December 29, 2010

Getafilm Gallimaufry: Marwencol, Black Swan, True Grit, & Exit Through the Gift Shop

[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).]

Marwencol (A) 

There's a fine line between a hobby and an obsession. Take my love of movies, for example - is this blog a healthy,  creative side project, or an unhealthy manifestation of a subconscious desire to escape reality through film? Or what about Mark Hogancamp, who, after being beaten within an inch of his life several years ago and his long-term memory, regained his personality and his imagination through a fantastical world he created with plastic figurines? I can live without movies (maybe?), but Hogancamp can't live without these dolls. They are not a hobby, and they are not even an obsession. They are like air and water, necessary for his daily life. 

Hogancamp's alternate reality, named Marwencol, is so detailed and lifelike that it appears to exists as a living, breathing place, filled with characters and backstories enough to fill a series of books. If I had the patience and artistic talent to create places like it, I might end up lost with the dolls as well. This is not to say that Hogancamp doesn't have a handle on reality, just that considering where he's coming from it makes perfect sense that Marwencol is his security blanket from the judgments of the world (he was beaten at a bar after admitting to a habit of cross-dressing). It's the place he can go to get away, and be his own person in his own mind, and in that sense Marwencol is an almost uncomfortably personal entry into his thoughts and emotions.

I'm sure it wasn't easy for Mark Hogancamp to agree to "expose" himself through this film, but his world, Marwencol, should be appreciated not only for what it means to him, but to everyone who seeks a place that offers that kind of solace.

Black Swan (B)  

As Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan reached its climactic finale, I'd made peace with my opinion of the movie: it was a lesser Fight Club, without the humor and witty cultural references. Maybe that says something about my gender or my disinterest in ballet, but in my head it was just a reaction to the familiarity of the story. I realize the plots aren't in any way similar, but, despite not having seen a trailer or learned anything about the story, I felt I'd been led to believe Black Swan was going to be some kind of transcendent thriller that would twist my mind and leave me breathless. Instead, I had a headache from the avian sound effects and predictable fright scenes, and I grew impatient to see something I hadn't seen before.

In the weeks afterward I considered the praise for Black Swan's ambiguity (i.e., was the ending real?) and acting, but as it recedes in my mind I don't have any great desire to see it again. I'm optimistic there are any number of similar films about passion and drive that aren't as cold, dark, and disturbing, like, for instance, Aronofosky's The Wrestler, which is a light and cheery family film in comparison.

True Grit (A-)  

At least for me, movies in 2010 were severely lacking memorable characters. I mean the kind of characters that you can recognize with one line of dialogue, or dress up for Halloween as, or spoof on "Saturday Night Live". Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn is one of those characters, and although I haven't seen the original True Grit, I think I'd rather watch Bridges in the character if only because he's a lot more fun to imitate than John Wayne.

Sure, the Coen Brothers left their mark on True Grit, but I'd be lying if I didn't expect more from them. Not more in terms of quality, per se, but more in terms of Coen-ness. More scenes like the bartering scene with Mattie Ross or the courtroom scene, more bizarre characters popping in and out of nowhere, and a little more dry humor. But their intention was a straightforward adaptation, and in that they likely succeeded (I haven't read the novel). Just doesn't seem like they had much reason for taking this on if they weren't going to do something unique with it.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (A-) 

I finally caught up to this raved-about documentary, and despite hearing much about its authenticity, the mysteries didn't appear where and when I expected. I've known of Banksy for several years, but I knew little about the rise of street art or the increasing number of public exhibitions by street artists. Essentially, I didn't realize their work had been accepted as legitimate in the eyes of collectors and auction houses. So, it didn't take much to convince me that Thierry Guetta could be a real person. As improbable as everything was, nothing really seemed outside of the realm of possibility (similar to My Kid Could Paint That), and there were fewer aspects of this film that made me think it wasn't real.

Conversely, everything about I'm Still Here seemed fake from the beginning (I saw it before it was officially announced as a hoax), so I could laugh along with Phoenix and Affleck as they punked everyone. Does its greater believability make Exit Through the Gift Shop a better documentary? Is it even a documentary, or an actual artistic statement by Banksy? Does it even matter? This is what I'm left wondering, but regardless of what I believe or discover about the truth, I now understand why this film has received so much attention. It's like one of Banksy's great works, subverting our expectations and telling us something we don't want to admit to ourselves about art, hype, and money.

December 16, 2010

300 Words About: TRON: Legacy

Hypothetically speaking, how would you describe the sun to someone who's never seen it before and has asked you "what it's like"? Think about the sun for a moment - what it means for humans, animals, plants, energy, life, time, etc.

Would you simply answer, "It's warm...radiant. Beautiful."?

If you can think of something better than that, send off a script ASAP to the top brass at Disney as they busily prepare a multi-platform franchise to rival their fading Pirates of the Caribbean goldmine. Not that the dialogue in the Pirates movies is much better, but if the TRON series can't depend on the charm and star power of the likes of Depp, Knightley, Bloom, and Rush, it's going to have a long way to go to win over science fiction-allergic critics, despite its impressive visual effects.

And the effects are, in a word, astonishing. Right from the opening zoom shot through the skyscrapers of Center City, I had a feeling TRON: Legacy would make my eyes pop more than any movie since Avatar. I suppose that's not saying much since it's only been a year, but you have to consider just how much of a treat it is to still be impressed by visual effects in 2010. Today it's possible to produce realistic representations of anything the imagination can devise (maybe with the exception of CG faces, as evidenced by the cringe-worthy representation of Jeff Bridges circa 1982), and spectacular visual effects go unnoticed by all of us on a daily basis, in everything from television commercials to internet flash animations. I think 3D significantly detracts from all of this more than it enhances it (and the 3D is thankfully at a bare minimum in this movie), but my point is, we've come a long way, baby, and I don't want to take that for granted.

Unfortunately, script development hasn't evolved nearly as quickly as filmmaking technology. Blockbusters with juicy story potential like TRON: Legacy and, to be fair, Avatar, continue to be bogged down by moronic dialogue, and often sub-par acting to boot (see also: Speed Racer). I won't lay any of the blame on first-time director Joseph Kosinski, and I hope to see more from his architecturally-refined mind, but with presumably more ownership of the next sequel, he has to give more consideration to who is writing the screenplay. Otherwise, descriptions of this franchise will counter Sam Flynn's bland description of the sun: "Dull...shallow. Forgettable."

December 14, 2010

Un-fracking-believable: Gasland

Just think, you can cook without a stove!

If you became angry or frustrated while watching Inside Job, wait until you get a load of Gasland, the award-winning documentary exposing even more egregious shenanigans committed by Corporate America. All things considered (including his personal relationship to the story), filmmaker Josh Fox lays out an honest, objective examination of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", the controversial new trend in domestic natural gas production. Gasland is this decade's Erin Brockovich or A Civil Action, the significant difference being that in this documentary, and thus in real life, companies aren't committing crimes by breaking or going around government regulations meant to protect citizens. That's because relatively speaking, there are no such regulations in place.

Much as you might expect this be a right vs. left political issue, what with Halliburton behind both the fracking technology and the Dick Cheney-initiated "Halliburton Loophole" (which exempts oil and gas companies - all of them - from our country's long-standing clean air and water regulations), the uncomfortable truth is that this is bipartisan bad behavior. While conservative interests may comprise corporate boards and shareholder majorities, President Obama and environmentalists are championing domestic natural gas production as an alternative to our addiction to foreign oil.

Problem is, nobody has developed a safe way to retrieve shale gas from the earth's crust, so for the time being more natural gas production means more fracking (by all accounts an extremely messy process). And more fracking - well as you can imagine that means more really nasty pollution, and more people being able to light their methane-infused tap water on fire.

Gasland won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance 2010, and was recently short-listed for this year's Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. I can't say it's a polished film (it's occasionally tangential and burdened with mumbling narration by Fox), but, alongside Inside Job and Restrepo, it's among the most important American documentaries of the year.

One of the memorable insights Fox shares at the end of film is that as he drove thousands of miles across the country to study the impact of fracking on local communities, every place started to look the same. Of course this is a common observation East Coasters make once they get west of Pennsylvania, but the stereotypical reasons (e.g., boring landscapes) were not cited here. Rather, the states blended together for Fox because fracking is happening everywhere: refineries and wells littered the country in places he never expected, and the stories and horrific symptoms from people he met were similar across thousands of miles. In other words, the problem isn't spreading - it's already spread, everywhere.

And, despite the fact that nobody yet knows the true effect fracking has on our air and water supply (only recently did the EPA initiate an official study on it), the practice continues unabated in one of the least regulated industries in the country. Completely helpless citizens are being poisoned and communities ruined, and not only is there no law against it, but the current laws were made to enable it. Worse, state agencies and departments that would normally be charged with looking into citizen's complaints are among the first to be cut as government budgets bleed out during the recession.

It's ironic then, or maybe it's not, that corporate interests helped lead to the recession, which has led to government budget deficits, which have led to agency and department personnel cuts, which has led to decreased regulation of corporate practices like fracking, which has led to greater corporate profits.

God Bless America.

Gasland comes out today on DVD (New Media/Docurama Films)
Add to your Netflix queue

Further reading:
"A Colossal Fracking Mess", Vanity Fair, June 2010
"Fracking yields fuel, fear in Northeast",, September 2010

Further viewing:
"Shaleionaires" - 60 Minutes, November 14, 2010

December 7, 2010

Taking It Home: Inside Job

Finally, it all makes sense. Mostly.

Listening to the media echo chamber discuss President Obama's tax deal this week, I realized that it's been more than two months since I saw Charles Ferguson's illuminating Inside Job, and, shockingly, I think I still understand his deft explanation of the reasons behind the financial meltdown and, consequently, our current panic about tax rates and unemployment benefits. After numerous films - including but not limited to Capitalism: A Love Story (0/2 for Michael Moore after he dropped the health care ball with the forgettable Sicko), American Casino, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and even The Other Guys - tried and failed to explain what led to The Great Recession, Ferguson's film was like a breath of fresh air, illustrating the financial foolishness in terms that anyone can understand. Good thing, too, because as I said in my pan of the meaningless Wall Street, this was probably the last chance The Recession Movie had to establish itself as a viable genre.

Why was it so hard to present this financial information in a clear way prior to this film? To be fair it does require a lot of detailed explanation, and when filmmakers have other things on their minds (melodrama and an Oscar in the case of Stone's Wall Street; comedy and I-don't-know-what in the case of Moore's Capitalism), the meat of the subject at hand is guaranteed to be lost. Inside Job, in contrast, has little else on it's mind other than telling us what happened and, not accidentally, making us feel really angry about it. This isn't necessarily a fair and balanced documentary (and maybe not a documentary at all?), but it nonetheless presents the facts and allows educated people to talk about them, even though in this case the facts really speak for themselves.

November 30, 2010

Melody Gilbert Movie Marathon, Dec. 3-5

This weekend, six films by revered local documentarian Melody Gilbert will be featured as part of a three-day festival at the Parkway Theater at 48th St. & Chicago Ave. in South Minneapolis. Melody is a terrific filmmaker and a great supporter of local films, so if you're in the area don't miss this special opportunity to see the work of "one of the most fearless filmmakers in contemporary documentary cinema", according to The Documentary Channel.

Ask yourself, when else will you see a movie about wannabe amputees, or getting married at the Mall of America, or people who explore abandoned underground tunnels and buildings, or children who have no sensation of pain? Three of Melody's six films are available on Netflix, but I won't tell you which ones because you should really see them at the theater this weekend. Speaking of which, the Parkway has nicely revived itself over the last few years, and you can bring food and drink from neighboring Pepito's into the theater.

Melody and special guests will be present at each screening. Tickets are available online or at the door (special MG Marathon pass is $25 to see all six films).

Friday, Dec. 3rd

6:00 pm: Disconnected (made with Carleton College students) - TRAILER

7:30 pm: Married at the Mall (w/ new short doc Tami Tushie's Toys) - TRAILER

9:15 pm: Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness - TRAILER

10:30 pm: After-party @ Pepitos w/ half-price apps and 2-for-1 drinks

Saturday, Dec. 4 

3:00 pm: Whole - CLIP

4:30 pm: A Life Without Pain (w/ MN family featured in the film) - TRAILER

Sunday, Dec. 5 

6:00 pm: Fritz: The Walter Mondale Story - TRAILER

Also, next week (not part of the festival): 
Wednesday, Dec. 8th

7:00 pm: Numb (sneak preview/fundraiser) 
Numb is a new documentary about antidepressant addiction and withdrawal that Melody is executive producing (directed by Phil Lawrence). This is a sneak preview/ fundraiser that includes: food from Pepitos, mingling with filmmakers, silent auction and a free ticket to the screening of Urban Explorers at 8:00 pm. Your donation will help finish the final stretch of editing. See the trailer

November 24, 2010

127 Hours in 94 Riveting Minutes

The other night I had a dream, or rather a nightmare, that our cat was trapped in an unplugged microwave for three days until I was able to break the door open and rescue her. Her eyes were bloodshot and her tired, sweaty body was bruised and bloodied in a few spots; her right hind leg was stripped of flesh and fur almost to the bone. As I woke up in a hazy state, it didn't take long for me to peg 127 Hours as the inspiration for my subconscious. Thankfully I don't have dreams like this often, and our cat is just fine, but this movie has haunted my mind for a week not only because of the nightmarish, climactic battle between mind and body, but also because of the questions this incredibly simple story raised about relationships, independence, family, regret, determination, and even technology.

Much more than the nerve-wracking "thriller" I expected, 127 Hours is a tender, even beautiful tribute to the resiliency of the human spirit. It's a film that jars you awake from the tedious monotony of the cinematic landscape, engaging instead of entertaining and not compromising for the sake of your viewing comfort. So does the Saw franchise, one could argue, but while I've never seen any of those movies, I've also never been under the impression that they have the artistic, acting, or even comic merit exhibited in 127 Hours.

November 14, 2010

Independent Lens presents: Lost Sparrow

Lost Sparrow is the type of documentary that should come with a warning label: "May cause severe emotional distress". It does not contain much disturbing or graphic content, but the tragedy of the Billing family history is so nakedly laid bare that you can't help but be affected. I was mentally worn and emotionally vulnerable on the night that I watched it, and I'll fully admit the film's denouement had me sobbing. While I was reminded of Capturing the Friedmans, Surfwise, and Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, I was keenly aware while watching Lost Sparrow that there were many more social layers under the surface of this particular story.

Never manipulative and consistently engrossing, Lost Sparrow is a downward spiraling journey into the marginalization and mistreatment of the Native American community, the strength of the family bond, and the challenge of forgiving an unforgivable sin. If making a film about the skeletons in your family's closet is considered a sign of bravery (and I think it is), director Chris Billing deserves a medal of valor.

In the early 1970's, Billing's family adopted four Crow Indian siblings (two boys, two girls) who were removed from their home on an impoverished Montana reservation after numerous allegations of domestic abuse. The Billing family, already with six children, quickly became a family of 10 kids and two parents, seemingly as happy as they are in the family photo above. 

In 1978, however, the two Crow Indian brothers were mysteriously killed by a freight train near the family's home in upstate New York (no one knows why they were lying on the tracks). The accident devastated the family and the community, the children were buried nearby (against Crow tradition) and the wounds slowly began to heal - or so it appeared. Chris Billing went on to become a highly-respected journalist and the Beijing Bureau Chief for NBC, but he was always uncomfortable with the uncertainty around his brothers' death. Lost Sparrow is his effort to find out what happened, and in doing so he discovers much more than he bargained for, and much more than anyone should ever hope to discover and publicly share about their family.

What impressed me so much about Lost Sparrow was the impossibly objective light Chris Billing shone on the tragic history of this family, no doubt due to years of journalistic practice. He somehow does not condemn and he does not apologize, and tells an incredibly personal story without making an overtly personal film. No family is perfect, and the themes in Lost Sparrow - love, forgiveness, fear, and pain - resonate on a universally human level. While Lost Sparrow could be seen as a traditional documentary about family history that you'd expect to find on PBS, I saw it as much more: an unforgettable portrait about adoption, redemption, and owning up to a past that has haunted your family for 30 years.

Lost Sparrow premieres on PBS on Tuesday, November 16 (check local listings)

November 12, 2010

300 Words About: Waste Land

Topically similar to Garbage Dreams but thematically similar to Born into Brothels, Lucy Walker's endearing Waste Land is a humble, tender tribute to the millions of people we walk by daily but avoid looking in the eye. In the U.S., as in Brazil and maybe every other developed nation, an undercurrent of classism wreaks havoc on the social fabric. We marginalize and generalize about the groups below us on the social ladder, never considering to recognize the ambitions and talents of the individuals who comprise those groups. If a picture is worth a thousand words, Vik Muniz' portraits of workers in the world's largest landfill (Jardim Gramacho, outside Rio de Janeiro) tell a timeless story of human ambition, cooperation, innovation, beauty, and creativity.

That's pretty flowery language applied to a film set amongst mountains of rotting garbage, but it's there if you look for it - and you don't have to look too hard. These portraits, which are photos of garbage arranged to represent photos (you might have to see it to understand it), are astounding artistic achievements even without considering the subjects of the photos, the team of people involved in constructing the portraits, or the materials from which they are composed. When all of that is evaluated as well, it's not surprising to learn that the "Pictures of Garbage" (double entendre intended) collection broke attendance records at modern art museums around the world.

On the surface, the motive behind Muniz' project (to "change lives") appeared naive, even foolish. This is partly because he had the complete wrong impression of the people who worked at Jardim Gramacho, and partly because no good deed goes unpunished, and whatever sacrifices Muniz was willing to make (in this case, his marriage) were not necessarily going to guarantee a better life for the civil servants who provide what amounts to indentured labor in picking recycled materials out of the landfill.

But Muniz was successful, and director Lucy Walker was successful (for the second time in two years), because both of them realized that often the most effective way to lift someone up is to embrace who they are, where they are, before finding a way to tap into the positive aspects of their individual character. It's probably not a coincidence that the subjects chosen by Muniz for this particular project are quite attractive by most standards, but if he has shown anything, it's that even beautiful people might not recognize their beauty until someone shows it to them.

November 7, 2010

Independent Lens presents: The Longoria Affair

You could be fooled into thinking Latinos have only had voting rights in the U.S. for the last decade or so, what with the ongoing hand wringing and analysis by political pundits over which party controls "the Latino vote" (as if their respective cultures haven't already been overgeneralized enough). As it turns out, Latinos and in particular Mexican-Americans have played a vital role in American politics for more than half a century, and, as I was surprised to find out from The Longoria Affair, John F. Kennedy won the popular vote in the 1960 U.S. Presidential Election thanks in large part to Latino voters - years before the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were even signed into law by Kennedy's VP and successor, Lyndon B. Johnson.

While this documentary takes its name from U.S. Army Pvt. Felix Longoria, his life (and early combat death) serves as less of a focal point and more of a jumping-off point to explore a hidden era in Latino-American history. After Longoria was killed in action during World War II, the local funeral director in his hometown of Three Rivers, TX, refused to honor the fallen veteran because of his Mexican heritage. Longoria's wife reached out to Dr. Hector Garcia, a prominent physician and Mexican-American activist (and early influence of Al Sharpton?) who "used" this act of discrimination against Longoria as the catalyst for launching a nationwide Latino movement. One of his allies in Texas happened to be then-U.S. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, and together the two men marched toward history, first making Longoria the first Mexican-American buried in Arlington National Cemetery, then swinging "the Latino vote" almost exclusively to Kennedy in 1960, and, after Johnson assumed the presidency, ultimately laying the groundwork for the American civil rights movement.

The Longoria Affair is a remarkable story about American politics (particularly timely during this election season) that also deftly illustrates the respective character of Johnson and Garcia, two very ambitious, very idealistic, and very stubborn men. Felix Longoria, for his part, may never know that his heroism on behalf of the United States didn't end in his death on a battlefield. On the contrary, that's only where it started.

The Longoria Affair premieres on PBS on Tuesday, November 9, and streams online for free through November 16 (check local listings)

November 5, 2010

November @ the Trylon microcinema: Here Comes The Tramp: The Films of Charlie Chaplin

Last week I stumbled across a bemusing article suggesting that if you were to watch the extras on the DVD for Charlie Chaplin's The Circus (1928), you would see an old woman using a cell phone. In 1928. Video evidence is below for you to determine on your own, but if it's not actually true, it's a kind of funny sight nonetheless.

Wouldn't you know it, The Circus is showing this weekend only at the Trylon microcinema, kicking off the November retrospective, Here Comes The Tramp: The Films of Charlie Chaplin. Of course, you won't see the cell phone lady because the Trylon screens 35mm prints whenever possible, and there are restored prints for every film in this series, so you'll have to check out the DVD extras at home. Or just watch the video and decide for yourself...

November 3, 2010

Ousmane Sembene: African Stories, Nov. 5-20 @ the Walker

While the MSP Asian Film Festival runs during the next 10 days at St. Anthony Main, the Walker is delivering a series of films that are distinctive if only because an MSP African Film Festival is probably still a long, long way off.

Co-presented by the University of Minnesota's Office of International Program, the Walker presents "Ousmane Sembene: African Stories", a retrospective of nine feature films from the Senegalese artist The New Yorker called "one of the world's greatest political filmmakers".

I've only seen Moolaadé (2004), Sembene's award-winning critical portrait of female genital mutilation (read a great review by a blogging pal), but it left an impression on me, to say the least. Here is the official description of the series, followed by the full schedule and selected trailers:

"Africa, a continent full of stories both old and new, has over the last half century been affected by enormous political, social, and ecological change. Since shedding its long period of colonialism, it has seen newly formed governments, revived countries, and tribal alliances placed under severe pressure by conflicts over resources, foreign intervention, social customs, and religious differences. Perhaps no filmmaker captured these transformations better than Ousmane Sembene, the Senegalese artist who turned his own literature into film and became known as the father of African cinema. His career began in the years directly following Senegal’s independence and continued until 2006. The Walker is pleased to show all nine of his feature films, which range from portraits of immigrants to satires to period films based on events ignored or repressed by non-Africans.

October 29, 2010

Carlos @ the Walker - This Weekend Only

Tell you what, if I'm going to spend 5+ hours in a theater for one film, I'd much rather it be in the comfort of the Walker Cinema than in the chiropractic-certified Uptown Theater, where I saw Steven Soderbergh's epic, Che. So if back pain is your excuse not to see Carlos this weekend in its exclusive engagement at the Walker, you better come up with another excuse.

And I better come up with a worthier excuse for missing the Regis Dialogue with director Olivier Assayas last week, in which he must have given terrific insight into his latest film. If you haven't seen any of the Assayas films being screened at the Walker this month, this weekend is your last chance to see his newest critical darling, which will premiere on the Sundance Channel and Video on Demand later this year.

What I appreciated most about Carlos, aside from its impossibly quick 319-minute running time, is that it tells so much critically important world history while also illuminating the inner life of "Carlos the Jackal", one of the most notorious international terrorists of the last generation (to me, the potential similarity to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda is striking). Assayas has somehow made a historical film more action-packed than it should be, and an action thriller more historically relevant than it should be. And in addition to its watchability, Carlos features one of the flat-out best performances of the year by Édgar Ramírez as the title character (incidentally, he also starred in Che).

Granted, before the first scene we read that there is no way to accurately portray two decades worth of Carlos' exploits, and yes, much of the political dialogue is as subtle as a sledgehammer. But to me this is an ambitious, original film that doesn't substitute entertainment for art - something Soderbergh may have wisely considered before Che landed with a bit of thud to restless audiences. People have assumptions and mythical ideas about terrorists, after all, and artistically painting them in a sympathetic light isn't likely to do much but confuse and disengage. Assayas understands this desire on the part of the viewer (kind of strange considering the art-value of his other films), and essentially delivers the made-for-TV version - just done really well. We can only hope other marathon movies follow suit.

Carlos screens Sat 10/30 and Sun 10/31 at 1:00 PM,
with a 15- and 30-minute intermission.

October 28, 2010

Dispatch: You Are In Control 2010

[Note: Colin Covert, chief film critic at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and friend of Getafilm, recently hopped the pond to Reykjavik, Iceland, taking in both the 2010 Reykjavik International Film Festival and You Are in Control 2010, an annual conference on creative technologies. The following is his report on the latter.]

Iceland's two greatest natural resources are geothermal heat and creativity. In fact, Iceland heads the Global Innovation Index, a study by international business school INSEAD and the Confederation of Indian Industry released in March. Despite its deep economic woes, the tiny volcanic outcropping in the North Atlantic topped the international ranking in criteria including patents filed, R&D spending and published scientific research. 

And as ever hipster knows, it has a kickass indie rock and filmmaking scene.

Tapping the earth's natural heat profitably is a pretty straightforward engineering issue. Tougher is the problem of empowering filmmakers, musicians, game designers and others whose creations can be digitally ripped off and anonymously distributed. It's such a pressing challenge that the Icelandic government convened a new media conference earlier this month during the Reykjavik International Film Festival to address the matter. After all, if Sigur Ros and Baltasar Kormakur can be ripped off, it's not just the artists who suffer; their homeland's balance of trade takes a hit, too.

The You Are in Control conference addressed legal, investment and marketing issues but the most engaging presentations came from entertainment industry stars. 

Ian Livingstone, whose Eidos videogame empire spawned such bestselling titles as "Warhammer," "Hitman" and the iconic Lara Croft, discussed the staggering intellectual property value of successful game franchises. Hollywood originally created its own characters, then turned to books, then comics, and now taps popular gaming characters.His buxom "Tomb Raider" heroine was originally introduced to replace a he-man adventurer whose resemblance to Indiana Jones worried Eidos'legal department. Lara's blend of strength and sex appeal made her a fanboy favorie, then a household name, and now a global brand worth $1.5 billion annually. There's a powerful synergy between Lara's life as a game character, a Hollywood heroine and a spokesbot for energy drinks. In one recent personality poll, she beat the Pope for name recognition.

Imogen Heap
Husky-voiced Grammy winner Imogen Heap explained her strategy for constant fan contact, building an army of loyalists through virtually 24/7 connection via social media. There's not much about her creative life that she hasn't processed into a blog post or video communique or online poll. When the English singer-songwriter hand-built her new in-home recording studio, she kept her followers up to date with an ongoing web show detailing the project's progress. She draws fans into her creative process by letting them contribute album art and vote on her concert setlists. Heap collated her official biography Wikipedia-style from their Twitter posts. When she needed a cellist on tour, she invited musical fans to audition for the gig and let the rest vote among the candidates. Far from being selfish about copyrights, Heap encourages would-be DJs to remix her songs and post them with her blessing.

It's not all fun and viral publicity, however. When Pakistan suffered devastating floods, she rounded up her pop star friends and quickly mounted a do-it-yourself 5-hour fundraising webcast. By interactively involving fans in every career step she takes, Heap converts them into teammates with a powerful emotional investment in her success. 

For filmmakers and other artistic types, there were several key lessons. Hold on to your creations; the Eidos artist who conceived and drew Lara relinquished his rights to the company and never participated in the windfall his character created. Don't hold on too tight, though. Encourage your fans to use your original work in their mashups while gently reminding them to give credit where it's due. Learn to adapt your work across multiple media platforms. Finally, be excellent. Everyone has the ability to create and broadcast content as never before. You've got to cut through the digital clutter with something that commands attention. And though heap and Livingstone didn't come right out and say it, it doesn't hurt to have a hot babe rep your product.

For details about next year's conference, visit

- Colin Covert

October 25, 2010

Citizen's Arrest: Catch The Robber 10/27 @ the Walker

A bank, a mask, and a bag - your typical afternoon jog? 

How many great Austrian crime thrillers about brooding bank robbers who find solace in the forest and romance busty brunettes can there be? Apparently more than one. Götz Spielmann's Revanche received an Oscar nomination two years ago and Benjamin Heisenberg's Der Räuber (The Robber) is nearly as good, losing a little novelty because it's such a similar story (both films also star Andreas Lust as main characters who jog on woodsy trails). But while the films may be similar on screen, only one of them is based on a true story: the one about the competitive marathon runner who makes a living as a notorious bank robber.

October 15, 2010

300 Words About: Howl

Hmm...people had a hard time understanding my will they understand this film?

To be perfectly honest, I went into Howl at a distinct disadvantage: I've never connected much with the Beat Generation, and I find a lot of poetry just plain bewildering. Put it to music or use imagery that I understand and I'm good, but meditate on "peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns", as Allen Ginsberg does in his infamous poem, "Howl", and I'm lost.

Call me culturally illiterate, but I'm afraid that while I understand the social significance of the poem in its time (both as a cathartic statement and as a legal precedent), it just has no emotional resonance for me at all. Should this have affected my viewing of Howl? Probably, but since much of the film is animated I didn't have to do much heavy lifting anyway. The metaphors and raw passion were brought to life for me, so all I had to do was try and understand, which I did with infrequent success.

In theory I love the idea of bringing poetry to cinematic life for the very reasons I've mentioned: it helps me make some sense of the underlying meaning. But "Howl", with its huge cultural and historic significance, may not have been the best poem to explore in this way. The entire film should have been animated, or the entire film should have been a legal drama about obscenity and censorship in the 1950's, or the entire film should have been a biopic of Ginsberg (heck, maybe it just should have been a documentary).

Instead, Howl is all three, and suffers because of it (even if I admire the fact that none of the dialogue was scripted). I was tossed around from the courtroom to a living room to a coffeehouse to an animated nightmare. It was disorienting and, apart from James Franco's committed performance, it made disappointingly little use of a terrific cast featuring Jeff Daniels, Jon Hamm, and David Strathairn.

The end of the film is much tidier than the rest of it, and underscores, at least to me, that directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman were more interested in telling the story of the poem than exploring the poem in the story, as if the meaning of the lines in "Howl" should be obvious to anyone who reads them (in a Q & A after the screening I attended, the directors talked almost exclusively about the technical aspects of making the film). Well, consider this viewer a little more enlightened about why "Howl" received so much attention, but still pretty much in the dark about what half of it actually means.

October 11, 2010

Viking Madness: A Fan for All Seasons

A Minnesota tradition since 1961

"The Vikings are the number one team at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory," laments Jesse Logan as he watches his home squad struggle against the rival Green Bay Packers. It's near the midpoint of the 2005 Minnesota Vikings season, and this pivotal game can make or break the Vikes' playoff chances. The objective truth is that one regular season game is equally important as any other to a team's success, but objectivity is nonexistent when it comes to to the NFL, where every game is "do or die" and "make or break" (such as, not coincidentally, tonight's Vikings game against the New York Jets).

I've been a Minnesota Vikings fan for as long as I've lived in Minnesota (a little more than half my life), but I'm not a season-ticket holder or face-painter. I don't own a jersey or know all the lyrics to "Skol, Vikings", but I watch the games at home and I hate the Packers. All of this to say that I while cheer for the Vikings every Sunday, I'm not at the level of Logan and his peers featured in Aaron Lubarsky's A Fan for All Seasons. These people are crazy not because of their individual game-day traditions (be it face painting or horn blowing), but because they sacrifice their time, money, and in some cases dignity to one of the most storied franchises in the National Football League that, we must always remember, has never won a championship.

October 7, 2010

Sound Unseen 11: Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone

Screening as part of Sound Unseen 11 - Sat., Oct. 9, @ 5:00 PM @ the Trylon

Trivia question: What music was John Cusack blasting from his boombox in that iconic scene in Say Anything? If you think it's "In Your Eyes" by Peter Gabriel, you're right - kind of. That song was reportedly added in post-production, while the music that was actually playing during filming was by a band named Fishbone, "one of the most distinctive and eclectic alternative rock bands of the late '80s", according to their allmusic profile.

This anecdote perfectly exemplifies the life of the band: loved by all the cool kids, but inevitably overshadowed by the radio-friendly pop music of the day. I myself knew little about the band, and even less about the world that shaped them, before seeing Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone. It's a great documentary not only because it chronicles Fishbone's career in an interesting way, but because it also appropriately addresses social issues like race and power, and reveals historical nuggets such as the African-American migration to Los Angeles and the birth of the punk scene in the San Fernando Valley.

October 6, 2010

Sound Unseen 11: Do It Again

Screening as part of Sound Unseen 11 - Sat., Oct. 9, @ 3:00 PM @ the Trylon

Often you hear about middle-aged guys and their garage bands trying to make it big after years of trying, or middle-aged former rock stars trying to keep it big after years of succeeding. Or, as seen in last year's excellent Anvil! The Story of Anvil, middle-aged rock stars trying to make it big after years of hopeless failure.

Here's a new one, then: a middle-aged fan trying to bring back some old rock stars fifteen years after they broke up. The band is none other than The Kinks, while the fan is Geoff Edgers, an arts and entetainment writer for the Boston Globe who considers the band to be the greatest of all time (incidentally, he does a fantastic job outlining their history and their impact on the music world). Although the storyline and characters of Do It Again (cleverly named after one of the band's many hits) are a little different than the other examples, the journey is comprised of the same hope, determination, dejection, relief, joy, confusion, and musical passion. In short, Do It Again shows that while the life of a rock star may be taxing, it ain't much easier to be a fan of a band that no longer exists.

October 4, 2010

Sound Unseen 11: Wheedle's Groove

Screening as part of Sound Unseen 11 - Thu., Oct. 8, @ 8:45 PM @ the Trylon

When people talk about "discovering" music, I think they typically mean hearing a song they like in a commercial or at a bar and tracking it down, or reading about an up-and-coming artist and checking out their MySpace page for a free listen. Rarely is the case, I would imagine, when one actually physically discovers the music - as in, buried in a record store after years of neglect. Wheedle's Groove, winner of the Jury Award at Sound Unseen Duluth last summer, is the story of what happens when that music is found, and what it can mean to the people who lost it.

If I were to ask you to list the most influential cities for the emergence of soul and funk music during the 1960's and 70's, I would bet with some confidence that a few places would go unmentioned: Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle. But ah, how wrong you would be to omit the Emerald City: Seattle was, shockingly, home to some of the funkiest bands of the era, and involved musical giants like Quincy Jones and Kenny G (yes, that Kenny G). Few people remember this, of course, which makes Wheedle's Groove both extremely depressing and extremely important to the historical records of the city and the genre.

September 28, 2010

Wall Street: People Never Change

Hair color may change, but an obsession with a certain shade of green never does...

If Oliver Stone is disappointed that his inconsequential Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps isn't nudging its way into the Best Picture race, he might consider sneaking it into the Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Fact is, for American viewers the characters may as well be speaking a rural Turkish dialect as they argue and fret about the recent financial crisis. It's yet another aimless Recession Movie that ultimately serves no purpose other than to remind us that we still have no idea what a credit default swap is. We don't understand Wall Street, and thus we can't understand Wall Street.

But then, that's assuming Stone set out to explain this disaster in the first place, which we can rule out based simply on the fact that he doesn't actually portray even one financial shenanigan (leaving Charles Ferguson's upcoming Inside Job as the all-important final chance to explain the recession in Main Street terms). Instead, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a timeless examination of greed, similar to its prequel in an attempt to personify evil as a white guy in a dark suit.

To the extent that Stone successfully portrays bankers and brokers as scheming swindlers, we should be thankful. It puts us at much greater ease when we can pin the blame on them, the lenders, and not us, the borrowers, and Stone's stylish flair throughout the film, as unnecessary as it is to the story, still achieves an essential purpose in distracting us from the film's bleak central theme: people never change.

Although advertising firms and media headlines and magazine columnists naïvely and hopelessly attempt to convince us that we've entered a "new normal" in which people will spend sparingly and save wisely, the inconvenient truth is that 90% of Americans are earning and spending as much as they ever have (and in the case of the top earners, earning more than they ever have). Interest rates remain at historic lows and credit is still freely available to nearly anyone who desires it. As the recession begins to fade on a wider scale and the opportunities for easy money begin to emerge, we will be resurrected like millions of Gordon Gekkos, anxious to reclaim our financial kingdoms, no matter the literal or figurative cost. Isn't that human nature, or, at the very least, the American way?

September 27, 2010

When Worlds Collide - Premiering Tonight on PBS

Boy, I sure don't feel like celebrating Columbus Day this year (not that I ever have; how does one do so anyway?). In fact, after seeing When Worlds Collide: The Untold Story of the Americas After Columbus, I almost feel like joining the movement against formal recognition of the holiday. This is not the film's purpose, but it's difficult to objectively consider the ramifications of Columbus' invasion (not quite a discovery) of the Americas when you learn about the millions of indigenous people who were killed and enslaved for "God" and the Spanish crown.

Narrated by author and journalist Ruben Martinez, the film richly chronicles the history of Latin America in a series of chapters that outline how the clash of European and American cultures influenced generations of mestizos up to the present day. It is indeed an "untold story", and as Martinez explains at the end of the film, the global community should by now be ready to discuss the history of this part of the world and the tragic consequences of the Spanish conquest.

It is perhaps an uncomfortable reality to acknowledge, but this historical perspective is vital for understanding ethnic identities and international relations in 2010. You might never look at Spain the same way again (or really any country that based its economy and empire on the exploitation and enslavement of Indigenous Americans), but then the best documentaries are the ones that open the eyes of viewers to new realities.

Indeed, although When Worlds Collide has its flaws (and I found Martinez' narration rather awkwardly staged throughout), a wide-ranging documentary like this is inherently limited by the scope allowed in 90 minutes of airtime. What it should do, and what it succeeds in doing, is planting a seed of interest in the minds of viewers and encouraging them to continue their own discovery and dialogue afterward. The film's website is particularly user-friendly (I like this Old World vs. New World timeline), and I really hope educators take advantage of the downloadable lesson plans, because this is the kind of material that is inexcusably absent from American classrooms - especially those that include Columbus Day on the chalkboard calendar.

When Worlds Collide premieres tonight, Sept. 27, on PBS
Click here for local listings and future air dates

September 22, 2010

300 Words About: I'm Still Here

Last week, before Casey Affleck inexplicably broke his silence about I'm Still Here being a mostly scripted hoax, I told a friend of mine how great it would be if Joaquin Phoenix walked out onto the stage of "The Late Show with David Letterman" tonight with a clean-shaven face and a normal personality. What a perfect "Gotcha!" opportunity it would have been.

Alas, his appearance will now be an anticlimactic reunion in which he will no doubt apologize to Letterman and probably fail to explain exactly what I'm Still Here is "about". From where I sit, having seen it a couple of weeks ago and immediately recognizing a number of things that just could not be real, I don't think there is anything to explain. Either you consider I'm Still Here a brilliant skewering of Hollywood celebrity culture (featuring a Best Actor-nominee worthy performance; the best of Phoenix's career), or you consider I'm Still Here just plain offensive, a joke on the movie industry and a waste of everyone's time. Much of your reaction may depend on whether you saw it before or after the cat was officially out of the bag - but if you have seen it, wasn't it pretty obvious while watching that Casey Affleck was documenting a manufactured reality?

September 19, 2010

Bad Will Hunting

We haven't seen a Boston foursome like this since 1997

The Town is surprisingly watchable, with a confident sense of place and no illusions about what it is (tense but forgettable) and what it isn't (moving or believable). I had no clue what it was about when I walked in, but I was expecting a melodramatic thriller like Gone Baby Gone, not a tightly wound cop vs. robber flick. The action sequences and set pieces were a major highlight, and the Boston accents were thankfully kept under control (other than Pete Postlethwaite's rogue brogue). And despite some truly horrendous dramatic dialogue between Ben Affleck and Rebecca Hall, the movie kept a brisk pace, rarely allowing your attention to focus on how preposterous the relationships and characters were.

So for the most part I liked it, and I've now tolerated Ben Affleck in three straight movies (The Town after Extract and State of Play), which hasn't happened in well over a decade. And speaking of those early Affleck years, there was something altogether too familiar about The Town, wasn't there? Not just because the last minute was reminiscent of The Shawshank Redemption, and not because Affleck's performance was recycled from Armageddon and Paycheck, but because, well...

September 17, 2010

Fall Film Festobonanza, Part 5: 20 Years of Milestone Films @ the Trylon & Macalester Film Series on Global Justice

Killer of Sheep & The Bicycle Thief

What: Milestone’s 20th: Two Decades of Enduring Artistry
Where: Trylon Microcinema
When: Oct 1 - 31

What: Macalester Alumni Fall 2010 Film Series: "Global Justice"
Where: John B. Davis Lecture Hall (JBD), Ruth Stricker Dayton Campus Center
When: September 22 - November 10

Just when I thought the programming at the Trylon microcinema couldn't get more varied (past series have featured Cronenberg, Spielberg, Godard, and Harryhausen, to name a few), along comes a true mixed bag of classic films: Milestone’s 20th: Two Decades of Enduring Artistry.

Fall Film Festobonanza, Part 4: Twin Cities Black Film Festival, MPLS Project, & Shamrock Film Festival

What: 8th Annual Twin Cities Black Film Festival
Where: TBA
When: October 15 - 17

What: The Minneapolis Project
Where: The Riverview
When: September 30

What: Shamrock Film Festival
Where: Rosemount
When: October 7 - 9

Even more local movie happenings, as follows:

Fall Film Festobonanza, Part 3: Sound Unseen 11

The films of Sound Unseen 11

What: 11th Sound Unseen "Films on Music" Festival
Where: Southern Theater, Trylon microcinema, Red Stag Supper Club, Minneapolis
When: October 6 - 10

Last year's Sound Unseen festival featured some really outstanding films, including P-Star Rising, We Live in Public, and one of my favorites of the entire year, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (which I believe is scheduled for a limited late fall theatrical release). Sound Unseen programs numerous films on music throughout the year, but their annual festival always features high-profile films that otherwise would not get screened in the Twin Cities. It's a cozy little festival, too, with screenings at the Trylon (50 seats) and, this year, the Southern Theater on the West Bank. Here's the official release:

Fall Film Festobonanza, Part 2: Twin Cities Film Fest

What: 1st Annual Twin Cities Film Festival
Where: Block E & Mall of America
When: September 28 - October 2

I'm not sure why, and I'm not sure how, but a second citywide international film festival has arrived in the Twin Cities:

Fall Film Festobonanza, Part 1: Olivier Assayas Regis Dialogue & Retrospective

Irma Vep, Summer Hours, and Carlos

What: Olivier Assayas Regis Dialogue & Retrospective
Where: Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
When: October 1 - 31

I can't believe it's been a year since "Raising Cain", the Walker Art Center's retrospective and discussion featuring the Coen Brothers. This fall's series doesn't have quite the local flavor; just the opposite, in fact, and that's a great thing. Though I haven't seen most of Olivier Assayas' films, I know they span the entire globe, from Hong Kong to France to Vancouver to, most recently, Venezuela. Here is an excerpt from the Walker's press release:
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