Monday, March 29, 2010


On Saturday, I screened Paulista, starring Silvia Lourenço and Maria Clara Spinelli.

When Marina (Lourenço), an aspiring actress, moves in with Suzana (Spinelli), her life is injected with opportunities that never seemed possible before. The street they live on in Sao Paulo, Avenida Paulista, is brimming with promise--socially and otherwise.

As we meet each character, we learn that they all share a connection to one another, much like a small town transported to a big city. There's Jay, who has fallen in love with a hooker, and he just happens to live in the same building as Marina and Suzana. Justine, a singer at a nearby club, quickly becomes the object of Marina's affection, and so forth.

None of the characters are boring and all of the situations presented (love, mystery, longing) keep you watching, but at the same time, none of what's happening is particularly unique.

I found the pace and transitions of Paulista to be very similar to that of the classic TV show miniseries Tales of the City, which was set in San Francisco. At the heart of both works is a message of people needing people, with a focus on how complicated our human desires and needs for validation can be.

Paulista is a sexy, enjoyable romp about a group of young people in the prime of their lives. Nothing more, nothing less.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine

This morning I saw Hot Tub Time Machine, starring John Cusack and Rob Corddry.

It was the topic of Cinebanter #86, which is available here.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

Tonight I saw Alice in Wonderland, starring Mia Wasikowska and Johnny Depp.

I must confess: as a child I never liked the famed Lewis Carroll book. It simply creeped me out. I had a wild imagination of my own and the last place I wanted to take it was to a world with black holes and talking cats.

But tonight, my love for the creative fusion of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp won out over the unfavorable memories I had of the story, and I sat through the whole film. I'm so glad I did.

Mia Wasikowska is the very picture of a perfect Alice (except her hair was too curly, but I digress), and she's all grown up. In fact, she's just been proposed to by a boy she's not in love with and needs to escape the situation to take some time and think. She finds the perfect excuse to depart as she spots a rabbit in a waistcoat in her peripheral vision, then bolts away after it, only to fall down a big black hole.

Upon landing she's in a place she once called Wonderland (though she has no memory of ever visiting before) where she encounters all types of interesting characters: the Mad Hatter (Depp), Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and a pair of sister queens—one good and one bad.

The good one is the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) who lives in a white palace with white things surrounding her. She seems sweet if not a little bit spacey.

The bad one is the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) who suffers from harboring a huge head and a horrible demeanor to go with it. "Off with his head" is a common phrase she screams, perhaps because she wishes she could rid herself of her own.

Anyway, somehow Alice gets caught up in the drama between sisters and has to slay the Jabberwocky to make everything right. She repeatedly insists that she doesn't slay and believes the whole ordeal is a dream from which she will soon wake, driving home the metaphorical theme of free will throughout the film.

And themes are big here.

In a deep conversation with the Mad Hatter, he asks her if he's bonkers and she replies that he is, but all great people are. It's a theatrical fist pump to all the crazy geniuses out there, and it was a nice—if not obvious—touch.

Also emphasized is female independence. From Alice confronting her sister with the fact she may not marry her suitor, to the queens leading their respective entourages into battle, this whole world is controlled by women.

I'm glad I got to spend time in Wonderland. This version is much less frightening than the one I created in my head as a child, and even the scariest of characters have comedic redemption.

Plus, watching Johnny Depp do a mean Futterwack is worth the price of admission.


Monday, March 15, 2010


Tonight I screened Applause, starring Paprika Steen and Michael Falch.

Thea (played by the brilliant Steen) is an alcoholic actress who has lost everything except for her career. Christian (Falch) is her kind ex-husband and the father of her two sons. He has moved on with a new, lovely woman, but still cares for Thea and wants to help her renew her relationship with their kids.

Like many troubled parents, Thea realizes that to be a good mother she must first win the fight with her demons. Although the demon here is the somewhat conventional 'alcohol' demon, her struggle metaphorically could represent anyone who has suffered from self-loathing or unresolved issues that prevent them from true happiness.

To get past this darkness and loneliness, Thea makes an honest effort to clean herself up and get to know her boys. By reaching out in a healthy way, her ex and his present girlfriend allow her visits and family time with all of them. She is grateful for this and puts down the bottle during the transition. But she can't quite ever leave her life behind—though she's not knocking back whiskey anymore, she still sits at the neighborhood bar with a mineral water. Alone. Though that life of addiction clearly makes her miserable, it is there she feels most comfortable.

Things can't be the way they used to be because everyone else has moved on. This is a devastating realization to Thea, who continues her awkward journey through motherhood for the duration of the film.

As we cringe at her missteps and sympathize with the more balanced characters in the film, it's not hard to imagine how desperate we're all made to feel when we arrive at such a place of heartache.

If we can't make peace with ourselves, what good are we to anyone else?


Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Philosopher Kings

Today I screened the documentary The Philosopher Kings.

How many of us have ever felt invisible? And if so, how often?

The folks featured in this film represent one of the most invisible professions in our society—custodians. Sure, we all realize there's someone responsible for cleaning every office or establishment we visit, but they're usually around after we've all gone home and disappear before we return. Seldom do we know them by name.

The janitors here all have something in common: they work at colleges or universities. They also share something else: a mutual love for their work.

What many would consider to be menial, miserable labor, these folks feel is a somewhat pleasant, honest way to make a living. One female subject even goes so far as to say "I like cleaning."

That's not to say they don't have bad days or resent the fact that some feel they didn't have a choice in their selection of profession (yes, by the way, they did). But for the most part, these are happy, productive, successful professionals.

What's refreshing about the group shown here is that they are both male and female, and represent a wide variety of cultures. All are articulate, well-spoken individuals who seem to have overcome major obstacles in their life (one lost a parent as a child; another lost a limb in a car crash, etc.) and arrived at a place of peace in their current situation.

Coming from a blue collar family myself, I have a great respect for how hard manual labor can be. I've seen the physical and mental exhaustion after a difficult day, and realize the toll it takes on one's body and mind.

If only the veil were more obviously lifted so that everyone could see what life is like for custodians—and every other profession that entails physically serving others—I'm certain they would be held in higher regard and appreciated appropriately for what they do.

To purchase a DVD of
The Philosopher Kings, click here.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


On Saturday I screened the documentary Professor.

It's not often that a film makes you want to pack your bags and move to Iowa to sign up for a college course, but that's exactly the reaction I had to this one.

The professor who gives the film its title is Rabbi Jay Holstein, an educator for nearly four decades at the University of Iowa. He's not handsome, he speaks with an intonation that's insanely annoying, and most of what he's talking about is unpopular and/or provocative, yet it's hard to take your eyes off of him.

The first soliloquy the audience here gets to witness is one that consists primarily of Dr. Holstein complaining about the way the university remodeled a lecture hall. Really. He told them to "tear it down" and hates the fact that the configuration doesn't allow for him to catch every yawning face (so he can scold accordingly). He goes on and on ... and on about the hypocrisy of the setup and how he really has nothing much to say, but watching the eyes around the room, there isn't one student who can look away.

What is it about this guy?

Well, he's obnoxiously liberal and sarcastic in a non-forgiving way. But he's also undeniably sincere and self-deprecating. This combination of qualities balance out in the delivery of his rhythmic speaking. When tuning out "what" he was saying and just listening to his speech patterns, I was reminded of a great English teacher I had in high school that made me learn Vachel Lindsay poems by singing them. They meant nothing to me before I was prompted to do that, but now nearly 20 years later, I still hold onto a small book of his works—because I was moved by the rhythm of language. I have to believe that's part of what's making this man so magnetic.

Holstein would easily gel with a Seattle crowd, but he's undoubtedly "radical" by Iowa standards. He counsels a student about choosing Catholic priesthood, and doesn't hesitate to bring up the sexual scandals that have plagued the church for years along with his theories as to why they occur. He also frankly asks the kid whether or not he believes homosexuality is evil and by doing so solicits an honest, if not yet nervous, response.

Each scene we see where Holstein one-on-one with a student or a fellow adult is slightly more annoying and borderline intimidating than what we see in the classroom. There, he has enough space for his big ideas to be explored, but in the smaller settings he appears much more overwhelming.

I'd love to step into one of his lectures, brimming with brilliance and wit, to witness his energy live. It was so palpable on screen in this well-produced, organic-feeling film, I can only imagine what it must be like to experience in person.


Monday, March 08, 2010

Buried Prayers

Yesterday I screened the documentary Buried Prayers.

Everyone recognizes the name Auschwitz, but not many know of the Maidanek death camp near Lublin, Poland. It was smaller, but endured similar horrors.

This heart-wrenching, predictably difficult-to-watch documentary doesn't tell the entire history of this camp that murdered nearly 80,000 people, but spotlights survivors returning to claim items that their fellow prisoners buried in their last moments of desperation.

It really is remarkable how they must have pulled it off.

Maidenek was geographically the closest concentration camp to a major city, and its prisoners who weren't killed, "worked" mostly at sorting possessions taken from other prisoners at various camps. When those who were facing their death knew their time was approaching, they would cleverly bury their sentimental items (wedding rings, etc.) while pretending to work. The Nazis never figured it out.

The camp was liberated by the Soviets in 1944 and it wasn't until 2005 that a group of survivors went back for the first time, and allowed archaeologists to accompany them and search for those buried treasures.

The film shows them recovering just a few items (in reality there were nearly 50 artifacts found), but the excitement and emotion that accompanies each discovery is incredibly moving. Worse are the memories shared of their time at the camp (one story about a son being forced to hang his father almost made me get up and walk out, it was so horrific).

But the film itself, yes, it was effective. I'm glad to know that things meant to be left behind in memory of those prisoners finally saw the light of day and created yet another way to convey the inhumane reign of Nazi power.

I just wonder—how many more original stories of pain will our world have to hear before all of the genocides stop?



On Saturday night, I screened Mother, starring Kim Hye-Ja and Weon Bin.

There are very few limits to a mother's love.

When mentally disabled Do-jun (Bin) is accused and arrested for the murder of a beautiful young girl in their Korean village, his widowed, devoted mother (Hye-Ja) takes matters into her own hands to prove his innocence. The trouble is, no one truly knows what happened on that fateful night.

Do-jun hangs around primarily with Jin-tae (Jin Gu) who is a troublemaker that easily convinces Do-jun to follow suit. Just days before the brutal murder, both are punished for damaging a car and attacking a group of golfers following a hit-and-run accident. Do-jun's lack of intelligence puts him in an unreliable position to convey the truth. He also has a very violent response to folks who tease him about his condition.

After he is booked for the crime and the case is considered closed, his mother (who has limited means and runs an underground acupuncture business) retains a lawyer and searches for the truth. We're led through a series of possibilities based on what she learns from the deceased girl's friends, and begin to develop a sympathy for the situation.

Rooting for this mother to get to the bottom of what the police won't investigate, our natural instincts want her to be correct, not because we like her son so much, but because we sympathize with her pain of raising a special needs child. At the same time, our rational minds wonder if there is more to the story.

Turns out: there is. Much. More. To. The. Story.

And it goes on, and on, and on, until we almost don't care who killed the poor girl as long as we'll be released from the narrative purgatory at some point.

The film started strong with excellent acting by all of the main characters and a few shocking moments of violence (squeamish me could do without so much blood, though). Yet the sheer volume of information we're made to wade through for what some may interpret to be a simple resolution is not necessary.

Plus, the ending happened three times before the film was over. It would've helped to conclude it at the first opportunity, but instead we're forced to endure lengthy, excessive scenes that minimize the impact of the actual discovery.

A shame, considering the concept and acting were so solid.


The House of Branching Love

On Saturday, I screened The House of Branching Love.

The house in this film should be renamed "The House of Branching Jealousy and Revenge." It centers around the supposedly amicable divorce between Tuula (Elina Knihtilä) and Juhani (Hannu-Pekka Björkman), and follows each of them on their path to emotionally destroy the other.

Sounds heavy, huh? Not so much.

When determining house rules so the two can continue living together for a period of time, they decide that no "new" people should be staying at the home, but then both promptly break that rule much to each other's dismay. The slapstick elements of the film begin when a carelessly tossed cigar starts the yard on fire as the husband receives oral sex. I have to agree with my partner when he says these slapstick moments ruined the story for him. They were unnecessary and excessive.

But aside from that, we got to see a few beautiful people, namely Nina (Anna Easteden) and Marco (Ilkka Villi) have sex and show off their beautiful bodies. You see, both members of the married couple essentially hire folks to service them in view of their soon-to-be ex. And that (unsurprisingly) backfires.

As if that weren't enough, there is a mob subplot that is so incredibly far-fetched it makes the slapstick seem almost feasible.

A big disappointment, this film.


Complaints Choir

On Saturday, I screened the documentary Complaints Choir.

A Finnish couple (Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen) thought it would be interesting to direct energy that we typically use to complain for a greater purpose. Their idea was to create a chorus of folks airing their grievances, big and small, then hold performances under the name "Complaints Choir." They were right: it was interesting.

What makes the experiment so compelling is the vast difference between how communities and countries react to it. Us Americans, of course, have no trouble listing out things that bother us and shouting it at the top of our lungs. Heck—we're practically famous for our loud mouths. But when the 'tour' arrives in Singapore, the tunes take a different turn.

Recruiting for the choir was not too difficult. Though folks were hesitant to admit fault with their lives publicly, many still stepped forward to do so. Some even seemed to be creating a makeshift therapy session for themselves.

Like the Yankees, these folks had minor complaints (waiting in lines, inconsiderate people) and major complaints (government, family), and were willing to sing about them in equal measure. But when rehearsals were well underway and the local police caught wind of what was about to take place, they forbid the singers from performing under threat of arrest. It seems free speech is not a privilege Singaporeans are allowed to enjoy.

So now their complaints are merely immortalized on the official film site and in this documentary. And Singapore appears to be humorless and really, really oppressive. Their government clearly did nothing to dispute this portrayal.

The Complaints Choir has since expanded to over 20 countries so far (some that we would have assumed similar to Singapore in restrictions, but weren't), and the idea is catching on. The organizers offer how-to instructions about creating your own on the film site. This particular documentary only focuses on the Singapore and Chicago choirs, but the spirit of the movement is captured well.

And after you see it, you'll leave wanting to craft a song about your problems each time they arise.


Oil Rocks: City Above the Sea

On Saturday I screened the documentary Oil Rocks: City Above the Sea.

Traveling 6 hours from the nearest shore in the Caspian Sea and you'll find a fully-functioning separate society, built on the life of oil.

Commissioned by Stalin in the late 40s, over 2000 workers (some who came on board during its inception) work there today. And despite their generally sunny demeanor, I had to wonder: what if I lived and breathed and died for only one purpose for the rest of my adult life?

These folks wake early to get started with (usually) heavy, dangerous labor; break for meals (which are similar each day as evidenced by the glimpse we get of the "bread shop" that offers much of what it always has—bread, cheese, sausage); work some more, then retire to the dormitory, where many of them share rooms the size of ... well ... a college dormitory. It seems unfair to witness those folks living such a modest life when their very existences are dedicated to the success of one of the richest commodities on earth.

They all speak passionately about their duties and the past (there was a terrible accident in the 50s), but they don't focus a whole lot on their relationships. You get the sense they all get along well enough (they'd almost have to for survival), but we don't see clusters of folks getting together for card games or dozens of couples falling in love, either. They do point out that many of the dormitory floors are 'women only' so they can remain separate from the men.

The film is presented in traditional documentary style: talking head interviews spliced with footage, old and new. But I'll admit to getting a little bored when they remained with one subject or person for too long.

Though the residents clearly succeed in completing their tasks at hand, I wonder how well the younger generations will acclimate to regular society when they're forced to in about 20 years (when the oil well will ultimately dry up).

Perhaps another filmmaker will spotlight the transition when it happens.


Sunday, March 07, 2010


On Friday I screened 1981, starring Jean-Carl Boucher and Claudio Colangelo.

In 1981, the Trogi family moved to a nicer home, which meant they had to make do with less to afford it. Ricardo (Boucher) was 11 years old at the time and found the change to be very disruptive.

Ricardo's parents were good, blue-collar people who only wanted the best for their two children (Ricardo also had a younger sister). They worked long hours and extra jobs to earn enough to provide for their kids.

Ricardo was typical in the sense that he just wanted what every other boy was entitled to—a new gadget called a Walkman, and of course the latest clothes that would help him look good for his crush, one-time tutor Anne Tremblay.

He narrates the film for us in a humorous, honest way in the spirit of the Wonder Years. He shows us how he manipulates his parents into giving him things, obsesses over the relationship (or more accurately, a brushing of the arm) with Anne, and shares his desperate attempts to fit in with the cool kids by promising them issues of Playboy (which of course, he does not possess).

It's simultaneously endearing, self-deprecating, hopeful and sad.

When Ricardo realizes how hard his uneducated Dad (Colangelo) is working to make ends meet, the guilt sets in and we watch him "grow up" virtually overnight. There are wonderful scenes surrounding this transformation that also offer a perspective on why men who meet as boys often stay lifelong friends.

I enjoyed the journey into this loss of innocence, and even though some of the 80s fun had been played similarly in prior films (there's always a kid in KISS makeup, for example), it still worked well in this context. The extra touches added a welcome lightness to some of the darker themes playing out, and the family seemed like a true family.

Another pleasant element is that this story really was based on the writer/director's life. The real Ricardo Trogi showed sincerity and wit without giving in to self-indulgence, which made this one of the most appealing films I saw at the Cinequest Film Festival.

I do hope 1981 gains distribution so everyone can discover its charming appeal.