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.
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