Friday, February 29, 2008

The Band's Visit


The Band's Visit
Written and directed by Eran Kolirin

There's a lovely Israeli film working its way into theaters across the country. It's called The Band's Visit. An Egyptian police band on a cultural tour of Israel gets lost, and accidentally ends up in a little town in the middle of nowhere, with no way to get out until the next day. This is the story of how the Israeli townspeople, although wary, extend them hospitality for the night. There's not a lot of plot, but there's a lot going on. The film is sweet and melancholy and beautifully shot, with images that will really stick in your mind. Eran Kolirin is a first-time writer-director whose previous experience is in TV. He's definitely got the goods for film. One strange factoid about The Band's Visit--it wasn't eligible for the Oscar for foreign language film because the characters spend a lot of time speaking English (with varying degrees of success). It makes perfect sense--it was the only language the characters had in common. This is just more proof that the Oscar people are nuts.

TVOR has said enough. Check it out.

Video notes:

And while we're talking about Israeli films, here are a few TVOR likes that are available on video--

Campfire--a recent widow decides to move to the West Bank in 1981 with her two teenage daughters.
Broken Wings--another widow (this time with four children) tries to cope after the death of her husband.
Syrian Bride--a Druze woman living in the Golan Heights prepares to marry a man from Syria, for which she must cross the border, never to return.

Here are three by Eytan Fox:
Walk on Water--an Israeli intelligence officer tries to get close to a Nazi war criminal.
The Bubble--a group of young people in Tel Aviv, including gays, straights, Jews and Arabs.
Yossi & Jagger--gay Israeli soldiers.

And two by Dan Verete:
Yellow Asphalt--three short stories about bedouins.
Metallic Blues--Israeli guys go to Germany to sell a car.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Correction


Yesterday TVOR posted an entry in which she mentioned a free screening of King Corn occurring at the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle, which an alert reader told her about. The screening will take place on March 22, not in February, as stated in the original entry. Unfortunately TVOR was not as alert as her reader. She apologizes for this error and any confusion it may have caused. She is glad, however, that readers living in the area will have more time to plan to attend this screening.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Good documentaries!


King Corn
Directed by Aaron Woolf

There's a wonderful little documentary floating around right now called King of Corn. It's about a couple of guys, recently graduated from college, who decide to go to Iowa (where neither is from, but both have some roots) and plant, grow, and sell an acre of corn. After all, as they find out, humans are full of it. Corn, that is. TVOR confesses that she was somewhat dubious about the entertainment value of this enterprise, but she saw and liked the film. A lot. The guys have a lot of interesting experiences while all this is happening, as it takes a while for corn to grow. Our protagonists spend time wandering around grocery stores reading labels to see how many foods have corn as an ingredient, visiting stockyards where much of the harvested grain goes, interviewing Earl Butz (Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture), the father of current farm policy, and doing all sorts of other corn-related things. This film is a little Supersize Me, a little Michael Pollan (who is interviewed in it), a little Fast Food Nation (the book, not the movie), and more. You'll find it entertaining, and unless you're more knowledgeable than most, educational as well.

The film is directed by Aaron Woolf, the cousin of one of the guys, who went to Iowa with them. When TVOR saw the film, he did a Q&A after the screening. He felt so strongly about what he learned making this film that he is opening a grocery store which sells only local foods. Hmmm.

King Corn is in a very limited release, and you'll be lucky to catch it in a theater. But an alert reader (TVOR is delighted to have readers--the fact that they are alert is icing on the cake) has pointed out that there will be a free screening at the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle on Saturday, March 22nd at 4:00. Just RSVP at 800 930 6060 and press 3. See it if you can. And then start reading the labels on your food.

The Rape of Europa
Written and directed by Richard Berge, Nicole Newnham, and Bonni Cohen

There's another fascinating documentary in a few theaters right now too. It's called The Rape of Europa, and it tells the story of art theft on a grand scale before and during World War II, and how a portion of that art has been (and continues to be) restored to its rightful owners or heirs. Hitler didn't make it into art school in Vienna as a young man, but he did have a love of art. And he was Hitler. Why shouldn't he steal anything he could get his hands on? And why shouldn't his cronies steal what they wanted too? They did it on a small scale (from Jewish families as they were sent away to camps) and on a large scale (hit lists were developed for works to be targeted in countries that were about to be invaded). After the war, huge caches of art were discovered and had to be returned, as much as possible, to the rightful owners. The story goes on today, as some works are still in dispute. FYI, the book is based on a book of the same name by Lynn H. Nicholas.

Video notes:

Some films previously recommended by TVOR are now on video, so you might want to check them out if you've missed them so far. Here they are, with the blog entry dates:

Gone Baby Gone 10/20/07
We Own the Night 10/20/07
Michael Clayton 10/3/07
Into the Wild 9/28/07
Across the Universe 9/27/07

Happy viewing!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Serious fare


4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu

This movie is simply one of the best things out there right now. It's from Romania, and therefore is not going to be on everyone's radar screen. Fans of art-house cinema already know about it, though. It won the Palme d'Or at at Cannes last year, and TVOR can find no reason to quibble with that. The film tells the story of two young women in late-1980's Romania. One of the young women wants an abortion, in a country where abortion is a criminal act. The other one is a friend helping her obtain the illegal procedure. There's not really a lot of plot here, but that doesn't mean there isn't a lot going on. People may be put off by the subject matter, and that would be a shame. It's not a critique of the ethics of the procedure. It's a story of specific people in a specific place at a specific time. And it's beautifully done. A side note--for some insane reason, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days was not nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the Oscars. TVOR does not know why. She wonders about the people who make those decisions, though.

Taxi to the Dark Side
Written and directed by Alex Gibney

This film is a horror film. Not the typical kind, where a mutant zombie monster does terrible things to unsuspecting humans. This is a horror movie about real people, U.S. soldiers, who torture detainees, sometimes (accidentally) killing them, and about the government that does not consider that torture to be wrong. Or torture, for that matter. This is way scarier than a mutant zombie monster, because the army and government in question are those of the United States, and if you're a U.S. citizen, that means you have to take some responsibility. The film is a documentary about U.S. government use of torture in prisons in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo. The story used as a starting point is that of an Afghan taxi driver who is in the wrong place at the wrong time and is eventually murdered while in U.S. custody. The film goes on to be a more complete treatment of the use of torture as part of the "war on terror", and it is chilling and very disturbing. It's difficult to watch, but even-handed, as all sorts of people are interviewed, articulating various sides of the issue. Soldiers involved in the death of the Afghan taxi driver are also interviewed. This is a tough film but an important one. And this one did make the list of nominees for Best Documentary.

Video notes:

Alex Gibney made Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room in 2005. It tells the story of just how Enron blew up, taking Arthur Andersen, the utility markets, and a lot of other peoples' money along with it. Gibney does have a way with documentaries. Check this one out if you've missed it along the way.

And if all this is a bit too much for you, how about some lighter options?

Written and co-directed by Brad Bird

What a wonderful film. TVOR lost her mind temporarily when Ratatouille was in the theaters and didn't see it on the big screen. She knew she was making a mistake, but just didn't get around to it. She won't make the same mistake next time a Brad Bird animated film is released. These are films for everybody, even for people who think that they are way too old and sophisticated for animated kids' films. That may be true most of the time, but films made by Brad Bird are a different story. They are smart and sweet and funny. And gorgeous to boot.

You probably already know the story of Ratatouille. It's about a gifted young chef (who happens to be a rat) pursuing his dreams in Paris. If you've missed it, you need to experience it first hand.

Brad Bird has done two other very good animated films, which also pass the grown-up test. His first one, The Iron Giant, was largely missed when it came out in 1999 (pre-Pixar and pre-Disney). People started paying attention when The Incredibles, the story of a family of superheroes, was released in 2004. They're both well-written, well-acted, well-directed, and the animation is excellent.

Monday, February 4, 2008

U2 3D


U2 3D
Directed by Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington

This little blurb is easy. If you like U2, go see this film! And if you don't, it's probably not for you. U2 3D is a concert film shot at some of U2's South American shows on their Vertigo tour a couple of years ago. The photography is impressive, and the 3D is used well, not for gimmickry. TVOR saw it on an IMAX screen, so not only was the Edge's microphone sticking out of the row ahead of her, it was REALLY BIG. So see it, and see it in 3D, on the biggest screen you can. If you're in Seattle, it's playing at Seattle Center's IMAX only through next weekend. If you're elsewhere, you can find a location on the movie's website. Get that concert experience at a fraction of the cost, in far more comfort, and with way better seats than you would ever get in the non-virtual world.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Caramel and other sweet things


Written and directed by Nadine Labaki

Caramel is a lovely little Lebanese slice of life. The film centers around a small beauty shop in Beirut, and tells the stories of the women who work there, their customers, and people in the neighborhood. The filmmaker Nadine Labaki plays the owner of the beauty shop, and most of the rest of the cast consists of unprofessional actors, who look and act exactly right. There's not a lot of plot here--the women bond and deal with romantic issues, for the most part--but the film shows us a Beirut we don't hear much about, a lovely city inhabited by regular people, Christians and Muslims who live and work together. This is a nice gentle film, one that will warm you up on a winter day. The film has opened in New York and Los Angeles, and will work its way into the hinterlands soon.

Video notes:

TVOR saw Caramel while spending a few days at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. TVOR loves film festivals. So many choices, so many opportunities step into the unknown. Sure, sometimes you get a nasty surprise, but sometimes you are unexpectedly delighted as well. With this posting TVOR will start occasionally listing some of her film festival favorites now available on video. These are films that found only limited distribution, or none at all, but thanks to DVD, can be seen by a wider audience than that hardy group of cinephiles who haunt film festivals. The first group includes a few American indies:

King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Directed by Seth Gordon

King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is just out on video this Super Bowl week. And how appropriate. On Sunday, the two top football teams will duke it out. And in this documentary film, the two best Donkey Kong players in the world will fight for a championship as well. We, the viewers, have our favorite, and we root for him in his battle against his tough opponent. And this is as it should be. If you think video games (and particularly ones from decades ago) are boring, and a movie about a video game championship battle couldn't possibly be of interest, TVOR understands completely, for she once felt as you do. She still thinks that video games are boring, but this movie about a video game championship is anything but. Check out TVOR's posting of 9/4/07 for more information if you're interested.

Four Sheets to the Wind
Written and directed by Sterlin Harjo

This is a coming of age film about a young Native American man who leaves the reservation and goes to the big city of Tulsa. Sweet and low-key, it's definitely worth watching.

Written and directed by Doug Sadler

Another coming of age story, this one is a family drama set on the Maryland coast, with quite a few things going on simultaneously (as they tend to in families). The central character is a twelve year old girl, and the story is largely seen from her point of view. The film has a strong sense of place and is beautifully acted.

The Big Bad Swim
Directed by Ishai Setton

There is no similarity between this swimming film and the one above. The Big Bad Swim is a comedy about an adult swimming class for those who are afraid of the water, taught by an ex-Olympic athlete who has his own issues. Each student has his or her own story, and they are woven together quite nicely.

Rocket Science
Written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz

Hey, how about another coming of age story, this one about high school debating as an introduction to life? Oh, and the kid stutters, too. Filmmaker Jeffrey Blitz's last film was the wonderful documentary Spellbound, about several contestants competing at the National Spelling Bee. It turns out he can make narrative films too. Rocket Science is funny and wonderful as our protagonist begins to learn about debate, life, and love.