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.

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