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On Your Radar: Film Reviews
by Karen Pecota

ADAM * * * * (BMI composer director/collaboration)
Director: Max Mayer
Composer: Christopher Lennertz
Founder and producing director of New York Stage and Film, Max Mayer, writes and directs his second feature film to spotlight the Asperger Syndrome in ADAM. In 1944, an Austrian pediatrician, Hans Asperger, wrote a paper about children in his practice who had normal intelligence and language development but had extreme deficiencies in social and communication skills hindering normal psychological growth. While listening to a radio interview from a young man diagnosed with Asperger’s, Mayer was enthralled with the man’s description of his world. Mayer’s response was his film ADAM and he notes that it is a defense of the imperfect and the joy in finding value in imperfection and further explains that “after all, it is all we know.”

Adam (Hugh Dancy) and Beth (Rose Byrne) live in the same apartment building and become good neighbors sharing the comedy of mishaps in their everyday lives, at day’s end. Adam is an eccentric electronic engineer, lives an excessive structured life and visits only one person, Harlan (Frankie Faison), since the death of his father. Beth is an elementary school teacher, writes children’s literature and loves people. The story of Adam and Beth is unlikely at first glance but warms the heart as they develop a sweet curiosity for each other’s world and celebrate their imperfections. Beth is fascinated with Adam’s unusual manners, extreme intelligence and childlike wonderment for the world of nature and space. She ignores the abnormality. Adam delights in the attention from Beth, her beauty and talent but can not express his feelings appropriately. Their worlds collide when irreconcilable differences shatter an incredible depth of shared love and admiration. But, good neighbors find a way toward reconciliation so their lives will move forward. (Karen Pecota)

Afghan Star * * * *
Director: Havana Marking
Director Havana Marking makes her filmmaking début with Afghan Star, a feature documentary. Her narrative takes the audience into the everyday life of the people of Afghanistan in their plight to reinstate pop music, which is highly controversial, that captures the heart of the people to overcome adversity. It is truly inspiring!

Havana follows the Afghan TV station, TOLO, organize a countrywide, musical, talent search television series called Afghan Star, similar to American Idol. Their hope is that the program will encourage people to “move from guns to music” in their war torn world. They see a chance to address a cry for freedom among their youth with the use of music as the catalyst. The pop music is drawn into question without a doubt but more so is the rule that women are allowed to compete on the same level as men. This radical move, in a male-dominated country, based on a tribal elder system is democracy Pur! The countrymen begin to encounter a paradigm shift as millions tune into the weekly show.

Havana tracks the contestants but does not leave the average Afghan out of the picture during the three-month process while filming the regional auditions to the final show held in Kabul. She features four contestants who choose each step of their performance according to personal conviction. Setara, age 21, dances on stage and loses her headscarf. The viewer’s response has a ripple effect of dire consequences. The lives of the contestants are in jeopardy, the TV station is threatened and the future of the youthful nation hangs in the balance (60% of Afghan population is under 21 years old) as one third (11million) of the people are glued to the final show. (Karen Pecota)

Helen * * * * *
Director: Sandra Nettelbeck
The spotlight on the film Helen, written and directed by Sandra Nettelbeck, is a visual exposé of a woman rapt in the complex world called depression. Nettelbeck’s personal loss of a close childhood friend in 1995 and an article in The New Yorker written by Andrew Solomon in 1968 about his own depression are her inspirations for Helen’s story. Nettelbeck’s compulsion to dig deeper into the illness and to hang on to her main characters’ perception of her own life, allows the freedom to silence easy answers but to explore the break-down in communication that surfaces from depression. Nettelbeck puts a face on love and its impact to a hurting world.

Helen (Ashley Judd) is given a surprise birthday party in the spacious modern living room of her own home. Located behind the numerous bodies of well wishers is a beautiful grand piano that awaits the touch of Helen’s fingers to fill the room with her music. The piano is a surprise gift from her second husband David (Goran Visnjic), and her thirteen-year-old daughter Julia (Alexia Fast), to encourage her passion for classical music. The love and support from her family and friends constitutes her whole existence. Helen is overwhelmed by their kindness but, can’t seem to adequately communicate her sincere gratitude which has not been a problem until recently. She feels herself slowly slipping away from connecting to the closeness they work hard to nurture. The pattern of disconnect is alarming and Helen is afraid to acknowledge similar signs that took her to a dark world many years earlier that was the demise of her first marriage. The journey Helen faces to meet her destiny is the result of a unique power of love that defines itself one step at a time. (Karen Pecota)
La MISSION * * * *
Director: Peter Bratt
Directed and written by filmmaker, Peter Bratt, La MISSION, takes the silver screen audience to the streets of San Francisco into a Chicano community living in the district called La Mission. The neighborhood has become culturally diverse since its conception which challenges their model of family. They are proud to “Be Brown!” To overcome adversity is their game but cultural paradigm shifts shatter their concept of loyalty. Bratt’s riveting narrative confronts reasons we love and the impact it has on our world view.

A former La Mission neighborhood bad boy, Che (Benjamin Bratt), once feared, is held in high esteem as a reformed prison inmate and a recovering alcoholic. Che, a single parent, drives a transit bus for the city and lives for three things: to be in close relationship with his son, Jesse (Jeremy Ray Valdez), to love his lifelong friends and to restore old classic cars for low riding. Che’s world is shattered when he uncovers evidence that his son has a secret life contrary to his upbringing. His good parenting skills vanish when he wallows in his own self-pity. To his chagrin his annoying neighbor, Lena (Erika Alexander) challenges him to identify why he loves his world and to what price he will pay for total control.

This was one of my favorite festival films: reality bites sharing humor and compassion, sweet moments, music which is timely, smooth and fitting to the culture and the magic of the dancing cars.
 “You can take the man out of the La Mission but you can’t take La Mission out of the man.”

Mary and Max * * * *
Director: Adam Elliot
Academy Award winning writer/director, Adam Elliot and producer Melanie Coombs, embark on a project using clayography in their animated feature Mary and Max. They collaborate with the voices of actors, Toni Collette (Mary), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Max), Bethany Whitmore (young Mary), Barry Humphries (The Narrator) and Eric Bana (Damien) to develop the tale of an unlikely friendship cultivated by the art of letter writing. I believe that their creative style of storytelling was the reason Mary and Max was chosen to open the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. It was the personification of the festivals theme called STORYTIME and the festivals unique calling addressed by Sundance Institute’s Founder and President, Robert Redford, “Every year there will always be space for new stories to be told in new ways…”
Mary Dinkle is a chubby eight-year-old girl from Australia desperately seeking a pen pal. Through a series of mishaps her advertisement for such a friend lands in the mailbox of Max Horovitz from New York City. Max is a forty-four-years-old, single, Jewish man who is severely obese and suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. Max answers Mary’s plea for a letter-writing companion and therein begins the journals of Mary and Max. Their encounter spans a life-long journey of surprise discoveries through word and deed including confrontations held dear by the most intimate of relationships. Their strange compassion for one another is what they live for until the inevitable happens and Max is gone. (Karen Pecota)

Prom Night in Mississippi * * * *
Director: Paul Saltzman
Emmy Award-winning Canadian director/producer, Paul Saltzman, enlightens the film audience with an extraordinary story of hope in a world plagued by racial discrimination in his documentary Prom Night in Mississippi.

The story emerges out of a ten year old wish from Academy-Award-winning actor, Morgan Freeman to put an end to a segregation issue in his home town of 2,100 inhabitants in Charleston, Mississippi. The local high school (currently 412 students, 70% Black and 30% white) traditionally held two separate proms each year--one for the black students and one for the white. In 1997, Mr. Freeman approached the school board, the students and the PTA (Parent Teacher Association) to propose an idea for local cultural change. He offered to pay for the school’s senior prom that year, if they would hold only one prom where both black and white students would attend. His offer was ignored and he was deeply pained.

Freeman did not give up his dream to one day see an integrated prom night at Charleston High. The month the 2007/2008 school year began, Mr. Freeman made the same offer as ten years earlier and this time it was accepted. Saltzman’s documentary begins with Mr. Freeman talking with the Charleston High School administrators and the seniors from the class of 2008 of their agreed commitment. Salzman knits together an entertaining account of a road less traveled by very brave individuals who will always be known as Charleston’s history makers. In a country where it is no secret that racism is still alive, the story of Mississippi’s Charleston High’s graduating class of 2008 ignites hope that one day racism too shall pass. (Karen Pecota)

I am proud to announce that the Prom Night in Mississippi was picked up by HBO at the Sundance Festival for distribution to air Monday, July 29, 2009, at 9 pm.

Sergio * * * *
Director: Greg Barker
Filmmaker Greg Barker was compelled to recount the extraordinary story and the events leading up to the bombing of the United Nations building in Baghdad, August 19, 2003, in his feature documentary Sergio. The calamity took many lives including that of UN director Sergio Vieira de Mello. The catalyst that motivated Barker to action was a conversation he had over a beer and dinner with friend, Samatha Power (Pulitzer Prize winner for A Problem from HELL), while she was intensely writing her book Chasing The Flames: a biography of the UN director Sergio Vieira de Mello. Barker, while listening to Power’s passion describing Sergio’s story, visualized the film he had to make. He recalls, “I knew that the film had to be a tight storyline to focus on the incredible human drama of the search and rescue operation, intercut with Sergio’s life story, his career triumphs and the contradictions surrounding his life.” Barker’s extensive use of archive footage prior to, during and after the bombing leaves an impressionable impact of Sergio’s demise and the effects of his influence. In the last hours of Sergio’s life he eloquently passed the baton of heroism to many people assisting in his rescue but mostly to the military personnel who took great lengths to save his life.

The Brazilian human rights activist, Sergio Vieira de Mello was known as the UN’s go-to-guy to handle the most difficult controversies dealing with human atrocities in the world. His career advocating human rights exposed him to human misery, which most would think of as inconceivable. Sergio’s charisma endeared him to many people world wide. Keeping company with people from all walks of life was his specialty and he was a master at dealing with the worlds most evil individuals. He often thought that his autobiography should be entitled, War Criminals, My Friends. The sincere goodness he saw in every human being allowed him access to unimaginable situations. It gave him opportunity to run with those controlling both worlds of good and evil. Barker describes one of Sergio’s most notable triumphs as being the success of leading an occupied nation towards independence in East Timor. In the midst of many career triumphs and notoriety for his heroic acts, he found it difficult to hang on to his marriage and nurturing two sons. Sergio’s fiancé and colleague, Carolina Larriera, gives her account of a man longing for personal peace and his hope for a bright future. (Karen Pecota)

Taking Chance * * * * *
Director: Ross Katz
The backdrop that filmmaker Ross Katz uses for his Sundance 2009 premiere Taking Chance, is taken from the personal journal, of Lieutenant Colonel Michael R. Strobl, USMC (Ret.). The account describes the memory of his encounter with 19-year-old Lance Corporal (LCpl) Chance Phelps, in the spring of 2004 and his journey to lay him to rest. The meticulous screenplay from Strobl and Katz is a work of art, as the phenomenal performance from Kevin Bacon (Lieutenant Colonel Michael R. Strobl, USMC) and the magnetic cinematography from Alar Kivilo. The project’s collaboration of love visualizes the utmost “dignity and respect and honor” to all U.S. military, its fallen and their families. No matter what your opinion is of war, you will be compelled to give honor where honor is due to those who sacrifice for your freedom and to those who take pride to care for the casualties.

Lance Corporal Chance Phelps was deployed to the 3rd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, and 1st Marine Division in Iraq in March 2004. One month later he was killed by hostile fire. Phelps was awarded a Bronze Star with Combat Distinguishing Device and a Purple Heart Medal for his heroic actions during the ambush that led to his death. At the time, Lieutenant Colonel Micheal R. Strobl, USMC, a Desert Storm veteran with seventeen years of military service, was frustrated working a desk job until he opened his computer one night to check on the latest casualties. Strobl noticed that there was a group of fallen soldiers to return to the U.S. from Germany. One of the soldiers listed was from his home town. Although unusual for a high-ranking officer to make application to be a military escort, he was granted the job to accompany Lance Corporal Chance Phelps to his burial in Dubois, Wyoming. Strobl’s journey from start to finish is his gut-wrenching story of Taking Chance.

In addition to his personal journal, Lieutenant Colonel Michael R. Strobl, USMC, (Ret.) collaborated with Phelps’ parents, John Phelps and Gretchen Mack, to develop the original story for details that might have otherwise been forgotten. Strobl’s first-person account began with the boring official ‘trip report’ as a Casualty Assistance Calls Officer (CACO), a normal act of protocol that all military escorts must log. Strobl’s personal account became a memoir entitled Taking Chance of his experience never to be forgotten. (Karen Pecota)

The Messenger * * * *
Director: Oren Moverman
Filmmaker Oren Moverman, collaborates with producer, screenwriter and friend, Alessandro Camon, to bring The Messenger to the front door of each film viewer. Their intent is to shed light on the awesome duty and responsibility that the military service personnel undertake when they are selected to be a Casualty Notification Officers (CNO) or a Casualty Assistance Calls Officer (CACO). It is one of the most difficult jobs in any branch of the service. The notification is delivered in person by two officers and it is the first official notification, representing the Secretary of the Military (namely the specific branch) the family receives after their loved one has fallen or is determined missing.

The intense and often irreverent style of storytelling in The Messenger illuminates the rawness of man and charts a partnership between two unlikely soldiers, Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), and Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), forced to be the Army’s bearer of bad news on the home front. The complexity of their union is challenged day in and day out; but, they grow accustomed to tolerating each other’s idiosyncrasies leading toward a solid friendship. Captain Tony tries to reel the young buck in to the “rules” of the trade but Staff Sergeant Will is bothered by his moral inconsistencies, lack of compassion and empathy. Will does not want to follow in the footsteps of his captain who lives an unhappy life. His example is not uplifting! Their friendship is put to the test when Captain Tony confronts Will with a moral dilemma after one of their NCO visits. Will finds himself attracted to a fallen soldier’s widow, Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton), going against the rule to never get involved with a casualty next of kin. (Karen Pecota)