Sunday, June 21, 2015

AFI Docs 2015 - The Wrap Up

So AFI Docs is over but they are re-playing some festival favorites today. Best of Enemies was great but by the time this post goes live, that screening will have already started. So I will just highly recommend that you go see Radical Grace tonight at 5:15pm. Full review of that film is below.

The Russian Woodpecker

This film was definitely one of those stranger-than-fiction kind of documentaries. It's about a Ukranian artist who investigates a conspiracy theory about the Chernobyl explosion. Part investigative journalism, part experimental art piece, it's a pretty unique film. The artist is a very interesting character, the lack of trust amongst everyone that is participating in the film is very interesting, and it was beautifully shot. It gives a fairly good background on the situation and Ukraine/Russia/Soviet history, some of which is extremely interesting (ie the Russian Woodpecker signal that the film is named after). But I felt a little mislead as to what I was expecting. I was sort of expecting a gripping mystery a la Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles and it wasn't quite that. It felt a little disorganized / jumping about at some points, probably because they're trying to cover so much history and such a complex political situation while also addressing this conspiracy theory. Overall, I would say watch the film. In talking with various people about it, it seems people who didn't have much in the way of expectations really enjoyed it, but a few of us who had certain expectations based on what we read or saw about the film found ourselves a little disappointed.

Requiem for the American Dream

I fell asleep. And let me reiterate that until a certain film at Full Frame a few months ago, I had literally never fallen asleep in a movie theater (or even watching a movie at home) in my life. It doesn't take much when it comes to video to keep me awake, even if I'm not really interested. The visual and auditory stimulus alone is usually enough. But this film was 75 minutes of Noam Chomsky droning on, with b-roll and motion graphics to cover it so that it's not just a talking head the whole time. Now, I love everything Noam Chomsky was saying and a lot of it was so important. But presented in that way, as basically a 75 minute lecture, was just not the right way to go. They should've broken it down into 10 web shorts (most of the film addresses "10 principles"). That could've been a really interesting web series. As a feature, not so much...

How to Dance in Ohio

How to Dance in Ohio is a charming film about teens and young adults on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum learning social skills, particularly in preparation for a formal dance. You really get a sense of the struggles that kids on the spectrum and their family go through, and you admire their perseverance as these kids who struggle with basic life skills try to learn to live more independently. You will laugh, you will cry, and you will learn a lot about autism. A friend of mine said he saw so much of his grandson, who has aspergers, in these characters, and he thought it was a moving and accurate depiction of what these kids and their families go through.

Most Likely To Succeed

After the abomination that was Requiem for the American Dream, I was a little worried that this film was going to be a feature-length lecture on our education system in the U.S. But I was very relieved that it wasn't. The film is interesting, funny, and well-done. Most of all, it's really really really important. After discussing in depth how our current system is outdated and not preparing students for today's workforce, it primarily focuses on an alternative public high school called High Tech High in San Diego. To even try to explain the model of this school is long and complicated so I'll just say "see the film." There were times when they briefly examined other schools/teachers changing curriculum in revolutionary ways, but I almost didn't like that because it felt like it incongruous to the overall story of High Tech High. I think they filmed at a TON of schools and ended up picking High Tech High to focus on after the fact, and that's sort of what it felt like whenever they switched to other schools. Although I did love the scene at a different school where the top straight-A, high strung, get-into-Harvard type students didn't care about learning in a better way, they just wanted to make sure they could ace the standardized tests to get into the best colleges. I guess that's the catch-22 of the system - you can't really change the model that lower schools are built on until the college admissions process changes. But luckily that's starting to happen a little. And coincidentally there is a statistic at the end of the movie that says 98% of High Tech High kids went to college. Definitely a must-see!

Radical Grace

This film was an utter delight. Radical Grace is about activist nuns, women religious who are actually doing Christian social justice works similar to those of Jesus instead of being hypocrites like many Christians, and the persecution they faced because of it. They were censured by the Catholic Church and investigated for 6 years. Then there was the guy who said that these nuns, for doing social justice work, are worse than pedophile priests... Yikes! But the nuns in the film are an inspiration - they're sassy, kind, fun, HILARIOUS, and incredibly hard-working. Again, you will laugh, you will cry. You will be incredibly moved by the visible impact they're having on people in the film. It was such a relief for me to see religious people practicing the values they claim to uphold, and it gives me hope that religion can be a vehicle for good instead of just a vehicle for hatred, greed, separatism, and violence. Catch an encore screening of it tonight at 5:15pm at the AFI Silver!

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