Heartland Film Festival: Our reviews (thus far) 

click to enlarge Kinyarwanda
  • Kinyarwanda

For 20 years now, Heartland Film Festival has been devoted to screening films that celebrate the human spirit - and giving those who've made those uplifting films the resources they need to keep making them. And those resources aren't too shabby: $150,000 in cash prizes, including a $100,000 prize for best narrative feature, $25,000 for best documentary feature and $10,000 for best short film. Total screening attendance added up to 21,500 at last year's festival, which screened the 2011 Academy Award winner for best live action short, God of Love.

What awaits this year? We can give you a sense with our capsule reviews, but we won't call them our top picks; we didn't have a chance to see any of the documentary slate before we went to print, for instance. But here are a few that we saw and more-or-less liked, including three that are up for that $100,000 grand prize: Kinyarwanda, Inuk and The Hammer.

The festival opens Thursday, Oct. 13, with screenings of The Way at the IMA's Toby Theatre; both of the film's stars, Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez, are scheduled to attend. All award-winning films will be presented on Friday, Oct. 14, at AMC Castleton Square 14. Then, regular screenings of all the films invited to the festival will run from Oct. 15-Oct. 23 at both AMC Castleton and AMC Showplace Indianapolis 17 on the Southside. Individual advance tickets, available online for $7.50, are $9 at the door. The Heartland Film Festival Awards will be held Saturday, Oct. 15, at the Old National Centre.

Reviews are by Derrick Carnes (DC) and Scott Shoger (SS).

4 stars
The Hotel Rwanda is mentioned during this network narrative about the Rwandan genocide; characters reject it as a possible safe haven, wrongly assuming that only those who can pay will be let in. Compare the hotel with the mosques at the center of Kinyarwanda, which Muslim clerics have opened to all who need refuge, Christians and Muslims alike. The ecumenical goodwill of the imams earns unreserved praise from the film, which seems to have been made to tell their story of rising above the insanity. But there's room, especially at the beginning, for multiple storylines and ideas, including a shocking early scene in a re-education camp that suggests that neither truth nor reconciliation can erase the past. Winner of the World Cinema Audience Award for Dramatic Feature at Sundance. (SS)

3.5 stars
Sure, Inuk, has its hokey elements, particularly during its slow-mo action scenes on the icy northern expanses of Greenland. But stop right there - how often do you see anything beyond a National Geographic special filmed in Greenland? And I'll make another bet that you're unfamiliar with a children's home that aims to help troubled Inuit youth by reuniting them with the land and Inuit culture. Inuk, the title character, is one of those troubled children; he finds himself with the help of a seal hunter (warning: the killing of a seal is an affirmative act in this film's world). (SS)

Saigon Electric
3.5 stars
Holy hell - it's a remake of Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo! Like in the original, the breakdance crew at the center of Saigon Electric is determined to save their youth center from a predatory developer. But there's wisdom to this film: the youth center storyline occupies no more than a quarter of the film's running time, leaving plenty of room explore a well-played country mouse/city mouse relationship between a ribbon dancer from the sticks and a B-girl from the hood. You've seen it all before, but probably not in Saigon, so you may find it surprising how it all plays out. (SS)

click to enlarge Russell Harvard in The Hammer
  • Russell Harvard in The Hammer

The Hammer
3 stars
Through perseverance, an underdog triumphs against all odds. We've seen this one before, a la Rudy, Hoosiers or any other inspirational sports flick, but The Hammer has enough character to be enjoyable. Russell Harvard (There Will Be Blood) plays Matt Hamill, the first deaf wrestler to win a National Collegiate Wrestling Championship. His struggles are many and somewhat predictable but Harvard, who is also deaf, steals the show. The frustrations of hearing loss are rendered through subtitles - one of the film's strongest traits - as many characters speak only in sign language. You can overlook the watered-down cliches - this one feels real. (DC)

The Lutefisk Wars
3 stars
A Christopher Guest-style mockumentary with the same passion for Lutheran jokes as your average episode of A Prairie Home Companion, The Lutefisk Wars is, well, pretty darn funny at times, unashamed of its corniness and with enough in the tank to last 85 minutes without lagging. Viewers should have an appreciation for Midwestern protestant culture going in; the film is a series of inside jokes, to a certain extent. But the energy of the cast and filmmakers is infectious, and the faux-documentary footage, including a clever silent film sequence, is well crafted. (SS)

My Last Day Without You
3 stars
On a one-day business trip to New York, a German businessman meets a singer-songwriter who introduces him to her Brooklyn world. Their differences in culture are clear, but their attraction transcends them quickly. What sounds like just another romantic flick actually has many great moments capable of surprise. The chemistry between the two main characters is unquestionable, and the screenplay doesn't concern itself with the fluff that's customary in the more forgettable films of the genre. Although some of the romantic subplots are only there to reinforce the themes, My Last Day Without You is made with an artist's touch. (DC)

3 stars
TJ Thyne (Bones) plays Lovell Milo, a man who begins experiencing his life out of order - every day he wakes up at a different age, on a different day of his life. Terrified, Lovell searches for ways to make it stop, until he notices a pattern and works to uncover why this is happening. Part Twilight Zone, part It's a Wonderful Life, Shuffle's science fiction mystery is original enough to grab your attention, but it's the film's focus on family and emotions that keep hold. The screenplay trips over its own feet at times but stays untangled enough to entertain. (DC)

Unicorn City
3 stars
When hardcore gamer Voss fails to impress during an interview for a software company position, he creates a live action utopia for gamers in an effort to impress his would-be employers. The film operates well enough to make us forget that the format here is nothing new - it pays a respectable homage to tabletop gamers everywhere. We get some genuine laughs in the first half of the film, and the enjoyable cast does a lot to equalize the meandering screenplay, but it's not enough in the end. This one has heart, to be sure, but the writing feels like a spigot that's been turned on and then broken off. (DC)

A Year In Mooring
3 stars
In A Year In Mooring (or should we say "mourning"), a charismatic and capable Josh Lucas plays the unnamed Young Mariner, a grieving man who has a go at restoring an old sailboat in a bid to help mend his own battered psyche that's been left raw from a fresh tragedy. The movie is sparse. The tale is told mostly through images scattered dialogue. This helps stretch the feeling of the mythological but also keeps us from really caring. The film never quite soars, but it delivers a fresh pace in a fast, fast world. (DC)

click to enlarge Abigail Breslin and Alessandro Nivola in Janie Jones
  • Abigail Breslin and Alessandro Nivola in Janie Jones

Janie Jones
3 stars
The cliches roll out fast and fierce in the first ten minutes: an aging groupie (a bedraggled Elizabeth Shue) surprises a jaded rawk singer (Alessandro Nivola) by announcing that they had a kid together years ago: 13-year-old Janie Jones (Abigail Breslin, the Little Miss Sunshine pageant contestant), who just happens to be a precocious little singer-songwriter. And then, against all odds, it all clicks into place: Nivola and Breslin are charming together; their songs, written by Clem Snide singer Eef Barzelay, aren't bad; and while Nivola's character's quest to play South by Southwest seems a little naive for a guy with a major-label deal, everything else feels authentic. (SS)

Love Birds
2.5 stars
A garden-variety quirky romantic comedy distinguished only by its New Zealand setting. Rhys Darby, who's obsessed with the band Queen for no apparent reason, is rather an unambitious sort, perfectly happy with a life working on a road gang and living in his parents' house. Sally Hawkins (Happy Go Lucky, etc.; kind of wasted here) works for a zoo, dealing with birds much of the time; she's a temporarily-frigid widower with an encouraging, slutty friend. Darby adopts a duck; Hawkins gives him guidance on duck care; there's an ex-girlfriend in the way; yadda yadda yadda; quack, quack, quack. Not unenjoyable, nicely light and fluffy at moments, but utterly forgettable. (SS)

A Buddy Story
2 stars
A Buddy Story follows Buddy Gilbert, a struggling singer/songwriter trying to make it big, and his developing relationship with Susan, the wounded neighbor from across the hall. Together, the two take a tour of back-room bars and community centers where Buddy performs. The problem here isn't the craft, but rather the screenplay's inability to distinguish its characters from any other quirky romantic comedy of the last decade. Not only does it fail to introduce anything new, but it also does nothing old in any particularly interesting way. Buddy and Susan's chemistry is a shining beacon, but with nothing at stake, it's hard to notice. (DC)

An Ordinary Family
2 stars

When Seth returns home after a period of estrangement, he brings a surprising visitor - his boyfriend, William. The rest of the family is quick to accept, but the patriarch, Seth's big brother and Presbyterian minister, Thomas, sits in judgment. The parry-and-joust of the familial squabbles that follow is standard. A slow reveal of the family's backstory provides some rare payoffs, but prevents us from caring too deeply. There are some tender moments, and the filmmakers' good intentions come through loud and clear, but An Ordinary Family doesn't bring any new insight to the quest for acceptance. - (DC)

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