Countdown to the Oscars! Plus: Cinequest and new flicks

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'Bless Me, Ultima'

Important: the Oscar broadcast starts at 4pm on Sunday on ABC. If tradition holds, the ceremony won't actually begin until a little later, but if you want to soak up the full awkwardness of the red carpet, with its "Who are you wearing?" and its reporters mistaking Denzel Washington's daughter for his wife (true story), you will want to tune in on time. (If you're a true fiend, E! starts their red-carpet coverage at 2:30pm.)

As far as Oscar winners go, I thought I had it figured out, but really ... it's anyone's game, unless your name is Daniel Day-Lewis. Fingers crossed for local filmmaker Sari Gilman to win Best Documentary Short for her Kings' Point.

This week, I took a look at San Jose's Cinequest festival (zombie lovers, get on this one!) Among the new releases, the Rock goes undercover for the DEA to clear his son's name in Snitch, and Keri Russell battles supernatural suburban invaders in Dark Skies. Reviews below the jump of mystical drama Bless Me, Ultima; Oscar-nominated doc The Gatekeepers; and Werner Herzog's latest doc, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga.

Bless Me, Ultima A mysticism that melds the Latin American shamanism with old-world Catholicism suffuses this bildungsroman of a memory movie, warmly rendered by director Carl Franklin, perhaps best known for his noirish tendencies in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) and One False Move (1992). Here, working with Rudolfo Anaya’s landmark Chicano novel and material steeped in curandera, or shamanistic, folkways, he continues to exhibit that close attention to detail and the emotional truth of his characters that he brought to his more sensational genre work. This is a smaller, yet no less powerful, story: Antonio (Luke Ganalon) is the youngest son of a vaquero father (Benito Martinez) and a mother (Dolores Heredia) who hails from a farming family — yet perhaps his most important connection is with the woman who midwifed him, Ultima (Miriam Colon), who is taken in by his family out of respect for her deep folk magic and knowledge as a healer. Under Ultima’s close tutelage — while faithfully attending church and working his uncles’ fields — Antonio learns about life and the earth’s bounty, dangers, and cycles, particularly when one of his uncles falls prey to wicked brujas who practice blood sacrifice and Ultima is called in to help him. All of which makes for emotionally resonant storytelling that imparts the impact of Anaya’s tale and his reverence for spiritual practice — of all sorts — and our planet’s power and magic. (1:46)  (Kimberly Chun)    

The Gatekeepers Coming hard on the heels of The Law in These Parts, which gave a dispassionate forum to the lawmakers who've shaped — some might say in pretzel form — the military legal system that's been applied by Israelis to Palestinians for decades, Dror Moreh's documentary provides another key insiders' viewpoint on that endless occupation. His interviewees are six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel's secret service. Their top-secret decisions shaped the nation's attempts to control terrorist sects and attacks, as seen in a nearly half-century parade of news clips showing violence and negotiation on both sides. Unlike the subjects of Law, who spoke a cool, often evasive legalese to avoid any awkward ethical issues, these men are at times frankly — and surprisingly — doubtful about the wisdom of some individual decisions, let alone about the seemingly ever-receding prospect of a diplomatic peace. They even advocate for a two-state solution, an idea the government they served no longer seems seriously interested in advancing. The Gatekeepers is an important document that offers recent history examined head-on by the hitherto generally close-mouthed people who were in a prime position to direct its course. (1:37) (Dennis Harvey)

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga The ever-intrepid Werner Herzog, with co-director Dmitry Vasyukov, pursues his fascination with extreme landscapes by chronicling a year deep within the Siberian Taiga. True to form, he doesn't spend much time in the 300-inhabitant town nestled amid "endless wilderness," accessible only by helicopter or boat (and only during the warmer seasons); instead, he seeks the most isolated environment possible, venturing into the frozen forest with fur trappers who augment their passed-down-over-generations job skills with the occasional modern assist (chainsaws and snowmobiles are key). Gorgeous cinematography and a curious, respectful tone elevate Happy People from mere ethnographic-film status, though that's essentially what it is, as it records the men carving canoes, bear-proofing their cabins, interacting with their dogs, and generally being incredibly self-reliant amid some of the most rugged conditions imaginable. And since it's Herzog, you know there'll be a few gently bizarre moments, as when a politician's summer campaign cruise brings a musical revue to town, or the director himself refers to "vodka — vicious as jet fuel" in his trademark droll voice over. (1:34) (Cheryl Eddy)

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