Discovery is at the heart of moviegoing, especially when a filmathon like the Kansas International Film Festival wants you to moviego and go and go. This year's ninth-annual KIFF runs through next Thursday at the Glenwood Arts (9575 Metcalf in Overland Park; schedule and ticket information at kansasfilm.com). Daring a film that you know nothing about to surprise you is the point.
It's also the pleasure of a genre-bending thriller-comedy like The Death of Alice Blue, in which gorgeous, gothed-up Alex Appel plays a tormented intern at an evil ad agency. If you go in knowing which horror clichés will be overturned, you'll have much less fun, so I'll spill nothing here except to say that Alice Blue (5:15 p.m. Sunday, September 20) still works once the mystery gets solved.
Films about artists rarely capture their artistic inspiration. Creation takes too damn long, and movies are too impatient. A film like Alex Karpovsky's Trust Us, This Is All Made Up (7:35 p.m. Thursday, September 24), then, offers something rare. Karpovsky presents, in blessed real time, a single performance by T.J. Jagodowski and David Pasquesi, improvisational actors whose on-the-fly 50-minute plays defy easy categorization. They're funny as hell but more nuanced than jokey. The laughs come from characters quickly sketched, but richly drawn, and from the performers' attention to the everyday absurdities of American English. What they come up with here allows us to see a creative idea captured from first spark to final flowering.
The discovery is more fruitful in The Crimson Mask
(3:30 p.m. Sunday, September 20), a kitchen-sink noir from first-timer Elias Plagianos. Stylish, inventive and often surprising, this New York story dabbles in genre conventions of its own: the mob-pressured fighter and the dark side of Chinatown. Plagianos loves those clichés, though, and he picks the best of them to work for all they're worth. A couple of reels in, when its attention turns to the travails of a banker, Crimson Mask opens into something too dark and fun to spoil. I can tell you to expect good fights, memorable ado over peanuts and self-help books, and some pure movie plot twists that get weirder and better as they come.
The sweet 16 to Life (5:15 p.m. Saturday, September 19) also deserves discovery, although writer-director Becky Smith's weakness for goofball accents and high jinks initially threaten to chill her story's genuine warmth. Hallee Hirsh is remarkable as Kate, a sparkling, lonely diner worker who's pulling the long shift on her 16th birthday. Precocious but not idealized, lovely but bookish, Kate finds that minor troubles sometimes stir un-minor feelings.
Several documentaries are especially good. On Paper Wings (5:30 p.m. Tuesday, September 22) concerns balloon bombs built by Japanese schoolchildren and set loose in the Pacific during World War II. (One somehow ended up in Bigelow, Kansas.) Director Ilana Sol shows us the survivors of an Oregon bomb blast, some now grown-up bomb builders, and a tender meeting between the two. Agent Orange: 30 Years Later (6:30 p.m. Friday, September 18) wrenches and outrages, as it must. The local Begging for Billionaires (5:30 p.m. Saturday, September 19) assails eminent domain property seizures in Missouri and musters much honest outrage of its own. It features Richard Tolbert, Chuck Eddy, Alvin Brooks and Kay Barnes, but the film belongs to the homeowners and business owners who have found themselves shoved out by government — and developer — fiat.
Other fiction features worth a shot: Erik Novák's brutal, horny Hungarian crime drama Nosedive (5:10 p.m. Wednesday, September 23), which boasts upside-down cityscape lovemaking and multiple eye smashings; In/Significant Others (1:15 p.m. Sunday, September 20), a modest yet rewarding portrait of intersecting lives in urban America; and Bright Star (8 p.m. Saturday, September 19), the newest from director Jane Campion (Sweetie, The Piano).