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By Joe Bendel. Matthew VanDyke’s only formal military training came while he was an embedded reporter with the American military in Iraq. There were those in the Libyan rebel army who had far less, but they were not a sheltered twenty-seven year-old living with a conspicuous case of OCD. Relying on travel and combat footage shot by VanDyke himself, Marshall Curry documents his journey from a homebody who had never even done his own laundry to a POW of Gaddafi’s notorious Abu Salim prison in Point and Shoot, which won the Best Documentary Feature Award at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

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Partly at the prodding of his girlfriend Lauren Fischer, the underachieving VanDyke set out to remake himself into a sort of gonzo travel journalist motorcycling through the Middle East. It worked to some extent. By virtue of proximity, he was able to cover Iraq for a local Maryland paper. Not surprisingly, he got along famously with the troops he followed, most of whom he still considers friends. The instruction they gave him on the shooting range would also serve him well.

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Through his travels, VanDyke also made fast friends with hippie Libyan tourist Nuri Funas, whose home he illegally visited before the war erupted. When the Arab Spring reached Libya, VanDyke also returned, determined to fight for and alongside his new friends. Unfortunately, he was captured during an ambush shortly thereafter, but that would hardly be the last word on his warfighting experiences.

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Hipper readers might recognize VanDyke as the director of the short but intense documentary, Not Anymore, which dramatically captures the boots-on-the-ground reality in Syria (now available on-line). It is safe to say recent years have been eventful for the filmmaker, considering Curry only takes viewers through VanDyke’s Libyan period.

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From "Point and Shoot."

He tells the story well, framing VanDyke’s footage with a confessional interview—he is almost like the twenty-first century equivalent of a Joseph Conrad narrator, except he has the video to verify his narrative. For obvious reasons, VanDyke has no footage from his time held in solitary confinement, but Curry compensates with Joe Posner’s stark 3D animation sequences, modeled from the very walls of VanDyke’s former cell.

VanDyke’s chronicle is pretty darn dramatic (and still developing). While just about everyone with a handheld device might be recording the world around them, you have to be in a warzone to shoot a battle selfie. Indeed, the filmmaker-freedom fighter captures some powerful and illuminating images. Altogether, it celebrates freedom and human dignity for all, as well as the very American practice of self-reinvention. Highly recommended, Point and Shoot is sure to have a long festival life after winning the World Documentary Competition at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. It is already scheduled to screen this Wednesday (4/30), Thursday (5/1), and Saturday (5/3) during Hot Docs in Toronto.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on April 30th, 2014 at 11:33pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Like the old thesps of yore, Kevin Spacey assembled a classical theater troupe to tour like mad, performing Shakespeare’s Richard III in countries throughout the increasingly globalized world. There had to be some craziness going on backstage, but you will be hard-pressed to find any in Jeremy Wheeler’s sanitized-for-your-protection behind-the-scenes documentary, NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage, which opens this Friday at the IFC Center following its special screening at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

When Kevin Spacey and Sam Mendes announced Richard III would be their first collaboration since American Beauty, the theater world sat up and took notice. Indeed, it is a good thing Mendes was on-board, because he provides some of the film’s most thoughtful commentary. Yet, it would still probably be more interesting to hear him talk about Skyfall.

By all accounts, Richard III was an artistic triumph. Many critics see a direct correlation between Spacey’s Richard and his Francis Underwood in Netflix’s cable-killing House of Cards. Unfortunately, Spacey does not have much to say about that. He would rather sing the praises of his cast members.

From "NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage."

It seems like everyone involved on the Richard III utterly adored every last one of their colleagues, which is jolly nice for them, but absolute dullsville to watch. Frankly, NOW has the depth and drama of a making-of DVD extra. Sure, the staging looks spectacularly ambitious (particularly in Greece’s Epidaurus theater, circa 400 B.C.), but the best way to appreciate it would have been by seeing the production live. For the most part, viewers must be content to watch as cast members discover the Great Wall of China is really long and the desert in Qatar is rather sandy.

In a way, NOW is the high-brow equivalent of the bloopers that ran over the closing credits of old Burt Reynolds movies, in which everyone works very hard to show us how much fun they were having. This is such a lightweight trifle, especially when compared to the other robustly entertaining documentaries that played this year’s Tribeca. Of interest only to Spacey’s hardcore stalker-fans, but certainly not recommended for everyday civilians, the awkwardly titled NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage opens this Friday (5/2) at the IFC Center.

LFM GRADE: D+

April 30th, 2014 at 11:28pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Nicky Salapu is like the FIFA equivalent of the Mets’ profoundly unlucky Anthony Young. You have to pitch decently to set the all time consecutive losing game record without getting busted down to the minors. Likewise, the fact that Salapu was never pulled from goal during American Samoa’s record-setting 31-0 loss to Australia says something about his competitive spirit. The underfunded volunteer national team subsequently became the butt of the soccer world’s jokes, but a new coach will try to change their losing ways. Mike Brett & Steve Jamison document their turnaround efforts at the regional World Cup qualifying tournament in Next Goal Wins, which is now playing in New York following a high-profile “Drive-In” screening at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

In seventeen years, the American Samoan team never won an official game and only managed to score two goals. After another agonizing season, team management appeals to the American Federation for help. U.S. Soccer tries to recruit a game-changer coach, but they only get one taker: mad Dutchman Thomas Rongen. He is a hardnose’s hardnose, who does not seem interested in making friends, but he sees something in the team. He respects Salapu’s grit and admires the integrity of Jaiyeh Saelua, a transgender defender (considered part of Samoa’s traditional fa’afafine “third gender’).

There are a lot of surprises in this scrappy underdog story, including the evolution of Rongen. Still reeling from a personal tragedy, Rongen starts connecting with his players, finding something he did not even know he was looking for. He also knows football cold. Still, the odds are still stacked against his team.

Brett & Jamison capture some legitimately touching moments and ratchet up the suspense during the qualifier. As Steve at Unseen Films can verify, at one point during the tournament, your faithful correspondent let loose an all too audible “dammit.” That’s getting caught up in the action.

American Samoa should start making licensing deals, because Goal is destined to become a sleeper hit over time and just about every sports fan who watches it will want to wear their colors. It might be tempting to say it illustrates the old saying: “it’s not about winning or losing, but how you play the game.” Yet this is too pat and simplistic. Throughout Goal we witness the team risking the worst sort of humiliation and mockery, because of the pride they take in representing American Samoa.

Something about this film just hits you on a deep level, but it is also quite lively and at times enormously funny. Highly recommended, Next Goal Wins screened as part of the sports programming at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival before opening this past Friday at the Cinema Village.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on April 27th, 2014 at 10:22pm.

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By Joe Bendel. He has been a sworn foe of all swindlers and conmen, but James Randi had two great nemeses in his life: Uri Geller and a milk can. However, the magician, escape artist, and one man bunco squad received his own lesson regarding the relativity of truth during the course of Justin Weinstein & Tyler Measom’s documentary, An Honest Liar, which premiered at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

“The Amazing” James Randi literally ran away with the circus. Learning sleight of hand and other illusionists’ secrets, Randi realized magicians could easily misapply their skills for criminal purposes. His respect for the craft kept him honest and made him resent those who used the tricks of their trade to fleece the gullible. While still a practicing illusionist, Randi set about exposing faith healers and phony psychics. In a twist of fate, a nearly fatal attempt to replicate Houdini’s milk can escape essentially forced Randi to become a full-time truth-teller.

Frankly, those unfamiliar with Randi’s greatest hits might be surprised by the time and logistical planning required by some of his operations. Yet, the media was often just as resentful of Randi’s efforts as the fraudsters he uncovered. The Carson-era Tonight Show was a notable exception. In fact, Carson’s staff dealt a seemingly fatal blow to up-and-coming psychic Uri Geller by following Randi’s prop handling instructions. It has been said before, but nobody played Johnny Carson for a fool.

Many of the intrigues Honest documents are absolutely fascinating, bringing to mind the hit-or-miss skullduggery of Rodrigo Cortés’ Red Lights, except they are considerably more interesting. They also happen to be true. The third act revelation is also a real surprise most causal viewers will not see coming. It is not exactly a focal concern, but Honest reminds the audience of the appalling state of human rights in Venezuela when that shoe finally drops.

Honest delivers plenty of magic and flim flammery, but it has a highly pronounced dramatic arc. Compared to the breezy fun of the Ricky Jay doc, Deceptive Practice, it is much more serious and sober.  Clearly, Weinstein & Measom won over Randi’s trust, capturing some truly wince-inducing long dark nights of the soul. The filmmakers also scored an on-camera with Geller, the unrepentant spoon-bender, for the sake of fairness and completeness.

Wisely, Weinstein & Measom minimize Randi’s collaborations with Richard Dawkins, instead positioning him as an intrepid debunker of those who would exploit others’ faith for financial gain. Regardless, the details of his long campaign against dangerous fakers are far more cinematic than the typical doc grist. Recommended for skeptics and magic fans, An Honest Liar will screen at Hot Docs on Wednesday (4/30), Thursday (5/1), and Saturday (5/3) following its debut at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on April 21st, 2014 at 10:10pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Fashion designer Nora Noh is widely credited with popularizing the mini-skirt in South Korea. Obviously, she deserves the thanks of a grateful nation, if not the entire world. Yet many younger Korean fashionistas were unaware of her trailblazing work until the opening of a special retrospective commemorating her sixty years in the business. Kim Sung-hee surveys Noh’s life and couture while chronicling the mounting of the designer’s special exhibition in Nora Noh, which screens for free this coming Tuesday in New York, courtesy of the Korean Cultural Service.

Noh could be considered the Korean Coco Chanel and Edith Head combined. She was a pioneer designing sleek, elegant “western style” business and casual wear for professional Korean women. A shrewd businesswoman, Noh launched a successful ready-to-wear line before her European colleagues. Yet, she also became the personally designer for many of Korea’s top stars, including pop idol Yoon Bok-hee, who made Korean cultural history sporting Noh’s minis.

Even viewers with little fashion sense will pick out interesting nuggets from Kim’s profile. Noh very definitely lived a feminist Horatio Alger life. Her challenges continued when she refused to kowtow to the arrogant press (likely explaining her under-representation in Korean cultural history). She had her run-ins with the secret police, yet ironically, the film indirectly suggests the liberated simplicity of Noh’s designs was rather compatible with the militarist government’s drive to industrialize (a potentially provocative point that could have been explored at greater length).

From "Nora Noh."

Perhaps the film’s greatest assets are the extensive clips from vintage Korean movies illustrating Noh’s image-making power, which will intrigue cineastes as much or perhaps more than clothes horses. While not exactly chatty, she remains a strong figure of individual stick-to-itiveness and a mostly likable screen presence.

Nora Noh is not the most dramatic film ever lensed, even though Noh’s early life was quite tumultuous. Frankly, the sentimental soundtrack does not sound very Nora Noh. Nevertheless, Kim and editor Lee Hyuk-sang keep it moving along nicely. Recommended for students of fashion as well as those fascinated by the phenomenon of global cultural modernization, Nora Noh screens (free of charge) this Tuesday (4/29) at the Tribeca Cinemas as part of the Korean Cultural Service’s regular Korean Movie Night series.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on April 27th, 2014 at 9:52pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Overpopulation is an issue that can turn an ostensive philanthropist into an evangelist for draconian controls on the unwashed masses. Should we be concerned about hordes of debased people waging global battles for increasingly scarce resources? Filmmaker Jessica Yu went into her latest project expecting to find a crisis but came away with the somewhat more nuanced perspective informing her self-referentially titled documentary Misconception, which premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

It was TED Talker Hans Rosling who first tempered Yu’s alarm and duly serves as Misconception’s guru. According to Rosling, 80% of the world’s population now live in countries with 2.5 child birthrates or less. As a result, global population growth has leveled off. The other 20% are still procreating at rates that would give Warren Buffet conniptions, but corresponding life expectancy also happens to be relatively low in those nations. That is all well and good, but if Yu really wanted to rock viewers’ worlds, she would have introduced them to the work of the late great Julian Simon.

The meat of Misconception consists of a triptych of disparate individuals whose lives have been shaped by population planning policies in some fashion. The first is by far the best. With the help of Chinese filmmaker Lixin Fan (director of Last Train Home and executive producer of China Heavyweight), Yu follows Bao Jianxin’s determined efforts to avoid becoming one of China’s “leftover men.”

The implementation has been severe, but the One Child policy has curtailed China’s birthrate dramatically. Yet, it has come at an enormous social cost. Since boys are prized above girls, many couples opt for gender-specific abortions until they have a son. Like many of his “Little Emperor” generation, Bao faces an uphill challenge in his search for a wife. The numbers are simply against him. Yet, Bao also sabotages his best chance with a quite attractive old flame, because she cannot compete with Shu Qi in his favorite film, Love.

Frankly, Yu and company only scratch the surface of the potential social instability resulting from the One Child policy. Misconception also argues part of Bao’s problem is an increasing trend amongst Chinese women to choose careers over traditional family roles, but this too might partly be a function of the entitled attitudes fostered by “Little Emperor Syndrome.”

Perhaps the most loaded segment follows Denise Mountenay, a pro-life activist, who has found her calling lobbying against legalized abortion at the UN. At least she is from Canada, because in most other respects she fits the least charitable stereotype of evangelical Christians. She is a hard charger, who has had her share of horrific experiences and undoubtedly means well, but she does not serve her cause well on-screen.

From "Misconception."

Contrasting with the ideological charge of the second segment (clearly heightened by deliberate editing choices), the third POV figure is easily the safest. Journalist Gladys Kalibbala does her best to heighten awareness of the staggering numbers of abandoned Ugandan street orphans, humanizing them in profiles and trying her best to re-connect them with extended family members. It is a noble response to a tragic situation.

There is at least one misconception in Misconception. Essentially, Rosling argues fear of a third world population explosion will increase global warming are misplaced, because it is those who live in the developed world that use the most resources. Yes, but the most precipitous increase in fossil fuel consumption is expected in India and China as they pursue aggressive electrification policies (a worthy goal), at the lowest possible cost.

In fact, you can almost feel Misconception holding back, struggling to maintain some sort of class-conscious, environmentally orthodox message. Still, it is admirable Yu was willing to re-examine her assumptions to any extent. A radically mixed bag, the inconsistent Misconception includes provocative arguments and distracting noise in nearly equal measure. For those who closely follow the work of Yu and Fan, it screens again this Saturday (4/26) during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

LFM GRADE: C+

Posted on April 25th, 2014 at 11:32pm.

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