ALASKALAND | C+
A not-uninteresting drama about the importance of family and the idea of home, Alaskaland begins with troubled Nigerian teen Chukwuma “Chuck” (Alex Ubokudom) inadvertently causing the death of his parents on his younger sister Chidinma’s (Chioma Dunkley) birthday in snowy Fairbanks. The main narrative picks up two years later, when Chidinma reunites with her brother. The siblings slowly forge a new bond that strengthens when Chidinma gets into trouble herself. Alaskaland is handsomely filmed, and Philly writer/director Chinonye Chukwu provides some insight into African diasporic culture in Alaska, but the too-thin narrative and earnest performances detract from the film’s overall potency.
—Gary M. Kramer
Oct. 19, 5 p.m., and Oct. 25, 10:15 p.m., Prince Music Theater; Oct. 23, 5 p.m., Rave.
BROOKLYN CASTLE | A-
While this inspiring documentary about a New York City middle school of chess champions emphasizes the need for and benefits of after-school programs, it’s the five immensely likable kids the film focuses on that make the case. Rochelle, 13, is the queen — the highest-ranking player in the school who aspires to become the first female African-American master. Pobo, 12, is the leader and politician, uniting the team in matches and against budget cuts. Alexis, 12, hopes to use chess to fulfill his immigrant parents’ hopes for a better life for him. Patrick, an 11-year-old newcomer, struggles with ADHD when trying to stay several steps ahead of the game. And the talented young Justus, 11 — who has since become the youngest African-American chess master ever — is already grappling with the heartbreak of a loss. Brooklyn Castle allows viewers to watch these students struggle not just at their sport, but with life — the life-changing battery of tests that determine whether a student qualifies to attend one of the city’s competitive specialized high schools is just as compelling (and nerve-wracking) as the tense, high-stakes tournaments. This emotionally rousing film is a real crowd-pleaser. Checkmate.
Oct. 24, 5:30 p.m., and Oct. 27, noon, Prince Music Theater.
CAESAR MUST DIE | B+
This gripping, multi-layered semi-documentary follows a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, as performed by a cast of inmates of Rome’s maximum-security Rebibbia prison. Directed by Italian masters Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, the film opens with the final production, then flashes to the beginning in luminous black-and-white. From casting to rehearsals to vignettes from the actors’ lives as “ceiling starers,” the film deliberately, deftly blurs fiction and reality. Caesar is best, however, when it goes off script and the play’s themes of betrayal and murder — and its cries for freedom — are allowed to resonate with the criminals’ own experiences. These moments show the transformative power of theater on the inmates’ lives. And the final line about the power of art is as forceful as the performance of Salvatore Striano as Brutus.
Oct. 19, 7:30 p.m., and Oct. 22, 5:15 p.m., Ritz East.
WILL BE OK TRILOGY | A
Were he not a solo animator who works principally in the medium of stick figures, Don Hertzfeldt would unquestionably be recognized as one of the most brilliant, soul-searching American filmmakers of his generation. The trilogy — which includes the titular short, It’s Such a Beautiful Day and I Am So Proud of You — is his magnum opus (at least to date), charting the main character’s physical and mental deterioration with terrifying humor and a wide variety of handmade special effects. On its own, each short is a masterpiece; their collective intensity is such that they’ll be scraping brains off the ceiling.
Oct. 20, 8 p.m., Ritz East; Oct. 21, 1:15 p.m., and Oct. 23, 10:30 p.m., Prince Music Theater.
HERE AND THERE | B+
Writer/director Antonio Méndez Esparza’s Here and There is a stunning debut. The film opens with Pedro (Pedro de los Santos) reuniting with his family in a Mexican mountain town after years of working in America. This remarkable, unsentimental drama — told from the Mexican side of the border — beautifully captures the rhythm of Pedro’s life and the dynamics of his close-knit family. The bonds between Pedro, his wife and his daughters are so real, viewers feel like eavesdroppers. Esparza’s accomplished film consists of a series of long, mostly static shots — the camera moves only briefly. But this approach, complemented by the absorbing narrative, allows viewers to become actively engaged in the characters’ lives — and their despair — right up to the quietly powerful ending.
Oct. 19, 12:30 p.m., Ritz East; Oct. 21, 12:10 p.m., Oct. 22, 2 p.m., Ritz at the Bourse.
TABU | B+
Miguel Gomes’ nigh-indescribable cine-thing is as inventive as it is perplexing. Its first section, which charts the relationship between a Lisbon woman and her elderly, paranoid neighbor, is distended and inert. But it paves the way for a brilliant second act, in which the old woman’s childhood memories of life in colonized Africa are replayed as a silent-film reverie. Exploring the allure of silent romance without The Artist’s knowing wink, Gomes engineers an alchemical fusion between history and the present.
Oct. 22, 7:15 p.m. and Oct. 27, noon, Ritz at the Bourse.
ROOM 237 | D+