December 28, 2009

Oak St. Cinema: Out Like a Lamb

Well that was pretty anticlimactic. From a firework to a fire to a flame to a fizzle, the storied Oak St. Cinema will unofficially be closing down this month, in case you haven't heard. The news came out a couple weeks ago in a release from Minnesota Film Arts (the nonprofit that owns and operates the theater), as well as an accompanying article in the Star Tribune. But as it happens I found out about the closing over a month ago when, tasked with reviewing an upcoming weekend series at the Oak for the Strib, I stopped by MFA's office above the theater to pick up a screener of Citizen Havel. I was shocked to see that the moving process was already underway, but I kept my word that I wouldn't spill the beans about MFA's impending relocation to St. Anthony Main. 

It wasn't a huge secret and nobody would have believed me anyway considering the rumors that have swirled around this situation for the last decade (including my own premature obituary almost two years ago), but I kept mum anyway even if I wanted to urge readers of the Strib to check out that series at what might be their last-ever chance to visit the Oak. But the news remained hidden, and who knows, deep down maybe I didn't even believe it was actually going to happen.

Well it did, with really no fanfare at all, and in this transitional period before the "new" MFA reemerges at St. Anthony, I've realized I have the odd distinction of having written the last-ever published review of a film series at a theater that was the bedrock of the film community in the Twin Cities for decades. The seasonally shown Swedish film Ronia, the Robber's Daughter is playing through next week, but by all accounts there will never be a curated series at the Oak like the one I previewed earlier this month.

December 23, 2009

Short Cuts: "Make Work Your Favorite"

Elf (2003). Directed by Jon Favreau; written by David Berenbaum; starring Will Ferrell, Zooey Deschanel, Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, James Caan, Faizon Love, Mary Steenburgen, and Peter Dinklage.

Although I personally find it only chuckle-inducing, I've accepted that Elf has, in the span of only six years, become a Christmas comedy classic for the new millennium. I can't believe how many people talk about this movie each December, but then The Christmas Story never did much for me either, so go figure.

Elf is one of the few Will Ferrell movies in which I don't find him very funny, but some of the reserved supporting cast performances complement his over-the-top geekiness really well. Exhibit A (above) is one of my favorite scenes, with Faizon Love giving one of the best incredulously blank stares in years. I find it a lot funnier than Ferrell's hysterics, but that's just me.

Anyway, I don't mean to be a grinch - enjoy Elf, A Christmas Story, or whatever other holiday movies you might watch around this time of year. I'll be traveling and offline for the next week, but I have a couple of posts in the pipeline that will go up before I get back. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours!

December 21, 2009

Considering the Best Documentaries of the Decade (2000-2009): Part 1

 Among the best: Spellbound, Born into Brothels, Jonestown, Trouble the Water 

A few weeks ago, before the current deluge of Best of Decade lists hit the internet, I came across a couple of lists ranking the best documentaries of the last 10 years (not surprisingly, I found them via The Documentary Blog). I enjoyed scanning through these to see what I agreed with, what I'd never heard of, and what I noticed was missing. The first list was Paste Magazine's 25 Best Documentaries of the Decade, and the second was an excellent independent list by a London-based blogger, 50 Documentaries of the Decade, which was actually written as a kind of response to Paste's list.

I'm not going to make a third list here, but I am going to offer some thoughts on these two, and in the process I'll probably end up with my own top ten or so. As a general disclaimer, I should say that a.) I generally don't like ranking films numerically (really, what's the difference between the 4th best and the 6th best?), and b.) I only began watching documentaries in earnest around 2002, so I am biased toward the second half of this decade simply because I've seen many more from that period.

So, on with the show:

December 18, 2009

Taking It Home: Invictus

("Taking It Home" is an alternative review style in which I share my thoughts on a movie's themes and how they may relate to my life, while focusing less on the acting, writing, technical aspects, or even plot of the film. It's a collection of the ideas I took home, "because the movie experience shouldn't end in the theater".)

More influential than any stump speech a politician could make... 

While watching Clint Eastwood's Invictus I was reminded of a little-seen documentary a few years ago about the space race. The astronauts interviewed in In the Shadow of the Moon gave fascinating and inspiring accounts of their experience with the outer limits, but the most lasting impression I have is their description of what was happening back here on Earth. As we Americans are reminded every summer, after years of competing with the Soviets to get a man on the Moon, the United States reached the finish line first, on July 20, 1969. We would go on to dominate space exploration for the next generation and ultimately to the present day.

But what wasn't clear to me until In the Shadow of the Moon, and what was reinforced by Invictus, is just how much collective pride a population can gain from what is, on the surface, a meaningless competition. Despite the social and political turmoil of 1969, for example, the United States experienced a brief period of pure, unadulterated joy because we beat the Soviets at a massive global game (more interestingly, according to the film, this American achievement was celebrated around the globe, and goodwill toward the United States peaked at a level not reached again until 9/12/01). The triumph of the South African National Rugby Team might pale in comparison on a global scale, but Invictus still portrays the Springboks' 1995 World Cup victory as an event almost as important as the moon landing - and ultimately more important than the U.S. Men's Hockey Team's 1980 "Miracle on Ice" (most recently revisited in 2004's Miracle).

You may be thinking, "Come on, sports are unimportant in the grand scheme of things and a distracting waste of time and money that could spend on much more important issues!". Tell that to Nelson Mandela (in fact many of his advisors did, as we see in the film). To take nothing away from Mandela's achievement as a black man being elected president in a racially segregated country after half a lifetime in prison, the Boks' World Cup victory was just as important to his political success - even more so, if I may be so bold.

December 17, 2009

Brit Noir @ The Heights, December 21 - March 1

Take-Up Productions presents Brit Noir, Mondays @ the Heights

While Take-Up Productions continues its weekly Wed.-Sat. programming at the Trylon microcinema (review the winter lineup), it also returns to the dark of winter night with a stellar Monday night film noir series at the Heights beginning next week and continuing through the end of February. Nearly all of these films are well-known classics, and the first film, Odd Man Out, is not available on DVD.

Taken from Take-Up's newly redesigned website:
 "Popular myth has it that film noir is an American invention - pessimistic tales of desire, greed and guilt, with shadowy lighting influenced by the German Expressionism of silent films. But disillusionment in post-WWII cinemas was fully an Allied effort.

Our series includes three films from director Carol Reed, with the the classic The Third Man, the rarely seen The Fallen Idol, and the highlight of the series: Odd Man Out starring James Mason. This film is not on DVD, and we’re getting a new print struck solely for the purpose of screening the film before the rights expire at the end of 2009 (the reason we had to run the film a month before the other screenings)."

December 16, 2009

Twin Cities Film Critics Awards Announced. Or Not.

Although the only movie awards that Joe and Jane Public pay attention to are announced in Jan/Feb/March (just the Oscars and Globes, really), there are an almost endless number of film critic circles around the country that announce their "Best Of" lists in December. Generally they're reported and forgotten by everyone but the voters, though you can be sure that each award a film wins, no matter how small, will be referenced as part of an Oscar campaign.

You'll find this hard to believe, but just in the last few days alone, the Women Film Critics Circle, New York Film Critics Circle, Detroit Film Critics Society, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Boston Society of Film Critics, New York Film Critics Online, Broadcast Film Critics Association, Alliance of Women Film Journalists, American Film Institute, St. Louis Film Critics Association, Southeastern Film Critics Association, Indiana Film Critics, San Francisco Film Critics, San Diego Film Critics, Austin Film Critics Association, Toronto Film Critics Association, African-American Film Critics Association, Chicago Film Critics Association, and Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association have all announced their Best of 2009 award winners. And many more are on the way.

You might think is ridiculous. Heck, I think it's ridiculous. But then I wonder - where is the Twin Cities Film Critics Association?

December 15, 2009

Getafilm Gallimaufry: Amreeka, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Road, and Anticipating Avatar

[Note: This series includes scattered thoughts on various movie-related topics. I was looking for a word that started with the letter "g" that means collection or assortment, but lest you think I'm some elitist wordsmith, know that I'd never heard of "gallimaufry" and I don't even know how to say it, but it was the only other option the thesaurus provided aside from "goulash" (too foody) and "garbage" (no).]

Amreeka (B)  

Amreeka doesn't show you anything you haven't seen before in the immigrant/cross-cultural dramedy genre (and it is a genre, or at least a developing one). But few immigrants' stories are identical, and dismissing Amreeka as "just another one of those immigrant movies" is about as short-sighted as, for example, assuming all Spanish-speaking immigrants are Mexicans. The fact is that Amreeka, while not entirely unique, still offers memorable insights into post-9/11 immigration in America, particularly for those families coming from the Middle East (in this case, Palestinians to Illinois).

The film was written and directed by Cherien Dabis, a young Palestinian-American filmaker recently named by Variety as one of "Ten Directors to Watch". Dabis certainly presents the film with the authority of someone who has experienced the story, and her screenplay is balanced with equal amounts of tragedy and comedy. While the narrative is somewhat inconsistent in terms of character development, you find yourself genuinely rooting for Munah and Fadi Farah from the first few minutes - a sign of thoughtful writing. I have to admit I'm a little tired of seeing Hiam Abbass worked to death as apparently the only woman of her age Hollywood ever thinks to cast as "Strong-willed Middle Eastern/Persian Woman #1", but she nonetheless delivers in her role every time.

December 14, 2009

Taking It Home: Up in the Air

("Taking It Home" is an alternative review style in which I share my thoughts on a movie's themes and how they may relate to my life, while focusing less on the acting, writing, technical aspects, or even plot of the film. It's a collection of the ideas I took home, "because the movie experience shouldn't end in the theater".)

 My expression if asked, "What did you learn from Up in the Air?"...

For as much time and attention is given to the bothersome details of business traveling in Up in the Air, I'm surprised that airline food is never mentioned. Maybe it's because it would serve as an unfortunately accurate metaphor for the viewer: sectioned into bite-size portions like an in-flight meal, Up in the Air is tasty but ultimately unfulfilling. As a more direct metaphor, the film bounces from theme to theme like its main character bounces from city to city, with no apparent final destination in mind. I never felt like I got inside Ryan Bingham's head. He was an enigma and, like so many George Clooney characters, pretty one-dimensional.

Nonetheless, I liked Up in the Air. It was brisk, amusing entertainment showcasing a great ensemble cast. I just don't know what I supposed to take from it, which is particularly frustrating because I felt like Jason Reitman was trying so hard to teach me some really meaningful lessons - about loneliness and independence, unemployment and hard work, marriage and infidelity. But where were the dots connecting any of these very mixed messages together?

December 11, 2009

300 Words About: Diary of a Times Square Thief

Modern day archaeology = digging on Ebay...

Imagine that you've recorded your innermost secrets, ideas, personal philosophies, and confessions from the last few years in a composition book. If somebody found it in 2035, what would impression would they have of you - and how would you feel if they attempted to find you by contacting all of the people you've been writing about?

This reunion with the past is the essence of Dutch filmmaker Klaas Bense's intriguing documentary, Diary of a Times Square Thief, which was recently nominated (in the company of Food, Inc., Anvil! The Story of Anvil, and Afghan Star) in the Best Feature category of the 2009 International Documentary Association awards. 

It is a brief film (60 min.) packed with fascinatingly bizarre interviews with a diverse group of New Yorkers whose names were found in a personal diary that Bense purchased on Ebay. The only details he could find in the diary about the author were that his name was John and he worked as a receptionist at a dilapidated flophouse (the infamous Times Square Hotel, now the largest permanent supportive housing project in the country) during the crime-plagued mid-80's. Armed only with these clues, and curious about what John might be doing today, Bense set off for New York City.

December 10, 2009

P.O.V. (Season 21, Fall Special): The Way We Get By

This is what "supporting the troops" looks like...

It was tragically ironic that I watched The Way We Get By on the same night as President Obama's speech outlining the troop surge in Afghanistan. Any other night the speech would have been mildly depressing, but that night, after watching the story of a group of seniors greeting more than 900,000 soldiers stepping back onto U.S. soil in Bangor, ME, well, it was soul-crushing. 

The Way We Get By, which is still available to view for free online at PBS through Sunday, is not a documentary about the war (we've had plenty of those, most forgettable), and it's not even about the soldiers. It is about finding meaning in the sunset years of life, and serving others without any condition or expectation of reward. In essence, it is about finding life in the face of death.

December 9, 2009

Living in Emergency: A Nationwide Screening and Discussion on Monday, December 14

Recently shortlisted for an Oscar, you have the rare chance to see the film and watch a live panel discussion moderated by Elizabeth Vargas

Soon after watching Mark Hopkins' award-winning documentary, Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders, I came across yet another talking heads debate on cable television about U.S. health care reform: blah, blah, blah, premiums, plans, policies, programs, and of course, the nefarious "public option". The irony was tragic considering I'd just learned that 2 billion people worldwide have no option, as in no access to essential medical care. This may not be news to many people with an eye on global issues, but Living in Emergency doesn't dwell on mind-boggling statistics like that because it's not really about the patients at all. It's about the doctors who volunteer to risk their sanity, careers, marriages, and even their lives to help alleviate suffering in the most dangerous environments on earth.

The four doctors profiled in Living in Emergency all work for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF/"Doctors Without Borders"), the Paris-founded, Nobel Peace Prize-winning NGO that provides free medical care annually to 10 million people in more than 70 sites worldwide - most of them previously, or too often currently, ravaged by war.

These are the kinds of settings where doctors become chain smokers. Where doctors are encouraged to have sex frequently, because when you're losing patients day in and day out, sex represents life. Where doctors end up questioning their career choice and doubting their own sense of self-efficacy. Where the Hippocratic Oath is a quaint, tidy motto.

The film marks the first time MSF has given a documentary crew uncensored access to its field sites, however Living in Emergency was not produced by MSF, and it could hardly be considered a glossy recruiting video to show to idealistic medical students and public health professionals (they might not be excited at the idea of wearing headlamps to treat patients in the dark). But they are probably the first people who should see it, followed by Americans with any vested interest in international relations and/or our current health care debate. It is a hard film to watch (e.g., very graphic surgical scenes and war footage) but an important one, and its recent inclusion on the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature is deserved.

Next Monday, December 14, MSF will be teaming up with Fathom Events and ABC's Elizabeth Vargas for a nationwide screening and live post-screening discussion with the film's subjects. The one-night event will be held in New York City and streamed live in more than 440 participating theaters (click here for theaters in Minnesota). For this night, at least, we should be humbly grateful for the access to health care that we have in this country.

December 7, 2009

On the Horizon: In the Heights

For no good reason at all, Minnesota has a raging inferiority complex. The state is puffed up with pride about the most bizarre things (electing Jesse Venture and Al Franken to office?), and any national or global story that has a local connection becomes front-page news, just so we feel like we're important, too. I'm not a Minnesota native but even I have found myself spouting off boastful trivia to people when I'm out of state, such as the fact that the Twin Cities has a thriving drama culture and more theater seats per capita than any U.S. city outside of New York City. Why your average person would care about such a thing I have no idea, but that doesn't matter, you'll be told this information just so that you know Minnesota should be known for something.

Despite my sarcastic attitude about this state's insecurity, there are times when the boasts are backed up, and when something like the local theater culture really does create some unforgettable experiences ahead of the rest of the country. A few months ago it was announced that the inaugural national tour of the Tony Award winning-musical "In the Heights" would be making an early stop in Minneapolis, and considering how much I love "Rent", it was a no-brainer that I had to see this. The occasion arrived this weekend, and I am pleased to declare that it was shockingly fantastic. I'm no drama geek but I love a good Broadway musical, so take my opinion for it's worth considering your own interest in such things. In any event I was not prepared for a show - written by someone my age - with this much cultural diversity, humor, musicality, dance, and emotion. In a word (or two), it was life-affirming.

Because I love the film adaptation of "Rent", and because "In the Heights" is so vivid, vivacious, and vibrantly alive (think "Rent"+"Grease"+"West Side Story"+2009), during the show I found myself wondering how Lin-Manuel Miranda's vision would translate to the silver screen. Turns out I wasn't the only one: after opening on Broadway in March of 2008, racking up 13 Tony nominations in May of 2008, and winning 4 Tony Awards (including Best Musical) in June of 2008, "In the Heights" was almost immediately picked up by Universal Pictures for a film adaptation due out in 2010. If it does end up being released on time (I can't tell how far along production is), it will automatically be my most anticipated movie of next year.

December 5, 2009

300 Words About: New York, I Love You

"Listen, Hayden, let me tell you a little something about being boring on screen"...

Easily one of the most disappointing films of 2009, New York, I Love You makes the largest and most culturally diverse city in the United States appear bland, lily-white, and generally lifeless. It's like Des Moines on a Sunday morning.

To be fair I'm not a New Yorker and have never lived in the city, but in all the times I've ever visited I've never left with an impression as dull and tasteless as I did walking out of this movie. The locations are pedestrian, the stories inconsequential and insipid, the chain-smoking characters severely lacking in charisma, and the acting hit or miss (like, broad-side-of-the-barn miss).
Aside from two or three of the 11 short stories, the highlight of New York, I Love You is the music playing over the closing credits.

December 3, 2009

"When the Walls Came Tumbling Down" the Oak St.

Minnesota Film Arts is presenting a timely and curiously curated film series this weekend at the never-say-die Oak St. Cinema. You can find my capsule previews of the films in tomorrow's Star Tribune here. The full title of the series, "When the Walls Came Tumbling Down - Berlin and Prague, 1989 Remembered", isn't quite as comphrensive or inclusive as you might be led to think, but at least two of the films, Goodbye, Lenin and Citizen Havel, are definite should-sees during this rare opportunity.

Besides, the Oak doesn't have anything else on the calendar after this, so if it's the end of the theater's run (highly unlikely based on recent history, though the ironic title of this series is worrisome), or if it's just the end of the fall season (I expect MFA will be busy planning MSPIFF by January), you should get in while you still can.

November 30, 2009

Taking It Home: Precious

("Taking It Home" is an alternative review style in which I share my thoughts on a movie's themes and how they may relate to my life, while focusing less on the acting, writing, technical aspects, or even plot of the film. It's a collection of the ideas I took home, "because the movie experience shouldn't end in the theater".)

The most tragic "happy" ending you'll see in any movie this year...

Sitting through Precious in a movie theater is about as torturous a cinematic experience you can get these days outside of a Saw film. It is the most foul-mouthed, stomach-churning, disturbingly violent film I've seen in 2009, and despite the fact that little blood is actually shed, its characters (Precious in particular) are, along with the audience, beaten to unconscious submission during 110 minutes of unrelenting emotional violation at the hands of director Lee Daniels.

Yes, Precious delivers a knockout, battering us with so much vile depravity that we leave the theater unsure of what we're even supposed to feel, and unable to immediately understand that the abuse has been inflicted on us not to educate or evoke sympathy, but to make a tragic ending appear relatively uplifting. It's been called "unflinchingly gritty" and "brutally realistic" and all kinds of other hyperbole (most are accurate), but the most explicit truth in this film is left out: Precious Jones is dead.

REVIEW: Crude (A)

As I see it, the disappointing increase in popularity and production of Michael Moore-style "agit-docs" (agit, short for agitating) over the last few years has seriously threatened to diminish the credibility of actual documentary films. These days I unfortunately flinch whenever I hear about any new documentary that even appears to be about a social issue, because chances are it's going to be much more style than substance. 

Consider Hoop Dreams as an example, and think about how that same film would be produced in 2009. It would not be Steve James patiently and unobtrusively observing William Gates and Arthur Agee as two young boys trying to discover their potential. It would be an activist filmmaker abandoning their story in order to apply a blurry lens to the salacious societal ills on display on Chicago's South Side. There would be interviews with experts and celebrities and certainly Oprah, and a tidy list of "what you can do" chores would precede the credits. Everybody would leave feeling simultaneously horrified and puffed up with pride, but you'd have almost no insight into the actual life experiences of Gates and Agee.

I say all of this to explain why, almost regardless of who made it or what it's about, I am automatically suspicious that a "socially conscious" documentary in 2009 won't actually document a story so much as create one; propaganda is the tool that leads people to action, so people must be force-fed any message a filmmaker thinks we are too dense to understand on our own. As such, when I saw the ominous tagline for Crude ("The real price of oil."), I was ready to lump it in with the rest as an over-stylized, under-educating "call to action". Thankfully, I was completely wrong.

November 27, 2009

Short Cuts: "...Breakfast the Night Before..."

City Slickers (1991). Directed by Ron Underwood; written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel; starring Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, Bruno Kirby, Jack Palance, Jake Gyllenhaal, Patricia Wettig, and Helen Slater.

November 25, 2009

REVIEW: Milking the Rhino

Picture the last nature documentary you saw about the African bush: bilbao trees, tall grasses, lush jungle, parched desert, and wildlife ranging from impalas to elephants, zebras to giraffes. If it's anything like the last one I saw, the animals appeared to be living in an untouched paradise.

"The reality is that if you just turn the camera around, you have people that live just next to this wildlife," explains a national park director in Milking the Rhino, a fascinating documentary filmed over three years about the tumultuous relationship between humans and animals in post-colonial Africa. Produced by Kartemquin Films (Hoop Dreams, The New Americans) and directed by David E. Simpson, it is a content rich film that should forever change the way you watch a nature documentary or, if you can afford it, participate in an African safari. As one of the year's best and most thought-provoking documentaries, it's hard to even know where to begin talking about all of the issues raised in Milking the Rhino. So while I'll attempt to lay out some of its key points, I really recommend that you take the time to sit down and watch it.

November 22, 2009

300 Words About: Living Arrangements

For movie buffs, there is probably not a more surreal experience than seeing yourself on screen in a film. But seeing your own streets and neighborhood landmarks is a bit of a trip, too. For residents of the Uptown neighborhood where I live in South Minneapolis, Living Arrangements is a charming indie horror comedy with a satirical local flavor that only we can appreciate; for everyone else it's still a charming indie horror comedy.

The debut feature from Minneapolis-based director Sam Thompson, Living Arrangements is a high-concept story about a pair of newly engaged vegans, Sasha (Joe Noreen) and Billie (Alexandra Glad), who move into an Uptown apartment only to find a werewolf living in their attic. It sounds like the kind of bizarre idea you'd come up with joking around with friends at 2:00 AM, but the production is treated with just enough seriousness that by the grisly finale you're actually invested in the characters and you've long forgotten how ridiculous the premise is.

November 21, 2009

REVIEW: Etienne!

There are two kinds of pet owners in the world: cat and dog owners, and bird/fish/reptile/rodent owners. I've recently joined the ranks of the former, but for a good part of my childhood I was one of the latter. Due to my dad's reluctance to own a dog (he was once bitten by a rabid German shepherd), and due to the time and money required to care for cats and dogs, we had a series of hamsters - adorably soft little dwarf hamsters, more specifically. They live about two years and were a great source of enjoyment and entertainment for our family (I once accidentally sucked one up with the vacuum hose - she survived).

It takes a special kind of person to appreciate dwarf hamsters, and by extension, a special kind of person to appreciate a movie about one. I couldn't believe it when I saw the description for Etienne! in the Flyway Film Festival lineup: "After Richard's best and only friend, a dwarf hamster named Etienne, is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he decides to take him on a bicycle road trip up the California coast to show him the world before he must put him to sleep." I had to see this movie.

November 18, 2009

Winter 2009-10 Lineup @ The Trylon microcinema

One of the things I've loved about the upstart Trylon microcinema is that a great variety of films has been featured in just the few months since it's opened: Buster Keaton, New York crime thrillers, David Cronenberg, Frank Capra, and music films as part of Sound Unseen 10. The little theater tucked away on Minnehaha Avenue is slowly but surely becoming a must-visit destination for film buffs in the Twin Cities; it's impossible to walk out of this place without feeling good about cinema. The picture looks great (The Warriors looked especially sharp on 35mm), the sound is clear, and the concession prices are unequaled in the city.

Take a weekend date night to come out and support Take-Up Productions and this independent theater space. Here's a look at the variety of classic films on tap for this winter at The Trylon:

November 17, 2009


Exactly how do you make a film with a budget of $70 (Yes, that's seventy dollars.)

"We bought a crowbar and a couple of tapes, and I think we got some tea and coffee as well -- not the expensive stuff either, the very basic kind," explained British filmmaker Mark Price in an interview I read on last May, when Colin premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. His claim was unbelievable and cheeky - in fact unbelievably cheeky, considering budgets on numerous Hollywood films each year extend into the hundreds of millions of dollars (the recent disaster movie 2012 had a price tag of $260 million). So alhough I'm not a big zombie guy, when Colin popped up on the schedule at the recent Flyway Film Festival, well I just had to see how this played out.

November 12, 2009

Getafilm Gallimaufry: This Is It, Wild Things, Flute-Playing Goat & Tyler Perry

[Note: This series includes scattered thoughts on various movie-related topics. I was looking for a word that started with the letter "g" that means collection or assortment, but lest you think I'm some elitist wordsmith, know that I'd never heard of "gallimaufry" and I don't even know how to say it, but it was the only other option the thesaurus provided aside from "goulash" (too foody) and "garbage" (no).]

There's a reason why more music critics than film critics were called on to review This Is It: a good 90% of the footage in this documentary is singing and dancing, not storytelling. You should know that if you're not already a Michael Jackson fan, because if you aren't then I imagine This Is It would be about as enjoyable as a John Tesh concert film (and if you don't like MJ then one can reasonably assume your musical tastes are that...tragic).

November 11, 2009

Taking It Home: Good Hair

("Taking It Home" is an alternative review style in which I share my thoughts on a movie's themes and how they may relate to my life, while focusing less on the acting, writing, technical aspects, or even plot of the film. It's a collection of the ideas I took home, "because the movie experience shouldn't end in the theater".)

Maintaining "good hair" really couldn't be any worse for you...

Chris Rock's Good Hair is kind of like one big weave: it's fun, it looks great, and it moves naturally, but you really don't know what actually exists at the roots, underneath the gloss and sheen. Framing the documentary with a Morgan Spurlock-like "I'm a new dad and now I have to figure out how to make the world better for my daughter" setup, Rock casually bounces between interviews with hairstylists, people on the street, and Hollywood celebrities. He travels from Beverly Hills to Harlem to India to Atlanta, and makes a lot of people laugh along the way, including the audience.

But to what end, exactly, nobody really knows. The average person will leave Good Hair knowing a little bit more about black people's hair but next to nothing new about racial identity in American culture, which is what the film so easily could have explored with just a little more investigation. Maybe it's unfair to blame Chris Rock for not probing further, though, since the only thing more audacious than a black man making a film about black women's hair in the first place would be a white man making a film about black women's hair (which isn't quite as curious as the reality of Jason Griggers in this film, a white man venerated as an expert sylist of black women's hair).

November 8, 2009

300 Words About: The Box

So lemme get this straight, that's two disasters in a row from Richard Kelly, right?

Literally the first words I heard after a promotional screening of Richard Kelly's The Box were, "I'm so glad I didn't have to pay for that," from a relieved audience member as he left the theater. Yes you did, I thought to myself. We all did, and in more than one way.

There are a lot of options presented to the characters in The Box, only some of which (I've heard) are taken from the original short story by Richard Matheson, which apparently made for a great "Twilight Zone" episode in the 80's. The options include choosing between this or that, which will lead to one of these things happening first and second and so on. Tragically for me, never was a character presented with an option to outright end the movie and save thousands of lives in theaters around the world. "The button has been pushed," proclaimed a creepy, still-Nixonian Frank Langella, and along with everyone else I had to live with (and eventually die by) the decision I had already made to see this movie.

My disappointment may differ from yours since I'd actually been looking forward to The Box for well over a year, previewing it in my forecast for 2009 and even mentioning it back in my review of Southland Tales. I think what I failed to recognize after Kelly's defense of that disaster is how closely his words resembled M. Night Shyamalan's (who, it should be known by now, is no friend to this blog). Whether you end up seeing The Box or not, know this fact: If Shyamalan and his rising heir-apparent Kelly ever make a film together, it will be a cinematic spectacle of metaphysical frivolity and pompous bloviating like the world has never seen (at least not since Knowing).

November 3, 2009

People's Republic of Cinema @ the Walker, Nov. 4-23

Beginning tomorrow night and continuing through Nov. 23 is yet another fascinating film series at the Walker Art Center: The People's Republic of Cinema: 60 Years of China on Film. I know as much about Chinese cinema as I do about aerospace engineering, which is to say I'm a total ignoramus about both subjects. 

Hopefully this series will broaden my horizons even a little, and I'm particularly intrigued by the concept of observing a country's history through the eyes of its most famous filmmakers. I'd love to see that for any country, let alone a country poised to be one of the great superpowers of this century (and a country so richly studied in last year's best documentary, Up the Yangtze).

Here's part of the official blurb from the Walker, as well as a listing of the films, synopses, and, when I could track them down, even trailers.

"The series celebrates 60 years of China on film, featuring 14 films, many of them rarely seen, which trace the evolution of China through the eyes of its filmmakers...Marking the 60th anniversary of 'New China', this timely series tracks the decades of political tumult and massive cultural and economic change that followed 1949’s Communist revolution. The People’s Republic of Cinema charts the unprecedented propulsive energies at work through years of radical transformation and looks to the future of a country still in flux—one responding both to its past and its relatively new prominence in the larger world. The series is organized chronologically by content, from films created or set during the establishment of the People’s Republic of China to those of the present day."


Is it fair to judge a film based on its bang-for-the-buck value (low budget, high production), and ignore otherwise standard criteria like writing and acting? Is the bar set a little lower for independent films, making the mediocre ones appear good and the good ones appear great?

Your perspective around these two questions will undoubtedly influence your opinion of Ink, the low budget ($250,000) sci-fi fairytale from Jamin Winans that recently played on Opening Night of the Flyway Film Festival. It's been receiving a healthy supply of positive buzz from Ain't It Cool News and Film School Rejects, and the filmmaker's comparisons of the film to Donnie Darko, The Matrix, and especially Pan's Labyrinth are justified.

But the problem with comparisons to those critically acclaimed hits is that if the film in question doesn't measure up to them (and Ink does not, in my opinion), it's maybe better not to mention the similarities at all - like hearing somebody can dance like Michael Jackson and then finding out they can't even moonwalk.

October 26, 2009

Class of '84 Blogathon: The Gods Must Be Crazy

[This remembrance is brought to you as part of Joe Valdez's Class of '84 Blogathon at This Distracted Globe, a celebration of films from on the 25th anniversary of what many people consider the best film year of a generation.]

There are few movies that define the period in which they were made as much as the bizarre docucomedy The Gods Must Be Crazy. The story was officially set in the present day of the early 80's, but the footage of the generic city where "civilized man" lived, and even more so the music that backed this footage, inadvertently trapped the movie in a very, very specific time period (check out the first 10 minutes I've included here to jog your memory).

The Gods Must Be Crazy was actually produced in South Africa in 1980 but not shown in the U.S. until 1982, and even then in very limited release. Positive international word-of-mouth ended up bringing the movie back to the U.S. in 1984, when it opened in wide release and pulled in $30 million at the box office. So despite its birthdate I'm including it here because 1984 was the year it really made its impact in the United States.

October 22, 2009

Flyway Film Festival: Colore Non Vedenti

Colore Non Vedenti
Jay Cheel, 2009 (Official Website)
Run time: 29 min.  |  Canada 
Categories: International Zombie Summit

When you spend as much time as I do reading and writing about movies, names of critics and bloggers and freelance writers often blend together in an incomprehensible mish-mash (by some definition I could be considered all three, for example). So when I saw the name Jay Cheel listed as the director of Colore Non Vedenti, the wheels in my head started turning - where had I seen that name? About ten seconds of searching provided me with the answer, as I've read a lot of Jay's writing at both Film Junk and, much more so, The Documentary Blog.

This all means nothing in the context of the charming Colore Non Vedenti, aside from perhaps proof that Jay can make films just as well as he can write about them. This sci-fi "zombie" thriller comedy (it kind of defies labeling) is well-written, assuredly directed, and impressively acted. It's evidence that low-budget does not mean low-quality, making it a perfect companion to the Cannes zombie hit Colin (reportedly made for $70), with which it will screen at Flyway.

October 21, 2009

Flyway Film Festival: Reviews of Selected Shorts

I've really only come to appreciate short films in the last few years, almost entirely because of the theatrical screenings of the Oscar nominees every February. In fact I think I'd rather watch La Maison en Petits Cubes, last year's Oscar winner for Best Animated Short, again than the much-lauded Up (which I nonetheless did like). Anyway, my point is that shorts aren't the amateur and/or unimportant productions I may have once thought they were; many filmmakers even make a career out of short films.

There is an almost overwhelmingly high number of shorts playing at the Flyway Film Festival this weekend, and I've been fortunate to get a peek at several of them. Unfortunately one of them that I was really excited for,
Surprise!, didn't play in my region-limited DVD player, so I can't say anything about it other than that it sounds like a promisingly boffo French comedy: "As an attentive husband, Pierre has prepared a surprise for his wife Brigitte's birthday, but a series of harmless incidents (like a draft, a sun beam reflected off a window) brings the next door neighbor
into his bed just as Brigitte walks through the door." Maybe not high-minded comedy, but if handled the right way these set-ups can be hilarious.

So while I haven't seen Surprise!, here are some words about four shorts that I have seen, in alphabetical order and including video when I've found it available.

October 20, 2009

Don't Miss "Minnesota In & On Film": A Simple Plan, 10/22/09

You won't find it in any theater listing or community event calendar, but continuing this Thursday at Macalester College is an outstanding biweekly film series, "Minnesota In & On Film". Among the many notable Macalester alumni is Colin Covert '74, film critic for the Star Tribune and a great all-around guy. Colin is introducing each of the films and leading post-screening discussions with special guests and Macalester faculty.

The series is sponsored by the Alumni Office and is meant for "alumni, staff, faculty and parents", but since I fit none of those descriptions and I've still rolled up at two of the three films, I think we can assume the public are also welcome. So far I've enjoyed The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (starring Robert Duvall as Jesse James) and the Oscar-winning documentary American Dream, both of which I was seeing for the first time and both of which have helped in some way inform my understanding of this quirky state.

But since I first saw the series schedule I've had Thursday, 10/22, circled in red ink for Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan, one of my all-time favorite movies and, according to Colin, the "greatest movie ever filmed in Minnesota". Nearly two years ago I highlighted A Simple Plan as an Underrated Movie of the Month, and now, a decade after its release, I can see it again on the big screen.

October 19, 2009

Fly Away to the Flyway Film Festival, Oct. 22-25

This weekend across the river over der in Pepin, WI, the second annual Flyway Film Festival will showcase an impressive lineup of narrative features, shorts, and documentaries. Amusingly, about half of the films are family-friendly while the other half are zombie flicks (in fact Saturday is being called the International Zombie Summit). But there are plenty of other options if you don't have kids or don't like dead people.

Here's a blurb from the website from festival director Rick Vaicus:

"Selections range from regional Wisconsin/Minnesota offerings to international fare, among them, the Cannes-favorite U.K. zombie film Colin; German drama Storm, which garnered huge praise at the Berlin International Film Festival; Trust Us This Is All Made Up, from U.S. director Alex Karpovsky (whose mockumentary Woodpecker was a 2008 FFF audience favorite); and the family-friendly feature Etienne!, which has steadily been gathering warm critical praise.

Added into the mix is the Opening Night (and Midwest premiere) screening of the extraordinary sci-fi film Ink and Closing Night’s feature, the Wisconsin typesetting documentary Typeface for a variety of subject matter that can truly appeal to almost every film lover.

October 18, 2009

Joel & Ethan Coen: The Third Decade (2006-)

Though I didn't finish this project until the Walker Art Center's Coen Brothers retrospective, Joel & Ethan Coen: Raising Cain, reached its end, I'm still glad I took the opportunity to rewatch all 14 Coen brothers films (including A Serious Man, for the first time). Considering the lack of time I've been able to spend writing here, it was an ambitious goal, though it's given me (along with the Regis Dialogue I attended with them) a much more comprehensive understanding of their films.

ReadA Conversation with the Coens & a Look at Their First Decade (1984-1994)
ReadJoel & Ethan Coen: The Second Decade (1995-2005) 

(Title screens via the Walker blog.)

No Country for Old Men (2007)

As I mentioned in Part 1, I saw Blood Simple for the first time only recently, but it made an immediate impression on my understanding of the rest of the Coen's films, particularly No Country for Old Men. This was my favorite movie of 2007, a Best Picture winner, an instant classic, and one of the best movies of the decade. Repeated viewings have done nothing to diminish its stature in my mind, and I continue to gain appreciation for the acting from the supporting cast, notably Kelly MacDonald, who does wonders covering up her thick Scottish accent.

October 17, 2009

Joel & Ethan Coen: The Second Decade (1995-2005)

As the Walker Art Center's Coen Brothers retrospective, Joel & Ethan Coen: Raising Cain, finishes this weekend, I'm rushing to record some brief thoughts on the six films from their second decade of filmmaking. 

ReadA Conversation with the Coens & a Look at Their First Decade (1984-1994)

(Title screens via the Walker blog.)

Fargo (1996)

I wasn't allowed to like Fargo the first time - as I recounted last year, nobody in Minnesota was. It was funny, sure, but at the expense of the local culture. Not a culture that I really identify with, but nonetheless one that I obviously recognized and one that was extremely offended by the film. Yes, people do talk like that and yes, the winters are that bad. Sometimes even worse. But in addition to an innately lower body temperature and a twisted sense of humor, most Minnesotans also have a keen awareness of when they're being mocked, and they weren't happy about Fargo until...well, until it started winning awards, and until the Coens became recognized as perhaps the best filmmaking duo of their generation. Then everybody looooved Fargo (read more about the local reaction here).

October 13, 2009

Only in the Movies: Talking at Bars and Nightclubs

When you can't talk, about all you can do is look around...

My patience had been tested beyond a level of comfort by the end of the unfunny Couples Retreat, but it became a downright aggravating experience in the last 20 minutes. I'm not one for spoilers but I'm guessing no one is going to be shocked by the sappy ending of this disaster. Yes, the couples predictably live happily after, but not before a completely inane and anticlimactic set piece in a stereotypically hedonistic outdoor resort wetbar nightclub patio lounge whatever-you-want-to-call it.

The four couples journey (a forehead-slappingly stupid "Guitar Hero" competition interrupting them briefly along the way) from Eden West to Eden East, the "singles" side of the island where hot, young, multicultural models get together under the colored lights and dance in perfectly arranged choreography. It looks like a Budweiser commercial, even more so because people are actually drinking Budweiser - Bud Heavy, to be more specific. Why even one person would be drinking a blue collar American beer at a five star resort in Bora Bora is unexplained (it's more likely they would be drinking PBR in this hipster era anyway), but let's just assume Bud paid a king's ransom for the product placement and get on with our lives.

October 9, 2009

REVIEW: A Serious Man (A)

Consider some of the classic songs featured at pivotal moments of Coen Bros. movies: the operatic "Oh Danny Boy" in Miller's Crossing, the psychedelic "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" in The Big Lebowski, and the bluegrassy "Man of Constant Sorrow" in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, just to name a few. The tone and lyrics of each of these songs are essential to evoking a particular atmosphere in key scenes. But that's about where the meaning ends - within those scenes.

Then consider the use of Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love" in A Serious Man. The lyrics are not only key to the setting of the movie, but they are for the first time in a Coen film the backbone of the entire story. Recite the first two lines ("When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies") and you have explained the philosophical underpinnings of Larry Gopnik's mid-life crisis. Which is to say you haven't explained anything at all. Let me try to explain.

October 6, 2009

A Closer Look at the Worst Movies of the Decade (2000-2009)

A couple of weeks ago I caught a story about Rotten Tomatoes listing the worst films of the first decade of this century/millennium (2000-2009). Obviously curious to see what was included, I headed over to RT to see the full list of shame. Here it is, from the "best" (an RT rating of 7%) to the worst (RT rating of 0%); titles are followed by the film's release year...

October 3, 2009

300 Words About: We Live in Public

"Our business is in programming people's lives", says Josh Harris in Ondi Timoner's We Live in Public, winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize last January. He's talking both literally and figuratively, as a social "artist" (his word, not mine) and a cultural prophet - one of the most influential of the last generation. As his brother says in confused wonder, "Everything that he does is a precursor to something that is going to happen to all of us."

You've probably never heard of Harris, but if you're reading this you're living in his world, as he's left an indelible mark on the internet, including web browsers and social media and yes, even blogs. When he completed his biggest social experiment ten years ago, "Quiet: We Live in Public", he was already way ahead of the cultural curve. As he knew then, and as we can see now from the influence of the internet, "People want 15 minutes of fame - every day."

October 1, 2009

Taking It Home: Capitalism: A Love Story

("Taking It Home" is an alternative review style in which I share my thoughts on a movie's themes and how they may relate to my life, while focusing less on the acting, writing, technical aspects, or even plot of the film. It's a collection of the ideas I took home, "because the movie experience shouldn't end in the theater".)

 A method even less effective at inspiring change than Michael Moore's films...

Next time I get the opportunity to ask Michael Moore a question, I hope it will be part of an actual conversation instead of a Q & A where he has the microphone and I'm buried in the audience. That way he won't be able to sneak out of answering my challenge so easily. Yes, in a fit of frustration following a recent screening of Capitalism: A Love Story, I worked up the nerve to ask American's most notorious documentarian how he made a 126-minute film about money and capitalism without so much as mentioning personal financial responsibility. More on that later - including a video of Moore "answering" my question.

I have a tortured history with Moore, alternately considering him a genius, even a role model, before inevitably changing my mind and viewing his work as purely propagandic, sensational, and even counterproductive. Incidentally, I'm surprised that I have yet to discuss his films in any detail on Getafilm, I suppose a result of Sicko arriving a month or so before I started writing here (though you can see I came down pretty hard on it come Oscar time anyway). 

In any event, somewhere between Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 I realized Moore was  abandoning true documentary filmmaking - what I conservatively prefer to view as non-fiction storytelling - for something resembling schizophrenic scrapbooking. His arguments (never mind that documentarians shouldn't really make any) are an amalgamation of liberal talking points and moral sermonizing, but the resulting films are so disjointed they inhibit any in-depth thought or discussion about the issues at hand. He doesn't quite dilute the messages in his films so much as he drowns them out with his own voice, sometimes figuratively but always literally. Thanks to Michael Moore, a Michael Moore film is never allowed to speak for itself.

So what to think of Capitalism: A Love Story, which Moore claims is a culmination of all of his films since Roger & Me? Three things: 1.) this is not only one of Moore's longest films, but also his most deliberately emotional one; 2.) possibly by design but probably by accident, Capitalism: A Love Story ends up making a much stronger case for universal health care than Sicko did; and 3.) Moore is ultimately still more interested in inciting audiences than inspiring them, which is a tragedy considering the global reach and box-office success of his films.

REVIEW: P-Star Rising (A-)

If you were at a club at 2:00 AM and a nine year-old little girl got up on the stage and started rapping, your natural instinct would likely cause you to smile and say, "Aw, that's so funny/cute/random/disturbing." You'd have an amusing story to tell your friends the next day. Gabriel Noble probably had the same initial reaction when he saw Priscilla Star Diaz (a.k.a. "P-Star") perform five years ago in lower Manhattan, but something about P-Star captured his curiousity and wouldn't let go. He spent the next day filming Priscilla and her family, and then the next day after that, and then the next four years after that. P-Star Rising, which premiered at Tribeca in April and is currently on the festival circuit, richly documents Priscilla's tumultuous emergence as a child star, and the youngest ever female rapper.

Watching Priscilla, her sister, Solsky, and her father, Jesse, move from a one-room Harlem shelter to a four-bedroom apartment and leased SUV is often uplifting but frequently discomfiting. Jesse was an aspiring rapper in his own right in the late 80's, but poor career management and a two-year prison stint (for selling cocaine) derailed his future, leaving you to question his ability to manage Priscilla's career. His wife fell in too deep with drugs and could not care for their daughters, so it was up to him, a failed rapper and convicted felon, to try and support two young girls on his own. He worked odd jobs when he could find them, but most of his energy was spent trying to revive his rapping career - until he discovered Priscilla's talent. (He also apparently home schools Priscilla, a somewhat disturbing detail that isn't given much attention here.)

September 30, 2009

300 Words About: Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

Jazz just sounds cooler when it's backing a black and white scene, doesn't it? Gives it an organic, refreshing sound, almost a palpable texture. Jazz under neon blue lights and nightclub smoke makes for a great atmosphere, too, but that's sultry and mysterious and can be too confined by its own setting.

The reason I point this out is because Damien Chazelle's Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (which made waves at Tribeca in April but is still seeking financing for a theatrical release) gives jazz a shot in the arm that not only gets your toe tapping, but your spirit soaring. You're not seduced by the riffs so much as you're invigorated by them.

It's a verite-style romantic musical dramedy that defies categorization precisely because it fits so many descriptions: indie, docudrama, mumblecore, to name a few. At different times it reminded of new cinema (In Search of a Midnight Kiss and Medicine for Melancholy) and classic cinema (the dancing scene from Jean-Luc Godard's Band of Outsiders), and it won't work for everyone if only because it's so peculiarly surreal. But I think that's why I loved it, aside from the fact that it was shot on the Boston and Cambridge streets that hold a special nostalgia for me.
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