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Ten to watch at the 2015 Little Rock Film Festival 

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"UNCERTAIN" film image
  • "UNCERTAIN"

'Uncertain'
Directed by Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands

The setup for "Uncertain" almost seems too neat: The future of Uncertain, Texas, a tiny east Texas hamlet (pop. 94) near the border of Louisiana, is — you guessed it — uncertain. The prospects of three Uncertain residents who represent three generations? Also uncertain. The fate of Caddo Lake, a sportsman's paradise that's historically been the town's reason for existence? Uncertain, too. Since 2006, the lake has been increasingly overrun by invasive vegetation, especially the giant salvinia, a South African plant that covers waterways and prevents necessary sunlight and oxygen from reaching fish, insects and native plants. Directors Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands frame the town's existential crisis in the background of finely composed character studies. Henry is a 74-year-old fishing guide who's dating a younger woman who may only care about his money. Wayne is an obsessive boar hunter and ex-con, who, as a felon, is only able to hunt thanks to a Texas law that allows him to use rifles made before 1899. Zach is a diabetic twentysomething who lives aimlessly in a dilapidated home. Their stories unfold in a way that feels natural, but — thanks to dips into the past and present developments — builds dramatically. Meanwhile, the cinematography, especially of the lake and its ghostly fog and soaring cypress trees, is as beautiful as I've seen in years. 3:15 p.m. Thursday, Butler Center, with directors Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands. LM

"BREAKING THE MONSTER" film image
  • "BREAKING THE MONSTER"

'Breaking the Monster'
Directed by Luke Meyer

As a former metalhead, I give four Dio horns way, way up for "Breaking the Monster," a doc about the unlikely metal band Unlocking the Truth, three African-American kids from New York who live the dream of landing a $1.8 million record deal with Sony, playing Coachella and opening for their idols like Motorhead and Metallica. Did I mention they did it all before graduating from middle school? Alec Atkins, Malcolm Brickhouse and Jarad Dawkins started out shredding the faces off of grateful passersby on street corners in Brooklyn. Soon, though, their talent landed them on the fast track to stardom. As seen in the documentary, though, once the Money Men get involved, what had been a labor of love becomes more of a plain ol' job, with the three transformed from fairly normal kids into commodities who aren't even allowed to ride a skateboard for fear they'll injure a valuable finger, wrist or arm. That said, their collective joy while onstage is a thing to behold, and "Breaking the Monster" isn't without its lighthearted moments. The irony of their wizened old manager arguing with lead vocalist Brickhouse over his Coke consumption (that's Coca-Cola, of course) during a recording session won't be lost on anyone with even a passing knowledge of the history of rock 'n' roll. In the end, "Breaking the Monster" turns out to be a vibrant sonic meditation on high-decibel rock, the spooky beauty of witnessing born talent, and the shiny, sharp-toothed machines designed to mulch artistic passion into cold, hard cash. 1 p.m. Thursday, Ron Robinson Theater with director Luke Meyer and 8 p.m. Friday, Ron Robinson Theater with a concert by Unlocking the Truth and director Luke Meyer on hand. DK

"HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD" image
  • "HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD"

'How to Change the World'
Directed by Jerry Rothwell

How to change the world? Answer 1: Plant a mind bomb. That is how a group of guys from the counter-culture of Vancouver brought worldwide attention to the cause of environmentalism back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, starting with a protest of the United States' nuclear program. With no seagoing experience, they convinced a fishing boat to take them and their protest to the island of Amchitka in the northern Pacific, where the U.S. was to test a five-megaton atomic bomb. They didn't make it to Amchitka, and they didn't stop the bomb, but with the film they took and the attention they drew to themselves they set off a chain reaction — a mind bomb, journalist Bob Hunter called it — of public awareness of threats to the natural world. This bandana-wearing, LSD-dropping and nonstop cigarette-smoking crew, led by former Vancouver journalist Hunter, ended up founding Greenpeace and illustrated that just by showing up they could change bad policy. Some of the greatest footage here is of their attempt, from dinghies and a fishing boat, to stop a huge Russian whaler — a floating abattoir with blood gushing from its bilge pumps — from taking whales. Here is footage both devastating, recording the kill of a whale pup taken illegally; to humorous, as three guys in a Zodiac dinghy and various musical instruments attempt to lure the whales in with their songs; to incredible, as one filmmaker in a rocky rubber boat captured the Russians firing a harpoon just over the heads of protesters and into a whale they were seeking to protect.

The larger tale of "How to Change the World" — which at its most basic is a biopic of Hunter — is how a small group coalesced over a cause, became famous and eventually fractured over dissention in tactics and money and who could rightfully call themselves Greenpeace, told with contemporary interviews of the founders and the invaluable film shot in the '70s. 5:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, Clinton School of Public Service, both followed by a discussion with cinematographer Ron Precious. LNP

'Western'
Directed by Bill and Turner Ross

"Western," a documentary showing as part of the festival's cinematic nonfiction program, is a strange, vivid and personal depiction of the small border town of Eagle Pass, Texas, which lies across the Rio Grande from its Mexican sister city Piedras Negras. The film is populated by deserts, heat lightning, fireworks, parades, bullfights, drab office buildings and the most minor of everyday moments and gestures — all given equal priority in its immersive, panoramic structure. It's the third in an idiosyncratic trilogy of Americana-themed documentaries by Bill and Turner Ross, brothers and co-directors originally from Ohio and now based in New Orleans, affiliates of the filmmaking collective Court 13. The Ross brothers spent over a year in Eagle Pass to make the film, which compellingly borrows the cinematic grammar of fiction filmmaking toward nonfiction ends, and their dedication is apparent — how else could they have captured the enormity of the place, its struggles and memorable characters? 12:30 p.m. Friday, Ron Robinson Theater and 3 p.m. Saturday, Ron Robinson Theater, both followed by a conversation with filmmaker and cinematic nonfiction programmer Robert Greene and producer Michael Gottwald. WS

'Peace Officer'
Directed by Brad Barber and Scott Christopherson

One of the things pushed to the fore by the unrest in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., is the disturbing image of armor-clad police in Army surplus war machines, facing down crowds of American civilians. A little closer look finds that the militarization of American police has been an issue for a long time, with heavily armed SWAT teams and no-knock raids employed to take down not just hostage takers and drug kingpins, but also everything from low-level weed dealers to old ladies selling beer on Sunday. In the documentary feature "Peace Officer," directors Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber examine the issue of militarized police and the questionable use of SWAT through the story of law enforcement veteran William J. "Dub" Lawrence. As the sheriff of Utah's Davis County, it was Lawrence who established the county's SWAT team. Twenty years later, a sniper with the team Lawrence founded ended a suicidal standoff with Lawrence's son-in-law by shooting the young man in the head, even as his family pleaded to be allowed to reason with him. The event turned the likable Lawrence into a one-man crusade against Utah's men in black, performing his own exhaustive investigations into SWAT-related deaths. 8 p.m. Friday, Clinton School of Public Service with director Scott Christopherson. DK

'(T)ERROR'
Directed by Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe

Look on the bright side: The fact that a documentary like "(T)ERROR" could be made at all, the fact that filmmakers Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliff haven't been whisked away to Guantanamo under cover of night, is testimony that the rule of law still constrains federal policing. "(T)ERROR" is a look at the inside of a counterterrorism sting, principally through the eyes of "Shariff," an aging ex-con and former Black Power militant turned confidential informant for the FBI. His mission is to befriend Khalifah Al-Akili, a young, white Pittsburgh resident and convert to Islam who displays an equal fondness for Osama bin Laden and petty theft. "(T)ERROR" shows us just how aggressively the FBI pushes the envelope on entrapment as it pursues homegrown Islamic extremists, whether their designs of violent jihad are real or imaginary. Some reviewers have criticized the film for a relative lack of action through the first two-thirds of the narrative, and it's true that an awful lot of sequences progress solely via the exchange of text messages. In a way, though, that's the point. We enter the narrative expecting a cat-and-mouse game of intrigue, and end up with something very different: a muddled profile of two tattered, compromised souls caught within the gears of a defective system.5:30 p.m. Friday, Clinton School of Public Service, followed by a conversation with filmmaker and cinematic nonfiction programmer Robert Greene and director Lyric Cabral. BH

"7 CHINESE BROTHERS" image
  • "7 CHINESE BROTHERS"

'7 Chinese Brothers'
Directed by Bob Byington

"7 Chinese Brothers," a low-key indie-comedy character study named for an R.E.M. song, stars Jason Schwartzman as a heavy-drinking burnout named Larry who gets fired from his job at a restaurant and spends much of the movie talking to his dog, a pug named Arrow. It's another successful (and, in some ways, similar) independent venture for Schwartzman, following his 2014 role in Alex Perry Ross' "Listen Up Philip" — in its review of the newer film, Consequence of Sound designated him the "master salesman of the disenfranchised." Here, he sips tequila out of a Big Gulp, half-heartedly gets a job at a Quick Lube and repeatedly disappoints his grandmother ("Why are you alone, for chrissakes?" she asks him). The film, which premiered at SXSW, also stars Olympia Dukakis and TV on the Radio front man Tunde Adebimpe. 10:30 a.m. Friday, Ron Robinson Theater and 9 p.m. Thursday, Ron Robinson Theater, both followed by discussions with director Bob Byington. WS

 

"WHITE GOD" image
  • "WHITE GOD"

'White God'
Directed by Kornél Mundruczó

Fans of "The Warriors," "Planet of the Apes," J.M. Coetzee and "Homeward Bound" will find much to admire about the Hungarian dog epic "White God," which the New York Times called "a fierce and beautiful parable" and which the director John Waters, in an interview with the Arkansas Times, called the best film he'd seen all year. The film's protagonist is a very likeable dog named Hagen, who is separated from his owner due to a dystopian state policy involving the taxation of mixed-breed pets. Hagen endures a series of trials before falling in with a raucous pack that runs wild, seeking revolution in the streets of Budapest. The film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, is visceral and violent — in the service of animal rights — and has emerged as a rare runaway success in the U.S. foreign cinema market. 2 p.m. Sunday, Ron Robinson Theater. WS

'Cartel Land'
Directed by Matt Heineman

A few hundred miles south of here is an imaginary line in the desert that divides the almost ridiculously prosperous United States of America from the often incredibly impoverished country of Mexico. The politics and realities of that border — and the rotten fruit of America's seemingly limitless appetite for every kind of drug — are up for consideration in the superb documentary "Cartel Land," from director Matthew Heineman. A film that asks the viewer to walk the gray line between the law and true justice, "Cartel Land" tells the story of two demon-haunted men: American Tim "Nailer" Foley, and Mexican Dr. Jose Mireles. Foley, a military vet and former addict, heads a heavily armed group of volunteers who patrol Arizona's desolate Altar Valley; a superhighway for human trafficking and cartel-linked drug smuggling where the U.S./Mexico border seems about as porous as a screen door. On his own crusade against some of the same foes is Mireles, a dashing physician in the Mexican state of Michoacan who rises to lead the state's vigilante Autodefensas after it becomes clear the corrupt local police and military won't protect citizens from the powerful Knights Templar cartel. While that all sounds fairly righteous, it's clear by the end of "Cartel Land" that neither man heeded the old advice about monster-fighters taking care to avoid becoming the monsters they seek to slay. 3 p.m. Saturday, Clinton School of Public Service. DK

"TURBO KID" image
  • "TURBO KID"

'Turbo Kid'
Directed by Anouk Whissell, Francois Simard and Yoann-Karl Whissell

There are good movies. There are bad movies. And then there are those movies that are so bad they actually manage to be good ... if you're willing to just relax and roll with the corniness of it all. Such is the case with the neo-retro (is that a word?) post-apocalyptic gorefest "Turbo Kid." The film features a plot that seems ripped from the fantasies of Napoleon Dynamite: In the nuclear-blighted wastelands of 1997, our hero, The Kid, is tooling along on his bitchin' BMX bike when he finds a souped-up Nintendo Power Glove (remember those?) that shoots C-grade special effects. He then sets out to save a friend from the clutches of the warlord Zeus, who — wouldn't you know it — is the very person who killed The Kid's parents. Set to a rad synth soundtrack and clearly meant to evoke the same cringetastic reaction as looking at old photos of yourself wearing a Swatch watch and Flock of Seagulls haircut, "Turbo Kid" is a pitch-perfect and oh-so-earnest homage to the "kid saves the world" sci-fi films of the 1980s, with a heaping handful of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers thrown in. If you've got a sense of humor, a stomach for low-grade gore, and a Reagan-era childhood, this SXSW Audience Award winner might be the spin on the wayback machine you've been looking for. 7 p.m. Sunday, Ron Robinson Theater, with directors Anouk Whissell, Francois Simard and Yoann-Karl Whissell. DK

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