The gripping documentary "If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front" offers an intimate look at the radical environmental group, which, from 1996 to 2001, perpetuated a series of arson-related measures to protest perceived abuses.
The film's director, co-editor and co-writer Marshall Curry, and co-director Sam Cullman focus largely on Front member Daniel McGowan, who was indicted in late 2005, along with a dozen other cell collaborators around that time, for his role in ELF activities.
Living under house arrest as he awaits trial, the unassuming McGowan attempts to justify his radical actions against such Eugene, Ore.-area targets as a wild horse slaughterhouse, an SUV dealership and a timber plant — depicted via archival footage and some neat animation — although, in hindsight, he is somewhat baffled by his participation.
Were these acts of terrorism? The seven-year "terrorism enhanced" prison sentence that McGowan ultimately received made the official answer "yes" (the FBI agreed). However, the filmmakers, whose sympathies seem to tilt slightly toward McGowan, rightly examine both sides of the debate with input from other former ELF members, several victimized loggers and the investigators who blew open the case.
Still, it's video of pepper spray-happy law enforcers battling dissenting environmentalists that packs the movie's most visceral punch.
— Gary Goldstein
"If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front." No MPAA Rating. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. At the Nuart, West Los Angeles.
Inner beauty from a harsh 'Life'
Well into the South Africa-set drama "Life, Above All," a startling thing happens: A teenage girl attends a block party. She dances, laughs and flirts. For a rare evening, she's not carrying the weight of her elders' denial — specifically, about AIDS.
Thirteen-year-old Chanda is a young woman of exceptional poise and strength and possesses wisdom well beyond her years. The teachable-moments framework surrounding her might be simplistic, but her portrayal by Khomotso Manyaka is one of the most striking film debuts in recent memory.
As the film opens, Chanda is negotiating funeral details for her baby sister and chasing down her irresponsible stepfather. In her relationship with her sweet-faced mother, the reversal of parent-child roles is clear from the start. But Chanda's troubles extend beyond the family to the aggressive ignorance and fear that keep her middle-class township's rumor mill grinding. (In the widescreen frame, doorways and other vertical divisions often set her apart from her surroundings.)
Unbowed by stigma, she's clear-eyed and compassionate, sticking by her ostracized best friend (a memorable Keaobaka Makanyane), who has been orphaned by the disease whose name no one will say aloud.
Adapting the young-adult novel "Chanda's Secrets," director Oliver Schmitz has made a film that's less didactic than the source material, if still intent on delivering a neatly wrapped message. Medical personnel are depicted working with unbelievable efficiency and generosity, and Chanda's stoicism grows wearing.
But Manyaka gives the character a gaze so true it could only open hearts and minds.
— Sheri Linden
"Life, Above All." MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material and some sexual content. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes. At Laemmle's Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles.
Losing its way in search for love
Jill Andresevic's documentary, "Love Etc.," tracks five slice-of-life tales of romance won, being negotiated and sought across a handful of New York boroughs. There's the bickering young Indian couple planning their wedding, the smitten octogenarian Brooklynites who've been together nearly 50 years, the divorced dad construction worker, the single gay theater director and the SoHo teens in the blush of first love.
But there are also the timeworn "I Heart New York" montages, the lack of spoken or observed insight into relationships and an overall feeling of a superficially feel-good reality TV pilot. It's not that you don't care for these urbanites — you do, but it's in spite of Andresevic's unengaged hanging-around and general air of slightness.
One is left thinking about almost anything but love: how a play comes together, 79-year-old Albert's struggles as a songwriter, why one subject's romantic prospect ups and disappears.
Any one of these stories might have been worth fleshing out into a weightier and no-less-enjoyable look at city life and the search for someone to conquer it with, but as presented here it's the airiest of flipbook portraits, a skyline view of love instead of a foray into its streets, tunnels and alleyways.
— Robert Abele
"Love Etc." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. At Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood.
A black comedy's tough luck
"Lucky" has the crushing task of making two completely soulless, unbelievable individuals — brought together by emotional stuntedness — seem interesting, to no avail.
Lucy (Ari Graynor) is a ditzy, gold-digging receptionist who ignores officemate Ben (Colin Hanks), a nerdy mama's boy nursing a crush on Lucy since childhood. Then Ben wins the lottery, and Lucy is suddenly all smiles. But piled on to this setup is one of those dark indie-comedy gimmicks that screenwriter Kent Sublette and director Gil Cates Jr. think is an instant game changer but is really a sign of creative inertia: Ben's a fledgling serial killer.
That Lucy's discovery of this is a nagging glitch to her fortune-stripping plans is irritatingly played both straight and silly, and while Hanks has zero cred as a secret psycho, it's truly a shame to see Graynor — who gave one of the great comic drunk performances of all time in "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" — completely flounder with an impossible role.
The lottery machine shown at the beginning of "Lucky" then becomes an unintentional metaphor for this laughless, quirk-stuffed black comedy: Nearly every step the movie makes feels completely random, with no payoff.
— Robert Abele
"Lucky." MPAA rating: R for language, some violence and brief sexuality. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes. At Laemmle's Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills; and Culver Plaza Theatres, Culver City.