Thursday, April 30, 2009

MSPIFF: Day 13

Not too much to report; I only went to one screening before heading off the the sold out Mastodon show with a bunch of raging fans.

Salt of This Sea (2008) directed by Anne Marie Jacir
A young woman travels to her homeland on a short two week visa; within that two weeks, she finds a job, gets fired from that job, meets a nice guy, robs a bank, and is then on the lam with an expired visa. Sound silly. It was, save for the fact that the young woman is an exiled Palestinian from NYC returning to reclaim what belonged to her grandfather. Her Grandfather's house, in Jaffa, is of course now owned and occupied by an Israeli. Her Grandfather's money is also a relic of the 1948 Palestinian exodus; the money's gone, but the bank remains. Salt of This Sea is excellent at pointing out the contrasts between the diaspora and the natives - similar frustrations, similar dreams, different perspectives. But the melodrama comes off as contrived and, at times, overdone. Another video offering that looked pretty good other than the fact that the video would go through a sort of stutter. Imagine if there was a rock stuck in the wheel of the video: every five seconds a slight bump. Don't ask for a more technical explanation from me, but it was pretty distracting...

MSPIFF Hold Overs at the Oak Street

Let's not call it Best of the Fest. There are quite a few in the line up that I haven't seen, but few that I want to see. But my pass is good for these films, so as may as well take some in if I can. Here's a quick cut-n-paste of what will be playing at the Oak Street for the next week:


9:00 pm -- THE TOUR • SERBIA • 2008 • DIR.: GORAN MARKOVIC

7:00 pm -- JUST ANOTHER LOVE STORY (Kjarlighed pa film) • DENMARK • 2007 • DIR.: OLE BORNEDAL

5:00 pm -- GETTING HOME (Luo Ye Gui Gen) • CHINA • 2007 • DIR.: ZHANG YANG
9:00 pm -- SALT OF THIS SEA (Milh Hadha al-Bahr) • PALESTINE • 2008 • DIR.: ANNE MARIE JACIR

7:00 pm -- BORDER 1918 (Raja 1918) • FINLAND • 2007 • DIR.: LAURI TÖRHÖNEN

9:15 pm -- THREE IN LOVE (Kolmistaan) • FINLAND • 2008 • DIR.: PETER LINDHOLM

5:15 pm -- PEER GYNT FROM THE STREETS (Gatas Gynt) • NORWAY • 2008 • HALLVARD BREIEN shown with WRESTLING (Braedrabylta) • ICELAND • 2008 • DIR.: GRÍMUR HÁKONARSON

For more, but not oo much more, info go to MSPIFF website.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

In Review Online: April Home Movies, XIAO WU and PLATFORM

The most recent issue of In Review Online is up and I have a couple different items for perusal:

Home Movies: April
April was full of interesting DVD releases, most notably, two titles from Nagisa Oshima: Empire of Passion and In the Realm of the Senses (the later on Blu-Ray!) Empire of Passion was not included in the Oshima retrospective that played here last Fall, so I actually watched the deplorable DVD from Fox Lorber. I'll gladly watch that again. It would be hard to top the experience of seeing In the Realm of the Senses at the Walker, but there would be something psychologically interesting about 'enjoying' it at home by yourself...

Reviews of Jia Zhangke's Xiao Wu and Platform
The final part of InRO's Directrospective on Jia has Sam covering Unknown Pleasures and me covering Xiao Wu and Platform, two films I am very fond of and hardly feel I have done them justice.

Loads to read in Issue #34 (including a review of the new release from local boy P.O.S.)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

MSPIFF: Day 12

I guess one of the chances you take in picking titles out of thin air is picking some duds. I elected to wait and see Tyson when it opens here next month (not exactly dying to see it), and check out some offering that might vanish into thin air. I chose Taarka because it is from Estonia. (Name one film you've seen from Estonia! Having Arvo Pärt in the soundtrack doesn't count.) And I decided to see The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle on a recommendation. (I won't hold it against you, if you are reading.) Neither film did anything for me. Bummer:

Taarka (2008) directed by Ain Maeots
This is the story of an infamous and ultimately famous folk singer, Taarka (1865-1933), who hailed from the outer reaches of Estonia of the ethnic minority Setos. Taarka was brash, outspoken and had a knack for having children out of wedlock. She sustained on the paltry earnings of her singing until she was 'discovered' by a Finnish eccentric. The film is much more strange than the synopsis sounds; as a matter of fact, it was down right wacky. Building the story through incongruent flashbacks, the film was in turns harsh, silly and interesting, but totally irreconcilable: a very strange historical drama. (Check out the twenty second trailer linked above.) Not Recommended. (Not that it matters; this film will never come around again.)

The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle (2009) directed by David Russo
On the other end of the spectrum is this very strange contemporary drama. Of course words like "contemporary" and "drama" don't really have a place in this non-conformist film. Technical merits aside, this film flopped like a little blue fish that emerges out of the butt of a hip slacker type. Dory is our hero, who is searching for his reason(s) to live after his job and his religion don't work out. He gets a job as a janitor and does a little dumpster diving for some cookie, chemically altered cookies that heat up in your mouth, that is. The cookies have an adverse effect resulting in some sort of cookie love-child that incubates in the stomach. Russo seems to be a wizard at digital effects and interesting visuals, but the haphazard lifeless story only come into its own in the last ten minutes. Everything that precedes is some silly shit you come up with after one too many bong hits: some of it is funny and some of it not. I spent most of the movie trying to figure out if I had seen one of the actors in another movie, because that was infinitely more interesting than the inane story. (As it turns out, I hadn't seen the actor in another movie, but it gave my mind something to work on.) I'm sorry to say it, but: Not Recommended.

Monday, April 27, 2009

MSPIFF: Day 10

Sunday I had some hard choices to make. I really really wanted to see Tokyo Sonata, but it is opening at the Lagoon in only a couple weeks; I had heard really good things about Heart of Fire, and who knows if it will come back to town. I settled on Tokyo Sonata simply because I couldn't stand not seeing this film ASAP. Heart of Fire will just have to wait until another time. Seeing as I was feeling a little under the weather, I only took in two films after work:

Oblivion (2009) directed by Heddy Honigmann
Wow. I plucked this out almost out of the blue. I had just talked up Honigmann's Forever, so I decided this doc would be one to see (and it fit in before Tokyo Sonata.) This absolutely charming documentary about Peru as told by the people who live and work around the Presidential Palace in Lima, totally reminded me how subtly brilliant a doc can be. The film opens with a charismatic bar tender fix the national drink of Peru (the Pisco Sour) while he ruminates about the politics of Peru. He equated the recent presidential elections to having to chose between Hepatitis B and AIDS. (The people chose Hepatitis B.) Oblivion did the same thing for Peru as The Big Durian did for Malaysia: put a very gentle human face on the entire country despite imperfections. Each interview and each testimonial offered another piece of the puzzle. Honigmann has an instinct for making the camera (and the presence of the filmmaker) disappear, and making the most personal and eloquent docs. You have one more chance to see Oblivion: don't miss it Wednesday, April 29 at 7:15pm. Highly Recommended.

Tokyo Sonata (2008) directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Another semi-full disclosure: I am a big Kiyoshi Kurosawa fan. I've been dying to see this film. Kurosawa's last three films have not been his best, especially Loft. However. His nine features prior to those were nothing short of genius in my book. Tokyo Sonata finds Kurosawa back in very fine form indeed. I'm not going to say too much about the film, because I am being lazy and I will write more later, but Sonata takes the best of Kurosawa the dramatist and the best of Kurosawa the surrealist to make a very amazing film. Tokyo Sonata opens here on May 15. I will be there to see it again! Highly Recommended.


Moving on to Saturday. I spent the majority of the day focusing on projects I needed to finish and didn't get to a film until 4:30. I had Saturday earmarked for a while because of Three Monkeys and Jerichow. I picked The Kautokeino Rebellion to precede only because it was in the same theater as the other two (so if the schedule was off, it was off for all the films I planned to see) and that theater happened to be Theater 1 (the 35mm theater.)

The Kautokeino Rebellion (2007)directed by Nils Gaup
Okay, let me paint the picture for you: late 1800s in the far north of Norway, where the men can gut a reindeer fast than you can say "hvor er toalettet" and the women can ski a mean mile, especially if they have the Good Book in hand. How can you not enjoy a little reindeer herding and a little folkish uprising in the name of righteousness? The Kautokeino Rebellion tells the story of the oppression of the reindeer herding Sami people by the eager merchants and pious preachers. An absolute crowd pleaser for the Minnesotans. Gaup, who hails from Kautokeino, was supposed to be at the screening, but his flight was late. Only my humble opinion, but Take It or Leave It.

Three Monkeys (2008) Nuri Bilge Ceylan
I had been looking forward to Three Monkeys ever since the MSPIFF schedule had been posted. I am a fan of Ceylan's films, and his panache for disassembling time through clever framing and editing grows with each film. Three Monkeys is a dark and serious film that barely gives you room to breath under the weight that the characters hold. The main thread of the story involves a husband and wife and their adult son, who might be the three monkeys, but I'm not so sure. The film has a stunning opening that is surreal and eerie. It brilliantly sets the tone, not the story. I can't really do the film justice in the time and space I am giving myself. It is a visual treat. Three Monkeys is playing again right now as I type, so you've probably missed it. I don't think a one of Ceylan's films has had a run here in the Twin Cities, and I doubt that Three Monkeys will be any different. Expect it on DVD someday. Highly Recommended.

Jerichow (2008) directed by Christian Petzold
Somewhere buried in a stack of magazines is a Cinema Scope article on Petzold that I put off reading until after I saw Jerichow. Petzold also directed Yella (cough, cough, have yet to see) which played at the Fest last year. The setup is a triangle between a married couple and a studly stranger (who I think is Jason Stathams German brother.) The stranger takes a job helping Ali and is instantly attracted to his wife Laura. These three people are a jumble of unexplained impulses and emotions that I struggled to reconcile. Maybe that's the point, I'm not sure. It certainly lent a certain amount of uneasy about what would happen next. Although the finale is unexpected, the trumped up circumstances is a little hard to take. Jerichow might come back to town or it might not. Recomended.


No, I didn't stop going to see movies; I just failed to keep up with the daily grind. Overextending myself over the weekend left me mentally and physically exhausted. (I swear, if I get the swine flu, I'm blaming Rudo y Cursi!) Here was the Friday shizzle-sham:

My Time Will Come (2008) directed by Victor Arregui
Another Global Lens film, and another film with the best intentions and the most convoluted delivery. A sort of "Six Feet Under" of Ecuador, My Time Will Come is facilitated by Dr. Fernandez who methodically examines corpses as they arrive in the morgue. As the narrative shots off in different directions, each segue introduces us to another possible corpse. The storylines freely connect and disconnect to a point where nothing in the film has much gravity. The entire film feels like a sketch, acting included, with nothing fleshed out. My Time Will Come will probably make an appearance on DVD, if you really must see it. Not Recommended.

Food Inc. (2008) directed by Robert Kenner
Semi-full disclosure: I have worked in the wholesale distribution of organic produce in the Twin Cities for almost twelve years. This subject of where and how we get our food is not only an occupational interest, but a personal interest. Food Inc is a very well made documentary that tries to summarize all the very complex issues surrounding the foods we eat everyday. Relying heavily on interviews with Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Micheal Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma), Robert Kenner does his best to cover all the bases: meat industry, corn reliance, corporate domination, consumer rights, health issues, animal rights, local farms, organic conglomerates, Monsanto, Stonyfield, Walmart, and everything in between. Because the topic is so huge, you really feel like you only get a peek behind each curtain. Sometimes a peek is all you need, but some of the stories are so galvanizing you feel cheated not getting to know more. Specifically is a farmer who never bought into Monsanto patented seeds and continued to farm corn and soybeans the 'old fashioned' way by saving seeds. Monsanto gets pissed, takes on the farmer until he can no longer afford to fight the corporate lawyers. It's an unbelievable story. I wish everyone could see Food Inc., but ultimately the people who will see this doc are already committed to a Co-op or a CSA or a farmer's market. That being said, I do think that we, the committed, can hone our voice for change, the better chance we will have in inciting that change. (Anybody see a soapbox?) I'm going to do a more detailed review/soapbox chat when I get a chance. Food Inc. is set to open in domestically sometime this summer, and will probably find a good audience here. Highly Recommended.

Film Goats retired to the very crowded Pracna for talk of film, food and other random association topics. Our group grew to the point we were standing around a small table and had to be moved to a different room. (Unbeknownst to me, a tandem post-White Man's World party was also rollicking in Pracna.) We burned the midnight oil, and Daniel and I were the last soldiers to fall. For anyone else who was up at 1:00 Saturday morning, it was cold! I pedaled as fast as I could, but had a very cold bike ride home. (Maybe this is where I got the swine flu...)

Friday, April 24, 2009

MSPIFF Friday Film Goat Get Togethers

Calling all Film Goats: the second ever MSPIFF Friday Film Goat Get Togethers!

Where: Pracna
When: 9:00pm-ish

Yes, it is the second edition of the film goat get togethers hosted by me and Daniel over at Getafilm. We will be heading to Pracna after our respective 7 o'clock screenings, just in time for happy hour (which runs from 9-11:00.) Stop by. I won't humiliate myself again by wearing a T-Wolves hat; chances are I will be wearing a short billed brown hat that has a very small Behind Bars Bike Shop logo (voted best bike shop!) I'm not nearly as cute as the goat above.


Thursday is my Friday. I bolted out of work in order to get some grub and begin my three movie night to celebrate my weekend.

Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World (2008) directed by Chen Weijun
West Lake is the fabled lake set in the middle of Hangzhou, and finds a place in poems, stories and paintings due to its beauty. There is another West lake, but it is (ta-da) the biggest Chinese restaurant in the world, with a plaque to prove it. Located in Changsha, West Lake Restaurant is a megalosaurian beast. The restaurant, built to look like Qing Dynasty palace, can accommodate 5,000 people. The humble documentary profiles the owner and some of the staff as well as three groups having parties at the venue: a wedding party, a 70th birthday party, and a baby party. The food looked amazing, but I can tell you that PETA would probably have some issues with the preparations. Preparing the same dish that opened Help Me, Eros, chefs were timed on how fast they could cook "live fried fish." (And, yes, the point is that it is still alive when it hits the plate.) In many ways, Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World reiterates many of the things that documentaries have beaten to death: the Chinese love of money, the importance of family, the exotic nature of food in China, etc, etc. At best it is mildly interesting. Tonight was the last screening at MSPIFF. Take It or Leave It.

Rudo y Cursi (2008) directed by Carlos Cauron
If you take a look at the production credits on Rudo y Cursi (which includes his brother Alfonso, as well as Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro), you understand why, when asked the inane question about his budget, Carlos Cauron would reply "I don't know." Contrary to the ad in the newspaper, which stated that "Top Mexican director Alfonso Cauron (Y Tu Mama Tambien) present for Rudo y Cursi," Carlos Cauron was present for a Q and A after the screening. Although the film has it's moments, I think Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna were probably having more fun than the audience. Everything is tongue-in-cheek and open for a gag: shower razing, gambling addictions, sibling rivalry and country bumpkins. Bernal, as Cursi, is especially brilliant as a terrible singer, patronized due to his fame as a football player. The charm of these two actors is undeniable, but the film would be a hollow shell without them. Rudo y Cursi is done at the Fest, but it will make it back to town in a few weeks. Take It or Leave It.

The Mermaid (2007) directed by Anna Melikyan
I opted to see this Russian film rather than take another crack at Los Bastardos, and I'm glad I did. I would like to think I am not easily charmed, but this film was about as endearing as a film can get. Most of the credit goes to Masha Shalayeva as Alisa, who is like a Russian Franka Potente (instead of Lola red, we have Alisa green.) I know nothing about this Rusalka legend and am too lazy to look it up at this point, but the story has a very fairytale-like quality. High production values and some clever shots have left me with some of the most striking images I have seen in the Fest. At her family's seaside home, Alisa's Grandmother sits outside under a garish beach umbrella as the window into the house perfectly frames a lighthouse wall tapestry. The film is filed with such creative stills. Alisa sees through (or perhaps beyond) the misguided romanticized freedom in advertisements an hollow slogans. Lighthearted and enchanting, The Mermaid is completely adorable and unpredictable. No more screenings at the Fest. I wonder if this will make it back to town? Recommended.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


It's late. I'm tired. Don't expect much. Maybe not my best day of films, but it started out well:

Those Three (2007) directed by Naghi Nehmati
Another installment from Global Lens that was much better than Getting Home. Those Three is the story about three Iranian soldiers who defect while training in the snowy, mountainous region to the north. Locked in by low visibility and frigid temperatures, their freedom from the confines of the army is short lived. Moving but getting nowhere, the three men go on more of a symbolic journey than a literal one. Surreal, beautiful and apolitical, Those Three has a little bit of Gerry in it. Screens again Tuesday, April 28 at 9:45. Recommended.

Los Bastardos (2008) directed by Amat Escalante
If you are looking for a review of this film, look elsewhere. This is a review of my attempt to see this film. After a leisurely cup of coffee, I stroll into the lobby just five minutes before the screening to see the line stacked up. The start time comes; the start time goes; I hear rumblings about technical difficulties and I get worried. Twenty minutes late, we are let into the theater because the problem is apparently fixed. Not! After about a half and hour, focus starts to go wonky and the lights come up. Looks like the problem wasn't fixed. Wanna know what the problem was with? The video projector! It's a sign! The Film Fest should stick to film! Beware of screenings in theater 2!

Home of the Dark Butterflies (2008) directed by Dome Karukoski
A study in pop psychology, Home of the Dark Butterflies is set on an island for problem boys. A small group of adolescent boys are the project of this experimental home. Thugs, misfits and sociopaths, the boys are given hard work, some bible study and a good, solid father figure. This film was a little too predictable. This film took itself way too seriously, and I couldn't help but roll by eyes at the virile young angsty rebels turned into tamed beasts (or dark butterflies.) Screens again Monday, April 27 at 9:30. Not Recommended.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Other obligations on Mondays kept me away from the Film Fest on day four, but I'm back like a heart attack for day 5 with one of my most anticipated films of the Fest: The Secret of the Grain. My plan was to catch The Secret of the Grain and a Russian film called The Mermaid. However, The Secret of the Grain was sold out so the shuffle to get as many people into the theater as possible forced the film to start a little late. But then, the biggest disappointment came when the light when down and I saw the Cyperhome logo. With no humility, they were screening The Secret of the Grain from a DVD. The steam from my ears subsided once I quickly became engaged with the film, uh, I mean, video, until it stopped and started at the beginning about a third of the way through—I kid you not. Someone had to get up and tell someone that their DVD was effed up and then we had to scan to the appropriate spot where it had stopped. Needless to say, we got out too late for my second screening.

(Just skip this paragraph, because this is nothing more than a self-indulgent rant.) Once again, the Film Festival refuses to put the format that will be screened for the films wither in the catalog or online. To be fair, this is the third screening that hasn't been on film, but the first one that mattered. Letters to the President and Helen were screened from a video source that looked really really good. Both looked to have been shot on HD and I had absolutely no complains about the transfer. The Secrets of the Grain; colors were soft and washed out. I was embarrassed. Everyone in that theater got cheated. Buy the DVD from the UK (maybe you can barrow MFA's Cyberhome if you don't have a region free player); it will look better in your home. Seriously disappointing.

OK. Now that I have vented, let me talk about the movie itself:

The Secret of the Grain (2007) directed by Abdel Kechiche
Set in the French coastal town of Sète, The Secret of the Grain focuses on 61-year-old patriarch Slimane and his large extended family. Recently shown the door at his job where he has repaired boats for 35 years, Slimane needs to come up with another plan. His adult children suggest he move home, but Slimane is committed to stay with his new lover and her daughter, Rym. He comes up with a plan to open a restaurant on an old boat where his ex-wife would cook fish couscous. His ex-wife knows the secret of the grain, and makes a couscous that you can almost taste in the theater. With a two and a half hour run time, The Secret of the Grain is overwhelming. Not necessarily because of the runtime itself, but because within those 151 minutes are only a handful of very talkative key sequences. The effect is exhausting and exhilarating. One such scene is a family meal where nothing much is said but it is an absolute whirlwind of conversation. It is quite intense. (Imagine a family reunion where you didn't just have to hold individual conversations, but where omnisciently engaged in all conversations.) The camera puts you right amongst the claustrophobic bustle. Although I do find fault in the divisive conflict (begging for resolution) near the end, it also results in one of the most overpowering scenes I have ever experienced. The acting was such that, throughout the entire film, I never felt I was watching people who were acting. The Secret of the Grain screens one more time (probably from DVD) Thursday, April 23 at 9:15. Highly Recommended.

Monday, April 20, 2009

REAR WINDOW tonight at the Riverview

Rear Window (1954) directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Monday, April 20 at 7:30pm @ The Riverview Theater

North By Northwest
sold out last week at The Heights way before the doors even opened. (If anyone is missing the secret message, it is that people in the Twin Cities like rep cinema.) Take-Up Production's Hitchcock series continues tonight at the Riverview with Rear Window. Chances are the Riverview won't sell out, but I wouldn't be late just in case. Don't even admit that you've never seen this film before and just go, that way your life of shame will be over.

"Of all Hitchcock's films, this is the one which most reveals the man. As usual it evolves from one brilliantly plain idea: Stewart, immobilised in his apartment by a broken leg and aided by his girlfriend (Grace Kelly at her most Vogue-coverish), takes to watching the inhabitants across the courtyard, first with binoculars, later with his camera. He thinks he witnesses a murder... There is suspense enough, of course, but the important thing is the way that it is filmed: the camera never strays from inside Stewart's apartment, and every shot is closely aligned with his point of view. And what this relentless monomaniac witnesses is everyone's dirty linen: suicide, broken dreams, and cheap death. Quite aside from the violation of intimacy, which is shocking enough, Hitchcock has nowhere else come so close to pure misanthropy, nor given us so disturbing a definition of what it is to watch the 'silent film' of other people's lives, whether across a courtyard or up on a screen. No wonder the sensual puritan in him punishes Stewart by breaking his other leg." (Time Out)


Sunday is no day of rest for me. My work week starts one day earlier than most which means that I miss the early Sunday offerings at the Festival. But that doesn't mean I am not willing to ride directly from work to the theater to see the latest from the mumblecore king:

Beeswax (2009) directed by Andrew Bujalski
First let's just do a mumblecore definition: Mumblecore, coined by Bujalski's sound editor, refers to films that are generally low budget and focus on personal relationships between twenty-somethings, improvised scripts, and non-professional actors. If you want a couple other cool terms to throw around, it has also been referred to as "bedhead cinema" and "Slackavetes." Examples are Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha, Jay Dupless' Puffy Chair and Joe Swanberg's LOL. Now that you have had the primer, I will admit that mumblecore is not my favorite a long shot. With all odds stacked against it, Beeswax actually won me over. Sometimes up-talking Austin hipsters that say "you know" more than me can be quite charming. The film is centered on twin sisters at different places, but very much connected. Some things happen, some things are resolved and some other things are unresolved. More than anything, these characters convinced me and I didn't spend the entire movie being painfully aware that they were non-professional. There are no more screenings of Beeswax at MSPIFF, but it will surely make it back to town. Recommended.

Letters to the President (2009) directed by Petr Lom
My first documentary of the Fest! I'm interested in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Much like Kim Jong Il, most of the information about Ahmadinejad is propaganda—either self-propelled or generated by the western media. But what is missing from most of these dialogs about countries and governments is the voice and opinions of the people. Letters to the President gives voice to the people of Iran. Just like the US, the views and politics across the nation represent a very diverse mix. Every year 10 million people write a letter to President Ahmadinejad, mostly asking for help. These letters represent an unbelievable faith in their President, but there are, of course, many who see no point. It's a fascinating snapshot with some pretty brilliant observations. I couldn't help but think about Roxana Saberi, and wonder how Lom didn't meet the same fate. Letters to the President screens again Friday, April 24 at 5:10pm. Recommended.

Helen (2008) directed by Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy
Seeing a film like Helen is what the Film Festival is all about. Uniquely structured and emotionally taut, Helen left me pleasantly stunned. The point of departure is a tragedy we never see. Joy, a teenage girl, goes missing. In hopes of finding some clues from people who might have seen Joy, the police reconstruct her last day and film it. Helen, a reserved girl from Joy's school, volunteers to be Joys stand in. Both Joy and Helen are equally important to this film, but we know nothing about either one of them. In many ways we are discovering Helen at the same time that she is discovering herself. Some of the things Helen admits to are so painfully personal, that it invoked awkward laughs from the audience. The final scene offered a resonating punch to the gut. Tonight was the only screening of Helen. If this film comes back to town, do not miss it. Highly Recommended.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


St Anthony Main was very tranquil when I showed up at 11:30am. Film fans were absent as the river walk was taken over by runners, walkers and bikers enjoying Spring. I was early, but still, where are my fellow Film Goats!? That was the feeling for most of the day, until it picked up in the evening. I certainly can't back this up, but there seems to a lot less traffic at the Film Fest. Maybe tomorrow's rain will send more people to the movies...

My five film plan for Saturday started with the first screening offered at noon. Here's how my day shook down:

The Necessities of Life (2008) directed by Benoit Pilon
Necessities of Life got four stars from Daniel over at Getafilm, and I took that recommendation to heart and made the film a priority. The drama takes place in 1957. Tivii (played by Natar Ungalaaq from The Fast Runner) is an Inuit stricken with tuberculosis. He is suddenly taken from his Baffin Island home to Quebec where he can be treated for his illness. They take his clothes, they cut his hair and they speak French to him even though they know he can't understand. Tivii is both culturally and socially isolated. Necessity underlines not only an absurd cultural insensitivity, but also a general lack of human kindness that I would cynically say doesn't just exist in 1957. When Tivii stops eating, a nurse takes him under her wing. Although her concern is initially sparked by duty, she eventually forms a bond of understanding with Tivii. The Necessities of Life (seals, caribou, and geese, if you are wondering) is a somber and often painful film that cherishes our differences while emphasizing our similarities as human beings. Ungalaaq's performance is played with a fierce dignity that never wavers. And although the narrative follows a predictable trajectory, Necessities is incredibly moving. It was a sobering way to start my day, but I'm glad I caught this film while I could. The Necessities of Life screens again Monday, April 25 at 4:00pm. Recommended.

Teddy Bear (2007) directed by Jan Hrebejk
As I approach mid-life (or maybe I'm already there) I get more and more annoyed by the whole mid-life crisis myth. Isn't life just one big crisis, mid-life or otherwise? Who cares if it is half over? Teddy Bear is full of the mid-life crisis types. If their career isn't failing then their marriage is. (Hmmm, maybe that's it - I don't have either one of those things...) Six friends/three couples find themselves at a crossroads. The men are jerks and the women, well, they just carry on. As much as I wanted to not like this film, I didn't hate it. The characters are well drawn and the film doesn't bow to easy answers and pat endings. No other screenings at MSPIFF. Take it or leave it.

The Window (2008) directed by Carlos Sorin
Carlos Sorin's Historias Minimas (released in the US as Intimate Stories) was a film that stuck with me for some time, and I could kick myself for missing it on the big screen. I wasn't about to let the opportunity pass once again with Sorin's new film, and I am glad I didn't. The Window is full of big screen moments of silent beauty. The aesthetic reminded me of Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light, with its silences, horizons, stillness and elegance. The simple story is about Don Antonio in the waining hours of his life. Bedridden from illness, he waits for the arrival of his son, a famous pianist living in Europe. His preparations are less for his son than they are for himself. Although I'm getting sick of hearing myself calling films poetic, The Window is nonetheless very poetic. The Window screens again Sunday, April 19 at 1:15pm. Highly Recommended.

Rumba (2008) directed by Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, Bruno Romy
Given the overall somber theme of the day, the ridiculous Rumba was kind of the film I needed to do a little cleansing. I'll take the evidence that the two leads are also credited as directors as proof that this spoofy film is a little self-indulgent. The absurdist tragi-comedy relies on the physical comedic abilities of Gordon and Romy. The introduction was a hoot and the crazy blue screen driving was pretty hilarious, but after about 45 minutes, I was a little tired of the skit that wanted to be a movie. Rumba screens again Monday, April 20 at 9:00pm. Take it or leave it.

Lion's Den (2008) directed by Pablo Trapero
Put a woman in jail and she is either a victim or a martyr. The brilliance of Lion's Den is that Julia is neither. Julia was one of three people involved in a violent incident that leaves one person dead. With one person's word against another, Julia, for whatever reason, ends up taking the guilt for the dead man (who happens to be the father of her unborn child.) Julia is sent to jail and must learn how to survive by completely different rules. Trapero cunningly leaves the audience in the dark about the actual goings-on at the time of the murder. The fact that pieces do not fit together, leaves Julia's guilt hanging in the air, even to the sympathetic viewer. Martina Gusman give a gut-wrenching portrayal of a woman refusing to give up. Treading unknown waters, Julia has to navigate not only her new life as a prisoner but also as a mother. Except for a strange segue involving a music montage, this film was perfect. Lion's Den screens again Sunday, April 19 at 9:30pm. Highly recommended.

Friday, April 17, 2009


It's amazing with such a beautiful day that anyone would want to go sit in a dark room with a bunch of strangers. But after spending the day cleaning out my gardens and putting in a new raised bed, I was ready for the Film Fest fun to begin! The Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival officially opened with Marc Webb's (500) Days of Summer starring cool kids Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I like fanfare and parties, but the price tag was stiff and since I made the mistake of seeing The Happening, I've had enough of Zooey Deschanel to last me a lifetime. Friday was the first night of films, easing us all into the action with the first screening at 6:45pm and the last at 9:55pm. I chose happy mediums, seeing a film at 7:15 and 9:00.

First, let's talk Film Goats. Friday was the first ever MSPIFF Friday Film Goat Get Together and I want to offer a big thanks for all that showed up. (Stay tuned for next Friday's plan!) 72 degrees and perfect, we monopolized three outside tables with more chairs than would actually fit. Louis Lapat, director of Win or Lose: A Summer Camp Story, stopped by and chatted with us. I've heard nothing but incredibly positive things about his film, and, although I missed the screening, I'm hoping to have a chance to see it soon. Daniel and I got pulled away for a surprise interview that aired (somewhere?) and I shutter to think of my face on the television. I enjoyed talking to everyone about upcoming screenings and the hour and a half went by way too fast. Finishing my second beer and watching the line outside of St Anthony grow and grow, I was itchin' to get inside.

Here's what I ingested after the beer:

Just Another Love Story (2007) directed by Ole BornedalKnowing very little about this film or the director, I was mostly seduced by the provocative production still that showed up on the website. And I'm glad I was. The ironically named Just Another Love Story is an effective thriller from Denmark. The introduction offers us two scenes: 'love story number one' is Jonas laying dead on the pavement in the rain as a woman is crying by his side; 'love story number two' is Julia shooting her boyfriend in the chest. The particulars of these two snapshots are unclear and, yes, sets up the mystery. The mystery, however, gets left behind as we get introduced to the third love story between Jonas and Julia. The circumstances of of the film's plot are as contrived as 21 Grams but infinitely more engaging. Visually, the film earns nothing but very high marks. A car crash becomes a fascinating meditation on perception before it even happens. Dark and sardonic, Just Another Love Story's unexpected twists never feel as heavy handed as they should due to the clever pacing. Just Another Love Story was a great film to kick of the Festival with: smart, stylish, interesting and fun! It looks like it has been picked up for theatrical distribution by Koch Lorber, and if we don't see it in theaters 'round these parts, we will surely see it on DVD. Just Another Love Story screens again on Saturday, April 25 at 8:15pm. Recommended.

Getting Home (2007) directed by Zhang YangSo much promise, yet oh-so disappointing. Zhang Yang has made some impressive films, most notably Quitting. But Getting Home, his fifth featured, is a belabored melodrama that just won't stop. Liu promised Zhao that he would take his body back to his hometown when he died, but when Liu dies first, Zhao feels obligated to do the same. The journey acts as a road movie where Zhao, comically carrying his dead friend mostly on his back, meets all walks of life who either help or hinder him. The film just drones on with one encounter after the other, all saturated with the most false and predictable sentiments. Interesting themes of dislocation due to voluntary and forced migration (not to mention the surreal Chinese tradition of 'corpse walkers') get lost in the uneven and forced drama. Getting Home is part of the 2009 Global Lens series (screening at the the Film Fest instead of the Walker this year) and will eventually get a DVD release. Getting Home screens again on Saturday, April 25 at 8:30pm. Not Recommended.

I'm a Tweetin'!

Yes, like everyone else, I'm trying to make Twitter my friend. After spending almost two hours adding "Tweet This" to my blog template, I figured I may as well give it the ol' college try. (If you don't see the fruition of those two hours, the "Tweet This" shows up only if you click the title of the post and view it singularly. Whatever.)

Just a few particulars. My name at Twitter is TCFilmGeek. (Kathie Smith was taken...doh! Just think of the Minnesota Twins mascot as a film fan.) I'm looking to recruit locals to follow me, as I plan to use Twitter for announcements mostly on local film events. For example: "Tonight's your last night to see 'Hunger' at the Walker. Don't miss it!" or "Opening film at MSPIFF was awesome! See it locally when it opens July 17!" (I plan to use the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival as my testing grounds.) Obviously this could get kind of annoying if you don't live in the Twin Cities. That being said, hypothetically I will twittily tweet on other film/blog related items.

Try it out. Let me know how it goes.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Calling all Film Goats: MSPIFF Get Togethers!

Announcing the first ever MSPIFF Friday Film Goat Get Together!

Where: Pracna (right next to the St Anthony Main Theaters)
When: 5:30 to 7:00pm
Why: Because we really like movies.
Who: Moi and fellow blogger and all around nice guy Daniel at Getafilm.

Let's get together for a drink and talk about plans for the Film Festival!

Some people find goats annoying, but look at that little fella above: cute, a champion, and not concerned with worldly objects like ribbons. Just like us! Yes, I am equating film fans to goats: tenacious, unflappable and willing to try anything - exactly what you need to be for the MSPIFF.

Yes, it's an open call - we are brave to want to meet you and you are even more brave to want to meet us! Although I have been trying to keep my identity a secret for a while, it's time for me to bust out of my shell! Daniel and I are anxious to place faces with names and match obsessions with obsessions. There might even be a proverbial how-many-movies-can-you-see arm wrestling match in the wings. Stop by. Say hi. Have a drink. Let's talk about the Festival. Providing all goes well, we'll do it again next Friday, possibly a late edition.

(I'm not really a NASCAR chick. I'll be wearing a blue Minnesota Timberwolves hat - no doubt, no one else in their right mind will be wearing one - and probably have a big backpack with bike helmet.)

Jia Zhangke and THE WORLD

The new issue of Week in Review is up at In Review Online, and I have two pieces involved in a look at Jia Zhangke's work. The first is an essay on Jia and the amazing films he has made, and the second is a review of The World.

Check 'em out!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Hirokazu Kore-eda's STILL WALKING

Hirokazu Kore-eda's Still Walking opens with a simple conversation between an elderly mother and her adult daughter as they prepare a meal. "Radishes are genius" the mother says to the daughter. Mother of three, grandmother of two and housewife to a now-retired doctor, Toshiko has obviously spent some time pondering the genius of the radish. Unlike her daughter, who looks as though she is peeling a radish for the first time in her life. It is simple observations like these—both spoken and unspoken—that fills the no-frill frames of this unassuming, yet poignant, family drama.

Still Walking is a portrait of a family whose shared history is revealed in the day they spend together. The occasion is the anniversary of Junpei's death. Junpei is eldest son to Toshiko and Shohei and brother to Chinami and Ryota. Junpei drown saving a boy over 10 years ago. The event has driven an irrevocable wedge between family members despite the bond that exists in their loss. Junpei was the son who was to follow in the footsteps of his father and continue on the family medical practice. At the center of the film is Ryota, the self-exiled younger son who continues to live in the shadow of his now-dead brother. The visit is a rare one for Ryota, who is bringing his new wife and step-son to meet his parents for the first time.

The scenario is a familiar one: a family comes together and revels its dysfunctions one by one. But Kore-eda gives Still Walking an air of unexpectedness and discovery, which seems to be present even among the characters themselves. The most kindhearted exposes her cruelty, and the most hardhearted shows his tenderness—but they do so secretly, in private moments of dramatic irony. Within the small house, each scene is infused with a din of moving bodies and suppressed emotions. Still Walking is a film of careful observation. Kore-eda's meticulously composed camera not only observes, but scrutinizes. But it is not all family drama. The film is visually beautiful, with all its lush greens and cool blues.

At the heart of the film, Yoshio, the boy who Junpei saved who is now a young adult, pays an obligatory annual visit. The scene is undeniably awkward. Toshiko is fussing around him like a good host; Shohei, the patriarch, is facing the other way with his back to him; and the rest of the family is sitting around the table patronizing him. Yoshio is the epitome of a failure. He is unkempt, overweight and unemployed, and the family seems to take pleasure in looking down upon him, except for Ryota. The wayward son take the mocking a little too personally, and, in the heat of the moment, speaks ill of the dead and implies that Junpei, had he still been alive, may too have become a failure. Everyone pauses and even the air seems to fall silent. We are left wondering is everyone is stunned by Ryota's slander against Junpei or if they are stunned by the notion that Junpei could have been anything less than perfect. It's a pregnant pause that leaves almost as quickly as it came. It is a centerpiece sequence which takes in all that precedes it, and conversely, from which everything that follows flows. Everything that comes before is somewhat expected; everything that come after is somewhat...unexpected. That is not to say that anything unexpected happens, its just that events are a little less predictable and a little more genuine.

Contrary to how I am making it sound, Still Walking is not a riddle. It's a poem that is worthy of the legacy left by Japanese masters Mikio Naruse and Yasujiro Ozu. Forget Neo-Neorealism, let's talk about Neo-mono no aware. Kore-eda has made a film with an empathy toward the ephimeral that would make both directors proud. The film shines with a gentle and slightly bitter view on life. Kore-eda has made a career out of being grandly subtle and elusively honest. Taking on death in After Life, the Aum sarin attack in Distance, abandon children in Nobody Knows, an unskilled swordsman in the period film Hana, he is able to pull the most sublime films out of the most interesting subjects. Still Walking is no less exalted, or maybe even more so. There is no one who doesn't understand family and who wouldn't appreciate Still Walking.

Hirokazu Kore-eda recently won best director for Still Walking at the Asian Film Awards. Look for Still Walking at a film festival near you (but unfortunately not MSPIFF.) Still Walking is available on an expensive Region 2 DVD with English subtitles.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Master Class with Ramin Bahrani

Ramin Bahrani is indie darling du jour. The opening of his new film, Goodbye Solo, in LA and NYC led to an onslaught of press and positive reviews. Even though the indie baton was ceremoniously passed to Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, in Minneapolis we got to sustain the basking glow of Bahrani and his contributions to Neo Neo-Realism. In a series that couldn't be more timely, the Walker Art Center hosted Bahrani and his three films last week. Starting with a free double feature of Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, the series was capped off by a mid-day master class and area premiere of Goodbye Solo in the evening.

Bahrani is not only a filmmaker by trade but also a teacher, working adjunct at Columbia University. In lieu of my failed attempt to attend Columbia, going to Bahrani's master class seemed like the second best thing. The experience did not disappoint with Bahrani throwing out references like an encyclopedia of film as I attempted to keep up. Although he focused his talk on structural aspects of Chop Shop, he often gave way to lively digressions about how Taxi Driver would not exist without Pickpocket and how the Dardenne Brothers would not exist without Dostoyevsky. The two hour session left me wishing I had a whole semester of logical digressions with Bahrani.

Although the class was formatted for filmmakers, it was equally informative for those of us who aspire to be more than just popcorn eaters. Bahrani was quick to point out that statements such as 'that film was 10 minutes too long' or 'that film was boring' belong to the popcorn eaters (his term.) Unless you can describe the structural components that make a film flawed, these statements mean nothing. Touché. I'll speak for myself when I admit that elemental structure gets hopelessly lost in the gloss or the who's who in Hollywood. How can you talk about Duplicity without being blinded by Julia Roberts, Clive Own and Tony Gilroy? And how can you critique Watchmen outside of the overwhelming presence of special effects? (To my defense, I will say this is understandable.) Although the structure lies embedded in these films, we are 'wowed' out of seeing it.

With pared down casts and minimal gloss, the magic of Bahrani's films rely on the fundamentals. Treating us like the students we wanted to be, Bahrani recommended two books: John Howard Lawson's Theory and Technique of Playwriting and Alexander Mackendrick's On Filmmaking. In Bahrani's opinion, a good film is made by mastering the formal techniques of filmmaking and storytelling, and, by extension, understanding a film is understanding its anatomy. Through a series of clips from Chop Shop, he illustrated not only the finer points of dramatic storytelling but also the finer, if not hidden, points of editing and cinematography.

One of the most interesting scenes he walk us through was where Isamar confronts Ale about her money which is missing. It's a key scene in which we know that Ale knows Isamar is prostituting herself, but Isamar doesn't know that Ale knows. (Dramatic irony, as Bahrani points out.) In asking us to identify the dramatic turning point, Bahrani confirms that the moment Ale catches Isamar in a small white lie and completely drops the issue of the money is the turning point. It's moments like these that not only propel the storyline, but keep the film engaging.

Another structural point to this scene is that even though it is shot as one continuous scene, there are two cleverly hidden points in camera movement that allow Bahrani to make edits. If you are able to watch the scene, the camera swings twice following the action of the characters. It is within these moments that edits were made, but remain totally unnoticeable. There is also some very consciously choreographed movements between the two characters and the camera. The amazing thing about this scene, like so many other scenes in Chop Shop, is that despite all the planning and rigorous structure, it couldn't come off more natural or unrehearsed. If process is important to Bahrani, so is discarding directorial norms to find that process. "'Action' is the end of reality, and 'cut' is the beginning." This is the craft that Bahrani was sharing with us.

Chop Shop is set apart by the performances that Bahrani gets from his two young leads. If Ale and Isamar seem perfect in their roles, it is because Bahrani interviewed around 2,000 kids and filmed nearly 450. Finding these two and getting them aclimated to one another was a huge part of Bahrani's process, and Chop Shop will forever shine because of it. Chop Shop is about as 'realistic' as you are going to get in a fictional film. I'm not about to define Neo-Realism or even Neo Neo-Realism, but in getting a taste for what non-popcorn eaters see in a film, I feel I can better understand just what A.O. Scott was talking about.

If the web was overflowing with interviews with Bahrani a couple weeks ago, it is because he is the kind of filmmaker that film lovers love. Far from the esoteric theorists who don't watch films, Bahrani not only watches films, but also grounds them in the cultural and social landscape of the world. Representing and aspiring to unconditional love is an atypical ambition for a filmmaker, but this is exactly what Bahrani eluded to twice. Unique in so many ways, Ramin Bahrani sets himself apart as not only a 'filmmaker to watch' but also a filmmaker that may be equally important to listen to.

Your next chance to be a non-popcorn eater comes May 1 when Goodbye Solo opens in the Twin Cities at the Lagoon.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

We miss you Leslie

April 1st never passes without me being suckered into believing something that I obviously shouldn't (today included.) But for the past five years, April 1st has not passed without remembering Leslie Cheung. Six years ago today, Leslie jumped to his death. When reports of his suicide started popping up on various bulletin boards, it seemed like a sick April's Fools joke. It was no joke.

Leslie Cheung may be best known for Farewell My Concubine in the U.S., but the majority of his career is the heart and soul of my Asian film fandom: 80s and 90s Hong Kong films. Here's a primer:

He's a Woman, She's a Man (1994) directed by Peter Chan
A woman impersonates a man so she can meet her idols and gender-bending hijinks ensue. He's a Woman, She's a Man is a romantic comedy where the performances are so sweet and charming, you just can't help smiling though the entire film. This is really Anita Yuen's movie, but the entire cast is great: Leslie Chueng, Carina Lau, Eric Tsang, and newcomer (!) Jordan Chan. I would say that this film is reserved for Hong Kong fans only, but I think any adventurous film fan could easily have a great time watching this.

A Better Tomorrow (1986) directed by John Woo
It's pretty easy to forget that Leslie is in this film, because this is a showcase for Chow Yun Fat. Nonetheless, Kit (played by Leslie) is the moral conscience of the film.

Days of Being Wild (1990) directed by Wong Kar Wai
I've spent a lot of time on these very pages expressing my adoration for Ashes of Time, in which Leslie Chueng plays a central character. But when it comes to Wong Kar Wai film, Days of Being Wild is Leslie's film. Yuddy, pictured above, is a perfect scoundrel. Everyone should see this film.

A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) directed by Ching Sui-Tung
A story almost as old as China, but a film that was a first in a flood of supernatural swordplay films. Leslie Chueng plays a naive tax collector who unwittingly gets involved with...yup, you guessed it: a ghost!

Eagle Shooting Heroes (1994) directed by Jeffery Lau
The cast from Ashes of Time takes a little breaky-poo from the grueling schedule and you get a madcap comedy that nearly makes me pee my pants. It is parody after parody and really famous people acting like complete idiots. I love it. Please watch the trailer linked above.