The time has come again for me to pack a bag, gather up the family, and head home to Wichita, Kansas for the Tallgrass Film Festival--my hometown film fest, where I’ve participated as a filmmaker, a selection committee member, and, for the last three years, as a critic. It kicks off tonight, and one of the best things about the festival is that its programmers gather terrific films that might never otherwise make their way to a smaller market like Wichita; they’ve got pictures that played Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, and elsewhere, all of them worth seeing. So I put together a round-up of the ones I’ve already enjoyed, in the hopes that you Tallgrass-goers will do the same.
Art and Craft
“Nothing’s original under the sun — everything goes back to something,” mutters Mark Landis in the opening sequence of this rich and fascinating documentary. He made a life of that principle; for decades, the soft-spoken, melancholy, schizophrenic art forger “donated” over 100 works of art to 46 museums in 20 states, sometimes disguised as a priest, occasionally in the name of his deceased mother or fictional sister. He was finally outed by the registrar of one of those museums, Matthew Leininger, and brilliantly situates them as opposite sides of the same coin, pursuing complimentary obsessions with a similar fervor. The picture’s got a crisp pace and a deadpan playfulness, telling a too-good-to-be-true story with humor and empathy, and its climactic sequence (where the key players come face to face at an exhibition of Landis’s work) is funny, sad, and satisfying, all at once.
Writer/director/Editor Keith Miller crafts this Brooklyn gang drama with an offhand naturalism, filling it with conversations that feel overheard and scenes that seem captured without preparation. As a result, some of the scenes run on a bit too long, sacrificing dynamism for the sake of reality, and the familiarity of the narrative results in some unfortunately clichéd dialogue (“Sad to say, it was just business”). But nonetheless, this is a forceful and bracing ground-level portrait, contrasting a young man working his way into “the life” with an older power player longing to get out. And first-timer James “Primo” Grant is astonishingly good in the leading role, suggesting but never insisting on either his power or his complexity.
The Great Invisible
The winner of this year’s SXSW Grand Jury Prize for feature documentary revisits the Deep Horizon explosion and subsequent oil spill, which dumped 176 million gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days in 2010. It gives you what you pay for — stunning figures, accounts of mind-boggling hypocrisy and incompetence, and endless rage. We know the facts; director Margaret Brown’s skill is in drawing out the characters, from shellshocked survivors to family members left behind to Roosevelt Harris, a straight-talking and kind food bank volunteer who provides the heart and soul of the picture. It’s easy to get depressed by this kind of thing, but Harris provides a valuable counterpoint, reminding us of the goodness that inevitably appears in the wake of a nightmare.
Keep on Keepin’ On
We get our first glimpse of jazz legend Clark Terry as he’s bedridden, an oxygen tube to his nose, humming melodies. “I’m 89, but I’m gonna keep doin’ it till I get it right,” he insists, and Alan Hicks’ documentary takes a look at his long career, as one of the foremost jazz trumpet players, to his current station as an instructor and booster, providing the kind of guidance to young musicians that the old timers in his day rarely gave. Hicks also focuses on Justin Kauflin, a young, blind jazz piano player who “CT” takes under his wing; the older man gets sicker, but the mentorship helps keep his head in the game. Hicks’ style is intimate and unassuming, capturing the struggles of musicians young and old, and the common bond shared between them (not just Terry and Kauflin, but the genuine affection between Terry and Quincy Jones, who exec-produces). Wanders a little, but a warm and engaging picture, filled — no surprise — with great music.
The Kill Team
Director Dan Krauss crafts a chilling, unforgiving, and vividly effective documentary account of a platoon of soldiers murdering Afghans for sport, mutilating corpses, and engaging in other ghastly activity in the name of “combat.” Motivated by resentment, blood lust, or (worst of all) sheer boredom, the “kill team” took graphic video and pictures as shocking as anything at Abu Gharib, and nearly got away with it. Krauss focuses on the trial of Spc. Adam Winfield, who tried to blow the whistle and failed; his helplessness grounds the tale, while Krauss and editor Lawrence Lerew’s sharp-edged cutting keeps the storytelling hard and jarring. Excellent documentary filmmaking, and infuriating viewing.
director Steve James constructs this documentary profile of film critic Roger Ebert in much the same spirit as — as a series of good stories, warm memories, and cinematic valentines. He’s covering a lot of ground here, but the picture never feels rushed or superficial; it’s full of tributes, dialectics, fascinating archival material, and remarkable footage shot by James during Ebert’s final months. A treat for cinephiles, but they’re not the only audience; it is the moving story of a bright man who found fame and love and, in the face of illness, tremendous bravery. (.)
The latest from the great Michel Gondry () opens with a quote from Boris Vian: “The story is entirely true, because I imagined it from one end to the other.” It feels that thoroughly pulled from Gondry’s active imagination; he creates his own world, with its own look, rules, and even physics. It’s at the service of a charming story about a young man (Roman Duris) who demands to fall in love (mostly because all of his friends are), and meets a lovely young woman (Audrey Tautou) who puts him at ease: “If we screw up the moment, we try the next,” she tells him on their first date. “We have our whole lives to get it right.” It’s a sweet and cheery movie that takes a turn toward melancholy in its third act — which is probably for the best, since Gondry’s style can get a bit exhausting, and you can only watch a spinning top for so long. But if you go along with it, offers plenty of pleasures, not least among them the joy Gondry seems to have playing in his big sandbox.
Jesse Moss’s quiet, thoughtful documentary tells the story of Pastor Jay Reinke, whose Concordia Lutheran Church in Williston, North Dakota becomes a way station for waves of men flooding into their town looking for work in the flourishing oil industry. The church offers them help and temporary housing — but their presence causes tension with neighbors and the community, who are wary of these out-of-towners (particularly when a local newspaper uncovers a worrisome number of sex offenders in their midst). Moss’ camera captures some extraordinarily candid moments, up to and including a closing bombshell that reframes much of what’s come before. But it’s not just voyeurism; the picture carefully considers, in a way that’s seldom seen in American film, exactly what it is to be a Christian — not just to say it, but to be it — and the implications of living one’s life accordingly.
Debra Granik’s documentary follow-up to the Oscar-nominated opens with a pack of aging, grizzled bikers hanging out in parking lots, roaring down highways, and drinking moonshine out of jelly jars. But within minutes, we’re watching one of them learning Spanish on his computer and painting figurines with his Mexican wife. You think you know people, and you might think you know Ronnie “Stray Dog” Hall, but Granik’s quietly observational movie (no interviews, no voice-over, just moments) takes in a man who seems like a type, living a very average Midwestern trailer park life, and discovers the real guy: a likable old salty dog whose warm exterior conceals a lot of sadness and a lot of pain. But it’s not a sad film, and it’s not “poverty porn” — it’s filled with earthy humor and love, both for this man and what he represents.
Chaimae Ben Acha is superb as Malika, lead singer of a punk band in Tangier desperate to hustle up some cash for a promising demo recording. She crosses paths with Samir (Mourade Zeguendi), a skeezy but persuasive drug dealer, who offers her a stack of cash to drive a heroin-filled car across the border — a seemingly easy mission, but one with dangerous repercussions that become frighteningly clear when it’s too late to turn back. Writer/director Sean Gullette (star of Darren Aronofky’s ) feeds off the band’s punk energy in the early passages, while taking an unexpected turn into stranger waters later on. The tension is genuine and the script is smart, given an invaluable assist by Acha’s considerable charisma and force.
All capsule reviews originally published at Flavorwire.