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On Your Radar - 12 film reviews
by Karen Pecota

8: The Mormon Proposition * * * *

Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transgender (LGBT) human rights activist and filmmaker, Reed Cowan, collaborated with the 2009 Oscar winner (screenplay Milk), Dustin Lance Black, along with producers Bruce Bastian, Steve Greenstreet, Chris Volz and Emily Pearson to expose the Mormon Church’s acts of bigotry with their film 8: The Mormon Proposition. Aside from the narration from Black, Cowan’s well-made documentary portrays a series of personal testimonies of kids raised in the church that experienced unmerited treatment by choosing an alternative life-style contrary to their spiritual upbringing and/or equivocal unjust treatment as a straight heterosexual.

The catalyst for the films premise came after the passage of California’s Proposition 8 in 2009 that was a shock to the LGBT community. It was not until the California Fair Political Practices Commission launched an investigation into the Mormon Church’s secret involvement with Proposition 8 and the records revealing startling findings of a spiritual war fought with money and lies against the LGBT.

One commentator in the film equates it to a familiar film visual of the Wizard of Oz standing behind the curtain that one is not supposed to look behind, but there behind the curtain lies the truth. Noting that the Wizard in Oz admitted his faults and failures to those he grew to love and guide down the yellow-brick-road, the Mormon Church may yet have to reconcile with their interpretive actions of hatred to a world that so desperately looks to positive role models for truth-telling and those who will earnestly show genuine love.

The documentary chronicles many from the LGBT community seeking marriage equality. One is the story of Tyler Barrick who is the direct descendent of the right-hand man to Mormon Church founder, Joseph Smith and has its merit to be seen. I strongly suggest that people view this film and talk about it. His story has food for thought! It should make us stand up and be counted for our attitudes and actions toward individuals who have a different code of ethics or who march to a different beat. (Karen Pecota)


12th and Delaware * * * *

Scheduled to air on the HBO channel summer of 2010 is 12th & Delaware, the latest documentary project from 2009 academy award nominees, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, for their piece Jesus Camp. Featured in TIME Magazine as innovators of the documentary craft, the female duo continues to pump out compelling projects of deep controversial issues that portray the heart of human compassion in America.

Filmmakers Grady and Ewing had set out to take an inside look at the operations of a crisis pregnancy center. Shortly into the year-long project they realized that they had to present both sides of the argument on abortion, thus making it their most difficult project yet. The catalyst being their findings of an increase in pro-life advocates over pro-choice since Roe v. Wade in 1973, according to current Gallup polls and statistics from the Guttmacher Institute calculating over 4,000 pro-life pregnancy centers in America today over 850 abortion clinics; but, the location for their film was ideally designed to present both sides of the hot debate.

In the coastal town of Fort Pierce, Florida, and located at the intersection of 12th & Delaware resides two health clinics directly across the street from one another, each passionately advocating their position on the abortion controversy. Visually 12th & Delaware draws a physical battle line between the two clinics each named ambiguously—The Women’s World an abortion clinic and PregnancyCareCenter a pro-life clinic. Grady and Ewing cap on the natural imagery that defines a huge difference between the locations. The pro-life advocates (also volunteers) daily stand on the sidewalk of The Women’s World passing out literature, trying to talk with women (but often badger) those who enter the abortion clinic hoping to discourage their choice to terminate vs. no physical presence from the abortion clinic on the Pregnancy Care Center side of the street.

The passion to save a life vs. the passion to take away as a freedom of choice is provocatively portrayed. In the effort to represent each side equally this film could have gone on for hours (and with interest) but it definitely is the perfect documentary for further discussion and debate. (Karen Pecota)

A Film Unfinished * * * * *

In the documentary category, filmmaker Joëlle Alexis received the Sundance 2010 World Cinema Excellence in Editing Award for her work in A Film Unfinished about recently uncovered film footage that was made for Nazi propaganda by Yael Hersonski.

The silent, black and white (as well as, color) raw footage which Alexis edited is an hour-long lone archived film reel labeled THE GHETTO. The discovery was among a newly found stash of film reels (totaling over 1,000) located in a forest of former East Germany. The find was a miracle because it was in a concrete vault hidden several feet below the earth’s surface.

This Nazi propaganda film (Gold Pheasant) of the Warsaw Ghetto was the staging of the good life for Jews in Warsaw. The footage was never completed, nor was it ever presented. It was never seen in its entirety but it was notably filmed by SS cameramen committed to the Third Reich. Alexis acquired access to the journals of Hersonski, who documented with paper and pen the daily account of his life in the ghetto. He shared his personal dealings, life as a ghetto social leader and the films he was commissioned to direct for the Nazi party. Alexis noted from Hersonki’s journals an account given by at least one of the SS cameraman, Willy Wist. In addition, the diary notebooks from Adam Czerniakow who fought to save as many people as he dared added to the authenticity of this film. Often recalled in detail, the outtakes of this film footage and the specific fabrication of the scenes within the ghetto community put on a false presentation to cover up the atrocities the Jewish community daily outlived. For example, when filming the privileged eating, all of the food was brought in ONLY to be filmed and no one was allowed to eat what was set before them even though they were starving. There were a half a million people packed into a three-square-mile radius in the city of Warsaw known as the ghetto. It was rampant of diseases and typhoid fever. Extermination was imminent for it was the holding pen before their final destinations for execution such as the camps in Treblinka. Hersonki’s detailed information gave Alexis the perfect narration for his visual images.

The exact usage of this film was not known but it is possible that it would have been used to build a case for justifying a race deserving extermination, filming an arrangement of starving Jews alongside of the privileged as if it was normal to not care for those suffering from inhumane treatment right at one’s feet. The visual atrocities in Hersonki’s film are horrific and more so inexcusable. (Karen Pecota)

Bran Nue Dae * * * *

Based on the stage musical Bran Nue Dae by Jimmy Chi & his band Kuckles, filmmaker Rachel Perkins collaborates with Jimmy Chi and Reg Cribb to adapt the stage musical onto the silver screen keeping the same name and musical genre in Bran Nue Dae. Eloquently transferred from a stage performance to film, their creative and clever use of this medium is a narrative inspired by real life experiences from Jimmy Chi’s Australian roots. He was raised in Broome, Australia, a tropical seaside port on the country’s west coast which was influenced by two major influxes: 1) Catholicism, with the German Pallotine missionaries, and 2) workers from all over Southeast Asia and Europe who were attracted by the pearling have in the 1870s. It is still known for the quality of pearls harvested, most famously the South Sea Pearls. It is also the most multi-cultural town in Australia making way for their own accent, expressions and humor that set them apart from the rest of their country-folk. It has been difficult to find one’s true identity in a city like Broome, as a melting-pot of cultures; the premise Jimmy continue to uses for another interpretation for Bran Nue Dae.

An Australian Aborigine teenager, Willie (Rocky McKenzie), from the idyllic town of Broome, Australia is sent to the Catholic boarding school in Perth for a prestigious education. Disappointed that he must leave behind his content life and true love all he cares about on the eve of his departure is his date with Rosie (Jessica Mauboy). As luck would have it, a horrific storm hit the town making it inconceivable for their planned meeting. Disheartened with his circumstances surrounding Rosie and the path his mother has chosen for him to enter the priesthood, he remains a good Christian boy to fulfill his responsibilities at the boarding school in return for a proper education that will one day make him successful whatever the occupation.

A series of unjust circumstances between Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush) and the students at the boarding school made Willie rise up and call for justice. In compliance to authority, Willie was tagged as a rebel. The school had special ways to deal with such delinquents but before Willie was put in confinement, he stole away during the night to leave the school for good and began his journey home. His first encounter is with Uncle Tadpole, a town drunk, also from Broome. Uncle Tadpole has an eye on Willie’s pocket book and offers to take Willie home after he has hit the tavern. Uncle Tadpole uses all the money Willie had but Willie holds Uncle Tadpole to his word. The two set out on a proven wild and crazy road trip home to Broome confronting one calamity after another while Father Benedictus is in hot pursuit of their trail. (Karen Pecota)

Cane Toads: The Conquest * * * *

The Sundance Film Festival gives entry to the 3D film from Australian filmmaker Mark Lewis, known for producing nature documentaries spiced with irony and humor to factual evidence. His latest project Cane Toads: The Conquest features a specific toad species and discloses surprising data about mankind in an effort to co-exist.

In the early 1930s, Australia’s sugar cane crops were being destroyed by the grey-back cane beetle. In an effort to save the countries’ productive sugar industry, the cane toad known to devour the grey-back cane beetle in South America was thought to be the answer the Australia’s environmental epidemic. The toad was brought to Australia from Hawaii in 1935 to do what toads do best—eat and multiply. The toads arrived but desired to explore the country instead of being content to reside in the sugar cane fields to eat grey-back cane beetles. In their flight to freedom they multiplied while gleefully marching across the land of the outback. Today, 75 years later, nothing can stop the foot soldier toad’s migration or their concentrated march to inhabit the whole country. Lewis investigates the plight of the cane toad with a unique style of humor expounding upon hard facts that are simply bizarre. The human conflict with the animals’ existence is the result of a miscalculation and alteration which man innocently inflicted upon the Australian ecosystem. But, the opportunity for the world to journey across the beautiful Australian continent to follow toads would never be realized if Mark Lewis did not seize the opportunity to creatively tell a story worthy to be told. (Karen Pecota)

Cyrus * * * *

The world premiere showcase of Cyrus at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival was not the only kudos the film enjoyed. It received distribution from Fox Searchlight Pictures ready to hit the silver screen sometime this year. Written and directed by Jay and Mark Duplass, the infamous filmmaking duo is praised for an amusing reality bites love triangle in their latest project Cyrus.

John (John C. Reiley), a diffident divorcé of seven years, attends one more uneventful party hoping to find his soul mate. As luck would have it, John meets beautiful Molly (Marisa Tomei) and their chemistry ignites. John is ecstatic and secretly follows her home. The next day he pays Molly a visit but in her absence he instead meets her twenty-one year old son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill), mistaking him for a younger suitor. Disillusionment floods John’s spirit but he hides behind his happy-go-lucky mask. Cyrus is fully aware of John’s disappointment but instead of easing the pain, his delight is to invite John to stay for a chat until Molly’s return never revealing his true identity. The woman of their dreams returns and Cyrus sheepishly confesses when Molly introduces John to her son. John, a bit angered at the odd kid, puts on his humor hat and decides to let the situation slide. His desire to make a positive impression on Molly and Cyrus was his first and foremost intent.

The development of John and Molly’s relationship plays its course but not according to Cyrus’s plan. He is not ready to share his mom with another man. Cyrus doesn’t readily trust John’s intentions anyway and finds comfort in being his mother’s protector. John observes that Cyrus and Molly share a strange mother-son entanglement that concerns him, leading John to wonder if he needs to be Molly’s protector from her own kin. John’s confusion forces him to seek advice from his ex-wife and she agrees to join them for lunch at the park. Molly, in the middle of two men vying for her affection, sets boundaries for each relationship to function. Her rules go in one ear and out the other to both men. Energized and up to the challenge to be the last man standing to win Molly’s undivided attention they never think that both of them could loose the battle. Ah yes, the dominant male ego, overrides common sense “when true love’s on the line” and often changes the course of destiny not meant to be. (Karen Pecota)

Lourdes * * *1/2

The southwest region of France displays the grandeur of the Pyrenees mountain range and tucked away among the region’s foothills is a small market town, Lourdes--known for its famous stone castle built in 1858 and the extraordinary event of Marian Apparition. It is believed that in the picturesque town of Lourdes, the Virgin Mary (Marion Apparition) supernaturally appeared to one or more than one person in the community, on several occasions, healing them of various ailments. Equivalent to biblical chronicles passed down through the generations, the French could not avoid the reality of the miraculous accounts nor could they stop a yearly pilgrimage by those hoping for a miracle that would be life-changing.

Christine (Sylvie Testud), knew the story well from childhood: the historical account, the place of the yearly Roman Catholic pilgrimage and the alleged miraculous healings. She never dreamed she would one day long for such a quest until an incurable disease strikes her adult body. The desire to be healed from the blight destiny to life in a wheel chair thrusts Christine to actively expect her own providential miracle. The expectancy proves to be Christine’s virtue along with the aid of Madame Hartl’s specific prayers and her daily assistance. Their journey takes place after healing occurs and the doubts surface if they are but in a dream. (Karen Pecota)

Nowhere Boy * * * *

A storyline not fully covered from a Lennon/Beatles project is the premise of filmmaker Sam Taylor-Wood’s directorial feature début in Nowhere Boy. Wood, along with Ecosse films, muse over a part of John Lennon’s growing-up years in Woolton, Liverpool, during the 1950s. Wood allows the film to echo a distant and troubled past of Lennon’s life using his own words and quotes about his childhood that led toward his famed Beatle journey.

John Lennon (Aaron Johnson), at the age of fifteen, is a rebellious lad reacting to a strict upbringing by his Aunt Mimi (Kristan Scott Thomas) often causing unbearable tension. The relationship between Aunt Mimi’s husband, Uncle George (David Threlfall) and John, was different. George’s kind demeanor was the balance welcomed from Aunt Mimi’s harsh traditional ways, even though she loved John as much or more than her husband. One day while John and George were playing silly games, George falls dead from a massive heart attack. John’s immediate loneliness coupled with the thought of living without George under Aunt Mimi’s roof becomes a nightmare until his cousin introduces John to his birth mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) who lives less than a mile away.

Julia agrees to see John under the condition that he keeps their meeting a secret from his aunt. He agrees but doesn’t understand the full implication for the secrecy and, like a typical fifteen year old, he doesn’t care to be bothered with the information. John is thrilled to get to know Julia because she is every son’s dream of a mother: loving, beautiful, talented and fun. She introduces john to her musical interests of rock ‘n roll and teaching him to strum on a guitar. John cons Aunt Mimi to buy him a guitar and tries to start a band but needs better talent to accompany his vocals and lyrical tunes. A kind-hearted kid, Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster), auditions for a spot and John takes him on, proving to be one of the best decisions he ever makes. The two boys begin their career practicing at Mimi’s house often under duress but their passion for making music helps them to cope under her parental control. Just about the time John is feeling good about life, tragedy strikes. Heartbroken and feeling like a lost boy, Lennon …”gets by with a little help from his friends”…and within a few months, he heads off to Hamburg, Germany, with three other band members from Liverpool chartering the ride of his life. (Karen Pecota)

Restrepo * * * *

Acclaimed journalists, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, shadowed the second platoon of Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade from May 2007 to July 2008. The remote outpost they shared was named “Restrepo” in honor of their medic, PFC Juan Restrepo, who was killed in action. The military platoon was stationed in the Korengal Valley of eastern Afghanistan, an area known as a hot combat zone of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. It was thought to be the most dangerous region of the war because of the frequent influx of Taliban fighters using the area to move in and out of Pakistan, as well as, for top Al Qaeda leaders setting up their base operations. On assignment for Vanity Fair Magazine and ABC News, Hetherington and Junger made ten trips to the valley during the course of one year for their story. They lived and breathed a soldier’s life of fear, warfare, boredom and camaraderie which they powerfully document in their feature documentary debut Restrepo.

The journalists captured 150 hours of deployment life from the culmination of trips that always began with the helicopter ride into the firebase of the Korengal Valley. Once on the ground it was at least a two-hour trudge to the Restrepo outpost that was no leisure trek. The journalists noted, “… that some times the outpost was attacked three or four times a day from distances as close as fifty yards away.” The fighting was on foot and extremely dangerous as the zone the Americans moved to control, “hilltop by hilltop, ridge by ridge, a hundred yards at a time” was no safe place. The mountain range was steep and one gained ground only by foot. The filmmakers carried their equipment in addition to the fifty-pound gear requirement on every patrol. Needless to say, the cameras were not unscathed and witnessed their share of war-dings while visually capturing the fallen and wounded with their lenses. The journalists admit that the platoon’s approval and their close relationship only made it possible for them to continue filming in the middle of adversity. A few months after the platoons’ deployment at base camp in Italy, Hetherington and Junger conducted in-depth interviews with their main characters. The film speaks for itself as the men recall their riveting journey. The film audience will forever be changed from the plight of second platoon and will recall it as one of the most moving 94 minutes experienced in one sitting. (Karen Pecota)

The Company Men * * * * *

The legendary producer, director and screenwriter, John Wells, draws from experiences of American people and their misfortunes caused by a raging economic crisis in The Company Men. Wells has received 242 Emmy nominations with 55 Emmy wins: “China Beach”, “West Wing”, “Third Watch” and “ER”-- plus a multitude of awards for his achievements in the television industry. His success is followed by a realistic understanding of the American culture. In addition, he reveres the past and is willing to pursue change or challenge ideals to affect the future. With an original script, written after the bust and a loosely based storyline of experiences from close relations, Wells’ heartfelt drama showcases high powered men and their families affected by corporate downsizing. The dilemma each executive contemplates and the meaning to his/her own life is delivered in the outstanding performances of Wells’ all star cast Tommy Lee Jones, Ben Affleck, Christ Cooper, Kevin Costner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Maria Bello and Craig T. Nelson.
A young executive, Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) is at the top of his game: loving his super high-paying job, proud of his adorable family, and living among the rich and famous. Essentially, he has it all and more. He is shocked with the news his company is abruptly forced to downsize, but the trauma of the quick shakedown beginning with the corporation’s founder Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), his right-hand man Phil Woodard (Chris Cooper), Bobby and other top management is more than he and the company men can handle. In fact, they can’t handle it and this fact begins drama of what loyal company men do to survive.

Bobby is confident that his age and set of skills will land him a job faster than his elder colleagues but none of them are prepared for the hiring freeze from the company’s competitors. Confused with the  new situation the men are forced to do a lot of soul searching, even contemplating the impact of drastic measures were taken of suicide. Bobby’s brother-in-law, Jack Dolan (Kevin Costner), a known building contractor, offers him a job of hard labor. Unbeknown to Bobby, his brother-in-law can’t afford to take him on but knows how to live through hard times and what is important in life. He lives by a code of ethics very different from Bobby. As a last resort to save his family from falling apart, Bobby takes the construction job and observes sacrificial living one takes to help another because that is what truly makes the world go around. (Karen Pecota)

The Tillman Story * * * *

A film by Amir Bar-Lev The Tillman Story chronicles the fate of a legendary American hero, Pat Tillman. Initially the director was going to expound on his tragic death that took him from this world all too soon. It was while meeting with the Tillman family that Bar-Lev realized that the title of legend attached to the young man’s name is far more telling and his story needs a voice.

Pat Tillman was a famed professional football player until he quit his career and signed up for a three-year tour with the Army Rangers in 2002, alongside his brother, Kevin. The timing was after the 9/11shock and the Tillman brothers’ decision was thought to be a symbol of the ultimate patriotism. But, he did not want to be put on a pedestal; therefore, refused requests for interviews and asked that his pronouncement be respected as a private affair.

Two years into his tour of duty April 22, 2004, the national news stating that Pat Tillman is killed in Afghanistan rocks the American people. Details are held to a minimum and his family is given an over abundance of honorary medals, commemorations and memorials in Pat’s name for his exemplary life. A few months later, the Tillman family learns that Pat was killed by friendly fire and not by the Taliban fighters as initially reported.

Devastated, shocked and confused by the U.S. military’s investigative report and the sense of negligent with their findings was the fuel sufficient for Pat’s mother, Mary Tillman, his father Patrick Tillman Sr., along with retired special-ops soldier Stan Goff, to press hard for answers about the truth about their son’s death. In addition to pouring over the 3,000 pages of official military documents giving account of Pat Tillman’s death were hours of phone calls, meetings and interviews from Army comrades to the highest chain of military command. The chilling account from Serial One Ranger Bryan O’Neal, who was with Pat, and allied Afghan Militia fighter Saye Farhad assisting Serial Two (their platoon was split into two groups) through known ambush territory, is excruciating and hard to imagine. O’Neal stammers to recall the disbelief that their own comrades were shooting at them and his distress that he would be the only one left alive to tell about it.

Three years later on April 24, 2007, is the family’s First Congressional Hearing on the matter and The House and Oversight committee address “Misleading Information from the Battlefield.” Kevin Tillman speaks publicly for the first time about the military cover-up and the family is disheartened that no one from the Bush administration seems to recall important known facts of this case. The Tillman Story is a riveting narrative exemplary of the battle to live in the land of the free and to fight diligently for a home of the brave. Suggested reading: Boots on the Ground by Dusk: My Tribute to Pat Tillman by Mary Tillman with Narda Zacchino. (Karen Pecota)

Winter’s Bone * * * * *

Novelist Daniel Woodrell now has a film adaptation of his literary work Winter’s Bone in filmmaker Debra Granik’s latest motion picture under the same name. Granik was surprised to have read Woodrell’s novel in one sitting--an occurrence even rare for her. She was convinced that his novel was ideal for the silver screen. Together with producer Anne Rosellini, the two women developed the screenplay as an adaptation to Woodrell’s work of fiction. Their hunch proved to be worth the effort winning the Sundance Film Festival 2010 Grand Jury Prize in the US Dramatic category and the Walt Salt Screenwriting Award. The women worked with Daniel and his wife to portray the authenticity of Southwestern Missouri’s Ozark mountain family clan way of life and code. Shot totally with the RED Camera (the up and coming compact digital darling with a stark color palette) was the assistance needed to acquire quality digital footage on a low budget to portray a rugged and raw existence.

Tucked away in the depths of the Southwestern Missouri Ozark Mountain range, seventeen year-old, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), cares for her ailing mother, and two younger siblings in the absence of her father who has gone missing. Concerned and angered about her father’s disappearance, Ree is forced to bare the weight of responsibilities he left behind, including, an eviction notice of the family house and property if his accruing debt was not paid, in person, within a thirty-day timeframe. In search of her father, she turns to her Ozark family kinfolk for assistance, which, shockingly proves to be a difficult task. Unknowingly she is knocking on death’s door (namely her own) by innocently threatening the relatives to reveal a sworn oath of secrecy. The last thing Ree wants to do is be on the wrong side of her feuding kinfolk when an oath has been given but they leave her no choice. To protect the future of her own family she must do whatever it takes to save them, even if it means to challenge the kinfolk’s hierarchy (not known for their civility), as she unravels the threads of truth to her father’s whereabouts.(Karen Pecota)