March 31, 2009

Underrated MOTM: The Firm (1993)

The Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM) for March is a hit from the good old days of legal thrillers: the early 90's, when characters didn't preach (Michael Clayton), the bad guys weren't based on reality (Michael Clayton) and the stories didn't take themselves so seriously (Michael Clayton). The Firm is a commercially packaged blockbuster that doesn't try to be anything else. It's the anti-Michael Clayton in that respect and it's all the better for it.

Cashing in on the popularity of young novelist John Grisham, The Firm became the first - and, in my opinion, the best - of nine film adaptations of his books, the last being, of course, 2004's Christmas With the Kranks...?!

Opening in the summer of 1993, The Firm was an immediate hit with audiences, many of whom likely saw it multiple times out of devotion to Tom Cruise at the peak of his career. Critics weren't as kind as Joe and Jane Public, and even the few who praised the film complained about its 154-minute running time. In his middling review, Vincent Canby of the New York Times said it was "so slow that by the end you feel as if you've been standing up even if you've been sitting down." Rick Groen of the The Globe and Mail was more blunt: "it's long, it's cluttered, and it's trite."

Maybe it's long, but cluttered and trite? Well, not anymore than Grisham's novels were. That you could tell any of them apart in the first place was an accomplishment to be proud of, but that fact somehow never prevented me from picking up his "new" book every year. So why would the public reaction to the film adaptation be any different? Like all of Grisham's stories, The Firm offered a likable character in the midst of a struggle (Mitch McDeere), nasty villains out for blood (the partners at the firm), a sympathetic antihero (Avery Tolar), and colorful supporting characters (Tammy Hemphill and Eddie Lomax). The late director Sydney Pollack knew that it couldn't be considered "too long" if he was faithful to the novel, since viewers, like voracious readers, would follow the story intently to the end (Owen Gleiberman of EW even admitted, "The problem isn't so much that we can't deduce what's going on as that we aren't given time to enjoy it.").

But therein lies one minor problem: Pollack wasn't very faithful to the book. All of the characters were still in place but their motivations were different and the ending was accordingly changed. Instead of McDeere being a shrewd, morally unpredictable hotshot who retires to the Caribbean, he became in the movie a kind of Boy Scout, returning to Boston to presumably begin a career in pro-bono work for a nonprofit firm. This grated on a few critics ("Very little of what made the written version so enjoyable has been successfully translated to the screen," complained James Berardinelli), but I was fine with it. As with Jurassic Park later that summer, I found myself able to enjoy the entertainment value of both the novel and the book, despite their obvious differences.

Even conceding the issues with the length and the complaints about the modified plot, the one aspect of the movie that cannot be criticized is the acting. This is a top-notch cast firing all cylinders, completely committing to their characters in a movie that they must have known wouldn't receive award consideration. Tom Cruise gives one of his best performances as McDeere as he allows himself to explore a range of emotions apart from his typical pride and tenacity. He churns one of these out every 2-3 years (and he's due now, the last one being Collateral), but this is one of my favorites because it came during a time when he knew could have just as easily taken any action or romantic comedy script.

The supporting cast was terrific as well, notably Gene Hackman and Jeanne Tripplehorn (what happened to her?), but also Ed Harris and Hal Holbrook. Holly Hunter was good enough to earn a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her work as Mitch's confidante Tammy Hemphill (she would later win Best Actress that year for The Piano), and don't forget memorable roles played by David Strathairn, Wilford Brimley, and Gary Busey.

Not to be thought of as an important movie from the 90's or a symbolic indictment of the American legal system, The Firm is good enough as it is: a commercial suspense thriller with great entertainment value and a star-studded cast. I would take that over a self-important (Michael Clayton) message movie (Michael Clayton) with cheap suspense (Michael Clayton) any day.

March 29, 2009

Recap: Beyond Borders Film Festival

The inaugural (in its current form) Beyond Borders Film Festival wrapped up tonight with a Q & A period with directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck following the screening of their fantastic new film, Sugar. Overall it was a smoothly run and thoughtfully programmed festival, so hats off to co-directors Jennifer Manion and Robb Quast, as well as head programmer Jim Brunzell. I think I sensed some disappointment in the audience numbers coming through the doors (and even if they weren't disappointed - I was), but I'd rather focus on the fact that those who did attended enjoyed themselves, which should come as no surprise considering the quality of the films Jim secured for the festival. From what I observed everything really well managed, and I hope this team is willing and able to start planning for another go at it next year.

I back-loaded my festival viewing into the last 30 hours, my head is currently swimming in images, characters, countries, and languages. Best throw some notes out while they're still fresh...I'll just record some brief thoughts on the six films I saw yesterday and today and see if I can build reviews from these over the next month. And since most if not all of these movies will be on their way around to other festivals soon, I'd like to make some immediate recommendations even if I'm finding it difficult to frame thoughtful reviews in my head right now (and to make things even more confusing I had to squeeze in two viewings on Saturday of screeners that are going to play at MSPIFF in a couple of weeks).

More thoughts on some of these hopefully soon:

Sita Sings the Blues: What do an artist's failed marriage, jazz recordings from 1920's singer Annette Hershaw, and the Ramayana all have in common? Absolutely nothing, which makes the animated union between the three elements an amusing site to behold. Writer/director/editor/animator/everyperson Nina Paley spent five years making this film on her Mac, which, aside from serving as an 86-minute advertisement, should also give you an idea of how painstakingly crafted every frame is. Incredibly (and I think for legal reasons), after all that work Paley has essentially released full rights to the film to anyone and everyone, anywhere and everywhere. That's right - you can legally watch and download the film and freely distribute it as you please. Legally! In fact she encourages it! Find a copy of it here.
for creative minds and anyone who loves mash-up videos.

Revanche: Tightly wound and unpredictable, yet in hindsight exactly what I expected from a European thriller. It's light on plot but dripping with character, particularly from the weighted performance by Colin Farrell lookalike Johannes Kirsch. Having just seen the trailer for the first time I have to report that the action and gunplay don't arrive in the waves you might expect, but the tension - the tension is frequently unbearable. It's a moody drama layered with complex emotions and uneasy suspense.
*Highly recommended, especially for anyone considering committing murder out of revenge ("revanche"), which I hope excludes everybody who ever has or will read this.

Big Man Japan: I have no problem at all calling this the strangest movie I've seen in years, and I think that would hold true even if I hadn't missed half of the references to Japanese pop culture history. Hilarious when you get it and overwhelmingly baffling when you don't, it's like something you would find on an obscure cable channel at 3:00 AM (a time amusingly relevant to the story). The humor is so dry that you could either cackle and hoot throughout the whole thing or not chuckle even once - it has to be experienced to be explained. *Recommended for...well, I guess anybody who digs the trailer.

Art & Copy: Doug Pray's documentary about the advertising industry didn't dig as deeply into the psychological and sociological aspects of marketing as I would have liked, but it pretty much confirmed what I thought beforehand: ad creators a.) take themselves way too seriously, and b.) are a lot more sure of their own genius than they are of the values that I hold dear. I was surprised that nearly all of of the executives arrogantly declared, "only a few brilliants minds can do this well and do it responsibly", but I just couldn't believe how many of them admitted that so many successful campaigns ("Got milk?"; "Just do it.") were basically the result of pure luck: "Yeah, we had this idea but nobody really took it seriously at first, and then, hey! It worked". Really?
Nevertheless, recommended for anyone with an interest in advertising,
marketing, or pop psychology.

Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love: Most people who don't have a pulse on the world music scene will still recognize N'Dour's distinctive voice from the end of a popular version of Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes". For others, and for much of Africa, N'Dour has been a star for decades, and in recent years an outspoken activist for human rights. The documentary primarily chronicles the challenges he faced in releasing his ode to Islam, "Egypt", the album which he hoped would assuage fears about his religion in a post-9/11 world.
*Obviously essential viewing for fans of N'Dour, but also recommended for those with an interest in the influences of world music.

Sugar: Lived up to every great expectation I had of it as the second feature from Half Nelson filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Thoughtful writing, a devotion to character and a stubborn refusal to submit to convention make the film a must-see for baseball fans in particular, but indie film lovers in general. First time actor Algenis Perez Soto delivers a tremendous performance as the title character, and it will be difficult to think about the careers of Dominican ballplayers the same way again (which for many of us will be the first time we're thinking of them anyway). I absolutely loved this movie.
*Highly recommended.

Were you there this weekend, or have you already seen any of these? Feel free to share your thoughts, and don't forget to vote for the films you saw on the Twin Cities Daily Planet website.

March 26, 2009

Ramin Bahrani: "Under the Radar", Approaching Fast

I'm not sure where I first heard about Man Push Cart, Ramin Bahrani's breakthrough feature film, but whatever positive buzz I'd read led me to the "old" Parkway Theater in the fall of 2006. It was a weeknight, cold, quiet. I might have been the only person in the theater.

Man Push Cart didn't bowl me over as I left the Parkway that night, but after it marinated for a few days my initial appreciation for it developed into a lasting admiration. It's a disarmingly simple film, enough so that most people probably think, "What was that about? Did I miss something?" (and I can't deny those thoughts occurred to me as well) upon first seeing it.

Fast forward to the spring of 2008, a couple weeks after MSPIFF wrapped. Again, I'd heard quite buzz about Bahrani's next film, Chop Shop, and again I found myself at the Parkway Theater (by now the "new" Parkway) at a weekday afternoon screening with no more than four people in the theater. This time, I think I got it. From my May 2008 review of Chop Shop:

"There's no way to really qualify this statement, but I want to call Ramin Bahrani one of the most daring filmmakers currently working. He pulls out stories and characters that we have no way of identifying with and inexplicably puts them into situations we've never come close to experiencing. He doesn't use musical scores. His films don't really have a beginning or an end. He doesn't even use actors. Yet somehow, and perhaps as a consequence of his method, his films come together as honest, beautiful, neoreal glimpses into the lives of Americans that most of us haven't - and probably won't - ever get to know."

That's what I love about Bahrani's films: how he allows me to see the world through the perspectives of others. Chop Shop came and went and it was one my favorite movies of last year. I thought it would be another couple of years before Bahrani returned with a new movie, and again I expected to have to seek out a limited screening to see it.

Fast forward to a couple of months ago. I'm scanning through the Walker Art Center's calendar looking to update my sidebar/release schedule, and along pops up Under the Radar: The Films of Ramin Bahrani. "That's cool," I thought, "people can check out Man Push Cart and Chop Shop. But wait, what's this - a new movie? And he's going to be here to give a master class about his filmmaking?!"

I immediately made a mental note to keep April 3rd open on my calendar.

Then Matt Lucas said Goodbye Solo was the best movie he's seen in 2009. Then A.O. Scott gushed about Bahrani and Goodbye Solo in the NYT essay that I discussed earlier this week. Then, today, none other than Roger Ebert declared Bahrani "the new great American director" in a long profile piece on his blog (from my memory it's the first-ever post he's devoted to a working filmmaker). So in less than a year, Bahrani has gone from indie film obscurity and empty screenings at the Parkway to being a critical darling on the rise, filling theaters and auditoriums everywhere he goes.

I have no filmmaking experience whatsoever, but I'm still crushed that I'll miss the master class he's giving at 1:00 PM that afternoon. Hopefully he'll stick around to introduce Goodbye Solo at 7:30 PM. Here's the full schedule for the series, which is worth your attention especially since the first two screenings you say? FREE:

Thursday, April 2: Man Push Cart 7:00 PM (FREE)

"Bahrani’s debut feature film shows how economic struggle can cause one to lose direction. After his career as a Pakistani pop star has dried up, Ahmad leads an anonymous life as a bagel seller in New York. Two strangers he meets may be the key to changing his grim circumstances. The film made Roger Ebert’s Top 10 list for 2006 and was selected for his Overlooked Film Festival. 2005, 35mm, 87 minutes."

Thursday, April 2: Chop Shop 8:45 PM (FREE)

"Delivering a fresh and charismatic performance, first-time actor Alejandro Planco embodies the entrepreneurial homeless 12-year-old who hustles his way into a job at an auto body shop. Streetwise, but desperate to be part of a family, he is preyed upon by his troubled sister and his sidekick, who see him as their meal ticket. The New York Times praised the film’s “lyricism at its heart, [the] unsentimental, soulful appreciation of the grace that resides in even the meanest struggle for survival.” Bahrani was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his direction of this film. 2007, U.S., 84 minutes."

Friday, April 3: (Lecture) Master Class with Ramin Bahrani 1:00 PM ($10/$12 - Buy tickets)

"Columbia University professor Bahrani leads a breakdown of key scenes in Chop Shop, providing details about his role as director, operating on a shoestring budget, and the complications of working with child actors and realworld locations."

Friday, April 3: Goodbye Solo 7:30 PM ($6/$8 - Buy tickets)

"The differences in age and family culture create an interesting conflict in Bahrani’s latest film. While Senegalese taxi driver Solo’s winning joie de vivre is embraced by everyone he meets, he can’t charm 70-year-old William, a mysterious fare he picks up late one night in Winston-Salem. When he asks to be taken to a location where many suicides have taken place, Solo attempts to discover why the man is so troubled. 2008, 35mm, 91 minutes."

The lecture and all three screenings take place in the Cinema theater at the Walker Art Center. Parking is available in the underground heated garage (still necessary in April, of course), but you can usually find free street parking on the street or up the hill.

P.S. Also note that Steve McQueen's critically acclaimed Hunger is also going to have an exclusive engagement at the Walker on select dates, April 10-26. Showtimes and tickets here.

March 23, 2009

The Year of Living Desperately

Wendy, after finally working up the nerve to open her most recent 401K statement...

Funny how the writing was on the wall throughout all of 2008, wasn't it? Movie after movie brought us stories of people living on the edge, scraping to get by against the rushing tide of hard luck. People going to the theater to escape from their troubles were met with cinematic realities that uncomfortably mirrored their own lives, but it wasn't until December that we finally accepted that we'd had been in a recession for the last 12 months. It was The Year of Living Desperately - but was art imitating life or was life imitating art?

You could argue it was neither, since many independent films are in the can for well over a year before they find distribution. But the fact is that these films all found their way to us within months of each other, progressively getting more gloomy as the economy sank lower and lower. The characters struggled through a multitude of problems: poverty, homelessness, family rejection or abandonment, unemployment, the death of relatives, poor health, and more. Ironically, none of them were trapped by drugs or alcohol - as if these recreational hazards are problems of the past, more representative of the relatively prosperous 90's and early 00's (Leaving Las Vegas, Love Liza, Requiem for a Dream). But in these lean times no one is living it up, and these characters from The Year of Living Desperately weren't suffering the consequences of their extravagant sins, then, so much as they were facing a tidal wave of social and economic troubles crashing down all around them.

Take Wendy and Lucy, the new film by Kelly Reichardt (whose Old Joy went sadly unnoticed in 2006) that tops off a healthy scoop of rugged survival with a dollop of tragic sacrifice and -

I wrote all of that on February 8, the original date of the draft of this post. Though I've been meaning to finish it for the last six weeks, it's been stuck in in the busy muck of life with everything else. Wasn't it a surprise, then, when I opened up my Sunday New York Times yesterday and found that A.O. Scott essentially finished this essay for me. Did he steal the idea from me? Of course not. As I mentioned in my review of Medicine of Melancholy last week, the new neorealism trend (I blandly and meaninglessly called it the American Independent New Wave) has been fairly prevalent for about the last 18 months. It's hard to pinpoint when it really started, though Scott hints at Ramin Bahrani's Man Push Cart.

So since I'm still not flush with time to finish the post, and since A.O. Scott is both a professional film critic and somebody who has seen thousands more movies than I have, I'm going to give up the rest of it to him. The blogger handing over to the professional; my ideas, his words.

Scott, on Wendy and Lucy: "It's a modest, quiet, 80-minute study in loneliness and desperation...not so much a premonition of hard times ahead as a confirmation that they had arrived." Later, "a handful of small movies from relatively young directors are setting out to expand, modestly but with notable seriousness, the scope of American filmmaking."

Scott, on Sugar and Goodbye Solo (both of which will screen in Minneapolis in the next two weeks): "The lives they illuminate, of fictional characters most often played by nonactors from similar backgrounds, are not commonly depicted on screen...but these people and their situations are nonetheless recognizable, familiar on a basic human level even if their particular predicaments are not."

Me: How many times have I written that sentence over the last year?!

Scott: "And if the kind of movie they inhabit is not entirely new — the common ancestor that established their species identity is a well-known Italian bicycle thief — their unassuming arrival on a few screens nonetheless seems vital, urgent and timely."

Me: I'm sure "Italian neorealism" is part of any film studies class, but seeing as how this blog is the only film class I've ever taken, let's just say I have a lot of homework to catch up on. No, I unfortunately have not seen The Bicycle Thief and most of the other films Scott cites here.

Scott: "What kind of movies do we need now? It’s a question that seems to arise almost automatically in times of crisis. It was repeatedly posed in the swirl of post-9/11 anxiety and confusion, and the consensus answer, at least among studio executives and the entertainment journalists who transcribe their insights, was that, in the wake of such unimaginable horror, we needed fantasy, comedy, heroism. In practice, the response turned out to be a little more complicated — some angry political documentaries and earnest wartime melodramas made it into movie theaters during the Bush years, and a lot of commercial spectacles arrived somber in mood and heavy with subtext— but such exceptions did little to dent the conventional wisdom.

And as a new set of worries and fears has crystallized in recent months — lost jobs and homes, corroded values and vanished credit — the dominant cultural oracles have come to pretty much the same conclusions. Remember the ’30s, when we danced through the Depression with Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley and giggled amid the gloom with Lubitsch and the Marx Brothers? (Not many of us do, of course, which makes this kind of selective memory easier to promote.) Then as now, what we wanted most was to forget our troubles. In recession, as in war — and also, conveniently, in times of peace or prosperity — the movies we evidently need are the ones that offer us the possibility, however fanciful or temporary, of escape."

Me: Paul Blart: Mall Cop, anyone? That's $140 million of escapism and counting.

Scott: "Maybe so. But what if, at least some of the time, we feel an urge to escape from escapism? For most of the past decade, magical thinking has been elevated from a diversion to an ideological principle. The benign faith that dreams will come true can be hard to distinguish from the more sinister seduction of believing in lies. To counter the tyranny of fantasy entrenched on Wall Street and in Washington as well as in Hollywood, it seems possible that engagement with the world as it is might reassert itself as an aesthetic strategy. Perhaps it would be worth considering that what we need from movies, in the face of a dismaying and confusing real world, is realism."

Me: "An escape from escapism" - great line. Could be a great title for a blog...

Scott, in conclusion: "Their characters undergo a painful process of disillusionment, and then keep going. The disappointment they encounter — the grit with which they face it, the grace with which it is conveyed — becomes, for the audience, a kind of exhilaration. What happens at the end of a dream? You wake up."

Me: There are a lot of fascinating ideas to consider here, and I'd be interested to hear people's thoughts on how they related to the characters in these movies...

Do you go to the movies to escape from the problems around us right now, hoping they'll be gone by the time the movie is over and you walk back out into the world?

Or do you go to instead "plug in" to the reality of movies, and if so, do you actually find any comfort in the struggles and successes of these characters?

I'm much more inclined to seek out the reality in these films (which should come as no surprise considering the tagline of my blog), even if my own situation doesn't necessarily mirror those of the characters. But I still believe I learned a lot from the movies in The Year of Living Desperately (pictured in this post: Wendy and Lucy, Chop Shop, Ballast, The Pool, The Wrestler, Frozen River, and Slumdog Millionaire). Maybe they made me more compassionate to people in these situations, and maybe they made me realize how quickly things can deteriorate and to what lengths people have to go to survive. Whatever the case with each particular movie, I'd say it was money and time well spent. But that's just me.

What about you?

[Read A.O. Scott's full essay, "Neo-Neo Realism - American Directors Make Clear-Eyed Movies for Hard Times" in the NYT Sunday Magazine from 3/22/09, available in its entirety here.]

March 22, 2009

Beyond Borders Film Festival

As I mentioned last month there's a lot going on in the Twin Cities movie scene these days. Mini-festivals and series and preview screenings - it's been one of the busiest spring movie seasons here in years, and we're not close to done yet (check the sidebar for a look ahead).

Several additional events have been confirmed since I wrote that post, one of which is the inaugural Beyond Borders Film Festival (BBFF), taking place from Wednesday, March 25th, to Sunday, March 29th, at the The Parkway Theater in South Minneapolis (48th & Chicago, adjacent to Pepito's). Here's the low-down (down low?) on this new festival, from its website:

"The Beyond Borders Film Festival, presented by the non-profit Rimé Foundation, uses film and cultural performances to educate the general population about our world’s rich cultural diversity, to inspire others to get involved in cross-cultural exchanges, and to promote awareness about important social and cultural organizations operating in the areas where the festival is held. [Hmm, do you think that's up my alley?]

As such, the Beyond Borders Film Festival showcases films and cultural performances that uplift the human spirit, and demonstrate respect and wonder for human creativity and the natural environment. Exploring the ties that bind all people together, the festival addresses the spiritual and cultural impulses that accompany the human condition, as well as the many ways we express these impulses."

And the icing on the cake, as Colin Covert noted in his feature on the BBFF in Sunday''s Strib, is that "As a nonprofit enterprise, the film series will donate its income to Twin Cities social service organizations."

"Films that inspire" or, "Films that don't star Nicolas Cage".

I first heard about the BBFF in early December from Jim Brunzell, formerly of Minnesota Film Arts and now all-around freelance Twin Cities movie guru. He covered Sundance in January for the TC Daily Planet, co-hosts KFAI's weekly "Movie Talk", and was tapped as a programmer for the BBFF due to his festival know-how and years of hard work in helping Al Milgrom with MSPIFF (which is coming up in just over three short weeks, by the way).

I was going to put out some questions to Jim about the BBFF and post his answers here, but he beat me to it (not surprisingly as I've been behind on everything for the last three months) in a post on MnDialog last week. In it, Jim explains how he became involved with the BBFF, how and why he chose the films that will be screening, and which ones in particular you get excited about.

Also, to hear more about how the festival came together,
take a listen to a just-posted interview with Jim and co-director of the BBFF, Jennifer Manion, on Movie Natters, the MPR movie blog dutifully maintained by Euan Kerr.

Must-sees on my personal list are:
- Sita Sings the Blues (which I remember the reliable Marilyn Ferdinand praising last fall)
- Revanche (Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, from Austria)
- Art & Copy (documentary on advertising from Doug Pray, director of last year's brilliant Surfwise)
- Sugar (from the team behind Half Nelson, and one I've been anxiously awaiting for well over a year)

I've also been wanting to see Older than America (starring Adam Beach and hesitantly recommended by Matt Gamble) for the last year, but unfortunately I'm on tap to see "Rent" at the Orpheum on Thursday night so I'll miss it again. The good news is that I'm going to be volunteering at BBFF on Saturday night and all day Sunday, so I'll see all those from my list plus the recommended Big Man Japan, as well as a handful of others.

Find the full schedule and quite a bit more on the BBFF website.

But to make it easier I've just copied the whole thing below, and I'll also urge you to take advantage of the brilliant arrangement the BBFF developed with Victor's 1959 Cafe. And if you're not up for that (though I don't know why you wouldn't be), there's always Pepito's literally right next door to the Parkway, and as far as I know you'll still be allowed to bring all kinds of food and drink from Pepito's right into the theater, where, if you're really lucky and really early, you'll score a seat on one of the plush leather couches.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Native Voices Program

Opening night kicks off at 6:30 p.m. with world champion northern style drumming group Midnite Express, followed by a talk by Winona LaDuke, environmental activist, author, Green Party vice-presidential candidate (1996 and 2000), and founding director of White Earth Land Recovery Project.

The presence of Midnite Express and Winona LaDuke is sponsored by Larry Levanthal.

Film screenings for opening night, which begins at 6:30 p.m., include:

Before Tomorrow

Native Nations: Standing Together for Civil Rights, introduced by Minnesotan social activist and filmmaker Sydney Beane

Buy tickets for opening night now!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Native Voices Program: Native American Women Filmmakers Night

Augmenting this evening’s film screenings, Mohawk director Tracey Deer, Minnesotan filmmaker Missy Whiteman, and Older Than America director Georgina Lightning will speak about their work in a panel moderated by Augsburg College professor Elise Marubbio.

Film screenings/panel:

5:00 p.m.: Mohawk Girls

6:20 p.m.: shorts by Missy Whiteman, Club Native, Native American women filmmakers panel discussion with Tracey Deer, Missy Whiteman, Georgina Lightning, moderated by Professor Elise Marubbio (Augsburg College, Department of American Indian Studies). Buy tickets now!

9:00 p.m.: Older Than America Buy tickets now!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Buddhist Wisdom Program

This evening’s program explores the intersection of ancient Tibetan Buddhist wisdom and the modern world through the eyes of three documentary filmmakers.

Film screenings:

5:30 p.m: Daughters of Wisdom

7:00 p.m.: Unmistaken Child U.S. premiere Buy tickets now!

9:00 p.m.: The Dhamma Brothers Buy tickets now!

Late Night Friday, March 27, 2009

Bill Plympton Spotlight

Two new films from the incomparable Bill Plympton.

Film screenings:

10:30 p.m.: Idiots and Angels and Hot Dog Buy tickets now!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Children’s Animation/Imagination Program

A morning of three delightful animated shorts to ignite the imagination of children large and small.

Film screenings:

11:00 a.m.: Raven Tales: The Gathering; Dorme; The Mantis Parable

Saturday, March 28, 2009 & Sunday, March 29, 2009

New U.S. Indies and World Cinema Program

Saturday’s and Sunday’s offerings are from among the newest and hottest films on the national and international film festival circuits.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Film screenings:

1:00 p.m.: Tricks

3:00 p.m.: Beautiful Losers

5:00 p.m.: Kisses

6:45 p.m.: Sita Sings the Blues Buy tickets now!

9:00 p.m.: Revanche 2009 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film Buy tickets now!

Midnight Madness

11:30 p.m.: Big Man Japan Buy tickets now!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Film screenings:

11:00 a.m.: The Unwinking Gaze

1:00 p.m.: Worlds Apart

3:00 p.m.: Art & Copy

5:00 p.m.: Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love

7:00 p.m.: Sugar Q&A with directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck Buy tickets now!

Ticket* prices:

Opening night: $15 at the door; $12 special on-line purchase; $10 at the door for students and seniors

General admission: $9 at the door; $7 at the door for students and seniors; $8 on-line for screenings after 6:00 pm

Children’s Animation/Imagination Program: $5 for everyone

Bill Plympton Spotlight: $7 for everyone; on-line purchase available

Midnight Madness/Big Man Japan: $7 for everyone; on-line purchase available

All-access pass: $75 (includes opening and closing nights); on-line purchase available

5-screening pass: $30 (doesn’t include opening and closing nights); on-line purchase available

Closing night: $15 at the door; $12 special on-line purchase; $10 at the door for students and seniors

* Tickets for all screenings that start after 6:00 p.m. are available for purchase on-line starting Wednesday, March 11. All-access and 5-screening passes area also available for purchase on-line.

March 19, 2009

I Love Knowing the Great Betrayal, Man

Actually I just like mashing movie titles together. I've seen three of the five major movies opening in the Twin Cities tomorrow, though I missed chances at Duplicity and Sunshine Cleaning (just as well since that would have made for an impossibly long title). Since this near clean sweep of new releases doesn't happen very often, here are capsule reviews of each. And I'm including The Great Buck Howard even though it was pushed back locally - yet again - for another week.

I Love You, Man (B+)

Hey PR firms, how 'bout a little creativity?

I'm not going to use the pop culture "B-word" surrounding this movie because I just don't like it (and I'm a stubborn contrarian with things like that). Besides, there's little romance going on here anyway, just your typical manchild hijinx. Which is not to say I Love You, Man doesn't have its funny moments. Paul Rudd continues to show the same leading man potential he had in Role Models, the supporting characters (especially Andy Samberg, Jon Favreau and Lou Ferrigno - who for some reason isn't a credited cast member) are hilarious, and there are two or three belly laugh-inducing scenes - and maybe a few more if you don't mind hearing the same joke five times.

But if you're looking for maturity or wit or originality, well then you should know better than to even be reading this. Just because Judd Apatow isn't involved here doesn't mean his influence isn't all over it: honest, innocent loser (The 40 Year-Old Virgin) has to get himself in order before major life event (Knocked Up), all while being held back by childish schlub friends (Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and so on). Apatow's is a brand that all comedies are copying these days, which means you've seen I Love You, Man before and you'll see it again soon. It's really almost like a sequel to Role Models: "See what happens to Danny Donahue five years later when he's about to get married and his only friends are still the nerdy role-playing kids!".

If stale humor is OK with you, or if you love the band Rush - you'll probably love I Love You, Man.

The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) (A)

Find my original capsule review here.

As I mentioned in my pre-preview of the 2009 P.O.V. season yesterday, I've given The Betrayal a lot of attention here since seeing it at MSPIFF last year. Now that it's opening here and an official poster has been made, I'm offering what will likely be my final recommendation. It requires some patience to watch but it will likely teach you quite a bit about immigration and cultural assimilation, and also make you consider the collateral costs of war.

The Great Buck Howard (B-)

Colin Hanks at his most expressive still looks like Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump.

By the last minute of The Great Buck Howard I had one question in my mind: why in the world was this movie made? It hadn't been terrible to that point by any means, but then it hadn't really been anything - it just existed on screen like a vapor, as if somebody made a movie about a guy who woke up this morning and had a cup of coffee. Then the epilogue text came up, reminding me that The Great Buck Howard was inspired by a true story: the career of the famous mentalist "The Amazing Kreskin", for whom writer/director Sean McGinly once worked as an assistant. Alright - so it's a biopic/tribute movie of sorts, and McGinly reminds us on screen that "no one has ever proven that his [Kreskin's] magic is anything less than 100% amazing". Whatever - McGinly also hasn't proven to me that this movie is anything less than 100% forgettable.

I'm being overly harsh. It was entertaining enough and I laughed quite a bit at John Malkovich taking this part and running with it, much like Jim Carrey used to do with these unique roles. But this movie is just missing something to make it really terrific, like a magic show where all of the tricks are decent but none of them are astounding. Worse, you often find yourself waiting for a punchline that never comes, so the comedy blows out of some scenes like hissing balloon. Too bland to see in the theater, but charming enough for a DVD rental.

Knowing (F)

You might find yourself doing this during the movie in order to keep yourself entertained.

And Hollywood's crowning achievement (and my guess as the box-office winner) for the week of March 20, 2009, is the disaster movie Knowing. It's about knowing when the world will end, and if that happens in real life before you're done watching this movie, consider yourself a blessed soul. Without question the worst movie I've seen since The Happening (though not nearly as pretentious), this Nicolas Cage vehicle shocked me only because it was worse than I thought it could be under the direction of Alex Proyas (The Crow, Dark City, I, Robot).

I'll look at it in two parts: first noting the obvious weaknesses of Knowing and then shredding it for a complete disregard for logic and reason. MAJOR SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW.

Since I already mentioned Shyamalan's disastrous last movie, why not start there? Like the now-infamous director's recent movies, Knowing tries to make big, bold statements about paranormal issues like the existence of life on other planets and the ability to see the future or otherwise operate outside of normal human dimensions. Instead of attempting anything fresh or thoughtful, however, Knowing goes about its business primarily by alternating between expensively produced special effects (you can almost see the money burning in the fire from the explosions), tons of cheap, door-slamming thrills, and way too many scenes with freaky kids who are truly awful actors. And like Shyamalan's movies, the conversations you have afterwards won't be about the themes of the movie, but about the mystery of how and why these movies continue to be made with such frequency.

Knowing does add one somewhat original contribution to the "end times" genre by making numerous references to religious prophecies, but theological discussions deserve better than Nicolas Cage and aliens.
This movie could have been, well, at least decent without these two liabilities and all the rest of the trappings of extravagant Hollywood fluff, including the most manipulative use of sound effects and a musical score that I've heard in years: something...Is... GoInG... TO... HAPPEN RIGHT NOW - DUN DUN DUN!!!!

And now for a few of the immediate questions that threw my mind into a frenetic tizzy while watching Knowing. Somebody help me out because I'm really too dense to understand the following:

Why didn't the school officials start looking for Lucinda inside the school before dark? And when searching for her inside the school, why didn't they just turn on the lights?

Why didn't Lucinda just get another piece of paper and pencil instead of carving bare wood with her fingers? The "whisper people" told her to write it in a closet where she might never be found?

Wasn't Miss Taylor's class the only one to write the letters for the time capsule? If so, how were there enough letters available to hand out to the entire school 50 years later, and how had the enrollment at the school not significantly increased?

Why would anyone ever marry Lucinda, and how was she never committed to a mental institution?

Why does an MIT astrophysicist not only own a Ford F-150, but drive it like he just stole it?

Why does an MIT astrophysicist live in a decrepit old house, where half the rooms are inexplicably and beautifully furnished while the other half resemble interrogation rooms?

What's the significance of showing us the tiger show on TV so many times?

Why didn't John tell anyone else about the numbers other than his dullard MIT colleague?

Why would John, an alcoholic, not know how to properly pour himself a drink without spilling it all over?

What was the point of Caleb's hearing aid? It literally served no purpose (especially since Abby and Lucinda could hear the aliens just fine without one) other than to amplify the creepy whisper noises for the audience, right?

Wasn't the first disaster (the plane crash) to happen on 10/26/08? Then how did the last one happen on 10/19/08? I swear those dates were messed up.

Why did John run into the burning wreckage of the plane crash while everything was clearly still exploding, and how did the paramedics know he wasn't a passenger when they arrived on the scene?

Why did the aliens give the kids the rocks from the clearing instead of just telling them the message?

Why are the aliens ultimately revealed to be simply skinless, translucent humans, with the same muscle and bone structure and central nervous system? This has to be the most pathetic attempt at alien life in years, doesn't it?

If it's so hot because of the solar flares, how can there be so much fog and so many puddles at night? Wouldn't the earth's atmosphere be scorched of all moisture at this point?

Why would the aliens forecast any of the other disasters in the 50 years of history when it's all irrelevant to the point at hand - and what's the significance of 50 years in the context of human life, anyway?

Why did the alien show Caleb the burning world outside his window and completely freak him out? Why not just tell Caleb what's going to happen - like they eventually did?

Why would Lucinda write "EE" backwards when she's written all of the number forwards? Just as a sneaky trick for whoever figures it out?

Why didn't Caleb have a cell phone? Wouldn't it be more likely that he would have a cell phone than that he would always have change handy for a pay phone? Why there are so many pay phones around in the first place?

Why does the fate of the world always lie in the hands of white American kids? And why do all of the last major disasters only happen in the U.S.?

Why were there so many people waiting in the subway station? Don't those trains run every few minutes?

Why did Caleb honk the horn of the truck if the aliens aren't there to harm them or take them away? I mean, they're calmly communicating with each other, right? What was he so afraid of?

Why was the gas station manager the only person in Boston who had a Boston accent?

Why does Manhattan remain the only city whose destruction qualifies the apocalypse when it's not even the 10th largest city in the world?

Why wouldn't the GPS coordinates on the school closet door show through the paint if they were scratched so deeply into the wood?

How did the aliens expect the kids were going to make it to the UFO clearing without their help? Why wouldn't they just take the kids in their sleep or by force at any other point during the movie?

Why did the aliens drive an old-school Cadillac boat and not something more awesome?

Why did Caleb start writing the numbers at the end? Wouldn't John have assumed those were more clues, instead of stopping him from finishing?

Why would the news anchor say, "We're going to stay on the air as long as we possibly can. All we're going to do is repeat what we've been saying all along - get indoors and underground."? Why would he stay on the air and not just put up a blue screen with that message instead? Do they really care about maintaining their market share of the local news at this point?

How was John able to calmly drive through the city with the streets on fire and people in chaotic riots? What were people doing standing around in the streets anyway?

Who dressed the kids in tunics in the New World and why - shouldn't they be unclothed like Adam and Eve?

Why do the aliens give the kids albino bunnies? Because rabbits breed? Is it just going to be humans and rabbits in the New World?

Please help me with these and many other questions if you see Knowing, because otherwise I'll continue to feel like a complete idiot.

March 18, 2009

P.O.V. Announces 2009 Schedule

PBS' terrific P.O.V. documentary series is set for 2009, and the 21st season boasts some very promising selections, including (as promised some months ago) recent Oscar nominee The Betrayal (Nerakhoon). The full list with synopses can be found on the comprehensive P.O.V. website, on which you can also watch full-length films from previous years and already sign up for email reminders for this year's showings.

The series starts this summer, but to whet your appetite here's the confirmed listing I just copied from my email (excuse the weird formatting). I'll chime in on the ones that immediately grab my attention, and I'll post another preview before the series begins in June.

June 23 - New Muslim Cool
* A Puerto Rican-American rapper from Pittsburgh who converted to Islam 12 years ago finds his new identity as a Muslim is increasingly challenged in a complex post-9/11 world.

June 30 - Beyond Hatred

July 7 - Life. Support. Music.

July 14 - The Reckoning
* A legal thriller about the International Criminal Court and the fight against the perpetrators of crimes against humanity (M. Night Shyamalan), war crimes, and genocide. This played at Sundance and might get a theatrical release this year, so keep an eye out either way.

July 21 - The Betrayal
* I've talked this one up for going on a year now. Find my capsule review here and find this Oscar nominee during its short theater run this spring or during its P.O.V. run in July.

July 28 - Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go

Aug. 4 - ( Encore): Johnny Cash

Aug. 11 - (Encore): Made in L.A.

Aug. 18 - P.O.V. Shorts Selection

Aug. 25 - This Way Up

Sept. 1 - Ella Es el Matador
* Women were barred from the sport of bullfighting in Spain until the walls of patriarchy gave way in 1908. The film profiles two women currently on the Spanish circuit, and if nothing else should offer a less bloody glimpse at the sport than a Hollywood feature would offer.

Sept. 8 - The English Surgeon

Sept. 15 - The Principal Story

Sept. 22 - Bronx Princess

November Special - The Way We Get By
* This documentary about three senior citizens who have spent five years greeting some 800,000 U.S. troops on their way to and from their tours in war zones around the world. It just won the Special Jury award at SXSW last week and there's a good chance it will hit theaters sometime in 2009. Of the P.O.V. Class of 2009, this would be my prediction as one that could get some Oscar attention next February.

January 2010 Special - Patti Smith: Dream of Life
* I missed this at MSPIFF last year but everybody I know who saw it loved it. My guess is that people who admired Patti Smith and her contemporaries would enjoy this more than anyone else (including me), but it could offer some solid music if nothing else.

Check back here for a more thorough season preview this June, and don't forget you can always watch full version of some past films on the P.O.V. website.

March 16, 2009

REVIEW: Medicine for Melancholy (A-)

While I'm admittedly no expert on analyzing film trends, I'm confident enough calling myself an observer of them. It would appear that over the last 18 months, for example, a New Wave of American independent filmmaking has begun in earnest.

Somehow, while Hollywood barrages us with mindless action blockbusters and unnecessary sequel upon unnecessary sequel (I can understand franchises sequels like Transporter 3 and even Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, but Get Smart 2 and Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 - what is happening? ), an eclectic group of American filmmakers is still successfully churning out some of the best independent film of the last decade.

A DNA test would show these films from 2008 to be fraternal twins, if not identical: Ballast (Lance Hammer), Chop Shop (Ramin Bahrani), Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt), In Search of a Midnight Kiss (Alex Holdridge), Frozen River (Courtney Hunt), and The Pool (Chris Smith) - and those are just the ones I've seen. Their shared traits: two or three principle characters, a bare bones plot about current social issues, a subtle and possibly nonexistent musical score, stark cinematography, and decidedly untidy endings. Of course they're also all quite good (four of them were in my Best of 2008 list, and Wendy and Lucy might have snuck in had I seen it earlier), making the fact that they received so little attention even more disappointing.

Barry Jenkins' Medicine for Melancholy unfortunately seems headed for the same quiet fate. A late 2008 arrival that may find more of an audience in 2009 on DVD and in limited release, it's a deceptively loaded film
that, likes its characters, quickly sheds itself of stereotypes in carving out its own niche in the romantic drama genre. Meditative and unhurried, Medicine for Melancholy strikes a comfortable balance between lighthearted comedy, passionate romance, thoughtful drama and, of all things, cultural identity and social justice. It's like Before Sunrise with a conscience.

Unlike the contemplative pair of Jesse and Celine, however, Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (Tracey Heggins) meet under less romantic circumstances: shamefully in each other's arms after an inebriated one night stand. The next day, Sunday, starts out with a painfully awkward breakfast at a local cafe (they learn each other's names) followed by a uncomfortably forced conversation in the cab ride to their respective San Francisco apartments. Jo is in a serious relationship with a white guy, which aside from irritating Micah simply makes him all the more determined to win her over.

These issues around race are thoroughly explored while hardly discussed at all. Yes, Micah is vocal about his frustration with the history of socioeconomic segregation in San Francisco and that people of color are always patronized in the "indie" scene and that African-Americans make up a minuscule percentage of homeowners in the city, but he never preaches, and neither does the movie. In the hands of the brilliant Spike Lee, for example, Medicine for Melancholy would have become tiresome and likely abrasive. Barry Jenkins uses a softer touch, fortunately, and lets the camera and the city do the majority of the talking. The color is symbolically washed out from the film and we learn as much about the characters and their thoughts on race relations not by what they say, but by what they wear, do, eat, and listen to. Alex Holdridge used technique this to a lesser extent in In Search of a Midnight Kiss, and his beautiful shots of L.A. were more pretty than profound. Jenkins, on the other hand, is doing it with a lot more thought and for much more meaning.

There's little mystery as to how Micah and Jo's relationship will progress throughout the day (even though Jo asks in the form of a declaration, "This is a one night stand."), but Medicine for Melancholy isn't a romance in the traditional sense anyway. Cenac and Heggins provide Micah and Jo with real weight and emotion, and although this may be partly because we've never seen them before, it's all because they do an excellent job naturally settling into their roles. Amusingly, their acting is a little shaky at the beginning, but then again so are the characters themselves as they work their way out of an awkward situation. Is it by design? With as much careful thought as appears to have gone into the other aspects of Medicine for Melancholy, I wouldn't be surprised.

Finally, I'd be remiss not to mention the soundtrack at some point, if only because people who are into indie rock (I'm only marginally so) will probably consider it a gold mine. I don't recognize any of the songs and only two of the artists - Tom Waits and Wyatt Cenac (who plays Micah) - but you should know by now that I'm game for any song that fits the right scene, and it should come as no surprise that Jenkins succeeds with the music as well as he does everything else.

I saw Medicine for Melancholy more than three weeks ago and it's yet to begin to fade into the recesses of my movie memory. On paper it's obviously the type of film I would love (tell me you're surprised at my grade), but it's still been "stickier" than I expected, and it's the best type of movie in that sense because I find myself still connecting it to real life. There's a sense that, like the other American Independent New Wave movies from 2008, Medicine for Melancholy taps into some universal human condition that we're all able to relate to despite differences in race, class, gender, and other seemingly obtrusive social divisions. You might not see yourself in these movies, but you see yourself in them.

Writing - 9
Acting - 9
Production - 10
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5

Total: 46/50= 92% = A-

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