SIFF: The Landing

Sat, Jun. 10th, 2017 07:53 am
scarlettina: (Default)
Last night's SIFF film: The Landing, a faux documentary about Apollo 18, the last moon mission. (Actually, Apollo 18 never happened. It was cancelled.) The film posits an unplanned landing not in the Pacific Ocean, but in China, and explores the question of how two of the three astronauts died. Was it the result of accidental poisoning, or were they murdered?

The filmmakers did a terrific job of nearly convincing me that all of this actually happened, of portraying what happens when mystery clouds an event, and how conspiracy theories are born. Some of the narrative was downright eerie, given talk of silent collusion with the Russians and putting people in charge who don't know what they're doing.

What adds verisimilitude is that the film started out as a short about the murder that was made 20 years ago. The filmmakers took that short, got all the actors together in the last two years and shot the documentary footage. What that means is that you've got the actors when they were young acting out the moon shot, and the actors when they're older talking about the shot as if it actually happened. It's incredibly clever.

The directors and some of the actors were on hand after the film to answer questions and they talked about their process. One of the two directors talked about his discomfort with the timing of the film's release given all the talk of fake news in the media these days. He talked about the ease with which they were able to make false things look true. They discussed how they made all the documentation--hours of photoshop. And they discussed how much of the more recent footage was improvised--no scripts, just the actors finding the characters again and talking about what happened all those years ago.

I don't know if this film will get a wide release, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. It had the feel of one of those conspiracy theory docs you see on History Channel. At the end, when the director polled the audience, the group was split between those who thought the surviving astronaut was a murderer and those who thought he didn't do it. If you get a chance to see it, I recommend it. Lots of fun.


Note: I have two other SIFF films that I've yet to review. I'm skipping those for the moment because this one is still so fresh in my mind. Will get to those later. And I have one more film to see tomorrow before the festival ends.

More on SIFF 2016

Mon, Jun. 6th, 2016 08:07 am
scarlettina: (Movie tix)
You can see trailers for the movies I'm discussing here at the links included. More film reviews to come.

Tanna is a fascinating project. Set and shot entirely on the island of Vanuatu by two directors who have previously specialized in documentary film, and cast with natives who have never even seen a movie, it tells a sort of Romeo-and-Juliet tale. Wawa, a beautiful girl who has just been acknowledged as a marriageable woman, has been promised in marriage to another tribe as a way to settle internecine warfare. But since childhood, she and Dain, the handsome son of her own tribe's chief, have loved each other and wanted to be together. Their love threatens the peace their tribes are trying to forge. The story apparently has some basis in fact, and its ultimate outcome changed the cultural course of tribes on the island. The acting is raw and as such is somehow more genuine. The setting really does feel like a tropical paradise. The two leads are appealing and both could, I think, have film careers if they wanted them. But everyone in the cast does a great job, and the idea that these folks have never seen a movie and yet came to the project with such obvious commitment and openness is an impressive testament to the importance of the story. Art transcends culture, and this is a clear demonstration of that. Kudos to the directors for crossing that bridge so beautifully.

Searchdog is a documentary about Matthew Zarrella, who trains dogs and their human partners in cadaver search and retrieval, and how he goes about doing what he does. The film follows not only the selection of dogs, but their training, as well as discussing some of the cases that Zarrella has worked on. Looking like a young Charleton Heston, this man and his dog do amazing work, both in the field and on the training ground. The director, Mary Healey Jamiel, as well as ubjects Andy Rebman, Dan O'Neil and K9 Ruby, were all on hand to greet the audience and do a Q&A after the film. Jamiel actually walked down the line of patrons waiting to see the film and thanked each one of us personally for attending. Excellent documentary, thoughtful, interesting. If you dig documentaries, this is a good one.

Beware the Slenderman (description but no trailer; I couldn't find one anywhere on line): In 2009, on the internet website, a user uploaded a couple of photographs of an impossibly tall, impossibly slim figure he called Slenderman, a bogey man who preyed on children, carrying them away to his mansion in the Wisconsin woods. This fabricated fairy tale gained currency online and found its way to two tweens in Waukesha who became convinced he would get them and their families if they didn't demonstrate their loyalty--by murdering a friend. This documentary studies the case of Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser, those two girls, and how they became caught up in the Slenderman's tentacles. The film is more true crime than urban legend study. The story is chilling, and the analysis of why and how this fictional villain became the foundation for a factual murder is fascinating and deeply uncomfortable. There were times when I felt the film lingered a little too long in places, when I found myself conscious of the time. But for the most part, it's an interesting, horrifying study. Made by HBO, it will air at some point in the near future. Worth seeing.

SIFF 2016 so far

Sun, May. 22nd, 2016 09:49 pm
scarlettina: (Angel)
For those of you who don't know, the Seattle International Film Festival started this past Friday night, at least for those of us who aren't annual passholders. I've seen three films so far.

This documentary is a portrait of the cats of Istanbul, which hold a special place in the hearts and culture of that ancient city. It is as much a love letter to Istanbul as it is to the cats we meet and, by extension, all the cats in town. You can see, in the different types of cats, what a crossroads the city is, given their face and body shapes and colors, not to mention the architecture and the stories. It was a delightful way to spend 80 minutes. The film was preceded by a Simon's Cat short called "A Trip to the Vet," the first Simon's Cat cartoon longer than 60-or-so seconds. It's a gentle thing, full of knowledge of, understanding about and affection for living with cats. Very sweet and very funny.

A sweet coming-of-age story about a 15 year old boy trying to figure out sexuality, life and social interaction through writing slash fiction. He meets an older girl who digs his writing. She introduces him to the world on online slash and introduces him to convention-going. The rest is the story and I won't spoil it. It's a smart film, with a line on that awkward, awakening awareness of self and others, and while the thing that attracted me to it--the portrayal of slash as such a pop cultury, acknowledged phenomenon--was really kind of the macguffin that got the story rolling, the story itself and the strong performances by the two teenage leads, made the film satisfying and well worth seeing.

The documentary is a wry, unvarnished look at Democratic rockstar-turned-public-meltdown-master Anthony Weiner and his attempt at rehabilitation through his run for mayor of the city of New York. It is yet another testament to how a brilliant, narcissistic man can completely self-destruct. He is very much the kid who isn't sorry he stole but terribly sorry he got caught. I believed in Weiner when he was making a real difference in the House of Representatives. His downfall was a huge disappointment. Watching this documentary--both fascinating and cringe-worthy--he reminds me very much of my high school and college boyfriend: so full of his own repulsive awesome that he can't see his own monumental arrogance and stupidity. I definitely recommend it.
scarlettina: (Movie tix)
I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story
Caroll Spinney is one of the original Sesame Street puppeteers. He's made a career of playing Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. Narrated by the man himself, his wife, friends, family, and coworkers, this documentary tells the story of Spinney's life via home movie and video (his life has been remarkably well-documented) as well as clips of his work, so we not only get to hear but also see snippets from his original forays into puppetry, his eventual hiring by Jim Henson, and everything that came after. One thing I learned: As a way to get children excited about space and science, NASA invited Spinney, as Big Bird, to go up in the space shuttle. The trip was cancelled because the costume was too big. NASA, still wanting to get the attention of kids everywhere, invited a teacher instead. Remarkable. He's lived an amazing life. It's a sweet and very loving documentary, and I was glad to share it with [ profile] snarke, with whom I saw what I think of as its companion film, Being Elmo, which I reviewed as part of an epic post in 2011. (I want to note that the film had one unexpected effect for me personally in that Spinney, in some scenes, bears an astonishing resemblance to [ profile] dochyel, so I had the disconcerting experience of watching a complete stranger who looks like a late, beloved friend on the screen. [ profile] snarke saw the resemblance too. It was uncanny.)

A Street in Palermo
This Italian dramedy is set in, predictably, a narrow street in Palermo, where two strong-willed women find themselves face to face, their cars blocking each other's right of way. Their companions and the neighbors all get involved in the stand-off. There's no question that some of it is intended to be funny. Ultimately, though, the grim determination of each of these women turns what might have been a more lighthearted story into a battle of wills. The stalemate seems pointless, but each woman has her own reasons for standing her ground, neither of which actually has much to do with the other. It's an effective exercise in character for all involved: each of the women, their companions, and the one or two neighborhood types who get involved.
scarlettina: (UFO: Believe)
It's no secret to those who know me well that I have, my entire life, had an interest in the UFO phenomenon. I've read more books in the area than one should probably admit (though it's been a while since that period of binge reading.) I've edited books on the subject. I've interviewed some of the top researchers in the field. I even wrote a book for middle-grade readers on the subject. (I love its lurid purple-and-green cover.) So when SIFF announced it was including a film on the subject in the festival, I had to attend.

Mirage Men (based on or at least related to a book of the same name) examines the UFO phenomenon from the perspective of Rick Doty, a government operative whose job it was, as the web site says, "to deliberately inject absurd UFO rumours into the conspiracy underground to throw Russian spies and overly-curious Americans off the trail of genuine top secret military projects." I wish the story had been that clearly told. The film introduces Doty, and then gets into his destruction of a prominent businessman in the New Mexico region, a guy who started off as a successful businessman and electrical engineer, and ended up being treated at a mental health facility as a result of Doty feeding him disinformation to distract him from watching the testing of experimental aircraft and monitoring government radio frequencies. The filmmakers then broaden their coverage of the story. They interviewed Linda Moulton Howe, a journalist who covered the cattle mutilations of the 1970s and 1980s. They talked to other researchers in the UFO field. The key messages that came across to me were that Doty's a master manipulator, that he mixed truth and fiction to create a smoke screen behind which the government could do its work, and that some of what he disseminated was true. By the end of the film, it was so hard to parse what was and wasn't true and real that the point of the film had been lost along the way.

Or maybe that was the point: to demonstrate that no matter how much they talked to Doty, the truth would never be fully understood because he's a trained liar and his credibility will always be suspect. My great frustration with the film was that its through-line was muddled. I wanted a little more coherence, a little more of a clear arc, and some sort of definitive conclusions. It was interesting, no question, and the stories that were told were chilling and weird and discomforting. I may actually try to see it again at some point to see if I missed something along the way. The film was interesting, certainly, for someone like me, but it isn't nearly as strong as many of the other documentaries I've seen.

On a happy note, I ran into [ profile] stannex, Shanna Germaine and Monte Cook while I was standing in line and so had excellent company before and during the film. A nice surprise indeed.

Sunday SIFF films

Sun, May. 18th, 2014 10:04 pm
scarlettina: (Movie tix)
Better day at SIFF today. Saw two documentaries, both very good.

Muse of Fire
This morning's SIFF film, which examines our love and our fear of Shakespeare, featuring some of the greatest Shakespearean actors of our time: Judi Dench, Ian McKellan, James Earl Jones, Helen Mirrin, and so many others. The flm was made by two British actors who decided that they wanted to understand why Shakespeare has such a hold over us, why people have such a fear of his work, and how they come to love it--why it's so special to us. The film was made with a real joy for and love of the Bard, and was a great deal of fun. If you love Shakespeare, this is a doc for you. I'd link to the film's website, where many of the interviews in the film--along with those that didn't make the cut--will be available soon, but every time I go to the site, it's code looks all screwed up. I'll keep checking back and update links here with the site is fixed.

This afternoon's SIFF film, about the impact and removal of dams in the United States and the restoration of lost habitat. It's a thoughtful, intense film about how dramatically dams affect the environment. And it doesn't just address the effects of dams, but also of fisheries on the salmon population (astonishingly bad; I had no idea), especially in the Pacific Northwest and New England. The images of how the environment recovers when dams are removed are breathtaking, and I think that everyone--and those in the Pacific Northwest especially--ought to see it. Impressive stuff.
scarlettina: (Movie tix)
Started this year's Seattle International Film Festival with two films that couldn't have been more different:

Beyond the Brick: A Lego Brickumentary
An excellent, polished documentary about the history of the company and the evolution not only of the product but of the community that has grown up around it. Entertaining, informative, lots of fun. Had to leave before the Q&A with the director due to parking meter limitations, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. Well worth seeing and inspirational even to those of us (like me) who haven't played with Legos in years.

The Congress, starring Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Jon Hamm
Well, that was . . . disappointing. The film posits a world in which an actor can be scanned both physically and emotionally, so that her image can be used in any way a studio wants, and the actor herself never has to work again. Robin Wright, washed up actor on the verge of obscurity, accepts the studio's offer. Suddenly it's 20 years later and she's attending a futurist conference as an animated character and . . . things get weirder and weirder. Visually and conceptually interesting, I found it narratively muddled and slow-moving, with too many holes in the chronology and too many things unexplained. Once we got to the animated sex, I was pretty much done. The direction of the live-action scenes made every performance feel deliberate to the point of over-rehearsed. Only Paul Giamatti and Sami Gayle seem to rise beyond this choice. Its animation is eye-popping, and its last live-action scenes are beautifully textured, but by the end I was riding along because I was so lost there was nothing else to do. I see that Rotten Tomatoes gives it an 85% rating, but I just can't agree. First--and, I hope, last--disappointment of the festival for me.

What adds to my disappointment in The Congress is that I had to choose between it and another film I wanted to see--Tracks--and I suspect the film I missed is the one I would have preferred. Oh well.

Spring movie-going

Mon, Apr. 7th, 2014 08:17 am
scarlettina: (Movie tix)
I have been seeing movies lately . . . a lot of movies. What have I seen?

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Wes Anderson's eccentric, entertaining, and star-studded adventure in which one Gustave H., concierge at the beautiful, remote Grand Budapest Hotel, and his loyal lobby boy Zero, race across across Europe in a plot involving a priceless Renaissance painting, Zero's coming of age, and Gustav's wild and interesting philosophy of life, love and the art of the concierge. It seems like everyone is either in this cast or makes a cameo--though the film could have stood another couple of women in key roles. Nevertheless, the movie is an energetic romp with, admittedly, a dark undertone. The tone never undermines the film (at least not for me), but Anderson's presentation of this mannered, matter-of-fact caper in a world where World War II is increasingly inevitable and where old world ways and values are slipping away is engaging and engagingly odd.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Deeper, more complex, and just as action-packed as its predecessor, this Cap film shows Steve Rogers trying to come to terms with the world in which he finds himself: a morally relativistic America with science fiction technology and a scarily believable shadow government--70 years after he was frozen in the Arctic with his war-era ethics intact. Scarlett Johannson is smart, thoughtful, and tough as Natasha Romanov, Anthony Mackie plays Sam Wilson, the Falcon, with conviction and an appealing warmth (and he is, by the way, absolutely gorgeous), and Chris Evans brings real depth to, well, a comic book hero. The script gives him room to breathe and think and feel deeply, and he takes advantage of that. I kind of hate that he's decided to quit acting after his stint at Cap is over; this guy's got chops. Samuel L. Jackson is still the biggest bad-ass in the movies. The flick is good, serious fun.

Tim's Vermeer: Tim Jenison, a video engineer and inventor, decides to investigate how the great Johannes Vermeer created his beautiful paintings, paintings that are remarkably realistic--photo-realistic when carefully examined--in an era of specific technique and relatively low technology. His research, exploration, and ultimately his proposed solution to this problem produce a technique that is ingenius, painstaking, and may ultimately answer the question he asks in ways that few could have predicted. Using this technique, he produces a painting, and the film follows that process. Acting as documentarians are his friends and associates Penn Jillette and Teller, with a story of art and technology that I found really fascinating as a casual student of art and art history. Recommended.

Veronica Mars: It's the sequel to the TV series that Mars fans have been waiting for, the Kickstarter-funded film with high-end TV chops--because that's what it is: an extended TV episode with cinematic pretensions. I enjoyed the film, but as I noted on Facebook, I didn't really buy the end. One doesn't cross the country for a nearly Ivy-league education in a world-class city and set up housekeeping with a steady, smart boyfriend and then abandon it all Just Like That with nary a second thought in exchange for the miserable small town one spent one's life trying to escape (in large part, for a man). As so many have said, it's fan service from one end to the other--and not a bad mystery, either--and it's fun. But the self-aware Veronica we came to know in the series seems compelled to make the choices she makes not out of her own needs but because of the fans. I enjoyed the movie and, at the same time, was a little frustrated by it, by the constraints of TV showing up on the big screen. The filmmakers left enough open ends that sequels could follow should the opportunity and the funding present itself. I think I might have preferred this as a wrap-up, though--maybe one last breath of bad judgment on our heroine's part before she takes up a more adult life, making more adult choices. I would have preferred to see Veronica escape Neptune's gravity rather than embrace it.

Anita: A documentary about Anita Hill, her groundbreaking testimony provoked by the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, and about how Hill changed the conversation about women in the workplace. It's a fascinating chronicle of the events of the time, both compelling and appalling stuff and, at the same time, terribly relevant given what's happening in state capitols across the country with regard to women's rights. Really good doc; I recommend it.

Also seen recently--before the Oscars aired so I'd have reference points for the nominations--but not noted:
12 Years a Slave: Harrowing, brilliant, one of the most important films of that last ten years.
August: Osage County: Another kick-ass performance by Meryl Streep and, predictably, another Academy Award nomination.
scarlettina: (SIFF 2013)
I had hoped to do pretty intense capsule reviews of all the other films I saw this year at SIFF, but clearly that hasn't happened. If I maintain this idea that I'm going to do them, they'll never get done. Here are nutshell reviews of the other films I saw with relevant notes. Those titles with asterisks are especially recommended.

A Lady in Paris: Jeanne Moreau is an older woman whom an Estonian woman is hired to care for in the City of Light. Moreau is marvelous, supported by a strong cast. The relationship between her character and that of her caretaker is realistic and well rounded. While I enjoyed the film, I didn't buy the ending; I didn't feel like it was earned. Also, the implied romantic relationship between the caretaker and Moreau's patron was perhaps too mildly touched upon to have the weight we seemed to be expected to give it. I had higher hopes than the film could fulfill.

Ludwig II: Sumptuous German biopic of Bavaria's mad king. Exploring his inability to deal with politics, power, and responsibility, the film focuses on his love of the arts and his retreat from a world which he has no ability to negotiate, neither human relationships nor the rule of a nation. I don't think he was crazy; rather, I think he had the worst case of denial in the history of the world. His poor brother--and his nation--paid the price. Sabin Tambrea was nominated for best actor at SIFF--didn't win, but he gives a terrific performance. The film felt a little overlong to me, but it did make me want to go read up about the real man and his history.

***Wolf Children: Charming anime film about a woman who falls in love with a man who transforms into a wolf and who is left to raise his two wolf children. Her job becomes helping them learn to live with their double identities and to decide what kind of lives they will lead. It's beautiful to look at, and in its way, quite universal. One of the better films of the festival for me and recommended.

Jump: A thriller set in Northern Ireland that weaves together three stories that come all climax on New Year's Eve. The film plays with its chronological order and takes its audience places I never expected to go. It was funny and clever and quite serious in some spots. I'd rate it average, but it was cool to see the city of Derry as one of the film's characters.

***The Little Tin Man: Sick of being cast only as an elf for Santa, a dwarf decides to take his acting career into his own hands when he tries to audition for Martin Scorsese's remake of The Wizard of Oz. Initially funded via Kickstarter, this charming, low-budget comedy had a big message delivered with humor and compassion: pursue your dreams. Aaron Beelner plays Herman, our eponymous hero, with great heart. Q&A after the film showed him and the director to be very smart and very committed to the picture. Met Beelner briefly after the film; he was very cool, very smart. This guy's got a future.

***Twenty Feet from Stardom: My initial note about this movie was that it was a "documentary about backup singers to the stars," but it's so much more than that. In some ways, it's the history of rock'n'roll told from a completely different perspective. It's an exuberant, frank, unvarnished, and uplifting chronicle of the voices we all know but the names we never learned: Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Tata Vega and others who sang back-up (and sometimes lead without our knowing it) on the soundtracks of our lives, songs like "Gimme Shelter," "Da Doo Ron Ron," and so many others, and with artists like Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Lou Reed, Madonna, and more. Merry Clayton and Tata Vega were present to answer questions after the film. I've never seen or heard the kind of wild, standing ovation at SIFF that these women got when they arrived on the stage. And they both sang. It was awesome. It won the Golden Space Needle for Best Documentary and no doubt about it. When this film is released, DON'T MISS IT.

***Fanie Fourie's Lobola: Cross-cultural romance set in South Africa about a man who must negotiate his bride's lobola, or dowry. Fanie is Stefaans, an Afrikaans custom-car designer living in his mother's garage and trying to make money with his art. He's not doing so well. His brother Sarel (pronounced Sorrel) is a B pop star and kind of an ass; at his bachelor party he dares his brother to ask out the next woman who walks in the door. It's Dinky, a gorgeous aspiring entrepreneur who happens to be Zulu. He asks her to go to his brother's wedding with him just to shut his brother up. She agrees only if he'll come to lunch with her father to keep Daddy from hounding her about dating. The expected hijinks ensue--but with a difference. The film takes on the lingering effects of prejudice and apartheid with both courage and humor--and in three languages. It's completely charming (even if it is another gorgeous-woman-falls-for-schlumpy-guy comedy), and Zethu Dhlomo, who plays Dinky, is luminous in her first film role. We'll be seeing more of her. The director says he's had distribution offers and the movie won SIFF's Golden Space Needle for best picture of the festival. TOTALLY RECOMMENDED.
scarlettina: (SIFF 2013)
I'm trying to catch up on my SIFF reviews this morning because, starting tonight, I have tickets for five films this weekend and I'll never catch up if I don't journal about these now. So . . . last Sunday I saw two documentaries and enjoyed the company of [ profile] varina8, [ profile] ironymaiden, EB, MD, and [ profile] kateyule, the latter of whom didn't join us for the movies but did join us for a delicious dinner between them at Olivar in Capitol Hill which, if you haven't tried, you must. It's inside one of my favorite restaurant spaces in Seattle in the Loveless Building, and the food is remarkable. My friend SA also made a cameo appearance during the evening. Anyway, on to the films.

Her Aim Is True: Jini Dellacio started her career as a fashion photographer but when she and her husband moved to Seattle, she found herself photographing rock bands on the local, then national, scenes. The documentary follows her career and the era in which she shot. It's well made and very interesting. I felt like there were a couple of gaping chronological holes; I noticed them as I watched, but they didn't puzzle me until the film was over. Regardless, it was a good doc, and we had the thrill of sitting directly behind Ms. Dellacio at the screening. Though tiny at 94, she was clearly still on top of her game and seemed charming and well-loved by those who came to greet her. Good doc for photography and music buffs.

The Final Member: A film that comes with the jokes ready-made, this documentary centers upon the Icelandic Phallological Museum--a museum of mammalian penises--and its quest to find a donor of the final member that will complete the collection: the human penis. (It's a film made just for [ profile] jaylake, methinks.) The film centers around two potential donors, an Icelandic celebrity and an American man. We learn about their foibles and idiosyncrasies, the reasons behind their wishes to donate, one after death and, creepily, one before. It's a good documentary about a bizarre subject, told with humor and not a little voyeuristic glee. As [ profile] ironymaiden observed, one of the two donors was using the opportunity to inflict his kink on others in a really unpleasant way, and it made him the creepiest subject of the film. I didn't expect to find myself disturbed by the movie, but had unsettling dreams all night afterwards, and woke with an uncharacteristic body revulsion that lasted a couple of days. Perhaps I am a little more sensitive than I realized when it comes to this sort of thing. Anyway, it's a weird and weirdly interesting diversion. If you dig docs and strange subjects, this one is for you.
scarlettina: (SIFF 2013)
Set in Belle Epoque France and based on a true story, Augustine is about a young woman who is diagnosed with "hysteria," which results in fits, emotional disturbance, temporary paralysis, sexual behavior, and so on. (Wikipedia explains the common definition from the era in more depth.) The film follows Augustine's treatment by a Mr. Charcot who places her at the center of his research and ultimately makes her the star of "academic" spectacles in an attempt to get funding to continue his research. The film is lush and well made. Some would describe the relationship between Augustine and Charcot as complex, and perhaps it is. I couldn't help looking at it through twenty-first century eyes and seeing gender imbalance and social injustice, and I just wanted to slap Charcot all over town for his behavior. While the SIFF site seems to be taken with the movie and it may be a fine film for some, but I was left feeling really on the fence about it.

Our Nixon is a documentary made entirely out of archival footage from news broadcasts and home movies taken by John Erlichman, H.R. Haldeman, and Dwight Chapin, and VO from the Nixon tapes. The film is fascinating, an examination of the Nixon era from an entirely different perspective. It is sometimes funny and remarkably timely. I found myself watching these men doing what they did, and thinking how young, how good looking, how optimistic, how committed they were to what they were doing. And then, like music in a major key slowly sliding to a minor key, events just go awry. Who knew what, when, and how? It's like their entire world warped. Listening to excerpts from the Nixon tapes, the disconnect from reality is, frankly, kind of astonishing. I have to believe that this film will either get wide distribution or turn up on PBS or HBO. It must be seen. It's a remarkable film.

The documentary Out of Print was touted as "an in-depth look at the turbulent, exciting journey from the printed book through the digital revolution and modern information age." It turned out to be more of a survey of the subject than any kind of a discussion. While the filmmaker, based on her post-film talk, had some very specific thoughts and positions on the subject, the film was pretty neutral over all. It didn't get into some of the more contentious issues surrounding the evolution (or lack of same) that publishing is going through. I don't think the publisher position was well-represented, and I feel like the self-publishing situation was represented in a kind of lopsided way. Overall, I walked away feeling rather disappointed in it. Best part about it was hooking up with [ profile] ironymaiden and [ profile] varina8 to see it.

Populaire is a French romantic comedy set in 1959 about a girl from a small town who goes to the big city (a little city in Normandy, actually) to become--how exciting!--a secretary. Turns out she's a terrible secretary but a prodigy typist. Her boss decides that, to keep her job, she has to participate in the regional and national typing competition to become the fastest typist in the country. He becomes her coach and trainer, and thus begins the comedy and the romance. It's a delightful little film. Deborah Francois, who plays Rose the secretary, has a refreshing, Debbie Reynolds quality about her. She's charming. Romain Duris, who plays Louis, her boss and coach, has the sort of dark-haired, dark-eyed looks I always swoon for. As a World War II vet and last survivor of his French Resistance cohort, he's appropriately sexy and tortured. The film is clearly modern but imitates the sensibilities of the time very well. The clothes are to die for. It's all made with this Technicolor look and feel that is delicious to the eye. I had a great time with it and very much recommend it.
scarlettina: (SIFF 2012)
When I first saw the trailer for We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, I felt almost obliged to see it. It's about the evolution of Anonymous, a group of activists who associate with each other online and operate as anonymous counterparts in whatever protest movements make sense to them. They've changed the nature of protest and activism, demonstrating the power of the internet and the approach of a new generation of the politically aware. The documentary follows the group's evolution from online badboys to potent political force via interviews and news clips. It's an excellent documentary, possibly the best I saw during SIFF, and an important document about the power of technology to shape and change the world. Highly recommended.

The Revisionaries chronicles the debate held at the Texas Board of Education in 2010 over educational standards that will dictate the content of textbooks in the US for the next ten years. As the largest purchaser of textbooks in the country, the state's influence over publishers is enormous, and with its swing toward a conservative Christian perspective, the implications of their choices are chilling for the quality of the content students nationwide will study. Profiling the creationist chairman of the committee along with other members, as well as a scientist and an activist who each testify in the hearings, and following the debate as it progressed, the film exposes efforts to rewrite history by people who aren't historians, and to determine sound scientific curriculum by people who haven't a single notion of how science actually works. I found the whole affair completely appalling, which makes viewing the film absolutely required for anyone who has an interest in education. Really remarkable stuff.

SIFF: The Standbys

Tue, Jun. 5th, 2012 08:14 am
scarlettina: (SIFF 2012)
Saturday's first movie was a documentary called The Standbys. It tells the story of three actors whose job it is to simply stand by--in case the star of a Broadway show can't go on. They learn all the lines, songs, and dances, and then they wait . . . and they never go on unless the star can't. Director Stephanie Riggs, whose training is narrative, decided to structure this documentary into three acts, following a storytelling structure that makes the film feel less like a documentary somehow, and more like a dramatic film--which in many ways it really is. Each of these people is a character with a story arc, having to overcome the challenges that their roles present: enormously gifted (and we're given the chance to see just how talented they truly are--they all have star power in their own right), they spend their lives backstage waiting for the opportunity to shine. When each finally gets (or makes) the chance to be the star they are, we see the impact of the work on their lives and, in at least one case, on the audience.

I thought the film was very good indeed. The actors featured--Merwin Foard, Ben Crawford, and Alena Watters--were all remarkably powerful performers and appealing people themselves, and their stories were interesting and involving. I can't rate the film as great and I can't put my finger on why. It might be because compared to some of the other documentaries I've seen, it doesn't cover some heavy, important subject, but rather reveals one side of the inside of the theater business. And that's not a weakness at all; it's a difference in subject matter and approach. I think the film is, as I said, very good indeed, enlightening about other ways to succeed in theater. I think it should be required viewing for theater majors and aspiring performers of any type, because it makes clear just how tough the business is.

This was the film's theatrical debut. We sat next to the director and her friend as it screened, and Stephanie Riggs took questions when the lights came up. She talked about what was required to film inside theaters during performance: in one case, having to get permission from 17 unions in two hours and still being given a hard time by the producers. She talked about the structure of the film, and about how she found the three actors whom she featured. She was clearly excited and quite pleased with the reactions of the audience. I'm glad for her that it was a success.
scarlettina: (SIFF 2012)
Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American Superheroines: For several generations of American women, Wonder Woman has been an icon of female empowerment and solidarity. This documentary traces her history and influence from World War II through today, and discusses how her character changed (often not for the better) and evolved (into something much better), and influenced the heroines who are her legacy, including the likes of Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, Buffy Summers, and others. The historical review and analysis featured in the film is informative and entertaining, and the energy and enthusiasm of everyone involved--from Gloria Steinem to Lynda Carter--is clear and infectious. A delightful 62 minutes, this documentary is well worth watching, and then watching again.

El Gusto: The Good Mood: In 2003, director Safinez Bousbia walked into a shop in Algiers to buy a mirror, and walked out with a mission: to reunite the Jewish and Muslim members of an orchestra formed in the 1950s and torn apart by the Algerian revolution. The group played a form of music called chaabi, a fusion of Arabian and Andalusian music. The film follows the director's quest to find the musicians, to understand the forces that drove them apart, to learn what chaabi is all about, and to reunite them for a concert. We don't learn much about the director's quest to find the individuals featured in the film, but I suspect that's just as well. Though the movie is only 88 minutes long, there were times when I felt that it dragged a little bit though I can't say precisely why; the discovery process would have made it longer. The story of the Algerian revolution becomes the core of the movie, and the music is the binding force throughout the story. It was interesting to hear some of the stories the men told about the war and about their emigration. Hearing the music was fun; it made me want to revisit my brief flirtation with belly dancing. Interestingly, some of the men were shown belly dancing, and I was reminded that it started out as a male art form. (I've seen professional male belly dancers--a whole different experience.) While the documentary was good, and the music terrific, it could have used a little trimming and a little more focused storytelling.

The Central Park Effect: Each year in the spring and the fall, thousands of exotic birds invade Manhattan's Central Park in the course of their annual migration. Through interviews with ornithologists, park officials, and bird watchers, and through really gorgeous high-definition photography, the documentary traces a year in Central Park, explores the whys and wherefores of the phenomenon, and what it means both to New York City and to environmental science. The images of the birds are wonderful, and the interviews with the park's regular bird watchers are delightful. Lean, focused, and beautifully shot, this film is a visual feast and a love letter to birds and Manhattan. I couldn't recommend it more highly. It was delicious to my eyes. And it turns out that HBO will be running it sometime this summer (thanks to [ profile] varina8 for the tip!).
scarlettina: (SIFF 2012)
For many of us who grew up in the 1970s, Paul Williams was a constant presence, whether he was on TV or on the radio. He wrote the themes for "Love Boat" and "The Muppet Show," among others. At the time, I think everyone identified with one or another of his songs. For my mom, it was "You and Me Against the World." For me, it was "Rainbow Connection," which I learned to play on my guitar and which I suspect I still can if I fiddle about with it first. He was one of the people in the media who defined the era for me. When I saw the trailer for the documentary about him, Paul Williams Still Alive, I went back and forth about seeing it, and then I decided that my awareness of his presence in that era had been too important for me to miss this film. I felt compelled by that experience, so I went. [ profile] shelly_rae joined me for the movie.

Stephen Kessler, the director, approaches the story as a fan would: I thought Williams was dead; turns out he's very much alive and well; what's he up to? Williams is not an especially willing or cooperative subject for a documentary. He comes across as baffled by Kessler's interest and a little cantankerous about the project. But once he proposes that Kessler step in front of the camera with him, that they just talk about stuff, things begin to change as does the nature of the project. The film goes from being a documentary about Williams' rise, fall, and recovery to a sort of road movie/buddy flick about the filmmaker and the musician getting to know each other, with Kessler's almost Woody Allen-esque voice-over telling the story. The film, of course, is rich with archival footage of Williams in movies and on television, live performances, and contemporary footage of him, his wife, his longtime music director, and Kessler on the road traveling from gig to gig and talking about Williams' life and career. The movie doesn't dwell overmuch on Williams' addiction and recovery, though pretty revealing moments in the interviews show just how much that experience has colored and changed Williams as a person (he's now a certified recovery counselor and speaks on the subject). But he's also still very much active as a composer and performer, and is the current president of ASCAP about which he is quite passionate. Overall, the documentary isn't anything usual--it's funny and poignant and, in embracing the serendipity of Williams' proposal to step into the frame, Kessler has created a very personal story about two guys--who just happen to be idol and fan--getting to know each other in a unique way. I definitely recommend it.

Kessler and Williams were at the theater for Q&A after the movie, and I stayed to listen. Williams talked with conviction about his work as the president of ASCAP defending the rights of artists. He talked about how "Rainbow Connection," "Evergreeen," and "With One More Look at You" (from A Star is Born) were all written. He talked about working with Brian de Palma on Phantom of the Paradise. He was funny and generous with the audience. Kessler pretty much ceded the stage to Williams though he'd had his moment before the film began, and was very sweet about the whole project.

After they finished their Q&A, Williams and Kessler came down to the side of the theater and talked to audience members. And that's when I realized why I was really there. Sure, I'd been a fan of Williams' work, but I was also there for my mom, to whom "You and Me Against the World" had meant so much. So I went up to him, and I told him I didn't want an autograph or a picture, just to thank him for that song and told him why. He asked me my name, and told me that that's the sort of feedback that meant the most to him, that the song touched someone or made a difference to them. He said that, having been mostly a weekend dad, the song meant a lot to him too. He asked if my mom was still with us; I told him no, but that I was there for her. He was gracious and kind, and held my hand the whole time we talked. I thanked him for his time and then took off, since others were waiting to speak with him. I was really very impressed with him, and I'm glad we got to talk.
scarlettina: (SIFF 2012)
Of the 53 films showing at SIFF that I wanted to see (out of more than 400), I've got tickets for 12. It seems a paltry few given the riches available to me. Still, 12 movies is a lot more manageable than the 20 I originally thought to schedule. As previously mentioned, I'm seeing 9 documentaries and 3 narratives. Because this weekend is pretty well-scheduled with four movies (including one tonight), I want to review the first two now, before things swing into high gear.

Under African Skies is a documentary about the making of Paul Simon's landmark album, "Graceland," and his return to South Africa 25 years after the album was released. The documentary balances coverage of the creation of the music with coverage of the political firestorm that erupted when word of the nature of the project came out. Simon went to South Africa in the midst of a worldwide cultural boycott protesting apartheid, and his work there was considered by many to demonstrate tacit support for the government. Of course, that wasn't his point at all. The movie discusses, to a lesser extent, the controversy over whether Simon collaborated with the African artists with whom he worked, or stole their music. At the center of the film is a discussion between Simon and Dali Tumbo, co-founder of Artists Against Apartheid, in an attempt for each to understand the other's point of view on the matter. The conversation is a civil and, I think, honest attempt at reconciliation. The music, of course, is spectacular, and the archival footage of the studio sessions is just marvelous. I think it's a terrific documentary and well worth seeing. It gave me a new appreciation for the music, and reminded me of just how much I like world music in general.

Love Free or Die tells the story of Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. When Robinson was ordained as bishop, he was forbidden to attend the once-in-a-decade convocation of Anglican bishops, he was the target of death threats, and he was blamed for nearly causing a cataclysmic schism. In the end, the American Episcopal Church voted to officially allow the ordaining of gay bishops and to honor same-sex marriage. The story is one of triumphal progressive change. In the process, the viewer gets to know Robinson, a man whose passionate conviction, faith, and outgoing nature can't help but inspire. This guy gets it. He lives the core of any faith, which is love and compassion first. The contrast between Robinson's love and generosity, and the hate and fear spewed at him and about him is stark and, in some cases, just chilling. At the same time, the director makes a point to include voices that oppose Robinson's ordination out of their own passion and conviction--not out of hate, but out of faith. Those voices, plain and honest, were respectful and treated respectfully, and I laud the director for giving the opposition space to say what they had to say without judgment. An excellent documentary. After the film, the director answered questions. It's been just long enough that I don't really remember the conversation, which makes me sad. But I do remember him being just as passionate about this work as Robinson is about his; it seemed like a good match of project and director.

Tonight, I'll be seeing Paul Williams: Still Alive. This guy was a fixture of my childhood through television and the movies and, like the film director, I had the idea that he was dead. Turns out that he's very much alive and will, in fact, be appearing at the screening. I'm really looking forward to it!


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