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Short Takes 

Guilt By Association

Waltz With Bashir

Can a cartoon be a documentary, and vice versa? That's the question posed by Waltz With Bashir, the wildly acclaimed - and Oscar-nominated - genre-bender from director Ari Folman, which takes an impressionistic look at the experiences of Israeli soldiers during the 1982 Lebanon war. Bashir's visual style isn't too far removed from the rotoscoping technique employed by Richard Linklater in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. But unlike Linklater's trippy slacker chronicles, Folman uses animation to distance us from the horrors of war and bring us closer to the actual combat experience.

Framed as a series of interviews that Forman conducted with his fellow veterans, the result feels so uncannily "right," it's hard to imagine this material presented in a more conventional (and less poetic) format. The impenetrable - and unreliable - nature of memory lies at the heart of Folman's dense journalistic collage, and it probably explains why nothing is truly clear-cut here. One former colleague's recollections of fighting in Lebanon are soundly contradicted by another's, and nobody is quite sure how or why Lebanese civilians were massacred by the Christian Phalangist militia.

The only thing everyone agrees on is that the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps had something to do with the assassination of Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel (hence the film's title). Most of the vets still experience a kind of survivor's guilt for their inability - or unwillingness - to stop the genocide they witnessed while participating in Israel's invasion of Beirut. While a Ph.D in modern Israeli history isn't a requirement to appreciating the artistry and moral courage of Waltz With Bashir, it probably helps to have at least a passing familiarity with the subject going in. - Milan Paurich Opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre

Ashes of Time Redux

The filming of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai's 1994 Ashes of Time, an expensive, star-studded wuxia (martial-arts swordplay) saga loosely based on a Louis Cha novel, dragged on for more than a year - so long, in fact, that the director shot Chungking Express during an editing break. On release, Ashes received mixed reviews and was one of the director's few commercial failures. The director was never fully satisfied with Ashes, but some critics consider it an underappreciated film. More than a decade later he dusts off Ashes and gives it a sleek re-edit, new music and a U.S. theatrical premiere. The new version is only slightly shorter, but features new color tinting, digital effects and altered music cues.

Set in ancient China, the episodic film, which follows five seasons in the Chinese calendar, centers on a fallen swordsman, Ouyahg Feng (the late Leslie Cheung), who was betrayed by the woman he loved (Maggie Cheung), and now lives on the edge of the Gobi desert and arranges contract killings. He is visited every year by Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka-fai). Other visitors to his hideout include a pair of male-female twins (both played by Brigitte Lin) locked in a bizarre love-hate dyad; a nearly blind swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), who is determined to fight murderous bandits; and a fighter (Jacky Cheung) who avenges a poor woman's murdered brother. Feng's relationship with his former lover, who married his brother, is recalled in flashback, and Feng contemplates whether to drink a magic wine that is said to banish all memories. If you accept that the plot is elusive, you can appreciate the film for its considerable aesthetic virtues: lyrical editing, tastefully shot battle scenes, William Chang's excellent art direction, Christopher Doyle's sensual cinematography with its rich palette of desert hues and a gorgeous, evocative score featuring Yo-Yo Ma on cello. - Pamela Zoslov

Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque At 8:50 p.m. Thursday, February 5 and 7:30 p.m. Friday, February 6

Fear(s) of the Dark

Fear(s) of the Dark, an animated, black-and-white anthology from France, seems to promise thrills and chills of a subtle and psychological nature. One of the segments is by underground-comic artist Charles Burns, a guy whose cartoonish style belies a twisted sensibility. Burns' segment, in which a strange insect finds a host inside a shy young man's girlfriend, is definite nightmare material, and the 3D animation perfectly brings his work to life. The segment directed by Richard McGuire best captures the essence of the film's title. I'm not entirely sure what's going on in his tale, but it looks great and, more importantly, generates a creepy vibe. Unfortunately, these two segments only account for a third of the overall film.

Marie Calliou's story about a girl who moves into a house that may be haunted by a samurai really pulls you in, but lacks an ending. In fact, the way it's split into parts, you expect the film to come back and finish this segment right up until the credits roll. A boy whose friend may have transformed into a were-alligator or something tells Lorenzo Mattotti's tale. While the segment has a certain poetry to it, it's not at all scary. Blutch's recurring motif of a man attacking people with dogs has a disturbing edge to it, but it's more of an exercise than an actual story. The other recurring sequence, by Pierre di Sciullo, in which a series of abstract shapes form and change while a narrator whines about his neuroses, is just flat-out annoying. - Robert Ignizio

Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque At 9:25 p.m. Friday, February 6 and 8:50 p.m. Sunday, February 8

New in Town

This spotty "fish out of water" romantic comedy, directed by Denmark's Jonas Elmer, is amiable and endearing, but it ultimately lacks imagination and cohesion. The early scenes, in which Lucy Hill (Renée Zellweger), an ambitious food-company executive in Miami, agrees to relocate to frigid New Ulm, Minnesota to oversee a factory conversion, have a nice indie-film quirkiness, as Lucy experiences some icy culture shock. "Holy Mother of … !," Lucy exclaims when a frigid blast of wind greets her outside the airport, an experience those of us spending winter in the frozen north can relate to. Ken Rance, who wrote the screenplay with C. Jay Cox, is a Minnesota native, and he affectionately mocks his fellow Gopher State residents, who talk in exaggerated Fargo accents ("anyhoo," "you betcha!") and enjoy ice fishing, snickerdoodles, scrapbooking and talkin' 'bout Jesus.

Lucy's guide to New Ulm (the movie was actually filmed in Canada) is her secretary, Blanche Gunderson (nicely played by Siobhan Fallon Hogan), who introduces her to the local union rep, Ted (Harry Connick, Jr., a better singer than actor), a widowed would-be Woody Guthrie who despises corporate "robber barons." Naturally, it's hate at first sight between Lucy and Ted, which inevitably turns to love as the movie succumbs to the hoariest of Hollywood clichés, including an utterly improbable scheme to save the factory when the corporation decides to shut it down. The movie has a strong beginning and a triumphant ending, but it's the stuff in the middle that sags. There's no logical reason, for example, why the New Ulmers, so boorish when Lucy meets them - swilling beer, watching football in Vikings helmets and spouting small-town ignorance - would be transformed by movie's end into wise, lovely people. Still, the movie offers some laughs, especially at familiar sights (like getting a car stuck in a snowdrift) and from a talented cast that includes fine character actor J.K. Simmons as the shop foreman. Zellweger, less pinch-faced than usual but awfully pale for a Floridian, is effective as the exec in the powder-blue power suits who gradually lets her hair down. - Zoslov

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