Increasingly, we find ourselves living in a time when the rising tide of “reality television” has us questioning what is actually real. Is Snooki, the self-described “guidette” queen from “The Jersey Shore,” real? Well, for starters, she’s not Italian. She’s Chilean. So, I think we’re fairly safe saying no. Does Maria Kanellis, one of this stars of this season’s “The Celebrity Apprentice,” actually count as a celebrity? Do the Kardashian sisters fake relationships with sports stars to drive up ratings on “Keeping Up With the Kardashians”? Is “The Hills” entirely scripted? Are Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag actually human?
When the very term “reality” seems to be dictated entirely by drunken Hollywood debutantes and rich housewives, it’s something of a relief to see an actual documentary film hitting movie theaters. And if one film is a relief, then the Burning Fuse Film Festival—a touring collection of a half-dozen until-now undistributed documentaries—is a quenching deluge of authenticity.
Over the course of its six films, Burning Fuse runs the gamut of topics and styles. One thing remains consistent, though: Each one is unafraid to confront controversy, offbeat topics or our word of the day, reality. These films are not the slickest, most polished examples of the genre. You won’t find the glossy, high-tech razzle-dazzle of docu-stylist Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven; The Thin Blue Line; Fast, Cheap & Out of Control) here. But by their very nature, documentaries invite a certain shagginess. If the seams are showing, if the cinematography is raw, it simply bespeaks an unvarnished truth.
Two fine representatives of the films on display in Burning Fuse are Sliding Liberia and Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans. Both are brief and to the point—each clocking in right around an hour. Emotional, absorbing and highly enlightening, they’re perfect examples of pure documentary filmmaking.
Sliding Liberia starts by taking us to the West African nation of Liberia, home to some stunning statistics. During the country’s brutal 14-year civil war, 250,000 citizens were killed. Another 800,000 were turned into refugees. Oddly enough, the war-torn country is also home to one surfer. Part of the story is told through the eyes of American Nicholai Lidow, a former peace agency volunteer who worked with a number of Liberian emigrants throughout West Africa. Touring Liberia years later, after the civil war has died down, surf-loving Nick discovers a treasure trove of ideal surfing spots. He also befriends Alfred, the lone Liberian surfer. Alfred’s surfing skills have grown in total isolation. His surfboard came from a ransacked cargo container he found while searching for foodstuffs during the height of the war. He isn’t even aware of the term “surfing.” He calls it “sliding.” And yet his love of the sport is indistinguishable from Nic’s. The fact that Alfred learned to do what he does with no support, encouragement or instruction from anyone speaks to the purity of his pursuit.
Sliding Liberia is a true surfing movie. The cinematography might not be as beautiful as in high-water marks of the subgenre (Step Into Liquid, Riding Giants), but the filmmakers play with their simple video footage, re-creating the sort of sun-bleached, Super 8 short ends look of old-school classics like The Endless Summer. Woven throughout the film’s many clips of Nic, Alfred and pals shooting impossibly perfect tubes off the Liberian coast are images of Liberia’s tragic past. The filmmakers give a brief history of the war (though not the political reasons behind it) and introduce us to various survivors. The enormity of Liberia’s fall from grace is evident. From one of the freest, most advanced countries in Africa, it has became one of the poorest and most widely avoided.
But it is this history—from which the country is still just barely recovering—that makes Alfred’s story all the sweeter. Sliding Liberia might hint at a future in which Liberia is capable of exploiting international tourism. Or it might simply be the story of one man’s joy at discovering a sport he loves. Either way, it’s an unexpected, hopeful tale about finding your bliss amid adversity and hanging ten all over that fucker.
Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans is, in many ways, a similar tale of tragedy and hope. The film is narrated largely by co-writer and co-director Lolis Eric Elie, a longtime New Orleans newspaperman. Spurred on by renovations to his historic home in New Orleans’ storied Tremé neighborhood (faubourg being French for “suburb”), Elie set out to capture on film the area’s little-known past.
The history of black America has largely been written in a handful bullet points: Slavery, Abolition, the Civil Rights movement. But Tremé provides a far richer and more complex story of African-Americans. Slavery, it seems, wasn’t so “successful” in New Orleans. European-Americans (namely French and Spanish) weren’t as interested in maintaining the practice as white Southerners. In New Orleans, slaves could buy their freedom and then engage in business like any other citizen. When Tremé became New Orleans’ first suburb around 1720, it was home to many prosperous black artists, writers and business owners. It was the birthplace to the first black newspaper in America. Its schools were integrated, its population racially diverse.
And yet, the story of Tremé is one of ups and downs. From the post-Civil War Reconstruction, to the Jazz Age, to the Civil Rights Era, to the disaster that hovers over the area to this very day, Faubourg Tremé has been home to fascinating, world-changing personalities. In a surprisingly brief time, the film gives viewers a feeling of historic importance, of neighborhood pride, of love, loss and community. In the wake of Katrina, the area’s future is still very much in question. But by looking to the past, Faubourg Tremé finds tremendous hope for the future.
Of course, those two films only cover a third of what’s on tap at the inaugural Burning Fuse. Among the other fascinating-in-their-own-right films traveling the country this year are Pussycat Preacher, the story of a ex-stripper-turned-Evangelical-preacher, and Soldiers of Conscience, a look at conscientious objectors in modern-day war. A Snow Mobile for George examines the environmental effects of President George W. Bush’s decision to reverse legislation that would have banned certain snowmobiles. Rounding out the cinematic sextet is Murder, Spies & Voter Lies, an exposé about Clint Curtis, a computer programmer who died under mysterious circumstances after revealing the story of vote-rigging software in America. If you’ve got the stamina and the inclination, watch them all. Call it real-world insulation against MTV’s “The Real World.”
The Burning Fuse Film Festival plays Wednesday and Thursday, March 24 and 25, at Guild Cinema (3405 Central NE) Log on to guildcinema.com for a complete schedule
A teenager wanders into the forest, gets shrunk down to tiny size and finds herself caught in a battle between good and evil in this eco-friendly 3D toon. The eclectic voice cast includes Amanda Seyfried, Colin Farrell, Jason Sudeikis, Christoph Waltz, Beyoncé, Pitbull, Steven Tyler and Aziz Ansari. From the makers of Robots, Rio and Ice Age. Meh. 102 minutes PG. (Opens Friday 5/24)
Bruce Campbell and the gang are back in the woods and battling even more nasty demons, possessed hillbillies and severed hands in this modern horror hallmark. Less of a sequel and more of a crazier, funnier, faster, gorier remake of Sam Raimi's 1981 original. 85 minutes Unrated. (friday)
Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson and Paul Walker all wear tank tops and drive really fast in his preposterous sixth outing in the F&F series. There's something about a British bad guy trying to steal something, but you don't go into these movies for the plot. The action often defies both physics (gravity doesn't work that way) and logic (when did the streets of central London get so deserted?). But it is fast, loud and frantic--giving fans plenty of what they're expecting. 130 minutes PG-13. (Opens Friday 5/24)
The Wolfpack (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis) is back. No wedding or bachelor party this time, though. Seems a nasty gangster (John Goodman) is looking for criminal weirdo Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong). Naturally he kidnaps Doug (Justin Bartha, the invisible member of the Wolfpack) and blackmails the other guys into finding Chow. In Vegas. More of the same, but you expected that. 100 minutes R. (Opens Friday 5/24)
Director Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala) adapts Mohsin Hamid's political novel about a young Pakistani man (Riz Ahmed, Four Lions) working on Wall Street who gets caught up in terrorism. The cast for this complex, ambiguous and occasionally sermon-heavy film includes Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber and Kiefer Sutherland. 130 minutes R. (Opens Friday 5/24)
This animated Irish fable was very quietly nominated for an Academy Award in 2010. It concerns Brendan, a young boy living in a remote medieval abbey in Ireland. He joins up with a monk to help complete a magical book of worldly wisdom--a quest that takes him outside the sheltering walls of the abbey and into contact with a mysterious fairy girl. Enchanting and beautifully illustrated. 75 minutes PG. (Opens Saturday 5/25)
TV actor Chadwick Boseman stars as baseball-playing barrier-smasher Jackie Robinson in this period biopic from writer-director Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River, A Knight's Tale). Harrison Ford is color-barrier-ending Baseball Commissioner Branch Rickey. 88 minutes PG-13.
Dad (Dennis Quaid) is a dyed-in-the-wool, midwestern corn farmer doing anything he can to survive in the world of genetically modified crops. But sonny boy (Zac Efron) just wants to be a NASCAR driver. If that sounds like a contrived plotline, you're correct. But up-and-coming indie director Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo) wrings some great performances from his stars, resulting in a surprisingly sincere melodrama about the modern farming industry, small-town entrapment and father-son dynamics. With race cars. 105 minutes R.
This lavish 1963 production starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton is certainly the definition of epic. The infamous Hollywood historical certainly deserves the digital restoration it gets here, but the film was a colossal flop at the time it came out and hasn't shed any of its campy excessiveness over time. 243 minutes
On the surface, this CGI toon is just "The Flintstones" with a sassy grandma and a bit of The Land Before Time tossed in for good measure. Nicolas Cage voices an overprotective caveman whose rebellious daughter (Emma Stone) befriends a primitive inventor (Ryan Reynolds) who brings warnings about the end of the world. Cloris Leachman plays the sassy grandma. Of course she does. Dreamworks Animation tried harder with Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon, but the animation is colorful and occasionally amusing. 98 minutes PG.
Lurid Australian director Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!) yanks the curtain back on his Jazz Age Disneyland version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novella. Tobey Maguire is the World War I vet who gets lured into the fabulous lifestyle of his nouveau riche Long Island neighbor, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Carey Mulligan (An Education, Drive) is the contentious object of affection, Daisy Buchanan. Throw in some fantabulous fashions and an explosive soundtrack (Beyoncé, Jay Z, Lana Del Rey, Florence and the Machine, Jack White, will.i.am) and you've got one hell of a party. The pure over-the-topness of it all makes it hard to take the characters seriously, but Luhrmann's manic razzle dazzle ultimately fits the narrative quite snugly. 142 minutes PG-13.
Michael Shannon (Take Shelter, "Boardwalk Empire") stars in this true story of Richard Kuklinski, a notorious contract killer and family man. When the guy was finally arrested in 1986, neither his wife nor his daughters had the slightest clue as to his real profession. Crazy, no? It's grim stuff, but Shannon gives a gripping and restrained portrayal. 106 minutes R.
Industrialist/superhero Tony Stark's personal world is torn apart when he's attacked by an international terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). Filmmaker Shane Black (writer of Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout and director of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) keeps everything breezy, funny and, most of all, fast as a jet plane. 130 minutes PG-13.
In this Tom Sawyer-ish magical-realist melodrama, two teenage boys discover a fugitive (Matthew McConaughey) hiding out on a tiny river island in Arkansas. Turns out this fugitive (nicknamed "Mud") is on the run from bounty hunters. But he's just an innocent (mostly) fellow trying to reunite with his ladylove (Reese Witherspoon), who's stuck living at a rundown local motel. A lovely, if overly allegorical anti-fable from Jeff Nichols (writer-director of 2011's equally metaphor-heavy Take Shelter). 130 minutes PG-13.
Michael Bay (yes, that Michael Bay) tries his hand at directing a (relatively) inexpensive action comedy. Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie play a trio of Miami bodybuilders who come up with a stupid scheme to kidnap a jerkbag businessman. Naturally this results in much chaos, gunplay and exploding things. It's based on a true story from 1999 involving kidnapping, extortion, torture and murder--which apparently wasn't very funny. 130 minutes R.
Director J.J. Abrams amps up the action even more than he did in the last frantic Trek reboot. Here, Captain Kirk (super-angry Chris Pine) leads a manhunt through a war zone to capture a space age terrorist bent on revenge (Benedict Cumberbatch, trying his best to add nuance to an underwritten role). The film is littered with in-jokes, but longtime fans might find themselves wishing Abrams had spread his wings a bit--rather than just rooting through "Star Trek" reruns looking for characters and catchphrases to recycle. 132 minutes PG-13.
Halle Berry continues her poor post-Oscar career decisions (Die Another Day, Catwoman, Perfect Stranger, Frankie & Alice, New Year's Eve, Dark Tide, Movie 43), starring in this cliché-laden thriller. Berry plays a 911 operator who gets a panic-stricken cell phone call from a young woman (Abigail Breslin) who has been kidnapped and stuffed into a car trunk. For various extremely contrived reasons, Berry must step in and rescue the girl--as opposed to, say, the police. 94 minutes R.
Movies 8 Fri-Thu 11:40am, 2:10, 4:50, 7:20, 9:50 Movies West Fri-Thu 12:05, 2:35, 5:05, 7:35, 10:05
From the makers of Hoodwinked! and a whole bunch of CGI Barbie movies (whoopee) comes a generic family movie in which a pile of movies stars (Brendan Fraser, Ricky Gervais, Jessica Alba, Sofia Vergara, Sarah Jessica Parker, George Lopez, William Shatner) provide voices for some cute cartoon characters. The excuse for Burger King kids' meal toys this time around is that a bunch of friendly space aliens must escape from Area 51. 89 minutes PG.
After nearly a year's delay and a bunch of re-shoots, this live-action sequel to 2009's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra finally hits theaters. Channing Tatum is back as Duke, but he's mostly supplanted by newcomers Dwayne Johnson as Roadblock and Bruce Willis as Joe Colton. (As fans in the know are aware, that's the name of the original 12-Inch G.I. Joe figure from 1964.) This time around, the baddies are blowing up the White House (a popular thing to do in movies these days) and framing the Joes for crimes they didn't commit (shades of the A-Team). 110 minutes PG-13.
Jason Bateman is a mild-mannered businessman who decides to hunt down the deceptively harmless-looking woman (Melissa McCarthy from Bridesmaids) who's been living it up on his stolen identity. The result is a predictably wacky road trip. 112 minutes R.
Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men: First Class) directs Hollywood's latest fairy tale fantasy in which a young farmhand (Nicholas Hoult from X-Men: First Class and Warm Bodies) gets caught in a war between humans and giants. There's even a princess to rescue. The effects are cool, but the whole fairy tale thing (Alice in Wonderland, Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror Mirror, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, "Once Upon a Time") is kinda played out. 114 minutes PG-13.
Disney, still glowing from their actionized Alice in Wonderland sequel, launches a prequel to L. Frank Baum's famed Wizard of Oz. Actor/enigma James Franco stars as the smalltime magician who ends up in the fantasy land of Oz and must decide if he's got the stuff to battle a wicked witch. Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams are on witch duty. Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Spider-Man) directs. 130 minutes PG.
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's son gets arrested in a drug deal gone bad. Naturally, beefy super-dad volunteers to become an undercover agent for the DEA in order to free his son. Much punching, shooting and 'sploding follows. 112 minutes PG-13.
Harmony Korine, director of mostly unwatchable art house shockers like Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy, Mister Lonely and Trash Humpers, delivers what is either a rank satire of raunchy teen comedies or the most bugfuck crazy mainstream film ever made. We've got four teenage girls (Disney Channel sweethearts Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez among them) who get recruited by a rapping drug dealer (James Franco at his most self-indulgently looped-out) into a life of crime. This monotonous, presumably mean-spirited porno-chic fantasy is like "Girls Gone Wild" on GHB and Red Bull (with a Skrillex score to boot). 94 minutes R.