Tuesday, December 21, 2010

2011 Winter/Spring Series

January 20
Joan Rivers: a Piece of Work (2010)

Rated R - 84 min.

No one is ever too old. You may have that idea about Joan Rivers, who is 75 in this film and never tires of reminding us of that fact. Is that too old? It's older than she would prefer, but what are you gonna do? She remains one of the funniest, dirtiest, most daring and transgressive of stand-up comics, and she hasn't missed a beat.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work covers the events in about a year of her life. If the filmmakers didn't have total access, I don't want to see what they missed. In one stretch in this film she closes a show in Toronto, flies overnight to Palm Springs, does a gig, flies overnight to Minneapolis, and performs another one. Try that sometime...

Read More

January 27
Rope (1948)

Rated PG - 80 min.

"What a lovely evening," says the impeccably dressed Brandon (John Dall) to his impeccably dressed, great and good friend Philip (Farley Granger), as he draws back the curtains in their elegant penthouse living room to reveal the Manhattan skyline. "Pity we couldn't have done it with the curtains open, in bright sunlight."

The "it" Brandon is talking about is the carefully planned, coolly executed "thrill" murder of their long-time friend, David Kentley, whose impeccably dressed, still-warm body they've just hidden in an antique chest that occupies a prominent place in their living room...

Read More

February 3
In the Loop (2009)

Not Rated - 106 min.

The pace is fast and the technique is raw in In the Loop. Everything is done to convey a sense of instability and speed. The dialogue comes in cascades of exuberant comic language. Characters indulge in frantic and absurd monologues. The United States and Britain are rushing to war, in this pointed British satire, and everyone in government, on both sides of the Atlantic, is scrambling for position.

Taking its inspiration from the lead-up to the Iraq war, In the Loop shows how the prospect of military conflict plays out on the staff level. The language is brilliant, and the laugh lines come so quickly that you'd probably have to watch the movie twice to get them all. Only dimly concealed beneath the veneer of comedy is a vision of human nature as self-serving, weak and unable to see past its own interests...

Read More

February 10
No One Knows about Persian Cats (2009)

Not Rated - 106 min.

If you think it was hard being a female rocker in America in the '70s, try being a musician of pretty much any sort in contemporary Iran. That's the message of Nobody Knows About Persian Cats, the latest movie from the great Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi.

Ghobadi's earlier films, A Time for Drunken Horses, Turtles Can Fly, and Marooned in Iraq, are documentary-style features (he likes to cast nonprofessional actors as themselves or people like themselves, telling stories that are, as a title at the start of Persian Cats informs us, "based on real events, locations, and people") about the struggles of rural Kurds in the Kurdish territory that overlaps Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. His latest is a radical departure, giving us a vivacious, thoroughly contemporary tour of the underground music scene in Tehran...

Read More

February 17
All that Heaven Allows (1955)

Not Rated - 89 min.

The All That Heaven Allows version of the May-September romance formula has Wyman playing Cary, a well-to-do widow with two college-age children and a dull social life at the country club. The emptiness at the heart of her life is filled when she meets Ron Kirby, the young gardener-turned-tree farmer who prunes the trees that line her all-American suburban home - and then comes back to court her. This simple love story is disrupted by the vicious snobbery of her children and high society acquaintances. Early in the film, Cary is at her dressing table preparing for an evening at the Stoningham elite. To one side stands a vase containing the branches Ron had cut for her earlier, so that Cary’s awakening interest in him carries over from the previous sequence. In a beautifully composed shot, the children first appear reflected in the mirror, coming between Cary and the vase, and, as the camera pulls away, she is taken back into the room and towards the children. This one shot tells the story of the dilemma that Cary will face for the rest of the film and is typical of Sirk’s emblematic, economical use of cinema. His stars’ performances mesh well with this style. He gives them the screen space appropriate for their status, but the sexual charge between Cary and Ron is articulated through looks and gestures, and the rollercoaster highs and lows of their love are displaced onto the things that surround them...

Read More

February 24
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Not Rated - 93 min.

The first shots set up the theme: them against us. An older woman, dumpy and plain, walks into an unfamiliar bar and takes a seat at the table inside the door. The barmaid, an insolent blond in a low-cut dress, strolls over. The woman says she will have a Coke. At the bar, a group of customers turns to stare at her, and the camera exaggerates the distance between them. Back at the bar, the blond tauntingly dares one of her customers to ask the woman to dance. He does. And now the camera groups the man and woman together on the dingy dance floor, while the others stare.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) tells the story of these two people. Emmi Kurowski (Brigitte Mira) is about 60, a widow who works two shifts as a building cleaner, and whose children avoid her. Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) is about 40, a garage mechanic from Morocco, who lives in a room with five other Arabs and describes his life simply: "Always work, always drunk." Ali is not even his real name; it's a generic name for dark-skinned foreign workers in Germany...

Read More

March 3
Waiting for Superman (2010)

Rated PG - 111 min.

Toward the end of Waiting for Superman, there is a sequence that cuts between lottery drawings for five charter schools. Admission to the best of these schools dramatically improves chances of school graduation and college acceptance. The applicants are not chosen for being gifted. They come from poor, disadvantaged neighborhoods. But the schools have astonishing track records.

We have met five of these students, heard from them and their parents, and hope they'll win. The cameras hold on their faces as numbers are drawn or names are called. The odds against them are 20 to 1. Lucky students leap in joy. The other 19 of the 20 will return to their neighborhood schools, which more or less guarantees they will be part of a 50 percent dropout rate. The key thing to keep in mind is that underprivileged, inner-city kids at magnet schools such as Kipp L.A. Prep or the Harlem Success Academy will do better academically than well-off suburban kids with fancy high school campuses, athletic programs, swimming pools, closed-circuit TV and lush landscaping...

Read More

March 10
Departures (2008)

Rated PG-13 - 130 min.

Death is for the living and not for the dead so much.

That observation from the mourner of a dead dog in Errol Morris' Gates of Heaven strikes me as simple but profound. It is the insight inspiring Departures, the lovely Japanese movie that won this year's Oscar for best foreign film.

The story involves a young man who apprentices to the trade of "encoffinment," the preparation of corpses before their cremation. As nearly as I can recall, there is no discussion of an afterlife. It is all about the living. There is an elaborate, tender ceremony carried out before the family and friends of the deceased, with an elegance and care that is rather fascinating...

Read More

March 17
Tiny Furniture (2010)

Not Rated - 98 min.

These days, first-person accounts of female misbehavior are virtually a literary genre of their own, as well as a staple ingredient in women's magazines. Erica Jong's granddaughters seem to number in the thousands, and they hew to a quasi-Augustinian formula: a super-hot author's photo, loads of explicit detail, expressions of ritual regret. No one even pretends that the whole enterprise isn't simultaneously prurient and moralistic, the interwoven yin and yang of our culture since Puritan times. Amid this cattle call of raven-tressed babes in riding boots, it's easy to forget that not every American female in her early 20s is a precocious and self-possessed sexual adventuress. That's where Lena Dunham comes in.

Dunham is the 24-year-old writer, director and lead actress of Tiny Furniture, but whatever else you might say about the movie, it isn't much of a vanity exercise. Dunham's character, Aura, is a socially and sexually awkward young woman, who's just home from college in Ohio and feels out of step with the culture of hotness and hipness surrounding her artist mom's downtown Manhattan apartment. She's recently been dumped by a hippie boyfriend who moved to a Colorado commune instead of coming east with her; she has no specific goals or ambitions. Even when Aura gets dressed up to go out, it feels effortful and not entirely successful; she's got mousy brown hair, a bit of baby fat around her middle and a propensity to select unflattering outfits...

Read More

March 31
Micmacs (2009)

Rated R - 105 min.

An exploded grandfather clock of a movie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's intricately antic Micmacs hurls gears, gizmos, and other trash-heap objets d'art at the audience. It's aggressively, whimsically retro, like a heaping second helping of his 1992 black comedy Delicatessen. Instead of the enchanted Paris fairyland of his smash hit Amélie, Jeunet burrows into the scrapyard Paris lair of the Micmacs, a band of outcasts without superpowers but with ingenious uses for old junk. Movie-quoting video-store clerk Bazil (Dany Boon) joins them after a nasty encounter with a bullet; that, plus his father's prior landmine mishap, has him vowing revenge on two rival arms manufacturers. Quicker than you can say Yojimbo, the Micmacs spring into action...

Read More

April 7
Everlasting Moments (2008)

Not Rated - 131 min.

Rarely is there a film that evokes our sympathy more deeply than Everlasting Moments. It is a great story of love and hope, told tenderly and without any great striving for effect. It begins in Sweden in 1911, and involves a woman, her daughter, her husband, a camera and the kindness of a stranger. It has been made by Jan Troell, a filmmaker whose care for these characters is instinctive.

The woman is named Maria Larsson. She lives with her husband Sigfrid in Malmo, a port city at the southern tip of Sweden. They eventually have seven children. "Sigge" is a laborer on the docks, who takes the pledge time and again at the Temperance Society but falls back into alcoholism. He is a loving and jovial man when sober, but violent when he is drunk, and the children await his homecomings with apprehension...

Read More

April 14
The Secret of Kells (2009)

Not Rated - 75 min.

If you're older than 30, The Secret of Kells may take you back to the ethnic fairy-tale hardbacks of your childhood, with their glowing, gold-spun illustrations and tales of victory over wild beasts with slits for eyes. If you're younger, the movie will be a fresh take on the comic-book formula, with a carrot-topped hero, Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire), possessed of more imaginative brio than can be contained by the cloistered life he leads under the over-protective eye of his uncle, the Abbott (Brendan Gleeson). A former illuminator reduced by bitter experience to a grump obsessed with security, the old patriarch registers his disillusion in the droop of his thick neck as he shuffles around, overseeing the building of a massive wall to keep encroaching Norsemen out of the monastery—and his inquisitive nephew in...

Read More

Thursday, December 16, 2010

2010 October Survey Results

9500 Liberty13931204.03
Goodbye Solo062029193.82
Exit Through the Gift Shop351921404.02

  • Start winter/fall series in Sept. and go until middle of Dec.
  • More documentaries, maybe some short films, and love foreign perspective.
  • I wish your fall series was longer. Five films aren't enough.
  • Versions of Shakespeare.
  • Dr. Zhivago - any epic classic film tat would be nice to see on big screen.
  • Include at least one that pushes the envelope for Bismarck/Mandan area.
  • Food system movies.
  • My first fall - very good - looking forward to the winter/spring.
  • Mix of documentary and entertainment films.
  • Documentaries!
  • More advance publicity.
  • Please do more foreign language films.
  • Happy with all the movies!
  • Keep it up! Love the movies!
  • Real life stories that we normally do not see or hear about.
  • Whether I loved or disliked any of the movies, I still enjoyed the season and say "Thank you."
  • Something light and easy to follow.

We asked some questions:

Do you get Netflix? Yes: 16, No: 77 - Hmmm, 77 of you don't know what you're missing. It's a great service, especially the totally addictive instant streaming.

How many of the best picture Oscar nominees have you seen? Avatar (55 have seen it), The Blind Side (53), District 9 (25), An Education (12), The Hurt Locker (29), Inglourious Basterds (36), Precious (27), A Serious Man (17), Up (43), Up in the Air (38). I suppose I didn't really learn much from this. It matches box office grosses pretty closely. I'm a bit disappointed though that so few saw A Serious Man, possibly the best movie of the year.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Review: Goodbye Solo

I’m not sure which quality of “Goodbye Solo” I appreciate more. It’s a beautifully mysterious movie the likes of which I’ve seldom seen outside of art houses specializing in Italian movies about characters that vanish into thin air. It is also a movie about a very likeable, down-to-earth guy who just wants a better life for himself and his stepdaughter.

Both of these qualities really struck a chord with me both times I’ve watched it. I can’t remember any other movie that satisfied me on these two disparate levels at the same time. It’s like a thinking man’s heart warmer.

The movie opens with two men in a taxi cab. They are mid-ride and mid-conversation. Cabbie Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) is immediately endearing. He’s a young man who has that sort of look, that sort of laugh. The much older William (Red West) is his fare. He’s a sharp contrast, grizzled and bitter. Solo listens as William offers him a huge advance to be his dedicated driver.

And, on a designated day, William tells him he will earn that advance by taking him on a one way trip to a windy mountain observation point. It’s a request that Solo will spend the rest of the movie coming to terms with. He wonders why a man, even an old and bitter one such as William, would want to end it all.

Solo takes the money. Heck, he certainly needs it. But will he be able to help a man commit suicide?

The two develop a relationship out of that chance meeting in Solo’s cab. Solo will learn about William and his past, but the information doesn’t come easily. This isn’t a movie of long, revealing speeches. Solo learns about William in fragments, an odd gesture, a slip of the tongue, a photograph in a coat pocket.

This puts us in the tantalizing position of playing detective. We work along with Solo, trying to figure out what makes William tick. And just when we and Solo think we have him figured out, he throws a mean left hook and decks us.

We and William also get to know Solo – and what a delight that is. He’s an immigrant from Senegal, still a work of the American dream in progress. The most cherished person in his life is his young stepdaughter Alex (played engagingly by newcomer Diana Franco Galindo). Everything Solo does, he does with highest hopes for her. William is visibly warmed by seeing them together. These are the only times we see through his tough exterior.

The movie’s most charming moments are between Solo and Alex. In one casually natural scene, Solo arrives home exhausted and collapses on Alex’s bed as she finishes her homework. Later, she helps him study. His dream is to become a flight attendant for a small airline. We feel their closeness as she quizzes him on the proper procedure for an emergency landing.

The movie opens by dropping us into the middle of a conversation, challenging us to quickly catch up with its characters, and it ends with a scene that allows us to sit back and wonder what happened. Was Solo able to change William’s mind, somehow, in the end? We don’t know for sure.

It’s a great ending. And maybe, just maybe, we’re offered a clue when William has a perfect opportunity to say “Goodbye Solo” and does not.

“Goodbye Solo” is rated R for language. It will screen at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, Oct. 28 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 series. Tickets are available at the door.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Review: 9500 Liberty

“9500 Liberty” is a landmark movie. Its makers sensed that their footage was too important to keep in the can. People needed to see it as soon as possible. So they began posting raw footage to YouTube and soliciting feedback. Their documentary became a piece of Internet age interactive moviemaking.

The movie takes a fly-on-the-wall approach to following events in Virginia’s Prince William County. Council members strive to pass anti-immigration law that would require police officers to question anyone they have “probable cause” to suspect as being an undocumented immigrant.

It would be a blank check authorizing racial profiling and leads to fierce battle lines being drawn. It will tear a town apart. It will provoke author John Grisham to write, “‘9500 Liberty’ makes it clear that when we, as a nation of immigrants, debate the immigration issue, we are defining our very identity as Americans.”

On one side are longtime citizens of the county, worried about everything from declining property values to fears and frustrations over hearing Spanish spoken in the corner store. On the other is the rapidly growing Hispanic population, mostly worried about earning wages and raising their families.

The movie offers a straight forward account, but it’s made riveting, moving, and maddening by its gallery of characters. “9500 Liberty” has everything, a chorus of angered citizens, a housing contractor with a unique approach to free speech, a terrifying villain, and the housewife who brought him to his knees.

During the council meetings, everyone with an opinion has a moment at the microphone. Most memorable is a man so filled with hatred that he trembles from his upper lip all the way down to his shoes. He’s balanced by young children sent to the microphone by their parents who are too upset – or too wise – to try to address the council in English.

The title is a street address: 9500 Liberty Street. The property is owned by home improvement contractor Gaudencio Fernandez and on it still stands one wall from a demolished house. The wall faces a busy street corner. Fernandez fills that “billboard” with his thoughts. As time goes by, he refills the wall with increasingly desperate thoughts.

The villain – and instigator of the legislation – is blogger and self-styled political activist Greg Letiecq. Like everyone in the movie, he is given plenty of freedom to express himself – and plenty of rope to tie a noose around his neck. He’s a man on a mission to rid his town of Hispanics and drunk with the power of seeing his words get thousands of hits.

Enter Elena Schlossberg, a stay-at-home mom with two young children and a computer. Feeling helpless in the face of Letiecq, she attends a blogger convention and is struck by a lightning bolt. She creates a blog of her own, an anti-Letiecq blog, and turns her kitchen table into an unlikely command post.

The movie capitalizes ingeniously on technology and the Internet. But the most fascinating moment feels like an old school plea for making use of whatever is at hand. Faced with Letiecq’s relentless blogging, Fernandez makes use of that wall and some paint to create something remarkable.

He had a big surface to write his thoughts and he had lots of traffic flowing past it. His “liberty wall” became perhaps the most powerful blog of all.

“9500 Liberty” has not been rated by the MPAA. It is appropriate for all ages and would be highly appropriate viewing for most school children. It will screen at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, Oct. 21 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 series. Tickets are available at the door.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Review: Songcatcher

With every Cinema 100 series, there’s typically one movie that I’m the most excited to share with our audience. It’s usually a movie that has floated in and out of our planning meetings for years, but was never selected because it was little known. A board member would persist though until we finally included it.

Then, when I watch it on DVD to write up a review and program notes, I think, “Wow. Why wasn’t that movie more successful? It’s fantastic.” That happened a few series ago with “The Snow Walker” which turned out to be one of the most popular movies we’ve ever shown. I think “Songcatcher” will be this season’s surprise hit.

The story begins with Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer), a brilliant turn of the century musicologist, as she gets passed over for a university promotion. She’s a victim of the “good old boys club” with a male newcomer getting the advancement that she’d spent years earning. Providing salt, the dean seems oblivious to her disappointment and scolds her for questioning his reasoning.

She splits and travels to the Appalachian Mountains to spend time with her sister and to get over her anger and disappointment. But she gets more than she’d expected, far more. Her sister is a school teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. She has a pretty young assistant and, with a little encouragement, the young woman sings a ballad she’s known since childhood.

What Penleric quickly realizes is that she’s stumbled upon the find of a lifetime for someone of her occupation. This young woman – and soon she realizes many others in the isolated community – holds in her memory a priceless album of Scots-Irish ballads that have remained unchanged for over 200 years and are unlike anything she or her colleagues have ever heard.

She gets a chance to catalogue something unique and sets out to record every song she can coax into the air. She plans to assemble them into an annotated songbook that will hopefully bring her the recognition she has sought for so long. But this special world – as with all special worlds in storytelling – is really just a variation of the university she left behind, a place to learn lessons and to go through changes. The men of this world will once again thwart her progress.

Directed by Maggie Greenwald, the movie is a beautifully photographed portrait of a people and a place, effortlessly lyrical, even poetic. It reminded me of Jane Campion’s equally fine portrait of artists as young lovers, “Bright Star.” And Greenwald’s vision is both feminist and romantic to its core as well.

Penleric finds her romantic challenge – adversary at first, ally eventually – in the dark, bearded character of Tom Bledsoe (nicely played by Aidan Quinn). And just as with all great romantic challenges, he knows of both worlds, the mountains, the city, and provides her with just what she needs to leave the men of her past, in the past.

I watch lots of movies, but only occasionally do I see one that makes me want to sing its praises to everyone I meet. I was telling people at church, I was telling people at work, and I was telling family members to give “Songcatcher” a shot. It’s one of those rare finds that make me glad I watch lots of movies.

“Songcatcher” is rated PG-13 for sexual content and an intense scene of childbirth. It will screen at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, Oct. 14 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 series. Tickets are available at the door.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Review: Sugar

Sugar has dreamed and worked his whole life for a chance to go to the United States – a land so perfect they make Cadillacs that can drive on water. He’s a young pitcher from the Dominican Republic who throws a sweet curveball. Unfortunately though, baseball is a game, he is told, where you only get one chance – and curveballs have a way of getting away from you.

“Sugar” follows young Sugar as he’s called up to spring training, taught enough English to get by, and told to work hard. A running joke is that the young players eat a lot of French toast because they don’t know how to order their preferred “eggs, sunny side up.” How Sugar finally gets his eggs with the help of a sympathetic waitress is typical of the many warm moments that fill movie.

It’s a sports movie, but not one that follows the usual clichés. It doesn’t build to a big climactic confrontation between Sugar and some evil, squinty-eyed power hitter. Its rhythms are much more gentle and unpredictable. And the only villain is harsh reality, so many pitchers, so few opportunities.

Because of this, “Sugar” is a very sweet, very likeable movie. Like that waitress, most people Sugar encounters on his journey want to help him and want him to succeed, and so do we. He’s played with infinite charm by first time actor Algenis Periz Soto and his intentions are so selfless. All he wants is a better life for his mom back home.

I watch a lot of movies and it comes as such a pleasure to find one with a story that doesn’t feel Hollywood-like. This instead feels like the natural, inevitable flowing forward of events that would grow out of this character while following this path. It has the feel of his catching a bus, but not knowing its destination. When he finds himself headed to Bridgeport, IA, he turns to a teammate and asks, “Where’s ee-ah?”

The greatest pleasures of “Sugar” are spending time with the well-meaning and helpful souls Sugar meets along the way.

While playing Class A ball in Bridgeport, he is lodged with a family that has long been housing young hopefuls for the local minor league team. Aging Earl and Helen Higgins and their pretty teenage daughter Anne have one duty, to keep a player safe, well fed, and his mind focused on the game.

They fail at the last part, but all benefit greatly as thoughts and feelings stray off topic. The scenes between Sugar and Anne are especially complex, troubling for her, confusing for him. And, perhaps, the finest scene in the movie is when Sugar says, “Sorry,” before embracing Earl, eyes sobbing.

Sugar seems a young man whose only hope is recording Ks, but the source of the movie’s ultimate hopefulness is its gradual uncovering of another talent, inherited from his late father. The story ends in New York City, as have so many stories of immigrants, not to mention of baseball. And it is there that he meets the next great father of his life.

So why is he named Sugar? He says it’s because he’s sweet with the ladies. He also claims it’s because he has a sweet knuckle-curve. One of his teammates quips it’s because he so loves dessert. All of these prove true, but the real truth is that he earns the nickname every day with everything he does.

And this movie truly earns its title as well.

“Sugar” is rated R for language, some sexuality and brief drug use.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Fall 2010 Series

Oct 7 - Sugar

Introspective sports drama concerning a talented Dominican baseball player who longs to break into the American big leagues and earn the money needed to support his impoverished family.

Oct 14 - Songcatcher

Doctor Lily Penleric, a brilliant musicologist, impulsively visits her sister, who runs a struggling rural school in Appalachia. There she stumbles upon the discovery of her life - a treasure trove of ancient Scots-Irish ballads.

Oct 21 - 9500 Liberty

A few years before Arizona passed its new immigration law, a similar law was passed and then repealed in Virginia's Prince William County. The documentary “9500 Liberty” tells the fascinating story of how that happened, and possibly foretells what lies ahead for Arizona.

Oct 28 - Goodbye Solo

Solo is a Senegalese cab driver working to provide a better life for his young family. William is a tough Southern good ol' boy with a lifetime of regrets. One man's American dream is just beginning, while the other's is quickly winding down.

Nov 4 - Exit through the Gift Shop

Billed as 'the world's first street art disaster movie' the film contains exclusive footage of Banksy, Shephard Fairey, Invader and many of the world's most infamous graffiti artists at work.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Winter's Bone

Article first published as Movie Review: Winter's Bone on Blogcritics.

There are scenes in Winter’s Bone that are downright harrowing. The movie poster features three women on a nocturnal canoe ride. That scene is the movie’s climax, so I won’t say much. But it’s strong stuff, not for the squeamish. Imagine Tobe Hooper remaking Deliverance and you’d be on the right track.

During that scene, I knew for sure that I was watching a terrific movie, although I already had little doubt. The movie has a wonderful sense of being lived in and having characters that’ve done plenty of living. And it makes terrific use of regional non-actors. There are two scenes in particular that feel like vibrant documentary.

Our heroine, Ree Dolly (a breakout role for Jennifer Lawrence) visits a home on her journey, but before she arrives we are invited in to hang out with the people as they play folk music while kicking back on a sofa. The music, the evocative faces, and the clutter of the room all combine to create something truly evocative.

Out of money and in desperate need of food, Ree gives her younger brother and sister a lesson in survival. It’s a perfectly honed sequence, a how-to guide to hunting, cleaning, cooking, and savoring squirrels. The looks of fascination, disgust, and hunger filling her sister’s eyes are its memorable centerpiece.

17-year-old Ree is down on her luck. Her dad is on the run from the law. It seems he’s made a life of nothing but bad decisions and cooking meth is his latest. If he doesn’t appear for his approaching court date, his family will lose their house. He used it as collateral on a bail bond.

Ree must find her loser of a dad and convince him to come out of hiding and become just a little bit less of a loser. It won’t be easy though. Her mom is hopelessly strung out on her dad’s stuff, her two younger siblings need her care, and her whole backwoods Ozark community is either protecting her dad or wanting to kill her just for being his daughter.

That’s the plot. And I’ll tell you right now that plot isn’t where it’s at with this movie. The plot feels mechanical like something trying to please the wrong people (also known as studio executives). This movie is all about beautifully capturing a place and the people who populate it.

Plot gets in the way here. All of the best moments are when plot stands still and the characters simply exist. The weakest moments are slaves to plot.

In an effort to fit in all of the archetypes that need to be present in a “good plot,” the movie suffers from too many characters. And the ending, feeling the need to create a sense of closure, feels just too neat and tidy for characters with still so much messiness in their lives.

American independent movies took a wrong turn back in the ‘90s. They were once fertile ground for alternative modes of storytelling and homes for subject matter too specialized for mainstream mass marketing. Now, they often feel like mainstream movies – on a low budget. It’s as if the filmmakers are saying, loudly, “Just imagine what I could do for you if you gave me some real money.”

I look at what neophyte director Debra Granik has done here and imagine not what she could’ve done with more money, but what she could do with the same if she’d forget about trying to cram a square peg of a plot into the midst of her wonderfully round characters.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

By Brakhage: Anthology

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volumes One and Two (The Criterion Collection) on Blogcritics.


By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volumes One and Two is more than a Blu-ray set. It’s a national treasure. It’s something to watch once a year for the rest of one’s life. It’s certainly the home video release of the decade.

I first encountered Stan Brakhage, a force in experimental filmmaking for nearly 50 years, while a freshman in college. I wasn’t a film buff, yet. I was just a teenager taking an “Intro to Film” class for an easy grade.

One day, the professor sat us down and unspooled a documentary of open heart surgery that was so out of focus and filled with light leaks – as if the filmmaker had repeatedly opened the film magazine while shooting – that the film consisted solely of splotches of red (blood) and green (surgical gowns).

The professor proudly declared, “That was by Brakhage. We’ll talk tomorrow. Class dismissed.” I remember students stomping out like they’d been insulted. I couldn’t move.

The next morning I realized why the professor had been so brief. He wanted us to sleep on it. I awoke feeling like my brain had been removed, rewired, and plugged back in again. Brakhage aimed to create a cinema that forced his viewers to re-learn not only the ways of watching movies, but the very act of seeing with one’s own eyes.

I consider all 56 films on the set to be brilliant. Hell, I’ll just come out and admit that he’s my favorite filmmaker of all time and I cherish everything he made. I’ll single out a few though.

One could say that to be married to Brakhage made one, by default, part of his art. He was a man who didn’t discern any difference between his work, his art, and his life.

Because of this, many of his films are like imaginatively filmed home movies. Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959) transformed a honeymoon into a shadowy nightmare of uncertainty and lovemaking. The birth of a child became Window Water Baby Moving (1959), a film of home birthing like no other. His first wife Jane was nothing if not a trooper.

His magnum opus is Dog Star Man (1961-64). It begins slowly, taking over a minute to emerge from darkness to gradually fill the screen with explosions of imagery, some recognizable like solar flares and a man climbing a mountain carrying an axe, some indistinguishable. The film is an epic poem seen through a kaleidoscope.

23rd Psalm Branch (1967) is one of the angriest screams in the face of war’s horrors ever committed to celluloid. Made on 8mm film, this complex living, breathing, and shuddering cry from hell is the most riveting thing I’ve ever seen in the dark. (And make sure you watch all of these films in a very dark room. I tried watching them with the evening sun streaming in through the window and it rendered virtually all of the subtle imagery invisible.)

If forced to pick a favorite, I’d probably cheat and say “all of his hand-painted films.” He was a tactile filmmaker. He loved to apply paint, sometimes in streaks, sometimes in globs directly to film strips. And the results are like Jackson Pollock paintings in motion. OK, my favorite is Love Song (2001).

The paints that he used around the time of Dog Star Man proved fateful. The toxins were considered the source of the cancer that eventually killed him. You could say he literally painted his life into his masterpieces.

The set concludes with the final film he made, Chinese Series (2003), scratched directly into emulsion with his fingernails. Made from his hospital bed about a week before his death, it is one of his most simply beautiful works.

In this world of people who can’t wait to retire, he was a gem, somebody who passionately never stopped working.


I’m not a technical connoisseur of video and audio quality, but I can say that the image on these Blu-ray discs is much richer, deeper, and more detailed and the colors are much more vibrant than on the DVD version I’ve owned since 2003. Re-watching films like Dog Star Man has been like seeing them anew.

I’m definitely happy that I sprang for the Blu-ray set even though it meant a “double dip” of the material on Volume One.

One bit of warning though to the uninitiated. None of the usual digital cleanup has been done to any of these films. Scratches, hairs, dust, fingerprints, and splices are visible everywhere and this is both intentional and appropriate.

I once saw a photo of a few feet of film from 23rd Psalm Branch and it was so rough looking that I’m surprised it could make it through a projector without flying apart in all directions.

As I mentioned earlier, Brakhage was very much a “hold the film in his hands and play with it” kind of filmmaker and these “flaws” are a side-effect of his working methods. Many, if not all, of them were embraced by Brakhage and became part of their film’s texture.

Much has been bemoaned already about the audio quality not getting the same loving attention on this release as the video. Apparently, the audio is still compressed on these discs and thus doesn’t take full advantage of the Blu-ray format. I say “apparently” because I’m taking other critics’ word for it.

To me, the soundtracks sound perfectly fine for what they are. None are anything approaching hi-fidelity to begin with and only eight out of the 56 films even have soundtracks. And one of those, Scenes from Under Childhood, Section One (1967-76), is optional and not even Brakhage’s preferred way of viewing the film.


The riches to be found in this treasure trove don’t stop with the films. There’re many jewels here to help one better understand and appreciate the man’s work.

Most of the films from Volume One are preceded by spoken introductions by Brakhage. These act as great lead-ins lending the collection a quality similar to a fine literary anthology. They’re just brief tidbits that provide a bit of perspective, but not so much that they cloud your mind with preconceived ideas. Interpretation here is 90% of the fun.

Another fine bonus is a series of interview-like encounters with Brakhage that allow him more time to explain his ideas about filmmaking. These were recorded over a number of years and welcome new chapters are now included with Volume Two.

There are also a few segments of Brakhage speaking to unseen audiences at Sunday salons at the University of Colorado and an audio-only lecture with Brakhage discussing the profound influence of Gertrude Stein’s poem Stanzas in Meditation.

You might say, “Wow. That’s a lot of talk.” But, Brakhage was an endlessly fascinating speaker. I could listen to him for many hours beyond the hour or so included here. He’s like the college professor you always wished you had.

The remaining major bonus is a short and barely edited documentary of Brakhage at work, filmed by his second wife Marilyn. I wish the set included more footage of him at work. He comes across as a man so at one with his camera that it appears to have sprouted from his forehead.

Most bonus materials are enjoyable once – if at all – and then set aside never to be visited again. I’ve already been through all of these twice and plan to revisit them almost as often as the films.


Definitely give this set a go. The films are acquired tastes though so rent them or borrow them from a library if you’re hesitant. And don’t try to take in all 697 minutes at once. My suggestion is to watch just a few films at a time at night when it’s dark – and then go straight to bed and sleep on them.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Films of Santiago Alvarez

Article first published as DVD Review: He Who Hits First, Hits Twice: The Urgent Cinema of Santiago Alvarez on Blogcritics.

The most exciting filmmaker I’ve come across during my wanderings through the cinematic wilderness is Cuban agitprop documentarian Santiago Alvarez. A member of the Cuban Communist Party and working for the Cuban Film Institute where he cranked out weekly installments of "Latin American Newsreel," he was the model of energetic resourcefulness.

Alvarez declared, “Give me two photos, music, and a moviola and I’ll give you a movie.” And that’s a fitting self-description of his work. Three out of four films described below are constructed largely of images re-photographed from newspapers and tattered copies of "Life" magazine, creatively edited and set to bouncy pop music.

His most famous film is "Now" (1965). It is a desperate call to arms; a riotous film seemingly intended to incite riots everywhere. And boy does it work. I’m a mellow guy and it makes me want to go out and march arm-in-arm right up into the face of “The Man.” Alvarez’s camera cuts and bounces and pans across one still photograph after another and seldom smoothly. This isn’t Ken Burns stuff here. This is crude, sometimes handheld. The film lasts as long as it takes Lena Horne to sing the title song and concludes with “NOW!” bullet riddled into the screen.

Another justly famous film is "LBJ" (1968). Structured into three sections, it focuses on the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. (“L”), Bobby Kennedy (“B”), and John Kennedy (“J”) and implicates Lyndon Johnson in all three. The movie expands upon the materials of "Now" to include images from "Playboy" and found footage ranging from television commercials to old ‘B’ westerns. Its conspiracy theory conceits may seem factually suspicious today, but the film’s spirits are still intoxicating.

My favorite films are "Hanoi, Tuesday 13th" (1967) and "79 Springtimes" (1969), both focusing on the Vietnam War in ways that Hollywood wouldn’t dare.

The first is one of the rare films actually shot by Alvarez. He was given a hand-cranked 16mm camera and enough film and money to shoot for one day in Vietnam. He was sent to collect day-in-the-life footage (it was entirely shot on a single Tuesday in December, 1967), but what he caught was “lightning in a bottle.” The movie reminds me of the village attack in "Apocalypse Now" only with the emphasis shifted from the attack to the pastoral calm before the carnage.

"79 Springtimes" is an affectionate romp through the life and times of Ho Chi Minh – through all of his 79 years. It’s a reverent and loving depiction focusing on his accomplishments and triumphs. And his death is movingly mourned by hundreds of tear-stained children’s faces. (Yes, it is pure propaganda, but propaganda at its most poetic.) The film’s highlight is its frantic war montage cobbled together from all sorts of still and moving images and printed and edited to make the film itself appear blown to pieces as if caught in the crossfire.

Many of Alvarez’s most famous films are available on YouTube. But, if you really want to see them at their best, get your hands on the terrific DVD package "He Who Hits First, Hits Twice: The Urgent Cinema of Santiago Alvarez." Disc one has a rich assortment of his films and disc two contains one of the better documentaries if seen about a single filmmaker.

The DVD liner notes read, "Most work that [Alvarez] was doing was for immediate consumption. He wasn't thinking, 'Is this going to look great in two years?' He was thinking 'Is this going to look great in two hours?'" That nicely sums up his raw urgency that I find so timelessly appealing.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

2010 Winter/Spring Survey Results

Anvil: the Story of Anvil97151873.13
Treeless Mountain281321173.70
This Film Is Not Yet Rated53627223.92
Encounters at the End of the World261024243.94
Hobson's Choice201011404.38
The Night of the Hunter441418193.75
Monty Python's Life of Brian59189153.36
Boys Don't Cry12622294.27
Dear Zachary02715374.43
The Class391819253.73

  • Too many documentaries.
  • More like Hobson's Choice. Rare old classics.
  • We just started coming and intend to join next Fall.
  • I don't much care for documentaries.
  • Love Cinema 100! It's so decadent to go to a movie @ 3:00 when everyone else is stuck in their offices. It's a way to say "I'm worth it." Thanks.
  • No subtitles please.
  • I'm most interested in foreign films.
  • Lots of kung fu classics.
  • Adaptations of interesting and eclectic books.
  • I am a documentary lover, so any & all docs.
  • More foreign films with adult content.
  • Do a series of films based on Shakespeare.
  • I wish you showed more films like Story of the Weeping Camel.
  • Some old comedies like Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, and Abbott and Costello.
  • First time I did this and enjoyed it.

2009 October Survey Results

The Kite Runner041042143.94
Waltz with Bashir4242216183.24
The Willow Tree2242814143.17

  • Too much bloodshed.
  • So violent.
  • I liked all of them equally well.
  • South American/Latin American series.
  • Some were very good but also disturbing.
  • Bring more happy films!
  • More classics.
  • Do a classic kung fu series.

2009 Winter/Spring Survey Results

Well, I got behind on posting survey results so I went on a number crunching binge last night. This is the first of three postings of results. To make things prettier than in the past, I'm posting a picture from the highest rated movie from each series. In the case of The Snow Walker, it is one of the most popular movies we've ever shown. A whopping 100 people gave it a top rating of 5.

An American in Paris271130374.07
Trouble the Water11171728103.11
My Winnipeg3411112082.49
The Sea Hawk241931213.84
The Counterfeiters01718614.60
Taxi to the Dark Side25523304.14
Man on Wire12620594.52
Frozen River12524634.54
The Red Shoes481923343.85
The Snow Walker003101004.86

  • Excellent series as always.
  • Too many documentaries. More vintage movies.
  • More anime!
  • I love foreign films. Less classics - I can see those on TV.
  • One film should push the edge and be unrated/NC-17.
  • Elvis movies. More classic vintage movies.
  • Do a series with the same director, maybe Hitchcock.
  • A good Bollywood! Monsoon Wedding - please!:)
  • '50s monster movies.
  • Don't be afraid to bring more non-English language. How about Fellini?
  • I liked the variety.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Dillinger is Dead

“Stay close to your inner self. You will benefit in many ways.”

I spend a lot of time at the Hong Kong restaurant, usually after watching the latest Cinema 100 offering. One of my hobbies is collecting fortunes and pinning them up by my desk at work. I like to keep my favorites especially close. They can be oddly comforting. They can also prove inspirational in unexpected ways.

That fortune about staying true to my inner self has long been my favorite and I thought about it while watching Dillinger is Dead, one of the latest buried treasures unearthed by the Criterion Collection which specializes in releasing great and often overlooked marvels of world cinema. “Dillinger” hasn’t been available on home video, ever, until now.

It’s a peculiar film. It begins with Glauco (Michel Piccoli) at work. He’s a gas mask designer and he’s observing a test subject sealed in a chamber filled with deadly gas. An onlooker ponders the parallels between the test subject and modern man who must wear a mask in order to survive the modern world. He must live outwardly in ways that society demands so thoroughly and so constantly that he becomes defined solely by this mask. He loses sight of his inner self and becomes a “one-dimensional man.”

It’s a quick and succinct setup. Then Glauco drives home and enters his flat where he will remain for most of the film, a flat that he shares with his doped up trophy wife (Anita Pallenberg) and their maid.

What happens over the course of the ensuing night can be written on a cocktail napkin. He feeds his wife some sleeping pills at her beckoning. He looks at the dinner left for him on the table and stashes it away in the fridge disgustedly. He pulls out a cookbook, throws on an apron, and sets to work preparing something tastier.

Rummaging in the pantry, he finds a gun wrapped in newspaper clippings about John Dillinger. He carefully disassembles the gun, meticulously cleans each part, reassembles it, paints it bright red with white polka dots, loads it, fantasizes blowing his brains out, and then, without a hint of emotion, shoots his sleeping wife in the head through a carefully arranged stack of pillows.

This is existential black comedy at its most absurdly detached. Piccoli reminded me of Elliott Gould’s mumbling Philip Marlowe, ambling about in search of food for his finicky cat, in Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Only Piccoli sustains this for the entire film as if wandering through a fog toward a distant moment of clarity, finally lowering his mask and re-discovering his true self by pulling a trigger.

He takes a break in his cooking and gun cleaning to seduce the maid and settles in to enjoy his meal while watching home movies projected on the living room wall. It’s a movie that is defiantly not about what happens. It is rather about how what happens happens. The seduction scene is odd and emotionless and, yet, strangely sensual as Glauco drizzles honey down the maid’s back and licks it from his finger.

And the home movie sequence is a candidate for my favorite such scene ever, topping even the home movie interlude in Paris, Texas. Glauco projects footage of a bullfight with him and his wife looking on from the stands followed by footage of them on vacation at a beach and at an amusement park. In each case, he approaches the wall and tries to touch the images, tries to become one with them. It’s cinema at it most beautiful and most enigmatic.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Entre les Murs (The Class)

High school teachers may have the world’s most challenging job. They hold a position of authority and try to retain that authority every day while facing a hundred young people whose job is to challenge authority. It’s a shaky tightrope where one right gesture can earn a teacher a tiny bit of respect. One wrong word can send him plummeting.

This treacherous teacher/student dynamic is the subject of the French movie “Entre les Murs” (“The Class”). It stars François Bégaudeau as François Marin, a real teacher loosely telling his own true story set in a rough Paris high school. The movie is based on Bégaudeau’s autobiographical novel.

The movie consists of classroom scenes between teacher and students with Marin trying to teach – and to keep his feet. His students, especially four or five, study his every move, waiting for him to let his guard down, like young challengers waiting to take down the champ. The movie is structured like rounds of a match alternating with respites into the safe corner of the teacher’s lounge.

Every student is portrayed with a naturalness that lends the movie a documentary-like feel. It is among the most realistic movies about the high school experience I’ve ever seen. Not only do the students interact with their teacher, they also interact with each other in ways too many to catch in a single viewing. Imagine thirty students interacting in 900 (30 squared) ways. The effect is of a real classroom – and we’re flies on the wall.

Bégaudeau is fantastic in a role that he was truly born to play. How often does someone portray a character based on his own life? You can see moments of genuine pain – and occasional joy – as he recreates past moments as thinly veiled fiction. But it isn’t his character that most occupied my memories after I ejected the DVD.

“The Class” is filled with a rich variety of characters, every one distinct and interesting. But they aren’t the stereotypical characters usually found in teen movies. This is far removed from John Hughes territory with “the Jock,” “the Geek,” “the Oddball,” and “the Popular Girl.” The students here are uniquely flesh and blood, impossible to pigeonhole.

Most memorable is Esmeralda played by Esmeralda Ouetani (all of the students are played by “actors” with the same names, playing variations on themselves). Sitting mid-class halfway between the more wide-eyed students in the front rows and those who just want to be left alone in the back rows, she is the orchestrator of conflict.

She has an unforgettable face, once again far removed from the type of face found in Hollywood teen movies. It’s a real face. And her sharp, biting tongue is never at a loss for words. The fight the movie becomes is truly a battle of wits between her and Marin with the other students either in her corner or leaning in against the ropes. And waiting to see who will be victorious is the source of the drama.

“The Class” is a very impressive piece of work. Officiating over such a complexly improvised depiction of a pressure-cooker classroom was a directorial feat by Laurent Cantet richly deserving of its many awards. Among them, it was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (2009) and was awarded the Golden Palm (Grand Prize) at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.

“The Class” is rated PG-13 for language.

The movie shows at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, April 22 at 3:00 and 5:30 as the final film of this Cinema 100 Film Society series. Tickets are available at the door.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Dear Zachary Clarification

My wife read my review of "Dear Zachary" this morning and commented, "You gave it all away by saying the guy is murdered by a 'fatal attraction.'"

She hasn't seen the movie yet, but I agree with her that I would've given everything away, if the suspense of the movie revolved around discovering who killed Andrew Bagby. But, that's far from the case. We know who killed him very early in the documentary and can easily guess during the first few minutes that Shirley Turner is a real life Alex Forrest.

No, the surprises I withheld from my review are far stranger and more haunting than a simple murder mystery.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Dear Zachary

This is one of my favorite movies of recent years. Or, maybe, favorite isn't the right word. It will thoroughly engage you as it takes you through the ringer. It'll make you mad. It'll make you treasure all the people you know, have known, and will one day get to know.

My original review is here.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Boys Don't Cry

I forgot how great “Boys Don’t Cry” is. It’s a movie where everything clicks. The casting and the performances, the camera moves, and the choices of music. It all comes together in a way that is spellbinding. You can’t take your eyes off the screen, even as things turn violent during the final reel.

Re-visiting the movie for the first time since its release in 1999 made it painfully clear that the movie represents two tragedies. It chronicles the final days and violent death of transgendered Brandon Teena/Teena Brandon. It also marks, essentially, the beginning and the end of director Kimberly Pierce’s career.

Teena was born in Lincoln and moved to the small rural Nebraska town of Humboldt as a late teenager to pursue life as a man with the hope of gender-change surgery eventually leading to a happily married life.

Teena coped by engaging in dangerous, self-destructive behavior. Moving to a small town where “they lynch gays” is a symptom, but Teena complicated things by hooking up with teenage girls in skating rinks, drinking, drag racing, and picking fights, wearing the resulting bruises as badges of honor.

Teena could be held up as a poster child, warning your teenagers about running with the wrong crowd. “Boys” begins as a “hanging out and getting into trouble” comedy like “Dazed and Confused.” There are many memorable scenes of partying and karaoke singing and trying to evade police.

But, also like “Dazed,” it quickly turns horrific. We watch as Teena is clearly just one slipup away from serious trouble and can barely watch as his/her “friends” reveal their true natures.

Teena comes across as a very charismatic personality struggling for acceptance in a world not quite ready for him/her. (I’ve even struggled with pronouns throughout this entire review.)

The movie sadly also makes a case for female directors being treated as second class in the movie business – and it’s a double-whammy if she chooses subject matter that is sexually anything other than straight.

Pierce’s filmmaking is as exhilarating as that of Gus Van Sant. But he followed a wiser course, making his first splash with “Drugstore Cowboy” (a movie without explicit gay elements) before eventually making the Oscar winning “Milk.”

Pierce should’ve been on her way to becoming the first female Best Director Oscar winner a decade before Kathryn Bigelow. Instead, she spent almost a decade getting her second movie “Stop-Loss” made and did unheralded work on the television series “The L Word.”

The movie did score big at the Oscars though. The amazing Chloë Sevigny (who is rapidly becoming my favorite actress) was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Teena’s lover, Lana. And Hillary Swank won her first Best Actress award for her dazzling work as Teena. After seeing images of the real Teena, I can tell you Swank really nailed it.

The movie was appropriately selected for inclusion in our series by “The Group That Opened the Box.” They consist of teenage girls from the Bismarck area and are led by Dr. Kathy Blohm and Karen Van Fossan. Together, they co-created a full-length play that addresses an array of “hush-hush” topics in humorous ways. Their mission: to explore public silence about adolescent sexuality, desire, and mental health.

“Boys Don’t Cry” is rated R for violence including an intense brutal rape scene, sexuality, language, and drug use.

The movie shows at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, April 8 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 Film Society series. Tickets are available at the door.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Monty Python's Life of Brian

“What did he say?”
“I think it was ‘Blessed are the cheese makers.’”
“What’s so special about the cheese makers?”
“Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”

That exchange occurs in the very back row of the audience at the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is just a speck on the horizon, barely audible. The characters are straining to hear him. Some can’t wait to leave so they can attend a nearby stoning.

What can I say that hasn’t already been said about “Monty Python’s Life of Brian?” It’s one of the funniest, most endlessly quotable, and most irreverent comedies of all time. Maybe it doesn’t have moments to quite compare with the Black Knight or the killer rabbit from their “Holy Grail,” but it is overall the Python’s most consistently grand outing.

It tells the tale of a man named Brian, who once was a baby and boy and a teenager named Brian (so the hilarious title song tells us). His misfortune was to be born at the same time and in the same place as Jesus and he’ll never be able to live it down. His is a life of being forever mistaken for the Messiah.

It all begins with his being born in a stable – just adjacent to a more famous one. A bit lost, the Three Wise Men stop by bearing gifts. Brian’s mother tells them, “If you’re dropping by again, do pop in. And thanks a lot for the gold and frankincense, but don’t worry too much about the myrrh next time.”

His travails continue during his rebellious days. As an initiation to the revolutionary group the People’s Front of Judea, he’s ordered to paint “Romans go home” on the palace walls. But, when he’s caught in the act by guards, he isn’t arrested. He’s schooled in Latin. Guard: “But ‘Domus’ takes the locative, which is…?” Brian: “Er, ‘Domum!’” Guard: “Understand? Now, write it a hundred times.”

Brian also has run-ins with an ex-leper who’s upset because Jesus cured him, taking away his begging occupation. In need of a disguise, he tries to buy a fake beard from a merchant who insists that they haggle over a price. He even gets whisked away briefly into outer space by an alien spaceship in the movie’s most deliciously absurd moment.

Ultimately, it ends as the story must, I suppose, with a crucifixion. And it’s a great, unforgettable, classic ending. Every time I’ve rented the movie on VHS or DVD over the years, I’ve watched the final moments repeatedly. Remember, “Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke; it’s true. So, always look on the bright side of life…”

The movie has many fans, but few of them have seen it on the big screen. And it will look especially grand this Thursday at the Grand Theater. Don’t miss this opportunity. It’s certainly the best movie in town this week.

“Monty Python’s Life of Brian” doesn’t currently have a rating from the MPAA. Back in 1978, it was rated R for language and brief nudity. I know. It was my first ‘R’ rated movie when I was 17 and I remember feeling disappointed. I thought, “I’ve waited 17 years to see ‘R’ rated movies and that’s it – some swear words and a shot of a naked guy?”

The movie shows at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, March 25 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 Film Society series. Tickets are available at the door.

Monday, March 1, 2010


I’ve taken a liking to the television series “Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts.” It sends pampered young adults to places like Dharivi, India to try their hands at working in sweatshops. They learn firsthand how much hardship goes into the making of trendy shirts and jackets.

“Moon,” directed by Duncan Jones (rock star David Bowie’s son), is cut from the same cloth. It opens with a promo for Lunar Industries, describing their revolutionary solution to the world’s “dirty energy” problem. They’ve established a base on the moon for strip-mining surface rocks. The Helium-3 gas extracted from them is sent back to Earth in pods to fuel fusion reactors.

The story focuses on Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell in one of the finest performances of the year) as he goes about his lonely day-to-day routine of keeping the base operating smoothly. In homage to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” he spends most of his time exercising, burning his fingers on food packets, and talking to a computer named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey).

There’s nothing glamorous about Sam’s days. He babysits rock harvesting machines. But Rockwell imbues the character with limitless charm. The emotions that ripple through his face as he watches his wife and young daughter on a transmission from Earth are filled with love, sadness, happiness, concern, and longing for his three year assignment to be over, the sooner the better.

Things get complicated when Sam, while servicing a runaway harvester, crashes his lunar rover, loses consciousness, and is believed dead. The movie fades in on Sam, looking spritely and strangely healthy, reclining on a medical bed. He is being examined by GERTY. He has no memory of the accident.

Then, on a service mission, something happens to him that changes everything. The tagline is: “The last place you'd ever expect to find yourself.” As we discover the sly meaning behind that tagline, Sam learns that his “three year assignment” isn’t quite as it had seemed when he read his training manual.

Lunar Industries is gradually revealed as a ruthless corporation operating under the guise of “Green” awareness. Like children working in sweat shops sewing inseams and testing buttons for pennies an hour, Sam performs filthy, dangerous tasks for no money at all – in the name of “clean” energy. Both Sam and those children are slaves lining the pockets of a few fat cats.

Jones fondly recalls the days when science fiction was for grownups. He has stated in interviews that “Outland” and “Silent Running” and the original “Alien” were foremost in his mind while creating “Moon.” I also wonder. How much are his dad’s Major Tom and “The Man Who Fell to Earth” fueling his visions and firing his imagination? He already has a sequel in the works, continuing Sam’s story after returning home.

Jones clearly has a love for science fiction flowing through his veins. “Moon” is the real deal. It’s smart and compelling and remarkably strong visually for its shoe-string budget.

Yes, Sam’s is a rare sequel that I can’t wait to see.

“Moon” is rated R for language. It is a terrific work of “hard” science fiction, but its emphasis on the reality of living alone on the moon – both in terms of science and of desolation and boredom – will make it a trying experience for the young – and probably some older folks as well.

The movie shows at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, March 11 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 Film Society series. Tickets are available at the door.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Night of the Hunter

In “Night of the Hunter,” Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is conning his way into the lives of some naïve small town folk when he notices out of the corners of his shifty eyes a boy staring at his hands. He has the words “love” and “hate” tattooed across his knuckles.

Harry’s a real smooth talker. He says, “Ah, little lad, you're staring at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand/left-hand, the story of good and evil?” He then begins one of the most memorable speeches in movie history.

And it’s truly one of those scenes that you have to see to get the jokes that have been tucked away in so many movies since from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” to the “love” and “hate” brass knuckles in “Do the Right Thing” to “The Silence of the Lambs.”

Harry is a “Bluebeard.” His hobby is marrying widows, killing them, and stealing away with their money. He shares a jail cell with a condemned man who talks too much in his sleep. Harry prays, “Lord, you sure knew what you were doing when you brung me to this very cell at this very time. A man with ten thousand dollars hid somewhere, and a widder in the makin’.”

He’ll worm his way into the hearts of that soon to be widow (Shelley Winters) and her two children. And he’ll terrifyingly stop at nothing to get those tattooed fingers around that loot.

Later, in a frightening moment, Harry chases the two fleeing children. They’re trying to reach a boat to float away safely down river. But everything moves – or doesn’t move – as in a nightmare where you run, but your feet refuse to move, as the monster gets closer. Harry emerges from the brambles and lunges at them.

But he sinks into the mud and the children make a narrow escape. Frustrated, he screams. It’s not a human scream though. It’s an anguished and desperate scream, a sound that seems to gurgle and the roar up from the depths. It’s a scream you’ll never forget.

The children find refuge with a woman named Rachel Cooper (silent movie star Lillian Gish) and her home is like an awakening from a bad dream, an idyllic shelter. Unfortunately, Harry is a creature who never sleeps.

Harry and Rachel, evil and good, come face to face, but don’t expect a typical showdown, not in this movie. Think more like dueling hymns: “Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms; leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.”

“Night” – actor Charles Laughton’s first and only movie as a director – is a movie of extremes, of bright sunlight and stark shadows, of youthful innocence and aged corruption, of God and the Devil. It’s a crazy sort of fairy tale movie that flirts perilously with both the sublime and the ridiculous.

It’s a movie that’ll certainly have the eyes of our audience both wide with fear and rolling with disbelief. It’s exciting to see an immensely talented director, also as naïve as the town folk he depicts, charging headlong through darkness toward his idea of light.

“Night of the Hunter” has not been rated by the MPAA. It is probably too strange and too scary for kids. For everyone else, it’ll be unlike any other movie you’ve ever seen.

The movie shows at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, March 4 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 Film Society series. Tickets are available at the door.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Hobson's Choice

Henry Hobson takes his final draught and gets up to leave. Then, just for a moment, he has second thoughts. Before him, he sees two of each of his drinking buddies. Not being a man to hold second thoughts for long though, he spins around and heads for the door – or is it two doors? Missing both, he bounces halfway back to his table.

Once outside the pub and refreshed by the chill night air, he has a moment of semi-clarity. The street is dotted with rain puddles and the nearest holds a reflection of the moon. He heads toward it as if drawn by its magical powers, but his changing perspective causes the reflection to shift to a different puddle. He splashes about in frustration before doggedly continuing on his illusive quest.

This scene wonderfully conveys Henry’s character. He’s a man of great determination and, as played by Charles Laughton, a great man in other senses of the word as well. Yet, he’s so drunk on his own hubris that he fails to notice the times are changing for masters of the house such as him. The women are taking over.

I first saw “Hobson’s Choice” about twenty years ago as part of a David Lean retrospective. There I was watching epic classics like “Doctor Zhivago” and “Lawrence of Arabia” and waiting, not terribly anxiously, to see this little comedy on the final night of the series. Now, this little gem is my fondest memory of the bunch.

The story centers on Hobson, the owner of a London boot shop; his eldest daughter Maggie; and his star boot maker, Willie Mossop (played superbly by character actor John Mills). Willie is a shy man content to spend his life creating beautiful works of boot art obscured by Henry’s enormous shadow. Maggie though has other ideas.

Forbidden by her father to marry – he needs her to keep his life in order – Maggie rebels and sees the talented and handsome Willie as the perfect way to defy her dad and strike out on her own. She proposes both marriage and a business relationship. They’ll start their own boot shop. She’ll manage the money. He’ll keep making boots.

That’s the story and it’s skillfully told. But it is the character of Henry and the performance of Laughton that has loomed large in my memory for all these years. Re-watching it recently, I was astonished once again by this extraordinary actor’s virtuosity. Nobody, and I mean nobody, has ever played intoxicated so memorably huger than life.

And as his hubris is gradually stripped away to be transferred over to Maggie, he becomes increasingly pathetic. His character arc is perfectly rendered. Finding himself under Maggie’s thumb and squirming, he is as memorably huge in his begging and pleading as he once was in his ordering and demanding.

Our next movie shows a very different side of Charles Laughton, as director of one of the most singularly dark and strange masterpieces of American movies, “Night of the Hunter.” He was every bit as “bigger than life” as a director as he was as an actor.

“Hobson’s Choice” has not been rated by the MPAA although it did, once upon a time, gain approval by the British Board of Film Censors in 1954. It is a classic in the very best sense of the word and should be a delight for everyone in the audience.

The movie shows at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, February 25 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 Film Society series. Tickets are available at the door.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Encounters at the End of the World

“The National Science Foundation invited me even though I made it clear I would not be making another movie about penguins.” Thus begins the narration of German director Werner Herzog in his documentary “Encounters at the End of the World.”

He definitely approached his portrait of Antarctica with a “’March of the Penguins,’ somebody’s already been there, done that” attitude. Much more interesting to Herzog was the question: What sort of people choose to live in such a harsh and frigid environment five months out of the year? Well, he found plenty.

Before I get to the people though, I must say he was unsuccessful. Penguins did find a way to slip into the movie. A few are shown heading from the breeding grounds to the sea, the two places they naturally should be. One penguin though – Herzog thinks it’s deranged – stops as if pondering the meaning of life.

The penguin turns ninety degrees and heads toward the mountains. Its posture with wings spread, the music playing over the scene, and the sheer solitude of that lone creature becoming a tiny speck as it journeys toward certain death all work together to create one of the cinema’s most mesmerizing moments.

So, what sorts of people choose to spend time in Antarctica? As it turns out, all sorts. The common denominator seems to be if you aren’t tied down you’ll tend to fall to the bottom of the Earth. And there’s no place farther down than Antarctica.

Herzog himself is the cinema’s greatest professional drifter. He’s the guy who spent a year in South America dragging a ship up and down a mountain between two rivers in “Fitzcarraldo.” Not a model ship, mind you, but a real, full sized steamer ship. I figure it was inevitable that he tumble down to the South Pole some day.

Then there’s Peter Gorham, a physicist from the University of Hawaii. He finds himself at the bottom of the world studying neutrinos. When Herzog asks: “What’s a neutrino?” Gorham gives him a mini-lecture on metaphysics that sounds like Obi Wan Kenobi. I don’t know what Herzog anticipated Gorham to say, but he probably didn’t expect neutrinos to be the Force that surrounds us and binds us.

Also memorable is Samuel Bowser, a scuba diving cell biologist from San Diego. We first meet him in a contemplative moment, considering the meaning of life as deeply as that deranged penguin. He’s at a crossroads, having done everything he set out to do, and today’s dive beneath the ice will be his last. He goes out with a bang and celebrates by performing an open air electric guitar concert for an audience of, well, none.

Of course, Antarctica is the ultimate locale for those who just want to be alone and marine ecologist David Ainley proves a perfect Garbo. He’s spent 20 years in solitude studying penguins and the only way Herzog can get him to talk is to ask him questions like: “Is it true that penguins can be gay?” Maybe his wayward penguin heading for the mountains just wanted to be left alone as well.

“Encounters at the End of the World” has not been rated by the MPAA. If it had been, I predict either a G or PG. It’s a clean movie with lots of gorgeous footage of scuba diving under the ice, of peering into volcanoes, and, yes, of penguins.

The movie shows at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, February 18 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 Film Society series. Tickets are available at the door.