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Cleveland International Film Festival Capsules 

An Alternative to Slitting Your Wrist (US, 2007) Not long after director Owen Lowery woke up in a psychiatric ward in 2006, following an aborted plan to kill himself by slicing off his hand, he found solace in the work of writer Richard Bach. "Anyone desperate enough for suicide should be desperate enough to go to creative extremes to solve their problems," Bach wrote. It resonated with the young filmmaker from Berea. So he came up with a list. Instead of killing himself, Lowery challenged himself to do the 52 items on his list, all things he'd always been afraid to try. Included were things like "squirrel fishing," an interesting sport that involves tying peanuts to fishing poles, and "getting a tattoo designed by my cousin with autism." Although watching Lowery attempt to complete his list is the entertaining drive of the narrative, it's his personal battles with depression and his past that really make the film. For those who haven't suffered from depression, Lowery sums it up quite succinctly when he describes waking up every day feeling like something worse than he's ever experienced is about to happen. "Nothing compares to what's coming, and if nothing is coming, I'll feel this way forever." he says. Tower City Cinemas. At 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, March 24, and 9:50 p.m. Wednesday, March 25. (James Renner)

At the Edge of the World (Antarctica/Australia/US, 2008) Crossbreed Capt. Nemo with Philip Seymour Hoffman with PETA, and you have Paul Watson of the renegade Sea Shepherd conservation group, vigilante eco-activists who disparage Greenpeace as a bunch of wimps. Taking the gloves off, these direct-action protesters and citizen-enforcers go to sea in tricked-out man-o-war vessels to confront, forestall, sabotage and discourage whalers and shark-fin poachers. They practically stole the show in the documentary Sharkwater, where they were just supporting players. Here, the multinational crews of the Farley Mowat and the Robert Hunter are the main topic, battling ice, storms, boredom, frustration, seasickness and, finally, their metaphorical Moby Dick: a bloodthirsty Japanese fleet sent to waters off Antarctica to kill pods of whales for "scientific research" (or as they call it in Tokyo, lunch). While some of The Deadliest Catch and the contrived drama of reality TV seems to have seeped in around the edges, this is still one heckuva nonfiction ride. Despite their pirate-inspired flag and a record of ships sunk, Watson is bound to nonviolence while putting the Sea Shepherders (and others) in harm's way). Just one fatality, we understand, and the mission will be over, and that possibility arises more than once. Even so, when the Nippon factory ship finally shows up, you wish you could take the USS Cod out of Lake Erie to assist these righteous eco-terrorists, preferably with all 24 torpedoes loaded. Tower City Cinemas. At 6:45 p.m. Friday, March 20, and 11 a.m. Saturday, March 21. 1/2 (Charles Cassady Jr.)

Chop Shop (US, 2007) Twelve-year-old orphan Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco) is a born hustler. He's a tough little kid who can say "fuck" and "bitch" like a teamster. But underneath his swagger and foul-mouthed braggadocio, Alejandro is just a kid. Living with his older sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales) in the back of a Queens auto-repair shop (just behind the right-field parking lot of Shea Stadium, to be exact), Alejandro does odd jobs for the garage owner and helps drum up business to earn his keep. Even with their own private bathroom, what he and Isamar want most of all is a home of their own. This pint-sized playa and his big sis - who turns the occasional trick for extra cash ("$40 for a blow job; $80 for a fuck") - only think they know the score. The coffee tin that Alejandro stuffs their hard-earned cash into might represent an outmoded concept of the American Dream where scrappy immigrants succeeded by virtue of perspiration and pluck. Reality, however, is an entirely different matter. Chop Shop, the third feature by Iranian émigré director Ramin Bahrani, has the same grungy verité look and feel of his 2006 Sundance breakthrough, Man Push Cart. Bahrani might not be reinventing neo-realism, but he certainly makes a good case for its continued relevance. Tower City Cinemas. At 9:45 p.m. Friday, March 20, and 2 p.m. Saturday, March 21. (Milan Paurich)

The Last Days of Shishmaref (Netherlands/US, 2008) While the first well-known documentary feature, Nanook of the North, took viewers into the life of the "happy-go-lucky Eskimo," this melancholy one threatens to write that culture's epitaph. Northern Alaska is the front line of polar ice-cap melting. Here, "global warming" is not a distant abstraction argued over by Washington pundits, as the tiny village of Shishmaref, continuously inhabited by Inupiaq-Eskimo tribes for several thousand years, watches houses gradually wash into the thawed-out sea. Walruses and caribou are still hunted for actual meat, not because they eat some suburbanite's flowerbeds, and the cinema verité-style camera goes into the small edge-of-the-world homesteads that have sought to preserve the tribal "old ways" against modern onslaughts of rap music, alcohol and junk food. No, the U.S.-Dutch production was not directed by Werner Herzog, amazingly, but it hits a lot of Herzog notes - a harsh natural world, an exotic culture, living on the extremes and madness. Except it's not the Shishmaref dwellers that seem mad, but rather the civilization that's watching them while they placidly become extinct. Tower City Cinemas. At 4:30 p.m. Saturday, March 21, and 2:20 p.m. Sunday, March 22. (Cassady)

Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie (US, 2008) Portsmouth native Jay Delaney's film isn't really much of a rigorous documentary about the various people and groups who track the so-called Bigfoot creature. While whimsy is certainly implied by the title, the movie could have used better direction. As it is, the 62-minute flick merely follows Dallas and Wayne, two rednecks from Portsmouth who are so obsessed with capturing the creature, they've even started speaking what they think is its language (really just a bunch of gibberish). These guys don't even try to alter their photos or create fake sightings. Their photos are nothing more than blurred images that could be just about anything. Delaney doesn't particularly take the two to task and, if anything, seems to sympathize with them, especially when talk-show hosts and other Bigfoot enthusiasts dismiss them as debutantes. Tower City Cinemas. At 9:35 p.m. Friday, March 20 and at noon, Sunday, March 22. (Jeff Niesel)

Sin by Silence (US, 2008) Social-problem documentaries at the CIFF tend to come in clusters - El Salvador, AIDS, Palestine, Iraq, each rising and falling in vogue one year after another. It's a shock to realize that the topic of wife-beating never went away, certainly not for the California women's-prison inmates in this film, many of whom have been incarcerated 20 years or more after killing their husbands. In 1992, a law change made spousal violence admissible evidence in homicide cases. But a lot of these ladies' trials pre-dated that, and the filmmakers follow some representative prisoners in their appeals. It's an advocacy-minded piece - no representatives for the slain, no worries that a battered-women defense might amount to a get-out-of-jail-free card for a murderess. But it's hard not to be moved by Brenda Clubine, founder of Convicted Women Against Abuse, whose personal story of loss, suffering, betrayal and courage could inspire a season of movies on Lifetime starring Meredith Baxter Birney. Tower City Cinemas. At 1:45 p.m. Sunday, March 22, and 7:15 p.m. Tuesday, March 24. 1/2 (Cassady) 24 City (China, 2008) In Still Life, director Jia Zhang-ke examined the human cost of the Three Gorges Dam project. 24 City, Jia's latest, looks at another casualty of China's economic boom. Like numerous state-owned factories in post-revolution China, Chengdu's Factory 420 was a world in microcosm for its workers. With on-site apartments, a school, sports facilities and even a movie theater, 420 gave its employees and their families little reason to ever leave. As the government prepared to raze 24 City in the name of "progress," Jia gathered up a cross-section of former workers to discuss their conjoined past as cogs in Chairman Mao's military-industrial machine. The tricky part of Jia's de facto group portrait stems from the fact that some of his interview subjects are real people, while others (including Last Emperor star Joan Chen) are played by actors. If Jia's experimental, quasi-verité style isn't for all tastes, it pays major dividends for anyone willing to surrender to his languorous sense of pacing and soulful accretion of physical and psychological detail. Tower City Cinemas. At 2:15 p.m. Friday, March 20, and 6:50 p.m. Sunday, March 22. (Paurich)

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