- 'Blood Brother'
Here are our favorites from among all the feature film screeners we could get our hands on. If it's not here, we either didn't see it, didn't like it all that much or it was a short film (because we never screen those). Reviews are by Nile Arena (NA) and Scott Shoger (SS).
★★★★★ (out of 5)
The kind of movie that makes you wonder just what the hell you're doing sitting there watching a movie. Twenty-something graphic designer Rocky Braat left his hometown of Pittsburgh for a sort of walkabout that included a stop at a home for HIV-infected orphans and women in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It was to be a temporary volunteer gig, but after moving on to do a typical sightseeing trip, he decided that he needed to be in a place where he felt he could do the most good. He's been working at the home - save for a few visa hiccups - ever since. His best friend in the States, who happens to be an excellent documentarian, made Blood Brother in order to understand why his friend created a new life for himself. The results couldn't be much more profound, not least in the way that we see Rocky trying to figure out how he can best avoid what might be called compassion fatigue. Because while the kids have access to the kinds of HIV cocktails that have made the disease mostly manageable in the first world, they can suffer unpredictable, sometimes fatal side effects that can require, at turns, intensive care (Rocky proves himself absolutely selfless in tending to one child who appears terminally ill) - and at other times the kind of day-to-day treatment of, say, skin lesions that might scare away someone who fears transmission (Rocky does not have the virus when he arrives in India). His solution is to inextricably involve himself in Indian culture via marriage, though he doesn't find it easy to convince his new neighbors that he's not just a tourist trying to find himself. Winner of the 2013 Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award. (SS)
A Common Enemy
What happens after the revolution? That's the question at hand in the excellent, many-sided documentary A Common Enemy, filmed during the leadup to the first elections in Tunisia following the ousting of longtime military dictator Ben Ali that kicked off the Arab Spring. On one side is Ennahda, a conservative Muslim party which advocates for hard work, family values, marriage for all who wish to marry - and leads a protest against the television broadcast of the animated film Persepolis because it featured (playful, cartoonish) representations of the prophet Mohammad. Toward the center is the PDP party, which seeks to ally Tunisia with Europe and whose membership includes outspoken feminists - who, at one point, confront an all-male Ennahda contingent. The film's low-key final scene is striking: It shows a group of ostensibly mature, intelligent radio journalists working through their issues, with one female journalist respectfully but confidently informing her male cohort that he's going to need to learn to listen. It's as if to say that such everyday exchanges and teachable moments bolster a growing democracy in ways just as important as mass protests.(SS)
An assured, triumphant work following Chris "Wonder" Schoeck in the weeks leading up to his first public appearance as an old-fashioned strong man. True to its title, Schoeck literally bends steel with his bare hands. His journeys around the city as mild-mannered physical trainer are as compelling as his feats on strength. The vulnerability and soul of a latter-day Coney Island performer is beautifully rendered and proves to be an underdog story that inspires as oddly as it impresses. (NA)
- 'Lad: A Yorkshire Story'
Lad: A Yorkshire Story
It all starts from rocks. As this quite excellent and, dare we say, heartwarming film begins, we see the titlular Lad, Tom, breaking open some rocks on a Yorkshire hill, looking for fossils. It's a primordial scene, and suggests a sort of return to the earth, to basic elements. And Tom's going to have to somehow find his place in the natural order if he's going to lift himself from the grief he's going through after the loss of both the guys in his house - his dad and his brother. He gets some help from a stalwart role model, Al, a park service ranger with whom Tom has to work community service (we won't give away the incident that earns Tom his sentence, but it shows that he has a sense of humor and is driven to stand up for his family). All of it is pretty typical coming-of-age stuff, but the focus on the natural world gives what would've otherwise been a smart, indie film a sort of grounding and resonance - and the beautiful but unyielding landscapes make Lad a pleasure to watch, sometimes almost upstaging ordinary conversations. (SS)
Iran may have recently elected a moderate president, but this documentary about those who were forced to confess by the secret police makes the case that personal safety and free thinking will remain under threat as long as dictators like Ayatollah Khamenei remain in power. Director Maziar Bahari was one of many intellectuals and activists forced to confess, and he seeks out several others made to do the same, all of them in exile, of course, save for the film critic who committed suicide. Bahari traces out Ayatollah Khomeini's use of media, from cassette tapes recorded while in exile in order to rally his troops, to his direction of a newspaper (named "the universe") that works hand in glove with interrogators and the use of televised confessions in order to scare the populace (even if that populace no longer believes that those confessing actually believe a word of what they're saying). Interviewees range from an activist involved in the Green uprising to a philosopher quietly advocating for peaceful reforms (who is accused by interrogators of advocating a so-called "soft overthrow," or an overthrow by other than direct means). (SS)
He calls himself a man with a pussy and it takes balls to do that, says sex educator Tristan Taormino early in Mr. Angel, a documentary about porn star and sex activist Buck Angel, whose upper half is all male (shaved head, beard and plenty of muscle mass) - but who has chosen to keep the vagina which he was born with. What does that make Mr. Angel? All man, he tells those who would call him a sexual oddity (Tyra Banks). Dan Hunt manages to pack quite a bit into a little over an hour, interviewing immediate family members, including his wife, Elayne, who's a pioneer in the world of piercing, and his parents, whose reactions range from guilt to acceptance. A nuanced portrait of an articulate and unconventional guy who has made his own path. (SS)