In the 14 years since the East Lansing Film Festival was launched, it has become a major-league showcase for independent films, documentaries, shorts and foreign films. The tradition continues with this year’s festival, which offers everything from student films to a retrospective screening of “Shaft.” The festival also includes the Lake Michigan Film Competition, which awards cash prizes to filmmakers whose productions were at least one-quarter filmed, produced or financed in the states bordering Lake Michigan; categories include feature, long documentary, short documentary, short film, student documentary, student narrative and other media.
Here’s what’s on this year’s schedule. Films of particular note are highlighted.Tonight
7:30 p.m.“In a Better World” (113 min.) Hannah Community Center
Noble intentions and strong performances battle a preachy screenplay in director Susanne Bier’s “In a Better World,” which won the Academy Award for best foreign language film last year. Bier’s screenplay (co-written with her frequent collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen) examines the nature of violence and how we often secretly applaud the same behavior we claim to despise. Young Christian (William John Nielsen) is still reeling from the death of his mom, but workaholic Claus (Ulrich Thomsen) overlooks his son’s neediness. That allows Christian to channel his frustrations into increasingly scary escapades with misfit classmate Elias (Markus Rygaard). Meanwhile, Elias’ pacifist dad, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a Swedish doctor who works in African villages, tries to deal with murderous militants and brutal warlords. While the acting is exemplary all around (Trine Dyrholm, who plays Elias’ defensive mom, is also outstanding) and Bier knows how to build tension, “World” is overloaded with heavy-handed messages — before you devote yourself to saving other folks’ kids, take an interest in your own; bullies come in all sizes, etc. — that suffocate much of the drama. — JS
Thursday, Nov. 10
7:30 p.m.“Shaft” (98 min.) Hannah Community Center
Who’s the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks? None other than Richard Roundtree, in the defining performance of his career. The 1971 hit helped to launch the short-lived but fondly remembered “blaxploitation” genre and it did wonders for the career of Isaac Hayes, who won an Oscar for his title song. It probably boosted sales of full-length brown leather coats, too. The raucous, achingly “with-it” crime drama (which was considered uncommonly violent in its day, but looks fairly restrained in the post-Tarantino era) co-stars Michigan State University alum Charles Cioffi as a mobster. It’s truly a blast from the past, in every sense. Can you dig it? — JS
Friday, Nov. 11
“Stranger Things” (77 min.) Wells Hall, Theater B
Like taking time to smell the roses, “Stranger Things” is a frustratingly simple film that finds beauty in ordinary details. Filmmakers Eleanor Burke and Ron Eyal explore ideas of grief, connection and kindness through a happenstance meeting between two strangers. Patience is required for full enjoyment of this deliberately slow film in which shots of water beetles, bathwater and abundant awkward glances yield no symbolism or deeper meaning. The story and its message unfold in what feels like real time. Still, the subtly textured performances from the two leading actors make “Stranger Things” a worthwhile respite from overly ambitious plots and political subtexts. — PW
“Buck” (88 min.) Wells Hall, Theater C
This has been a terrific year for documentaries, and director Cindy Meehl’s “Buck” is one of the very finest. Meehl’s charismatic subject is Buck Brannaman, a “horse whisperer” who gets the endorsement of no less than Robert Redford, who calls him “the real deal/no-nonsense guy.” Brannaman first made his mark as a celebrated young rider and roper (as seen in a clip from a memorable 1970s Kellogg’s Sugar Pops commercial), but outside the arena he and his older brother suffered savage beatings at the hands of their hard-drinking, never-satisfied father. Thanks to a nurturing foster family, Brannaman overcame his traumatic childhood and developed a method of working with horses that emphasizes empathy and patience instead of whippings and threats. “Respect isn’t fear,” Brannaman insists. “It’s acceptance.” Even those who aren’t obsessed with all things equine will be utterly charmed by Brannaman’s magnetic personality and fascinated by his philosophy. Part therapist, part shaman, Brannaman is equally adept at reading the minds of mares and diseecting the personalities of their owners. “A lot of times, rather than helping people with horse problems, I’m helping horses with people problems,” Brannaman observes. — JS
“Donor Unknown” (78 min.) Wells Hall, Theater A
What a tangled web we weave when we use a sperm bank to conceive. JoEllen Marsh, of Erie, Pa., who was born with the help of a donor from the California Cryobank, finds she has half-siblings all over the country. Using the Donor Sibling Registry website, she tracks several of them down and finds they have some striking similarities beyond physical characteristics. The story makes it to The New York Times, which prompts Donor 150 — the father of Marsh and her new friends — to come forward. Director Jerry Rothwell follows the kids as they meet the mysterious Jeffrey Harrison, who turns out to be a proudly eccentric former stripper who now looks like a hippie Boris Karloff (he gets stoned while he prays) and lives in an RV in Venice, Calif. While the situation might be odd, the film is both humorous and touching, addressing a hot-button topic in a surprisingly mellow style — and if you’ve ever wondered what a “masturbatorium” looks like, soon you’ll know. — JS
Short Film Program 1: “The Haymaker”; “Tasnim,” “75 El Camino,” “Deep Blue Breath,” “Bottle,” “Buyer Beware,” “Oliver’s Treasure,” “Hard,” “My Grandpa Looks Like William Powell” (100 min.) Wells Hall, Theater D
“Virgin Alexander” (88 min.) Wells Hall, Theater B
Directed by Charlotte Barrett and Sean Fallon, “Virgin Alexander” is a raunchy independent comedy centered on a hapless young junk hauler who turns his house into a brothel, in spite of the fact that he is still a virgin. The film’s emotional beats often feel a bit strained and its gestures toward female empowerment are almost entirely superficial, but the high-concept premise and fun performances are definitely good for some laughs, particularly Bronson Pinchot as a bumbling rival pimp. Plus, there’s an absolutely phenomenal dance number at the end, for no apparent reason. — TK
“Close But No Cigar” (68 min.) Wells Hall, Theater D
This documentary chronicles the career of comedian Bob Zany, who premiered on “The Gong Show” in 1976. The film also features interviews with comedians such as Carrot Top and Fred Willard about the art of laughter.
“Little Town of Bethlehem” (75 min.) Wells Hall, Theater A
This documentary has an intriguing structure, as it tells the stories of three men — a Muslim, a Jew and a Christian — raised in Israel and Palestine. They share their individual journeys toward becoming advocates for promoting non-violence in the pursuit of peace and equality in the region. Especially compelling is Yonatan, an Israeli combat pilot who publicly joins a group of pilots who refuse to participate in missions that may end in civilian casualties. The film is not a primer on the whole conflict, but it does serve as a very real reminder of its toll on individual human beings. — MC
“On the Ice” (120 min.) Wells Hall, Theater C
Alaskan teenagers Qalli and Aivaaq go to great lengths to keep secrets after the death of their friend.
Saturday, Nov. 12
Local Filmmakers Showcase — Homegrown Shorts: “The Blunt Truth,” “My Journey,” “Waiter From Hell,” “Mr. Henderson,” “Sorry About Aphrodite” (129 min.) Wells Hall, Theater A
Local Filmmakers Showcase — MSU Films: “Fractured,” “Round Trip Ticket,” “Heavy Metal With a Twist of Lemon,” “Behind the Paper: State News Documentary,” “F.I.L.M. Film in Lansing Michigan,” “Unfinished Journey: A City in Transition” (41 min.) Wells Hall Theater C
“The Verve Pipe on ‘BackStage Pass’” (88 min.) Wells Hall, Theater D
An in-studio performance recorded for WKAR, featuring classic tunes as well as some of the band’s new songs.
“Being From Another Planet” (117 min.) Wells Hall, Theater C
Martin Anderson-Kushnir is the son of two astronauts and the first person born on Mars. While searching for solitude, he accidentally regains his unwanted fame and begins to change his adopted world.
“Lily’s Mom” (103 min.) Wells Hall, Theater B
Despite several obstacles, Mary strives to be a better mother and role model to her young daughter, Lily. Can she overcome her struggles and give Lily a “normal” life?
“Outside the Wire: The Forgotten Children of Afghanistan” (96 min.) Wells Hall, Theater D
This documentary follows filmmakers as they travel to Afghanistan’s never-before-seen places, such as schools, orphanages and safe houses.
“Bucksville” (104 min., with short “The Empty Playground”) Wells Hall, Theater D
Suspense-free, illogical and just plain goofy, this backwoods “Star Chamber” ripoff (with dashes of “The Most Dangerous Game” and, sigh, “Twin Peaks”) is one cold cup of coffee. Why is an extended family of Pacific Northwest yokels tapped to join an elite cadre of underground assassins? Why is our protagonist saddled with daddy, mommy, sister, ex-girlfriend and uncle issues? And why, oh why, is there a grown woman sucking out of a bottle in a diner? Writer/director Chel White himself doesn’t even seem to care. Plot threads are left dangling, uninteresting characters show up and vanish without another mention and Tom Berenger literally phones in his performance as the pivotal “Patron” of a covert government-sanctioned militia organization. — AR
“Campesinos … Shall Inherit the Earth” (79 min.) Wells Hall, Theater C
In order to document the struggles faced by organic and fair trade farmers in Central America, this documentary chronicles the lives and viewpoints of three children who work on the farms.
“David” (80 min.) Wells Hall, Theater B
Daud, the son of a Brooklyn Imam, befriends a group of Jewish children and is swept into a difficult predicament.
“Stitched” (72 min.) Wells Hall, Theater A
Documentary about three quilters striving to finish their creations for the nation’s largest quilt show, Houston’s International Quilt Festival.
“The Human Experience” (90 min.) Wells Hall, Theater D
“The Human Experience” is like listening to someone who’s never picked up a book try and tell you how they could fix the world — but somehow this documentary still kinda works. A group of young filmmakers live as homeless people during a bitterly cold week in New York, travel to Peru to meet some disabled orphans and then jet off to Africa, where they meet an AIDS baby and a leper colony. Interspersed among the globetrotting are canned interviews with various “experts” expounding upon topics like religion and the importance of family. Obviously staged scenes and rambling monologues from the filmmakers dilute the message of — actually, there doesn’t seem to be one, except “we’re all human.” Not exactly an epiphany, but if everyone spent some time like these guys, hey, it might just fix the world. — AR
“On the Ice” (120 min.) Wells Hall, Theater B
(See Nov. 11 for details)
“Restoration” (105 min.) Wells Hall, Theater A
After the death of his partner, an Israeli antique restorer is determined to save his business and way of life with the help of a new apprentice. The film was nominated for 11 Israeli Academy Awards and won the Dramatic Writing Award at the Sundance Film Festival.
Short Film Program 2: “The Fairweather Girl”; “Bathing and the Single Girl”; “Mish Mush”; “My Barista”; “Without Wings”; “Of Frogs and Gods”; “4 Walls”; “Poke”; “Bukowski” (89 min.) Wells Hall Theater C
“Deadheads” (96 min.) Wells Hall, Theater D
Well-acted and exceedingly well-written, this shoestring-budget horror-comedy is a welcome addition to the new sub-genre of self-aware horror-comedies that includes “Zombieland” and “Shaun of the Dead.” It’s populated with a disarming cast of surprisingly non-clich'd zombie movie archetypes, and somehow manages to keep the simple premise — a cognizant zombie on a road trip to reunite with his lost love — from feeling rotten. Filmmaker brothers Brett and Drew T. Pierce show promise for long careers behind the camera, but hopefully they’re not the only ones who get more work after this: Among the many fine performances is Harry Burkey, who kills it in his first (according to IMDB, at least) movie role. — AR
“Garbage Dreams” (79 min.) Wells Hall, Theater A
Cairo is home to the world’s largest garbage village, with over 60,000 residents who make a living by recycling almost all the trash they collect. This documentary, shot over the course of four years, chronicles the lives of three teenagers born in village.
“Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians” (92 min.) Wells Hall, Theater A
With high production values, a fast pace and a super-saturated color scheme, “Rollers” is both a visually and ethically stimulating documentary that follows a team of young ministers who become blackjack players to help fund their ministries. While the producers could easily trim about 20 minutes from the total running time, they have done a fantastic job of illustrating the rise and fall of the team in a three-year arc. Combining interviews, group meetings and practice sessions, and hidden camera footage from inside the casinos, they have created a compelling story of clashing obsessions. — MC
“Incendies” (130 min.) Wells Hall, Theater C
After reading their mother’s will, Quebecois twins unearth dark family secrets that cause them to travel to the Middle East for answers. This film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards.
Sunday, Nov. 13
“Composed” (79 min.) Wells Hall, Theater B
Director Charley Rivkin inserts himself into his own documentary about Chris Errera, a dastrophic dysplasia dwarf working as a musician in Chicago. “Composed” is unfocused and commits numerous Documentary 101 faux pas, most glaringly by failing to portray Errera as anything less than a long-suffering saint. By focusing on Errera’s lifelong health problems and his struggles in finding employment, “Composed” makes the viewer feel sorry for him rather than imparting the desired feeling of empathy. Errera himself admits that he doesn’t have it that bad, reinforcing how far off the mark this film is. — AR
Lake Michigan Film Competition Student Documentaries: “Lake Village”; “Bay City: Community Through Restoration”; “The Birds Upstairs”; “American Terrorist” (105 min.) Wells Hall, Theater D
“Lake Village” — This 50-minute documentary explores life in the farming co-op of Lake Village, a 300-acre homestead in Kalamazoo, whose diverse and colorful residents range from a Western Michigan University college professor to a former neo-Nazi biker. That heterogeneous mix of personalities doesn’t always mesh: Residents occasionally disagree on what the co-op should be and how it should be run, and they’ve sometimes struggled with the not-entirely unfounded perception that they’re drug- and nudity-loving hippies. Still, they’re united by an appreciation of Native American spirituality and a desire to become closer to the Earth, with all the unglamorous work that entails: a chicken’s decapitation and the miracle of goat birth are both commemorated in detail. The film is smartly edited and well complemented by live music from Mark Duval & Traci Seuss. —TK
“Bay City: Community Through Restoration” — Like a stroll through a historic neighborhood with a renovation buff, this film gives you a tour of Bay City’s architectural masterpieces and provides a brief history of the wannabe-Michigan-hub; its founders thought its size would rival Chicago, and some early design work showcases these ambitions. The narrative follows a recent movement to revitalize some of the decaying homes and create new art and culture districts, which could in turn provide other crumbling Michigan communities with a road map back to prosperity. — AR
“American Terrorist” — Director Ben Sherman’s shocking thriller is unquestionably controversial. This sympathetic portrayal of a highly educated domestic terrorist effectively manifests suspense and impending doom through a minimalist electronic score and clever editing. Unlike similar media portraits of anti-establishment crusaders, “American Terrorist” resists the urge to dismiss its characters motivations as mental trauma or short-sighted revenge. This botany instructor demonstrates great care with plants and his grandchild. However, his anarchist rhetoric presented as justifications for biochemical terror sounds too na've to come from a distinguished college professor. Regardless, this provocative film serves to incite heated debate while leaving a haunting impression of neighboring dangers. — PW
“Somewhere West” (103 min.) Wells Hall, Theater A
After being diagnosed with a terminal illness, Ian shuns treatment and instead travels west. He unintentionally becomes the center of a makeshift family that helps him learn to let go.
“Wrestling for Jesus: The Tale of T-Money” (120 min.) Wells Hall, Theater C
Fanatical born-again Christians and hardcore professional wrestling fans are bizarre enough on their own, but do a little cross-pollination and the insanity is jaw-dropping. T Money is an evangelist/villain in the Wrestling for Jesus league in South Carolina, and this doc follows him in the ring, at home with his wife — the 22-year-old couple claim to have met on their first day of kindergarten — and interacting with other characters in and around the league. At times, it’s difficult to tell if these people are real or if “Wrestling for Jesus” is a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary. Just when you think you’ve got your answer, the movie flash-forwards one year and completely blows your mind. A must-see. — AR
“A Second Knock at the Door” (92 min.) Wells Hall, Theater B
“A Second Knock at the Door” explores the United States military’s history of consistently giving limited, misleading and patently false information to the families of soldiers who are accidently killed by friendly forces. To the government, friendly fire incidents are embarrassing blunders that needn’t be dwelled upon; to the families, the fog and secrecy surrounding their loved ones’ deaths make the pain of loss even worse. “Knock’s” most powerful and chilling moments come in live, infrared footage of friendly fire incidents: The workaday chatter of shooting enemy (seen as white blobs) gives way to the devastating realization that U.S. lives have been taken. The rest of the documentary is dry but informative, showcasing the massive gap between cold political bureaucracy and the personal heartbreak of war. — TK
“Currency” (85 min.) Wells Hall, Theater A
“Currency” makes two things clear from the outset: None of its characters’ questions are answered, and everybody dies in the end. That grim assessment of life in general sets the tone for the rest of the movie, as the film thrusts its diverse set of characters into terrible situations with despicable people, following their multiple stories as a mysterious medieval coin changes hands across generations. Much like when a story is too arbitrarily happy to believe, there are moments in “Currency” that stretch credulity in their awfulness. It’s a credit to the film, however, that such moments mange to elicit the frustration and anger that they do. The performances tend to be hit or miss, but the imaginative cinematography, colorful effects and thoughtful dialogue keep the film engaging, even as you want to kill half of the film’s doomed characters yourself. — TK
Lake Michigan Film Competition Short Documentaries: “Carp: A Four Letter Word”; “The Dancer” “14 Days With Alzheimer’s”; “A New Generation of Riders”; “Defying Deletion: The Fight Over Iraq’s Nineveh Plans”; “The Kings of Flint” (110 min.) Wells Hall, Theater D
“Carp: A Four Letter Word” — For those who have heard about the Asian carp invasion in 30-second blurbs on the news, this short documentary provides a well-balanced look at the issue. It’s mostly focused on the role of the Chicago River lock system in preventing the carp from getting into the Great Lakes. The producers interview a wide variety of stakeholders, from those who think the carp are lurking at the depths of Lake Michigan already to those who say they haven’t gotten past the city, to those who say either way, let’s just eat the darned things. — MC
“The Dancer” — Indian orphan Kengava Kumar recounts his short, harsh life for documentary filmmakers Seth Stark and Joshua Jouppi. Take “Slumdog Millionaire,” remove the millionaire, reduce it to an 11-minute short and make it a true story, and you have an idea of what to expect from this poignant, unexpectedly uplifting piece. — AR
“14 Days With Alzheimer’s” — Alzheimer’s doesn’t seem like it would lend itself naturally to laughs, but this short home-video documentary proves otherwise. Director Lisa Cerasoli captures the final 14 days of her grandmother’s life as she sings, swears, drinks beer and makes peace with decades of change all over again every day. The subject matter is loaded with a high concentration of emotion, evoking laughter and sadness in equal measure, often within seconds. Ultimately, “14 Days’” portrayal of love in the face of mental decline is about as heartbreaking as one might expect, but also surprisingly humorous and oddly reassuring. — TK
“A New Generation of Riders” — News flash: Riding bikes is healthy for you and good for the environment. Don’t believe it? You can waste five minutes watching this doc that basically says the same thing. You also get introduced to a bike shop owner in Detroit’s Corktown district and some members of something called the Critical Mass movement, but neither is given more than a passing glance. — AR
“Defying Deletion” — Andr' N. Anton’s short documentary highlights injustice with heavy emotional imagery but limited content. Assyrians are an ethnic and religious minority with ancient cultural roots and ruins spread across present day Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. According to the one-sided film, the Assyrians’ ethnicity and Christian beliefs are under attack by current governments and armies in the region, potentially leading to their untimely extinction. Brief interviews of suffering families in the region are juxtaposed with multiple ambassadorial talking heads describing an us-versus-them situation, blaming religious extremism in the Middle East and complacent politicians in the West. But images of bloodied bodies and brief anecdotes without a singular narrative or proposed solution muddle this call to arms with too many general questions. — PW
“The Kings of Flint” — Heartwarming and inspiring, “Flint” chronicles how Dora and Jacky King turned their tiny piece of blight in Flint into a flagship of hope and growth. Minutes into this polished Michigan State University-produced documentary short, archival footage and visual statistics chart Flint’s steady decline from prosperity into post-General Motors poverty. From there, the weathered but naturally charismatic Dora and Jacky describe the painstaking history of turning abandoned, garbage-ridden property into a thriving organic farm and karate school for inner-city youth. Supported by interviews with involved and empowered kids along with others from the Flint community, the film highlights the potential of diligent individuals rebuilding local economies from people and the land. — PW
Lake Michigan Film Competition Short Films Program A: “Donald”; “The Late Night Ride”; “My Friend Peter”; “Cargo”; “World of Art”; “Bullies on Vacation” (92 min.) Wells Hall, Theater C
“Donald” and “My Friend Peter” — One must evaluate these pieces together, as they follow the same theme: puppets that are spokespeople for their human hosts. “Donald” is edgy and funny, with lesser production values. Edgar, an ambitious ad executive is told by potential client Donald that he’ll get a big account if he kills Donald’s partner. Donald is a puppet, which leads to genuine confusion for Edgar. Like a mini-version of “The Beaver,” “Peter” is the monkey puppet mouthpiece for his introverted human Gerald. Peter begs to be taken out in the world, where Gerald tries to teach him how to act around people. Peter ignores him, and the monkey gives the man a charming lesson in human relations. — MCC
“The Late Night Ride” — A mysterious gang of young bikers liven up a tired saloon populated with old-timers in this charming short, which feels like a lost episode of the “Twilight Zone”—one of the “aw, gee” ones, not one of the scary ones. Bonus points for using an awesome thumping techno song as the plot’s catalyst. — AR
“Cargo” — Suspense auteurs like Hitchcock serve as inspiration for early scenes in “Cargo.” Additionally, director Daniel Casey’s attention to detail and timing gives this short production A-list polish on a D-list budget. The premise of a man coerced into delivering a potentially dangerous package under threat seems promising. When the package is revealed to be nothing more than a benign “MacGuffin,” the film’s momentum drops off, culminating in a confusing emotional downshift. Despite strong acting, editing, and overall production values, “Cargo” is a finely wrapped dud that ultimately disappoints. — PW
“World of Art” — The physical embodiment of “art” seeks “inspiration” while avoiding “fear” in “World of Art.” Writer-director Mike Allore’s blunt metaphors and underdeveloped story (which essentially amounts to a half-hour chase) leave much to be desired, but his true talents lie in clever costumes and visual effects. Characters jump in and out of famous works of art in which actors bring the subjects to life. From a limbless Venus de Milo to Frida Kahlo’s thick browed self-portrait, “World of Art” is at best “A Night at the Museum” within the canvas. — PW
“Bullies on Vacation” — “I’m going to sucker punch him, Gary Cooper-style,” says David (Brian Vander Ark), a vacationing writer who runs into his childhood bully at an exclusive summer resort. The performances are good, but the script is something of a mess (including a head-scratcher of an ending), while the theme — the nature of revenge — is given short shrift. It’s a big wind-up with no punch. — AR
“Alleged” (91 min.) Wells Hall, Theater D
Dramatizing the debate over religion, evolution and public schools in the Scopes Monkey Trial could stand alone as a parable for present-day cultural schisms. Unlike the fictionalized “Inherit the Wind,” “Alleged” seeks to revisit rather than reformat history, using actual names, quotes and facts. But the writer’s insistence on explaining the conspiratorial backstory, a love story and a tale of corrupt media ethics sometimes turns into a cumbersome juggling act that relies on clich'd conventions. Fortunately, performances by Brian Dennehy as Clarence Darrow and Fred Thompson as William Jennings Bryan provide star power and gravitas. Additionally, Michigan actors such as John Lepard and Thomas D. Mahard provide solid support, along with the historically picturesque Crossroads Village in Genesee County, which serves as a backdrop. — PW
“Fall Away” (93 min.) Wells Hall, Theater A
The producers might classify “Fall Away” as a coming out story/whodunit. It becomes a “who-cares-whodunit” about halfway through. Jake is the supposedly charismatic frontman for an up-and-coming alt-country band. That is, he claims to be charismatic because people fall into his orbit and can’t break away. This magnetism seems to be based on the fact that he can win a staring contest while sporting a vapid smile. The film is a mess of flash-forwards and flashbacks that render the viewer confused about the actual timing of events. Torn between two lovers, Jake spends his days talking his ex-girlfriend and his nights sleeping with his childhood friend, John. Then sometimes he goes in the bathroom and cries. Jake is killed at the beginning, and the rest of the film seems to explain why the killer did the world a favor. While the cinematography is good, the script is flat, the characters lack any emotional connection and the fight choreography is laughable. Stay away from "Fall Away." — MC
“Holler and the Moan” (93 min.) Wells Hall, Theater B
“Holler” is an outstanding example of how a no-budget film can make an impact if the subject is interesting enough. Subtitled “a film about music dead ends,” it is an intimate portrait of a singer/songwriter trying to make a career out of his passion. Indiana hottie Lee Miles could be the next Neil Young, but suffers health and relationship issues that could send his career into a dead end. Supported by friends, he slogs on physically and emotionally. Filmed in lo-fi, high-contrast black-and-white, the film is a sumptuous, albeit slow, meditation on the universal struggle of the artist. — MC
Lake Michigan Film Competition Short Films Program B: “Last Seen on Dolores Street”; “The Spirit of Isabel”; “Certain Essential Elements”; “Nain Rouge”; “Bright” (108 min.) Wells Hall Theater C
“Last Seen on Dolores Street” — The production values and style are great, but “Last Seen” is basically a three-minute “Twilight Zone” episode. Realistically, three minutes is all it takes to tell this very simple story, which is definitely a case of style over substance. — MC
“The Spirit of Isabel” — Writer/director Robert Joseph Butler implies that the bad economy is to blame for Isabel’s (Aphrodite Nikolovski) prostitution career, and that’s just oversimplifying a horrific life choice. The cinematography unfortunately — albeit accurately — depicts downtown Detroit as bright and bustling, visually negating the hopelessness of Isabel’s situation. It would have been far more interesting to see what caused Isabel to fall so low and how she’s going to get out of this. — AR
“Certain Essential Elements” — Beautiful people, stilted dialogue and huge gaps in logic abound in this trite piece of melodrama; it almost feels like a poorly translated telenovela, as two troubled couples hash it out during a rainy evening in the Big City. There’s some interesting camerawork and the mood is effectively dreary, but the overall effect of cutting back and forth between boring conversations about “where is our relationship going?” leaves you feeling like you’re missing something. — AR
“Nain Rouge” — High-minded but clumsily executed, “Nain Rouge” reeks of “student film.” Jason, a suburban white boy stranded in Detroit by his hoodlum friends, learns the True Meaning of Devil’s Night from the black denizens of a mysterious all-night diner. Yes, they’re black and Jason is white. Get it? It’s a race-relations parable! Kudos for employing an intriguing Michigan urban legend — Detroit’s patron demon Nain Rouge, or Red Dwarf, who has appeared throughout the troubled city’s history in times of peril — and for the performance of Julian Gant (“Bilial’s Stand”), who deserves far better material. — AR
“Bright” — This short drama explores a transformative period in the life of a young man (Eric Nenninger) obsessed with all forms of illumination as he deals with his crippling fear of the dark. He is mentored and encouraged by his blind surrogate father (Robert Wisdom), whose warmth and courage in the face of disability serve as a foil to the young man’s phobias. Their weighty exchanges often toe the line between insightful and platitudinous, but the material is well served by Benjamin Busch’s capable direction and the likable cast of familiar television faces. — TK
Wednesday, Nov. 16
“Where Soldiers Come From” (90 min.) Hannah Community Center
Remember the days when young men enlisted in the military because they wanted to fight to preserve the American way of life, or defeat a foreign threat or simply see the world? Bodi, Dom and Cole, the trio of young men from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula who are the central figures in "Where Soldiers Come From," didn’t join the National Guard for any of those reasons. They did it for the money and, as two of them note, a feeling of "I might as well do something with my life."
Heather Courtney’s straightforward, absorbing documentary follows the young men from their isolated hometown to a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan, which literally shakes them up.
For them, Operation Enduring Freedom quickly turns into Operation Increasing Pessimism. The subtle shocks in Courtney’s film come from the slow but visible changes in the guys as their disillusionment grows. While documentaries that question the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are easy to find, "Soldiers" is far more concerned with personalities and relationships than it is with politics. There are no easy tears or simplistic sermonettes, but there is a disturbing rumble below the surface: Perhaps it’s the sound of hundreds of Coles and Doms and Bodis marching into military recruiting offices not because of patriotism, but simply to get a paycheck, putting their lives on the line solely in the hopes of making a living. — JS
Thursday, Nov. 17
“The Red Machine” (84 min.) Hannah Community Center
What use would the U.S. Navy have for a wisecracking safecracker? That’s the question on the mind of Eddie Doyle (Donal Thoms-Cappello) in this enjoyable suspense story, set in 1935 Washington. Sprung from prison by stony-faced Lt. F. Ellis Coburn (Lee Perkins), Doyle is assigned to help “steal” a highly sophisticated encryption machine being used by the Japanese to send and receive top-secret messages. But there’s a twist in the high-stakes heist. If directors Stephanie Argy and Alec Boehm are better at building tension than they are at establishing a credible period look and sound, the breezily entertaining “Machine” is sharply shot and edited, with sturdy performances by Thoms-Cappello and Perkins. — JS
MC — Mary C. Cusack
TK — Ted Kindig
AR — Allan I. Ross
JS — James Sanford
PW — Paul Wozniak
Hannah Community Center, 819 Abbot Road, East Lansing
Wells Hall, Michigan State University, corner of Red Cedar and Shaw Lane
Celebration! Cinema Lansing, 200 E. Edgewood Blvd., Lansing
East Lansing Film Festival
Through Nov. 17
Single tickets for most shows are $8 general admission; $6 students and seniors (except “In A Better World,” which is $10 general admission and $8 students and seniors, and the Local Filmmaker Showcase, which is $5 for all seats). Single tickets to screenings at Celebration! Cinema Lansing are $8.50 for adults; $7.50 for students; $6.50 for children under 12 and seniors over 60. Advanced tickets and festival passes may be purchased online at www.elff.com