TCFF 2016 Documentary Reviews: ‘In Search Of America’ + ‘Beyond The Thrill’ + ‘The Unrelenting Charlie Davies’

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There’s no shortage of great documentaries at TCFF! Today we’ve got a trio of reviews, thanks to FC contributor Sarah Johnson, my awesome reviewing partner during the film fest. Check out her bio page here, she’s a MN-based freelance writer who also writes for City Pages.

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‘In Search Of America’ Review

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Haven’t gotten enough of the presidential campaign over the past year? Throughout In Search of America, Marc Kornblatt, a former elementary school teacher from Wisconsin, crisscrosses the United States asking people from all walks of life about the issues of the day.

In one scene, Jonathan Katz, a professor of physics at Washington University, says, “Unless someone is a criminal or a terrorist, we should welcome immigrants.” In another scene, Heather Creighton from Toomsuba, Mississippi says, “I try to avoid politics and express what I believe in, which is the good Lord above.” As the camera pans out, you can see she is sitting under a Confederate flag. “It’s not a bad flag…I don’t know why everyone thinks it is?” She wonders.

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So this documentary definitely has a point of view but the more I watched it and listened to the people being interviewed the more I felt like it was not about what political party you belong to or where you live, it was just a very human portrait of people struggling along in this country as best they can. “My father was in the military so I grew up overseas,” said Joanne VanDeusen. “I wish every American could have the opportunity to travel outside of the United States and meet the real people of the world.”

A quote from Edith Neimark, a diminutive white haired lady from South Brunswick, New Jersey, summed up the angst of many Americans when she gave her opinion on the bloodshed around the world. “Kill someone because you don’t like them? What’s that going to solve? But how do you stop it? I have no idea.” “As we say in the Badger State,” Kornblatt opines near the end of the movie, “Forward.” What other choice do we have?

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‘Beyond The Thrill’ Review

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Mixed with creative camera work and a frank discussion about what draws them to such a risky endeavor, “Beyond the Thrill” is an intriguing look at the world of competitive skydiving. Director Jason Schumacher (some Twin Cities Film Fest regulars may remember him from winning the Short Film Audience Award for his Sad Clown in 2014) finds some beautiful scenery as a backdrop to showcase a four person team at terminal velocity.

“That feeling in your stomach after you jump…I was kind of afraid of it but I loved it,” says one skydiver. “You could be a doctor or you could be a garbageman…it doesn’t mean much at the drop zone,” says another. Schumacher does a good job highlighting some of the work the team does (in one scene they are rolling around on skateboards to practice their routines) and also interviews United States Parachute Association Regional Judge Jon Goswitz on how each team gains or loses points for completed formations.

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It doesn’t shy away from the inherent danger either: in one scene, Andy Junghans, wearing a Skydive Twin Cities hat, tells the story of a fellow skydiver who didn’t react quickly enough when his chute got tangled up while in the air. “When other divers reached him, they saw that his femurs were shoved up into his rib cage and he was gurgling blood…he stayed like that for about five minutes until he died.”

While it would have been interesting to learn more about what these people do in their “day jobs” or how their family and friends feel about their hobby, Schumacher ably brings us into this intense world of adrenaline.

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‘The Unrelenting Charlie Davies’ Review
(documentary short)

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Given what he has gone through in his life, The Unrelenting Charlie Davies, the 17-minute short film directed by Bryan Reisberg that premiered earlier this year on ESPN2, feels like a missed opportunity. It features Charlie Davies, once called “the most promising striker in American soccer,” and his recovery from a horrific car accident that nearly took his life.

Davies was a popular athlete who went on from Boston College to play for the US national team. In 2009, he got into a car with two women he didn’t know well and was injured when the driver smashed into a metal guardrail. With a shattered femur and a fractured skull, one of his friends said “he looked like he was dead.” The movie seems to skip ahead to his first game after the accident where he, despite having a right leg 1 ½ inches shorter than his left, scored two goals.

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It would have been interesting to learn more about the aftermath and psychology of the accident: What was it like to survive that? To what do you attribute your ability to go through that and come back to play soccer at a high level? What has changed in your life as a result of the accident? It was well done (I’m not a soccer fan but I enjoyed his biography) but it just felt like the filmmakers could have dug a lot deeper.

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What’s in store for Day 8 & 9!

Stay tuned for more TCFF reviews and interviews!


TCFF 2016 Documentaries Reviews: ‘Denial’ + ‘Prison Dogs’

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We’re now on its halfway point of the 11-day film festivities! I’ve been watching plenty of documentaries back to back, and today we’ve got reviews of two excellent ones we highly recommend.

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‘Denial’ Review

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Our nation’s electrical grid and having a transgender family member. The two don’t seem to be related, do they? They will after you see Denial, the first feature film for director Derek Hallquist. The background for this movie and the story it turned into are as interesting as the film itself.

It starts out as a traditional documentary, with Hallquist’s father, David, the CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative, attempting to educate his son on the shortcomings of our nation’s power grid and the threat of climate change. It’s a little wonky: “Okay, I lost you there,” the son says at one point.

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During the shooting of the movie, a family secret is revealed: his father has come out to the family as transgender and wants to live as a woman named Christine. One of the things I admired about this film is that it doesn’t sugarcoat the struggles the family goes through. “We didn’t know how to handle it,” Derek says. While he comes out to his family, he struggles to fit his new identity into his work life. “He says he’s Dave at the co-op because he has a contract,” his wife says. “Well, we had a contract too.”

Change is hard. Both of these situations are transformative social and moral issues. “We don’t think very much about the amount of electricity we use until it smacks us in the face,” Dr. Courtney Warren, a social psychologist, says in the film. The same could be said for the process the Hallquist family is going through. Through the work of an earnest young filmmaker, he uses his own family’s situation to bring a new voice to something that affects everyone.


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‘Prison Dogs’ Review

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This is one of TCFF’s Changemaker Series’ films playing this year tackling the topic of PTSD, and it’s no doubt one of my favorite docs of the year. The bond of humans and animals are undisputed, but the bond between service dogs and their masters are pivotal. Prison Dogs explores a groundbreaking program that offers the gift of a second chance to prisoners in which they train puppies to be service dogs for veterans with PTSD.

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The film is set in New York’s Fishkill Correctional Facility where the many inmates serve a long sentence for violent crimes such as murder and armed robbery. At the start of the film, a selected number of inmates get assigned a puppy to train, and the joy and excitement is palpable. For them this is a gift of redemption, it’s their chance to pay their debts to society in some ways. The show also shows Gloria Gilbert Stoga, the feisty dog expert who runs the Puppies Behind Bars program and her tough love approach to teach the inmates to train their puppies. It shows an amusing moments where these inmates are intimidated by her, who expects a 100% commitment and responsibilities from the inmates.

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It’s one of the most moving, as well as entertaining documentaries that truly make you fully invested in the subjects’ journey. Whether it’s the inmates, the dog expert or the veterans who gets to keep the service dog in the end, I care about each and every one of them by the end. This is what an amazing storytelling is all about, so I applaud directors Geeta Gandbhir and Perri Peltz, who each have won Emmys and Peabody awards respectively. I’ve never heard of this life-altering program before but I’ve come to believe that it just could be the answer to making a prison a real place of rehabilitation.

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Be sure to bring tissues when you see this one. The scenes between the inmates and their puppies tug your heartstrings, especially the ‘graduation’ scene where the puppies are now certified service dogs ready to go home with their new masters. The inmates kept a journal as they trained the dogs and it’s heart-wrenching to watch them say goodbye to their four-legged friends.

I can’t recommend this enough folks, run don’t walk to see this when it plays near you. It proves that despite the bleak subject matter, the film can be a joyful, inspiring and uplifting experience. It one of those documentaries I don’t even mind watching again!


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PRISON DOGS is now available on @iTunes, Amazon Video and Google Play.
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Get the TCFF App!

The TCFF app is such a lifesaver for me. Instead of futzing with paper that’s easily lost, download the app so you have easy access the film schedule at your fingertips! It’s got all the info for the daily educational events as well as film schedule, which is immensely helpful!

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What’s in store for Day 6 & 7!

Stay tuned for more TCFF reviews and interviews!


TCFF 2016 Reviews: ‘Funeral Day’ + ‘In Pursuit of Silence’ doc

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I know the next 10 days is going to be a whirlwind! Day 3 of Twin Cities Film Fest has pretty much come and gone. Thanks to Sarah Johnson, my awesome reviewing partner during TCFF, for contributing to the reviews of various indie and short films. Check out her bio page here, she’s a MN-based freelance writer who also writes for City Pages.

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‘Funeral Day’ Review

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“I am probably going to punch you in the face,” one of his friends says to Scott (Jon Weinberg) early in “Funeral Day.” Most of us have a slightly neurotic friend that we love anyway. In his feature film directorial debut, Weinberg also tackles the lead role as a hypochondriac who finds a mysterious lump on his testicle the day of his friend’s funeral and decides to skip it in order to start living his life to the fullest.

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Jon Weinberg & Dominic Rains

We meet a cast of characters – the jilted ex-girlfriend (Rahnuma Panthaky), the sleazy real estate agent (Dominic Rains, who has my favorite line of the movie – “I work for a living, do you think I have time for friends?”) and the Zach Galifianakis-type Chuck (Tyler Labine) – in Scott’s search for meaning.

While the cast is strong, I found the script at times (written by Kris Elgstrand) to be a little too raunchy, in that it almost took away from what would otherwise be an unexpectedly light way to look at dark topics such as illness and morality. Unquestionably what saves the movie for me is the winsome charm of Weinberg in his portrayal of a nuanced character.

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‘In Pursuit Of Silence’ Review

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Even before watching the trailer, I was immediately intrigued by the idea of In Pursuit of Silence. Billed as a meditative film about our relationship with silence and the impact of noise on our lives, it does exactly what it says on the tin. I truly believe silence is a lost art, as we’ve become increasingly absorbed by the bustling world around us and become more desensitized by it. I love documentaries like this that really make you pause and think about the world around you.

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Mr. Orfield at Orfield Lab in Minneapolis

Directed by Patrick Shen, the film itself uses sound… and silence, in a unique way. There are plenty of scenes where the only sound is comes from nature, be it the rustling trees or grass in a field, sound of water streams, or the wind in a vast, expansive space. It features several talking heads of experts in the field, some are actually on the field measuring the decibel level of certain environments. It’s amazing how loud certain cities have become that it far exceeds what the normal human hearing should withstand. The extended exposure of such loud sounds will no doubt cause hearing loss, yet most of us don’t realize it. I think people pay more attention to air pollution than sound pollution, but the latter can be just as damaging to our health.
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It also takes to to various parts of the world… Japan, India, London, New York, as well as Minneapolis. The film features Orfield Laboratories in Minneapolis, which lab is 99.99 percent soundproof and thus considered one of the quietest places in the world. I love how the film contrast the quiet serenity of a traditional tea ceremony in Kyoto with the deafening sound of the loudest city on the planet that is Mumbai during the thundering festival season.

In his director statement on the film’s website, Shen said that he …’hope that the film challenges audiences to slow down and on some level make the world new again for them.’ I think the film accomplishes that and it truly serves as a respite for me as I’m going through the busiest time of the year covering for TCFF. I’m definitely glad I watched this and I think every citizen of the world should!

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Get the TCFF App!

The TCFF app is such a lifesaver for me. Instead of futzing with paper that’s easily lost, download the app so you have easy access the film schedule at your fingertips! It’s got all the info for the daily educational events as well as film schedule, which is immensely helpful!

tcffapp


What’s in store for Day 4 & 5!

Stay tuned for more TCFF reviews and my interview with the filmmaker of Word of Honour: Reclaiming Mandela’s Promise documentary!

Word of Honour: Reclaiming Mandela’s Promise Screening:
Sunday, October 23 | 3:45 pm.