April 28, 2009

On the Horizon: Moon

I have to preview this film here if for no other reason than the novelty of the post title, but it really is an intriguing little sci-fi thriller. The first feature by Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie), Moon stars his buddy Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell, a lone helium miner finishing a three year contract on the lunar surface. As he prepares to return to earth he suffers an accident in a lunar rover that reveals something rather odd about his situation in relation to the others who have come before him. The mystery isn't as hidden as I'm making it out to be, but know that eventually there are two Sam Bells living in the lunar base and that it's an untenable situation.

Moon had a single showing at MSPIFF last night and Duncan Jones charmingly answered questions afterward (except for dodging one about his age - he's 37 going on 21). Highlights included his explanation of how he was able to direct one actor in two roles and how he used lots of miniatures for the lunar surface instead of exclusively using CGI. The result looks great - Rockwell delivers an amazing performance when you consider that he's the only actor on screen, and the visual effects are terrific for the tiny budget Jones had at his disposal (he boasted that at $5 million, it was only a tenth of Danny Boyle's budget for Sunshine, which I found flawed but ultimately a better film). Really my biggest complaint is the dialogue, which was not written by Jones and was half-improvised by Rockwell, for whom Jones specifically designed the story. Kevin Spacey plays what Jones joked is a "benign Hal" character, but even that device isn't used effectively. For the meaty potential this story I'd have hoped for some deeper meanings or more interesting monologues.

In any event, I still recommend sci-fi fans check out Moon when it opens this June. Check out the trailer and hear the instantly classic original score by Clint Mansell, composer for Darren Aronofsky's films (memorably Requiem for Dream and The Fountain).

Come back for more thoughts and join the conversation when Moon opens in Minneapolis on June 26th. It will hopefully stir some interesting debates (Jim Brunzell wasn't high on it after seeing it at Sundance but Erik McClanahan enjoyed it a bit more) about the sci-fi genre, especially in the shadow of the upcoming monster that is Star Trek.

April 27, 2009

MSPIFF Weekend #2 Roundup

After seeing some good to great movies at MSPIFF last weekend, I hit Il Divo and Heart of Fire (review likely forthcoming) on Monday and A Walk to Beautiful on Thursday. I had a tough time following Il Divo due to either confusion or exhaustion (or both), but I still appreciated it and on balance I've yet to see anything resembling a "bad" film at this festival.

I know it seems like I'm being overly generous with praise, but I'm not surprised that I've enjoyed most of these movies because I've been selective in only seeing the most promising ones (highly recommended international award winners). Sure, it may take away from the adventure of just randomly picking movies, but if I'm paying for all of these I'm going to do my best to make sure it's worth it. As it's happened, then, a number of them really have been among the best films that I've seen in 2009 thus far.

Letters to the President (B+)
Iran (2009); Directed by Petr Lom

In one way, the most surprising thing about this documentary was the fact that it was made at all. Filmmaker Petr Lom somehow gained behind-the-scenes access to the nerve center of Iran’s public relations department (and yes, they have a busy one), ironic because of the number of times when someone is told to not speak to the cameras. Taking the popular practice of sending letters to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Lom ultimately focuses on the differing political attitudes between the rural and urban populations of Iran. What he finds is perhaps not surprising for Americans, but it nonetheless casts serious doubt on Ahmadinejad’s genuine desire to be a man of the people. His khaki jacket in place of a suit appears to be for show only, and a few interviews (in particular with two incredible mural painters) really drive home the message that true democracy is not alive nor well in Iran. Letters to the President is a good primer for those wanting a look at the situation ahead of the country’s presidential election this summer. It does not play again at MSPIFF but should probably get some limited distribution in 2009.

The Song of Sparrows (A)
Iran (2008); Directed by Majid Majidi

I followed up Letters to the President with the richly layered film that Iran submitted to last year’s Oscars. (With every submission I see I become more convinced 2008 was an amazing year for foreign films.) The Song of Sparrows, from acclaimed director Majid Majidi (Children of Heaven), is the kind of movie that lures you in with lighthearted comedy and sympathetic characters, making its necessary tragedies both unexpected and emotionally turbulent (the sold-out theater audience let loose with anguished cries more than once). As the film’s main character, an ostrich farmer turned motorbike cabbie, Reza Naji delivers a perfectly nuanced performance. A second screening was added because a reported 150 people were turned away from this showing on Friday; watch for a more thought-out review before The Song of Sparrows arrives in Minneapolis on May 29th.

Three Monkeys (A)
Turkey (2008); Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan

A brooding, exceptionally crafted thriller, Three Monkeys was another highly acclaimed addition in this year’s festival. Following a year in the life of a Turkish family mixed up in some very bad things, it builds an almost unbearable amount of tension in the last 20 minutes. Delicately shot in a washed-out sepia tone, it simply doesn’t allow you to look away from the screen; any and every detail is important (not surprisingly, Ceylan won the Best Director award at Cannes 2008). I haven’t Ceylan’s Distant or Climates, but the latter is now playing for free through May 3 on the The Auteurs website, where Three Monkeys also premiered for a 24 hour period yesterday. If you missed it and you’re not seeing Moon, get your tickets now for it’s second showing TONIGHT at 7:15 PM.

Jerichow (A-)
Germany (2008); Directed by Christian Petzold

I was on the fence about Jerichow until about five minutes before its showtime, but when I realized it was by the director of Yella (which I regrettably missed last year) and starred Benno Fürmann (The Princess and the Warrior), it was an easy decision. Wow, was that worth it. It's the impossibly simple story of three deceptively complex characters (the suspense comes easily as we learn about their backstories at the same time they do) who just want a little something more in their lives. If not for a convenient plot device in the last few minutes, Jerichow would have been nearly perfect, but even that flaw doesn't significantly take away from it. I don't know why it's so hard for American directors to make suspense thrillers like this. Get rid of the manipulative music and memorable quotes; all that's needed are believable characters making questionable - but not unreasonable - decisions. Jerichow doesn't play again at MSPIFF but it will receive limited distribution later this spring/summer.

Tokyo Sonata (A-)
Japan/Netherlands/China (2008); Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Winner of the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes last year, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's meditative drama about an unhappy family reminded me of American Beauty set in Tokyo. They're moody, unfulfilled, and don't particularly like or trust each other. Taken in context it's a pretty powerful illustration of what may be happening in many cities as the unemployment numbers rise, but even without the topical urgency it provides a fascinating look at contemporary Japanese culture. A fair amount of patience is required on the part of the viewer, but I found it worth the wait as Tokyo Sonata boasts my favorite ending scene of any movie so far this year. It also does not play again at MSPIFF, but is definitely recommended on its return to Minneapolis on May 15.

Yep, it was a high-quality weekend at MSPIFF, and the four on my list for this week (Moon, Tyson, Oblivion, The Infinite Border) look pretty promising. I cannot take this festival for granted.

April 24, 2009

REVIEW: Sugar (A)

A few years ago I attended the semi-finals and finals of the inaugural World Baseball Classic. I'm a baseball fan (Twins and pre-2004 Red Sox during college, when they were still lovably cursed and I worked part-time at a souvenir shop at Fenway Park), but the decision to attend the WBC was really made on a whim. I lived within walking distance of Petco Park in San Diego and figured, "Hey, if this thing ends up being the World Cup of baseball, it would be kind of cool to say that I went to the first one." I rounded up a half dozen friends, scored $20-$30 tickets on eBay and watched the Saturday doubleheader before seeing Japan beat Cuba the following Monday for the first-ever "real" world title.

Beyond the pride-swallowing fact that Team USA didn't even make the semi-finals, the biggest surprise of the weekend was indeed the World Cup-like atmosphere. Chants and songs rippling through the stands, waving flags, blaring instruments, piercing whistles, painted faces, and above all, different languages to hear and read. At one point my friend Matty and I found ourselves surrounded by supporters of the South Korean team, so naturally we chanted along with them (Matty also took hold of a drum and started wailing on it). There we were, screaming something in Korean during a tournament championship featuring teams from Japan, Cuba, South Korea and the Dominican Republic. Ah, the Great American Pastime.

The globalization of the sport obviously isn't news to baseball fans, most of whom will be familiar with the minor league farm systems portrayed in Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's terrific new film, Sugar. Fortunately for them it isn't a rehash of The Natural or Bull Durham, and fortunately for non-baseball fans it isn't really about baseball at all, but about what baseball means to different people in the different countries (including the DR) represented by the screaming fans around me three years ago. For comparison, you could say this film is about baseball in the same way that Fleck and Boden's last film, Half Nelson, is about teaching.

Sugar follows a season in the life of Miguel "Sugar" Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), a doe-eyed Dominican baseball prospect who cashes his pitching talent in for an open-ended ticket to the United States, where he plays for the single-A affiliate of the Kansas City Knights (Royals). His farm team is based in the (also fictional) farm town of Bridgetown, IA, where Evangelical Christianity and a lack of diversity make for an extremely alienating environment. Miguel has two friends on the team (a Dominican and an African-American teammate, well played by Rayniel Rufino and Andre Holland, respectively), but his time off the field is mostly spent in isolation as he tries to navigate the cultural divide. His inability to speak English prevents him from ordering anything other than french toast at a local diner, and the innocent granddaughter of his host parents teaches him a disappointing lesson in American courtship. I won't say more about the last half hour of the film, but suffice to say Miguel ultimately experiences more downs than ups.

It's a dramatic story punctuated by moments of fish-out-of-water comedy, but it never strikes a false note. You get the sense that Sugar is rooted in realism, and it's no surprise that Fleck and Boden shot the film on location and auditioned some 600 Dominicans for Miguel's role. His is one of a hundred true stories of the Dominican ballplayers found on the rosters of probably every MLB team, and this is the first time the curtain has been pulled back on the situation on film (well, second time, but PBS' phenomenal "The New Americans" unfortunately went unseen by most people).

The only song Miguel "Sugar" Santos knows in English is "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"...

Beyond observing this tumultuous journey from the D.R. to the U.S., what really made Sugar interesting to me were the other issues it addressed, such as illegal immigration and the potential for exploitation of Dominicans at these professional baseball academies.

While Sugar doesn't have the endorsement of Major League Baseball, I wonder if Commissioner Bud Selig wouldn't still approve of its portrayal of the league's interworkings. The Dominican prospects are shown to be well looked after, trained, groomed, and otherwise given every chance to succeed. According to Sugar, if they don't make it to "the show" it's on account of a lack of talent or a poor work ethic, not any result of overtraining, inflated expectations or cross-cultural difficulties. I would have liked to see a little bit more of the story on the Dominican side - where do the MLB scouts find these kids? What do they promise them and how do they prepare them for life away from baseball?

According to the post-screening Q & A with Fleck and Boden, professional baseball has essentially become one of the leading export industries in the Dominican Republic. Presumably every young boy with any athletic talent is primed from early childhood to swing a bat and throw a fastball. In a country whose economy is based primarily on agriculture and tourism, what happens to 90+% of boys who don't make it, and to what extent, if any, should the MLB be held accountable for propagating poverty? I understand that Dominicans would still play the game even if they weren't sending kids off to the U.S., but these baseball academies appear to have really changed the culture down there. It's a way for people to escape their difficult situation, but even with millionaire players remitting some of their salaries back to the community, this system seem to benefit MLB owners, scouts, and agents to a disproportionate degree.

Which is why, of course, so many of the "failed" Dominican ballplayers remain in the U.S. illegally. What's waiting for them at home aside from humiliation and unemployment? Sugar doesn't explore the issue of illegal immigration until the end (and even then only matter-of-factly), so you're left assuming that its overall tone is sympathetic to those who remain in the U.S. (Ironically, Fleck and Boden reported that the lead actor, Soto, has been in the U.S. since Sugar wrapped over 18 months ago; he still has a work visa and is traveling to some cities to promote the film, and they said he hopes to stay here.) But whether or not you can charge the filmmakers as enablers of illegal immigration is beside the point, since Sugar portrays the situation as it is, not as it should or could be. The many former players they show as at the end of the film remind us that baseball is only one part of these people's lives, and most of them have found another way to be productive members of American society.

It's becoming clear that only two features into their young careers, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden have proven they belong in the big leagues of independent film. After throwing a deceptive strike with their first pitch (Half Nelson), they have now delivered another knuckle ball of a movie, unpredictably rising up and down and every which way before eventually, accordingly, patiently hitting its mark across the plate. It's essential viewing for even casual fans of professional baseball, but I really don't want to limit it to that audience. Simply put, Sugar is an earnest and entertaining film with fascinating real-life relevance.

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

Total: 47/50= 94% = A

April 23, 2009

MSPIFF: What to See in Week 2

The 27th Annual MSPIFF rolls into its second week today. I've been pleased with the six films I've seen so far, and with two nights off to do other things ("Caroline, or Change" at the Guthrie and Sin Nombre at the Uptown), I'm ready to jump back into it for seven straight nights, beginning tonight.

Film Goats: Last Friday we had a good dozen people show up to share thoughts on the festival at Pracna, and we're going to go for it again tomorrow, this time at 9:00 PM at Pracna instead of 5:30 PM. I'm going to be coming out of The Song of Sparrows and will head straight over - come one, come all. Unfortunately you might miss us if you're going to one of the 9:00 or 10:00 PM screenings, but this way we'll be in the sweet spot if you're coming or going.

Now on to my recommendations for Week 2...

(Food, Inc., Three Monkeys, Tokyo Sonata, and Moon)

Again, many of these are playing more than once, so refer to the schedule if you can't make it on the day listed. Also, click on the "tickets" link and buy in advance so you can save a dollar, and remember that I haven't seen some of these but I'm recommending them on a hunch.

THURSDAY, 4/23 (tickets):

Rudo y Cursi (6:30 PM)
- Soccer comedy starring Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal. It's played to mixed reviews since Sundance but it can't be all that bad. Director Carlos Cuaron (brother of Alfonso) will be present.

A Walk to Beautiful (7:15 PM)
- Documentary about the plight of women in Ethiopia suffering from fistulas. This is cosponsored by my employer, and will be followed by a discussion with the director.

The Secret of the Grain (9:15 PM)
- Drama about food and family, over 150 minutes long and sure to make you hungry. Kathie highly recommends it, but warns that it may be shown from a DVD.

FRIDAY, 4/24 (tickets):

Letters to the President (5:10 PM)
- Documentary about the struggle for democracy in Iran.

The Song of Sparrows (7:15 PM)
- Lighthearted drama about an ostrich farmer in Iran; the country's Oscar submission last year.

Food, Inc. (7:30 PM)
- Documentary about the industrialization and corporate takeover of the food and agricultural industries. Read my recommendation/preview here.
(3.5/4 stars)

Jerusalema (9:45 PM)
- Stylish gangster pic based on the true story of Lucky Kunene, a.k.a. the South African "Robin Hood". Read my capsule review from Vita.mn here. (2.5/4 stars)

Shakespeare and Victor Hugo's Intimacies (10:10 PM)
- Documentary about a mysterious artist/serial killer in Mexico City. Read my capsule review from Vita.mn here.
(3/4 stars)


The Necessities of Life (4:00 PM)

- Moving drama about an Inuit hunter recovering from TB in 1950's Quebec City. Read my capsule review from Vita.mn here. (4/4 stars)

Wounded Knee (2:35 PM)
- Documentary about 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee, SD, between federal agents and members of the American Indian Movement. Read my capsule review from Vita.mn here. (3.5/4 stars)

Salt of This Sea (3:30 PM)
- Drama about a young Palestinian woman from Brooklyn who goes back to visit her homeland. Actress invited to this showing.

Three Monkeys (7:10 PM)
- Drama about a struggling Turkish family; the country's Oscar submission last year.
This film will also be available for viewing online.

Jerichow (9:20 PM)
- Contemporary German thriller described by words like "pulp" and "noir". Could be solid.

SUNDAY, 4/26

Lemon Tree (2:35 PM)
- Mature drama about Arab-Israeli relations starring Hiam Abbass (The Visitor).

Pride of Lions (3:00 PM)
- Documentary about war-torn Sierra Leone. Minnesota filmmaking team will be present.

Seraphine (4:45 PM)
- Biopic about the French painter Seraphine Louis. Winner of 7 Cesar Awards (French Oscars).

Tokyo Sonata (7:55 PM)
- Japanese drama apparently hiding undertones of horror and suspense, this 2008 Jury Prize winner at Cannes has been highly regarded by critics and bloggers.

Blind Loves (10:15 PM)
- Documentary exploring the love between blind couples and families. Saw this on Sunday night and loved it. (4/4 stars)

Heart of Fire (8:45 PM)
- Drama about child soldiers in Eritrea. Saw this on Monday night and loved it. (4/4 stars)

MONDAY, 4/27

Moon (7:00 PM)
- Sci-fi thriller starring Sam Rockwell, played to mixed reviews at Sundance. Director Duncan Jones to be present.

Rough Aunties (6:30 PM)
- Grand Jury Prize winner at Sundance, an uplifting documentary about women caring for mistreated children in South Africa.


Tyson (6:45 PM)
- Documentary I pondered last May finally arrives after solid reviews at Sundance. Director James Toback to be present.

Shultes (7:30 PM)
- Russian drama/thriller about a lonely pickpocket. Could be absolutely gripping or absolutely boring.


The Infinite Border (9:30 PM)
- Documentary about Central Americans crossing over Mexico's border. An essential supplement to Sin Nombre, now playing at the Uptown.

Oblivion (7:15 PM)
- Documentary about street life in Lima, Peru.

Mutum (9:45 PM)
- Compassionate drama about a young boy growing up in rural Brazil. Read my capsule review from Vita.mn here. (3/4 stars)


The Brothers Bloom (7:00 PM)
- Con man comedy starring Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz and Mark Ruffalo. I'd like to see this but the ticket price is almost prohibitively steep considering this movie is being released in just a few weeks anyway. However, remember that you get free admission into the free-food-if-get-there-early Closing Night party at Seven Sushi if you have a ticket stub from any closing night film.

And with that, MSPIFF #27 will end, but lots of other options exist if you're not into the festival scene: new releases like State of Play, The Soloist, Sugar and Sin Nombre; Hunger at the Walker (last chance this weekend); the previously unreleased Crossing Over at the Parkway; and the continuation of the Hitchcock series with Rope at the Riverview.

April 21, 2009

On the Horizon: Food, Inc.

Did you know there are only 13 slaughterhouses in the United States, down from thousands that operated several decades ago? Meat consumption hasn't decreased at that rate, so what gives - and what does that mean about the meat we're all eating? Hmm...

Food, Inc. attempts to answer such questions by pulling the veil back on America's food industry to expose food corporations as monopolies that control our mind, body, and soul (at least that's what I gathered when the word "evil" flashed on the screen). It's not a "do you know where your food comes from?" scolding, but a "here's why it matters" explanation.

Equal parts Fast Food Nation, The Corporation, Super Size Me, and Enron: The Smartest Guys In the Room, Robert Kenner's Food, Inc. is perhaps most similar to a certain Oscar-winning, action-stirring documentary starring Al Gore. Think of it as An Inconvenient Food, healthy living recommendations before the end credits included.

(Disclaimer: I'll make no effort to hide the fact that I'm automatically in the tank for everything Participant Productions churns out. Founded by eBay magnate Jeff Skoll just about five years ago, Participant produces films with the implicit purpose to inspire social change (check out their TakePart blog in the "Do" section of my sidebar). Recent films include The Soloist, The Visitor, Standard Operating Procedure, and Charlie Wilson's War, but looking back a few years you'll find Fast Food Nation, An Inconvenient Truth, Murderball, North Country, Syriana, Chicago 10, The Kite Runner, Darfur Now, American Gun, and Good Night, and Good Luck.)

Make sense why I'm a big fan? Then check out the trailer for Food, Inc., or watch the first three minutes here:

Food, Inc. will be shown at MSPIFF this Friday, 4/24, and Sunday, 4/26. Because Minneapolis goes ga-ga for all things "green" and because the film is co-produced by Minneapolis-based (Bill Pohlad) River Road Entertainment, I will go ahead and guarantee a sellout for both shows. Get your tickets now.

Watch this space for my full review of Food, Inc. prior to its Minneapolis opening on June 19. In the meantime, visit TakePart's website for all kinds of good stuff related to the film, including a preview screening schedule and a laundry list of action items.

April 20, 2009

MSPIFF Weekend Roundup

The first few days of MSPIFF delivered in promising fashion; a few great movies down, a lot more to come this week and next. Since moving back to MN it's my first year attending as a paying customer instead of a volunteer, so I'm having to be a little more selective...or at least that's what I tell myself, though I'll spend close to $200 before this is over with.

Friday night's Film Goat gathering was a great way to kick-start the festival, so thanks to all those who showed up, including local media notables and also Louis Lapat, director of Win or Lose (which I will be reviewing soon). The Pracna patio was packed and the lines were out the door on what felt like a warm summer evening. I think we're on again for this coming Friday night, but as I'm hoping to see Letters to the President at 5:10 PM, I've got to talk to Kathie about maybe doing this one post instead of pre. More details to come on Thursday, when I'll make my recommendations for Week 2.

In the meantime, here's a quick rundown on the four that I saw over the weekend (none of which were on Friday; I made sure to see Hunger at the Walker before it's gone).

Munyurangabo (Liberation Day) (A-)
Rwanda (2007); Directed by Lee Isaac Chung

Somewhere in the second half of this movie I thought, "Man, this really feels familiar." A young teen in a war-torn African country who is seeking to avenge his father's death? Ah yes, it was the Chadian film Dry Season, reviewed in this space as part of MSPIFF last year. It's terrible that these stories are so prevalent in African cinema, but they reflect the reality of many of the continent's cultures struggling to recover from atrocities like the Rwandan genocide, and if nothing else they should serve as urgent reminders to those still involved with similar acts these days. Interestingly, Munyurangabo was not made by a Rwandan but by an American (who I found out later on Saturday is an acquaintance of my sister), and for his debut feature, Lee Isaac Chung appears to have been a deserving 2008 Independent Spirit Award nominee for the Someone to Watch award (that went to Ramin Bahrani - it's bizarre to think he was so unknown just a year ago). I'm considering a full review of
Munyurangabo so I haven't said much here, but needless to say, I recommend catching it its second showing, Thursday, 4/30 at 5:45 PM. (Tickets)

Rumba (B)
Belgium/France (2008); Directed by Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, & Bruno Romy

The only film from the weekend that didn't live up to my expectations was this tragi-comedy about a pair of schoolteachers/moonlighting Latin dancers. A few set pieces are terrific and the stars/co-directors Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon are perfectly wacky in their roles. But too many of the silent scenes dragged on for 10, 15, even 30 seconds too long, and the comedic momentum really never carried me from one gag to the next. It seemed as if they were short on jokes so they just stretched out each one they had as long as possible. Don't let this deter you from seeing it, however, if you appreciate physical comedy in the style of Mr. Bean. Rumba is light, harmless fun, but even at 77 minutes it seems a bit thin. One of the few comedies at MSPIFF, it will have its second showing Monday, 4/20, at 9:00 PM.

Blind Loves (A-)
Slovakia (2008); Directed by Juraj Lehotsky

One of the most utterly absorbing documentaries I've seen in recent years, Blind Loves is a fascinating profile of blind Slovakians and their experiences with love, life, and family. It won the C.I.C.A.E. Award at Cannes last year, and though I don't know what that means, let's assume it just means "excellent work". Describing this film is a challenge for a few reasons, but suffice to say it was not what I expected and it I'm glad for that. There is no narration or explanation; just observation, made incredibly engrossing because it's done with a steady camera, not the shaky hand-held video utilized in most documentaries. Were some scenes thus staged? Possibly, probably, but these four vignettes aren't meant to be records of events so much as they're meant to be character studies. I think Blind Loves deserves a full review, so watch this space, and in the meantime make sure to see it at its second showing, Sunday, 4/26, at 10:15 PM. That's pretty late, but it's only 77 minutes long and I'm not sure if this will have a wider release, so best see it while you can.

Lion's Den (A-)
Argentina (2008); Directed by Pablo Trapero

Argentina's Oscar submission from last year is a taut and emotionally charged drama boasting an incredible performance by Martina Gusman, who, shockingly, has only one other screen credit to her name. Gusman plays Julia, a twenty-something woman sent to prison on a murder charge following a bloody fight at the the apartment she shared with two men. She's pregnant by one of them, a fact not made clear until we realize that she has been placed in a cell block with other women and, disturbingly, their young children (unless mine eyes deceive me, it's evident Gusman was actually pregnant and had a child during production). It's a horrifying sight to see toddlers using prison cell doors as a jungle gym, but eventually it becomes a new normal both for them and for us. To that end, one of my two complaints is that I felt like a voyeur peering in at the situation, instead of a character actually experiencing it. Nonetheless it was still tense throughout, even through an ending that I didn't particularly care for. Lion's Den does not play again at the festival, but due to the positive reactions to both screenings over the weekend, try to see if it's chosen as one of the "Best of the Fest" held over to the first week of May.

April 17, 2009

MSPIFF: What to See in Week 1

If you still haven't worn out your highlighter and given yourself a headache in trying to figure out what you're going to see at MSPIFF over the next few days, save yourself some trouble and consider my recommendations below. Also, don't forget to join Kathie Smith and I at our inaugural Film Goat get-together tonight at Pracna at 5:30 PM. I've got curly black hair; Kathie says she'll be wearing a blue T-wolves cap. Maybe we'll be sitting outside in the nice weather...

(The Necessities of Life, Il Divo, & Lion's Den)

Many of these are playing more than once, so refer to the schedule if you can't make it on the day listed. Also, click on the "tickets" link and buy in advance so you can save a dollar.

Please note that I've only see the ones I've reviewed...

Friday, 4/17 (tickets):

Win or Lose: A Summer Camp Story
- Director Louis Lapat asked me to review this prior to its screening but I couldn't do it in time. Louis has agreed to provide a screener; watch for a review in the coming weeks. Louis will be at the screening.

Is Anybody There?
- Charming dramedy starring Michael Caine. Opens in Minneapolis on May 1, if you can't make it.

- Indie thriller directed by David Lynch's daughter. That alone should make it somewhat interesting.

Just Another Love Story
- Indie thriller from Denmark. Sounds like you could be forgiven for getting this confused with Surveillance.

Horn of Plenty (2/4 stars)
- This Cuban film didn't do much for me, but it's the only real comedy of the group. Read my capsule review here.

Saturday, 4/18

The Necessities of Life
(4/4 stars)
- Moving drama about an Inuit hunter recovering from TB in 1950's Quebec City. Read my capsule review here.

Liberation Day
- Drama about reconciliation in post-genocide Rwanda. Sign me up.

- Drama about about a boy biking across Peru.

Song From the Southern Seas
(3.5/4 stars)
- Bizarre dramedy about a Russian couple living in Kazakhstan. Read my capsule review here.

Il Divo
- Drama with overtones of The Godfather about an aging Italian mob boss. Originally I thought this was a doc about the opera boy band/singing group. I'll see this on one Monday night.

- European, near-silent comedy about quirky Belgians who like to dance.

The King of Ping Pong
- Napoleon Dynamite-ish dramedy from Sweden. Can't count anything out from that country after Let the Right One In.

Lion's Den
- Argentine thriller that I wasn't sure about until three local sources all gave it A's and/or four stars. Not sure how I'm going to see this one but will hopefully squeeze it in late Sunday night.

Sunday, 4/19

Trust Us, This Is All Made Up
- Documentary about the Second City improv group in Chicago. Director present.

Living In Emergency: Doctors Without Borders
- Documentary about doctors working abroad, presumable living in emergency.

- Performance film illustrating Portuguese culture through music and dance. Also plays next Thursday, 4/23, at the Walker - free admission.

The One Man Village
- Docudrama about a Lebanese man committed to living in his war-torn village after everyone else leaves.

Letters to the President
- Documentary about Iran.

Blind Loves
- Documentary exploring the love between blind couples and families.

American Violet
- Drama based on a true story of an African-American woman mistakenly arrested on drug charges.

Monday, 4/20

Heart of Fire
- Drama about child soldiers in Eritrea.

Tuesday, 4/21

The Secret of the Grain
- Drama about food and family, over 150 minutes long and sure to make you hungry.

Shakespeare and Victor Hugo's Intimacies
(3/4 stars)
- Documentary about a mysterious artist/serial killer in Mexico City. Read my capsule review here.

Somers Town
- Dramedy about two teens forging an unlikely friendship in London, from the director of This Is England.

Wednesday, 4/22

The Infinite Border
- Documentary about Guatemalans crossing into Mexico. Probably a nice supplement to Sin Nombre, opening this week.

The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World
- Documentary about, you know.

Los Bastardos
- Thriller following a day in the lives of two L.A. day laborers who take a messy job.

- Charming Polish comedy about a kid dreaming of a better life, this also played at BBFF last month.

That's it for the first week of MSPIFF! If you for some reason don't want to see any of these, check out new releases like State of Play and Sin Nombre, or Hunger at the Walker (where I'll be tonight), or classics like Cinema Paradiso at the Parkway and Rear Window at the Riverview.

April 16, 2009

300 Words About: State of Play

I've been itching a little bit to write more words about several new releases, but in writing 100-word reviews for MSPIFF films for the Strib a couple weeks ago, I'm still "thinking small" about crafting reviews (plus I'm perpetually short on time this spring). This will probably remain true for a while since I'm going to see about 10 movies a week for the next two weeks, but as with the films I highlighted from the Beyond Borders Film Festival two weeks ago, I hope to expand some of the MSPIFF write-ups/festival reports to full reviews before select films have their wide releases later this year.

In the meantime...

Why do we trust star investigative reporters to organize details when they can't even find a stapler on their desk?

Like a paper clip that's twisted one too many times, State of Play eventually snaps apart, unable to regain its form and sending you into your desk drawer, or rather film library, for a new conspiracy thriller. It's certainly taut and tense, but almost to its own detriment. From the jarring opening scene to the roaring climax, we're hardly given a moment to stop and consider what these characters are doing and, more importantly, why. Directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) but heavily influenced by the typically overambitious writing of Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, Duplicity), it's full of memorably witty "gotcha" lines, but empty, for the most part, on thought-provoking insights.

Attempting and mostly succeeding in masking the blubbering writing (the characters are mostly relegated to shouting in newsrooms or mumbling into cell phones) is a high-caliber cast highlighted by Helen Mirren, Jason Bateman, Jeff Daniels, and, incredibly, Ben Affleck's mid-Atlantic/Philly accent. Less excellent but still decent are Russell Crowe (who evidently is embracing his newfound role as Hollywood's favorite "misunderstood yet resolutely righteous" schlub), Rachel McAdams, Viola Davis, and Robin Wright Penn, the last three of whom all deserved more screen time.

Moving on, I must declare that I'm becoming increasingly intolerant of manipulative, Michael Clayton-ish percussive sound effects and musical scores. Chases through dark alleys and parking garages are - or should be - harrowing enough without ominous musical blasts (evidence: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). If the characters are well developed and the urgency of their plight is properly illustrated, crutches like shaky cameras and menacing music can actually end up detracting from the suspense, in my opinion.

I haven't seen the BBC miniseries on which State of Play is based, but I can see why it received critical and popular acclaim, as it touches on controversial and relevant issues involving everything from the death of newspapers to the birth of mercenary private defense contractors. But therein lies the problem - State of Play ends up only "touching" on these topics, compromising in-depth examinations of them for the sake of cheap suspense and a happy ending. It should say something that instead of discussing these controversial issues, my friends and I ended up talking about the overreaching coincidences and gaps in logic.

Call it a decent little thriller hiding a missed opportunity.

April 15, 2009

It's Feeding Time, Twin Cities

I know I'm doing a lot of local plugs in the last month, but it's only because there's so much going on 'round here (my apologies to readers outside of the Twin Cities). Just in the next few days you can continue to see Hunger in its exclusive engagement at the Walker Art Center (notable because concessions are prohibited in theater...get it?), North by Northwest at the Heights (if you got in before it sold out!), and of course any of the 140+ movies playing at MSPIFF, beginning Friday evening.

There are a few updates and an invitation I'd like to share specifically about MSPIFF...

Film Goats Grazing Hour: Join Kathie Smith and me for an informal happy hour/gathering this Friday night, April 17, from 5:30 PM-7:00 PM at Pracna on Main, which I didn't realize until this moment is the oldest restaurant in Minneapolis. It's also, depending on where you sit, about 15 feet from the ticket counter at St. Anthony Main, where many of us will be waiting in line over the next two weeks.

Join us for food, drink, and/or just conversation. We hope to do this again during the festival but will try to get a feel of what people's preferences are for times. Anyone reading this is invited and encouraged to bring friends. No RSVP necessary and it doesn't even matter if, like me, you don't happen to be seeing one of the MSPIFF movies on Friday night. Kathie and I are excited about the festival and we'd really like to connect with some of our readers or other bloggers or people who are neither but happen to be sitting next to us on Friday.

And kudos to Kathie for the name of our little group. We, the Film Goats, are hungry for all things film, and we're going to do a lot of indiscriminate grazing over the next two weeks. Join us!

Opening Night: Last week it was announced that the Sundance darling 500 Days of Summer will open the festival tomorrow night. Starring rising star Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Stop-Loss, Brick, The Lookout) and tinkerbell Zooey Deschanel (Yes Man), it proves to be a watchable if not altogether original romantic comedy. A couple of the supporting actors are supposed to be present at the screening. It looks like I might miss it this week, but this will be a must-see for me when it opens later this summer.

Tickets: $15, plus options for entrance to the Opening Night Gala following the movie (note that this screening is at Block E, not St. Anthony Main)

Closing Night: Another American independent film will close the festival - The Brothers Bloom, written and directed by Rian Johnson. I'm skeptical that it will be as original as his last film, Brick, but it's supposed to be a rousing comedy and features a nice cast - Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz, and Mark Ruffalo. This will also be followed by a Closing Night Party at Seven Sushi. There will even be free food, but I can tell you from last year that it goes quickly, so don't dawdle in the theater after the credits roll!

Tickets (coming soon): $15, plus options for entrance to the Closing Night Party (
(note that this screening is also at Block E, not St. Anthony Main)

Finally, here is a link to the full MSPIFF catalog. It's a big 'ol pdf file but it's your best option since you probably won't get your hands on a hard copy until you show up this weekend.

See you on Friday!

April 12, 2009

First, You Need a Crime...A Hitchcock Retrospective

Fresh off the heels of his film noir series in February and March, Barry Kryshka of Take-Up Productions presents a new six-pack for Twin Cities film buffs that really can't be missed: "First, You Need a Crime...Six From Hitchcock".

This is a chance for you to not only see six classics from The Master of Suspense on the big screen, but at a pair of really nice independent theaters - The Heights and The Riverview.

Here are the vital details:

First, You Need A Crime: Six From Hitchcock

Starts April 16 at The Heights
(3951 Central Ave NE)

continues Monday nights at The Riverview
(3800 42nd Ave S)

All shows at 7:30
Tickets: $8 (
Take-Up discount tickets: 5/$25)

It's blondes, blood and blackmail as Take-Up presents our first series at the Riverview Theater!

April 16: North by Northwest (1959)

“I’m an advertising man, not a red herring!” “Crop dustin’ where there ain’t no crops,” the art auction disruption/ escape, the Mount Rushmore duel, the train going into the tunnel: the classic Hitchcock set pieces just keep on coming as Cary Grant finds a simple case of mistaken identity snowballing into a breakneck chase across the country, menaced by James Mason and his two-man goon squad (including Martin Landau), and alternately aided, teased and thwarted by Eva Marie Saint’s double — or is she a triple? — agent.

Buy advance tickets online. (ALMOST SOLD OUT!)

April 20: Rear Window (1954)

Laid up with a broken leg in his two-bedroom apartment in the West Village, news photographer James Stewart wiles away the sweaty summertime hours between visits from gal-with-her-eyes-on-marriage Grace Kelly by zeroing in, via telephoto lens, on the human comedy across his apartment courtyard — but, hey, what’s Raymond Burr up to? From a story by suspense titan Cornell Woolrich (aka William Irish), this is one of the Master’s greatest successes, not only an edge-of-your-chair (in Stewart’s case, wheelchair) entertainment but also a technical tour de force and a meditation on the voyeurism of both filmmaker and audience.

Buy advance tickets online.

April 27: Rope (1948)

Hitchcock’s boldest technical experiment ever, shot in a claustrophobic single set, as a murder by effete, thrill-seeking rich boys Farley Granger and John Dall (as characters based on the real-life Leopold and Loeb) is exposed by Professor James Stewart. Shot in continuously moving ten-minute takes, with mid-reel cuts cleverly masked, the entire film seems to be composed of only four shots (count ’em).

buy advance tickets online.

May 4: Strangers On A Train (1951)

Suave demento Robert Walker (“makes Norman Bates look positively well-adjusted” – Time Out London) offers to switch murders with tennis pro Farley Granger, suggesting that he kill Granger's troublesome wife in return for the murder of his own disapproving father. Granger laughs it off as a sick joke; until Walker fulfills his part of the bargain, that is, dragging the hapless sportsman in to a web of deceit. Screenplay by Raymond Chandler.

Buy advance tickets online.

Read my review of Strangers on a Train here.

May 11: To Catch A Thief (1955)

As jewel robberies proliferate in the south of France, les flics start to look into ex-cat burglar Cary Grant’s supposed “retirement,” but he’s more interested in fireworks over Cannes with fire-and-ice Grace Kelly. Perhaps Hitchcock’s most beautiful-to-look-at work, with ravishing Riviera locations in color, the two stars at their most glamorous, and a “zingy air of sophistication” (Pauline Kael).

Buy advance tickets online.

May 18: Vertigo (1958)

Acrophobic ex-cop James Stewart, hired to shadow seemingly death-obsessed Kim Novak, saves her from drowning in the shadow of the Golden Gate bridge, but not from a fall off a Mission steeple. But then he meets her again... or does he? One of the screen’s most wrenching treatments of loss and — in Stewart’s tormented performance — of sexual obsession.

Buy advance tickets online.

Now, my guess is that it's not a coincidence Barry is kicking this series off on opening night of MSPIFF; I suggest weighing your options on the three conflicting nights and try to support both events at least once - we need both to succeed!

April 10, 2009

10 Favorite Characters (but not really) Meme

Another meme, another mad dash to think about all the movies I've enjoyed over the years, this time courtesy of Jason (The Cooler) and Miranda (Cinematic Passions). It's a bit of a tricky one because you have to separate character from actor from quality of performance.

Since memes have pretty flexible rules, I'm going to take a different spin on this one: five of my favorite movie characters, and three movie characters I hate to love. The second group may be despicable or possibly deranged, but there's something about them that makes me want to get to know them better.
Five random favorites...

Ellis Boyd 'Red' Redding - The wisest man in Shawshank State Prison was a quiet leader who knew the ways of the world without having lived in it for decades. He also had a fascinating outlook on life ("Hope is a dangerous thing.") and could read other people extremely well. Red was never one to stand out in the crowd, but if you got to know him, you can be sure you'd never forget him.

Andy Dufresne - The smartest man in Shawshank State Prison was a quiet leader who knew the ways of prison life without ever having set foot in one. He also had a fascinating outlook on life ("Get busy living, or get busy dying. ") and could read other people extremely well. Andy was never one to stand out in the crowd, but if you got to know him, you can be sure you'd never forget him.

Celine - She's worldly and brilliant, yet humble and curious, open to new ideas and the spontaneity of deep conversations. I also love her keen sense of self-awareness: "Each time I wear black, or like, lose my temper, or say anything about anything, you know, they always go, 'Oh it's so French. It's so cute.' Ugh! I hate that!"

Amélie Poulain - Hmm, something about French female characters, I guess, though Amélie is in many ways the complete opposite of Celine. She likes "to look for things no one else catches." She's innocent yet mischievous, ditzy yet deceptively smart, vulnerable yet confident, charming, curious, and I guess above all else, just plain cute.

Jason Bourne - All he ever wanted to do was serve his country. When it betrayed him, he didn't seek revenge but justice, wanting only to clear his name. I find some nobility in that. Plus, he can do a lot of awesome things I can't do, like jump across balconies and blow things up using items like toasters.

Three random favorites I hate to love (and would love to know better)...

Biff Tannen - Kind of an amalgamation of characters in three different centuries, Biff was always one of the most magnetic characters on the screen, a dopey, mostly harmless villain whose quirky lines and oafish mannerisms always made for great entertainment.

Tyler Durden - When he's not drinking, smoking, lying, stealing, fighting, or generally wreaking havoc, he's waxing philosophic about the ills of society. And I love it:

"We're consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don't concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy's name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, Olestra.

Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.

In the world I see - you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You'll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You'll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you'll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway."

Hans Gruber - The most dastardly of this group, Hans always got me with a line that showed he wasn't just in it for himself:

Hans: "The following people are to be released from their captors: In Northern Ireland, the seven members of the New Provo Front. In Canada, the five imprisoned leaders of Liberte de Quebec. In Sri Lanka, the nine members of the Asian Dawn movement..."
Karl: [mouthing silently] Asian Dawn?
Hans: [covers the radio] "I read about them in Time magazine."

So that was a quick, somewhat thoughtless go at it. Your turn, Fletch (Blog Cabins), Craig (Living in Cinema), Scott (He Shot Cyrus), Alexander (Coleman's Corner in Cinema), and Ibetolis (Film for the Soul). And of course anybody else.

April 9, 2009

Observe and Report and Ignore the Screaming Warning Signs

Seth Rogen wants to teach you a lesson about movie marketing...

Last year, Jody Hill's cult-classic-before-it-was-even-released The Foot Fist Way came and went without so much as making a ripple in the pop culture consciousness of the American public. It made less than $250,000 at the box office, meaning almost nobody saw Danny McBride in his breakout performance. Fortunately for him, Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder, and HBO's "Eastbound and Down" (written by Hill) have cemented his status as a comic star on the rise. Unfortunately for Jody Hill, nobody saw The Foot Fist Way, and chances are they won't do so before seeing his new movie, Observe and Report.

This is going to create some serious issues for many people, primarily because the brilliant marketing campaign for Observe and Report - especially the trailer - is selling it like a sequel to Paul Blart: Mall Cop, if not an outright spoof of it. Not surprisingly to those who are familiar with Hill, it's neither, and the references you may have heard to Taxi Driver are accurate. It's a crude, crass, crazy comedy starring a bipolar version of Seth Rogen's character from Pineapple Express, and it will chew up the unsuspecting viewer and violently spit them out.

They'll deserve it, of course, for not heeding the warning signs plastered all over this movie, starting with the name of its writer and director. Jody Hill hasn't sugarcoated anything about his style of humor: "I don’t find much in the comedies I’ve been seeing to get excited about. I’ll watch ‘City of God’ and laugh more...Comedy, for some reason, it’s the most dangerous cinema out there," he said in a recent interview. Danny McBride added, "“That’s what’s going to throw people. I think they’re going to be expecting punch lines, and instead
they’re going to get a dark, crazy, awesome journey.” And the star of the movie, Seth Rogen?: "“It’s my own personal joke, to see how people freak out."

Sorry, Seth, but I suspect the joke is going to end up being on you guys, box-office gold not withstanding. Jody Hill's humor is, well, a little out there, and I highly doubt people will understand that Rogen is trying to make a departure into a different style of comedy. They'll hoot and holler about the drug use and alcoholism and feigned rape and the crazy minorities and the unforgettably graphic nudity and the bone-crushing and bloody violence and the overall tastelessness of everything. But they're not going to get the "joke" or take any meaning from the movie, and most of them will walk out afterward with a huge grin on their face, privately trying to understand how they could have been so hoodwinked.

The only thing worse than thinking that Hollywood treats us moviegoers like oblivious sheep is realizing that we are, in fact, oblivious sheep. We'll see anything, laugh at anything, pay for anything, and come back asking for more, never questioning... anything in the process.
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