994. (He also regularly casts his actor brother Alastair, perhaps best known for his role in the popular BBC series "Monarch of the Glen.") "Perfect Sense" was well-received at Sundance last year, but it's not the kind of film that makes distributors see dollar signs in their eyes. It's an actor's showcase for Ewan McGregor and Eva Green, who meet the challenge head-on. Technically impressive and beautifully filmed (by Giles Nuttgens), quite frankly it's too distinctive -- choke on that, distributors! -- to be easily pigeon-holed and marketed to the masses.

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Love and death (not necessarily in that order)

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Manoel de Oliveira's "The Strange Case of Angelica" is available on demand via Netflix Instant and for download on iTunes. It is also on DVD and Blu-ray and is coming soon to Vudu.

Few of us can expect to live 100 years, much less have that age represent the prime of our career. But Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, who last month celebrated his 103rd birthday, has averaged one new film a year since 1985 (Ron Howard's "Cocoon," in which Florida retirees meet space aliens who hold the secret to youth, was released the same year -- coincidence?). Two-thirds of Oliveira's 30 features were made in his eighties and nineties; Clint Eastwood, who last year turned 81, has his work cut out for him.

Oliveira's prodigious output, which would put most directors to shame regardless of their age, may be his way of making up for lost time. While he can trace his career all the way to the silent era, he didn't make his first feature "Aniki Bobo" until he was 34; his second feature "Rite of Spring" came 21 years later. His stalled output can partly be attributed to his decades-long resistance to Portugal's oppressive right-wing Estado Novo regime, during which Oliveira spent time in jail. Ironically, when leftists finally took over in the 1970s, they seized Oliveira's family business that had sustained him throughout his artistic struggles. Fortunately by that point he had achieved international acclaim, heralded by film critic J. Hoberman as "one of the 70s leading modernists" just as he entered his seventies.

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Billy the Kid, orphan outlaw

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"American Experience: Billy the Kid" is available on demand at PBS.org after its January 10 broadcast at 9 p.m. (ET/PT). Check local listings.

Who hasn't heard of Billy the Kid? He's often portrayed in Westerns -- sometimes as a blood-thirsty killer -- but the PBS "American Experience" documentary "Billy the Kid" gives us a sympathetic portrayal of an orphan who "became the most wanted man of the west." Instead of drama, blood, and lust in the dust, you'll get a more multicultural view of a homeless kid gone wrong after being wronged.

The one-hour film, narrated by Michael Murphy, begins with a hangman's noose. The date is April 28, 1881 and the 21-year-old man known as Billy the Kid is in the custody of Sheriff Pat Garrett. He escapes his appointment with the hangman, but he won't be alive much longer.

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A haunting, in time and space

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"The Innkeepers" is streaming online through Amazon Instant and Vudu. It is also offered on some cable systems' On Demand channels and opens theatrically in a limited release February 3rd. The official website is here.

by Steven Boone

The trailer for "The Inkeepers" betrays a basic insecurity common in low-budget indie films nowadays: They want you to think they're as loud and hectic as their big-budget counterparts. They're afraid you won't show up otherwise. And so this horror film which builds its scares slowly, stealthily and through the peculiar quirks of its characters is sold as just another clangy, generic mainstream fright flick. Mercifully, the actual film shows only a little of this poisonous "ambition." It's mostly just a good old-fashioned ghost story, well told.

This film's wealth of personality is apparent early on, as director Ti West takes his time recording the subtle oddball chemistry between Claire (Sarah Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), the only staff on duty at the Yankee Pedlar Inn. Luke is obsessed with documenting a legendary ghost at the Pedlar for his website. He is surprised to find that Claire, his secret geek-girl crush, is just as fascinated by the subject. For a healthy stretch of the film we just watch them goofing off and pranking each other when not rendering poor service to the inn's only two guests (one played by Kelly McGillis from "Top Gun," appearing about 15 years older than her actual age--the biggest jolt of the movie, for a viewer over 30).

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Richard Garriott, Space Cowboy

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"Man on a Mission: Richard Garriott's Road to the Stars" (83 minutes) will be available On Demand on Cox from Jan. 13-March 12, 2012 and on VUDU, Shaw Video on Demand and others starting Jan. 13. It opens the same day at Facets Cinematheque in Chicago and other theatrical venues.

"Man on a Mission: Richard Garriott's Road to the Stars" begins by asking the question: "Why explore space?" By the end of this somewhat indulgent documentary you may ask, particularly considering these tough economic times, "Why spend $30 million to be the sixth private citizen to orbit the earth?" Is this the story of a quest begun in childhood or part of a publicity ploy?

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Faces that bring their own light

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"The First Grader" is streaming On Demand via Amazon and Vudu, and the DVD is on Netflix and on sale.

by Steven Boone

It doesn't matter that "The First Grader" is as shamelessly, sappily manipulative as that TV commercial where Sarah Mclachlan wails a tune while the camera zooms in on miserable animals peering out of their rescue shelter cages. Nope. It doesn't even matter that the musical score, which I will give the alternate title "Mother Africa Weeps," is the World Music equivalent of an Oreo McFlurry -- a real pancreas-buster. Never mind all that. The imagery in "The First Grader" places it on par with cinema's great sentimental masterpieces, "Umberto D," "Tokyo Story" and "Ikiru." From the first frame, this film warns that it is working in a universe of pure emotion.

The film's true story concerns Maruge (Oliver Litondo), a former Kenyan freedom fighter and political prisoner who has been forgotten in the post-colonial age. He walks around the countryside in rags while the new generation of power brokers benefiting from his sacrifices zip through Nairobi in Benzes. When he learns that the government is now offering free education to all, he tries to enroll in a local elementary school. He's illiterate, it turns out, and he wants to learn how to read an important old letter for himself. Of course, the 84 year-old has a tough time convincing the overcrowded one-room schoolhouse to let him in.

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From Seattle, with free refills

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"The Off Hours" is now available on most on-demand platforms including Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and most major-cable services. NOTE: The film is not available through DirecTV. It will be released on DVD in January and will premiere on Hulu and Netflix later in 2012.

by Jeff Shannon

There's never been a better time for filmmaking in the Pacific Northwest. Running the entire spectrum from filmgoers and critics to actors, writers and production talent aplenty, the Seattle film community has always been close-knit and cooperative, and its D.I.Y. resourcefulness has resulted in a slow but steady rise of intermingling talent. (Full disclosure: Several of the creative people mentioned below are casual Facebook acquaintances of mine.) Ten years ago and earlier, you were lucky if your micro-budgeted project got finished and accepted by festivals, and for several years it seemed like the Native American drama "Smoke Signals" (written by Northwest author Sherman Alexie and distributed by Miramax in 1998) would be Seattle's only claim to a locally-produced breakout success.

Undeterred, Seattle's film community continued to percolate like the coffee that stereotypically defines "The Emerald City" for most of the outside world. Abundant indie-film projects, and the passions that fueled their creation, have led to a natural progression of experience and expertise, and this year alone the Sundance film festival hosted four films shot in Washington state. When you consider the local history that led us from "Gas City" (an obscure, no-budget 1978 slacker drama shot among the aging motels and nightspots of Seattle's Aurora Avenue) to the international success of director Lynn Shelton's "Humpday" (2009), it's no wonder that Seattle has become the Northwest's answer to Austin, Texas: A film- and music-loving city (per capita, Seattleites are still the nation's #1 moviegoers) where independent filmmakers can find the talent, resources, and community support to foster their projects from start to finish. Indeed, "Start-to-Finish" is the name of an innovative program, introduced by the Northwest Film Forum in 1998, designed to select and co-produce films with the goal of national and global exposure. Canadian alt-auteur Guy Maddin found NWFF so appealing that he came here to shoot his 2006 film "Brand Upon the Brain!," now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection (and photographed by the gifted Benjamin Kasulke -- see below).

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