Cleveland International Film Festival

Capsule Reviews for the CIFF

Crude Independence (US, 2008) Noah Hutton's Crude Independence is a broad look at the impact of oil discovery on a tiny North Dakota town and, by extension, on western North Dakota in general. Recent developments in technology, combined with high per-barrel prices, have brought oil companies to the town of Stanley, population about 1,200. The story begins with an eerie tour of abandoned buildings populated by carved mannequins. Soon, though, the "land people" come to find who owns mineral rights beneath the region's soil. Next come the "roughnecks," men being paid as much as $85,000 a year to do the dirty job of extracting oil. Crime follows, and the little town needs to add to its police force. Some question the oil boom for the trouble and the values it brings to town, while others cautiously embrace the influx of money. The movie has several strengths, especially that it takes its time to explore the emotions of people living on land settled by their ancestors as it changes with the addition of oil rigs and roads. As the title implies, all this weighs against American dependence on foreign oil. If you're at all interested in the social, environmental and economic impact of U.S. addiction to oil, this is a fascinating look at the situation. At 9:30 a.m. Saturday, March 28, and 4:50 p.m. Sunday, March 29. (Michael Gill)

The End of the World as We Knew It (US, 2008) If you're from Northeast Ohio, you remember where you were when "The End," WENZ 107.9, came into being in 1992 and played R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" nonstop for 24 hours. Listening to the station on an alarm-clock radio in Ravenna, I was convinced the station owners had learned Russia was about to drop the bomb and this was their way of saying goodbye to us. Other listeners called the police, sure that the station had been taken over by terrorists or, at least, nefarious R.E.M. fans. Turns out it was just a brilliant PR stunt for the launch of Cleveland's last great music station. The End lasted for only seven years, but local thirtysomethings remember it as fondly as their parents remember the Buzzard. Local documentary director Mike Wendt tracked down many of the End's more notable personalities — Maria Farina, Brian & Joe, Pat "The Producer" Johnson — for candid interviews. He also sought out acts like Beck to explain the impact this legendary station had on their careers. Wendt uses funky graphics and period music to bind the stream-of-consciousness narrative into a cohesive piece that works brilliantly for the first half hour before losing a little steam as the personalities banter on. But the End wasn't some perfect cookie-cutter ClearChannel product either — and that's what we loved about it. At 2:20 p.m. Sunday, March 29. (James Renner)

One Day in Africa (US, 2008) Where was this movie when Sarah Palin needed it? American documentary filmmaker Brook Silva-Braga's laudable intention is to show the true human face of the African continent, not the familiar images of poverty, civil war and National Geographic animal safaris (South Africa, so well chronicled for its apartheid struggles, is here left out entirely). Despite the occasional PBS Reading Rainbow-vibe, Silva-Braga retains interest by expert cross-cutting among six well-chosen individuals — from a young marketplace vendor in touristy Fez, Morocco named Osama (who wants to let the world know how open and nice he is but cements his resemblence to Borat by blaming a Jew conspiracy for 9/11), to a placidly accepting, hut-dwelling wife in a clan village in drought-wracked Niger, to forward-looking college girls in Burkina Faso who have the bittersweet last word. Most Africans never set eyes on lions or giraffes, asserts Silva-Braga, and most are not dying of AIDS and covered in flies. Still, for all the stereotype-busting, we get the impression that it sucks to be a woman in African society no matter where you go (despite the high esteem in which mothers and matriarchs are held), and that Kisumu, Kenya, during an anti-government uprising and looting spree, is an even less safe place to find yourself than downtown Cleveland after dark. At 7:25 p.m. Thursday, March 26, and 9:15 a.m. Saturday, March 28. (Charles Cassady Jr.)

Poly Cultures: Food Where We Live (US, 2009) Poly Cultures: Food Where We Live may sound like a lab experiment, but the feature-length documentary is a serious exploration of local food initiatives around Northeast Ohio. Produced by Brad Masi, directed by Tom Kondilas and written by David Pearl, it focuses on the Oberlin-based New Agrarian Center and its City Fresh program, a community-supported agriculture network that provides fresh, locally grown produce at 16 locations around Cleveland. If you're familiar with the region's local food movement, you'll see familiar people and places — like the Pint-Sized Farm, which grows exclusively for the Great Lakes Brewing Company. City Fresh coordinators Maurice Small and LJ Sylvia also have significant roles in the film and in the movement to reduce NEO consumers' "food miles" (the distance from the farm to your table, on average 1,800 miles), and improve nutrition for underserved areas of the city. But it's not just wide-eyed optimism. An interview with CSU economist Ned Hill makes clear that to gain traction among consumers, locally grown produce must be affordable. That's no small challenge given that cheap oil makes it economical to bring, for example, grapes all the way from Chile. But the human power in this film gives plenty of cause for hope. At 6:45 p.m. Wednesday, March 25, and 11:30 a.m. Thursday, March 26. (Gill)

Sticks and Stones (Canada, 2008) Though it's based on a true story about a young Canadian hockey player who orchestrates a friendly match between kids from Canada and a team from the U.S., this movie comes off as something that would be better suited to an after-school special. Set in 2003, when anti-U.S. sentiment about the Iraq War was ostensibly at a peak in Canada, the film commences as a U.S. team visits Montreal to play a pee-wee game against a Montreal-based team. The U.S. kids are booed and treated unfairly by a referee who gives all the calls to the Canadians. The kids are disenchanted and can't understand why the Canucks would be so cruel. Neither can Jordan (Alexander De Jordy), one of the young Canadian players. With little support from his coaches, he plans a rematch designed to show the Americans that all Canadians aren't haters. The movie takes a predictable course, as its feel-good sentiments extend into Jordan's personal life and his estranged parents put their differences aside to support their righteous son. Yuck. At 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 25, at 4:50 p.m. p.m. Saturday, March 28, and 9:30 a.m. Sunday, March 29. (Jeff Niesel)

Thing With No Name (US/South Africa, 2008) This is a lyrical, melancholy cinema verité documentary about how AIDS has been assimilated into the native cultures of sub-Saharan Africa, where one in six people (predominantly women) are infected, and doctors and hospitals few and far between. Litanies of modern drug "cocktails" are now woven into the lyrics of folk chants, traditional shamanic healers compete with Western medicine with their own blends of liquefied herbs and roots (served in re-used Coke bottles), and both Christian and animist societies deal with the escalating numbers of funerals and countless orphans, too often by even denying the nature of the virus (thus the film's title). The lens focuses on two specific cases of HIV-positive women in rural South Africa undergoing treatment, one reduced to a near-skeleton, the other still surprisingly robust despite her impossibly low white-blood-cell count. The latter is also a fire-scarred victim of an attempt to massacre her family when she was young, and she seems to sum up the spirit of the film, more fatalistic than optimistic, that her people have had to absorb the agony of war, colonization, apartheid and now this. While there may be hope, there is suffering in the meantime, in the midst of a heartbreakingly beautiful landscape. At 9:50 p.m. Thursday, March 26, and 4:45 p.m. Friday, March 27. (Cassady)

Upstream Battle (US/Germany, 2008) This documentary about the dwindling salmon population of Northern California highlights harvesting problems affecting several tribes that fish out of the Klamath River. It includes extensive interviews with both the PacifiCorp execs who maintain the dams are necessary to produce electricity for its customers and with advocates who work for the Native Americans. As much as the movie sides with the Native Americans, it does provide a balanced look at the issue, showing how the lack of salmon in the Native American diet has led to an increase in diabetes and heart disease. It also suggests that correcting the dam issues would involve millions of dollars. In the end, though, the movie isn't just about politics; rather, it's also about Native Americans trying to keep traditions alive in a world that doesn't care about their history. At 11:30 a.m. Friday, March 27, and 2:25 p.m. Saturday, March 28. (Niesel)

The Wrecking Crew (US, 2008) A labor of love for director Denny Tedesco, who spent 12 years making the movie, The Wrecking Crew is a documentary about a group of ragtag '60s studio musicians who performed on seminal albums by the Beach Boys, Nancy Sinatra and Nat King Cole, and were instrumental in creating Phil Spector's "wall of sound." They also filled in for the Monkees, playing on their albums while the guys were still learning their instruments. Unlike most of the well-dressed musicians who played on records at the time, these blue-jean wearing dudes had little regard for etiquette and played everything from blues to rock to pop. Tedesco interviewed everyone from Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who calls them the ones with "all the spirit and all the know-how," to country singer Glen Campbell and pop icon Cher, who attest to the group's musicianship and merit. In addition to culling together a good amount of terrific archival footage and old home videos, Tedesco even got his father, Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco, together with the old gang for a rare interview session, making the movie a poignant tribute to an often unheralded group of musicians. At 9:25 p.m. Saturday, March 28, and 4:25 p.m. Sunday, March 29. (Niesel)

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