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Moving Midway / Family Name among new releases

Capsule reviews of films currently playing in Charlotte

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New Releases

MOVING MIDWAY / FAMILY NAME How coincidental that these two documentaries – both about North Carolinians grappling with their lineage – are hitting town at roughly the same time, one in theaters (Oct. 3), the other on DVD (Sept. 23). The new release Moving Midway, by film critic and Raleigh native Godfrey Cheshire, centers around Midway Plantation, his family's ancestral home. After his cousin informs him that he plans to physically uproot the mansion and move it to an isolated area far away from the rapidly spreading big-city sprawl, Cheshire reflects on his own happy memories of the place yet also finds himself disturbed by the fact that it was established on the backs of his ancestors' slaves. The details behind the actual move are the least interesting part of the film; far more compelling are both the "history" of slavery as presented through a polished Hollywood veneer (naturally, clips from Gone With the Wind and The Birth of a Nation are shown) and the introduction of Robert Hinton, a black New York professor who, thanks to a long-ago dalliance between master and slave, shares familial blood with Cheshire's clan and provides a bracing counterpoint to his white kinfolk's Southern airs. Meanwhile, the new-to-DVD Family Name, which first played film festivals (including Sundance and the Charlotte Film & Video Festival) back in 1997, centers on the efforts of Durham native Macky Alston to learn more about his lineage – specifically, how as a white man named Alston he's related to all the black Alstons whose ancestors served as slaves under his forefathers. What initially makes Family Name such a fascinating endeavor is the fact that Macky Alston is a wretched interviewer, asking embarrassing questions that often place his subjects in uncomfortable positions. But as the film progresses, we come to admire his perseverance in uncovering the truth, and the finale – a concert in which Alstons of all stripes come together – is so emotionally satisfying that not even an ironic postscript, one which proves that truth is stranger than fiction, can compete with its overwhelming power. Moving Midway: *** / Family Name: ***1/2

Current Releases

BURN AFTER READING As is the case with most great filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen produce only two classifications of pictures. There's Major Coen, like No Country for Old Men and Fargo, and there's Minor Coen, such as Intolerable Cruelty and The Big Lebowski. (And then there's the strange case of Raising Arizona, which looks Minor but is Major every step of the way.) Burn After Reading is decidedly Minor Coen, which means that it's still more enjoyable than a lot of the product out there. With George Clooney and Brad Pitt in full-on clown mode, the film feels as much of an insignificant riff as those Ocean heist flicks, but with the Coens at the helm, it features a pitch-black comic sensibility that will either attract or repel moviegoers. The memoirs of a recently fired CIA wonk (John Malkovich) accidentally fall into the hands of a pair of idiotic gym employees (Pitt and Frances McDormand). Their awkward attempts at blackmail produce a vortex of misunderstandings that also ensnares the ex-CIA suit's aloof wife (Tilda Swinton) and her lover (Clooney), a bundle of energy who enjoys jogging, womanizing and building stuff in his basement (his creation yields one of the film's biggest laughs and will be at the top of most women's Christmas wish lists). The three guys are more fun to watch than the two gals, although the film is stolen by J.K. Simmons (Juno's dad) as a thoroughly confused CIA bigwig. Still, while the picture offers strikingly off-kilter characterizations and a number of huge guffaws, it won't remain in the memory like most of the siblings' output. See Burn After Reading, but then expect to Forget After Seeing. ***

ELEGY Eloquent and understated, Elegy is an adaptation of Philip Roth's The Dying Animal, and it shares some similarities to 2003's fine filmization of Roth's The Human Stain. Both movies focus on the relationship between a worldly college professor and a beautiful younger woman, but Elegy is even more memorable than its woefully underrated predecessor. Its central character is David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley), an English professor who avoids emotional attachments by partaking in one-night stands with nubile students. David becomes involved with Cuban-American student Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz), but this time, there's a difference: There appears to exist a real affinity between this aged instructor and this woman who's three decades his junior. But David, incapable of dealing with his feelings, almost sabotages the relationship from the start. The character of the aging intellectual becoming involved with a younger woman is hardly an original one, but between the sensitive direction by Isabel Coixet – and how interesting to see a female ably tackling material by an author who's repeatedly had to fight charges of misogyny – the smart screenplay by ace scripter Nicholas Meyer (who also adapted The Human Stain), and the terrific performance by Kingsley, David Kepesh emerges as one of the most complex and fully realized screen characters of the season. As for Cruz, she's a revelation in this role. It's a given that she's always been wonderful in Spanish-language films and wooden in English-language ones, but on the heels of her scene-stealing work in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, she seems to have finally broken through the language barrier. ***1/2

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