Dramatic Feature- The Eagle Hunter's Son

5 stars

A coming-of-age story, The Eagle Hunter's Son follows young Bazarbai as he treks, eagle in hand, across Mongolia's Atlai Mountains in search of his older brother. As he bonds with the eagle, his spirits lift higher and higher - right into adulthood. The small-scale story, rich with tender performances, is set in a huge, breathtaking landscape, one that must be seen on the big screen. The Eagle Hunter's Son may be an independent film from a newbie director (Rene Bo Hansen), but it plays out like an elegant Hollywood epic. Grand Prize nominee. 85 minutes. - Sam Watermeier

Documentary Feature- P-Star Rising

5 stars

In P-Star Rising, Jesse Diaz, a former rapper living in poverty, guides his nine-year-old daughter Priscilla through the music industry to become one of the youngest female rappers working today. This may sound like the stuff of a heartwarming rags-to-riches story, but the doc refuses to glorify its subjects. We see Jesse's greed and his daughter Priscilla's inability or refusal to acknowledge it. Their American dream is no more poignant than in the end, when we see Jesse literally limping toward it. Best Documentary Feature nominee. 83 minutes. - Sam Watermeier

Dramatic Short- Small Collection

5 stars

Three viewings of Small Collection; three different perspectives. The first time, I saw the short as nothing more than a formal experiment with image and sound that sets overheard conversations against still-life backgrounds (a park, a cafe, a storage facility, etc.). The second time, I listened closer to the conversations, fragments of a dialogue between a husband and wife. By that third viewing, those fragments finally connected, synthesizing into a devastating look at the end of a marriage. Jeremiah Crowell's film is only six minutes long, but it leaves a lasting impact. 6 minutes. - Sam Watermeier

Documentary Feature- Big John

4 stars

Father and son boxers John and Ole Klemetsen captured the imagination of Norway in the 1990s while annoying a segment of the sports crowd. They certainly don't annoy in this rich, warm doc. In fact, one of the most satisfying parts of the film is simply watching the family watch old film footage of the boxers. Watch the looks in their eyes, the smiles, the interactions; don't overlook Mom, whose lower-key, but assured nature is a treat to behold. The story of John and Ole's careers is quite interesting, but the big pleasure in the film is just drinking in the richness of this very earthy, unpretentious family. Best Documentary Feature nominee. 86 minutes. - Ed Johnson-Ott

Documentary Feature- Sergio

4 stars

Sensitively directed by Greg Barker, Sergio is a harrowing recount of UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello's final hours following the Canal Hotel bombing in Iraq (he was killed in 2003 while serving as the Secretary-General's Special Representative to Iraq). The film also chronicles his childhood in Brazil, his politically rebellious college days and his 34 years of selfless service to the UN. Sergio is often uplifting, but it's also disturbing and challenging material. It haunts us with the notion that heroic diplomats like Vieira de Mello are increasingly rare. Best Documentary Feature nominee. 94 minutes. - Sam Watermeier

Dramatic Feature- Spooner

4 stars

With his ever-glistening wide eyes and perpetual child's voice, Matthew Lillard is perfect as Herman Spooner, a 30-year-old used car salesman still living with his parents. But after meeting the beautiful Rose (Nora Zehetner), Spooner forces himself to grow up. Known for supporting roles in such teen slashers and comedies as Scream and She's All That, Lillard delivers his best performance here. To top it off, this is arguably the most charming dramatic feature in the festival. Spooner moves with confidence and grace rare for films of its small scale. It's a humorous, bittersweet tale that cuts deep, striking the mind as well as the heart. 84 minutes. - Sam Watermeier

Dramatic Short- Ragman

4 stars

Based on Walter Wangerins Jr.'s short story, Dale Ward's Ragman is cinematic in a way that few short films are. It's thrilling to go along with the main character as he quietly follows a mysterious ragman with magical healing powers. Each good deed the ragman commits is more surprising than the next. This film is a beautiful, episodic tone poem. Like the ragman himself, one can only wonder what director Ward will do next. 19 minutes. - Sam Watermeier

Student Dramatic Short- Weathered

4 stars

Almost a silent film, Matt Barber and Matt Webb's Weathered conveys grief, confusion, anger and hope with little to no dialogue. In an effectively subdued performance, Nicole Parker stars as Weather, a woman struggling to cope with the loss of her fiance. Unlike most films with this subject matter, Weathered doesn't hit you over the head with tragedy or sweep you away with hopefulness. It finds a refreshingly realistic middle ground between sorrow and optimism. 19 minutes. - Sam Watermeier

Dramatic Short- The Best Part of My Day

4 stars

An interesting experiment. This film shows a relationship forming over a long period of time, all from one angle in an apartment's complex courtyard - and with no dialogue, to boot. We see the man and woman meet each other outside each day, exchanging pleasantries and eventually building to a more complex bond. Although we only see them from a distance, the film succeeds in engaging you with these characters emotionally. 16 minutes. - Sam Watermeier

Dramatic Feature- For My Father

3 stars

In For My Father, a Palestinian suicide bomber in Tel Aviv finds that the switch on his bomb is faulty, forcing him to wait over a weekend for a replacement part to arrive with the very people he was sent to destroy. To complicate matters further, his accomplices have the ability to blow him up by remote control in case he gets cold feet. The bad news is that the compelling premise is handled in an overly simplistic fashion — too glossy, too TV movie-ish. The good news is that the excellent cast makes their stereotypical characters seem real and nuanced, while the filmmakers manage to both maintain a sense of tension and create a neighborhood that feels genuine and vital. The score is a winner, too. For My Father isn't nearly as edgy or incisive as it should be, but the film is engaging nonetheless. Grand Prize nominee. 100 minutes. - Ed Johnson-Ott

Dramatic Feature- My Name Is Jerry

3 stars

A good rough draft of a movie. Its concept is ripe and the characters are charming, but this film could benefit greatly from sharper focus and tighter execution. Doug Jones stars as Jerry, a middle-aged corporate drone who begins embracing the life of the party, befriending young punkers along the way. My Name Is Jerry (a Ball State production) stumbles when it loses sight of its sweet comic spirit and heads into loftier territory. There is a great movie in it, though, waiting to be found. 100 minutes. - Sam Watermeier

Documentary Feature- Rough Aunties

3 stars

This doc follows the admirable women working at Bobbi Bear, an organization in South Africa aimed at arresting child rapists and comforting their victims. There are some surprising moments of levity in the camaraderie between these women. There is a coldness, though, in the film's fly on the wall style. That distance is never quite broken. Nevertheless, Rough Aunties is worth seeing. Best Documentary Feature nominee. 83 minutes. - Sam Watermeier

Dramatic Short- Grande Drip

3 stars

An eccentric homeless man (Matt Walker) helps a lonely working Joe (Jamie Martz) get the girl of his dreams. Like most shoestring short films, Grande Drip is fine and forgettable. Unlike most short films, though, its performances are above average. Martz and Walker are particularly charming and their comic chemistry is genuine. Look for director Garry Marshall in an amusing cameo. On the whole, the film is typical, safe, life-affirming material. 21 minutes. - Sam Watermeier

Student Animated Short- Chicken Cowboy

3 stars

There's not much to say about this film. For one thing, the title explains it all (a talking, gun slinging chicken fights in the wild west). More importantly, Chicken Cowboy is only six minutes long. This animated tale is cute and quirky, but it's nothing special. It doesn't resonate deeply with its audience like the Pixar films. At best, it could make for a decent series on Cartoon Network. 6 minutes. - Sam Watermeier

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