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Florida Film Festival 2014 movie reviews

Not sure what flicks to catch at this year’s fest? Use our reviews as your guide

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15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story
★★★★ (out of 5 stars)
Program: Special screenings, Florida film

Social-justice documentaries aren’t always as engaging as you’d like them to be – they can be preachy, decidedly one-sided or two-dimensional. Not so for this little gem of a film about Kenneth Young, a Florida man who’s been serving a life-without-parole sentence in prison for being an accomplice to an armed robbery when he was just 15 years old.

The United States, the movie tells us, is the only nation in the world that sentences children to life sentences without parole. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court banned life sentences for kids who were not guilty of killing someone, and suddenly Young – who has already served more than 10 years of his sentence by the time the movie begins – finds himself with a chance to make his case to the court that he has been rehabilitated and should be paroled.

Though it obviously has a point of view, 15 to Life doesn’t just show Kenneth’s perspective on his crime – it also portrays two victims of his robberies, one of whom does not want to see him given a shorter sentence, the other of whom feels he has redeemed himself in his decade behind bars. The movie also explores the circumstances in which many young, black men find themselves when faced with pivotal life choices – when Kenneth was a child, his mother was a substance abuser, his father was dead and he often found himself figuring things out on his own.

While you’ve probably heard this story before – and there are times when the doc is a little predictable – overall it does a fine job of using one very human story to make a larger point about the criminal justice system. – Erin Sullivan

Jump to the review you want: 30 reviews of featured films at Florida Film Festival 2014

After Winter, Spring
★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Special screenings
With more than a dozen documentary features to choose from at the festival, After Winter, Spring should not be your first pick. Interestingly enough, it isn’t even part of the documentary competition but is instead labeled a food film. But whether you’re a foodie or just enjoy honest, cultural commentary, this quiet, insightful look at the changing face of French farming is worth your time, though it certainly could have been shot better.

Director Judith Lit moved to the Périgord region of southwest France to recapture the rural life that is dying in her native Pennsylvania, only to find it’s fading away in France too. Though she provides brief voice-overs comparing the cultures of the two countries, it’s her interviews with the French farmers that are the highlights.

“I was a peasant by choice. No one forced me into it. Today, it is no longer a beautiful profession,” one farmer tells us, referencing increased factory farming, urbanization and financial struggles, though the rise of organic farming offers hope.

The film is not afraid to show a brutal side of this seemingly idyllic life: animal slaughter. We see a freshly killed pig being scraped clean, a chicken being bled out and a goose being force-fed. “To have beautiful foie gras, you have to love your animals,” the farmer says, apparently numb to the torture. This is one part of traditional farming that needs to die, but the doc rarely editorializes, and it deserves credit for that. – Cameron Meier

American Jesus
★★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Documentary features
How does a religion survive in an enlightened, postindustrial society? By adopting the trappings of the culture that threatens to overwhelm it. American Jesus starts out as a tour of U.S. churches that wed their message to a specific pop lifestyle, be it surfing, mixed martial arts or heavy metal (of a sort). The camera crew shuttles from one quirky congregation to another, with such frequency and rapidity that you begin to find yourself wondering how this qualifies as an actual movie, as opposed to a mere travelogue to eccentricity. But then the hammer swings down. Like a less sarcastic Religulous, the doc ultimately homes in on the argument that Christianity in this country, for all its seemingly benign goofiness (and its flashes of progressive social conscience), now adheres in great measure to a genuinely dangerous end-times worldview. Millions of Americans, we’re told, are members of an apocalyptic death cult so panicked by progress that it yearns for Armageddon – and just might have the political clout to bring it about. Surf for Jesus if you like, but good luck avoiding that wave. – SS

Annie: It’s the Hard Knock Life
★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Special screenings
What’s it like mounting a revival of a beloved Broadway classic? You won’t get a straight answer from this pretty but dishonest pseudodocumentary. In broad strokes, it purports to show how a cast of young actors and a team of adult creatives came together to put their own stamp on Annie. The cinematography and editing are both immaculate as we watch the involved parties spend months putting a fresh face on the show’s all-important first production number. The stakes, we’re reminded regularly, are really, really high.

The kids are all delightful, the adults less consistently so. Then again, we aren’t getting a truly complete portrait of anybody. We hear in passing that the girls have had the occasional “kerfuffle,” but we don’t actually see a hint of it. (Yes, I’m a 49-year-old man who just expressed a desire to see more footage of little girls fighting. Trust me, this is the least of what I’m going to have to answer for.) Our eyebrows go up higher when choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, having wracked his brain reimagining the “Hard Knock Life” number, changes it between the previews and opening night. We infer logically that the reaction was bad, but the movie doesn’t go within 10 city blocks of suggesting that or any other reason.

The jig is finally up when the film’s closing title card tells us how popular “Annie” has been around the world over its lifetime – not that this particular revival was a commercial and critical disappointment. (An upcoming non-Equity national tour will instead be based on the show’s original 1977 staging, much to the chagrin of the new creative team.)

This isn’t a documentary – it’s a commercial, and for a failed product to boot. You almost expect Michael Bloomberg to walk out on camera and exhort viewers in the flyovers to come see a Broadway show. What’s that you say? Bloomberg isn’t with us anymore? Neither is this Annie. – Steve Schneider

The Babadook
★★★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Midnight features
There is nothing stronger than the bond between a mother and her child. Aussie writer and director Jennifer Kent not only understands that, she also uses it as a device to create tension and unbridled horror in The Babadook. On the surface, it’s a modern fable of a family being tormented by a creature from an old storybook. What lies beneath is a struggle for a woman (the unstoppable Essie Davis) to find closure, and the breaking down of a family through the eyes of an abnormal child (Noah Wiseman) who just wants to see the only woman in his life be happy again.

The tension is real, the scares are genuine and the end product is a classic horror masterpiece that deserves a place among the greats. You’ll come for the scares, and stay for the feels. – Adam McCabe

Before I Disappear
★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Spotlight films
You always hear of new filmmakers using festivals to launch their careers and maybe even win an Oscar someday. But does that ever really happen? It certainly does if you’re writer-director Shawn Christensen, who screened his short film, Curfew, at the 2012 Florida Film Festival and took home the Academy Award for it the next year.

Christensen is returning this year with Before I Disappear, a feature-length adaptation of that brilliant short, and is also appearing on April 11 at a discussion forum, “Pushing the Curfew: A Case Study from Short to Feature.” Although the session is bound to be informative, it’s a shame his feature isn’t as good as the short.

It’s the story of a man (Christensen) whose suicide attempt is thwarted by a call from his sister (Emmy Rossum), who is in trouble and needs him to babysit her daughter. It’s a simple tale of honor, responsibility, family and the need to be needed. It worked beautifully for the short and could have worked equally well for the feature had Christensen not padded it with contrived subplots involving a violent, distraught friend (Paul Wesley) and a menacing, controlling boss (Ron Perlman). Still, thanks to great performances by Christensen and Fatima Ptacek (who also played the daughter in the short), Before I Disappear has just enough sweetness, magic and visual originality to prevent it from, well, disappearing. – CM

Before You Know It
★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Documentary features
As with most LGBT documentaries that have come before it – or just about any of the documentaries built around making the case for an unknown issue by applying real voices to the generally voiceless – Before You Know It isn’t without its merits. The premise here is that three gay men in their senior years – Dennis, Ty and Robert (“The Mouth,” somewhat hilariously) – have been effectively left behind in the advances toward equality of recent years. These are, after all, men who came up in a different civil rights era, men who were taught never to speak of their gayness, men who were (in one case, anyway) happily married to women who apparently agreed to their place in the social contract of wedded bliss. And if you’ve ever spent an afternoon in a gay bar or at an LGBT center, they’re a lot like the men you already know.

Dennis, something of a hoarder who lives in a double-wide in Niceville, Fla., feels oppressed by the fact that he doesn’t get hits on gay cruising websites, walks around in half-drag (but only in his house, because good heavens!), and spends some time in a questionable gay-themed retirement home where he’s asked, a bit torturously, for his feelings on Lady Gaga. Robert is a bar hound with a seeming daily schedule at the local watering hole where the walls are covered in pictures of men in classic drag, including himself as (horribly rendered, at least in this film) Carol Channing. Ty, the most redeeming of the bunch, is an activist for gay African-American seniors who, charmingly, has found love with another man in a way he didn’t expect.

Though not a totally effective portrait of what the challenges facing a long-ignored Boomer segment of the gay population are, the film does manage to remind us of the camp from which many of us have blossomed. Though, at times it just seems like people you know hamming it up for the camera. – Billy Manes

Chu and Blossom
★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Special screenings, Florida film
Joonsup Chu is as awkward as he is tall and as unprepared for life in the United States as he would be for life on the moon. The South Korean exchange student finds himself struggling to make sense of his temporary life in Tampa, where he comes to live with a stereotypically whackjob host family (mother and son) who neither appreciate him nor understand him. His fellow students don’t want him on their teams, don’t talk to him and really don’t care that he’s a brilliant student who’s in the United States to get a better education so he can prepare for his future career as a structural engineer.

Fortunately, a few more stereotypically wacky characters – like performance artist Butch Blossom, who is dressed in a meat suit and followed by a pack of dogs when Chu first spies him across a football field – and a pretty, pink-haired classmate take him under their wings and help him, well, blossom.

This cute coming-of-age film won’t surprise anyone with its plotlines or its characters, nor is it likely to wow sophisticated audiences. It is, however, good for some laughs, some warm-fuzzies and some modern-day teenage angst. – ES

★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Narrative features
Characters don’t have to be sympathetic for art to be good. They don’t even have to be likable. History is littered with the despicable and despised. To empathize with a character is far more important. But in Mark Raso’s Copenhagen there is nothing empathetic, sympathetic or likable about William, a 28-year-old American backpacking in Denmark after the death of his father.

William is played by Gethin Anthony (Game of Thrones’ Renly Baratheon). In Copenhagen he explores the same bottomless pit of contemptibility as Joffrey Baratheon as he searches Copenhagen for his grandfather to deliver an angry letter that his father wrote him but never mailed. While searching, he runs into Effy (Frederikke Dahl Hansen), a beautiful young girl who helps him navigate the Danish geography and language barrier.

As the two search, they fall for each other. Deep. There is just one small catch. She’s younger. Much younger. Like, 14 (about to turn 15!). You’ll remember above, where I said William was 28, though he doesn’t.

It’s nearly impossible to buy Hansen as a 14-year-old though. She is 19 and looks it. It doesn’t make William any less terrible, but the film is about him growing up and coming to terms with the fact that having a terrible family doesn’t mean you have to be terrible too. Raso gets stuck in indie trope hell though, and can’t find his way out. Hansen is the film’s only redeemable quality; it’s a shame that she is wasted on this pointless search. – Rob Boylan

Crimes Against Humanity
★★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Narrative features
In the first two minutes of Crimes Against Humanity, Brownie (Lyra Hill) wakes up with a raging nosebleed, then sits mute and stunned as her boyfriend, Lewis (Mike Lopez), lacerates her self-esteem in four masterfully undermining sentences. Later in the day, the bloodletting really gets going – not just for Brownie, but for everyone in director Jerzy Rose’s delightfully mean-spirited film.

We’re all familiar with the genre of black comedy; Crimes Against Humanity makes up its own twist on the genre – perhaps it could be called black farce? When a nasty, passive-aggressive academic staffer (Brownie’s terrible boyfriend, Lewis) launches an investigation into the university’s ethnomusicology department for no apparent reason – he suspects them of being members of a Satanic sex cult – the absurdly awful circumstances begin piling up. Freak accidents abound, lies are told badly, curses are laid and drunken antics are pursued in a marvelous pastiche of the private-eye movie.

The loopy, conspiratorial tone is supported, possibly even created, by Joshua Dumas’ amazingly full-bodied orchestral score. No minimally sketched cues, these – the music is an integral part of the film, as important and present as any of the characters. Another inanimate character: the University of Chicago, where the film was shot and whose dignified Gothic architecture lends gravitas to the surreal and sexy goings-on.

Humanity comes on like an Iris Murdoch novel transposed to the here and now, each character fully realized and finely drawn. All the actors – truly, all – are comedically gifted; Hill is wonderful, but don’t miss hysterical supporting turns by Buki Bodunrin as the investigator’s assistant, Jared Larson as Lewis’ decent brother, and the sinister ethnomusicologists, Tommy Heffron and (surprise) composer Joshua Dumas. A definite don’t-miss. – Jessica Bryce Young

Deep City
★★★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Special Screenings
Deep City is completely absorbing. Taking us back to Miami in the 1960s to a small, happenstance-fueled soul scene, the film introduces us slowly to Deep City Records’ songwriting core: Willie “Pee Wee” Clarke, Johnny Pearsall, Clarence Reid and Arnold “Hoss” Albury. For anyone curious about a soul discussion outside of Motown, it’s a solid introduction to the “Miami sound” – and not the Gloria Estefan variety. The main characters of this movement forged a sound of their own out of the cultural melting pot of Miami, and the film shows the curious fill-ins – high school band-informed brass sections, white guy garage bands and 13-year-old soul singers – that defined the unique sound Florida’s deepest city created.

It’s a treat to hear the label’s first breakout talent, Helene Smith, revisit some of her biggest hits, singing parts of songs she’s long abandoned – “The Pot Can’t Talk About the Kettle” and “Willing and Able,” in particular. Add to that old footage from Soul Train of Deep City queen (and total sweetheart) Betty Wright and fan-indulgent footage of well-regarded rap founder Clarence Reid (his determined stroll in a Blowfly shirt will make you smile). Vintage reels from electric Miami nightclubs are juxtaposed with the Northern soul scene of Manchester, U.K., which discovered Deep City’s artists and kept their recordings alive. It’s a joyful contrast for any music lover and an eye-opening reminder that there’s more to the soul movement than the cherished artists at Motown and Stax.

This is an essential Florida music history lesson, but it feels more like recess than homework, and offers what could be considered a playbook for musicians who wish their recordings cut deeper. – Ashley Belanger

Druid Peak
★★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Narrative features
Sad-eyed Owen Wagner (played by Spencer Treat Clark, that kid from Gladiator), is an affected teen in small-town somewhere. He picks on fuzzyheaded gay kids and wears tank tops in public. He survives a truck wreck that causes the death of his best friend – cue distraught mother in car – and gets banished to live with his suspiciously gorgeous father (Andrew Wilson, the hottest Wilson brother) in Yellowstone National Park – he runs the wolf-reintroduction program, because beard.

Half the film is palpably angsty-broody, so it’s a relief when you find yourself grinning along with the boys as they fall in love with the scenery, each other and the creatures they study.

There are a few scenes with Clark that are totally emo-Mowgli, running with a wolf pack in a golden field, but none of it translates as hokey. The wolves are definitely wolfish and not German shepherds, a la Game of Thrones, which earns this flick some definite bonus points and a place with wolf-movie greats like Cry of the Wild by Bill Mason. There are a lot of parallels in this story – ranchers learning to live with wolves, sons learning to live with dads, sons learning not to “lone wolf” it – but hot dad Wilson said it best: “Forming a new pack’s tough business.” Well said, hot dad, well said. Now brush your hair. Also, for all you Francophiles, James Franco’s Rabbit Bandini Productions is behind this film. – Brendan O’Connor

Ernest & Celestine
★★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Special screenings
Love is love. It’s a simple idea that so many people can’t grasp. Black and white, boy and boy, girl and girl – or indeed, mouse and bear – it’s never anything to be afraid of. But it seems to only make sense to one inquisitive mouse, Celestine (Mackenzie Foy), and one hungry Bear, Ernest (Forest Whitaker), who meet quite by accident when Ernest saves Celestine’s life only to then try and eat her for a snack.

In the film’s world, though – inhabited by animals a la Art Speigelman’s Maus – the other mice and bears are afraid. Mice live underground, bears aboveground, and the two share very little with each other. When Ernest and Celestine find themselves on the wrong side of the law in both the bear and mice world, that notion is challenged in startlingly emotional ways and the unlikely pair find each other to be perfect protectors for each other in different ways.

The animation, done in a sumptuous broken-line storybook-style watercolor, is outstanding. Despite the rumors of its demise, 2D hand-drawn animation isn’t dead. In fact it’s becoming vital again in Europe, and this is a brilliant example of what it could be again. – RB

Finding Neighbors
★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Narrative features
Finding Neighbors may take this year’s festival prize for the most boring, contrived and downright ridiculous scenarios. Writer-director Ron Judkins’ movie is so tone deaf, badly paced, poorly scored and amateurishly acted that the only thing you’ll be finding is the door when you walk out early from this clunker of a dramedy.

Sam is an aging author of graphic novels. Fame has passed him by, and his inspiration has dried up. He mopes around the house while his wife supports him financially, and he can’t even work up any emotion when the sexy next-door neighbor (Julie Mond) takes naked showers outside his window. “I miss it, the glory days,” he tells himself. “[I’m] stuck, immobile. … I want to wake up.”

Regrettably, that’s exactly how the audience feels too after sitting through this tiresome meditation on one man’s intellectual reawakening. As Sam, Michael O’Keefe, whom you might remember from Caddyshack and Michael Clayton, is ineffective, as are Blake Bashoff and Sean Patrick Thomas, who play a gay couple whom Sam befriends. Only Catherine Dent as Sam’s wife, Mary, displays any naturalistic emotion, which only makes you pity her for having to suffer through the awful script. In fact, the film’s only interesting elements are the interspersed illustrations, which, despite their infrequency and mediocrity, add some needed visual and emotional energy.

“You’re in your shit or shut-up years,” Mary tells Sam, referring to his mid-life crisis. It’s too bad the movie chose the former. – CM

★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Narrative features
Forev dares to answer the question that all other films have shied away from: What would happen if you took a road trip with a girl you only casually knew, asked her to marry you, broke down in the desert after hitting an armadillo and had to rescue your sister from some creepy bearded guy she met at a bar – all while trying to make it back home so your spur-of-the-moment fiancée could star in a hot-dog commercial? That’s a weighty question indeed, and first-time writer-directors Molly Green and James Leffler deserve absolutely no credit for answering it.

“We should probably just get married then, if you’re going to be here anyway,” Pete (Matt Mider) tells Sophie (Noël Wells). Other clumsy and seemingly impromptu lines follow, including “This is, like, a really good idea” and “Sophie and I are getting married, and it’s going to be awesome.” This is enlightening stuff.

After sitting through too little drama, too few laughs and too much handheld camera for 88 minutes, it almost hurts to admit that this film is not badly acted and actually has some sweetness to it. But it has a fake, student-film feel that is impossible to ignore. Instead of fully exploring the vulnerability and fragility of the characters, Forev offers too many ridiculous, unfunny scenarios on the way to a somewhat honest and effective ending. – CM

The Front Man
★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Documentary features
I used to know a therapist who would advise his patients, “Consider how current your feelings are.” What he meant was that a personal desire doesn’t remain valid simply because you haven’t fulfilled it.

That’s the idea behind this documentary portrait of New Jersey musician Jim Wood, who has been plugging away for decades as the leader of the band Loaded Poets and still dreams of “making it.” But does he deserve to? On the basis of this film alone, Wood is a pretty unremarkable guy: He likes bad movies, Bettie Page and collecting records, and the cutesy material he writes hasn’t been marketable since Patrick Bateman discovered Napster. (Only after Wood has sent the latest Loaded Poets demo to a bunch of record labels does he discover that several of them are now defunct.)

Meanwhile, the wiser souls around Wood urge him to just be grateful he has a good day job and an easygoing wife, and to downgrade the band to an emotionally rewarding hobby.

Filmmaker Paul Devlin is normally a sturdy documentarian (Slam Nation, Power Trip), but he allows Wood to mug for the camera incessantly and insufferably, as if the movie represents his last chance to show America how irresistible he is. As a result, it’s hard to really care which life path he’s going to choose. The Front Man is a thoroughly adequate cautionary tale for the new media economy, but it’s little else. – SS

★★★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Special screenings
Goldfinger is practically the template for the modern action blockbuster, yet still it’s impossible to hate. In fact, it’s deucedly hard not to love, simply because everything it does, it does so much better than its inheritors. All the tropes are genre highs, from the iconic title song to the archetypal cool car to the endlessly quotable sadistic one-liners. And don’t forget a script that moves so fast you almost don’t notice that nothing going on in it makes a lick of sense. The moment the glittering opening-credits sequence segues into that sweeping aerial shot of Miami and John Barry’s dizzying traveling music, you know you’re in the hands of people who understand that a movie like this is supposed to deliver thrills and glamour at 90 miles per hour. (This is what it feels like in Don Draper’s head ALL THE TIME.) A handful of other Bond flicks qualify as more “serious” suspense, and one (Skyfall) even borders on Art. But Goldfinger will always be the best, for the same reason the Beatles will always be the best rock act and Peanuts will always be the best American comic strip: It’s a phenomenon that defines its category. Diamonds? Forever? Nah, that’s gold. – SS

I Believe in Unicorns
★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Narrative features
Leah Meyerhoff’s debut feature ought to be stamped with an expiration date, it’s so fresh and sweet. Or maybe it should come with an age limit, because I’m not sure anyone over 30 is capable of being lulled by this montage of dreamy girliness enough to ignore the predictable plot.

Sixteen-year-old Davina (Natalia Dyer, looking maybe 13) floats in a mental fairy-tale land of cupcakes and tutus and glitter and, yes, unicorns until she meets the cutest skater boy, Sterling (Peter Vack), and it’s young love, true love, until they run away together and things go bad on the road. What’s frustrating about the after-school-special feel of the narrative is that there’s meatier conflict to be dug into. Davina’s excursions into cloud-cuckoo-land are understandable when contrasted with her day-to-day life: Her mother is badly disabled with multiple sclerosis and confined to a wheelchair; when she falls out, it’s up to this 86-pound teen to deal with it, because her father is out of the picture. (The filmmaker’s mother, who is in fact wheelchair-bound with MS, plays Davina’s mother.)

There’s nothing wrong with a timeworn plot, but scenes between Dyer and Vack feel like acting exercises carried out with the thinnest of improv skills. The dream sequences and montages of Davina taking pictures or wandering Northern California with Sterling capture her emotional life beautifully – the images of cartwheels and lace dresses and stuffed animals are nothing new to anyone who’s seen Tumblr, yes, but they’re quite skillfully executed. Meyerhoff shot Unicorns on film – an extreme rarity today, and in fact she used some of the last 16 mm Fuji film stock ever manufactured – lending the movie exactly the hazy, washed-out, glinty-squinty atmosphere it requires. Her manipulation of the look of the film is masterful.

Meyerhoff has said that the plot is quasi-autobiographical; almost any woman could tell a story like this one from her teenage years, and that’s both its weakness and its strength. Unicorns is a true love-it-or-hate-it, impossible to rate – some viewers will adorn it with five sequin-covered stars, and others will give it one big eye-roll. If you want a warm bubble bath of Rookie-ready daydreams, then the trite story won’t matter – it’s just the framework for the pictures, like a fashion-mag editorial spread. But if feeling like you’ve seen. This. Movie. A hundred times already outweighs your enjoyment of the scenery, best to steer clear. – JBY

I Feel Like Disco
★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: International showcase
For a film that often hits quite hard, I Feel Like Disco (Ich Fühl Mich Disco) has an odd title. But, then again, everything about Axel Ranisch’s German-language dramedy is odd.

Florian (Frithjof Gawenda) is a teenager who loves nothing more than disco and his mom (Christina Große). Struggling with both his sexuality and his relationship with his father, Hanno (the very funny Heiko Pinkowski), Florian can always find solace with those two loves of his life. But when a family tragedy and a new male acquaintance turn his and his father’s life upside down, they must learn to balance their fantasy with reality.

“Life is not always fries and disco, I’m telling you here,” a disco star sings to Hanno, in one of the film’s many funny and strange moments. “Sometimes life is just a bottle of beer.”

Not all of the quirkiness works, as some clumsy and tonally odd moments detract from the honesty, but Ranisch’s film, with its unique balance of heartbreak and surreal laughs, is one of the more charming and original international films of this year’s fest. – CM

Ilo Ilo
★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: International showcase
If spoiled brats become spoiled from too much love in real life, it's the exact opposite at the movies. They are damn near unwatchable, even in their most passive portrayals. And very few of the Veruca Salts and Junior Healys of the world waste time with passivity. But Ilo Ilo bears witness to the emotional emergence of a spoiled brat, Jiale (Koh Jia Ler), who has only ever cared about two things in his life to this point: his grandfather and his Tamagochi. After exasperating his mother almost to the breaking point, his family hires a Filipino nanny, Theresa (Angeli Bayani), to shoulder the load of selfishness and troublemaking that is weighing down the already stressed-out family.

Theresa has taken the job in Singapore to send money back to her family in Ilo Ilo, a province in the Philippines, but she runs head first into the reinforced wall of Jiale's stubbornness and resentment of being handled by a stranger. The film is set during the Asian financial crisis in the late '90s, and the fear and helplessness that Jiale's parents face as their lives shift under foot is familiar but takes away from the more interesting story of how Jiale softens in a particular way to the undeserved support Theresa provides his coming of age. Watching his face process these feelings makes you think that Koh is either a great actor for his age, or that he's spoiled brat in real life. Either way, he's a standout. – RB

The Kill Team
★★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Documentary features
When heinous crimes occur, folks tend to shrug and ask, “How could this have happened?” Even more remote to the public is the psychology that drives soldiers at war to intentionally murder civilians.

The Kill Team, director Dan Krauss’ latest documentary, provides a concise explanation for this phenomenon.

Anyone familiar with the 2010 Rolling Stone article knows the gist: A team of U.S. infantrymen hunted Afghan civilians for sport in 2009. When the story broke, photos of severed heads, soldiers smiling over bloody corpses and details of human-finger trophies shocked the American public.

Viewers getting into this documentary shouldn’t expect a war story so much as a true crime tale. In fact, there’s no combat footage at all – just still shots and interviews with the imprisoned culprits, which are the film’s most haunting aspect.

We are forced to see the faces of the murderers; we are exposed to their personalities, their explanations. And they aren’t the maladjusted psychos you’d expect.

One of the convicted, Cpl. Jeremy Morlock, makes a succinct point: The ingredients for this crime exist in all infantry units. In war, the pressure to get “a kill” stands side-by-side with the threat of being killed. The line between combat and murder becomes so thin that all it takes is a nudge.

The Kill Team makes us face the scary truth about the bloodbaths in Iraq and Afghanistan: The only thing that differentiates the Kill Team from many other infantry units is the simple fact that they were caught. – Fred Lambert 

Last I Heard
★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Narrative features
The bad news: The film that Paul Sorvino is coming to the festival to promote, Last I Heard, isn’t very good. The good news: Sorvino is excellent in it, good enough to make the movie watchable and even somewhat touching.

Sorvino plays Mr. Joe, an aging former mob boss from Queens who is released from prison after serving a 20-year sentence for racketeering and conspiracy to commit murder. Awaiting him is his 43-year-old daughter (Renee Props) whom he’s never really known and a world he no longer recognizes.

It’s clearly time to give up the mafia life, his old friend and lawyer Ben (Chazz Palminteri, in a strangely brief role) tells him.

“He was the man, but not anymore,” agrees his devoted neighbor and friend, Bobby, played compassionately by Michael Rapaport. “Now he’s just a regular Joe Citizen.”

Writer-director David Rodriguez’s film would be nothing without Sorvino, as the veteran actor seems born to play this part. He draws you in and holds you for the duration, almost making you forget the less believable moments and slightly clunky script. But if that half-hearted endorsement seems unimpressive, play it safe by skipping the film and instead seeing Sorvino at a screening of Goodfellas on April 12. – CM

Led Zeppelin Played Here
★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Special screenings, music film
JJeff Krulik of Heavy Metal Parking Lot fame sets himself a greater challenge of pop-cultural stenography in Led Zeppelin Played Here, a probing inquiry into the suburban legend that the mighty Zep once performed before an audience of 50 or so teens at a youth center in Maryland. The idea is just improbable enough to be intriguing, yet has enough of a precedent to be possible: The center apparently played host to all manner of national acts, including Iggy and the Stooges.

Complicating things, no physical evidence of the Zeppelin gig exists – just the conflicting recollections of people who admit they were smoking a whole lot of weed back then.

Krulik spends an inordinate amount of time tracing the history of the D.C.-area concert scene, giving the movie more context than it probably needs; I’m not convinced he couldn’t have told his story just as well in a 30- or 40-minute short. Yet no matter how monotonous Led Zeppelin Played Here sometimes is, it ends up a reassuringly nostalgic paean to a vanished era in popular entertainment. Since the advent of the cell-phone camera, the point of concert attendance has been to obsessively document your presence at an event to which you’re paying only scant attention. These kids, in contrast, were too busy living life to worry about leaving an ironclad record of it. Maybe. – SS

Levitated Mass
★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Documentary features
The biggest rock star to ever visit Los Angeles arrived in 2012. The celebrity journeyed a circuitous 105-mile route from a quarry in Riverside, Calif., through four counties and 22 cities, at a cost of $10 million. Why all the fuss for just one trip? Because this rock star is a literal rock, a 340-ton, 900-million-year-old granite boulder that is now “Levitated Mass,” an art exhibit outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In his documentary of the same name, director Doug Pray competently and entertainingly captures the logistical nightmare of transporting the boulder, which created a media frenzy. Thousands of people lined the route to catch a glimpse. Some even attached religious significance to it, while others gave it its own Twitter account. The simple story of the rock’s trip is interesting, but Levitated Mass is best when it examines the project’s meaning – and the meaning of art itself – as seen through the eyes of the public and the artist, Michael Heizer.

“We’re living in a world that’s technological and primordial simultaneously,” says Heizer, who came of artistic age in 1960s New York. “I guess the idea is to make art that reflects this premise.”

Pray’s film, though not as weighty or groundbreaking – no pun intended – as its subject, nevertheless does a good job of presenting both art and artist, a man for whom “the studio, the city, the museum was too small.” – CM

★★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Narrative features
Writer-director Andrea Pallaoro set out to make an honest, observational film about universal family struggles and the choices attached to them, and to do so without judgment. The resulting film – her directorial debut – moves with the fluidity of impressionistic portraiture, weaving from reflections in mirrors and ripples of water a sometimes horrifying (though always engaging) patchwork of subtle innuendo.

Deceptively picturesque in its framing, the story of the down-on-his-luck cattle farmer Ennis (Brian F. O’Byrne), his deaf wife Christina (Catalina Sandino Marino), and their growing brood of five – each with their own side-eyed coming-of-age conflicts (exempting the baby) – starts out with the twinkle of loyal familial love as seen through the pocket-camera film-winding of the middle child, Jacob (Maxim Knight).

But, obviously, that’s not the whole picture. As focus shifts from storyline to storyline at an almost dreamlike poetic pace – sexuality, poverty, trust, infidelity, escape, hope and failure are all at play here, as seen largely through the parental characters, but also in the faces of children staring at life through a black-and-white rabbit-eared television like it’s their only window – Pallaoro’s poem too becomes unraveled and uncomfortably tragic. Medeas is a windswept tale of mid-1980s (we guess) Midwest Americana while also playing out as the Greek tragedy it namechecks, and as such, it largely succeeds in its mission. Though it will be up to the audience to decide whether such extremes as those that the film goes to are worthy of judgment or are just general signifiers of the human condition. In other words, it depends on what you’ve been through. – BM

★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Midnight features
One evening, a housewife bears witness to her husband having an affair. She then walks into his room while he’s sleeping and tries to cut his dick off with a knife – he quickly catches on and throws her out of the room. Why wouldn’t he call the cops? Screw it; she’s learned her lesson. Or something.

Soon enough, the mother (clearly not crazy) walks into her son’s room and successfully cuts his dick off. Wifey then thinks it would be a good idea to hide the evidence and eats said wang. Protein.

Eighty more minutes to go in this film best subtitled “a field guide to coping with not having man-parts.” By now, you’ve probably already deduced whether this film, directed by South Korean filmmaker Ki-duk Kim, is for you or not. Stick with it, though, and you may find an infectious artsiness in its decision to not have any spoken dialogue. It even has a hidden heart and motivation that occasionally shines through all the gritty strangeness of this odd, over-sexualized world Kim has crafted – unfortunately it’s just buried deep beneath piles and piles of “what the fuck, South Korea?!” – AM

No No: A Dockumentary
★★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Documentary features
Dock Ellis is best known as the Major League Baseball player who pitched a no-hitter (aka a “no-no”) while tripping balls on acid. He couldn’t really see the players, he recalls, just which side of the plate they were standing on. But although Ellis says, “At least they’ll remember me!” this film makes it clear that he was relevant for so much more.

Like a second-wave Jackie Robinson, Ellis was baseball’s first “militant black athlete,” a black player who wasn’t simply so grateful to be allowed in the game that he would overlook slights and slurs. He demanded the same respect any man got on the field. Unfortunately, just like any pioneer, he took the brunt of the abuse that came from a country and an athletic association outraged at his demands for respect – at one point, Ellis was suspended for wearing curlers in his hair during practice. As one of his teammates explains, this wasn’t an unusual sight in a black neighborhood at the time, but the Pittsburgh Pirates management reacted as though Ellis had tried to stalk the pitcher’s mound in stiletto heels in front of the entire nation. Refusing to tamp down his outsized personality and style just to fit in meekly was his contribution to the black pride movement; refusing to temper his drinking and drugging was his downfall.

Much of the film covers Ellis’ massive drug use (and the massive problems it caused in his life), but it was his breaking of boundaries, not athletic records or drug tolerance, that makes him worthy of filmic immortality. Black and proud: Ellis said it loud. Director Jeff Radice’s skillful
interviews are ably underpinned with original music by Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz and killer music supervision by Randall Poster. – JBY

★★★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Documentary features
Set in the post-colonial industry town of Kanpur, India, this film is like The Wire, Cops and The Walking Dead adopted an Indian baby. It’s got it all – dash cams shooting stoic government inspectors, candid camera shots of bed-headed people looking confused on their front steps and a kickin’ soundtrack that lets you know it’s OK to laugh, even if some of the scenes make you want to cry.

There are 400,000 people in Kanpur without access to electricity. In the absence of formal utilities, they’ve managed to adapt by stealing what they need to get by. Enter Loha Singh, a town hero who makes his living by stealing power from the grid and rerouting it to families who can afford his modest fee. Power lines have become crosshatched buzzing networks resembling an Andrew Spear mural. It’s a scene where the population and demand are too high and the resources too slim for the city to be able to function effectively. Hospitals can’t perform surgery because of the frequent outages, forcing them to avoid complicated procedures like surgery. So people die. A new CEO at the local power company – chief Ritu Maheshwari – has been tasked with stopping the illegal power theft in Kanpur, and boy does she try.

Laughably bureaucratic teams of men armed with digital cameras and notepads descend on the poor neighborhoods of the city, documenting infractions and making grown men grovel for forgiveness. Guerrilla power-sapping wires are chopped down and collected for evidence – no Ziploc baggies here, though – and thrown into muslin rice bags and sealed with wax. The whole situation is a riveting look into the giant mess of post-colonialism. Dusty bureaucracies cling to a Western frame of reference, based on rooms full of rotted books and records that do not translate to effective government.

Shadow democracies play a game of governance telephone, where the message gets so garbled at the end that nobody gets anything of meaning from the message. – BO

★★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Midnight features
Helen (Carla Juri) eats, sleeps and breathes sex. Not necessarily in a wide-eyed “I need to study this for science” kind of way, but ravenously, in the way a cat studies the dot emitted from the end of a laser pointer. She’s a woman living in (and around) the peak of animalistic attraction and wants to explore it fully and recklessly. She takes the audience on a sexy and uncomfortable red-hot ride that puts base instinct in the driver’s seat, while letting the superb script handle the rest.

The film’s humor is sick, and the cinematography keeps things raw and personal. Juri’s performance is commanding – she’s armed-to-the-teeth with bold decisions and the occasional hemorrhoid. It’s her show, and it’s an absolute trip watching her voluntarily and vulnerably throw herself into one batshit situation after another. The whole affair can feel a little bombastic after a while, but that’s the point: Sex at its best is hard and abnormal, loud and exploratory – and sometimes, it can just be kind of gross. Wetlands may just be the most offensively crass coming-of-age story out there, but it’s worth the ride. Brace yourself. – AM

Winter in the Blood
★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Narrative features
The story for Winter in the Blood is taken from James Welch’s novel of the same name which won him some acclaim when it was published in the mid-1970s. It is both an intense, personal journey of a man trying to find a place in the world that has given him nothing but pain, and a sweeping microcosm of the modern struggle Native Americans face to find a place in a world taken from them inch by inch and mile by mile. But what sounds like a powerful film on paper falls apart in execution from page to screen.

I hesitate to use the word “adapted” because the Smith Brothers and their co-writer, Ken White, have not really adapted this into another art form as much as they have tried to film it as a moving book. As a film, it plays like a series of sketches taken from the novel. Voice-over and music by the Heartless Bastards are attempted as storyteller’s glue, but it doesn’t adhere. Each scene feels so artlessly slapped together in random order that it’s difficult to engage head-on – and if any story needs to be engaged head-on, it’s certainly the story of America’s original sin. There are worthwhile scenes, and the mood is occasionally affecting, but it doesn’t come together as a singular piece overall, and that’s too much to overlook. – RB

★★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Program: Special screenings, spotlight film
Little Nick Cassavetes has finally grown up and is making his daddy proud. Indeed, if John, the pioneering independent filmmaker, were alive today, he’d probably be making films like his son’s Yellow, a boldly original and surreal take on mental illness, drug abuse, incest, religion and family dysfunction.

Co-written by and starring Nick’s wife, Heather Wahlquist (who plans to attend one screening), the film focuses on the crumbling life of Mary Holmes and her equally insane relatives. Addicted to drugs and alcohol, unable to hold a job and haunted by an unbearable secret, she leaves Los Angeles to stay with her mom (Melanie Griffith, in her best role in years) in Oklahoma. There she’s also reunited with her mentally disturbed sister (the brilliant Lucy Punch) and her religious harpy of a grandmother (Gena Rowlands, Nick Cassavetes’ mother) while juggling other characters from her past.

One of Mary’s sisters has Tourette’s, but Mary has a sort of mental Tourette’s, unable to separate reality from imagination, and her fantasies are portrayed in off-the-wall deconstructionist ways. A drama on the surface, Yellow launches oddly, and not always successfully, into comedy, musical and even animation to depict the crazy world inside Mary’s cranium. It’s August: Osage County – with a lot more psychedelic drugs!

I overheard fellow critics describe Yellow as a vastly entertaining train wreck. Well, this is one train I’d like to be on – just give me a seat belt. – CM

Animated Shorts program

Because they are rarely seen outside festivals, short films are often fest-goers’ favorites, and the English-language animated program is often a top draw. Though this year’s block is entertaining and even moving at times, and features a variety of styles and tones, the quality is down from years past, with only four of the 17 films deserving a thumbs-up.

Though Yearbook (4 stars), a meditation on the fleeting nature of human civilization, is crudely animated in a hand-drawn style, and the voice-over could be crisper, it’s viciously intelligent and thought-provoking, and might elicit a tear. It’s too bad you have to sit through some mediocrity to get there, as the film by Bernardo Britto is the ninth of the block. Yes, you’ll encounter Steven Vander Meer’s meticulously crafted Salmon Deadly Sins (3 stars), an imaginative take on greed, envy and the rest of the traditional no-no’s, but you’ll also have to sit through Raw Data (1 star) and The Last Orange Grove of Middle Florida (1 star), in addition to a couple of flicks better suited to the Midnight Shorts program.

Depending upon your taste for the abstract, you may appreciate the surreal and nicely animated Shelter (3 stars), which precedes Yearbook, but if you stay for the duration, you’ll cringe through the hopelessly unnecessary Drifters (1 star), Twiller Parkour (1 star) and Twiller Parkour #2 (1 star).

Seriously, there are TWO films by Morgan Miller, the creator of last year’s Prometheus Shrugged, and that’s two too many. (If the Weekly gave out 0 stars, those would deserve it.)

Just missing the mark, though still enjoyable, are Roadkill Redemption (2 stars), Sidewalk (2 stars), Spy Fox (2 stars), and Tome of the Unknown (2 stars), which all lead to the longest and most serious piece, Crime: The Animated Series (3 stars), an illustrated documentary featuring six voice-over interviews with real people affected by crime. Its disjointed feel is offset by its originality and strong subject matter, and, regrettably, that’s more than can be said for many other shorts in this program, which, by the way, are intended for adults only.

Judged as a whole, the program isn’t bad, and the order of the films seems to make sense (though we could have done with fewer, but slightly longer, selections). But evaluated individually, there’s just not quite enough magic. – CM


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