September 1, 2011

Graduation

I didn't start this blog with a bang, and I won't bother trying to end it with one. So, I won't. End it, I mean - at least not permanently. But it's been clear to anyone visiting on a regular basis over the last four years that Getafilm has been limping along for about 18 months, and it's time to acknowledge that I'm either not willing or not able to focus on watching and writing as much as I'd like to at this time in my life.

It's been interesting for me to ponder: is it because I'm unwilling or because I'm unable, and how long does a season in life last? Fortunately I don't need to determine all of that. I don't have to pull the plug or delete everything I've written. I can just turn the lights off in this room and come back if and when I feel like it - the door will be closed but it won't be locked.

To entertain the masses that are sure to continue to flock here on a daily basis, I've tagged several dozen of the 625 archived posts here as my personal favorites, based on the writing, the discussion in the comments, or for an entirely personal reason.

I'll also leave four lessons I've learned, perhaps one for each year of writing to date:

1. Virtual relationships are real relationships. I stopped paying attention to my site traffic a couple of years ago, but the latest data shows that about 170,000 unique visitors have checked in from 193 countries and territories. If you're impressed, you're merely uninformed: popular blogs and websites will rack up those numbers in a morning, while it's taken me years. But what I value much more than the hits (I've never profited a dime from traffic) are the relationships - even friendships - I've developed with some of those visitors who have taken the time to engage with this blog. Some of them I've met, others I hope to one day meet; making friends with strangers has never been so easy.

2. Don't treat a hobby like a job (especially if you already have a job). I almost learned this the hard way as there were times Getafilm actually threatened to damage my relationship with film. As any amateur blogger can tell you, the pressure (entirely self-created) to post something on a regular basis can be overwhelming. Fortunately I gave up that concern some time ago, and have since enjoyed not writing as much as I've enjoyed writing. Why I devoted thought and digital space here to movies like Elegy, Margot at the Wedding, Observe and Report, and Semi-Pro, I have no idea. By far my favorite writing is found in my "Taking It Home" reviews: not only did those get to the heart of my relationship to film, but they were also done on my own time and under no pressure. I never started blogging with the idea that I would become a full time film critic, and, although I'm glad for the opportunity to write freelance reviews when asked, I'm perfectly at peace as an amateur, independent writer.

3. Nothing improves your writing like writing (and reading the writing of others). This should go without saying, but if you are reading this as a beginning blogger or a potential blogger or writer of any kind, I can't overstate how helpful it can be to write on a regular basis. And also read the writing of others (see my blogroll for a few of my inspirations). Putting words to a page forces you to distill and organize your thoughts, helps you form persuasive and well-reasoned arguments, and, perhaps most importantly for any writer, improves the economy and efficiency of your expression (at least for most people - you can tell it's still not my greatest strength).

4. Maintain perspective. This is basically an extension of #2 and should be true about anything in life, but it's worth repeating. People start blogging because they have creative energy they're trying to channel in some way, but it would stand to reason they have interests in life entirely unrelated to their blog. I know that's true for me, at least. I'm passionately interested in film, but also in quite a number of other things to which I'd like to focus my limited free time and energy. So, I don't see this hiatus or hibernation as a departure from film and writing (I'm actually hoping to watch more movies than I have been recently), but an indefinite break to give myself an opportunity to breathe without the weight of the blog, reflect, and maybe pursue some of my other interests. But it's not necessarily the end - I might feel compelled to write about a movie I see next month, or next year, or maybe not until next decade.

Until whenever that may be, thank you for reading. I have learned more about film, writing, history and culture in this little corner of the internet than I ever could have hoped. You've helped me earn a four-year degree in movie blogging, and am going to enjoy my graduation and relax for a bit...

August 29, 2011

Taking It Home: A Better Life

The grass is always greener, except when it's not.

I had the opportunity recently to observe removal hearings at a federal immigration court. The calendar moved in quick succession (5-10 minutes per case) and included the first appearances by respondents accused of being in the United States illegally. These were not detainees or, depending on your definition, even criminals, but they were nonetheless up against the law on this day.

Some had been in the country for less than a year, others had been here for decades. Maybe they hopped the border themselves, or through the help of a mule, or maybe they just overstayed their originally legal visas. They didn't explain how or why they came, only that they wanted to stay, for the welfare of themselves (in the case of asylum-seekers) or the welfare of others, such as children or spouses. Each story was different, and yet they were all identical, in that they portrayed lives lived in two places at once - here and abroad, above ground and underground, in comfortable peace and in extreme danger.

There were no tears or emotional speeches or really any kind of the desperation I might have expected in such an environment. Names were replaced by case numbers, legal jargon was interspersed with yes or no questions interpreted in different languages, and future dates and years were planned ahead matter-of-factly (cases are so backlogged that follow-up hearings were being scheduled on this day for mid-2014). It was, in other words, devastating in its banality.

The same can be said for A Better Life, although it unfortunately dips its toes into schmaltz every 15-20 minutes. So many recent movies have been made about immigration, and so many of those movies have told the same story (except Sean Baker's singular Take Out), that it was a little disappointing to watch A Better Life drive down that heavily-trafficked road and pass up possible detours to new cinematic territory. It's predictable and occasionally pedantic, and to be perfectly honest it's hard to defend as a "good movie".

But my measure of quality here has always considered social importance above cinematic artistry, and to that end A Better Life is as good if not better than most films I've seen this year. And it's not as if it's "bad" even on traditional cinematic terms; it transcends most of its flaws thanks to lived-in performances and a steady grounding in reality. Its characters are familiar not only from other movies, but from your daily bus commute or restaurant meal or hotel stay. (Perhaps the most conspicuous characteristic of undocumented immigrants, on screen and on the street, is their stoic work ethic.)

So if immigration-themed films are a dime a dozen, why do they keep being produced? First and most obviously, because immigration - both legal and illegal - is an issue facing not only every state and community in the United States, but nearly every country on earth. And it will continue to be a relevant social issue until, perhaps generations from now, the world will be so globalized that borders will be virtual and national identities will be nominal.

Until that time, if and when it does come (certainly not in our lifetimes), immigration movies will continue to portray undocumented immigrants in a sympathetic light, simply by virtue of their often narrow focus on the hard luck and difficult struggles these characters face every day. We don't see them as job takers or drug smugglers or fraudulent voters, but as honest workers, family members, and people of high moral character. Which the majority of them are, as I saw in court and as I see everyday when I look in the mirror (as a U.S.-born child of naturalized immigrants from two countries).

Secondly, the movies often strive to portray one of the unappreciated realities of this issue: it's not about the immigrants at all, but about their families, both now and for generations to come. Any emotion tied into these stories is related to these family bonds; I can't think of a moving illegal immigration film about a loner character whose family ties are not central to the story (though Sugar and Lorna's Silence come pretty close). So, as filmmakers continue to try to emotionally engage us about immigration, it will be an exercise in who can tell the most compelling story in the most unique way (Ramin Bahrani is among the new pioneers I admire).

And lastly, what of cinematic musings on immigration policies and politics? Put simply, I'd suggest that films about immigration are films about failed immigration policies (and documentaries like 9500 Liberty approach them head-on). The vast majority of these movies posit that current policies are either unfair or irrelevant, and that no matter what the politicians decide, illegal entry across borders will continue, and the stories we see on screen will continue to play out in real time all around us. There will be consequences for everyone involved, and there are no easy answers.

But as I've said before I think the purpose of these films, and all thoughtful films for that matter, is not to set forth policy but to initiate a conversation about it, or, in the case of A Better Life, serve as a conventional yet compassionate reminder of the importance of an issue.

What did you take home?

August 13, 2011

300 Words About: Stevie


As Steve James' excellent The Interrupters made its way around theaters this summer, I caught up recently with Stevie, his deeply personal documentary from 2002 (and only his second documentary at the time, the first being of course Hoop Dreams). Stevie is the worst possible testimonial for the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America youth mentoring program that you might ever see. It's also a perfect example of why programs like it are so important.

Steve James was a Big Brother to Stevie Fielding in the mid-1980's. At the time, little Stevie was an awkward preteen living with his grandparents in rural Southern Illinois - he was a little odd and had a troubled family history, but was generally harmless. James had a relatively normal mentor-mentee relationship with Stevie for a few years, and then returned in the mid-90's (perhaps encouraged by the recent success of Hoop Dreams) to see what Stevie was up to as an adult. What he found was troubling: Stevie was well on his way down a self-destructive path, with an extensive criminal record and no clear direction in his life. Devastated by Stevie's situation and perhaps feeling guilty for not keeping closer tabs on his "little brother", James recommitted himself to helping Stevie at least stay out of legal trouble, if not actually become a contributing member of society.

And this is where Stevie lays bare the profound challenge facing mentors in a program like Big Brother Big Sisters, or for that matter parents, teachers, or any adult nobly attempting to better a young person's life. I felt pangs of guilt for past students that I had "let go" during my teaching years, or for that matter anyone in my life with whom I've had a mentoring-type relationship. Were there too many other opposing factors and influences to outweigh my efforts? Did I do as much as I could to make a difference? Did it even matter?

Stevie is not meant to be an examination of guilt or regret, and, refreshingly, James does not frame it as a naive "agenda" documentary or bookend it with tidy steps that can be followed to make the world a better place. He instead asks raw, honest, heartbreaking questions - and doesn't provide any easy answers - about what happens when the best intentions are left unrealized. And the horror doesn't end on the screen, either, as Stevie's current situation is as disturbing as anything from the film's footage, which is now more than a decade old.

They say "the road to hell is paved with good intentions", and critics of mentoring programs for troubled youth could use Stevie as Exhibit A in their case against program efficacy. But to watch Stevie is to understand a different reason why these programs exist: not to "save lives", but to connect lives that wouldn't otherwise be connected. To strip away the social barriers that keep us apart and put us (the privileged) face-to-face with the experience of the marginalized majority around us. The reason I appreciate James so much as a filmmaker is because he doesn't wield his camera as a weapon of scrutiny and all-knowing judgment. Instead he uses it as a mirror, reflecting back on us images of ourselves that we can't or don't want to see. What happens after that is for us to figure out.

July 28, 2011

Getafilm Gallimaufry: Midnight in Paris, X-Men: First Class, The Tree of Life, Super 8

Midnight in Paris (A)

Having never been to Paris, I've enjoyed exploring the city's iconic setting in various films, from The 400 Blows (which I saw recently for the first time) to Amelie, Band of Outsiders, Ronin, Before Sunset, 2 Days in Paris, and even European Vacation and Ratatouille, to name just a few. I can see why it makes for such an enchanting setting for movies, and Midnight in Paris hit all the right notes for me again. The smells and spells of the city were a terrific complement to a dream-like fantasy story. Owen Wilson played essentially the same version of the same character he's played in every movie from You, Me, and Dupree to Shanghai Knights, and while I wouldn't have expected that character to fit here, it was a near perfect fit for the quirkiness of the narrative. I didn't buy the chemistry between his character and Marion Cotillard's, but then Midnight in Paris is not a love story between characters but between a director, a city, and his cultural and literary influences. I like that Woody Allen doesn't go to really any length to explain why particular characters are where they are, when they are. The charm of this movie is easy to succumb to, and that it's Allen's highest-grossing film to date speaks to the appeal for mature, original, simple cinema in the midst of the year-round blockbuster bonanza.


X Men: First Class (B+)


Here's a movie for which I couldn't explain my interest ahead of time, other than that some aspect of the original X-Men movie and the story has always intrigued me. It involves the fact that this series is set in the real world and involves real people and places, unlike Batman, for example (why the endless fawning over and praise of that story, I still don't know). You could say Watchmen is also set in the real world, and while those graphic novels may well be interesting (I haven't read them and hated the movie), I still find X-Men to be among the most socially relevant comic book series around. Mutants are, of course, a metaphor for any marginalized minority group in history, which makes the films both relatable and actually much more emotional than Spider-Man or, good grief, The Green Hornet. Lending to the realism in this latest film is the excellent acting from Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, and Jennifer Lawrence. Casting seasoned dramatic actors in comic book movie doesn't always work (Ed Norton as The Incredible Hulk?), but it definitely did in First Class, and if the cast stays on for the next installment, I'll follow along as well.

The Tree of Life (B+)

Up until a few years ago, I had no idea Terrence Malick was so revered by 25-40 year old male movie buffs. Among my peers in the blogging world, Malick's The New World was far and away considered the best film of the last decade. I remember quite well seeing it in the theater and shrugging my shoulders on the way out, so the devout praise for the film has always escaped me. Not baffled me, because I didn't think it was bad, but escaped me, because...I don't know, maybe I just didn't get it, or know what I should have been watching for, or have enough patience and thought to consider its deeper meanings. I never did give it a second watch, but needless to say the hype around that film made me quite anxious to have a third shot at understanding Malick (I'd previously seen The Thin Red Line). My verdict on The Tree of Life? A visually captivating and ambitious meditation on the meaning of life and nature of family, but a somewhat emotionally dull one at that. Really the only emotion I felt, other than an utter sense of awe at the cinematography and visual effects, was an unnerving fear. Brad Pitt's character was terrifying and his presence was palpable even when he wasn't on screen - maybe that was the point (Sean Penn, meanwhile, seemed absent even when he was on screen). The father-son relationship is one of about a million things that Malick lays out for interpretation and analysis. Over the next few years, as that is sure to play out again online, at least I won't be as confused. And besides, I'd much rather people spend years discussing a film like The Tree of Life than a film like The Dark Knight. (That's two digs now at TDK, if you're keeping score at home.)

Super 8 (C+)

When is a remake not actually a remake? When everything about the new movie is identical to a previous movie, other than a few plot devices. Of course we know by now that Super 8 is J.J. Abrams' homage to the films of Steven Spielberg, but instead of being merely influenced by Spielberg's films (E.T. being the easiest comparison), Super 8 plays like a lesser version of one. Sillier dialogue, a plodding pace, and hardly a speck of originality (to say nothing of logical gaps - how did the camera and the car and the kamikaze teacher come out of the train crash essentially unscathed?). Watching Super 8, I felt like I'd seen it before: the rowdy dining room table, the same-looking alien with the same-sounding guttural growls and high-pitched chirps, the placid suburban neighborhood predictably thrown into chaos. Of course I realize that this criticism, besides making me come off as a total grouch, can also be applied to countless movies. Filmmakers are influenced by filmmakers throughout history, and I expect my issues with Super 8, rather than being based on the movie's own merit, actually just stem from my nostalgia for "the real thing" - Spielberg's films.

July 11, 2011

"Location: MN" - This Weekend @ the Walker

For better or worse, the most iconic Minnesota movie scene that ever was.

If there is anything Minnesotans love more than Minnesota (a big "if"), it's movies about Minnesota. Movies that show us who we really are (Fargo), who we really aren't (Fargo), and who we desperately fear the rest of the world thinks we are (Fargo). That fear being unsubstantiated, of course, because the rest of the world pays no attention to us in the first place (perhaps the greatest horror of all). I digress.

It ain't Hollywood by any stretch of the imagination, but a number of excellent films have been written, produced, and filmed here, and this weekend's showcase at the Walker Art Center, Location: MN, is a rare opportunity to go out and explore the state by going in to a dark and comfortably air conditioned theater. Keep in mind these are only movies filmed in Minnesota, not movies written by Minnesotans (Gran Torino), or written by "Minnesotans" (Juno), or set in Minnesota but filmed elsewhere (Juno, again).

Despite this filtering of the list, there are a handful of movies whose exclusion I find curious, even if somewhat obvious considering the artistic reputation the Walker needs to uphold. I mean, it would be audacious to justify including The Mighty Ducks, or Jingle All the Way, or Grumpy (and Grumpier) Old Men, or Drop Dead Gorgeous, or New in Town, or Little Big League. (Actually a bizarro series featuring those films and others could do decent business here, but the Walker isn't the likely setting for it.)

But what about more acclaimed films like North Country, Untamed Heart, A Prairie Home Companion (my allergy to Garrison Keillor notwithstanding), or A Serious Man? Or what about some of the little indie films that didn't make big splashes but still floated out beyond the local festival circuit, like Into Temptation or Stuck Between Stations?

And, most importantly, what about my favorite - and the most culturally accurate - Minnesota movie of all time: Aurora Borealis (add it)?

June 20, 2011

48 Hour Film Project: Minneapolis

Sure has been a ghost town around here, but such is my current movie-going reality. I've had something resembling a resurgence lately, however, and a local event this Thursday might be just the tonic for my malaise. Nothing like some actual creativity on a screen to reawaken my mojo for the movies, and there's nothing more creative than producing an original film in 48 hours.

Head to the Riverview Theater this Thursday for the Best Of Screening of the 48 Hour Film Project, an international film competition taking place in 100 cities in 24 countries. Minneapolis, as many know, boasts one of the fiercest city competitions, with dozens of submissions each year.

If you're not familiar, it's this simple: two Friday nights ago, filmmaking teams received the name of a character (this year - a "Driving Instructor" named Les or Lena Olinger), a prop (this year - a magnet), and a line of dialogue (this year - "Tell me about it."). Within 48 hours they had to write, shoot, and edit an original short film. These films screened last week, and this Thursday the best of the bunch will be shown. What do the winners receive? Prizes, of course, but also the prestige that can only come in a rabid local filmmaking community like ours. 

And oh yeah, they also get their film screened at the Cannes Film Festival each May, including 2010's Minneapolis winner, Per Bianca:


I can say from experience that the Best Of Screening is a rollicking good time - do yourself a favor and see the kind of creativity that is utterly lacking in movie theaters week after week!

When: Thursday, June 23rd, at 7:00 PM
Where: The Riverview
Cost: $15

May 10, 2011

2011 MSPIFF Journal #3/3


Also: 2011 MSPIFF Journals #'s 1 & 2


Project Nim
Grade: B+
Opens in Minneapolis later this summer

Something was frustrating me throughout Project Nim, and it wasn't the animal cruelty, disturbing as that obviously was. It was the reenactments that were most annoying - dark, bloody scenes inserted throughout the film in an attempt to dramatize the narration and make sure we knew, for example, what it looked like when Nim killed a poodle by throwing it against a wall. Every few minutes, I kept wondering, "This seems familiar - why I am so bothered by these unnecessary but harmless reenactments?". My answer came when the film ended: Directed by James Marsh. Ah, yes, Oscar-winning James Marsh, whose enthralling Man on Wire also suffered mightily from frequently pointless reenacted scenes. As far as I can tell from these two films, Marsh must have zero faith in the storytelling power of his interviews, or the wealth of archival footage at his disposal, or for that matter the patience of the average viewer. It's not enough to have incredibly juicy material with which to work - Marsh has stylize his story like a bad TV police procedural just to keep our attention during an interview with a subject, which, you know, there are a fair amount of in most documentaries. Ugh. Anyway, if you can get past the reenactments - and obviously everyone else in the world easily could for Man on Wire - you'll find Project Nim a haunting examination of science, and also "science", otherwise known as mankind's often nasty way of dealing with other species in this world.

The Bengali Detective
Grade: B+

The first thing I remember hearing about The Bengali Detective, from the news headlines out of Sundance in January, was that the documentary had been picked up for a feature film adaptation. The most recent similar example is the delayed but still simmering adaptation of The King of Kong, so I deduced that the films must have something in common, such as instantly classic characters - real life people who seem too scripted to not be scripted. In this respect The Bengali Detective definitely delivers, but otherwise it's a completely different style of film, for better and for worse. The central focus on Rajesh Ji, an optimistic private investigator, serves as a fascinating foundation from which to consider contemporary Indian society in Kolkata. Between his daily grind on several cases, which range from fake shampoo sales to infidelity to dismemberment and murder, we get a closer look at what motivates him, namely his adorable son and ailing wife (diabetes). And in between all of this, we see Rajesh and his team of investigators don glitter and spandex while earnestly preparing for an audition for a TV dance competition. Needless to say, the film is an emotional rollercoaster, uproariously funny one minute, grotesquely disturbing the next minute, and then heart-stoppingly tragic, before starting all over again. It was a lot to handle and made me wonder if the ending was really as uplifting as it seemed, but it's still hands-down one of the most entertaining documentaries in this early year - and a film adaptation is completely unnecessary.

Stuck Between Stations
Grade: B

I don't know whether to fault Stuck Between Stations for being so stubbornly local or love it for being so stubbornly loyal. It's without question one of the most gushing cinematic tributes to Minneapolis ever put on film; it's not an exaggeration to say it's a movie about a city more than a movie about a story. The story is a gentle retread of Before Sunrise, but with fewer interesting conversations and more needless skyline shots. The performances are actually a highlight, even by Josh Hartnett in a bizarre cameo, and they carry the story through some otherwise tedious scenes. This isn't to say the film is boring or the dialogue empty (quite the opposite), but eventually there's so much navel-gazing and local flavor that it becomes a little stifling. You just want a change of scenery or something foreign or new (kind of like living here at times, but that's a different story). At the end of the day, Stuck Between Stations is a tenderly made film with a lot of heart, even if its Minneapolitan sensibilities may prove to be a bit of a barrier to outsiders truly connecting with it.

May 4, 2011

2011 MSPIFF Journal #2/3



The Interrupters 
Grade: A
Opens in Minneapolis later this summer

My expectations were sky high for the latest documentary from Steve James (Hoop Dreams), and he went ahead and soared past them. The Interrupters is a harrowing journey into the everyday lives of Chicagoans desperately trying to keep the city's troubled teens from killing each other. The film's main subjects are "violence interrupters" who work for CeaseFire, a nonprofit dedicated to stopping street violence, most often in the form of shootings, by simply trying to verbally mediate between conflicting parties. In other words, telling gang members to put down their guns and just play nice with each other. Sound ridiculous? Well, turns out it's a fairly effective strategy, primarily because most of the interrupters are themselves ex-cons and former gang members. They know the game, and they know where and when they can be most effective in stopping another senseless murder before it happens. Obviously it's still an incredibly difficult task, and the film does an outstanding job balancing the successes with the ongoing challenges. It's not a feel-good documentary by any means, yet the the hope and optimism demonstrated by the interrupters cannot be denied.


A Screaming Man
Grade: B+

Despite a few blips on the radar, I remain convinced that Latin America and Africa are greatly underrepresented on the local film scene (and the national and global film scenes, for that matter), so I jumped at the chance to see A Screaming Man, winner of a special jury prize at Cannes last year. More importantly, it caught my eye as the latest film from Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, who helmed Dry Season, possibly my favorite film of MSPIFF in 2008 (queue it up). The films are similar in many ways (and both star the gifted Youssouf Djaoro), with really the main difference being that A Screaming Man examines a father's conflicted emotions about a son, instead of a son's conflicted emotions about a father. The civil war serves as the background setting once again, but the brilliance of Haroun's story is that it's not really about war, but about decisions between family and career, and the transition between generations. A Screaming Man didn't bowl me over as much as Dry Season, but it's nonetheless troubling to think that we miss out on so many films like this every year.


The Hedgehog 
Grade: B+
Opens in Minneapolis later this summer

Not having read Muriel Barbery's celebrated novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I was pretty shocked at the opening narration from the film's young protagonist, Paloma, in which she announces, quite seriously, that she's planning to kill herself on her next birthday. In fact, that first minute cast a pretty disturbing pall over the rest of the movie, turning what might have been a really touching romantic dramedy into an occasionally uncomfortable meditation on death and loneliness. One could argue that the dramatic thread grounded the story in reality and provided for deeper emotional access, but I just felt on edge for a good part of the film. If its comedy was meant to be dark, I guess it was a little too dark for my taste. That said, The Hedgehog is still consistently watchable and even absorbing; nearly every scene takes place in just a few rooms and I felt immersed in a Parisian microcosm. It's also superbly acted and skips along at a nice pace until, again, a dose of mild depression to send you out. See it if you're in the mood for a good French film, just don't go in with the light-hearted expectations that I did.

April 30, 2011

2011 MSPIFF Journal #1/3

170 200+ Films in 3 Weeks - How many could you possible see?

Naturally, each of the first three films I saw at MSPIFF were documentaries, not only because I have an affinity for them but also because there are literally dozens of documentaries in this year's fest, which is breaking its own record for number of films and number of days. Why the annual obsession with making MSPIFF bigger and longer than ever before, I don't know - by my elementary arithmetic, if you attended for 22 days straight and saw 4 films each day, you would still see fewer than half the number of films in the catalog.

Nevertheless, there's something to be said for offering something for every movie fan, even if that means every movie fan. And considering the number of films on tap, the revived Film Society of Minneapolis-St. Paul has done a stellar job with the organization of the festival. Lines have been smooth and start times punctual, and in this third year at the St. Anthony venue, my opinion has been cemented that it's the perfect location for the festival: easy freeway access, free parking, and sufficient nearby cafes/restaurants (plus free Punch pizza with every ticket stub again?!). Not much more you can ask for - even some of the surly theater staff from last year appear to have left.

Here's a rundown on the three I saw last week:

Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times 
Grade: B+
Opens at the Uptown in July

A meaty if not meandering documentary, Page One takes us behind the scenes of the Media Desk at the New York Times, which is tasked with covering the very state of print journalism itself. It's an interesting angle for director Andrew Rossi to take on this story, and it goes some way in refuting the "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic" analogy about the state of legacy media in the 21st century. You leave the film convinced the that The Times, and presumably other news institutions, are finally begin to adapt not just in the way subscribers access content (i.e., the new pay wall they recently installed on their website), but in the way we think about the journalists providing that content. Rossi profiles people like Minneapolis native David Carr (whose improbable journey to The Times newsroom didn't get enough attention in either the film or the Q & A with Carr and Rossi after the opening night screening) and Brian Stelter, a blogger-turned-journalist who is the face of an impressive new generation of reporters at The Times. All that said, Page One never really develops a cohesive narrative, and the viewing experience is like reading the NYT Twitter feed, with scattered pieces of stories out of order and often out of context. Nonetheless, for subscribers like me (Sunday edition only), it's a fascinating look inside the news machine.

Nostalgia for the Light
Grade: A

Thought-provoking, awe-inspiring, and tragic, Patricio Guzmán's Nostalgia for the Light is a superb feat of filmmaking, weaving together history, astronomy, and philosophy in a meditation on selective memory and the skeletons in Chile's closet. Centered in the Atacama Desert (site of the miraculous mine rescue of 2010), the film contrasts the desert's world-class astronomy facilities with the horrifying secrets that are buried in the ground around them, mostly in the form of skeletal remains of victims of the Pinochet dictatorship. While professors and scientists turn their eyes heavenward, a small group of women pick through the dust and dirt in a search for their relatives that has lasted 30 years. Both parties are in search of the past, and both have seemingly infinite horizons through which to carefully comb. The only difference is, the astronomers are working with the full support of the Chilean government, with every resource at their disposal. The women? They're mostly left alone in the hope that they will eventually die off, and take their talk of torture and injustice along with them. The film is not an indictment of Chile in this sense (Guzman waxes poetically about his country and shows it in an astonishingly beautiful light), but simply a troubling comparison between mankind's search for meaning in the stars, and mankind's search for redemption and forgiveness here on earth.

Kinshasa Symphony 
Grade: B+

The main challenge with Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer's Kinshasa Symphony is avoiding the temptation to simply write it off as a clichéd tearjerker. The title alone basically tells you what you're in for - an inspiring story about people making beautiful music against the odds in one of the world's most impoverished countries. What else would you expect? Indeed, it's exactly that and not much more, but in turning the lens on several compelling members of the orchestra and underscoring the challenges they face on a daily basis (to the tune of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony), the film ultimitaely does transcend expectations. What's missing, at least for prodding viewers like me, is some context about what exactly is going on in the background in Kinshasa, a city of 10 million people in arguably Africa's most tumultuous country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Granted, I came in about five minutes late, but I didn't get the full picture of the city, country, and culture that I was hoping for. But maybe that's a minor complaint, as the film is not meant to be a political or social commentary but simply a tribute to these unbelievably determined musicians. And in that respect, Kinshasa Symphony is music to the ears, eyes, and soul.

April 29, 2011

In Context: Terrence Malick & The Tree of Life @ the Walker

Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life (image courtesy Fox Searchlight)
In Context: Terrence Malick
May 13–June 1, Walker Art Center

Press Release:
"The area premiere of Terrence Malick’s new, heavily anticipated film, The Tree of Life, follows a rare, complete retrospective of the work of this extraordinary filmmaker. 

With uncompromising, unparalleled vision, Malick makes films of breathtaking panoramic vistas, sweeping soundscapes, masterful voice-over narration, and exquisite silences. A former Rhodes Scholar who studied philosophy and worked in journalism before turning to film, he made his first, the landmark Badlands, in 1973 at the age of 29. That year, the New York Film Festival opened with François Truffaut’s Day for Night and closed with Badlands—bookending the program by saluting the European master and announcing the arrival of a great new talent. Since this auspicious beginning, Malick has made just five films during his career and is notoriously silent about the work that he takes years to perfect, leaving interpretation up to the audience. Viewing his complete body of work, on majestic 35mm film, offers nothing less than a revelatory cinematic experience." 

April 26, 2011

Careful What You Win For: Lucky

Now what?

I've often thought that if I won the lottery (if I ever played it), I'd give away all of the winnings - every dime. A righteously charitable fantasy to be sure, but my thinking has been that despite my debts and bills, I'm generally not struggling to get by from paycheck to paycheck. There are many, many more people who "need" extra money due to various circumstances and long-term financial hardships. People like multimillionaire lottery winners, as it turns out.

Jeffrey Blitz's compelling new documentary, Lucky (out today on DVD), explores the lives of a half dozen or so individuals and families who have been awarded those giant cardboard checks. Winning millions of dollars not surprisingly had a huge effect on their lives, but not quite in the way I would have expected, and definitely not in the way many of them hoped.

March 31, 2011

The Best Documentaries of 2010

"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."

"If Restrepo isn't the most visceral war film we've ever seen, it's at least the most visceral movie about the war in Afghanistan that we've yet seen, and the most insightful documentary on the 21st-century soldier's experience since The War Tapes...Restrepo almost seems to exist in a vacuum, like a fictionalized action movie (Predators, Avatar?) in which a dozen American soldiers accidentally land on another planet and have to fight for their lives. Of course, that's not the case. These are real twenty-somethings from Wisconsin, Florida, California, and elsewhere, fighting for their lives in a desolate valley on the other side of the world, wearing our flag on their shoulders, shooting at the trees in the hopes of killing unknown enemies who may or may not be connected to one of several networks that could be planning attacks against us somewhere on the planet and sometime in the near, or long-term, future. If this represents our very best attempt at securing American freedom and prosperity and liberating the world from themselves (that's the mandate we've proclaimed, right?), I'm afraid we should be deeply concerned."

"Maybe I'm just a more observant viewer than most, but I would think that most focused movie-goers and critics would pick up on at least a few of these clues.But whether or not you feel like you've been unfairly taken for a ride, there are a few aspects of I'm Still Here that I think should be appreciated. First, the film shows us just how little the average person actually knew about Joaquin Phoenix to begin with; that we still don't know anything about the "real" him is fascinating to consider. Second, I'm Still Here probably chronicles the death of a Hollywood career as it would happen - as it does happen, to many former stars. Lastly, it demonstrates just how talented an actor Joaquin Phoenix is, playing an alternate version of himself in a much more committed way than, say, John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich. Few actors would ever take the risk to spend two years on a project like this, and I hope Phoenix's career is justly rewarded - even if Hollywood is bitter that the joke was always on them."


The Best Movies of 2010

"A Prophet is one of the best crime sagas in recent memory, and, along with last year's Lion's Den and Hunger, it has helped usher in a new era of harrowing prison dramas (the last truly memorable one being what, The Shawshank Redemption?).

Written and directed by Jacques Audiard, whose last film (The Beat My Heart Skipped) was highly acclaimed but unseen by me, A Prophet boasts impressive verisimilitude for a completely fictional story. Maybe it's not surprising considering former convicts were hired as extras and advisers, but Audiard himself has admitted that prison life is rarely depicted in French film and television. French citizens are apparently clueless about what goes on behind prison walls in their country, so it doesn't take much convincing to accept this story as reality.


Indeed, life on the inside is reflective of life on the outside: the old French/European power structure is fading as new immigrant groups - particularly Arab Muslims (that term should not sound nearly as redundant as it does) - are arriving and establishing their identities as the "new French". Symbolically speaking, this film is urgently relevant (it won nine of the record 13
César Awards for which it was nominated); cinematically speaking it is a masterful showcase of acting, cinematography, pacing (even at 150 minutes), suspense, music, action and, most importantly, global insight."

"No matter how hard we might try, and no matter how much of it is actually true, and no matter that (or likely because) it is such an assured and polished piece of cinema, The Social Network is now and forever will be a primary influence on our thinking about Facebook and its founding. You can deny it, but for better or (probably) for worse, it has significantly changed some of our opinions about Zuckerberg and social networking, and thus also the decisions we'll make about if and how we use Facebook. Since the Facebook story is not yet complete, I find that realization fascinating: The Social Network will influence the real-life future of its characters - Zuckerberg included - considerably more than the average film based on true events."

March 26, 2011

On the Horizon: Movies in 2011

Foreboding weather again for movie fans?
Although I've yet to finalize my best films of 2010, mostly because I'm still slowly catching up to all that I've missed, it's already well into 2011 and thus time to take a look at what's ahead.

People have defended 2010 as a solid year in film, but I'm afraid I just haven't seen (at least not yet) much to write home about, or write here about, as it were. Compared to the upcoming year, however, 2010 may end up being considered a golden year to be remember. I'm not going to break down specific titles by month as I have in past years; rather, I'm going to lift from Mark Harris' instantly classic article in the February issue of GQ (which I now realize has been lauded all over the place for weeks, but which I only discovered in the hard copy of the magazine that I stole borrowed from the YMCA).

I think this is all that needs to be said, and I think that aside from MSPIFF 2011 this spring, I probably shouldn't worry about the many new movies that I'm likely to miss this year as well:
"...let's look ahead to what's on the menu for this year: four adaptations of comic books. One prequel to an adaptation of a comic book. One sequel to a sequel to a movie based on a toy. One sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a movie based on an amusement-park ride. One prequel to a remake. Two sequels to cartoons. One sequel to a comedy. An adaptation of a children's book. An adaptation of a Saturday-morning cartoon. One sequel with a 4 in the title. Two sequels with a 5 in the title. One sequel that, if it were inclined to use numbers, would have to have a 7 1/2 in the title.

...Right now, we can argue that any system that allows David Fincher to plumb the invention of Facebook and the Coen brothers to visit the old West, that lets us spend the holidays gorging on new work by Darren Aronofsky and David O. Russell, has got to mean that American filmmaking is in reasonably good health. But the truth is that we'll be back to summer—which seems to come sooner every year—in a heartbeat. And it's hard to hold out much hope when you hear the words that one studio executive, who could have been speaking for all her kin, is ready to chisel onto Hollywood's tombstone: "We don't tell stories anymore."

March 9, 2011

Getafilm Gallimaufry: Catfish, Winnebago Man, and A Film Unfinished

[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).]
_______________________________________________________________

Recently I wrote about last year's trend of playing with the truth, or at least playing it up. I focused on feature films, but there were a surprising number of documentaries from 2010 that belong in the same conversation, such as Exit Through the Gift Shop, I'm Still Here, and three more I recently caught up with:

Catfish

Take heed if you have not yet seen this film and stop reading. Now. Seriously, if you're planning to watch it (and I think you should), don't read further. 

Throughout last year I stepped around every discussion of it and for the most part I was able to avoid any plot details, which I'm very glad for. Ironically, though, what I wasn't able to avoid were hints that a fair amount of this film was fabricated. With that in mind, I watched Catfish and...still believed every frame of it. At least on first glance, and without giving any critical thought to the filming process. Yes, I found myself eating up every bit of the story, laughing along as the characters acted and reacted as only people of a certain generation would (e.g., hearing a song and having the automatic reaction to look it up on YouTube, or understanding the humor of The Oatmeal). In fact I loved what I was watching, loved how the story was wildly entertaining while also extremely thought-provoking: how do we live when we live - and love - online?

Then it ended, and I then I went online (natch), and then I realized that maybe I'd been taken for a ride. I didn't have any easy answers to a lot of questions people raised, such as why the filmmakers shot so much footage in the early months, or why they suddenly became tech-savvy and suspicious at a very convenient point in the story, or why an 8 year-old had such an active internet presence (tell me we're not already there).

March 4, 2011

Regis Dialogue w/ Julian Schnabel @ the Walker

Walker Cinema, March 4-19, 2011

Via the Walker Art Center (trailers below the jump):

"Over the past 20 years, the Regis Dialogue and Retrospective programs have brought some of today’s most innovative and influential filmmakers to the Walker Cinema, an intimate setting in which directors talk about their creative process, influences, and body of work illuminated with film clips, anecdotes, and personal insights. In March, join Julian Schnabel in conversation with Walker chief curator Darsie Alexander on the Cinema stage.

February 25, 2011

February 7, 2011

Coming Soon...Muriel 5.0


Obviously, I've hit a dry patch here as the calendar has rolled into 2011. Hopefully it's not a sign of things to come, as I'd hoped to revive my writing a little bit this year, not see it continue to wither.

Nevermind that dilemma for now - there is something on the way that's more important than my next post, and that is the 5th Annual Muriel Awards. I had the privilege of voting for these annual online film awards for the 3rd year in a row, despite the fact that I saw oh, maybe less than half the number of movies in 2010 as I typically see, thereby narrowing my personal voting pool to a significant degree. While I did see the heavy hitters and Oscar nominees, I missed most of the under-the-radar indie films and documentaries that always make voting a lot more fun.

Beginning February 16 and running right up until March 6 (the day before the Oscars), the awards in categories such as Best Body of Work and Best Cinematic Moment will be unveiled, once per day, at (I think) the official Muriel blog, Our Science is Too Tight (and hats off to award co-founder Steve Carlson for diligently tallying all of the votes over the next 10 days).

Meanwhile, I hope Craig Kennedy at Living in Cinema will again produce some brilliantly inspired Muriel posters (poignantly this year, as Muriel, award co-founder Paul Clark's guinea pig and the namesake of the ceremonies, passed away in November).

Make sure to tune in, because if nothing else I can almost guarantee that the Muriel winners will be less predictable than the Oscar winners...

January 23, 2011

Playing With the Truth: Film in 2010


Based on a true story.

Inspired by actual events. 

I'm not sure if it was an actual trend in 2010 or just a common trait of the few movies that I saw, but phrases like those above seemed to appear on screen in quite a lot of films, including 127 Hours, Conviction, Howl, Carlos, North Face, and even more that I didn't see, such as Made in Dagenham, Casino Jack, Eat Pray Love, I Love You Philip Morris, Mesrine: Killer Instinct & Public Enemy #1, and Nowhere Boy, to name only a few (and to say nothing of the tricky-truthy documentaries like I'm Still Here, Catfish, and Exit Through the Gift Shop).

Are there this many films based on true events every year and I only noticed it in 2010, or is this a newly developing trend? Either possibility would surprise me. If this is common every year, why have I not picked up on it so acutely, particularly considering I usually see twice as many movies as I did in 2010, and that I have a running series about movies based on real life? On the other hand, if this is a newly developing trend - why?

I'm almost positive it's the former, that this is not a new thing at all, but in any case it doesn't matter. I'm always more interested in how these films depict the truth they are meant to represent and, in doing so, how they shape our understanding and perspective on past events. For example, when I ask you to imagine the sinking of the Titanic, what images come to your mind? What about Roman gladiator fighting in the Colosseum? What do you picture when you think of John Smith and Pocahontas, or the Zodiac killer who terrorized San Francisco, or the fate of United Flight 93, or the storming of Omaha Beach on D-Day?

You see where I'm going with this: for many people, films based on true events serve as the primary influence on the subconscious in remembering or imagining those events. If you've seen those movies - Titanic, Gladiator, The New World, Zodiac, United 93, Saving Private Ryan - you bring their images to mind without even realizing it, particularly when a.) the images are astonishingly rendered (Titanic), and b.) there are few other film adaptations, documentaries, or other visual aids to provide alternative images in your mind (United 93). In essence, perception becomes reality; what we see becomes what actually happened, even if it didn't actually happen.

But does it matter when those images and those memories produce a reality that didn't actually exist? Where does the truth end and the dramatization begin, and is the truth ever interesting enough to stand on its own, free of embellishment? I'm sure it's a question as old as film itself - as art itself, really - but I'd like to consider it in the context of five films I saw in the last few months of 2010: The Social Network, The Fighter, Fair Game, The King's Speech, and All Good Things.

January 20, 2011

300 Words About: Mississippi Damned


Taking its name from the provocative Nina Simone song, Tina Mabry's Mississippi Damned reveals itself as, in essence, an adaptation of the downbeat lyrics:"Lord have mercy on this land of mine/We all gonna get it in due time/I don't belong here/I don't belong there/I've even stopped believing in prayer...Oh but this whole country is full of lies/You're all gonna die and die like flies."

Yeah, this one ain't for the kids.

Written and directed by Mabry (recent recipient of a prestigious United States Artists grant) and based on her own family history, the film is a generation-spanning tale of physical and sexual abuse, poor choices, missed opportunities, poverty and strife, and even sickness and disease. It's all of Shakespeare's tragedies wrapped up in one story, updated and set in the American South. The plot, such as it is, doesn't require much explanation: three sisters and their families live and then relive some truly awful experiences, with only young Kari keeping hope alive that one day she will escape the cycle.

The production values and acting are very impressive for an independently produced film, particularly considering there is more action, movement, and variety of setting than most small films would dare attempt. And, although seemingly every other scene presents itself as ripe for some scene-chewing, Mabry keeps the cast on an even keel. The actors are comfortable in their characters and the scenes mostly develop naturally, lending authentic emotion to the story. Ironically, the overwhelming bleakness that exists as the film's greatest flaw is also the central reason it's so affecting.

January 13, 2011

Perfect Song, Perfect Scene #9

Opening Credits, Jackie Brown (1997): "Across 110th Street" by Bobby Womack


January 10, 2011

Bittersweet: The Dark Side of Chocolate


If you're alone (or with other single friends) this Valentine's Day and are seeking the perfect downer for the occasion, look no further than The Dark Side of Chocolate. While millions of couples will express their love for each other with extravagantly wrapped boxes of candied cocoa of unknown origin, you can rest easy that you're not supporting what amounts to slave labor in regions of West Africa.

To be sure, for most people The Dark Side of Chocolate will be more personal and thus more disturbing than a documentary about the ugly underbelly of, say, the dried fruit industry. After all, chocolate is a globally traded commodity (or rather, cocoa is), a $50 billion/year worldwide business, and a veritable drug for women everywhere - and a few men, too, including me.

Concerned and curious about rumors of child labor on cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast, intrepid Danish journalist Miki Mistrati set off with a hidden camera and a bag full of questions about the source of the precious cocoa used by the world's leading chocolate manufacturers (The Hershey Company, Mars, Cadbury, Nestlé, and others). What he would find, tragically, is that children as young as seven years old are clearly being trafficked from neighboring countries to work in cocoa plantations for little to no pay. If the lack of an actual war prevents your favorite confection from being considered "conflict" chocolate, you should still feel conflicted about eating it.

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