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3/26/2009

Film & Video

FFF: Documentary Features

 

American Swing (2 Star) It’s the uninhibited ’70s, coke flows freely, sex is up for grabs and disco bangs overhead until the ’80s come crashing down. No, it’s not Boogie Nights, 54 or Inside Deep Throat, but it could be; we’ve seen and heard it all before. American Swing struts and swaggers with the rise and fall of Joe Francis prototype Larry Levinson’s New York swingers club Plato’s Retreat. But despite tons of steamy orgy footage, this documentary offers nothing new in the way of sleazy nostalgia.

Justin Strout

Art and Copy (4 Star) The best moments of the TV show Mad Men come when the dapper creative and account execs hit upon a spectacular idea that will help whore a product to the masses. Art and Copy is a friendly sit-down with the real advertising geniuses who rule the world. We see surfer Lee “Apple: 1984” Clow, George “Esquire covers” Lois, Jeff “Got Milk?” Goodby and many others providing their philosophies on why and how they sell the world. If anything keeps this technically superb doc from true greatness it’s director Doug Pray’s (Hype!) inability to contain these figures’ self-aggrandizement.

Justin Strout

BLAST! (4 Star) With the recent successes of Walking With Dinosaurs and Encounters at the End of the Earth, the science documentary may be at the precipice of a golden age. Recent developments in macrophysics, like the Hadron Collider, have raised the stakes in discovery to something near, well, exciting. BLAST! joins the ranks of the new learning films that fuse high-impact experiments with delicious drama. The feature film by Paul Devlin (Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme) follows his brother, conflicted family man Mark, and his team of NASA astrophysicists as they attempt to launch a high-altitude balloon that will reach into space and essentially map the universe. Along with Barth Netterfield, an oddity among scientists because of his belief in God, and a crew of grad students, they encounter obstacles in both man (at one point, the increasingly absent Devlin is hung up on by his young son) and nature (Arctic wind is stronger than steel) that actually build to an edge-of-your-seat climax.

Justin Strout

Earth Days (3 Star) Earth Days opens with footage of every U.S. president from JFK to Bush 43 warning about the perils of ecological destruction, suggesting a crisis none have been able to prevent. But in its advocacy for a greener future, Robert Stone’s documentary is less a “what you can do” lecture and more a fascinating survey of the environmental movement, from Silent Spring through the foundation of Earth Day. A handful of experts – from congressmen to astronauts, activists to futurists – discuss their history with the movement and its key advancements, their voice-overs laid cleverly over stock footage. Its only misstep is the pacing, which, to put it nicely, would have to be called “leisurely.”

— John Thomason

Food Fight (4 Star) It’s the incredibly true story of how one little lady from Berkeley started a revolution! “All I wanted was fresh lettuce,” says Alice Waters, steel magnolia of the slow-foodies, in Christopher Taylor’s account of the genesis of the locavore movement. One begins to wonder whether in fact only Northern Californians searched out small farms, or if they’re just the only horn-tooters who won’t shut up about it. That quibble aside, this documentary could hardly be more timely or more informative – if you’re interested in food or curious about the current vogue for organic produce, this documentary painstakingly reconstructs the history of America’s pendulum swing from fresh food to industrialized farming and back again. Extensive interviews with everyone who matters gives the background and the philosophy; In Defense of Food author Michael Pollan’s eloquent and cogent words, in particular, are not to be missed.

— Jessica Bryce Young

The Garden (4 Star) This Oscar-nominated documentary of California property politics zips along so briskly from one development to the next that, even at 80 minutes, it sometimes feels like a sketch. But what a sketch! A group of Latino farmers fights to save their 14-acre produce garden from being snatched away by powerful interests; in the process, the outlying community gets a lesson in backroom wheeling and dealing, potential racism and culturally defined notions of what it means to “own” land. The thrilling conclusion will have you on pins and needles, wondering if the doctrine of “Yes, We Can” stands a chance against a ruling class governed by a more decadent credo: “Just Because We Can.” (Program: Documentary Features Competition)

— Steve Schneider

In a Dream (4 Star) Isaiah Zagar’s blessing in life is that his art – his lifelong passion of building mosaics that have become tourist curiosities in South Side Philadelphia – revolves around his family: his loving (and doted-on) wife, Julia, and their two sons, Zeke and Dream director Jeremiah. Their faces stare out at him every day, surrounding him with reflective light from the shards of mirrors that Isaiah has cast around them. Isaiah’s curse is that when his crazy-in-love existence turns simply crazy, the loved ones that he’s disappointed so deeply are still staring. Dream combines old home videos and expert editing to match Zagar’s wild-eyed, difficult journey to self-fulfillment, and the vibe is joyous to the point of suspicion, for good reason: Zagar is having a secret affair which comes to light during filming, coinciding with Zeke’s admission to rehab. Like the swirls of his paints and concrete, his life spirals out of control and the mixed blessing of his art is laid upon his filmmaker son’s own piece; Jeremiah must now objectively render his own family’s destruction. Stark and captivating, In a Dream is an insightful hymn to the heart’s unconscionable unpredictability.

Justin Strout

Pressure Cooker (4 Star) Pressure Cooker is an inspirational teacher film, a Food Network reality show and a race-to-the-championship drama all rolled into a delectable dessert of a documentary. Directors Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman follow three hard-working students from an inner-city Philadelphia high school who, with the help of their short-fused-but-big-hearted culinary teacher, prepare to compete in a cooking competition for college scholarships. It’s a poignant journey full of all the right ingredients and is presented without cloying sentimentality – even as the students learn as much about life as they do about food.

— John Thomason

Prodigal Sons (3 Star) It’s gotta be tough to set out to make a documentary about your pretty interesting life and have it hijacked as soon as it begins. Director Kimberly Reed was the alpha male of her Montana high school, an attractive-but-sensitive captain of the football team. Now she’s returning for a class reunion … as a woman. Her mentally handicapped adopted brother, Marc, is pretty interesting, too. He has explosive fits of rage fueled by head trauma from an accident, and also from his desire to understand where he’s from. When he discovers his true heritage – offscreen, which hurts the film – it proves so magnificent (he’s the grandkid of Hollywood royalty of the highest order) that the film is forced to refocus on him, and it never regains its ground. Reed was shooting the wrong movie, and you feel for her, but you can’t help but crave the other guy’s story.

Justin Strout

Smile ’Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story (4 Star) You see the twinkle in their eyes, the exuberant spring in their steps and those songs, dear god those happy songs, and you know something sinister is afoot. You might be labeled a cynic, but you’d also be mostly right. Director Lee Storey captures the surreal, hilarious and often disturbing Up With People movement with deft wit, winking irony and a sympathetic, therapeutic eye toward the cult-like escapees and abandoned believers of the anti-anti-establishment, Christian capitalist musical front that was actually a Halliburton-funded group known as Moral Re-Armament. In public, they were fun escapism, if songs like “What Color Is God’s Skin?” and lectures from a young Glenn Close are your kind of fun. But behind the scenes, the group fit every definition of modern, greedy brainwashers. You’ll never look at the Polyphonic Spree the same way again. (Program: Documentary Features Competition)

Justin Strout

The Way We Get By (4 Star) The tearjerker of the festival, this feature documentary is a stirring look behind the eyes of genuine humanitarians: a group of elderly residents of Bangor, Maine, who have made it their mission to greet returning and outgoing Iraq soldiers at Bangor International Airport – through which most flights in this war are routed. Some, but not all, are veterans; none are Bush cheerleaders, exactly. One of the seniors asks a soldier if he’s “coming home?” When he hears the reply, “Going out,” his face falls and any notion of politics creeping into the film flies out the window. And those damned cell phones; the surprising power of that first call home when feet hit the ground is simply overwhelming. The Way We Get By is a heartbreaking look at an unlikely shove against the loneliness and crippling fragility of the human condition. (Program: Documentary Features Competition)

Justin Strout

Where You From (2 Star) “I just ran out of steam,” is the excuse freestyle rapper Franco comes up with for flubbing a battle competition. The same could be said for this feature documentary following three white kids from ultra-rural towns in Montana and California who use hip-hop as their only means of expression. That basic conceit doesn’t survive much beyond the first act, where we meet Confederate flag–wearing Tommy 2 Tone, who alternates familial duties with studio time and a nasty meth habit; MC Chri,s from Bozeman, Mont., a talented artist desperately trying to connect with his loser father before he gets married; and Franco, a diminutive kid with a supportive family but crushing self-doubt making his way up the Scribble Jam freestyle competition ladder. Aside from the fact that small-town white kids with incredible hip-hop abilities are far from a novelty anymore, the artificial schmaltz of the “troubled home life” segments rings only slightly more sincere than the kind of pop-star-from-Nowhereville cheerleading that American Idol flaunts.

Justin Strout

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