Friday, April 24, 2009

Film reviews: At PBI Film Fest, documentaries rule

The hip-hop seniors of Gotta Dance.

By Hap Erstein

Whether it is because of which films were chosen to be screened in advance and which others I could get my hands on, this year’s Palm Beach International Film Festival (on through Monday, April 27 around the county) seems to be strong in documentaries. Here are some capsule reviews of films available to be seen this weekend.

Gotta Dance (12 pm Saturday, Sunrise Cinemas at Mizner Park, Boca Raton; 7 pm Sunday, Movies of Delray): It would be virtually impossible to see director Dori Berinstein’s documentary of a senior citizen hip-hop dance troupe and not think of the superior 2008 film, Young@Heart, about a similar elderly singing chorus that specializes in heavy metal rock.

While that earlier film dug deeper into the lives of its subjects, several of whom were on the brink of their own mortality, this more lightweight tale is also a celebration of a 60+ crowd that remains active and agile, exploring unexpected talents.

The motives of the New Jersey Nets basketball organization remains unclear, but it decides that it needs something different for its halftime entertainment. So it puts out an open call for elder hip-hop dancers and Bernstein gets comparable terrific access to her subject as she did on Show Business: The Road to Broadway.

She follows this baker’s dozen of dancers -- 12 women, 1 man -- from auditions, through rehearsals, to their nail-biting debut performance and the subsequent media attention. At 93 minutes, it feels a bit stretched, but this is bound to be an audience favorite in South Florida.

Jeremy Gilley and Jude Law of The Day After Peace.

The Day After Peace (12 pm Saturday, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton): It is an idea so simple and so obvious, our skepticism antennae are instantly raised: Why can’t we have a declared day without war? And if we can have one such day, why not two, and on and on.

That is the idealistic, albeit naïve, question that former television actor Jeremy Gilley asks, then puts his life on hold to make it happen. Thus begins a global journey that takes him from the halls of the United Nations to a combat zone in Kabul, Afghanistan for an eye-opening education in how to sell a notion that everyone should embrace but does not.

Gilley learns along the way that the best way to spread such a concept is the same way you sell soap -- with celebrity endorsements. Such bold face names as Angelina Jolie and Michael Douglas are seen soberly taking meetings for the sake of Peace One Day, the antiwar version of Smoke-Out Day.

Jude Law even gets so wrapped up in the movement that he travels with Gilley to the Middle East where he encounters the on-going conflict first-hand. As the years march on and several Peace Days come and go, the impossibility of the task becomes clear, but you have to be awed by Gilley and his dedication to the crusade.

A scene from Severe Clear.

Severe Clear (12 pm Sunday, Movies of Delray; 12 pm Monday, Lake Worth Playhouse): By now, there have been so many documentaries on the Iraq War, it seems difficult to approach the subject with a fresh cinematic perspective. But that is what director Kristian Fraga (Anytown, USA) has done by organizing the videocassettes of Marine 1st Lt. Mike Scotti, an early deployee in Operation Iraqi Freedom who shot a series of disjointed journal entries. The result is postcards from the edge, with minimal filter or agenda between the cinema-diarist and the audience.

Scotti took a mini-DV camera along on his 40-day odyssey aboard the U.S.S. Boxer and shot some truly candid, hand-held footage of his fellow Marines and their gallows humor, which gradually gets erased as their draw closer to a newly minted war that they neither understand nor question. Scotti reportedly handed over to Fraga a bagful of videotapes to make something of them. And while the images are startling in their freshness, it is the editing job, which gives the finished film its forward thrust, that is most impressive.

Graham Linthorst, subject of Autistic-Like: Graham's Story.

Autistic-Like: Graham’s Story (12 pm today, Movies of Delray): This highly personal documentary follows the plight of Erik and Jennie Linthorst, a young couple excited about the birth of their first child, who begin noticing obsessive behavior patterns in baby Graham that turn out to be classic symptoms of autism. So they struggle with what that means, climb the learning curve and seek treatment from a conflicted medical community. Meanwhile, Erik takes up his video camera and records their emotional journey.

The film is one step above a home movie, with art being beside the point. In his media statement, Linthorst concedes that his primary intended audience is other parents who are as confused as he and his wife were and desperate for answers. But in their dogged commitment to understanding autism, this Rain Man-meets-Lorenzo’s Oil story becomes a testament to determination.

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