Archive for March, 2010

2001

March 20, 2010
Netflix
USA
English / Spanish
80 Minutes
Documentary
Davis Guggenheim [NYPD Blue; ER; The Shield; Deadwood; An Inconvenient Truth; It Might Get Loud]

5 Teachers. 180 Days. Our Children’s Future.

As a high school teacher myself, this is the documentary that I want to show people so they can see what sort of challenges we face every day at work. I don’t just mean the many people I speak with who are confident that “anyone” can teach. I mean the supportive ones who have no idea how the dynamics of a classroom can change in an instant. This has much more truth than the heralded French film, THE CLASS, which was praised for its authenticity. While that film was more realistic than most classroom-set films, and was allegedly work-shopped for a year, it doesn’t come close to THE FIRST YEAR.

Five teachers, representing five different grade levels are featured. We meet all of them on the first day of their first year. They all work in Southern California, most thanks to the Teach For America program. A smiling teddybear from Illinois teaches kindergarten, a bilingual white man from a family full of teachers has a 4th grade class, a woman lets us into her 6th grade class, a community activist teaches 11th grade ESL social studies, and a fiery woman moves from classroom to classroom dragging her suitcase full of lesson plans and teaches social justice.

I told myself I’d give this film 10 minutes. It didn’t take that long to get me. The brief running time is divided up with different title cards. “First Day”, “Who gives up first?”, “I have a child I’m concerned about”, and so on. Lest the audience think that every day is fabulous and hugs are given all around as life lessons are learned, each teacher deals with at least one kid who is disruptive to all the others. This proves to be the most interesting portion. At least for me. The incredibly patient kindergarten teacher navigates budget cuts and pitiful staffing numbers while fighting for a doll of a boy with a severe stutter and speech problem. He also begins home visits when parents don’t show up for their conferences.

My school has a night where the parents are invited to come to school and follow their child’s schedule. I can assure you that the ten parents or so who show up each period have children who will try hard and be no trouble behaviorally the entire year. It’s the other kids I worry about. As this man pleads and begs and makes phone calls and opens his classroom early to help, the viewer can’t help but wonder exactly when he’s going to give up. A homophobic outburst in the social justice class requires an intervention, a boy with anger management issues takes the other 30 kids off task, another boy laughs during a serious ex-gang member presentation after the speakers say “what if they were aiming for you but hit your mother instead, would you be laughing then?”

It’s inspiring and honors the profession. It is also propaganda which is actively trying to recruit new teachers. Because there are five subjects followed in the 80 minutes, and because we are seeing brief periods of a full school year, we don’t ever see a “normal” day in a classroom. There are often days where everything goes well. There are days when teachers hide in their cars to sob. And there are days when all the extra preparation in the world wouldn’t have resulted in alert students engaged with the subject matter.

That film is still waiting to be made.

7.2 IMDB

The First Year @ Amazon

THE FIRST YEAR

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2010

March 7, 2010
Cinequest 20
USA / Poland
Polish / English
83 Minutes
Documentary
Steven Meyer

Is there really another worthwhile documentary to be made about the Holocaust? This brief, interesting documentary says that there is. This one follows survivors of a less well-known concentration camp called Maidanek, where participants of the Warsaw Uprising were sent. This one lacked a railroad track so the prisoners were marched from the town’s station into the front gates of the camp after traveling for days with no food or water. This camp was also unique in that prisoners were given time in a field which was in between two barracks. Another difference was that it seems as if the Nazi guards made no secret of the ultimate fate of the inmates. At other camps, prisoners on their way to the showers were told to neatly arrange their personal items so that they could find them when the shower concluded. No such charade went on at this camp. Knowing that all the gold and money they had brought to bribe the guards wouldn’t secure their freedom, the prisoners then began burying these items in the field to keep them out of the hands of the Nazis.

The film is a mixture of survivor stories and a methodical archeological dig, as well as a story about the red tape of modern Poland. It’s no shock when items are found (what sort of documentary would it have been if these stories of buried treasure proved unfounded), but hearing about a couple’s buried wedding rings or an entire family’s supply of gold is much different than seeing these items being unearthed. The items are cataloged and the survivors get a chance to hold them, struggling to see tiny inscriptions in some of them.

A post-script tells us that less than 1% of the area has been excavated.

It has become no easier over the years to watch an elderly survivor of a concentration camp walk back through the gates of the camp that killed their entire family. Sobs and memories flood back and we can somehow see their pain. Most were the only one of their large extended families to survive World War II.

Not particularly uplifting, but worth seeing.

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The Cinequest Program Said:

When facing even the most dire of situations, the strength of the human spirit prevails.

In 1943, thousands of survivors of the Warsaw ghetto uprising were taken and held in the Maidanek death camp. There, a revolution of a different kind would occur. Realizing they were being selected for death, the inmates, in an act of defiance and bravery, secretly buried their personal possessions so that the Nazis could not take and use them to support their war effort. Sixty-three years later, an international team of survivors and experts from around the world convened for an archeological expedition to unearth the hidden treasures.

Director Steven Meyer’s inspirational Buried Prayers is a beautiful homage to the human spirit and our necessity to survive and fight against those who attempt to take our humanity away from us. And what they discover lying six inches beneath the long-untouched earth are not just relics, but incredibly powerful stories of hope.

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BURIED PRAYERS

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STARRING MAJA
2009

Cinequest 20
Sweden / Ireland
Swedish
94 Minutes
Comedy / Drama
Teresa Fabik

Sort of a Swedish “Real Women Have Curves” where an overweight, but bubbly teenager shows the audience that she has feelings too. Just because this film was predictable from the first frame to the last, doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.

The title character, Maja (Zandra Andersson), is an 18-year-old aspiring actress. She is also huge. She takes acting workshop classes where it’s clear she takes her craft much more seriously than the other, bored members of the troupe. She also is the butt of jokes at her school, and is bumbling in the way that only the cinematically big-boned can be. At a wedding (where she trips into the wedding cake, catches it before it collapses, and then licks the base of the bride & groom figures before quickly reconstructing the top tier, all without anyone noticing), she strikes up a conversation with the wedding videographer. Like all wedding videographers, Erika (Moa Silén) believes that she’s destined for greater cinematic glory. As she’s reviewing her video from the wedding, she stumbles upon Maja speaking directly to the camera about wanting to be an actress and declaring her availability for any projects that Erika might have.

Erika is at first intrigued by Maja’s klutziness and her seeming disconnection between her dreams and her body-type. She begins filming a thrilled Maja while shopping the footage around and being turned down at most production companies, except for one which wants to make her the basis for a comedy film called “Phat”.

When a call comes in about a role in a sitcom, Maja jumps at the chance, Erika does the driving, and a “sensitive” male classmate sneaks out of his house to go along so that he can meet with his “brother”. As this film holds no surprises, we know that Maja’s role will be described as a “hideously obese creature” who set up a blind date with the sitcom star. Erika will struggle with her conscience after setting up the part for Maja with an ex-boyfriend who has become much more successful than she has. The boy from school will learn how men posting ads online will often not, gasp, be exactly who they say they are. Maja will be in heaven as she spoons with the hot, but “theatrical” boy while they share a bed in the big, exciting, city.

There will be drama as Maja’s mother invites a large party over to watch the show, as Erika’s plans for a film at Maja’s expense are exposed, as the boy tells Maja a secret that the rest of us have known about for 45 minutes.

There are some things that the film surprised me about.
1) The boy did go to the big city, meet a man, and have some form of sex with him. Maja: you didn’t do things you didn’t want to do, did you? Boy: [no answer--then tears]
2) The acting troupe is putting on The Twelfth Night (I believe) which includes a character who is so hideous that the rest of the cast pretends to be attracted to him, until he realizes and has a speech about how evil they are by playing with his heart. This role will be played, of course, by Maja, who will wow the community theater crowd to the point of tears with her heartfelt acting talent. But the thing is, Andersson is a really good actress. We want to applaud along with the rest of the auditorium during their curtain call.
3) The film said some things about the actual chances of someone of Andersson’s build becoming famous at anything. There were scenes that were reminiscent of PRECIOUS when she pretends she’s at the BET Awards with her light-skinned boyfriend. There are dream sequences here as well.

The moral of the story I suppose is that if you’re a filmmaker, don’t make fun of your subject, find their inner soul and show it to the audience. And if you’re an overweight aspiring actress, simply find a gay man to hitch your wagon to and he’ll design a graduation gown that will be talked about for years and years. Or something.

I’d let kids of any age see this. It’s empowering. It’s crowd-pleasing. And completely predictable.

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The Cinequest Program Said:

Everyone wants to be seen, everyone wants to be noticed.

Finding the perfect balance of comedy and drama, Teresa Fabik’s Starring Maja inspires with a poignant, coming-of-age tale that examines our hopes and fears, about discovering ourselves and about following our dreams.

Meet Maja, an 18-year-old girl from a small town in Sweden. She dreams of becoming an actress and getting the world to see her for the beautiful person she is. But it’s difficult to get anyone to look past her portly physique, her awkward social skills, or her clumsiness. Along comes Erica, a struggling documentary filmmaker, who sees an opportunity to create some comedy and make some money by recording Maja’s daily antics. As time passes, Maja’s warm-hearted enthusiasm wins Erica over and has her questioning her motives. Maja’s journey is riddled with comedy and sadness as she struggles to find the self-esteem and courage to live her dream—on her own terms.

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6.9 IMDB

STARRING MAJA

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MOTHER
2009

Cinequest 20
South Korea
Korean
128 Minutes
Crime / Drama / Mystery / Thriller
Joon-ho Bong [The Host]

The closing night film of Cinequest 20, was a film by Joon-ho Bong, who also directed the much-better HOST in 2006.

This is basically the story of a mother’s loyalty to her mentally-retarded son. I’ve read a bit about this film and the phrases that continually come up are “challenged,” “simpleton,” and “slow” which I dismiss. The boy in this story is a barely functioning retarded youth who hangs out with a small-time criminal who uses him for whatever bad idea he can think up. I have seen hundreds of filmed portrayals of mentally challenged characters and few dramas have asked me to believe as ludicrous a character as Do-joon who stares at people with his mouth open and answers questions in slow motion. He forgets events and activities the second they are finished. But when he needs to be, he appears to add IQ points instantly. I almost couldn’t get past him. But Hye-ja Kim, who plays the mother, kept me at least partially entertained.

As did director Joon-ho Bong, who may have created a terrible, long, and frustrating mystery, but who can’t possibly be accused of not having the technical skill to pull of beautiful scene after beautiful scene. In one, a police interrogator karate kicks the apple out of the son’s mouth. This had nothing to do with any of the other 127 minutes, but it sure looked awesome! The opening scene showed Mother dancing, with abandon, in a field for reasons that we hope will be made clear by the end, but in actuality never are. But it was still hilarious, stunningly beautiful, and strangely emotional to watch this actress look at the camera and dance as if no one was watching.

The film is full of such moments. A building is engulfed in flames off in the distance as Mother walks through some woods. An incredibly tense scene follows a gratuitous sex scene (nothing wrong with that), in which a spilled bottle of water and it’s resulting puddle make you hold your breath as it spreads toward the dangling fingers of the bad guy.

Plot-wise, not much there. Mother runs a herbal store and moonlights as an illegal acupuncturist. She lives with her 20something son, who would forget to feed himself if she wasn’t around. Son is hit-and-runned by rich guys in a Mercedes. Boy and Thug drive out to the golf course to confront them and end up in the police station where Mother bails Son out and gives out free samples of some sort of herbal drink. Later, after a night of drinking, Boy is accuses of killing a loose schoolgirl and then displaying her for the neighborhood to see. Mother begins an investigation to find the real killer, going so far as to enlist bad guys to beat confessions out of people.

After all, her son couldn’t have possibly done what he’s been accused of, right?

And on and on. For more than two hours. Once the “mystery” has been solved, we are still subjected to another 20 minutes of slow-paced often inexplicable scenes which seem to have no connection with the original story.

I am a huge fan of Asian cinema. I enjoyed The Host and most of the creepy Korean horror films of the past decade. But this one just sucked. I don’t care if it’s from an established and much-heralded director, if this had been made in the US, no one would be giving it a second glance. Somehow it garnered an 8.1 at IMDB and a not-terrible 6.9 at Metacritic. There’s no accounting for taste.

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The Cinequest Program Said:

Some secrets can only be uncovered by a determined force of nature…

For twenty years Cinequest has empowered the Maverick via innovation and discovery. It fits this tradition to close a milestone program with a Maverick moment that will truly electrify…and give you one of those special moments when you leave the theatre knowing you’ve discovered something very original, very powerful.

There are many forces of nature. Perhaps the most organic and committed force is that of a mother for her child. And this power and experience of motherhood carries a universal understanding, respect and community. What would you do if your child were accused of a brutal crime?

Mother delivers a breathtaking and hugely entertaining mystery, delving into the realms of truth within the shadow side of humanity.

When it comes to her mentally challenged adult son, Do-Joon, there is nothing this middle-aged matriarch won’t do. Her devotion is put to the ultimate test when a schoolgirl is found murdered and all signs point to Do-Joon as the killer. Denied help by the authorities, she sets out to prove her son’s innocence. Using her amateur sleuthing skills, she uncovers a host of unpleasant secrets among the tormented townspeople. As the quest deepens, the heroine’s own maternal instincts become increasingly blurred.

Rather than stun with shocking sequences, director Joon-ho Bong (director of the hit film The Host) emphasizes and amazes with detailed cinematography. Shots of open fields and mystifying landscape are equally dazzling and fundamental to the mother’s journey. While her eternal love for Do-Joon may come across as shameful and outrageous, the powerful performance of the matriarch overshadows all else on screen.

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8.1 IMDB
6.9 Metacritic

MADEO

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APPLAUSE
2009

March 6, 2010
Cinequest 20
Denmark
Danish
85 Minutes
Drama
Martin Zandvliet

Though I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen Natasha Richardson look-a-like, Paprika Steen before, I can assure you that I’ll try to catch her in any future projects she might be involved in. She is just that good. She plays an alcoholic actress in Applause, and judging from the way she’s treated by others, a quite famous one. In a bit of too-meta storytelling, Thea is playing an alcoholic in a stage play each evening, while trying to kick the habit during daylight hours. She has also driven away what appears to be a pretty great husband and is trying to reconnect with their two young boys. But as a diva and a boozer, she isn’t exactly sure how to go about winning their trust again. Awkward hugs and unsuccessful trips to Toys R Us are just a few of the problems Thea encounters on her way to becoming a more normal-acting mother.

She attends AA meetings, but insists on visiting her neighborhood bar, even if she only enjoys a club soda and the flirtations of the men there.

The camera work is shaky and close-up. We seem to peer into her eyes, or maybe they just do a great job of catching ours. Thea is at a specific age in an actress’ life. Still beautiful, but with all of life’s years written on her face. She is mean to most of those around her, but Steen never lets us forget the humanity behind the rudeness.

There is also a scene towards the end which will give you the heaviest sense of dread.

A fantastic character study.

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The Cinequest Program Said:

“Even though you can’t tell, I am a good mother.”

The reason for the emotional impact achieved in Applause can be summed up in two words: Paprika Steen. One of the world’s most vibrant actresses (having starred in such films as Adam’s Apples, The Substitute and Open Hearts), Steen has the innate ability to make us laugh, cry and, yes, even to fear her with just a glance.

Steen’s tour-de-force performance as Thea in Martin Pieter Zandvliet’s debut film is, in short, fearless. A celebrated actress, Thea has been battling alcoholism for years—an addiction that led to her divorce and the loss of custody of her two sons. Pampered at work and lacking even the most basic social skills, Thea does not suffer fools gladly and fills the lives of those around her with a caustic, venomous sarcasm. But Thea wants her children back desperately and pleads with her ex-husband to let her spend time with them. But how far is she willing to go?

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7.2 IMDB

APPLAUSE

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HOUSE OF BRANCHING LOVE
2009

March 6, 2010
Cinequest 20
Finland
Finnish
102 Minutes
Comedy / Drama
Mika Kaurismaki

This is the kind of comedy where a man, while getting orally serviced by his girlfriend for rent, tosses a lit cigar out his window onto dry grass, where a brush fire ignites, and as the man rushes outside wearing boxers and brandishing an extinguisher, he loses control of the hose and it sprays all over his face and the window before finally hitting its target. The crowd erupts in laughter. And…scene.

A couple in their 30s is divorcing, but neither wants to leave the lakeside house, so they decide they’ll both live there, as long as they live by a set of ground rules. Samples are, we split the bills, and, no new people allowed inside, which really means that they can’t bring their new lovers over. This rule lasts about an hour. The woman calls a former one-night-stand participant and he flies his seaplane over and docks it at the house. The man asks his pimp half-brother to secure the services of a prostitute who will pose as his new love interest. But she’s on the run from a scary female mob boss who accuses her of stealing some money.

The man’s best friend is some sort of blow-dried, tight-acid-washed-jeans wearing guy who seems to have a way with the ladies, if not with his toothbrush.

The entire plot is based around a divorcing couple, who through jealousy and kidnapping and a next door neighbor with a huge dog, find that they are better together than apart. There isn’t a single surprise, and the mood changes from madcap slapstick to serious tied-to-a-chair torture seemingly at random.

Skip this one.

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The Cinequest Program Said:

It’s divorce: Finnish style.

In this wicked comedy, Juhani and Tuula, a successful family therapist and a business trainer, cannot practice what they preach. When they decide to divorce but continue to share the house, reason not only doesn’t prevail, long repressed emotions erupt like childish, playground tantrums. First Juhani brings home a bar pickup, infuriating Tuula so much that she gets even with a tryst of her own the next night. Juhani then ups the ante by hiring a prostitute who’s being tailed by the local mob that thinks she’s stolen a big chunk of their money, to pose as his girlfriend.

Director Mika Kaurismäki’s wild ride through domestic dysfunction not only earns its laughs, it also exposes the futility of false personas where matters of the heart are involved. Ultimately, love, in all its guises, is a part of the human condition none of us can do without.

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6.6 IMDB

HOUSE OF BRANCHING LOVE

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Written by Michael W. Cummins