Tuesday, April 27, 2010

MSPIFF 2010: Day 6

Alamar (2009) Pedro González-Rubio - Highly Recommended
I am going to deem Alamar the best film I have seen at the fest so far, knocking Looking for Eric out of that top slot. I was completely taken away by the beauty and simplicity of this film. Natan is the young son born to an Italian mother and Mexican father. When his mother decides she is going to leave the jungle and move back to Italy with her son, Natan goes on a final farewell visit with his father and grandfather on the island of Quintana Roo, 30 miles off coast in the Caribbean Sea. The three of them spend their time fishing, cooking, napping and playing as if none of it was their duty but was simply their pleasure. Diving for lobster and snappers among the reef with only the aid of a snorkel and a spear; fishing for barracuda with a spool of fishing line and a baited hook; taming a visiting egret by feeding it roaches; and cleaning and preparing the catch of the day—all are the unconscious endeavors far from the modern world. Director Pedro González-Rubio's oft quoted response to whether Alamar is a feature film or a documentary film is the evasive answer that "It is a film." What is clear about the the film is that no one is acting beyond what is natural. The father and son have a natural bond that you never question. But Alamar also exists in an idealistic realm beyond 'realism'. The elegant narrative plays out like a Greek myth with the father as the Greek god and his son the cherub that someday will have great power. It seems only natural for people to wonder if this myth is true. The finale shot, with Natan in Rome with his mother, seems to exist on another planet.
(Alamar is playing at the Best of the Fest, Sunday, May 2 at 9:30pm.)

The Oath (2010) Laura Poitras - Highly Recommended
From the award winning documentary filmmaker of My Country, My Country, Laura Poitras, The Oath is yet another very thoughtful documentary about the effects of the war in Iraq. Concerned with our misguided efforts of capturing and imprisoning enemy combatants, the film spends much of its time interviewing Abu Jandal, a high level al Qaeda operative and Osama bin Laden's bodyguard who now drives a cab in Yemen. Jandal was one of the U.S.'s first key informants after 9-11. In a Yemeni jail at the time, Jandal was an example of how the FBI's tactics of compassion, not the CIA's of torture, are more productive in interrogation. By taking part in a progressive program called the Dialogue Project, Jandal has pledged his life to non-violence after being released from prison. Jadal's life as a free man is contrasted with his brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan. Hamdam, wanted for being bin Laden's driver, was captured, most likely tortured and left to languish in prison at Guantanamo Bay. Despite the fact that Jandal carried the gun, and Hamdam sat behind the wheel, Jandal is the success story. Hamdam was the first to be tried under the dodgy laws set up for the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and was subsequently acquitted and released. Hamdam refused to take part in the film, but his words, read via letter, resonate. These two stories are delicately woven together and presented to the audience with little bias. The account that Jandal gives regarding how he learned about 9-11, and the fact that it was carried out by people he knew, is completely arresting.
(The Oath will be released in NYC on May 7.)

Air Doll (2009) Hirokazu Kore-eda - Undecided!
If I had never heard of Hirokazu Kore-eda, my feelings for Air Doll would be much different. As it is, I'm a fan of his films and admire his subtle style, and that is why I can not completely condemn this disappointing film. As the title implies, this film is about a blow up doll. Nozomi is owned by a lonely bachelor who has obviously given up on living women in favor of his docile and obedient doll. Treating her as his inanimate wife, he talks to her, baths her and of course has sex with her. Nozomi is not you average blow-up doll. She is far more modeled and realistic than the ones that you buy at the corner sex shop. One day, however, Nozomi animates. She gets a job in a video store (owned by a man who loves Fukasaku's Battles Without Honor & Humanity) and falls in love with her shy co-worker played by Kore-eda regular, Arata. Nozomi is, however, still an air doll who doesn't age and is susceptible to punctures. It's an absurd premise that almost works under Kore-eda's gentle guide. The mix of comedy, drama and the macabre I can take, but its horrendous slides into cheesy melodrama are unforgivable. I stuck with the film until that very last all-the-lonely-people montage where it completely lost me. I'm grateful that MSPIFF showed this film, because I have been eying the $45 Japanese DVD for about a month now. Boy am I glad I didn't buy that!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

MSPIFF 2010: Day 5

I'm a little behind on my film festival intake, but it has been so fruitful, I am going to do my best to catch up.

Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suess (2008) Felix Moeller - Recommended
Director Felix Moeller tackles the lesser known, but more successful, film director of Goebbels' propaganda machine. Veit Harlan was the director of the anti-Semitic film used to propagate the Nazi's agenda, Jew Süss (1940). Unlike Riefenstahl's Triumph of Will, it is obvious that the vicious nature of Jew Süss has kept it in the closet regardless of any artistic merits. Although notorious, especially in Europe, Jew Süss hardly gets mentioned outside academic and historical circles. Instead of doing a straightforward historical narrative of Harlan's life, Moeller spends his time interviewing the living members of Harlan's family. The children, grandchildren and nieces and nephews all give a very personal take on Veit, his film and the after effects on the family. It's a very colorful mix of philosophy, bitterness, and distanced rational. In an irony of irony, it turns out that Stanley Kubrick's last wife, Christiane, was Veit Harlan's niece. The fact is tossed out so quickly and quietly, that I had to do a double take to confirm what I just heard. Christiane noted a meeting between Veit and Stanley with humor, and mentioned that he always wanted to do a film about the era. Some of the relatives feel criminalized by their notorious relative and the film almost feels like an act of catharsis. Veit's first son, who was his most ardent critic while Veit was alive, comes off as the family member most at peace. Veit Harlan died in 1964, and although he was acquitted of war crimes, his career languished under the burden of the War and Jew Süss.
(You have another chance to see Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suess on Wednesday, April 28 at 4:15pm. It will probably not return theatrically to the Twin Cities.)

Mid August Lunch (2008) Gianni Di Gregorio - Recommended
When I first saw the trailer for Mid August Lunch, it offered the tag "Ffrom the creator of Gamorrah." It was pretty obvious that this was no Gamorrah, but I'm not marketer. The relation between the films is that the writer, Gianni Di Gregorio, responsible for the masterful adaptation of Roberto Saviano's book is the director and lead actor in Mid August Lunch. I would see Mid August Lunch as a film meant to wash the bad taste of the Camorra from his palate. In his directorial debut, Di Gregorio creates a charming romp that is more entertaining than it is slight. An aging bachelor, Gianni, acting as a caretaker for his mother, finds himself saddled with three other older women during Ferrogosto, one of the most important holidays in Italy where everything closes down. He takes in the the troublesome trio under coercion: the mother and aunt of the condo administrator to whom his mother is indebted, and the mother of a doctor willing to do a house visit on short notice. Under the dread of obligation to make these three women happy, along with his very opinionated mother, he must prepare a lunch appropriate for Ferrogosto. Di Gregorio does a fantastic job of taking the reigns of the lead character contending with responsibility with resignation that we can all relate to. There is a hilarious moment when a man comes to the door to visit Gianni and they go into his bedroom and shut the door. As the visiting man puts his hand down Gianni's pants, I heard a woman behind me indignantly say "Oh my goodness." The next second, however, the visiting man says, "Cough." He is, of course, a doctor, but that is not revealed until after the film confronts the audience's notions that a single man living with his mother must be gay. At 75 minutes, Mid August Lunch is short but very sweet.
(Mid August Lunch is currently in limited release and is scheduled to open at the Edina Cinema on May 7.)

MSPIFF 2010: Day 4

Nénette (2010) Nicolas Philibert - Recommended
Nénette is a 40 year-old orangutan who has spent 37 of those years in captivity at the Menagerie du Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Nicolas Philibert trains his camera on Nénette and her three orangutan companions behind the thick observation glass of the zoo and never deviates from them. A vocal narrative accompanies the images with interviews about Nénette and conversations people have with and about the orangutans in front of the protective glass. Sometimes this was the din of a hundred school children and sometimes this was the thoughtful presumptions about Nénette's life. Philibert, the director of the most successful documentary in France, To Be and to Have, is one of the most conscientious documentary filmmakers around. Careful with subject matter and attentive with style, Philibert's choices have a subtle effect on an unsuspecting audience. This sort of visual specificity is not about manipulation, but about creating a unique experience with a documentary film. Nénette ends up being an effective portrait of ourselves through the reflection of the orangutans. Having just heard a radio program about a group of orangutans in a zoo who figured out how to pick a lock in order to get into the tress of the elephant pen, I was aware about how amazingly intelligent these animals are. Add to it my general distaste for zoos and Nénette became a very melancholy film about our patronization of animals. But being able to see these animals and their amazing features and how they resemble us, is one of the great gifts of zoos. My chances to see an orangutan in the wild: zero. Philibert taps into this dichotomy by contrasting the images with the audio.
(Nénette is one of the newest films at MSPIFF and has yet to negotiate distribution. Best possible scenario is that we will see it available on DVD in a few years.)

Last Train Home (2009) Fan Lixin - Recommeneded
When living in China, I took it upon myself to tackle the art of train travel. The trains in China go everywhere, are relatively affordable and extremely reliable. The real tricks involve negotiating tickets and the masses. As a foreigner I had more options when it came to buying tickets, but often took the when in Rome philosophy despite the fact that it was obvious I wasn't a Roman. It was good practice for my language skills and made for interesting situations, to say the least. When I would find myself in the middle of the crush to get on the train (hundreds of passengers who all wanted a seat and room for their luggage) people would be shocked to see a 'big nose' amongst them, but would keep on pushing. Train transportation in an ever more mobile population was the backdrop for this documentary about a modern Chinese family torn apart by the financial needs and desires created by 'communism with capitalistic traits.' Husband and wife, Changhua and Suqin, left their sleepy, economically depressed village in the middle of Sichuan Providence to pursue more gainful work in Guangxhou's garment district. Their only desire is to provide enough money for their two children, left in Sichuan with their grandmother, to go to school and the education they need for a better life. Their children, however, feel completely cut off from their parents whom they see only once a year when they (and a million or so other people) make a trip home for the New Year. Their teenage daughter sees other opportunities other than school and follows in her parents footsteps to seek work elsewhere, becoming just one more migrant worker. The documentary work wonders in lifting a veil on just one family among the millions in the same situation. However, much like Up the Yangtze, the presence of the camera feels like an unintended red herring that acts as a diversion for the subjects and the audience. The subtle observations get overshadowed by the melodrama that documentary pursues.
(Last Train Home is has US distribution and will eventually make an appearance on DVD and/or on demand services.)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

MSPIFF 2010: Day 3

For the Love of Movies - Take It or Leave It
I'm sorry, but this 'film criticism in crisis' topic is getting old, and in most cases off the mark. If you want to find a crisis, look at the print publication industry. Yes, film critics are losing their jobs, but so are hard nosed journalists who worked in an industry that is now failing under the pressure of the internet. I would agree that film criticism for the masses is dead. No one is going to base their decision on whether or not to go to a movie based on a review. People are either going to go see Sex in the City 2 or they're not. But what has grown stronger is a core conversation about film on the internet, in small publication and even in some of the dailies. Unfortunately, most of the dailies still think they are targeting the masses with film reviews. Although For the Love of Movies sells itself as a survey of American film criticism, it feels like a eulogy. As a historical piece, it merely skims the surface. At 80 minutes it attempts to cover a century of thought, and although it hits the highlights, it never delves very deep. It spends too much time on the Pauline Kael/Andrew Sarris feud and closes by reveling in the cynicism toward the internet and 'unqualified writers.' Possibly the best thing about the film is seeing and hearing interviews with critics that I have spent time reading—Molly Haskell, Kenneth Turan, J. Hoberman, Andrew Sarris, Michael Wilmington, just to name a few. (Not scheduled to play again, but available on DVD if interested.)

Looking for Eric - Highly Recommended
Looking for Eric is the best film I've seen so far at the festival (excluding 35 Shots of Rum.) Overall, I am very cold on Ken Loach's films and haven't seen one that has really stood out to me. Looking for Eric has changed all that. Working with far more humor, Loach crafts a affecting and hilarious portrait of a middle aged man at the end of his rope. Eric is a postman who is burdened with the guilt of leaving his wife of over twenty years ago and is distraught by his inability to communicate with his two teenage sons. His mates do their best to help, including organizing a meeting guided by a self-help book to build confidence. When they are instructed to close their eyes and imagine the world through the eyes of someone they admire, Eric immediately chooses Eric Cantona, star player for Manchester United, as his muse. Enter Eric Cantona who routinely shows up to help Eric work through his problems. The friendship that Eric builds with his hero, even if it is in his head, is incredibly tender. Steve Evets is amazing as Eric. I never doubted his anger, his depression or his love for football. But big points go out to Eric Cantona for taking on the role and filling it perfectly. Looking for Eric has a working-class realism that you might expect that glows under the performances of Evets and Cantona. I was willing to forgive a finale that has pieces fitting too neatly and enthusiastically in place due to the sincerity that permeated the entire film. (I'm getting this out too late to recommend the second screening, but let's hope Looking for Eric returns to this town and yours.)

Reykjavik-Rotterdam - Take It or Leave It
I had shades of déjà vu watching Reykjavik-Rotterdam, an accomplished thriller from Iceland (with no volcanoes.) Reykjavik shares many elements with The Square, which I had seen just the day before. Although they run on completely different narrative threads, they both have a similar gritty feel and they both have a character who is a foreman anxious to get some cement poured. I've never had the problem of films blurring together, but under the circumstances of watching three or four festival films a day, I am always struck by the similarities among films. Call it copying, appropriation or inevitable, genre films need to be a little more creative. This is where The Square has the edge on Reykjavik. The Square works consciously with cliché in the mind (much like Shaun of the Dead) and uses it, and our expectations, to its advantage. Reykjavik-Rotterdam feels more like a film mimicking a successful formula. Kristófer has gone clean. He is sober and he has ditched his booze smuggling days for the family life with his wife and kids. But the strains of a low wage job force him into doing just one more run so he can afford to put a down payment on a flat. Kristófer's best friend helps him set up the run, but he also has the makes on Kristófer's wife. Some things go right; some things go wrong. The plot feels forced and the characters rarely go beyond one dimensional. I was in turns entertained and incredulous. The film was penned by the author of Jar City and also shares a couple of actors from that adaptation. The attempt to sell Reykjavik-Rotterdam as the next Jar City pulled me in but left me sorely disappointed. (I caught the second screening and it is not yet scheduled to play again. I can say anyone is missing anything.)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

MSPIFF 2010: Day 2

Son of a Lion - Recommended
Son of a Lion is a solid film that might not provide any major surprises by way of innovation, but is rich with honesty. Set in the wild west of Pakistan, this first feature from Australian director Benjamin Gilmour focuses on a widowed Pashtun father and an ideological struggle with his eleven year old son. The father is committed to raising his son under strict Islamic law and teaching him the trade of his gun shop. His son, however, is drawn to music and wants to attend school to learn how to read. A young child's desire to go to school lays a safe ground work for the film to gently explore other issues. Gilmour does a fantastic job of keeping a steady gaze trained on this subject matter while exploring some of the more difficult cultural and social issues that a father and son face in the hinterlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan, from finding a good dentist to dealing with the propagation of weapons. The best parts of the film are those in which the dialog feels unscripted and is not responsible for propelling the story forward. Midway through the film a handful of Pashtun elders, none of them 'characters' in the film per se, openly discuss the importance of education and what they would do is Osama bin Laden were to come to their house. One man laughs and admits that we would want the reward money; another said he would be welcome into his house, but not as a terrorist; and yet another simply said, "I don't want any trouble." As much as education is important in a young person's life, so is a father and neither can be abandon for the other. The resolution to this film, realistic or not, let's you leave the film happy, and ironically it does not feel like a compromise.
Screens again Wednesday, April 21 at 6:00pm

The Secret of Kells - Highly Recommended
I used to think that seeing a film at the festival that was going to open in town at a later date was wasting the opportunity to see something you might never get the chance to see again. I'm starting to change my mind. Seeing a film like The Secret of Kells (which opens this weekend at the Edina Cinema) among the festival hub-bub, and in this case a sold out show, elevates the experience. I was immediately won over by this unique animation and its visual style. It made me further realize just how rich the Oscar nominated animated feature pool was. Director Tomm Moore uses the images and colors from the Book of Kells for inspiration: a mix of finely detailed hieroglyphs and patterns, and flat stylized people and creatures. I felt far less invested in the story than I did the visuals, but that was okay with me. Themes and plot, although steeped in Irish myth and folklore, felt trimmed to meet the needs of a mass audience. I would only be my hope that this would allow more people to see this visually stunning 75 minute of work.
Opens Friday at the Edina Cinema

The Square - Recommended
How do you navigate writing about The Square? The Square is a thriller that has more twists than two pretzels tied in a knot, and discovering those twists as a viewer is half of the experience. Yet commenting on these plot devices, and how they work and don't work, is a very meaty conversation. Don't worry—I'm not going to do it. Nash Edgerton is an Australian stuntman turned director who has been mastering his craft through a series of short films, one of which preceded The Square Saturday night. If anyone sitting in the theater had any doubts about the kind of film they were about to see, Spider, Edgerton's most recent short, answered them succinctly. (Available on YouTube, it is perhaps the best introduction to the twisted logic used in The Square. Check it out here.) The Square contains all the classic components of a noir thriller: an illicit affair, a redneck boyfriend, and a bag full of cash. Raymond is the film's hero who seems to be an honest upstanding guy but quickly gets pushed to his limits. "The square" represents Raymond's first misstep and the pebble that turns into an avalanche of very very bad luck. The Square is a complicated story that Edgerton takes advantage of at every step, confusing or distracting the audience. The film exudes a grave tone, but with each mechanism and contrivance, the tone, which has an iron grip on your attention, turns slightly hackneyed and false. You get to a point in the film where there is really only one possible ending and the suspense ends. There is no doubt that humor drives the film in the direction it goes, but I would argue that that might not be the most effective direction.
Opens next week at the Lagoon Theater

Bananas! - Take It or Leave It
Unfortunately, I was about 20 minutes late to this 80 minute film, so it is probably unfair that I deem it disappointing. The banana industry is a monster with so many important and interesting issues surrounding it, Bananas! seems halfhearted at best. It focuses on a possible landmark case against an American company (Dole) for actions that took place outside the country (in this case the use of pesticides that they knew where harmful in Nicaragua.) The rights of workers under the hands of multinational countries is a huge issue, and the focus on the Banana industry is not unfair. But the documentary is muddled by the fact that the film uses an ambulance chasing attorney who drives a convertible Ferrari as its moral center. After closing arguments in the case, someone brings some refreshments to the attorney's office for the staff and he pulls a carton of Dole orange juice out of a bag. It's funny, but it's not—these people obviously don't get it. There is no mention of the Fair Trade movement and no mention of organics, and my food-as-politics bone finds that inexcusable. The only thing Bananas! does is offer a portrait of a screwed up trial. Bananas! screens with the unilluminating Big River by Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney who made King Corn.
Screens again Tuesday, April 20 at 6:30pm

Saturday, April 17, 2010

MSPIFF 2010: Day 1

35 Shots of Rum - Highly Recommended
Feeling lukewarm about many of the first offerings at MSPIFF, I decided I would take advantage of the opportunity to see 35 Shots of Rum a second time. After loading up on Surly beer at Pracna with friends (cheers to everyone that showed up), I busted my way into a packed house. Despite the fact that it played in Minneapolis a little over a month ago at the Walker and is coming out on DVD next week and is largely last year's news, 35 Shots had no problem selling out. I had the opportunity to see 35 Shots last fall on a random trip to NYC, arriving on its last day at the Film Forum, and it was one of the best films I saw last year. A second viewing did nothing to tarnish those feelings, and instead reaffirmed every assertion that was was growing vague in my mind. 35 Shots is a masterpiece from the heart that skirts around the edges of social politics with subconscious sublimity. The narrative is driven by a visual osmosis, slowly and subtle revealing truths and discoveries about the transcendental characters. At the center of the film is the relationship between a young adult daughter and her single father—both at junctures in their lives. Claire Denis cites Late Spring in this dedication to her mother and grandfather, but I still see more Hong Sang-soo (albeit a more gentle Hong) than Yasujiro Ozu in 35 Shots of Rum. Beautifully edited and scored, 35 Shots is a must see on the big screen. Here's hoping we don't have to wait until next year to see Denis new film, White Material, in the Twin Cities.
Screens again today, Saturday, April 17 at 3:15

The Forbidden Door - Not Recommended
Just enough time for another Surly, and I was back in the theater for the first of MSPIFF's 'late night' series—four films from the edgier parts of the film world. I had read reviews of The Forbidden Door on Twitch (one positive and one not so positive) and was excited to make a determination of my own about this Indonesian thriller. All I have to say is: these are the risks you take at film festivals. The Forbidden Door is a mess. I originally thought that the beer had effected my deductive logic, but finally realized that logic was on the back burner for most of the film. Completely disjointed, The Forbidden Door feels like it was made by an ADD Eli Roth (and I'm pretty sure Eli Roth is already ADD, so that would be double ADD.) The story focuses on a successful artist, Gambir, who makes highly sought after sculptures of pregnant women. Gambir, however, has a few skeletons in his closet, not the least of which is his impotency and inability to get his beautiful wife pregnant, an irony that would make Freud stroke his beard. Random mysteries and random resolutions are propped up by overwrought genre stereotypes of the emasculated man and the abused child. The components of a good blood-squirting thriller are there, but the lack of overall focus renders this film as ineffective as Gambir. At the introduction, the programmer admitted that finding The Forbidden Door was a hard fought battle, working for two months to simply find a contact. The hard work it took to get this film to the festival is not lost on me, and I wish there was more of a pay off. Joko Anwar has generated a fair amount of low-level cyberspace buzz among horror fans, and although he probably has a genre masterpiece somewhere in him, The Forbidden Door is not it. Which is unfortunate, because I love that poster.
Screens again Wednesday, April 21 at 9:20

Friday, April 16, 2010

MSPIFF 2010: The Impossible Shuffle

As recommendations and requests float in, I try to negotiate a realistic but ambitious plan of attack for MSPIFF. No doubt this plan will change more than once as I talk to more people about films they've seen. See any places where I am going wrong? I am open to suggestions!

For resources on what to see at MSPIFF check out the following:

Thursday, April 15, 2010

MSPIFF 2010: Opening Night MAX MANUS

It seems somewhat fitting and ironic that on the opening night of the 28th Annual Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival the twit-blog-osphere would be all a-buzz with the 63rd Cannes lineup. Weerasethakul? Kiarostami? Oliveira? Hong? Godard? Who cares! We've got Joachim Rønning and some obscure WWII Norwegian film called Max Manus!

For the first time ever the MSPIFF opens, runs and ends in the same venue. Opening nights the past two years have commenced on the sterile grounds of the chain theater at Block E; the two years before that at the homey neighborhood one-screen giant the Riverview; and prior to that in the opulence of the Historic State Theater. Oh, those were the days! Hosting the 'opening gala' at the much more limited and humble setting of the St. Anthony Main Theaters (where the festival will run on five screens for the next two weeks) not only speaks to local organizational shifts, but also to a wider economic reality of film festivals. With access to films growing exponentially, creating a film event—like a film festival or a special repertory screening—seems both cutting edge and seriously old school. Thankfully, such screenings and festivals are able to draw crowds on both those characteristics. Year after year I am encouraged by the intrepid local audience, not only at MSPIFF, but also at the Trylon or the Heights or the Walker. These are people after my own heart, seeking out and reveling in unique film experiences.

Opening night at this year's MSPIFF was no different. St Anthony was buzzing with people excited to see a film that matters more to the local community, with strong Norwegian ties, than it does to industry hype, where Max Manus barely made a blip. Max Manus tells the story of the Norwegian resistance during Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1945. Max Manus, one of the leaders, is shuttled back and forth between Sweden, Norway and England to escape capture as his fellow soldiers are either killed or captured. Although my Norwegian WWII history is lacking, it is obvious that the film goes to great pains to be accurate. The set design is particularly impressive, especially those involving the bombing of the boats in Oslo Bay and the infamous bombing of the SS Donau. On par with the beach scene in Atonement, the physicality of the ships amongst a very specific setting is stunning. Although the production values are high in Max Manus, the story follows a very familiar trajectory that won't lead to any surprises. The Nazis are uncomplicated villains and our heroes are unequivocally self-sacrificing martyrs. Emotional bells and whistles perhaps work better on those more aware of the historical gravity of the narrative, but was overall bland despite engaging moments of battle or suspense. In attendance was Gunnar Sønsteby, part of the Norwegian resistance and portrayed in the film. He said a few words before the film and lended some credence to the film itself.

And so it begins. A crowd-pleasing opening to two weeks of film phantasmagoria that I have to figure out how to navigate. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Good News from Criterion

If you get Criterion's newsletter and opened it and made it to the bottom of the page, you saw this coy graphic last week:

It looks like chaos will reign at Criterion, and I for one couldn't be more happy. Von Trier's engages in a little self-criticism for our pleasure and at our expense. Antichrist is currently available for view on-demand at various places, but, considering that this film was shot on HD, a Blu-Ray is likely to look better than the 35mm print you saw in the theater. And make no mistake, Antichrist has some stunning images. There are also, of course, the more talked about horrific images that made many people shy away from seeing this film in the theater, and rightly so. On a second viewing there may be scenes where I decide to turn my head, so I'm not going to tell anyone that the 'bad' scenes aren't that bad. But, what I will do when this movie is released on Blu-Ray is nail down scenes and times where people should either fast forward or avert their eyes. I'll even come up with sterile descriptions of the scene. Is this cheating? Maybe, but the most brutal scenes are in effect ones where Von Trier punches us in the face and we cannot punch back. I think if you don't want to be punched, that's fair, and it won't take away from the film.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Building the Best Film Fest: full disclosure

With the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival less than a week away, the Star Tribune's Colin Covert ponders, what makes a good film fest? Pooling opinions from a number of people, including myself, the article builds a comprehensive and thoughtful look at what a Midwest film festival is all about. The Twin Cities is not, and never will be, a so-called major market, which makes the two week, 100+ film MSPIFF all the more important to film fans who call the Twin Cities home.

Including a hang-about like me with a group of experts may be a stretch, but I guess if I'm going to be an expert at anything, it's going to be watching movies. Last year I caught 35 films at MSPIFF and I'll try to do the same this year. That's not bragging rights, but merely an admission of my commitment to see these films on the big screen before they disappear.

I'm just as excited this year as I am any other year to dive in and take in as many films as I possibly can without losing my job, my partner or my sanity. I'm going to do my best to report on what I see as often as I can. Until then, here are my answers to the full list of questions from which the Star Tribune article evolved from:

What makes a good film festival?

Organization and good films. Organization seems hit or miss for MSPIFF, but with the bulk of films and times already available online, this year seems to be right on track. What I mean by ‘good films’ is that someone is screening things with a critical eye and an open mind.

With the glut of films in the marketplace, what should the selection criteria be for a major urban film festival?

A film festival reflects the vision of the curators. This is pretty easy to see with various staff changes to the fest over the years. (Or if you look at the bigger festivals – each has a flavor all its own.) However, seeing that MSP is not LA or NYC, I think it is extremely important (when possible) for curators to be aware of the films that have distribution but are not likely to receive a release in the Twin Cities. Munyurangabo, Dry Season, Three Monkeys, Oblivion – just a few examples from last year.

To what degree should it serve and promote local filmmakers?

Including local filmmakers is extremely important. They are a vital part of the film community that should be involved in this event. I feel like the mix MSPIFF has is good.

What other events should be included besides film screenings? How important is it to host visiting filmmakers? What’s the ideal way to have them interact with audiences?

Having visiting directors makes a screening special. Even if the film does come to town later or come out on DVD, having the presence of someone involved with the film makes it unique. In my experience, audience Q&As are a disaster. Post-screening discussions should be prepared by a moderator, and, best possible scenario, arrange a meet and greet before or after the film at an local establishment. (Loads of options for places down there on St Anthony Main for this: Aster Cafe, the extra room Pracna has, Vic’s.) Someone dying to talk to the director should get this chance.

What about the size and scope? Is a program with 100+ offerings more exciting than with one offering less than 50?

Yeah, I wonder about that. I think it might be more like, why not do 100 really well and not 140. I think 50 would take away from the event it has become.

The Twin Cities is host to a growing number of ethnic film festivals: Italian, Jewish, Arab. Is that a good thing or does it bring on film fest burnout?

No way. Obviously each of these series/festivals mean different things to different people, but what they all mean is getting people out of their house to see a film. They all reinforce the social aspect of film going, and reassert a sense community.

How can moviegoers best navigate among dozens of films? Should the screenings be arranged into categories, so that documentary fans and French film buffs can easily find multiple films arranged under each heading?

I’ve always found the country indexes very useful. As far as choosing films, go with your impulse. I’m a sucker for a compelling photo or title. But I know that I am also dedicated to films from specific countries. Although going with my impulses has led to the greatest discoveries, it has also led to some real clunkers. Of course anyone willing to do some research, there are trailers and reviews out there for most of these films. You can also check the fab reviews in the Star Tribune!

Many fests charge entry fees and issue cash prizes to the best films. Does that add to the prestige of the event or is it a distraction from the main business of exhibiting films?

I’m not sure. The voting thing drives me batty though. It makes a cluster after the film; it’s a huge waste of paper; and it has nothing to do with the best of the fest. Let people vote online if they want.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Twin Cities Film 4/9 - 4/15

Hitchcock at the Trylon and the Riverview
Take-Up's "Alfred Hitchcock: Across the Decades" continues this week with The Lady Vanishes Friday and Saturday at the Trylon and Notorious Monday at the Riverview. The Lady Vanishes (1938) is an early Hitchcock film that is one-thirds mystery and two-thirds witty, peculiar charm. Notorious (1946) is a totally different Hitchcock creature: stylish and refined with an edge of elegance that can only be brought to a film by the likes of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. It's a lavish film experience.

Buy your tickets in advance, especially for The Lady Vanishes at the Trylon. (Three of the five shows last weekend sold out!) The Lady Vanishes screens five times at the Trylon: Friday 7 & 9pm, Saturday 5, 7 &9pm. Notorious screens Monday 7:30pm at the Riverview. I'll be projecting Saturday night at the Trylon, so stop by and say hi. (Click poster below for more information or tickets.)

Jewish Film Festival
The ambitious Jewish Film Festival kicked off last night and continues through March 18. With a rich selection of dramas and documentaries, you really can't go wrong. With the exception of the opening night, all films will be screened at the Sabes JCC. (Click below for more info and a full list of films.)

Views from Iran at the Walker
The Walker's "Views from Iran" starts today and runs over the next few weekends with some exciting screenings and events. In addition to the seven films included in the series, the Walker will host two visiting filmmakers, Shirin Neshat and Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, who will present their new films. In light the recent arrest of award winning filmmaker Jafar Panahi in his home country of Iran, the series offers a unique opportunity to understand the issues and constraints that many Iranian artists face. The premiere of Asghar Farhadi's About Elly plays tonight, Friday, at 7:30pm and there is a lecture with journalist Laura Secor Tuesday at 7pm.

Opening This Week in the Twin Cities

Three films open at the various Landmark Theaters this week and hoping to catch all three before hell breaks loose with the MSPIFF. The Most Dangerous Man in America and Vincere, both at the Lagoon, are first in line. The Most Dangerous Man in America is the story of Daniel Ellsberg, a high-level Pentagon official and Vietnam War strategist, who attempted to expose the lies told by the government about the Vietnam War. The trailer looks amazing and I expect there will be some relevance, even if it is indirect, regarding the lies of the previous administration on the Iraq War. The Most Dangerous Man was nominated for an Academy Award but lost out to The Cove. The Greatest opens at the Edina. (Click below for more info.)

Opening in wide release this week is an odd mix of films: Date Night with Steve Carell and Tina Fey, some obscure (and most likely awful) horror film called The Black Waters of Echo's Pond, and the let's-hope-it's-not-as-heavy-handed-as-the-title-but-I-bet-it is Letters to God. Although I probably won't get around to seeing Date Night, if that film isn't a slam dunk, I don't know what is. Titans, you are going down! (Click below for official websites.)

Also worth noting, MFA brings A Town Called Panic back at St Anthony Main. I heard nothing but good things about this strange French animation film but was unable to make it during its one-week run at the Lagoon. Now everyone has a second chance!

And last, but not least, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival is just one week away. The online schedule is up and running and individual tickets are for sale online and at St Anthony Main Theater. Passes and programs should be available this weekend. I'm excited and can't wait to OD on films for two weeks. Will Getafilm and I resurrect the Film Goats? Either way, I'll see you there.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Twin Cities Film 4/2 - 4/8

Lots of five star films screening this week. I've decided to go the image route again. Click any image for a link to more information. The verbiage is redundant. But please take note of the special screening of Orson Welles' F For Fake this Sunday - do not miss it. Also Hitchcock mania starts at the Trylon and Riverview. Watching Psycho in a packed house at the Riverview is going to be amazing. Ticket sales for all the Hitchcock films are brisk, so buy in advance.

Special Screenings:


Home Movies - March 2010

Criterion celebrates my one year anniversary of doing Home Movies for InRO with one of the most important releases to hit U.S. soil: “Letters From Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa.” I wish I could give it a proper appraisal, but it literally hit my door today, sitting next to my computer in the shrink wrap as I type these words. (Falling into the rabbit hole is something I'll do later and report back.) Joining Pedro Costa this month is four other recommendations and twelve other notable releases I couldn’t resist pairing in double features.

tters from Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa [Criterion]
What Criterion misses when they introduce Pedro Costa as “one of the most important artists on the international film scene today” is that he is also of the most neglected in the way of accessible English friendly DVDs. Until recently, that is. Coming on the heels of two worthy imports of The Blood (1989) and Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001), Criterion completes the perfect circle with this 4-disc set which includes his Fontainhas Trilogy: Osso (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2001) and Colossal Youth (2006). This set does the invaluable service of pulling back the curtain on these much talked about but rarely seen films. Criterion provides access for those of us who have had only minimal exposure to Costa, but can’t wait for more, and to those who believe Costa is a mythical creature concocted in esoteric film circles. It was Colossal Youth that brought Costa to many people’s attention, but his interconnected Fontainhas Trilogy is the master cycle that earned him overwhelming critical claim. All shot in the Fontainhas slums outside of Lisbon, the trilogy offers portraits of the cast aside citizens of Costa’s homeland. The set is less an introduction on Costa than it is a master’s class, supplementing the films with an entire disc of documentaries, commentaries, interviews, essays and photos. Also included are two recent short films, Tarrafal and The Rabbit Hunter, that Costa made for two 2007 omnibus films, The State of the World and Memories respectively. My fervor for supporting Criterion—and the institutions who have screened his work theatrically (locally the Walker Art Center)—in their visionary efforts to make these films available is staunch. Save your money. Buy this set.

The Complete Magick Lantern Cycle by Kenneth Anger
I wish there was a way for me to recommend this set and not feel guilty about the fact that Kenneth Anger, still alive, is most likely not receiving the financial benefit he deserves from its release. Anger’s discontent with Fantoma’s first two DVDs was more than apparent when I had the opportunity to meet him in 2007. Perhaps things have changed, but there is nonetheless something dodgy about this release. First, “The Complete Magick Lantern Cycle” seems to be a repackaging of Fantoma’s own “The Films of Kenneth Anger Vol 1” and “Vol 2” only at a cheaper price. Secondly, this release comes almost a year after BFI’s reportedly far superior Blu-Ray release that used Fantoma’s transfers. I’m confused. If that is too much politics to handle, I don’t blame you. Bottom line: Anger is a living legend of the avant-garde and his films, and the limits of their influence, know no boundaries. This set (or the previous set or BFI’s Blu-Ray) is the pudding of the proof. Included are 10 of his most well known shorts, from his groundbreaking Fireworks (1947) to his bombastic Lucifer Rising (1981). Controversial and confrontational, Anger has worked his way from underground filmmaker to tattle-tail author to the well-deserved recognition of the film community at large.

The Beaches of Agnès (2009) by Agnès Varda [Cinema Guild]
Agnès Varda, 80 year-old grandmother of the French New Wave, makes it very clear that she is still an artist to be reckoned with. Working in the style of a film essay, Varda’s autobiographical documentary is drawn with such charm and openness that it will have no problem winning over new admirers while reinforcing the glowing adoration of devoted fans worldwide. Beaches places Varda’s irresistible persona front and center as she chronicles her life as an experimental work and her work as an experimental life. Varda starts with her childhood in Belgium and guides us through her life using archive photos and footage, interviews, reenactments, staged vignettes, and Varda herself revisiting the landscapes of her past. Continually exploring and expanding her creative impulses, Varda seems more alive than ever. The Cinema Guild makes the most of this release and includes three previously unavailable short films by Varda. Around Trapese Artists and Daguerre-Beach are fully realized visual landscapes of vignettes featured in the film, and the third, Le Lion Volatil, is a fiction film made in 2003 loosely contemplating the permanence of the bronze Lion of Belfort statue through a romantic young woman.

We Live in Public (2009) by Ondi Timoner [IndiePix]
There is a fair amount of evidence that the Internet, including the insipid social networks that we all indulge in, has had a tremendous effect on 21st century life as we know it. But there are a few caveats to this notion: first is that this only includes the most privileged in a worldwide population, and second is that the greatest impact has not been social, but individual. Ondi Timoner’s fascinating documentary supports both assertions to an alarming or reassuring degree, depending on which Kool Aid you drink. Over ten years in the making, We Live in Public documents Josh Harris, “the greatest Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of.” One of the first people to realize the potential webcasting, Harris was also excited, not scared, by the notion of how the Internet could connect us all, all the time. The eventual loss of privacy was like a challenge to Harris. His experimental underground commune project walks a very fine line between visionary and completely crazy. Timoner, embedded in the action, keeps a surprisingly even-hand in doling out the narrative culled from thousands of hours of footage. Included on the DVD are two commentary tracks, one by Timoner and one by Harris, recorded during his first screening of the film. The DVD is far from the only way to see this film, and can be found on-demand via the Internet and cable, but I guarantee that after seeing the film you will wish you had the commentaries to help you digest. For anyone reading this review, exclusively online, We Live in Public is a must see.

The African Queen (1951) by John Houston [Paramount]
I’m going to equate The African Queen to comfort food. Although highly subjective, comfort foods usually follow demographics and offer the simple yet oh-so satisfying taste of the familiar. I’m a pretty good sport about indulging in, and sometimes even enjoying, others' form of comfort food, and The African Queen is no different. An enjoyable adventure-cum-romance, The African Queen survives on the notoriety of its director, John Houston, and teems with life thanks to the chemistry between Kathryn Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, both beyond their popular peak, but far from dead. The African Queen represented a triumph for both, but especially Bogey, earning him his only Oscar in a very long career. But the thing that makes this classic of classics’ release so notable is that, until now, it has been unavailable stateside on DVD. Whatever the delay, Paramount fortunately had the foresight to do the painstaking restoration work that the Technicolor film needed. The special features make spending the money on the ‘Commemorative Edition’ worthwhile, notably an audio recording a Lux Radio Theater version with Bogey reprising his role with Greer Garson and a copy of Hepburn’s now out-of-print 1987 memoir The Making of the African Queen: Or, How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Houston and Almost Lost My Mind.

Double Dog Dare Double Features

(2009) by Hayao Miyazaki [Disney]
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) by Wes Anderson [Fox]
Two of the most enjoyable theatrical experiences from last year may play out even better at DVD, particularly if you have young ones at home. That being said, I would never ghettoize either film as being a children’s movie. The wild creativity of Ponyo and the subtle humor of Fox never pander to kids as if they are stupid. Ponyo may not be Hayao Miyazaki’s best, but it delivers all the heart-warming adventure that you would expect from one of his films. Miyazaki is a singular talent who has the ability to turn a simply story into visual magic with earth shattering gentleness. Wes Anderson pulls out a huge surprise with a stop motion animation that, dare I say it, has more life that his live action films. Anderson and Noah Baumbach work wonders scripting this low-key escapade carried out by a group of richly imagined, preppy critters. Family movie night just got better with these two films regardless of the ages in your family.

Where the Wild Things Are
(2009) by Spike Jonze
Tell Them Anything You Want (2009) by Spike Jonze and Lance Bangs
Watching Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s book is like having some sort of window onto your childhood psyche. Max’s dark and insecure feelings were intuited content as a kid, and as a cognizant adult watching the film, those irrational emotions of pain and joy hit hard. If seeing “Where the Wild Things Are” in the theater wasn’t enough, it’s time to watch it again at home and pick up the documentary that Jonze made in tandem with the film. Tell Them Anything You Want is an intimate portrait of Sendak and proof to the care and consideration Jonze took in adapting the book. The documentary is a fine companion to the film. So fine, in fact, you have to wonder why it’s not a special feature on the DVD release of the film.

Bigger That Life
(1956) by Nicholas Ray [Criterion]
Dillinger is Dead (1969) by Marco Ferreri [Criterion]
These two timeless films from Criterion are a reminder that newer isn’t always better (an ethos that I sometimes have a hard time remembering.) Marco Ferreri’s laconic Dillinger is Dead from 1969 is as surreal and strange as anything heading down the contemporary experimental pipeline; Nicholas Ray’s intense Bigger Than Life from 1956 is as dark and shocking as any social critique made today. Bigger Than Life is a brutal portrayal of the atomic family that, unsurprisingly, did not go over so well at the time of its release. As a result, it faded into the background and was overshadowed by Ray’s more popular films, such as Rebel Without a Cause, released just two years earlier. Ferreri’s symbolic dark comedy faced similar dismissal, but only compared to colleagues, such as Antonioni and Godard. Both are available on DVD for the first time in the U.S.

Red Cliff
(International Version) (2009)
by John Woo [Magnolia]
Sherlock Holmes (2009) by Guy Ritchie [Warner]
Contrasting these two films would be a crime, but comparing them side-by-side, especially within their own very specific trademark style of action, would probably be as fun as it would be interesting. John Woo takes a classic story from the revered Chinese epic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and adapts it for 21st century cinematic tastes. In many ways, what Guy Ritchie does with Sherlock Holmes is no different—Robert Downey Jr. certainly is not your grandparent’s Sherlock Holmes! Both Woo and Ritchie are able to re-envision these cultural archetypes with rich narrative flair and visceral kinetic panache. (Although committing to the International Version of Red Cliff means a whopping five hours, anyone interested should skip the truncated US theatrical release. You will thank me later.)

An Education
by Lone Scherfig [Sony]
The Blind Side (2009) by John Lee Hancock [Warner]
As luck would have it, two films were released this month that had Best Actress nominees, including the one the won. Early in the year Carey Mulligan in An Education had all the critical attention and people were practically handing her the award…or at least Sandra Bullock was not being talked about as a possibility for The Proposal. Mulligan is undeniably brilliant in An Education, an adaptation of Lynn Barber’s coming of age memoir. At an age where confidence and vulnerability can believably exist, Mulligan’s charm steals the film. And then—bam—here comes that saucy Southern lady, struttin’ around, savin’ lives! It’s hard not to love an actress that shows up to accept her Razzie Award for Worst Actress, which Bullock did for All About Steve, but, between these two films alone, it’s hard to think the Academy got it right.

Up in the Air
by Jason Reitman [Paramount]
Precious (2009) by Lee Daniels [Lionsgate]
Here’s another you-be-the-judge Oscar smackdown between two films that could not get more disparate. Up in the Air represents the modern Hollywood machine like no other. It has all the elements: the star (George Clooney, whose persona, and paycheck, trumps any character he is likely to play), the director (Jason Reitman, son of director Ivan Ghost Buster Reitman), and the story (the trials and tribulations of, um, corporate travel.) Precious, on the other hand, is the complete antithesis—a beacon for everyone and everything that is under-represented in Hollywood. It’s a miracle that this film got made and a double miracle that is saw the kind of success it did. Both were up for Best Adapted Screenplay. Precious took home the statue and Reitman took home his pouty lower lip. You made need therapy after watching these two films together, but, if I hadn’t already seen them, this would be my kind of double feature.