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.


  1. I completely agree with you re: Sita and Revanche. I have been looking forward to Art & Copy since its premiere at Sundance, at least I think it was Sundance, its subject matter is of great interest to me.

    And Sugar, well. So great you loved it, I really think I will too. Funny too, because "Half Nelson" is the Monday Memorable Movie on tonight. Hope to see "Sugar" asap.

  2. Yeah if any part of Art & Copy appeals to you then by all means check it out. You know I loved Surfwise last year so I was hoping for more of the same from Doug Pray, but it wasn't quite what I expected. I thought it would be more of an expose about how advertisers know everything about our minds. But what I took from it is that they admittedly don't!

    I thought Sugar was just outstanding. I suppose it was a self-fulfilling prophecy: I liked Half Nelson a lot and I had a major interest in the subject matter of this one. But to live up to my expectations isn't the easiest thing in the world, and they pulled it off pretty easily.

  3. I thought Sugar was great. It was easy to instantly fall in love with the character. He did such a good job for a first time actor.

    I also loved the Roberto Clemente references and hope they weren't lost on the non-baseball fans.

  4. I'm with you on those thoughts, Sara, especially about Soto as a first-time actor. As Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden commented in the Q & A afterwards, he delivered the perfect "quiet intensity" they were looking for as he was able to communicate so much non-verbally. They said they interviewed 600 ballplayers in the DR as they were casting the character, and it's hard to believe they passed over anyone better than him.

    Thanks for commenting - I hope word continues to spread about this film.

  5. Dan, I know you mentioned that one of SUGAR'S stars was the actor who is presently playing in the NYC staging of August Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone." (Andre) For that reason alone I'm curious. But there's not one here that isn't intriguing. Of course, SITA is high-profile.

    Kudos on that fantastic Q and A session with the SUGAR contingent!

  6. Right, Andre Holland. He was pretty solid as "Brad Johnson" in Sugar. Fleck and Boden said he was one of the few cast members who was an actor first and a baseball player second. So he knew what he was doing on the field from having played in college or something, but he makes a living these days, as you know first-hand, from acting. I think he could develop a solid career, but of course his character in Sugar is extremely likable so it's kind of hard not to root for the guy in real life.

    Sita is I think going to continue to make some waves this year, and I'm even getting a hunch that it could get Oscar buzz as an animated film outlier. But of course those hunches never pan out, especially with the other animated films in line for next year's Oscar, many of which I listed in my review of another contender, Coraline.


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