June 30, 2009

Underrated MOTM (Special Edition): The Truman Show (1998)

(Despite being a huge fan of his music and dancing, I didn't plan on posting anything about Michael Jackson here for the very reasons that I'll mention, namely my unease about celebrity (and especially non-celebrity) idolization. All I had in mind was a Perfect Song, Perfect Scene clip as a tribute, but on second and third thoughts I ended up with this additional post. Plus my girlfriend wanted me to write something about MJ, and I was ultimately happy to oblige.)

With three Oscar nominations and solid 95 RT and 90 MC ratings, one of the things June's Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM) is not is underrated; many people consider it one of the greatest movies of the 90's. But let's just nevermind that this month, especially since "underrated" is always defined by me anyway. The truth of the matter is that I've been voluntarily and involuntarily caught up in the Michael Jackson madness since last week, and now, just as the media coverage graduates from somber commiseration to sickening commercialization, my thoughts have led me to choose here between The Jacksons: An American Dream and The Truman Show. I ended up choosing the latter, but first I have to reflect on the former.

If you were to ask me I wouldn't have had any idea what year it was when I watched The Jacksons: An American Dream. I remember it as an engrossing mini-series about a pop star that I saw all over the TV and radio, and whose songs ("Heal the World") we sang at school. I would have been about 11 years old when it aired in 1992, old enough to become a fan of the then-current "Dangerous" album, but too young to understand the background of the Jackson family and the influence of their music. Disturbingly, what I remembered the most from The Jacksons: An American Dream is this scene,
in which Joe Jackson instructs Marlon to "Go! Outside! Get a switch!". Whether that incident of abuse was dramatized doesn't matter at this point; both Joe and Michael admitted that abuse occurred during the famous children's formative years.

My reaction to that scene may not have immediately changed my impression of Michael Jackson, but as the years went by I gradually realized that this man's life was a complete construction, and the public's confusion about him was probably not nearly as bewildering as the isolated confusion he must have been experiencing in his own head. At least to me, then, his physical changes and bizarre behavior made perfect sense.

He didn't understand and perhaps wanted to escape his own identity, so he changed his appearance. He never - literally, never - had a childhood, so he tried to relive those fantasies as an adult (not that he might have understood what that meant), even if not always in the most appropriate ways (not that he understood what that meant either). "The public at large has yet to really understand the pressures of childhood celebrity, which, while exciting, always exacts a very heavy price," he said in 2000. "More than anything, I wished to be a normal little boy. I wanted to build tree houses and go to roller-skating parties. But very early on, this became impossible."

At the end of the day, I think Michael Jackson never had any idea of who he really was. Sure, he understood his status as a pop culture icon, but he never really knew who he was as a human, what his identity was comprised of and how it related to the identities of others. Even other childhood celebrities get the relief of a drug-addled teenage meltdown or a quickly faded career. Not so Jackson - his relief away from the spotlight only came when he was in his 40's, far too late for him to discover himself.

I don't think he was Norma Desmond-crazy and I don't think he was a perverted child molester. I think, aside from being unquestionably and unconditionally the greatest all-around entertainer and pop icon in my lifetime (and undoubtedly the very last of his kind), Jackson was relegated to being a moonwalking, talking, pop culture commodity. We made him, bought him, sold him, abused him (know the background on "Billie Jean"?), scolded him, celebrated him, provoked him, and in many cases, literally bowed down and worshiped him:

Watching that clip, is it any surprise that his self-awareness, and thus individual identity, was on a completely different level than the rest of us? How would you feel if complete strangers reacted to you like that? Like Truman Burbank, the main character of The Truman Show, Michael Jackson was not just a marketable product, but a literal source of life for millions of his fans. We were much more dependent on him than he ever was on us
; it's as if we drained the humanity from him like leeches. I mean really, watch the last minute of the above video (truth be told, I haven't been able to sit through the whole thing yet - it's just too insane). Sadly, this phenomenon continues with the increasing popularity of conflict-based "reality" television shows - truly The Truman Show brought to life.

Last year I called The Siege "eerily, presciently ahead of its time", and the same came be said for The Truman Show, which was also released in 1998, just two years before "Survivor" would fatefully change television programming forever (or at least what appears to be forever). As Christof (Ed Harris) explains in the freaky opening to The Truman Show, "While the world he inhabits is in some respects counterfeit, there's nothing fake about Truman himself. No scripts, no cue cards. It isn't always Shakespeare, but it's genuine. It's a life."

Maybe the most disturbing aspect of this analogy, then, is that unlike Truman, Michael Jackson was a real person, and a real person that could always see Christof's control booth and the cameras in his face. He knew that his life was a show, and there was nothing he could do about it other than fight back in song, earlier (1987) with the frustrated pleas of "Leave Me Alone", and later (1995) with the angry hysterics of "Scream".

Or, just as likely, maybe he didn't realize that his life was a show. Never having experienced any other life situation (unlike the Beatles, and Elvis, and Madonna, and every other larger-than-life star), he has to be literally the only person outside of a royal family to live his entire life, from age 5 on, as a prominent international celebrity.

You can ignore everything I've already written here and understand my Michael Jackson-as-Truman Burbank analogy really easily by watching the following five-minute interview on the set of the classic "Beat It" music video. In it, a 24 year-old Jackson admits that he never really went to school and, when pressed, answers that he doesn't really have any "close personal friends" outside of Quincy Jones and Diana Ross. Clearly, he has no concept of any normal social relation to people outside of his family.

Not surprisingly, he casually admits, "I get afraid of...well, I don't know people...I get afraid of people sometimes. It's a whole other life that I - I haven't really experienced that. Like friendship is a thing I'm just beginning to learn about. I was raised on the stage, and that's where I'm comfortable. And everything else is like foreign to me. I'm just beginning to know and learn about people, friendship, things like that."

(Addendum: Well, this is really unbelievable. I honestly had no notion of this fact beforehand, but just now, after having finished and revised this entire post, I poked around the internet to see how many other millions of bloggers focused on the Truman-Jackson connection. There were many, if not nearly as many as I thought.

But what really shocked me was the discovery of an unconfirmed quote, supposedly made in 2002 and supposedly made by The Truman Show director Peter Weir: "You watch The Truman Show and, I mean, Jim Carrey did a fantastic job, but Michael Jackson is Truman. He’s who I based him on and he is the nearest thing to Truman. And Michael Jackson, he is also the real life Victor in Simone. He had a talent and all he wanted was to share this and bring people happiness and escapism through entertainment. And people turn it around, they make it about the individual rather than the creation. It is the actual films, the actual music - that’s what it’s all about… People lose sight of this and the media make it all about the celebrity.”)

June 29, 2009

On the Horizon: A Serious Man

This is the first "On the Horizon" movie I haven't actually seen, but it's worthy of a preview if for no other reason than the fact that so far all anyone's heard has been crickets. As a Minnesota resident and amateur biographer of Joel and Ethan Coen, I therefore consider it my duty to get some buzz going, despite the negligible fact that a trailer, poster, and stills haven't been released (other than these on-location shots that I drummed up from www.coenbrothers.net).

The lack of excitement around A Serious Man, at least among the blogs and newswires I follow with any regularity, is baffling. Since Oscar night a few months back there's been about a million posts on "Movies to Watch" in 2009, and almost none of them mention A Serious Man. Even outside of
the current marketing assaults for all of these summer blockbusters, it seems like most of the excitement for the end of the year is reserved for Cannes attention getters (The White Ribbon, Bright Star, Antichrist) or heavy hitters like Nine, 9, District 9, Inglourious Basterds, Taking Woodstock, Sherlock Holmes, The Lovely Bones, Invictus, The Hurt Locker, The Road, Shutter Island, Amelia, and so on.

I'm not saying A Serious Man should necessarily be considered Best Picture-worthy at this point, or even that it's going to be good. It could be categorically awful. I have no idea, but either way I'm shocked at the lack of curious anticipation for what amounts to an autobiographical film written and directed by arguably the best filmmaking team in Hollywood and filmed in their childhood home of St. Louis Park, MN (and costumed by Mary Zophres and designed by Jess Gonchor and, oh yeah, also shot by Roger Deakins and scored by Carter Burwell).

What am I missing? Are the Coens - just two years removed from a near Oscar sweep - not as highly respected as I thought? Did Burn After Reading ruin their reputation or something?

Maybe it's the lack of a big name star. The Coens dug deep into the local Jewish community here for supporting parts and extras, but even their leads - Richard Kind and Michael Stuhlbarg - are mostly recognizable by face alone. Or maybe it's the fact that nobody has seen even a rough cut of A Serious Man, and it's hard to get excited for a movie if you haven't seen a trailer (you know, similar to the lack of comments about a movie that's not even in pre-production yet).

Nah, neither of those reasons really explain it, especially when you consider the similarities with the other end-of-year movies I listed. Puzzling...

Closer to home, perhaps the reason nobody wants to talk about this movie is because the last time the brothers filmed in their home state the result arrived with a warning label. For many people the memories of Fargo still stings, and it stands to reason that the Coens will be applying their always-sharp analytical scalpel to the cultural quirks of Minnesota once again in A Serious Man, albeit Jewish-Minnesotan culture in 1967.

Whatever the reason for the blaring silence, only a fool could argue that A Serious Man will arrive so quietly in just 120 days.
Opening weekend (Oct. 2) here in Uptown and St. Louis Park will be an absolute zoo, and away from home I'd comfortably bet on at least Best Original Screenplay consideration, if not also a shot at a Best Picture nom in a newly-expanded field.

But I haven't seen it and maybe I'm way off. Maybe it's an impossible movie to market and nobody is excited or cares about it because they think it sounds really boring, even if it hits closer to home - both literally and figuratively - than any film the Coens have made to this point. Maybe all those people who complained about No Country for Old Men winning Best Picture were right when they said that "nobody saw it", and thus the Coens, celebrating their 25th year making movies, actually
have to prove their writing and directing talent again before anybody can get excited.

It just doesn't seem possible, but...could it be true?

June 21, 2009

A Brief Pause in the Conversation

I've known for several months that I'm being furloughed at work (our whole staff is) for the next week. It comes with the territory, I suppose, working at a nonprofit in a down economy. Not a huge deal except for the loss of five vacation days.

Since my original pie-in-the-sky travel plans didn't come together, it's going to be a week busying myself, for fun, in Minneapolis. There are literally a million things I'm hoping to do during this free week and just as many that I won't find time to, but to make it easier I'm also going to take time off from what feels sometimes like a second job - Getafilm. So, I won't post anything new until early next week. Seeing as how I'm not accountable to anyone but myself here, it's a pretty liberating feeling.

In the meantime, there are some marathon posts to read below from the last couple of weeks. Thanks much for reading and I look forward to coming back online and continuing the neverending movie conversation next week.

2009 P.O.V. Series Preview

(POV logo courtesy American Documentary, Inc.)

I briefly highlighted the 2009 schedule for the PBS award-winning P.O.V. documentary series a few months ago, and since it starts this Tuesday, here's a more thorough preview of the 21st season. Remember that you can sign up for email reminders for one or all of these documentaries according to your local TV schedules, as well as read interviews and join the conversation at the P.O.V. blog throughout the season.

Week 1 (June 23) - New Muslim Cool
*Puerto Rican-American rapper Hamza Pérez pulled himself out of drug dealing and street life 12 years ago and became a Muslim. Now he's moved to Pittsburgh's tough North Side to start a new religious community, rebuild his shattered family and take his message of faith to other young people through hard-hitting hip-hop music. But when the FBI raids his mosque, Hamza must confront the realities of the post-9/11 world, and himself. New Muslim Cool takes viewers on Hamza's ride through streets, slums and jail cells — following his spiritual journey to some surprising places in an America that never stops changing.

Week 2 (June 30) - Beyond Hatred
*In September 2002, three skinheads were roaming a park in Rheims, France, looking to "do an Arab," when they settled for a gay man instead. Twenty-nine-year-old François Chenu fought back fiercely, but he was beaten unconscious and thrown into a river, where he drowned. The acclaimed French vérité film Beyond Hatred is the story of the crime's aftermath; above all, of the Chenu family's brave and heartrending struggle to seek justice while trying to make sense of such pointless violence and unbearable loss. With remarkable dignity, they fight to transcend hatred and the inevitable desire for revenge.

Week 3 (July 7) - Life. Support. Music.
*In 2004, Jason Crigler's life was taking off. He was one of New York's hottest young guitarists, his new CD was due for release and his wife, Monica, was pregnant with their first child. Then, at a gig in Manhattan, Jason suffered a near-fatal brain hemorrhage. His doctors doubted he would ever emerge from his near-vegetative state. The astonishing journey that followed, documented by friend and filmmaker Eric Daniel Metzgar (The Chances of the World Changing, POV 2007), is a stirring family saga and a portrait of creative struggle in the face of overwhelming tragedy.

Week 4 (July 14) - The Reckoning
*Over 120 countries have united to form the International Criminal Court (ICC) — the first permanent court created to prosecute perpetrators, no matter how powerful, of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. The Reckoning follows dynamic ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo and his team for three years across four continents as he issues arrest warrants for Lord's Resistance Army leaders in Uganda, puts Congolese warlords on trial, shakes up the Colombian justice system, and charges Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir with genocide in Darfur. Like a deft thriller, The Reckoning keeps you on the edge of your seat. Will the prosecutor succeed? Will the world ensure that justice prevails?

Week 5 (July 21) - The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
*Filmed over 23 years, The Betrayal is the Academy Award®-nominated directorial debut of renowned cinematographer Ellen Kuras in a unique collaboration with the film's subject and co-director, Thavisouk ("Thavi") Phrasavath. After the U.S. government waged a secret war in Laos during the Vietnam War, Thavi's father and thousands of other Laotians who had fought alongside American forces were abandoned and left to face imprisonment or execution. Hoping to find safety, Thavi's family made a harrowing escape to America, where they discovered a different kind of war. Weaving ancient prophecy with personal testimony and stunning imagery, The Betrayal is a story of survival and the resilient bonds of family. Find my capsule review here.

Week 6 (July 28) - Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go
*Variety describes it as a film "mixing ferocity with tenderness, delicacy with tenacity" — exactly like the unusual school it explores. In Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go, one of Britain's leading documentary filmmakers takes a verité look at Oxford's Mulberry Bush School for emotionally disturbed children. Mulberry's heroically forbearing staff greets extreme, sometimes violent behavior with only consolation and gentle restraint. Kim Longinotto's unblinking camera captures an arduous process and a nearly unhinged environment, but it also records the daily dramas of troubled kids trying to survive and the moments of hope they achieve with Mulberry's clear-eyed staff.

Week 7 (August 4) - ( Encore presentation) Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music
*In this classic 1969 documentary, the Man in Black is captured at his peak, the first of many in a looming roller-coaster career. Fresh on the heels of his Folsom Prison album, Cash reveals the dark intensity and raw talent that made him a country music star and cultural icon. Director Robert Elfstrom got closer than any other filmmaker to Cash, who is seen performing with his new bride June Carter Cash, in a rare duet with Bob Dylan, and behind the scenes with friends, family and aspiring young musicians. Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music paints an unforgettable portrait that endures beyond the singer's 2003 death.

Week 8 (August 11) - (Encore presentation) Made in L.A.
*Follow the remarkable story of three Latina immigrants working in Los Angeles sweatshops as they embark on a three-year odyssey to win basic labor protections from a trendy clothing retailer. In intimate verité style, Made in L.A. reveals the impact of the struggle on each woman's life as they are gradually transformed by the experience. Compelling, humorous, deeply human, Made in L.A. is a story about immigration, the power of unity and the courage it takes to find your voice.

Week 9 (August 18) - P.O.V. Shorts Selection

Week 10 (August 25) - This Way Up
*This is a story about a wall — the separations it's meant to enforce, and the unintended ones it gives birth to. The security wall being constructed by Israel on the West Bank has divided Palestinian families and communities. It has also isolated the Catholic-run Our Lady of Sorrows nursing home outside of Jerusalem, leaving its feisty residents to face old age in the throes of one of the world's most bitter conflicts. With beautiful imagery, moments of laughter and use of a quietly eccentric older guide, This Way Up examines the social, economic and religious barriers that arise from physical ones.

Week 10 (September 1) - Ella Es el Matador
*For Spaniards — and for the world — nothing has expressed their country's traditionally rigid gender roles more powerfully than the image of the male matador. So sacred was the bullfighter's masculinity to Spanish identity that a 1908 law barred women from the sport. Ella Es el Matador reveals the surprising history of the women who made such a law necessary and offers fascinating profiles of two female matadors currently in the arena: the acclaimed Mari Paz Vega and neophyte Eva Florencia. These women are gender pioneers by necessity. But what emerges as their truest motivation is their sheer passion — for bullfighting and the pursuit of a dream.

Week 11 (September 8) - The English Surgeon
What is it like to have power over life and death, and yet to struggle with your own humanity? This is the story of acclaimed British neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, who has traveled to Ukraine for 15 years to treat patients who have been left to die; of his friend and medical colleague in Kyiv who carries on the fight despite official hostility and archaic surgical conditions; and of a young patient who hopes that Henry can save his life. Tense, heartbreaking and humorous, The English Surgeon is a remarkable depiction of one doctor's commitment to relieving suffering and of the emotional turmoil he undergoes in bringing hope to a desperate people.

Week 12 (September 15) - The Principal Story
*The Principal Story tells two stories, painting a dramatic portrait of the challenges facing America's public schools — and of the great difference a dedicated principal can make. Tresa Dunbar is a second-year principal at Chicago's Nash Elementary, where 98% of students come from low-income families; in Springfield, Illinois, Kerry Purcell has led Harvard Park Elementary, with similar demographics, for six years. Tod Lending (Omar & Pete, POV 2005) and David Mrazek followed both women over the course of a school year, discovering each one's unique styles yet similar passions. The Principal Story takes the viewer along for an emotional ride that reveals what effective educational leadership looks like in the 21st century.

Week 13 (September 22) - Bronx Princess
*Rocky Otoo is the Bronx-bred teenage daughter of Ghanaian parents, and she's no pushover. She is a sassy high-achiever bound for college. With freedom in sight, Rocky rebels against her mother's rules. When their relationship reaches a breaking point, Rocky flees to her father, a chief in Ghana. What follows is captured in Bronx Princess, a tumultuous coming-of-age story set in a homeland both familiar and strange. Her precocious — and very American — ideas of a successful, independent life conflict with her father's traditional African values. Reconciling her dual legacies becomes an unexpected chapter in this unforgettable young woman's education.

Fall Special (November 11) - The Way We Get By
*On call 24 hours a day for the past five years, a group of senior citizens has made history by greeting nearly 800,000 American troops at a tiny airport in Bangor, Maine. The Way We Get By is an intimate look at three of these greeters as they confront the universal losses that come with aging and rediscover their reason for living. Bill Knight, Jerry Mundy and Joan Gaudet find the strength to overcome their personal battles and transform their lives through service. This inspirational and surprising story shatters the stereotypes of today's senior citizens as the greeters redefine the meaning of community.

Winter Special (December 30) - Patti Smith: Dream of Life
*Shot over 11 years by renowned fashion photographer Steven Sebring, Patti Smith: Dream of Life is an intimate portrait of the legendary rocker, poet and artist. Following Smith's personal reflections over a decade, the film explores her many art forms and the friends and poets who inspired her — William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Robert Mapplethorpe and Michael Stipe. She emerges as a crucial, contemporary link between the Beats, punks and today's music. Shot in lush, dark tones, featuring rare performance clips and narrated by the artist herself, Patti Smith: Dream of Life is an impressionistic journal of a multi-faceted artist that underscores her unique place in American culture.


So there are the selections for Season #21. They might not beat "The Real Housewives" or "Jon & Kate Plus 8" in the Nielsen ratings, but I can almost guarantee they'll make you feel better about humanity.

June 20, 2009

REVIEW: Lovely By Surprise (B+)

Maybe the strangest thing about Stranger Than Fiction was that, despite all the gags and big stars preening for the cameras, the movie ultimately wasn't really about much of anything; it was simply an entertaining and decidedly quirky lesson on the perils of neuroticism.

Significantly more thought-provoking, but perhaps less polished, is writer-director Kirt Gunn's Lovely By Surprise, which naturally brings to mind a Charlie Kaufman-esque story about the tortured mind of a talented writer. Here, it's Marian (Carrie Preston), a novelist writing about "fictional characters who are affected by real life": brothers Humkin (Michael Chernus) and Mopekey (Dallas Roberts).

The infantile pair lives aboard a boat in a desolate field, and they survive on milk and cereal.
It's clear Marian isn't willing to take many risks with her characters, consequently leading her mentor, Jackson (Austin Pendleton in a terrifically brief role), to convince her that no good story is complete without a tragedy: she has to kill off one of the brothers.

Meanwhile, in an apparently different (and real) place and time, lives Bob (Reg Rogers), a widower and helpless father to his traumatized daughter, Mimi. Bob is a car salesman who can't sell a car; his greatest talent is convincing people they don't actually need one. As Bob gradually works himself out of a job, we see Marian also gradually worrying herself out of a writing career. In a bizarre twist of fate, Marian's character, the clownish Humkin, escapes from her fictional world and shows up in Bob's actual life, thus setting into motions events that will change Marian and Bob forever.

Humkin makes a break for it...
(photos courtesy Trey Clark)

In addition to maintaining an effectively delicate balance between drama and comedy, Kirt Gunn deserves a lot of credit for keeping all of the moving pieces of this complex story together. What initially feels like a loosey-goosey plot with unnecessary tangents soon matures into a touching parable with a storyline as tight as a drum. Impatient viewers may become frustrated trying to figure it all out, but the unforgettable final scene ties things together in a powerful way. In fact in that way, watching Lovely By Surprise is kind of like reading a novel.

But books have the significant advantage of time to affect a reader emotionally. Movies need to draw you in quickly, and the fact that you can watch a significant portion of Lovely By Surprise without knowing what's going on somewhat works against its ability to move the viewer. Because it has so much more emotional potential than Stranger Than Fiction, I would have liked to get more out of it along the way, not just toward the end (especially since the cast appeared so capable).

Nonetheless, Lovely By Surprise offers a tender-hearted story with a focus on characters as intense as Marian's.
If it doesn't feature as many laughs as Stranger Than Fiction, Lovely By Surprise is, at the very least, likely to provide for better conversation after viewing. Kirt Gunn's next film, Metalhead, sounds as bizarre (if not more so) than Lovely By Surprise, which means it's probably just as surprisingly lovely.

Writing - 9
Acting - 9
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Social Significance - 4

Total: 44/50= 88% = B

Lovely By Surprise is currently playing select cities in the U.S. and will be available via download and DVD (including Netflix) on July 7. More details at www.lovelybysurprise.com.

June 18, 2009

An Inconvenient Food

(Food, Inc. opens tomorrow at the Landmark Lagoon Theater. This is a long and scattered follow-up to my preview of the film from April.)

It wasn't too long ago that Morgan Spurlock's mischievous Super Size Me successfully, and perhaps surprisingly, ended any argument in this country about the ill effects of consuming fast food. McDonald's immediately swapped their triple cheeseburgers (I remember eating one as a part of a Jurassic Park promotional meal that was literally fit for a dinosaur) and Super Sized fries for garden salads and apple slices; their audacious recent marketing campaign spelling out slogans in fruits and vegetables only brings to mind the music video for Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer", not necessarily a new identity.

Kentucky Fried Chicken, on the other hand, recently went so far as to launch a risky marketing campaign that wags a finger at their very own brand - fried chicken - in favor of a new line of Kentucky Grilled Chicken. Ooh. Whether these blatant about-faces in the fast food industry will result in a healthier populace is, in my opinion, unlikely, but that won't stop people from believing it. You may have noticed that in the face of this recession, fast food corporations haven't appeared to suffer quite as much as other American businesses.

So we're still eating plenty of fast food (or not, in my case), but we're making sure to order the side of fruit salad instead of cheese fries. Spurlock helped transform an industry and at least indirectly affect people's eating habits, while those of us who were not fast food loyalists in the first place, well we've just been able to scoff at the whole affair and continue to indulge in our own self-righteously "healthy" diets.

Until now.

Fast food establishments aside, it's evidently also no longer even safe, or in some cases even moral, to eat food from your local supermarket.

Like the indigestion that follows when you have one too many toaster-ovened Tyson Stuffed Chicken Cordon Bleu Minis (I looked them up), Robert Kenner's convicting documentary Food, Inc. leaves you squirming in your chair with a sweaty brow, taking a silent oath that you'll never eat that way again. Of course, decisions are always easiest made away from their corresponding action, and when your friend slides a basket of crisp, seasoned fries your way at the restaurant after the movie, well then you'll discover if your fears will really change your actions.

It should be noted that Kenner's documentary is arriving a little late in the game. Since Super Size Me, the documentaries Our Daily Bread and King Corn have criticized the food industry, while Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation proved both that slaughterhouses are hellish dungeons and Avril Lavigne can't act. But where those films tried to deliver shock treatments that would send you out of the theater in an ill state, Food, Inc. uses a bit of a softer approach. Not quite as soft as Al Gore's soothing voiceovers behind shots of idyllic creeks, but still relatively gore-free, if not Gore-free, as it were. Kenner rightly assumes that legal injustices, animal abuse, and human rights violations can be just as disgusting as bloody carcasses, making Food, Inc. much more watchable than you might expect walking into the theater.

The film's central thesis, as I understand it, is that the industrialization of food production in the United States has created a perfect storm of greed and carelessness, which has in turn led to countless economic, health-related, and community-based problems, including but not limited to obesity, unemployment, exploitation of factory workers, bacteria-laden meat produced in mass quantities, special-interest legislation, and a complete lack of awareness of where our food actually comes from. Indeed, in a state of blissful ignorance, the majority of Americans fuel this fire with every meal we eat and food item we purchase. The solution: eat as much organic, unprocessed, locally-grown food as possible. Of course, "possible" is a very relative term, because organic, unprocessed, locally-grown food is neither accessible or affordable to millions of people.

That fact aside, authors Eric Schlosser ("Fast Food Nation") and especially Michael Pollan ("The Omnivore's Dilemma") have been leading this charge for a few years now, but most people are as unlikely to read as they are to grow their own vegetables, so for some viewers of Food, Inc. these may be revolutionary new ideas (i.e., "Hmm, I wonder why every chicken breast I buy is identical in size, shape, etc.?"). Unsatisfied with simply giving Schlosser (a co-producer on the film) and Pollan a forum to speak, Kenner also makes a strong case that agricultural monopolies and food conglomerates such as Tyson, Perdue, and Cargill are fully aware, and thus liable, for a host of the aforementioned problems.

Kenner positions agricultural company Monsanto, for example, as quite the evil empire (I began imagining the "Monsanto crime family" ruling some old world Italian hamlet), accusing them of running small farmers out of business and essentially infiltrating government agencies, including the U.S.D.A., with former Monsanto employees and board members.

It's all very scary and sinister - and backed by a Mark Adler score reminiscent of Philip Glass's haunting work - but honestly it did little to convince me that fighting these companies will amount to much change. Like the tobacco companies, they're well-funded and well-supported by all the right lobbyists and interest groups, and any attack will be met with a slippery rebuttal (how many companies have their own response blog?). Furthermore, as evidenced by the tragic case of Barbara Kowalcyk, in some cases it is literally against the law to make critical claims against these companies, even if they are thought to be complicit in the loss of life (her 2 year-old son died after eating E. coli-contaminated beef).

Much more persuasive, at least to me, was the voice Kenner gave to farmers like Joel Salatin, a philosophizing owner/operator of a Virginia farm with as much charisma and analytic panache as a star politician. I found his astute arguments both brilliant and entertaining, and it was important to hear from someone who is actually doing the work, not just prescribing it. His message of hope and doability may come off to some as naively optimistic, but it nonetheless leaves you feeling a little better on the way out than you did after flammable documentaries such as The Corporation or Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.

Moving forward then, will Food, Inc. change the national conversation in the same way An Inconvenient Truth did? Both films were produced by (the fantastic) Participant Productions, and a visit to their blog will give you a sense of the grassroots support behind both the film and the local food movement. If there is anything standing in the way of this film exhibiting its full power, I think it's the economy and socioeconomic disparity. If people can afford to see it, it's highly likely that won't be able to afford the lifestyle that goes along with it.

John and Jane Public, if still employed, are living in 2009 with an emaciated retirement plan, a refinanced mortgage, and zero discretionary income. Even if they have access to the co-op groceries and organic farmers in their area (which is unlikely), how will they able to afford and then justify a monthly grocery bill 3-5 times higher than what they pay now at the local big-box supermarket? Despite the Inconvenient Truth-style laundry list of tasks within the closing credits, the affordability of "good" food is the one question I felt was left unanswered here, at least to my satisfaction. Yes, as Pollan or Schlosser (I can't remember which) mentions at the end of the film, we'll know things are right when a bag of chips costs more than a bag of carrots. But I just don't see that happening anytime soon, and financially speaking, the best food remains the most inconvenient food.

But despite a couple of unanswered questions and a propensity for giving the issue a "good vs. evil" storyline that felt a little too black and white for my taste, Food, Inc. is possibly the most thought-provoking documentary so far in 2009. As it claims, "you'll never look at dinner the same way again". But then, you might not look at your grocery bill the same way again, either.

June 16, 2009

Letters to the President: Returned to Sender?

As I follow the coverage of the presidential election and ensuing chaos in Iran over the last week, I'm continually reminded of the documentary Letters to the President, which I saw and briefly highlighted at MSPIFF in April. It deserved a little more discussion at that time, but I was so impressed by another Iranian film, The Song of Sparrows (which I saw about an hour later), that the immediate relevance of the documentary may have been diminished. However, I do remember that at the conclusion of Letters to the President is a simple title card informing the viewer that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is planning to run for re-election in the summer of 2009 (the film originally premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February of this year).

And now here we are, in the summer of 2009, and an imperfect film has foreshadowed a perfect political storm. (And here are some thoughts on what the storm might do to Iranian film in the future.)

Here are the broad details as I understand them for those of you who may not be keeping as close an eye on the situation: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (pictured above) took a populist approach on the way to winning the Iranian presidential election in 2005. Since that time he has received both love and loathing from Iranians and the international community ("Axis of Evil", anyone?). As in the U.S., the office of president is a four year term (though unlike the U.S., it's not the highest official position), and Ahmadinejad ran for re-election this year.

The election took place last week and what was predicted by some to be a very tight race between Ahmadinejad and his rival, Mir Hossein Moussavi, ended up being a landslide, nearly 2-to-1 in favor of Ahmadinejad. Moussavi's supporters, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, have taken to the streets in protest.

Photos: The New York Times, Vahid Salemi/Associated Press

What does all of this mean in the context of Letters to the President? Two things, from my possibly misinformed observations:

1.) As evidenced by the interviews in the film, there appears to be a silent (but now vocal) majority of Iranians who oppose Ahmadinejad, and they appear to be concentrated in the capital of Tehran, which has seen the brunt of the action this week.

2.) Despite Ahmadinejad's showy display of populism in creating an entire government department to reply to the letters that are sent to him, a number of those responses must have been lost in the mail. Or, more likely, his opponents weren't the ones sending him letters in the first place, but the ones simply waiting and strategizing to replace him in this election.

It's one of the weaknesses of Petr Lom's film that we don't get a better sense of the history of Iran or the official policies surrounding democratic freedom, but in broadly surveying the opinions of the Iranian people, Letters to the President offers fascinating food for thought. The film is currently still on a worldwide festival tour, though it doesn't look like it will be back in the U.S. anytime soon, at least not in theaters. In the meantime, check out these clips offered from the film's official website:

June 15, 2009

Twin Cities Film Grazing - June

I promise I'm only going to take the "film goat" imagery so far, but as in April, there are about a million local movie meals to keep you full in June.

In addition to new releases, consider...

MONDAY, JUNE 15: Soldiers of Peace
Where: The Heights, 7:30 PM
Tickets: $25

From the film's website: "This documentary film illustrates the connections between individual acts of heroism and the systematic changes we now need, if we are to survive the 21st Century. It depicts the reconciliation between IRA bomber Patrick Magee and the daughter of one of his victims; religious fundamentalists in Nigeria who now preach peaceful co-existence; the Colombian musician Cesar Lopez, who makes guitars from AK47 machine guns, and many others who are making a difference...Incorporating stories from 19 countries, "Soldiers of Peace" includes interviews with Sir Bob Geldof, Hans Blix, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Sir Richard Branson...Narrated by Michael Douglas with music by Michael Franti, "Soldiers of Peace" focuses on some of the countries in the ground-breaking Global Peace Index, and the many unsung heroes who are striving for peace, either individually or in co-operation with others...In a world bombarded by negative imagery and messages, the film showcases the alternatives to conflict, revealing countless inspiring examples to prove that peace can be achieved through greater equality, emancipation, tolerance and understanding. "


TUESDAY, JUNE 16: Revolution Reel (ongoing through July 7) - Short Film Showcase
Where: Intermedia Arts Theater, 7:30 PM
Tickets: $5

The Cinema Revolution Society's Revolution Reel "screens local films by emerging and mid-career filmmakers in a social setting. Dramatic, sarcastic, ecstatic, hilarious, beautiful, informative, shocking or just plain bizarre, the series exhibits the breadth of filmmaking talent that this community has to offer. Beer and wine will be available at the events on a donation basis."

The Short Film Showcase will feature the following shorts:

Nathaniel (2008, 10 min.) directed by Brian Murnion

Oldmeal (2008, 9 min.) directed by Britni West (Official Selection, Cannes Short Film Corner 2009, Walker Art Center Women With Vision)

Winter Lilacs (2008, 6 min.) directed by Stephen Gurewitz (Official Selection, South by Southwest, Vail Film Festival 2009)

Ouroboros (2007, 5 min.) directed by David Camarena

The Garden (2009, 40 min.) directed by Ryan Philippi (Official Selection, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Athens International Film Festival 2009): "In the vast inland wasteland surrounding Los Angeles, at a point where the accelerating expanse of suburban sprawl meets the Mojave Desert, The Garden observes the inner life of a young man as he labors anonymously in tract housing developments. With slow and sensuous precision, the evolution of the landscape is played out upon the face of this young worker - a face arrested by loneliness and apprehension. In the mundane and in fleeting glimpses of radiant beauty, we witness this man and the world he creates bind together, each half-formed and resting upon the Earth.

Most of the filmmakers will be present for a Q and A following the program."


TUESDAY, JUNE 16 - THURSDAY, JUNE 25: 48 Hour Film Project
Where: The Riverview, 7:00 & 9:00 PM
Tickets: $8

"The 48 Hour Film Project comes to Minneapolis on the weekend of June 12th. Filmmakers from all over the Minneapolis area will compete to see who can make the best short film in only 48 hours. The winning film will go up against films from around the world."

Note: My friends' film, "For the Love of Film", will be showing on Wednesday night at 9:00 PM - vote for them!


THURSDAY, JUNE 18: The Saddest Music in the World
Where: The Heights, 7:30 PM
Tickets: Lots of options, click here

Tim Massett brings The Talkies back to the Heights Theatre with Guy Maddin and his The Saddest Music in the World. Read more details at my previous post here, or visit The Talkies website.

Also, check out Erik McClanahan's interview with Maddin from last week's Vita.mn.


THURSDAY, JUNE 18 - SATURDAY, JUNE 20: Solstice Film Festival
Where: Suburban World Theatre, Uptown
Tickets: Lots of options, click here

"The 4th annual Solstice Film Festival rolls out the red carpet June 18-20 in Uptown Minneapolis. SFF will be screening some of the best independent Films from around the country and across the globe. Plus there will be quite a few from filmmakers right here in Minnesota.

Suburban World Theatre in Uptown Minneapolis, MN will play host to the 2009 SFF. The Uptown location allows for attendees to screen films steps away from the high-energy commercial corridor in and around Calhoun Square."

Check out the schedule here. Both Don McKay and The Last Passport sound pretty interesting to me. Thomas Haden Church and Elizabeth Shue will be in attendance for Don McKay on opening night (Thursday).


FRIDAY, JUNE 19: West Side Story (through June 25)
Where: The Heights, 7:15PM
Tickets: $8

"Get ready to see this landmark classic as you have never seen it before in the HIGH DEFINITION splendor of 70MM and DTS Digital sound!! This film won and deserved 10 Oscars, including Best Picture of 1961. Due to the high cost of bringing this film in all seats for WEST SIDE STORY are $8.00."


TUESDAY, JUNE 23 - THURSDAY, JUNE 25: Queer Takes: Standing Out
Where: Walker Art Center

"Now in its fourth edition at the Walker, Queer Takes is back with a group of films diverse in style and genre exploring LGBT issues that range from homophobia in sports to AIDS activism to gay parenting. Unless otherwise noted, all films are screened in the Cinema and tickets are $8 ($6 Walker, Quorum, and OutFront Minnesota members)."


THURSDAY, JUNE 24: Voltaic: The Volta Tour Live In Paris And Reykjavik
Where: The NEW Trylon microcinema, 7:30 PM
Tickets: $8

Barry Kryshka squeezes in one more showing before Take-Up Productions hosts the grand opening of the Trylon microcinema on July 17 (see below).

"Björk's Voltaic: The Volta Tour Live in Paris contains filmed highlights from the Volta tour, recorded in Paris and Reykjavik, with performances of songs from Volta as well as tracks from previous albums including Hunter, Joga, Army of Me, and Hyperballad.

Björk’s band on the Volta tour included Mark Bell (LFO) on computers and keyboards and Damian Taylor on keyboards and programming. Drums and percussion were played by Chris Corsano (Sonic Youth, etc.); Jónas Sen played piano, harpsichord, and church organ; and Björk’s all female Icelandic 10-piece brass section rounded out the group. A dynamic, grand live experience, the Volta tour has been acclaimed around the world."


SATURDAY, JUNE 26: Regis Dialogue - Director William Klein with Paulina del Paso
Where: Walker Art Center, 7:30 PM
Tickets: $15 ($12 Walker members)

The William Klein retrospective at the Walker Art Center I highlighted a couple weeks ago is finishing off with a conversation with the director himself.

"Meet the legendary William Klein in conversation at the Walker with Paulina del Paso, filmmaker and associate programmer for FICCO 2009 (Festival Internacional de Cine Contemporáneo de la Ciudad de México). The Regis Dialogues and Retrospectives program, now in its 20th year, brings to the Walker the most innovative and influential filmmakers of our time for in-depth conversations about their creative process, illuminated by film clips, anecdotes, and personal insights."

So is that enough for the next two weeks, or what?

Lastly, a preliminary plug for the grand opening of the Trylon microcinema on July 17. Here are the details: "The all-volunteer staff of Take-Up Productions has worked for three years to put together the money for our own theater. On July 17th, we're opening The Trylon in south Minneapolis, a few blocks from the Lake Street LRT station. We've decided to open our microcinema with a film series starring Buster Keaton, featuring the accompaniment of Dreamland Faces on accordion and singing saw."

I'll be checking out the space and posting a profile of it here prior to the big opening, but in the meantime do these two things:

1.) Buy tickets - they went on sale today, and there are only 60 seats in the cinema.

2.) Check out Randall Throckmorton's video of Dreamland Faces performing at the Fitzgerald, and imagine yourself stepping back into time with Buster Keaton...

June 12, 2009

REVIEW: Away We Go (B)

(Away We Go opens today at the Landmark Uptown Cinema)

One of the things I've never understood about screenwriting is the propensity for unrealistically realistic character details. In Away We Go, for example, why must Verona (Maya Rudolph) be a medical textbook diagram artist? Why can't she simply be a regular artist, or a writer, or a consultant - something that people actually do in real life?

No matter - Away We Go isn't really about real life, but about the search for the "real life" that Verona and Burt (again, unnecessarily uncommon names?) think is waiting for them as they reach their mid-30's. Preparing for the birth of their first child, the couple bounces from coast to coast, ostensibly in search for the the perfect city to raise a family, but really because they don't know what else to do.

They are obsessed with the family of their future and the families of their individual pasts, never considering what might be there for them in the present. In searching for the "truest" versions of themselves they look out the window instead of in the mirror, and to that end Away We Go will probably hit home for many people, particularly those in the 25-35 year-old demographic that have been waiting for a sequel to Garden State (that the films share a similar soundtrack cannot be a coincidence).

On this soul searching journey, however, director Sam Mendes appears to lose his way. I think he's at his best in a static setting (e.g., Revolutionary Road, Jarhead, Road to Perdition) where he can develop atmosphere and character and an overwhelmingly bleak mood. Here, husband-and-wife screenwriters and celebrated novelists Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida have him working on the fly, desperately trying to maintain the same semblance of character from city to city. Alas, it doesn't quite work, and the running tactic ends up being scenes of promisy pillow talk between Verona and Burt (John Krasinski) at each stop on the road.

What surprisingly does work is the back-and-forth between quirky comedy and punch-to-the-gut, plaintively serious drama - like Mendes' American Beauty but not nearly as smug. Sure, it feels like it was designed as an emotional rollercoaster ride, but that's mostly true of life, even if our interactions with real people aren't quite always as fleeting. There's almost no continuity in their journey and we're often here and gone with thinly developed, easily abandoned characters.

Honestly, as far as adorable indies go you're better off with a little more substance and self-awareness from something like Medicine for Melancholy.

All that being said, and in spite of its identity crisis, Away We Go somehow, impossibly ended up winning me over, almost entirely due to the strong acting. Maya Rudolph was always a favorite cast member of mine on "SNL" and I was glad to see that her dramatic range has a lot of potential for future films. And maybe because I don't watch "The Office", Krasinski proved me wrong in thinking that he doesn't have much depth. The character of Burt appears to be tailor-made for him (or Zach Braff), but he wears it well. Add in a howlingly funny few minutes from Allison Janney, a disappointingly tired but still terrific performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal, and a great piece of acting by Chris Messina (who was also fantastic in Vicky Cristina Barcelona), and it's easy to overlook all of those flaws in the story. In fact, with Jeff Daniels, Catherine O'Hara, and Jim Gaffigan, this might be best work by an ensemble cast in 2009 so far.

Is that enough to win you over? Maybe not. A wrong character here or one too many indie-folk songs there might have spelled doom for my experience with Away We Go, but in the end it was a charming enough reminder of the well-worn cliché that life's a journey, not a destination.

Writing - 7
Acting - 10
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 4
Social Significance - 5

Total: 42/50= 84% = B

REVIEW: Break (F)

Break is the new movie "featuring" David Carradine in one of his last roles (he has several more films yet to be released), and it inexplicably opens for a one week engagement today at St. Anthony Main before a DVD release in July.

Find my 0/4 star capsule review from today's Star Tribune here.

Writing - 4
Acting - 5
Production - 5
Emotional Impact - 4
Music - 4
Social Significance - 1

Total: 23/50= 46% = F

June 11, 2009

Hijacked Creativity: The Taking (and Remaking) of Pelham One Two Three

I challenge anyone to give me a new answer to this simple question: What is the purpose of Tony Scott's remake of Joseph Sargent's The Taking of Pelham of One Two Three?

It's a trick question, of course, because there is no new answer, and there has never been any acceptable answer for the dozens of remakes Hollywood has churned out over the last couple of decades, including the completely ignored (also by me) 1998 version of The Taking of Pelham 123, starring Edward James Olmos and Vincent D'Onofrio.

It's not good enough that Scott's glossy blockbuster is an updated version for "a new generation". It's not good enough that it's an updated version for the fans of the original (or for that matter, a reimagining of the original - everything is the same except the ransom is up to $10 million). And it's certainly not good enough that it's a critic-proof "summer popcorn flick".

This is a movie considered by many people to be one of the great crime dramas of the 1970's. It boasts a unanimous 100% fresh RT rating, and blogging pals Chuck Bowen and Matt Gamble have recently sung its praises. Having also seen it recently, I'll add that it's an effortlessly entertaining thriller featuring great performances in the wholly unique setting of the NYC underground. The general consensus since its release 35 years ago is that, despite some dated technology (and the fact the hijackers only ask for $1 million), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is an otherwise excellent movie.

So why bother pouring millions of dollars into a remake of a movie that simply doesn't need to be improved upon? What's the rational, and in the absence of any, why not just start remaking other great films? Give The Godfather to Michael Mann; Citizen Kane to Ron Howard, and, sure, Psycho to Gus Van Sant. I'm not being sarcastic - why isn't this happening more frequently with classic movies?

I imagine it's probably just a matter of time. Honestly, at this rate we can expect a Godfather remake any year now, and soon enough remakes of instant classics like No Country for Old Men. It will be like those idiotic "(Genre) Movie" movies that spoof movies still in theaters. Don't believe me that the remake situation is this serious? Check this out, or consider the remakes proposed by Jeff Wells, who unabashedly contends that the new Pelham is better than the original.

Why? Just...why?

Maybe the most recent trend started when dozens of hit British shows - "Britain's Got Talent" (America's Got Talent),"Pop Idol" (American Idol), "The Office," "Life on Mars", "The Weakest Link", "Hell's Kitchen", "Changing Rooms" (Trading Spaces), "Strictly Come Dancing" (Dancing With the Stars), "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" - crossed the pond and became big hits here. Soon enough Hollywood figured out, hey, we can make bigger hits out of foreign shows, so we can probably make bigger hits out of foreign movies, too (hold your nose for the upcoming American remakes of Let the Right One In and Tell No One).

Or maybe it was George Lucas and The Phantom Menace that started Hollywood's decline. If he could dust off a twenty year-old franchise and make millions from it, why couldn't everyone else? In fact, why not just make any new movie (Rush Hour, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Paul Blart: Mall Cop) a franchise to begin with?

So here we are at the peak of this trend, and desks and inboxes at production companies and studios in Hollywood are inundated with another 5-10 years worth of remakes, "reboots" (see, we even had to create a new term!), and sequels. And the worst part is, it's really difficult not to be tempted into seeing these new versions (as was the case most recently with Terminator Salvation). When somebody remakes The Godfather, are you telling me you won't end up seeing it? You'll have to see someone's attempt at an impossible feat, if only to see how miserably they fail. And while we're standing in line to watch the latest disaster, filmmakers with fresh, original stories (e.g., Ballast) are basically forced into self-financing and self-distributing their projects.
Is this OK?

What's really being hijacked in the remake of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is not the subway car but the plot of the original film. There's a ransom demanded for the safe return of creativity to Hollywood. Anyone want to chip in? We should start by pooling the money we'll spend at the box office this weekend.

UPDATE: So I ended up seeing it (opening weekend), and can confirm it's one of the worst movies I've seen so far this year. What a waste.
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