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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