Short Takes

Dirty Deeds, Synecdoche, New York, And More

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Mockumentary takes on the trials and tribulations of a toilet cleanerIn a Homeland Security/Janet-Jackson's-nipple era where the ninnies and metrosexuals at PBS panicked that Ken Burns' documentary The War would have actual Army guys swearing, the MPAA slapped a mere PG-13 on the Australian import Kenny, despite the dialogue's repetition of the s-word about a thousand times. Or maybe it just feels that way. After all, when shit plays a crucial role in the comedy-drama, it's hardly a term to be avoided.

Shot with mockumentary techniques, the earthy Kenny is pretty much a labor of love - and all about the love of labor - as depicted by director Clayton Jacobson and his brother, actor Shane Jacobson. The latter takes the title role of Kenny Smyth, in a faux cinéma vérité character study. Kenny is a chunky, cheerful, middle-aged, divorced chap in Melbourne who - for reasons never explained, but cable TV's Dirty Jobs certainly comes to mind - has a Christopher Guest-style documentary lens trailing him, as witness and confessor, to his daily occupation: cleaning, installing and servicing portable toilets for a company called Splashdown (a real-life enterprise that was a principle investor in the film).

In society, Kenny's career choice is truly the lowest rung. Snooty clients refuse to shake his hand, his brother dis-invites him from a birthday party when Kenny turns up in work clothes and even Kenny's own retired-farmer father (the film team's real-life parent) calls him a "turd burglar." None of this, however, gets Kenny down. He enjoys his work, talks poo-biz with the ever-present camera and does what parenting he can for a small son he borrows on alternate weekends from a she-bitch ex-wife (rendered all the more monstrous because we never clearly see her), who's informed the boy that Kenny is destined to burn in hell because he doesn't believe in God. What Kenny does believe in, though, is his work. Never mind that it involves emptying and maintaining "shitters," and he goes about the necessary-room business without a trace of shame but rather genuine pride.

You could well compare Kenny to Ken Loach's blue-collar dramedy Riff Raff, right down to subtitles imposed, apparently with the idea that U.S. audiences won't understand Kenny's native Down Under accent (but really, he's no worse than the Crocodile Hunters and Dundees). At least the hearing-impaired get to see the s-word in all its glory as well. Some loose plotlines begin to materialize (a bit more contrived and message-conscious than they were in Riff Raff), as Kenny's disdainful dad suffers a health crisis that changes his 'tude about the turd trade, Kenny kindles a new relationship with a stewardess (oh, another word you can't say on PBS - it's "flight attendant," sorry) and his devotion to toilets pays off with a once-in-a-lifetime trip to a giant trade expo in America. - Charles Cassady Jr.


Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque At 9:30 p.m. Friday, November 14 and 7:25 p.m. Saturday, November 15

Mister Foe

The original UK title of this offbeat Scottish coming-of-age film is Hallam Foe, like the Peter Jinks novel on which it is based. Mister Foe is the U.S. title, and a rather awkward one, considering it's about a 17-year-old boy, Hallam Foe (Jamie Bell), who, in the wake of his mother's drowning, has developed the "unedifying habit" of spying on people with binoculars from his treehouse perch and writing elaborate diaries about their intimate moments. One of the main objects of his voyeurism is Verity (Claire Forlani), the beautiful, ambitious stepmother Hallam both loathes and desires. Hallam suspects that his wealthy businessman dad (Ciarán Hinds) and Verity had a hand in his mother's death. Verity, who wants Hallam to leave home like his college-bound sister, blackmails him with his diaries (and her body), leaving Hallam to fend for himself in the streets of Edinburgh. He spots lovely Kate (Sophia Myles), a dead ringer for his dead mum, and follows her into the fancy hotel where she's personnel manager. He wrangles a dreary job as a kitchen porter and takes up residence in the hotel's clock tower, which affords him a convenient view of Kate's apartment, where he can watch her making love with her married colleague, Alasdair (Jamie Sives).

Kate, who admits she "likes creepy guys," forms an unorthodox relationship with Hallam, which eventually leads him to come to terms with his unresolved feelings about his mother's death. The movie has a characteristically dry Scottish humor and sad whimsy. Its unflinching but sympathetic portrait of a disturbed young man is introduced with a charming animated title sequence and scored with an insistent pop soundtrack that occasionally threatens to overwhelm the action. David McKenzie's direction is fluid and sure-handed, and the performances are excellent, especially those of Bell and Myles. - Pamela Zoslov Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque At 5:30 p.m. Saturday, November 15 and 4:15 p.m. Sunday, November 16

boy in the striped pajamas

A lovely adaptation by British filmmaker Mark Herman (Little Voice) of a novel by Irish author John Boyne, Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a fable about an 8-year-old German boy, Bruno (Asa Butterfield), whose father, Ralf (David Thewlis), is an ambitious Nazi Kommandant. The family relocates from its comfortable Berlin mansion to "the countryside" (actually Poland) after Ralf is promoted to a position overseeing a concentration camp (Auschwitz, though never named; in the book, Bruno understands it as "Out-With").

Bruno, an imaginative child who wants to become an explorer, is unhappy in the isolation of their gloomy new home. His child's mind doesn't grasp the horrors of the Nazi atrocities happening in his country and backyard; he wonders about the nearby "farm" and its inhabitants who wear "pajamas" (striped prison uniforms with numbers). The stern Herr Liszt (Jim Norton) tutors Bruno and his older sister Gretel (Amber Beattie), indoctrinating them with Nazi propaganda. Gretel becomes an eager Hitler Youth candidate, decorating her bedroom wall with posters of the FŸhrer, but Bruno is oblivious, content to immerse himself in adventure books. While exploring the grounds, Bruno sees a boy his own age, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), shaved-headed and slumped sadly behind the barbed-wire fence. He befriends Shmuel, who tells him he is in the camp because he's a Jew. Herr Liszt's lessons have told Bruno that Jews are evil, but Bruno can see that Shmuel isn't any different from him.

While failing to grasp the larger picture, Bruno smuggles food to the starving Shmuel, and they meet regularly, talking and playing checkers through the fence. Bruno's mother (Vera Farmiga), previously unaware of her husband's specific duties, is horrified when she realizes what atrocities are occurring, some of them in her own home at the hands of the brutal young Lt. Kotler (Rupert Friend, perfectly cast as a chiseled Aryan icon). Bruno's friendship with Shmuel leads him on a journey of empathy as the movie hurtles toward a profoundly shattering conclusion. Shot in Budapest, the movie is impeccably made, with fine performances and lapidary cinematography by Benoit Delhomme. - Zoslov Opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre

SYnecdoche, New York

"I'm at a point in my life where I only want to be surrounded by joyous, healthy people." That's the excuse Adele (Catherine Keener at her most drolly acidic) gives for dumping her sad-sack, hypochondriac theater director husband, Caden (an ineffably rumpled Philip Seymour Hoffman), in Charlie Kaufman's Fellini-esque Hellzapoppin' Synecdoche, New York. Fortunately for Caden, he's already got big plans to help take his mind off those marital woes.

In a cavernous warehouse somewhere in New York City, Caden uses his newly awarded MacArthur grant to launch a once-in-a-lifetime theater project about, well, his life: past, present, future and everything in between. Because that magnum opus will consume years or even decades - time remains a relative concept to Kaufman - of his life, it's safe to assume that opening night may never come. Or is Caden simply using his autobiographical play as a defense against his own increasingly vexing mortality? The love-it-or-hate-it movie of the year, Synecdoche, New York will definitely separate Kaufman-come-latelys from the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind/Being John Malkovich scenarist's hardcore fans. After one viewing, I'm not sure whether I "get" Synecdoche. But that's a normal reaction to any film as meta, multi-layered and crazily ambitious as this variant on Fellini's epochal, hallucinatory "artist-through-the-looking-glass" masterpiece 8 1/2.

Yet there's method to Kaufman's madness, and Synecdoche, New York is as exhilarating and (frequently exasperating) as it is spectacularly entertaining. - Milan Paurich Opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre

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