December 28, 2009

Oak St. Cinema: Out Like a Lamb

Well that was pretty anticlimactic. From a firework to a fire to a flame to a fizzle, the storied Oak St. Cinema will unofficially be closing down this month, in case you haven't heard. The news came out a couple weeks ago in a release from Minnesota Film Arts (the nonprofit that owns and operates the theater), as well as an accompanying article in the Star Tribune. But as it happens I found out about the closing over a month ago when, tasked with reviewing an upcoming weekend series at the Oak for the Strib, I stopped by MFA's office above the theater to pick up a screener of Citizen Havel. I was shocked to see that the moving process was already underway, but I kept my word that I wouldn't spill the beans about MFA's impending relocation to St. Anthony Main. 

It wasn't a huge secret and nobody would have believed me anyway considering the rumors that have swirled around this situation for the last decade (including my own premature obituary almost two years ago), but I kept mum anyway even if I wanted to urge readers of the Strib to check out that series at what might be their last-ever chance to visit the Oak. But the news remained hidden, and who knows, deep down maybe I didn't even believe it was actually going to happen.

Well it did, with really no fanfare at all, and in this transitional period before the "new" MFA reemerges at St. Anthony, I've realized I have the odd distinction of having written the last-ever published review of a film series at a theater that was the bedrock of the film community in the Twin Cities for decades. The seasonally shown Swedish film Ronia, the Robber's Daughter is playing through next week, but by all accounts there will never be a curated series at the Oak like the one I previewed earlier this month.

December 23, 2009

Short Cuts: "Make Work Your Favorite"

Elf (2003). Directed by Jon Favreau; written by David Berenbaum; starring Will Ferrell, Zooey Deschanel, Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, James Caan, Faizon Love, Mary Steenburgen, and Peter Dinklage.

Although I personally find it only chuckle-inducing, I've accepted that Elf has, in the span of only six years, become a Christmas comedy classic for the new millennium. I can't believe how many people talk about this movie each December, but then The Christmas Story never did much for me either, so go figure.

Elf is one of the few Will Ferrell movies in which I don't find him very funny, but some of the reserved supporting cast performances complement his over-the-top geekiness really well. Exhibit A (above) is one of my favorite scenes, with Faizon Love giving one of the best incredulously blank stares in years. I find it a lot funnier than Ferrell's hysterics, but that's just me.

Anyway, I don't mean to be a grinch - enjoy Elf, A Christmas Story, or whatever other holiday movies you might watch around this time of year. I'll be traveling and offline for the next week, but I have a couple of posts in the pipeline that will go up before I get back. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours!

December 21, 2009

Considering the Best Documentaries of the Decade (2000-2009): Part 1

 Among the best: Spellbound, Born into Brothels, Jonestown, Trouble the Water 

A few weeks ago, before the current deluge of Best of Decade lists hit the internet, I came across a couple of lists ranking the best documentaries of the last 10 years (not surprisingly, I found them via The Documentary Blog). I enjoyed scanning through these to see what I agreed with, what I'd never heard of, and what I noticed was missing. The first list was Paste Magazine's 25 Best Documentaries of the Decade, and the second was an excellent independent list by a London-based blogger, 50 Documentaries of the Decade, which was actually written as a kind of response to Paste's list.

I'm not going to make a third list here, but I am going to offer some thoughts on these two, and in the process I'll probably end up with my own top ten or so. As a general disclaimer, I should say that a.) I generally don't like ranking films numerically (really, what's the difference between the 4th best and the 6th best?), and b.) I only began watching documentaries in earnest around 2002, so I am biased toward the second half of this decade simply because I've seen many more from that period.

So, on with the show:

December 18, 2009

Taking It Home: Invictus

("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".)

More influential than any stump speech a politician could make... 

While watching Clint Eastwood's Invictus I was reminded of a little-seen documentary a few years ago about the space race. The astronauts interviewed in In the Shadow of the Moon gave fascinating and inspiring accounts of their experience with the outer limits, but the most lasting impression I have is their description of what was happening back here on Earth. As we Americans are reminded every summer, after years of competing with the Soviets to get a man on the Moon, the United States reached the finish line first, on July 20, 1969. We would go on to dominate space exploration for the next generation and ultimately to the present day.

But what wasn't clear to me until In the Shadow of the Moon, and what was reinforced by Invictus, is just how much collective pride a population can gain from what is, on the surface, a meaningless competition. Despite the social and political turmoil of 1969, for example, the United States experienced a brief period of pure, unadulterated joy because we beat the Soviets at a massive global game (more interestingly, according to the film, this American achievement was celebrated around the globe, and goodwill toward the United States peaked at a level not reached again until 9/12/01). The triumph of the South African National Rugby Team might pale in comparison on a global scale, but Invictus still portrays the Springboks' 1995 World Cup victory as an event almost as important as the moon landing - and ultimately more important than the U.S. Men's Hockey Team's 1980 "Miracle on Ice" (most recently revisited in 2004's Miracle).

You may be thinking, "Come on, sports are unimportant in the grand scheme of things and a distracting waste of time and money that could spend on much more important issues!". Tell that to Nelson Mandela (in fact many of his advisors did, as we see in the film). To take nothing away from Mandela's achievement as a black man being elected president in a racially segregated country after half a lifetime in prison, the Boks' World Cup victory was just as important to his political success - even more so, if I may be so bold.

December 17, 2009

Brit Noir @ The Heights, December 21 - March 1

Take-Up Productions presents Brit Noir, Mondays @ the Heights

While Take-Up Productions continues its weekly Wed.-Sat. programming at the Trylon microcinema (review the winter lineup), it also returns to the dark of winter night with a stellar Monday night film noir series at the Heights beginning next week and continuing through the end of February. Nearly all of these films are well-known classics, and the first film, Odd Man Out, is not available on DVD.

Taken from Take-Up's newly redesigned website:
 "Popular myth has it that film noir is an American invention - pessimistic tales of desire, greed and guilt, with shadowy lighting influenced by the German Expressionism of silent films. But disillusionment in post-WWII cinemas was fully an Allied effort.

Our series includes three films from director Carol Reed, with the the classic The Third Man, the rarely seen The Fallen Idol, and the highlight of the series: Odd Man Out starring James Mason. This film is not on DVD, and we’re getting a new print struck solely for the purpose of screening the film before the rights expire at the end of 2009 (the reason we had to run the film a month before the other screenings)."

December 16, 2009

Twin Cities Film Critics Awards Announced. Or Not.

Although the only movie awards that Joe and Jane Public pay attention to are announced in Jan/Feb/March (just the Oscars and Globes, really), there are an almost endless number of film critic circles around the country that announce their "Best Of" lists in December. Generally they're reported and forgotten by everyone but the voters, though you can be sure that each award a film wins, no matter how small, will be referenced as part of an Oscar campaign.

You'll find this hard to believe, but just in the last few days alone, the Women Film Critics Circle, New York Film Critics Circle, Detroit Film Critics Society, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Boston Society of Film Critics, New York Film Critics Online, Broadcast Film Critics Association, Alliance of Women Film Journalists, American Film Institute, St. Louis Film Critics Association, Southeastern Film Critics Association, Indiana Film Critics, San Francisco Film Critics, San Diego Film Critics, Austin Film Critics Association, Toronto Film Critics Association, African-American Film Critics Association, Chicago Film Critics Association, and Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association have all announced their Best of 2009 award winners. And many more are on the way.

You might think is ridiculous. Heck, I think it's ridiculous. But then I wonder - where is the Twin Cities Film Critics Association?

December 15, 2009

Getafilm Gallimaufry: Amreeka, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Road, and Anticipating Avatar

[Note: This series includes scattered thoughts on various movie-related topics. I was looking for a word that started with the letter "g" that means collection or assortment, but lest you think I'm some elitist wordsmith, know that I'd never heard of "gallimaufry" and I don't even know how to say it, but it was the only other option the thesaurus provided aside from "goulash" (too foody) and "garbage" (no).]

Amreeka (B)  

Amreeka doesn't show you anything you haven't seen before in the immigrant/cross-cultural dramedy genre (and it is a genre, or at least a developing one). But few immigrants' stories are identical, and dismissing Amreeka as "just another one of those immigrant movies" is about as short-sighted as, for example, assuming all Spanish-speaking immigrants are Mexicans. The fact is that Amreeka, while not entirely unique, still offers memorable insights into post-9/11 immigration in America, particularly for those families coming from the Middle East (in this case, Palestinians to Illinois).

The film was written and directed by Cherien Dabis, a young Palestinian-American filmaker recently named by Variety as one of "Ten Directors to Watch". Dabis certainly presents the film with the authority of someone who has experienced the story, and her screenplay is balanced with equal amounts of tragedy and comedy. While the narrative is somewhat inconsistent in terms of character development, you find yourself genuinely rooting for Munah and Fadi Farah from the first few minutes - a sign of thoughtful writing. I have to admit I'm a little tired of seeing Hiam Abbass worked to death as apparently the only woman of her age Hollywood ever thinks to cast as "Strong-willed Middle Eastern/Persian Woman #1", but she nonetheless delivers in her role every time.

December 14, 2009

Taking It Home: Up in the Air

("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".)

 My expression if asked, "What did you learn from Up in the Air?"...

For as much time and attention is given to the bothersome details of business traveling in Up in the Air, I'm surprised that airline food is never mentioned. Maybe it's because it would serve as an unfortunately accurate metaphor for the viewer: sectioned into bite-size portions like an in-flight meal, Up in the Air is tasty but ultimately unfulfilling. As a more direct metaphor, the film bounces from theme to theme like its main character bounces from city to city, with no apparent final destination in mind. I never felt like I got inside Ryan Bingham's head. He was an enigma and, like so many George Clooney characters, pretty one-dimensional.

Nonetheless, I liked Up in the Air. It was brisk, amusing entertainment showcasing a great ensemble cast. I just don't know what I supposed to take from it, which is particularly frustrating because I felt like Jason Reitman was trying so hard to teach me some really meaningful lessons - about loneliness and independence, unemployment and hard work, marriage and infidelity. But where were the dots connecting any of these very mixed messages together?

December 11, 2009

300 Words About: Diary of a Times Square Thief

Modern day archaeology = digging on Ebay...

Imagine that you've recorded your innermost secrets, ideas, personal philosophies, and confessions from the last few years in a composition book. If somebody found it in 2035, what would impression would they have of you - and how would you feel if they attempted to find you by contacting all of the people you've been writing about?

This reunion with the past is the essence of Dutch filmmaker Klaas Bense's intriguing documentary, Diary of a Times Square Thief, which was recently nominated (in the company of Food, Inc., Anvil! The Story of Anvil, and Afghan Star) in the Best Feature category of the 2009 International Documentary Association awards. 

It is a brief film (60 min.) packed with fascinatingly bizarre interviews with a diverse group of New Yorkers whose names were found in a personal diary that Bense purchased on Ebay. The only details he could find in the diary about the author were that his name was John and he worked as a receptionist at a dilapidated flophouse (the infamous Times Square Hotel, now the largest permanent supportive housing project in the country) during the crime-plagued mid-80's. Armed only with these clues, and curious about what John might be doing today, Bense set off for New York City.

December 10, 2009

P.O.V. (Season 21, Fall Special): The Way We Get By

This is what "supporting the troops" looks like...

It was tragically ironic that I watched The Way We Get By on the same night as President Obama's speech outlining the troop surge in Afghanistan. Any other night the speech would have been mildly depressing, but that night, after watching the story of a group of seniors greeting more than 900,000 soldiers stepping back onto U.S. soil in Bangor, ME, well, it was soul-crushing. 

The Way We Get By, which is still available to view for free online at PBS through Sunday, is not a documentary about the war (we've had plenty of those, most forgettable), and it's not even about the soldiers. It is about finding meaning in the sunset years of life, and serving others without any condition or expectation of reward. In essence, it is about finding life in the face of death.

December 9, 2009

Living in Emergency: A Nationwide Screening and Discussion on Monday, December 14

Recently shortlisted for an Oscar, you have the rare chance to see the film and watch a live panel discussion moderated by Elizabeth Vargas

Soon after watching Mark Hopkins' award-winning documentary, Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders, I came across yet another talking heads debate on cable television about U.S. health care reform: blah, blah, blah, premiums, plans, policies, programs, and of course, the nefarious "public option". The irony was tragic considering I'd just learned that 2 billion people worldwide have no option, as in no access to essential medical care. This may not be news to many people with an eye on global issues, but Living in Emergency doesn't dwell on mind-boggling statistics like that because it's not really about the patients at all. It's about the doctors who volunteer to risk their sanity, careers, marriages, and even their lives to help alleviate suffering in the most dangerous environments on earth.

The four doctors profiled in Living in Emergency all work for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF/"Doctors Without Borders"), the Paris-founded, Nobel Peace Prize-winning NGO that provides free medical care annually to 10 million people in more than 70 sites worldwide - most of them previously, or too often currently, ravaged by war.

These are the kinds of settings where doctors become chain smokers. Where doctors are encouraged to have sex frequently, because when you're losing patients day in and day out, sex represents life. Where doctors end up questioning their career choice and doubting their own sense of self-efficacy. Where the Hippocratic Oath is a quaint, tidy motto.

The film marks the first time MSF has given a documentary crew uncensored access to its field sites, however Living in Emergency was not produced by MSF, and it could hardly be considered a glossy recruiting video to show to idealistic medical students and public health professionals (they might not be excited at the idea of wearing headlamps to treat patients in the dark). But they are probably the first people who should see it, followed by Americans with any vested interest in international relations and/or our current health care debate. It is a hard film to watch (e.g., very graphic surgical scenes and war footage) but an important one, and its recent inclusion on the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature is deserved.

Next Monday, December 14, MSF will be teaming up with Fathom Events and ABC's Elizabeth Vargas for a nationwide screening and live post-screening discussion with the film's subjects. The one-night event will be held in New York City and streamed live in more than 440 participating theaters (click here for theaters in Minnesota). For this night, at least, we should be humbly grateful for the access to health care that we have in this country.

December 7, 2009

On the Horizon: In the Heights

For no good reason at all, Minnesota has a raging inferiority complex. The state is puffed up with pride about the most bizarre things (electing Jesse Venture and Al Franken to office?), and any national or global story that has a local connection becomes front-page news, just so we feel like we're important, too. I'm not a Minnesota native but even I have found myself spouting off boastful trivia to people when I'm out of state, such as the fact that the Twin Cities has a thriving drama culture and more theater seats per capita than any U.S. city outside of New York City. Why your average person would care about such a thing I have no idea, but that doesn't matter, you'll be told this information just so that you know Minnesota should be known for something.

Despite my sarcastic attitude about this state's insecurity, there are times when the boasts are backed up, and when something like the local theater culture really does create some unforgettable experiences ahead of the rest of the country. A few months ago it was announced that the inaugural national tour of the Tony Award winning-musical "In the Heights" would be making an early stop in Minneapolis, and considering how much I love "Rent", it was a no-brainer that I had to see this. The occasion arrived this weekend, and I am pleased to declare that it was shockingly fantastic. I'm no drama geek but I love a good Broadway musical, so take my opinion for it's worth considering your own interest in such things. In any event I was not prepared for a show - written by someone my age - with this much cultural diversity, humor, musicality, dance, and emotion. In a word (or two), it was life-affirming.

Because I love the film adaptation of "Rent", and because "In the Heights" is so vivid, vivacious, and vibrantly alive (think "Rent"+"Grease"+"West Side Story"+2009), during the show I found myself wondering how Lin-Manuel Miranda's vision would translate to the silver screen. Turns out I wasn't the only one: after opening on Broadway in March of 2008, racking up 13 Tony nominations in May of 2008, and winning 4 Tony Awards (including Best Musical) in June of 2008, "In the Heights" was almost immediately picked up by Universal Pictures for a film adaptation due out in 2010. If it does end up being released on time (I can't tell how far along production is), it will automatically be my most anticipated movie of next year.

December 5, 2009

300 Words About: New York, I Love You

"Listen, Hayden, let me tell you a little something about being boring on screen"...

Easily one of the most disappointing films of 2009, New York, I Love You makes the largest and most culturally diverse city in the United States appear bland, lily-white, and generally lifeless. It's like Des Moines on a Sunday morning.

To be fair I'm not a New Yorker and have never lived in the city, but in all the times I've ever visited I've never left with an impression as dull and tasteless as I did walking out of this movie. The locations are pedestrian, the stories inconsequential and insipid, the chain-smoking characters severely lacking in charisma, and the acting hit or miss (like, broad-side-of-the-barn miss).
Aside from two or three of the 11 short stories, the highlight of New York, I Love You is the music playing over the closing credits.

December 3, 2009

"When the Walls Came Tumbling Down" the Oak St.

Minnesota Film Arts is presenting a timely and curiously curated film series this weekend at the never-say-die Oak St. Cinema. You can find my capsule previews of the films in tomorrow's Star Tribune here. The full title of the series, "When the Walls Came Tumbling Down - Berlin and Prague, 1989 Remembered", isn't quite as comphrensive or inclusive as you might be led to think, but at least two of the films, Goodbye, Lenin and Citizen Havel, are definite should-sees during this rare opportunity.

Besides, the Oak doesn't have anything else on the calendar after this, so if it's the end of the theater's run (highly unlikely based on recent history, though the ironic title of this series is worrisome), or if it's just the end of the fall season (I expect MFA will be busy planning MSPIFF by January), you should get in while you still can.
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