War is a vicious cycle of retaliation after retaliation with neither side willing to give up for fear of losing. As technology grows, so does the distance of kill. Tom (Ethan Hawke) is a former military pilot turned drone flyer in the seemingly endless War on Terror. The job lacks the thrill of actual combat but has the benefit of working ten minutes from his home and family in Nevada. However, who the true terrorists are becomes questionable when Tom’s guns are now aimed by the faceless CIA. Writer and Director Andrew Niccol weaves a dark and terrifying picture of modern warfare. The impact of collateral deaths made more inhuman by the lack of faces giving the orders or the sounds of the explosions. The character arcs were nothing new. Same quiet, stoic soldier questioning the world and what he was ever looking for in the first place. What truly shines in this film is the message. The drones debate has been raging for some time and Andrew makes his point clear. Whether a drone causes harm or good depends on the man pulling the trigger.
There’s nothing that gets a writer going more than an abused childhood and Stephen Elliott’s (James Franco) takes the cake. He turns that dark past into a best selling memoir and now everyone wants him and his next book. But suddenly his supposedly dead father appears alive and well, he becomes addicted to Adderall and on top of all that he’s got writer’s block. Director Pamela Romanowsky explores the cages self pity we trap ourselves while living in the past. Franco brings his trademark charm to this role further proving his dramatic chops playing opposite of an equally excellent Ed Harris. The story is superb, based on the memoir of the actual Stephen Elliott, bringing to light how people always want to be the victim in their heads. Even if that means ignoring the truth.
Won Best New Director, Narrative Feature
The 1860’s were a simpler time. Simpler not easier. Shy but sensible Henry and his headstrong, but not that bright, brother Francis try to stake out a meager living in Small’s Crossing, Kentucky. Things are manageable until Henry oversteps his social boundaries and runs away to join to the Union Army. This film is one of those slow burning stories that fills its time with small interactions with many nameless characters. There is little action to be had on the battlefield since the director decided to focus more on the inner turmoil of the brothers than the world. It’s a real treat to see an independent period piece make it to the screen, especially when you consider the budget needed for a project like that. The use of practical candle lighting added a lot to the world. The story was a little lacking, opting for the “this is life, so nothing really happens” approach. I cared for Henry and Francis but found little heart for their plights in the end.
Oh God, not the bees! Eh… Wasps! Yes, like every festival there’s room for some light hearted gore and manslaughter. This year we’ve got Stung, a creature feature starring everyone’s favorite childhood nightmare: wasps. It’s the basic setup, bunch of expendables go to a party and are suddenly attacked by mutated wasps that sting and impregnate them with human sized wasps. While the film claims to be a horror comedy, it comes off more as a generic horror. Nowhere close to the realm of Eight Legged Freaks or Them!, so much potential was wasted in not exploring how humans would have to fight the wasps hive/swarm mentality. Instead we get zombie horde with stingers. They even say bite! Not stung. What’s up with that?
Set in 2010 Athens, Jazz club owner and father Stelios (Stelios Mainas) has one day to come up with the Euros he owes the mysterious Romanian (Mimi Branescu). During which he gets roped into ugly favors, running his failing business and taking care of his kids. While the premise sounds intriguing as an urban thriller with a 24 hour time limit, the movie is surprisingly slow. Once Stelios realizes what he must do, we follow him and several other characters for the rest of this stressing Wednesday. Don’t get me wrong, the events play into each other but not enough to keep the pace needed for a thriller. What stood out in this films were the cinematography, lighting and sound design. The entire film was beautiful and fascinating to look at. The sound seemed to incorporate some kind of subtle ticking sound in many scenes, ranging from a clock ticking to water dripping to shoes clacking on the floor.
Written and directed by Nick Beradini, this documentary explores the seemingly downplayed world of tasers in law enforcement. Personally, when I think of tasers, the image that comes to mind is not potential death. Painful? Yes. Lethal? Never. Back in the early 2000’s the Smith brothers founded success when their company started to sell tasers to policemen. Their slogan, a non-lethal alternative to guns. They had set out to find a device that could take down bad guys while saving lives. But then, lives started getting lost and the Smiths claim it’s not the fault of their product. So what is? Turns out taser use can be just as much a hot-button issue as gun control. A very eye opening documentary, it does well to inform audiences on all sides of the argument and allowing the viewers to draw their own conclusions. Visually, it’s not that creative, opting for a very straightforward fact first approach, which is understandable given the morbid material.
The art of humor is a delicate one that teeters on the edge of brilliant and insane. Very Semi-Serious decides to hit it with a stick until it gives up its lunch money and it’s hilarious. Director Leah Wolchok takes us on a journey through the process of getting a cartoon printed in The New Yorker, which is amazingly hard. Thousands of single frame cartoons are submitted and only ten are chosen. The brilliantly examines the everyday lives of these freelance artists/comedians, (who are all weirdos but in a good way) as they strive to ensure their work be known. Very Semi-Serious is a very funny documentary following the serious lives of some semi-successful people.
What do you do when your son is given 40 years for a crime you are convinced they did not do? Bill Ferguson fought back. After his son Ryan is sentenced, he spends nearly a decade trying to prove his son’s innocence. A heart wrenching true story of when the system doesn’t work, Dream/Killer exposes how even the American judicial system is willing to ruin someone’s life to save another’s career. Expertly shot and edited, the audience is taken through the multiple steps Bill had to take to get back in the courtroom over and over again. A standout was the use of gray dead sketches to depict the inner life of jail and the system Ryan was forced into.
Where you heading? Three simple words filled that open up to an almost unlimited amount of questions. In Transit is heartwarming documentary that takes the audience aboard The Empire Builder, a 3 day train trip that goes from Chicago all the way to Seattle. But this isn’t a story about trains, it’s about the passengers. Who are they going? How did they get here? What do they hope is waiting for them? All of the answers are simple but real and so earnest I couldn’t help but hope for every single one of them. Being a world traveler myself I can relate to the bonding with random strangers, talking about their lives and what they want for their future. Only down side is the audio. The filmmakers decided to do an all natural soundtrack, the only songs being the ones passengers occasionally sang. Unfortunately, this also lead to the ambient chit chat of other passengers sometimes drowning out the current passenger of interest. When I’m so invested, it’s just so frustrating to not hear every word.
Are you ready to rumble!!! You better be because Bodyslam: Revenge of the Banana! is about to take you downtown to Emotions General. Seriously, how deceiving this title was to hide such a gem. This fun documentary explores the world of the SSP or Seattle Semi-Professional Wrestling. A weekly get together at a bar wear the wrestler rejects don their costumes and wrestle to beer chugging crowds. It’s not scripted, it’s fun. This theater wrestling allowed people to explore their creative side to absolutely mentally insane results. But it’s shared insanity, the surrogate family these wrestlers have formed is so sincere and the story so dramatic, I swear it’s something straight from a movie. If you grew up with wrestling, find this movie. It’ll make you dig up your old luchador mask.
My absolute favorite genre is Food Films. As the name suggests, it is a subgenre of films that explore the creation of foods and how the affect people and reflect the culture. The Birth of Sake watches the long arduous process of brewing Sake by hand in Japan for six months straight. Brilliantly shot, the film perfectly imitates the slow and patient pace required for brewing this drink. A lot can be said about film when you realize no has talked on screen for the past ten minutes and you are still enthralled. The film opens with the line that gives us the title and not another word is spoken for I don’t know how long, because I was transported. I watched the brewers knead the rice, clean the equipment, carry bags. All of it encompassing the essence of Sake. Simple but complicated. Plain but beautiful.