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WHITE IRISH DRINKERS (2 out of 5 stars)
White Irish Drinkers, a family drama from director John Gray, rises and falls based on its period detail. Set primarily in Brooklyn's hard-partying, working-class neighborhoods in 1975, White Irish Drinkers looks and sounds like a personal, low-budget film of the era, comparable to Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, only about fighting Irish instead of brawling Italians.
Best known as the creator of TV's "The Ghost Whisperer," Gray takes a little too much pleasure in jokes that require 20/20 hindsight. "It'll play a week and never be heard from again," moviehouse owner Whitey (Peter Riegert) says dismissively of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Characters dismiss the prospects of making a career out of computers. Travel agents: That's a job with a future.
White Irish Drinkers hinges on the tense relationship between two brothers: Brian Leary (Nick Thurston), a mild-mannered aspiring artist, and Danny (Geoffrey Wigdor), a petty thief seemingly unable to make a heist without arguing with his partner. Their boozing, abusive father (Avatar's Stephen Lang) loves picking fights with Danny, while Brian's so nonconfrontational, he keeps his artistic talent a secret.
The film's most persuasive scenes involve Brian's gift for drawing and painting, particularly when he impresses a former classmate (Leslie Murphy) by spontaneously sketching her portrait in the frost on a bar's front window. Gray captures the funk of Brooklyn nightlife before the rise of the disco era, as Whitey hopes that a short, unofficial concert from the Rolling Stones will save his cinema's failing finances. The title comes from the way Brian's boorish buddies reject marijuana and other drugs in favor of alcohol. "We're white, Irish drinkers," they declare as if it's a matter of cultural pride.
The script gets most of the little details right while relying on the most obvious plot points imaginable, and you can successfully guess the major romantic and would-be tragic plot twists within the film's first 10 minutes. Riegert, Lang and Karen Allen (as the boy's long-suffering Ma) give vivid character portrayals, but the young leads lack the magnetism to make their overly familiar crises compelling. White Irish Drinkers so pungently captures the vibe of its setting that you wish John Gray the director had replaced John Gray the screenwriter. Thurs., May 5, 10 p.m.
LIKE THIS? THEN TRY: Mother-daughter drama Coming Up Roses with Bernadette Peters; the small-town dramedy We Are the Hartmans with Richard Chamberlain.
DER SANDMANN (3 out of 5 stars)
We've all tried to fend off drowsiness by rubbing away the little particles of grit from the corners of our eyes. In the phantasmagoric Swiss comedy Der Sandmann, Fabian Krüger plays Benno, who comes down with a potentially fatal case of sleep-induced sand secretions. First Benno awakens every morning to discover handfuls of sand inexplicably between his sheets, and then notices streams of silicate draining out his shirt or pant cuffs during his waking hours. Some men worry about losing their hair, but Benno's losing his sand. Or maybe his mind.
Writer/director Peter Luisi draws equally on Jim Carrey comedies and Franz Kafka short stories for his freaky premise. A haughty, duplicitous clerk at a rare stamp store, Benno has a gorgeous girlfriend (Florine Elena Deplazes) and an even more passionate disdain for the plain young woman Sandra (Irene Brügger), who runs the coffee shop beneath his apartment. The barista disrupts Benno's slumbers whenever she rehearses her one-woman musical routine, a slinky tango with creative echo effects. They maintain a note of open hostility even sharper than the usual rom-com couple that bickers through the first act, until Benno suspects that she has a connection to his condition. Is the name Sand-ra a coincidence?
At its best, Der Sandmann plays like Being John Malkovich or another Charlie Kaufman script, with Benno's problem revealing increasingly bizarre side effects, particularly when he snorts the sand like cocaine. Benno seals up his pants to keep from leaking sand in front of his neatnik boss, only to have his trousers swell up like sausage casings. A phone-in TV psychic offers baffling advice: "The solution is nine." Benno increasingly suspects that the key to his nocturnal emissions lies in his subconscious, and the deeper he delves into his dreams, the more his apartment swells with sand dunes.
Krüger's alternately arrogant and desperate performance suggests David Duchovny in a madcap frame of mind, with Brügger's deadpan sweetness providing a perfect match. At barely an hour and a half the film still feels overlong, as if the premise would better suit a tight 30-minute short. But Der Sandmann sustains too many clever jokes and surprising ideas to keep anyone in the audience from dozing off. Fri., May 6, 5:30 p.m.
LIKE THIS? THEN TRY: The Passport Film Series at this year's festival includes international films such as the Norwegian horror flick Troll Hunter, which looks like Monsters meets The Blair Witch Project; the German biopic Young Goethe in Love; and two films set in China's capital: the documentary Beijing Taxi and the sex comedy Red Light Revolution.