The FLIFF Stretch

 Editor's note: The Florida International Film Festival continues this week with couples in counseling, the dark side of North Korea, and the ever-popular wacky housewife.

Unscrewed

It's easy to think of this film (formerly Dogs in the Basement) as a documentary, when it's actually a faux-documentary in the vein of Best of Show or A Mighty Wind. It's played close to the cuff and with more poignancy and fewer laughs than director Leslie Shering probably intended. Thus the film comes across more as an intimate look at the troubles of couples in counseling, a program you might see on PBS.

The film opens with Joe and Mary St. John talking to the interviewer about the spice that's gone out of their sex life after so many years of marriage. But the young, likable, all-American couple -- the very definition of normal and average -- are determined to do whatever they need to put some sizzle back in the bedroom. So they pursue three different therapies: with a sex therapist, a urologist, and a threesome of tantric counselors. Things start out somewhat mundanely, but as the therapies go on, they become more and more bizarre. Some are curiously funny (as when the male sex therapist role-plays with Joe), and others are wincingly so (like most of the scenes with the tantric three).

The success of Christopher Guest's comedic mockumentaries, like the two previously mentioned and This Is Spinal Tap, is partly due to quirky characters doing and saying funny things. In Unscrewed, Joe and Mary are just too good at playing a typical couple caught up in strange encounters, which causes more empathy than laughter. And while the rest of the cast is funny in a wry way, they're just not outrageous enough in that Spinal Tap manner to push any scenes over the top. It's a subtlety that might appeal to some -- and to someone like Shering, who has spent her entire career thus far as a documentary filmmaker.

(Thursday, November 11, 7:30 p.m., AMC Coral Ridge 10; Sunday, November 14, 1:30 p.m., AMC Coral Ridge 10; 75 minutes; English.)

Seoul Train

Of the handful of dictatorial regimes on the planet, one of the most draconian is the dark star of North Korea. With chronic food shortages and millions of its people living on the edge of starvation, the government of Kim Chong-il is a total failure, kept alive by massive international food aid. It's also one of the most secretive and isolated countries on Earth.

This makes the hidden-camera footage in the documentary of barefoot children in rags scavenging for food on the ground of a North Korean street nothing short of astounding -- especially given the fact that, if discovered, the photographer would be executed.

Filmed over 14 months by directors Jim Butterworth and Lisa Sleeth, the story follows several groups of North Koreans as they seek to escape from their country via the underground railroad -- a shadowy network of mostly South Koreans who risk their lives to help sneak people across the border into China. But the Chinese government has no sympathy for their cause and routinely deports asylum seekers back to North Korea -- to face certain imprisonment, torture, and execution -- which means these groups must continue on to Mongolia.

Seoul Train has the intimate and privileged-insider feel of a really good Frontline piece, with its hard-hitting facts splashed across the screen between scenes. And with no voice-overs and only a handful of talking heads, the lingering scenes of a group of North Koreans having a nervous meal in a safe house the night before a planned border crossing are all the more effective, re-creating tense moments as they approach Chinese border guards with passports. It's a penetrating view into the desperate attempts of these individuals and the horrible circumstances in North Korea when so many people are willing to do anything to escape.

(Friday, November 12, 5:30 p.m., AMC Coral Ridge 10; Tuesday, November 16, 5:30 p.m., Cinema Paradiso; 55 minutes; English and Korean, with English subtitles.)

From Other Worlds

Barry Strugatz is probably best-known as the screenwriter of the late '80s gangster comedy Married to the Mob and later of the not-as-funny She-Devil. As a then established and credited screenwriter, he kept writing and selling screenplays that never saw the light of day. Judging from his directorial debut in From Other Worlds, there may be a reason.

The film follows depressed housewife Joanne (Cara Buono) as she mopes from supermarket to bakery and around her Brooklyn home. One sleepless night, she ventures into the kitchen and encounters an eerie red light shining through the window, then finds herself waking up on the patio the next morning. Now she's depressed and strange, hanging out for hours in a fish market, reading tabloids, and going to a UFO support group where she meets Abraham (Isaach de Bankole), an African immigrant who had a similar experience with the red light. They team up after discovering similar marks on their torsos and, yadda yadda, end up on a wacky adventure that includes a space alien and saving the world.

From Other Worlds has the feel of a short film, with two-dimensional characters that never fully develop, and subsequently you don't care all that much about them. Where Married to the Mob had a smart, clever script, From Other Worlds comes across as clunky and tired, just like Joanne's declaration to her therapist: "There's something missing, like there's no purpose to anything, like I'm just going through the motions." It's this kind of uninspired character development and acting (Abraham has a constant look on his face like someone cut an especially smelly fart) that dooms the feature. But the lion's share of blame has to fall on the director and writer, Strugatz, who should go back to what made Married to the Mob so entertaining.

(Sunday, November 14, 7:30 p.m., AMC Coral Ridge 10; 87 minutes; English.)

 
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