The final week of MSPIFF 2010 (yes, the one that ended ten days ago...) proved alternately frustrating and fulfilling. I only made it to an additional four films, easily amassing my lowest total since I moved back to Minnesota four years ago. There was a long list of films that I missed, but I prefer to reflect on the fact that nothing I saw was outright terrible.
My Only Sunshine - Plans to see the sold-out Today's Special were foiled on a packed-to-the-gills Friday night, so we opted for a Turkish film, My Only Sunshine (an appropriate choice as we'll be on our honeymoon in Turkey in just a few weeks). As breathtaking and vivid as the cinematography was, My Only Sunshine does not make Istanbul a particularly appealing place; maybe compare it to New York City as seen in Chop Shop. On the other hand, it was fascinating to observe the environment and cultural quirks of Istanbul that I'm sure we won't see on our brief and touristy stop to the teeming seaside city of 12 million people. My Only Sunshine is a slice-of-life story as experienced by Hayat (Elit Iscan), an adolescent girl living with her troubled father and dying grandfather (the effects of emphysema caused by smoking have truly never been captured on film as they are captured here). You expect it to develop into a warm coming-of-age tale, but despite a few laughs and a completely tacked-on happy ending, it's an altogether bleak depiction of a lost childhood in Istanbul. Nonetheless, I remained engaged throughout and the production had the decidedly "foreign film" feel that I specifically seek at these festivals.
The Athlete - I made the brilliant decision to get tickets for this several days ahead of time, but I really did not expect a standing-room only crowd (seriously, people standing in the aisles throughout the entire movie). Co-director and star Rasselas Lakew was on hand to introduce and discuss the film afterward. The Athlete is a fascinating biopic for several reasons: 1.) It seamlessly blends archival footage, flashbacks, and "present day" in the context of a movie-within-a-movie; 2.) the cinematography is mesmerizing, reminiscent at times to Janusz Kaminski's in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; and 3.) it appears to truly capture the heroic heart of its subject, Abebe Bikila. The Ethiopian legend was the first black African to win an Olympic marathon (in Rome, 1960, barefoot) and the first Olympian to win two consecutive marathons. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of Italy's occupation of Ethiopia under Mussolini would understand the significance of Bikila's win in Rome, but the real power of this film is in the story of what happened to Bikila in the later years of his life. Suffice to say, I was emotionally ravaged by The Athlete.
Casino Jack & the United States of Money - This might be strike three for Alex Gibney as far as I'm concerned. I've championed Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room for years, but both Taxi to the Dark Side and Gonzo left me wanting. While my issues with those two were relevancy and depth, respectively, this time I was irked by Gibney's style. The story of Jack Abramoff is killer material for a documentary about the "truth" behind lobbyists in Washington, but Gibney dresses it up with completely unnecessary dramatizations (reenactments, outrageous voiceovers) and chapter headings, and rather presumptuously stretches his meandering story for 120 minutes. Granted, the bits that are juicy are really juicy, but this is a "Dateline NBC" episode on steroids; an at times MTV-style documentary that doesn't reveal nearly as much about lobbying and Washington as it could have in a trimmer and generally more understated form. I can't sum my thoughts up about Casino Jack (or Taxi to the Dark Side, for that matter) much better than Phillip Kennicott in the Washington Post: "Ultimately, it becomes a Rorschach test of the viewer's cynicism: Does it shock you? You must not live in Washington, read the newspaper or follow politics. Are you horrified? Congratulations, and now wise up."
Northless - I'm a sucker for most immigration stories (see my top 10 movies of 2009) because I'm fascinated by human migration and the lengths to which people will go to live in other countries. I try not to take for granted the freedoms that I enjoy in the U.S., and my own personal background (as an American-born child of immigrants) automatically makes me a little more sensitive to the stories of people seeking better or simply new lives elsewhere. Stories like that of Andrés in the tenderly made and rather apolitical Northless, which impossibly succeeds at creating its own niche in the immigrant movie market. It's amusing without being funny (though the chuckleheads in any Minnesota movie theater laugh like hyenas anytime they don't understand cultural nuance), and suspenseful without being dramatic. Having traveled to Tijuana a number of times when I lived in San Diego, and having seen the fences and the memorial crosses and the patient faces of Mexicans waiting to cross over, I really felt Northless captured the situation quite well, while even managing to juggle a few subplots here and there. This is not a movie that will sway anyone on either side of the debate about immigration reform (certainly not in this post-Arizona bill atmosphere), but it succeeds at providing a human face and identity to a character who represents millions of nameless people moving across the world's borders.