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By Joe Bendel. When disaster strikes, government is there to step in and help, right? In today’s China, not necessarily. When the 2008 earthquake hit Sichuan, the town of Beichuan was simply leveled to the ground. Documentary producer turned director Zhao Qi records the ironies and indignities of the city’s rebuilding process in Fallen City, which screens during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in Park City.

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Once a community of 20,000 strong, the survivors of Beichuan now live in crude temporary housing as they await the shiny new city the state media breathlessly promises them. Each and every one of them grieves for multiple family members. Especially heartrending are the Pengs, who mourn their eleven year old daughter. Watching the inconsolable father pore over her drawings salvaged from their flat like holy relics is truly painful. They are not alone in their agony. The audience also sees in clear terms how the teenaged Hong’s behavioral issues are directly related to the loss of his father.

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To add insult to injury, when the citizens of Beichuan seek traditional solace on the anniversary of the quake, the police physically prevent them from entering the “old city,” thereby undermining their attempts at closure through ritual. In fact, the disconnect between officialdom – as expressed by Orwellian newscasts – and reality is a theme running throughout Fallen.

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In several ways, Fallen lets the government off the hook, scrupulously avoiding discussion of the so-called “Tofu Construction” causing the disproportionate collapse of school buildings, or the Party’s concerted efforts to prevent the release of an accurate death toll. Yet, the facts on the ground Zhao captures through his lens are impossible to miss. We see the media hypocrisy, institutionalized economic inequalities, and corrupt criminal justice system up close and personal.

Constantly documenting events since the 2008 disaster, Fallen represents a work of true documentary commitment from Zhao. Even those who think they have been de-sensitized by images of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy will be staggered by the ghostly sight of old Beichuan. Nonetheless, it is the pictures and video of the children (negligently) killed during the quake that will really hit audiences in the gut. Powerful and profoundly troubling, Fallen City is highly recommended when it screens again this Monday (1/21), Wednesday (1/23), Friday (1/25), and next Saturday in Park City, as well as this Thursday (1/24) in Salt Lake as a World Cinema Documentary Competition selection of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on January 19th, 2012 at 5:10pm.

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By Joe Bendel. It seems like the only job Martin Bonner can get involves doing the Lord’s work. He has decidedly mixed feelings about that. Yet, his own uncertainties make him a more accessible adviser for a remorseful ex-con in Chad Hartigan’s This is Martin Bonner, which screens during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in Park City.

An Australian transplant in Reno, Martin Bonner is starting over. After a long period of unemployment, he now works for a Christian outreach program for recently released prison inmates. Technically, he is not Travis Holloway’s mentor, but he makes a tenuous connection when pinch-hitting for his assigned volunteer. It is not that Holloway does not like the devout Steve Helms – he is simply more comfortable with Bonner.

Bonner is a film that could have gone one way or another. We quickly learn Bonner was fired from his previous church job because of his divorce. However, Hartigan never really grinds that ax. Nor is the evangelical Helms presented in fanatical terms. Instead, the film could be called a study of questioned faith in action. Frankly, it offers some of the most mature and nuanced discussions of Christianity in everyday practice you are likely to see in any major film festival.

Paul Eenhoorn’s performance as Bonner is arguably Oscar caliber (unquestionably so, if Cooper and Jackman truly are so this year). This man is not a saint. He can even be a little prickly, but he is trying to do the right thing. Eenhoorn perfectly conveys that humanistic temporizing. Likewise, as Holloway, Richmond Arquette (yes, from the Arquette family) creates an unusually deep portrait of regret and pathos. In fact, the entire ensemble is small but powerful, especially including Sam Buchanan as Holloway’s estranged daughter Diana.

Bonner is a modest, quiet film, by any standard of measure. Yet it has moments of rare honesty. Aside from the scene of Bonner lip-synching to his teenaged garage band’s old 8-track (which feels a little too cute and calculated), Hartigan’s patience and sensitivity always pay-off with surprising interest. Recommended with a fair bit of enthusiasm for general audiences, This is Martin Bonner screens again Sunday (1/20), Tuesday (1/22), and Friday (1/25) in Park City and next Saturday (1/26) in Salt Lake, as part of the 2013 Sundance.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on January 19th, 2012 at 5:09pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Willie is a quiet kind of kid. The patriarch of a roving band of thieves can envision useful roles for him. The allure of their outlaw lifestyle will test his bond with his younger brother in Mark Albiston & Louis Sutherland’s Shopping, which screens during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in Park City.

With a wave of race riots still fresh in New Zealand’s public memory, half-Samoan Willie’s domineering Anglo father insists he keep his head down and nose to the grindstone. Working part-time in the local department store, the young man confronts Bennie, a flagrant shoplifter, who somehow still slips away like the old pro he clearly is. Later outside, he offers Willie a bit of consideration the honest lad duly refuses. Not so the next time. After a few parties and few capers, Willie is definitely considering throwing in his lot with the “shoppers.” Yes, Bennie also has a daughter who makes a strong impression on Willie. Unfortunately, showing interest in her can be a dicey proposition.

In addition to the Oliver Twist-y story, Albiston & Sutherland also depict the unusual close relationship between Willie and his sibling. Instead of resenting all the time he must spend with the physically and socially awkward Solomon, Willie is a genuinely protective and indulgent older brother, to an extent not often seen on film.

For a young actor, Kevin Paulo is a surprisingly effective slow burner. As Willie, he dramatically conveys how tightly wound and conflicted the pre-teen is. Likewise, Jacek Koman is both roguishly charming and downright menacing as Bennie. Unfortunately, Willie’s erratic father and passive mother are essentially stock figures.

Basically, Shopping is three parts coming-of-age story and one part crime drama. Albiston & Sutherland handle the material with great sensitivity, but a bit more humor in the mix would have helped counter-balance the heavy, naturalistic atmosphere. Recommended for those who appreciate sibling stories with a thin layer of social commentary, Shopping screens again in Park City today (1/19), Thursday (1/24), and Friday (1/25), as well as in Salt Lake on Sunday (1/20) as part of this year’s Sundance.

LFM GRADE: B-

Posted on January 19th, 2012 at 5:08pm.

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