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.

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