October 26, 2009

Class of '84 Blogathon: The Gods Must Be Crazy

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

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

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

October 22, 2009

Flyway Film Festival: Colore Non Vedenti

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

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

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

October 21, 2009

Flyway Film Festival: Reviews of Selected Shorts

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

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

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

October 20, 2009

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

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

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

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

October 19, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

October 18, 2009

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

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

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

(Title screens via the Walker blog.)

No Country for Old Men (2007)

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

October 17, 2009

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

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

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

(Title screens via the Walker blog.)

Fargo (1996)

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

October 13, 2009

Only in the Movies: Talking at Bars and Nightclubs

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

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

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

October 9, 2009

REVIEW: A Serious Man (A)

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

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

October 6, 2009

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

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

October 3, 2009

300 Words About: We Live in Public

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

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

October 1, 2009

Taking It Home: Capitalism: A Love Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVIEW: P-Star Rising (A-)

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

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

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