January 1, 2014


Greetings. After a rather long hiatus, I'm pleased to ease back into the movie writing practice as a contributor to Twin Cities movie magazine Joyless Creatures. Until or unless I decide to restart things more regularly here, please head over to JC, and/or follow me on Twitter. Thank you!

September 1, 2011


I didn't start this blog with a bang, and I won't bother trying to end it with one. So, I won't. End it, I mean - at least not permanently. But it's been clear to anyone visiting on a regular basis over the last four years that Getafilm has been limping along for about 18 months, and it's time to acknowledge that I'm either not willing or not able to focus on watching and writing as much as I'd like to at this time in my life.

It's been interesting for me to ponder: is it because I'm unwilling or because I'm unable, and how long does a season in life last? Fortunately I don't need to determine all of that. I don't have to pull the plug or delete everything I've written. I can just turn the lights off in this room and come back if and when I feel like it - the door will be closed but it won't be locked.

To entertain the masses that are sure to continue to flock here on a daily basis, I've tagged several dozen of the 625 archived posts here as my personal favorites, based on the writing, the discussion in the comments, or for an entirely personal reason.

I'll also leave four lessons I've learned, perhaps one for each year of writing to date:

1. Virtual relationships are real relationships. I stopped paying attention to my site traffic a couple of years ago, but the latest data shows that about 170,000 unique visitors have checked in from 193 countries and territories. If you're impressed, you're merely uninformed: popular blogs and websites will rack up those numbers in a morning, while it's taken me years. But what I value much more than the hits (I've never profited a dime from traffic) are the relationships - even friendships - I've developed with some of those visitors who have taken the time to engage with this blog. Some of them I've met, others I hope to one day meet; making friends with strangers has never been so easy.

2. Don't treat a hobby like a job (especially if you already have a job). I almost learned this the hard way as there were times Getafilm actually threatened to damage my relationship with film. As any amateur blogger can tell you, the pressure (entirely self-created) to post something on a regular basis can be overwhelming. Fortunately I gave up that concern some time ago, and have since enjoyed not writing as much as I've enjoyed writing. Why I devoted thought and digital space here to movies like Elegy, Margot at the Wedding, Observe and Report, and Semi-Pro, I have no idea. By far my favorite writing is found in my "Taking It Home" reviews: not only did those get to the heart of my relationship to film, but they were also done on my own time and under no pressure. I never started blogging with the idea that I would become a full time film critic, and, although I'm glad for the opportunity to write freelance reviews when asked, I'm perfectly at peace as an amateur, independent writer.

3. Nothing improves your writing like writing (and reading the writing of others). This should go without saying, but if you are reading this as a beginning blogger or a potential blogger or writer of any kind, I can't overstate how helpful it can be to write on a regular basis. And also read the writing of others (see my blogroll for a few of my inspirations). Putting words to a page forces you to distill and organize your thoughts, helps you form persuasive and well-reasoned arguments, and, perhaps most importantly for any writer, improves the economy and efficiency of your expression (at least for most people - you can tell it's still not my greatest strength).

4. Maintain perspective. This is basically an extension of #2 and should be true about anything in life, but it's worth repeating. People start blogging because they have creative energy they're trying to channel in some way, but it would stand to reason they have interests in life entirely unrelated to their blog. I know that's true for me, at least. I'm passionately interested in film, but also in quite a number of other things to which I'd like to focus my limited free time and energy. So, I don't see this hiatus or hibernation as a departure from film and writing (I'm actually hoping to watch more movies than I have been recently), but an indefinite break to give myself an opportunity to breathe without the weight of the blog, reflect, and maybe pursue some of my other interests. But it's not necessarily the end - I might feel compelled to write about a movie I see next month, or next year, or maybe not until next decade.

Until whenever that may be, thank you for reading. I have learned more about film, writing, history and culture in this little corner of the internet than I ever could have hoped. You've helped me earn a four-year degree in movie blogging, and am going to enjoy my graduation and relax for a bit...

August 29, 2011

Taking It Home: A Better Life

The grass is always greener, except when it's not.

I had the opportunity recently to observe removal hearings at a federal immigration court. The calendar moved in quick succession (5-10 minutes per case) and included the first appearances by respondents accused of being in the United States illegally. These were not detainees or, depending on your definition, even criminals, but they were nonetheless up against the law on this day.

Some had been in the country for less than a year, others had been here for decades. Maybe they hopped the border themselves, or through the help of a mule, or maybe they just overstayed their originally legal visas. They didn't explain how or why they came, only that they wanted to stay, for the welfare of themselves (in the case of asylum-seekers) or the welfare of others, such as children or spouses. Each story was different, and yet they were all identical, in that they portrayed lives lived in two places at once - here and abroad, above ground and underground, in comfortable peace and in extreme danger.

There were no tears or emotional speeches or really any kind of the desperation I might have expected in such an environment. Names were replaced by case numbers, legal jargon was interspersed with yes or no questions interpreted in different languages, and future dates and years were planned ahead matter-of-factly (cases are so backlogged that follow-up hearings were being scheduled on this day for mid-2014). It was, in other words, devastating in its banality.

The same can be said for A Better Life, although it unfortunately dips its toes into schmaltz every 15-20 minutes. So many recent movies have been made about immigration, and so many of those movies have told the same story (except Sean Baker's singular Take Out), that it was a little disappointing to watch A Better Life drive down that heavily-trafficked road and pass up possible detours to new cinematic territory. It's predictable and occasionally pedantic, and to be perfectly honest it's hard to defend as a "good movie".

But my measure of quality here has always considered social importance above cinematic artistry, and to that end A Better Life is as good if not better than most films I've seen this year. And it's not as if it's "bad" even on traditional cinematic terms; it transcends most of its flaws thanks to lived-in performances and a steady grounding in reality. Its characters are familiar not only from other movies, but from your daily bus commute or restaurant meal or hotel stay. (Perhaps the most conspicuous characteristic of undocumented immigrants, on screen and on the street, is their stoic work ethic.)

So if immigration-themed films are a dime a dozen, why do they keep being produced? First and most obviously, because immigration - both legal and illegal - is an issue facing not only every state and community in the United States, but nearly every country on earth. And it will continue to be a relevant social issue until, perhaps generations from now, the world will be so globalized that borders will be virtual and national identities will be nominal.

Until that time, if and when it does come (certainly not in our lifetimes), immigration movies will continue to portray undocumented immigrants in a sympathetic light, simply by virtue of their often narrow focus on the hard luck and difficult struggles these characters face every day. We don't see them as job takers or drug smugglers or fraudulent voters, but as honest workers, family members, and people of high moral character. Which the majority of them are, as I saw in court and as I see everyday when I look in the mirror (as a U.S.-born child of naturalized immigrants from two countries).

Secondly, the movies often strive to portray one of the unappreciated realities of this issue: it's not about the immigrants at all, but about their families, both now and for generations to come. Any emotion tied into these stories is related to these family bonds; I can't think of a moving illegal immigration film about a loner character whose family ties are not central to the story (though Sugar and Lorna's Silence come pretty close). So, as filmmakers continue to try to emotionally engage us about immigration, it will be an exercise in who can tell the most compelling story in the most unique way (Ramin Bahrani is among the new pioneers I admire).

And lastly, what of cinematic musings on immigration policies and politics? Put simply, I'd suggest that films about immigration are films about failed immigration policies (and documentaries like 9500 Liberty approach them head-on). The vast majority of these movies posit that current policies are either unfair or irrelevant, and that no matter what the politicians decide, illegal entry across borders will continue, and the stories we see on screen will continue to play out in real time all around us. There will be consequences for everyone involved, and there are no easy answers.

But as I've said before I think the purpose of these films, and all thoughtful films for that matter, is not to set forth policy but to initiate a conversation about it, or, in the case of A Better Life, serve as a conventional yet compassionate reminder of the importance of an issue.

What did you take home?

August 13, 2011

300 Words About: Stevie

As Steve James' excellent The Interrupters made its way around theaters this summer, I caught up recently with Stevie, his deeply personal documentary from 2002 (and only his second documentary at the time, the first being of course Hoop Dreams). Stevie is the worst possible testimonial for the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America youth mentoring program that you might ever see. It's also a perfect example of why programs like it are so important.

Steve James was a Big Brother to Stevie Fielding in the mid-1980's. At the time, little Stevie was an awkward preteen living with his grandparents in rural Southern Illinois - he was a little odd and had a troubled family history, but was generally harmless. James had a relatively normal mentor-mentee relationship with Stevie for a few years, and then returned in the mid-90's (perhaps encouraged by the recent success of Hoop Dreams) to see what Stevie was up to as an adult. What he found was troubling: Stevie was well on his way down a self-destructive path, with an extensive criminal record and no clear direction in his life. Devastated by Stevie's situation and perhaps feeling guilty for not keeping closer tabs on his "little brother", James recommitted himself to helping Stevie at least stay out of legal trouble, if not actually become a contributing member of society.

And this is where Stevie lays bare the profound challenge facing mentors in a program like Big Brother Big Sisters, or for that matter parents, teachers, or any adult nobly attempting to better a young person's life. I felt pangs of guilt for past students that I had "let go" during my teaching years, or for that matter anyone in my life with whom I've had a mentoring-type relationship. Were there too many other opposing factors and influences to outweigh my efforts? Did I do as much as I could to make a difference? Did it even matter?

Stevie is not meant to be an examination of guilt or regret, and, refreshingly, James does not frame it as a naive "agenda" documentary or bookend it with tidy steps that can be followed to make the world a better place. He instead asks raw, honest, heartbreaking questions - and doesn't provide any easy answers - about what happens when the best intentions are left unrealized. And the horror doesn't end on the screen, either, as Stevie's current situation is as disturbing as anything from the film's footage, which is now more than a decade old.

They say "the road to hell is paved with good intentions", and critics of mentoring programs for troubled youth could use Stevie as Exhibit A in their case against program efficacy. But to watch Stevie is to understand a different reason why these programs exist: not to "save lives", but to connect lives that wouldn't otherwise be connected. To strip away the social barriers that keep us apart and put us (the privileged) face-to-face with the experience of the marginalized majority around us. The reason I appreciate James so much as a filmmaker is because he doesn't wield his camera as a weapon of scrutiny and all-knowing judgment. Instead he uses it as a mirror, reflecting back on us images of ourselves that we can't or don't want to see. What happens after that is for us to figure out.

July 28, 2011

Getafilm Gallimaufry: Midnight in Paris, X-Men: First Class, The Tree of Life, Super 8

Midnight in Paris (A)

Having never been to Paris, I've enjoyed exploring the city's iconic setting in various films, from The 400 Blows (which I saw recently for the first time) to Amelie, Band of Outsiders, Ronin, Before Sunset, 2 Days in Paris, and even European Vacation and Ratatouille, to name just a few. I can see why it makes for such an enchanting setting for movies, and Midnight in Paris hit all the right notes for me again. The smells and spells of the city were a terrific complement to a dream-like fantasy story. Owen Wilson played essentially the same version of the same character he's played in every movie from You, Me, and Dupree to Shanghai Knights, and while I wouldn't have expected that character to fit here, it was a near perfect fit for the quirkiness of the narrative. I didn't buy the chemistry between his character and Marion Cotillard's, but then Midnight in Paris is not a love story between characters but between a director, a city, and his cultural and literary influences. I like that Woody Allen doesn't go to really any length to explain why particular characters are where they are, when they are. The charm of this movie is easy to succumb to, and that it's Allen's highest-grossing film to date speaks to the appeal for mature, original, simple cinema in the midst of the year-round blockbuster bonanza.

X Men: First Class (B+)

Here's a movie for which I couldn't explain my interest ahead of time, other than that some aspect of the original X-Men movie and the story has always intrigued me. It involves the fact that this series is set in the real world and involves real people and places, unlike Batman, for example (why the endless fawning over and praise of that story, I still don't know). You could say Watchmen is also set in the real world, and while those graphic novels may well be interesting (I haven't read them and hated the movie), I still find X-Men to be among the most socially relevant comic book series around. Mutants are, of course, a metaphor for any marginalized minority group in history, which makes the films both relatable and actually much more emotional than Spider-Man or, good grief, The Green Hornet. Lending to the realism in this latest film is the excellent acting from Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, and Jennifer Lawrence. Casting seasoned dramatic actors in comic book movie doesn't always work (Ed Norton as The Incredible Hulk?), but it definitely did in First Class, and if the cast stays on for the next installment, I'll follow along as well.

The Tree of Life (B+)

Up until a few years ago, I had no idea Terrence Malick was so revered by 25-40 year old male movie buffs. Among my peers in the blogging world, Malick's The New World was far and away considered the best film of the last decade. I remember quite well seeing it in the theater and shrugging my shoulders on the way out, so the devout praise for the film has always escaped me. Not baffled me, because I didn't think it was bad, but escaped me, because...I don't know, maybe I just didn't get it, or know what I should have been watching for, or have enough patience and thought to consider its deeper meanings. I never did give it a second watch, but needless to say the hype around that film made me quite anxious to have a third shot at understanding Malick (I'd previously seen The Thin Red Line). My verdict on The Tree of Life? A visually captivating and ambitious meditation on the meaning of life and nature of family, but a somewhat emotionally dull one at that. Really the only emotion I felt, other than an utter sense of awe at the cinematography and visual effects, was an unnerving fear. Brad Pitt's character was terrifying and his presence was palpable even when he wasn't on screen - maybe that was the point (Sean Penn, meanwhile, seemed absent even when he was on screen). The father-son relationship is one of about a million things that Malick lays out for interpretation and analysis. Over the next few years, as that is sure to play out again online, at least I won't be as confused. And besides, I'd much rather people spend years discussing a film like The Tree of Life than a film like The Dark Knight. (That's two digs now at TDK, if you're keeping score at home.)

Super 8 (C+)

When is a remake not actually a remake? When everything about the new movie is identical to a previous movie, other than a few plot devices. Of course we know by now that Super 8 is J.J. Abrams' homage to the films of Steven Spielberg, but instead of being merely influenced by Spielberg's films (E.T. being the easiest comparison), Super 8 plays like a lesser version of one. Sillier dialogue, a plodding pace, and hardly a speck of originality (to say nothing of logical gaps - how did the camera and the car and the kamikaze teacher come out of the train crash essentially unscathed?). Watching Super 8, I felt like I'd seen it before: the rowdy dining room table, the same-looking alien with the same-sounding guttural growls and high-pitched chirps, the placid suburban neighborhood predictably thrown into chaos. Of course I realize that this criticism, besides making me come off as a total grouch, can also be applied to countless movies. Filmmakers are influenced by filmmakers throughout history, and I expect my issues with Super 8, rather than being based on the movie's own merit, actually just stem from my nostalgia for "the real thing" - Spielberg's films.

July 11, 2011

"Location: MN" - This Weekend @ the Walker

For better or worse, the most iconic Minnesota movie scene that ever was.

If there is anything Minnesotans love more than Minnesota (a big "if"), it's movies about Minnesota. Movies that show us who we really are (Fargo), who we really aren't (Fargo), and who we desperately fear the rest of the world thinks we are (Fargo). That fear being unsubstantiated, of course, because the rest of the world pays no attention to us in the first place (perhaps the greatest horror of all). I digress.

It ain't Hollywood by any stretch of the imagination, but a number of excellent films have been written, produced, and filmed here, and this weekend's showcase at the Walker Art Center, Location: MN, is a rare opportunity to go out and explore the state by going in to a dark and comfortably air conditioned theater. Keep in mind these are only movies filmed in Minnesota, not movies written by Minnesotans (Gran Torino), or written by "Minnesotans" (Juno), or set in Minnesota but filmed elsewhere (Juno, again).

Despite this filtering of the list, there are a handful of movies whose exclusion I find curious, even if somewhat obvious considering the artistic reputation the Walker needs to uphold. I mean, it would be audacious to justify including The Mighty Ducks, or Jingle All the Way, or Grumpy (and Grumpier) Old Men, or Drop Dead Gorgeous, or New in Town, or Little Big League. (Actually a bizarro series featuring those films and others could do decent business here, but the Walker isn't the likely setting for it.)

But what about more acclaimed films like North Country, Untamed Heart, A Prairie Home Companion (my allergy to Garrison Keillor notwithstanding), or A Serious Man? Or what about some of the little indie films that didn't make big splashes but still floated out beyond the local festival circuit, like Into Temptation or Stuck Between Stations?

And, most importantly, what about my favorite - and the most culturally accurate - Minnesota movie of all time: Aurora Borealis (add it)?

June 20, 2011

48 Hour Film Project: Minneapolis

Sure has been a ghost town around here, but such is my current movie-going reality. I've had something resembling a resurgence lately, however, and a local event this Thursday might be just the tonic for my malaise. Nothing like some actual creativity on a screen to reawaken my mojo for the movies, and there's nothing more creative than producing an original film in 48 hours.

Head to the Riverview Theater this Thursday for the Best Of Screening of the 48 Hour Film Project, an international film competition taking place in 100 cities in 24 countries. Minneapolis, as many know, boasts one of the fiercest city competitions, with dozens of submissions each year.

If you're not familiar, it's this simple: two Friday nights ago, filmmaking teams received the name of a character (this year - a "Driving Instructor" named Les or Lena Olinger), a prop (this year - a magnet), and a line of dialogue (this year - "Tell me about it."). Within 48 hours they had to write, shoot, and edit an original short film. These films screened last week, and this Thursday the best of the bunch will be shown. What do the winners receive? Prizes, of course, but also the prestige that can only come in a rabid local filmmaking community like ours. 

And oh yeah, they also get their film screened at the Cannes Film Festival each May, including 2010's Minneapolis winner, Per Bianca:

I can say from experience that the Best Of Screening is a rollicking good time - do yourself a favor and see the kind of creativity that is utterly lacking in movie theaters week after week!

When: Thursday, June 23rd, at 7:00 PM
Where: The Riverview
Cost: $15

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