A grab bag approach to choosing movies.

Mass-market movies rarely appeal to me.   I’m drawn to stories that reveal a personal or distinctive voice.  Production companies are interested in appealing to the broadest audiences and in-turn making the most money possible as soon as possible.  They want the opposite: movies that appeal to the masses.  Personal, distinctive or hard-to-category stories just don’t fly there.

Foreign Letters

People usually forget about or ignore independent, documentary and short films, even though the best stories are often compelling and memorable.  They receive so little publicity that they lay or languish below America’s pop cultural radar.  Well below it.

I was grateful a few years ago it dawned on me just what kind of eclectic selection I could have in movies if I simply visited my local library a couple time a week!  While the feature-length movies are supposed to be organized by genre, after borrowers’ hands touch them they don’t stay so strictly organized.  That makes it adventurous.

I’ve found several films that way, which I might not or flatly would not have noticed if I’d relied on a social media queue or searched for those, which my friends recommend.

I recently discovered Foreign Letters, which documents the childhood bond between two almost teenaged American immigrants.  Their bond helped to insulate them from the cruelties that children can levy on one another.  And it stuck with or sustained them into their adult lives.  Most children know what it’s like to move to a strange place, be the new kid and have to carve out a new social life.  The girls’ story is sweet, smart, perceptive and dramatic.  Rare!

You just don’t find these stories at your local mall’s multiplex anymore!

hollywood sign index

While social media movie queues have their places, there is a pleasure, an old-school (or maybe just mid-20th century) pleasure in the randomness and adventure of watching what a grab bag give you.  A grab bag approach to choosing movies is a fun and novel way to accidently find some of the best and most unappreciated films you might not have otherwise found.  You could probably do this via Facebook or Flixster, but those media lack the hands-on and face-to-face satisfaction that I appreciate.

A “Happy, Happy” story of love from Norway?

Lust blinds.  Love confounds. “Happy, Happy” is the feature-length debut of Anne Sewitsky.  Each of us has faced the questions of whether someone is the one for us.  Sometimes the answer to that question is easy; it’d be great to know that life.  What happens when you have to face the fact that you chose the wrong partner and lover?

This not quite love story opens at the Uptown Theatre on October 7th.

“Happy, Happy,” a Norwegian film, confronts that question in sensitive and sloppy ways.  There are two very different couples, neither of which is happy.  One man is fleeing from the memories of his wife’s infidelity.  One woman isn’t sure why her man feels nothing for and in fact belittles her.  And why he’s fine with ignoring his reasons why.

A happy marriage – each to someone else. (Courtesy: Magnolia Pictures)

Love is often a compromise, but how much do you give or give up for happiness?  In this story of love, which might not be a love story, an educated couple Sivge (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Elisabeth (Maibrett Saerens) rents a house from and is greeted by a provincial and friendly couple, Eirik (Joachim Rafaelsen) and Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen). Elisabeth and Sivge are professionals, while Kaja and Eirik do…we don’t know what.  Each couple has a son.  Elisabeth and Sivge is adopted from Ethiopia.  Why they are in this story is a mystery – neither helps the story.  Mysteriously Kaja no longer interests Eirik.  Some months ago Elisabeth cheated on Sivge.

Kaja, made vulnerable by Eirik’s chronic disinterest in and belittling of her, finds a role model in Sivge and Elisabeth, and a distraction in Sivge.  He finds a refreshing and welcome warmth and sweetness in Kaja.  But Eirik faces a different, confusing problem: why’d he choose Kaja?  What does he want?

This is a competent film with problems, which make you scratch your head: there’s a bizarre, awkward subplot concentrating on Elisabeth and Sivge’s adopted Ethiopian son.  For an inexplicable reason, after having found a children’s book on slavery, Kaja and Eirik’s son decides to play “slave” games with the boy.  He somewhat playfully treats him as one.

How does love look when you want the other's partner? (Courtesy: Magnolia Picture)

These distractions work like a musical segment from a circa mid-20th-Century movie: a Negro band plays a song, which is irrelevant to the movie, and, which when played in the South, could be removed so that it wouldn’t offend that region’s sensibilities.

There’s a palate-cleansing devise bombs:  a choral group, which sings between acts.  While the songs suit the story sometimes, they don’t serve it.  The subplots don’t support or propel the main story – they give nothing to it.  If the director had omitted either of these problems, she could’ve also omitted at least 15-minutes from the film.

This is a competent film with a nice, quiet and smart story.  But doesn’t need to run for much longer than an hour.

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“El Bulli: Cooking in Progress” highlights a movement, but leaves all but foodies in the cold

When one restaurant, El Bulli, stands above all others with its adventurous and experimental food, and becomes world renowned, why not document its story?

“El Bulli: Cooking in Progress” is a pure documentary in a sense; that’s no praise.  While most documentaries are edited to create a story structure and reveal memorable characters, this film avoids that.

The opening shot seizes our attention: the chief chef, Ferran Adrià, is in the dark sucking on a piece of glow-in-the-dark fish on a stick.  That’s cool.  Sadly, it’s also the just about the best part of this documentary.  The film-maker, Gereon Wetzel, omits any sense of artistic direction, or style or purpose.  Maybe you should call it observational movie-making?  He seems to have left the cameras on-location and merely edited the project for time and comprehensibility.  Maybe this is one of those films where a critic outside of the film’s target audience, oughtn’t write about it?

Yep. Cooking in progress (Courtesy: creative commons/flickr)

In a conversation with a different documentary film-maker, Morgan Spurlock, he mentioned someone that Werner Herzog said, “every cut is a lie.”  Well, none of the cuts used here are made in the interests of a story.  It ignores elementary rules of storytelling, which every working film-maker knows and uses to win an audience.

This opens at the Film Society of Mpls/St. Paul on Sept. 23.  The film-making should not be the focus.  It should be Spanish molecular gastronomy, which can transform a diner’s experience, and lift their dining standards.

After Mr. Adrià, the trio of co-executive chefs, Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch and Mateu Casanas, are emphasized, but we only get shallow gists of any of them, who they are or why they do their work.

Divided roughly in two, the film shows the testing and experimentation process and then how the chef foursome, and the restaurant team make the successful experiments work for diners.  Their serving process must abide by military precision; their diners consume 30 courses within three hours.

Another obstacle for you: their work is not just technical, but highly technical.  Too much so for those who aren’t either intensely curious, or foodies, or cooks themselves.

The chefs’ challenges might lose most other viewers.  It’s a shame because in a “60-Minutes” segment, from April 2010, one of Adrià’s protégés, José Andrés, who, according to renowned food critics, Ruth Reichl, is the pioneer in America of Molecular gastronomy, shows how exciting molecular gastronomy is!

If food excites you, but on a more common level, I urge you to watch a different, equally esoteric, but amusing story: PBS’ documentary, “Kings of Pastry,” about ambitious, competitive French pastry chefs.  It’s a superior example of a culinary documentary.  It’s exciting: it delivers drama, suspense and personal stories.

“Higher Ground,” from Vera Farmiga, shows us a different, personal struggle toward Christ

Each of us searches for personal meaning in life, a purpose.  Some use a holy book in that search.  “Higher Ground” tells a story of a woman, Corinne’s, walk with her faith, from elementary age into middle age.  Hers is a stuck in coming-of-faith story.  When you finally feel a firm grip on how life works, your place in the world and how you’ll work that, that’s one definition of coming-of-age.  Coming-of-faith is when you feel that with your faith.  To be stuck in coming-of-faith is when you’ve not yet found a firm ground or steady conviction when it comes to your faith or god.

A young, critically thoughtful Corinne (Courtesy: Sony Classics)

This interesting, profound drama, adapted from the memoir, “This Dark World,” by Carolyn S. Briggs,  opens at the Edina Cinema on September 9th.

“Higher Ground” is a feature-length film, directed by and starring Vera Farmiga, about how a girl, raised in a verbally abusive household, sticks with a choice after having committed herself to a conviction, Christ, without being convicted. She’s hungry for a church to guide her; maybe jumping the gun will be the catalyst?

Corinne wants to write fiction and live immersed in a world of art and critical thought.  A man and a moment of sexual hunger overtake that: she clicks with Ethan (Joshua Leonard), a like-minded, sensitive musician, concedes her virginity, clings to and finally marries him, in time for her pregnancy to show.  He’s provincial, with a level of curiosity that leaves him content with family and without questions that challenge or test him.

Another sign and symbol of their disconnection: shortly after marrying, they commiserate about opportunities lost in having a child: he wants to perform with a band.  She, a resolute, practical dreamer admits that she’d love to write novels, but hasn’t the time.  And kisses her baby with adoration.

Ethan flails in one last gesture of rebellion.  He takes his band, and Corinne and their daughter on a music gig – ill-fated.  His band mates are sophomoric, and want neither Corinne nor a baby sharing the band bus.  Straining to be a diplomat, and good sport, she’s at her wit’s end.  Their daughter needs a play or nap space in this Animal House setting.  Ethan screams for her to use a cooler!  Soon after stowing the baby, Ethan is distracted and crashes their bus.  They all bolt from the bus, Ethan dragging Corinne along with him.  She alone remembers that their daughter’s in the cooler – on the bus!  Once safe, Ethan declares “God saved her.”  A hasty conclusion?

A happy young marriage? (Courtesy: Sony Classics)

Corinne poses questions, which no one around her is ready for, or leave them comfortable.  As her children grow, Corinne becomes increasingly chafed by her husband, Ethan, and the church’s disinterest in her questions and spurning of her obstinacy.  Neither of them considers pursuing an examined life, as Aristotle extolled, and which she wants.  This clashes with who she wants to be, but at the same time, she tries to focus on what God wants from her.  She still wonders: how to submit to God when vital, incisive questions nag her?

“Higher Ground” is a quiet, patient story about a girl-come-young-woman’s spiritual search and yearning.  It resembles a chronic, persistent chafe similar to many of those in Martin Scorsese’s stories.  “The Last Temptation of Christ” is the obvious one. There Jesus is offered the option to simply live a human, mortal life, with a family, instead of living with the sacrifice and selfless service.  Corrine has already sacrificed her idea of a happy life in order to appease her church.  And she’s losing herself.

At the end of a scene Ethan sees, written on the wall, how far she has drifted from him, and how impotent he is in the face of that.  He finally sees a chasm between them.  He just doesn’t get her.  While talking about their children, and a petty complaint about her, she runs to their station wagon and away from him.

A man, different from Ethan, makes her glow? (Courtesy: Sony Classics)

She’s fed up with him, or how far he has drifted from her.  She locks the driver’s side door. He takes the seat behind her, and tries to convince her to stay docile, to be Godly, but doesn’t know how to fight that without hitting her – he seizes her throat from behind, and squeezes, more to vent than to hurt her.  But that’s it!

She needs to try life independent of Ethan, and maybe find God again that way.

Later, after leaving Ethan, she has just testified to her church about not yet having found home within God, after more than 20 years.  The final shot is potent and subtle: Corrine looks back at the congregation with hope and uncertainty.

Religious movies can be difficult when they paint outside of the lines, whether those are bound by belief, outright doubt or vice.  The zealous Christian probably wants a movie that’ll affirm their convictions and submission to God’s will.  Those on the other, secular, side want something that’ll confirm theirs; they’re tired of hearing dramatic, dogma of their imminent damnation.

“Higher Ground” is a good film.  If you demand a fast-paced, metropolitan take on religious life, this might refresh you.  If you sympathize or are comfortable with tough questions left dangling for Corrine or with the way she pursues her faith, then this’ll suit you.  If not, still try it.  Thoughtful, even-handed stories about religious or spiritual life are rare.

“In My Sleep” should stay in bed

Markus seems to keep waking up “In My Sleep,” with nasty evidence of murder in or on his hands.  His boss’ & best friend’s, Justin (Tim Draxl), wife, Ann (Kelly Overton), disappears and is presumed murdered.  The more often Markus awakes with suspicious, even bloody evidence in-hand, the more he starts to pursue cures to his disorder, and answers for the blood.

Markus (Philip Winchester), is a day spa masseuse and a parasomniac.  That word pops up often in conversatory, doesn’t it?  According to WebMD “parasomnias are disruptive sleep-related disorders that can occur during arousals from REM sleep or partial arousals from Non-REM sleep.”  They “include nightmares, night terrors, sleepwalking, confusional arousals, and many others.”  While the movie makes the noctural murders the prevailing disorder, it isn’t.

The key question: did he kill Ann?  The plot twists, which they add atop story wrinkle atop peripheral character tell us that the filmmakers, Allen Wolf and David Austin, almost forget or ignore this question.  None of these serves the story.  Instead they add up to distracting and frustrating us.  There are worse movies out there, but it might be hard to name one that’s a mess on as many levels as this.

Caged "In My Sleep"

This film played at the Film Society of Minneapolis/St. Paul in mid-August.

“In My Sleep” is an ambitious, overwrought and overwritten attempt at a thriller.  How many ways can you describe a bad, or badly made movie?  It’s like a cook who’s found himself in a Master Chef-like competition while having no clue of how to not come off as a fool, hold his own or even win.

An example: Marcus at a nightclub, with Justin and Ann.  The night is young, so he elects to hop to the next nightspot and find a girl.  But he gets a female crank caller, whom he assumes, by reflex, must be one of his one-time conquests.  But she asks him, in a forthright, non-sentimental way, why he sleeps with a new woman every night; why he can’t commit to one?  Now, it’s weird and creepy.  And this pondering question could make for a decent story about some of life’s pillars, love, sex and happiness.

A second example: in a surprise birthday party sequence, Markus opens a package, a particularly combat-worthy knife, is taken aback and then reads the card – sent and written by himself.  Bizarre.  Pieces of story, like this, are introduced capriciously and then dropped.

Every 15-mins seems to add a twist wrinkle, character or symbolism.  There are at least three scenes, subplots or sequences, which if omitted, would clarify the plot: there is the police’s investigation of Ann’s death; the one about Markus’ parents’ dysfunctions; and one where his love interest turns out to be a relative out to avenge his friend’s death.  Each is instead barely developed, like a child who claims a passionate hobby for about a week, before dropping it.  None of these serves the story.

“In My Sleep” trying too hard to be a gripping Hitchcockian thriller.  It’s desperate, adding new twists and absurd, potential subplots and character motivations.  It’s trying to cover for being inept.

Gift to self: a knife for killing

“Sleep” is incoherent and barely organized: it reminds me of HBO’s 2000 “Longitude,” story about the creation of Standard Time.  It’s splendid with fascinating characters.  The clock’s namesake, John Harrison, was so much of egoist that he didn’t strip away design errors; instead he added pieces to the clock, on top of the errors, to make it work.  According to the HBO film, the Harrison Machines, while working, also boast a mess of pointless, add-on parts.  The design was crude, but worked, and helped to save lives – but that’s a whole other story.  Too bad the “In My Sleep” flat out doesn’t work.

The filmmakers steal from Alfred Hitchcock, to whom a New York Times critic has compared “In My Sleep”, and John Dahl and other filmmakers.  Each of them deftly spins yarns of suspense, albeit in different and distinctive ways.

Compare this film to Mr. Dahl’s 1989’s “Kill Me Again,” 1994’s “The Last Seduction” or 1996’s “Unforgettable,” or to any one of Mr. Hitchcock’s oeuvres.  Do you need a list?  At least three must be on the tip of your tongue.  When Messrs Dahl or Hitchcock each uses suspense, it pays off, excites us and serves the story.  When Mr. Wolf does it we get the opposite.  At least half the time when Wolf tries the climactic reveal, which the music plays up, it collapses.  That broaches the other fundamental crisis: mocking or copying Bernard Hermann.

The musical score, which copies those of Bernard Hermann, who did many of Hitchcock’s, tweaks the strings with such exuberance as to mock Mr. Hermann’s remarkable, indelible music.  It’s disappointing.  It’s makes you shake your head, asking “why screw up that iconic musical touch?”

“In My Sleep” offers a promising plot in the first act.  But maybe it’s only enough to give it enough rope to hang itself.  Not everything in this is bad or badly done, but most of it is, and that drowns out what could have been a competent genre yarn.

Unfortunately the film team, Allen Wolf, and producer, David Austin, try too hard without having the competence or skills to accomplish their vision.  But this story shows meager evidence that they held a clear, cogent one.

But at some point you have to blurt “enough.”  The Razzies might find time to celebrate this one. It’s too bad, even morose; you want to give an artist some credit for daring or reaching.  Competence is the first question.

“Passione” for John Turturro’s documentary take on Neapolitan music

“Passione” is musical, but it’s not a musical.  This is an independent project of love for actor John Turturro.  Most documentaries share a trait: an agenda, mission, personal or political story.  They employ a narrative structure; not “Passione.”  It’s a movie but has neither a plot, nor a story, nor stars.

It opens at Minneapolis’ Lagoon Cinema on August 19th.

Sparring over love

A series of music videos, with interview sound bites cut in, most of “Passione” has groups or soloists performing in-place.  It documents Naples’ musical passion.  It emphasizes the performances over any expert’s historical points-of-view.

With neither a plot nor an obvious story to recount “Passione” is a series of music videos Napoli-style.  Maybe Italy’s MTV still bothers with its namesake programming unlike in America.

This’s John Turturro’s love letter to Naples, he says, and its music.  Maybe it’s like 1977’s “New York, New York” was for Martin Scorsese, as he has described it in interviews.

A couple of scenes stand out: one, early on, has several women writhe and gyrate on a multilevel building – a striking site – for what seems to be one of the few songs, without an on-screen singer.  Another one, half way into the film, has a trio of disparate sounding vocalists, including Peppe Barra and M’Barka Ben Taleb, take on “Lay that Pistol Down.”  It’s remarkable.  An engaging dissonance, which jars as much as it charms.

If “Lay that Pistol Down” is new to your ears, you might have to be patient, approaching it with an open, sonic palate or just await its finish.  It’s a vocal assault, which is none-the-less compelling if you can go beyond how foreign it might be to your ears.

Ms. Taleb alternates between singing and doing a tribal-sounding shout, the name for which escapes me!  Mr. Barra alternates between singing and rapping, aggressively.  A third vocalist, whose presence Barra and Taleb overshadow, completes a noteworthy trio.

If you like Neapolitan music, or even Italian style or architecture, this might suit you.

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“Vincent Wants to Sea” is a charming German roadtrip about escape, both real and imaginary

“Vincent Wants to Sea” is a German-made story of escape and healing, both real and imaginary from director Ralf Huettner.  The original German title: “Vincent will Meer.”   Vincent’s a young man with the socially isolating Tourette Syndrome,  who’s mourning his mom’s death, and also has to deal with his dad.  A dad whom he barely gets, and who barely gets him.  With all this in his head and heart, he simply wants to escape or vacation to the sea.  In Italy.  Where his mom finally wanted to be.

Troubled young people on a roadtrip in "Vincent Wants to Sea" (courtesy Boston.com)

But he’s left with his dad.  Vincent’s (Florian David Fitz) tics seem to be worse with his mom gone and his dad not.

This worthwhile small German story is showing at the Lagoon Cinema from August 12th.

Vincent’s Alpha-male dad, Robert (Heino Ferch), fits a stereotype.  He doesn’t understand, how to help his son, or even want to.  When life events clash with his plan, as with a dead wife and a troubled son, he acts like a child: picture Gordon Gekko’s infantile outbursts in 1987’s “Wall Street.”  Robert  finagles a spot in a therapeutic clinic, and drops his son there.

Soon after, Vincent clashes with his obsessive-compulsive and anti-social roommate, Alexander (Johanne Allmeyer) and might click with a curious, coy anorexic woman, Marie (Karoline Herfurth).  But the clinic is too much for this odd, needy fledgling couple.  Vincent and she decide to seize and flee in the doctor’s car, and take the at-times man-child Alexander with them so, he doesn’t tattle.  They become a surprising team.

A healing, erotic connection? (courtesy fanpop.com)

After the clinic’s doctor, Dr. Rose (Katharina Muller-Elmau), tells Vincent’s dad about the incident, he comes to help her bring them back.  The duo cooperates to find the trio.  They also become a team of sorts.  Their teamwork is the sort, which we’d expect to amount to kisses and more.  But maybe not.

“Vincent Wants to Sea” is a simple, amusing road trip with wit.  Laughter marks the teams’ run-ins with car theft, petty gas station robbery and car accidents.  There are touches of 1986’s “Stand By Me,” albeit with different brush strokes on power, self-discovery and adventure from that.

“Crime After Crime” is a moving documentary about a woman’s perseverence, and the sausage-making in “justice”

“Crime After Crime,” a feature-length documentary by Yoav Potash, about a troubled young woman, Deborah Peagler, who was convicted of homicide more than 25 years ago.  This, after having asked neighborhood gangsters to make her abusive lover stop beating and terrorizing her.  While a 2003 California law would only demand six years of her life in prison, her 1983 sentence took more than 25.  This is her story.

This suspenseful true story will show at the Film Society of Minneapolis/St. Paul starting on July 29th.

Ms. Deborah Peagler awaits justice and freedom (courtesy Sundance)

Two lawyers, Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran, stepped up to take her case, pro bono, after a 2003 California law was passed that changed the game for victim/survivors of domestic abuse who are convicted of homicide, and free her.  In doing so they found a sympathetic client, and a District Attorney’s office, run by Steve Cooley, that has committed and is committing “Crime After Crime,” as Mr. Safran described their conduct, to save face and keep careers.

When you picture justice, this isn’t it: not “Crime After Crime.”  It’s a spectacular story, where the themes and stakes will remind some of you of the activist 1970s movie trend with such titles as 1980’s “Brubaker,” 1979’s “…And Justice for All,” and 1975’s “Dog Day Afternoon,” of the underdog.

Winston Churchill, an extraordinary political icon of the United Kingdom, once said that “Democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms…”  As it goes with that, so this seems to with justice: she was denied parole at least thrice.  At one point Safran describes how the parole and appellate process work in ways, which ignore or preclude the convict’s promise for doing good.  Ms. Deagler had been an ideal inmate, had earned a two-year degree, become a mentor to junior inmates and served far more time than 2000s laws demanded.  So the case requires Herculean efforts even when the law, precedent and rhetorical are on their side.

Lawyers Josh Safran and Nadia Costa guide Ms. Peagler toward freedom, if not justice (courtesy Berkeley Side)

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office does so many things that clash with the public’s interests or Ms. Peagler’s.  It makes you wretch and doubt America’s commitment to justice, or equal justice.  Originally she was sentenced via a legal perspective that lumped women, who lash out is desperation at their abusive husbands or lovers, with those women who kill in cold blood.

The stakes, offenses and perversions of justice, and morals in this story make it a crackerjack whodunit.  What makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand is that “Crime After Crime” trains its crosshairs, more and more, on the prosecutors misconduct.  The DA’s office conceals a pivotal document, uses unreliable and impotent witness testimony and reneges on compassionate agreements.

California's masses support Peagler's cause (courtesy LATimes.com)

“Crime After Crime” boasts as many plot twists and is as fast-paced as a sweeps week episode of “Law & Order.”  In some ways this is similar to 1993’s “In the Name of the Father,” even though that drama, which was based on a true story, exonerates justice in the United Kingdom.  In both stories, convicts languish in prison for crimes, and with sentences, more heinous than the evidence warranted.

Ms, Peagler’s odyssey is even more trying and dramatic than another documentary, POV’s “Presumed Guilty,” from 2010.  That  indicts the Mexican version of justice – and a very non-Western.  That candid and uncomfortable exposé provides excellent and telling comparison to Ms. Peager’s story.

Alongside being a splendid true crime drama, this documentary pushes us to consider several uncomfortable questions: what is justice?  what color is it?  why must it not only have a price, but one that makes our noses bleed?  Finally, what do we expect from it vs. what America’s founders wanted us to expect from it.

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“How to Live Forever,” a baby boomer’s light-hearted documentary on aging, which offers sparse chuckles

America isn’t obsessed with youth, living longer or forever, but it probably seems so.  As fashion expert Tim Gunn has lamented, models aren’t yet fully developed women, and still the masses look to them as a standard of beauty.  In the public’s imagination youth rules.  Young beauty, that is.

101 year-old Buster mugs for the movie

A documentary feature, “How to Live Forever” from middle-aged filmmaker, Mark Wexler, is coming to the Lagoon Cinema on Friday July 29th.  His effort is a look at how we consider age and what do to about it, avoid death and in general try to beat the odds.

The story is peculiar in that Mr. Wexler starts off with funeral director’s convention in Las Vegas; this opening bodes poorly.

“How to Live Forever” almost seems to last that long.  It’s interesting and amusing, but only entertains, amuses or informs once in a while; when you find yourself sitting back in a recliner, nodding off for a bit, and feeling sure that, when you open your eyes, you missed nothing, something wrong.

Mid-20th-Century fitness icon Jack Lalanne is one of the highlights.  Others include a 70-something Japanese male porn star, a beauty competition for women over age 60 and a high school class that visits a retirement home.  That final one is remarkable: the youths confront their own preconceived ideas about how depressing, off-putting or gross old people might be.  But Mr. Wexler also speaks to more than a few 100+ year-old women.  Strangely he doesn’t mix men among them.  When’s the last time you asked yourself what 100 years looks like?  105 yrs?  110 yrs?  Or 114?

What does longevity look like? (courtesy Flickr)

“How to Live Forever” is interesting and sweet, but is also clearly an amateur’s work; it’s long and even indulgent.  It has two vital problems:  Wexler has made an incoherent narrative from his footage.  The point of his story, and what he wants us to find in it, are vague.  If he’s disinterested in a clear narrative, then so be it, but that’ll chafe viewers who expect more.  The lack of organization harkens somewhat to the way the vignette format that Spike Lee used in his autobiographical “Crooklyn;” but that choice worked because the sequences were connected in a nearly explicit way.

Also Mr. Wexler rarely engages or excites as a host; he looks and acts tired and run-down, which seems to be one of his motivations for examining “How to Live Forever.”  He isn’t having much fun throughout the story; that tone, which he set, rubs off on viewers.

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“If a Tree Falls” preaches to the leftist choir as it tells us about a group of “environmental terrorists”

“If a Tree Falls” is a feature-length documentary, by Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman, about a group of environmental activists who go way beyond the call of duty – to a violent edge of it.  They are the Earth Liberation Front. “If a Tree Falls” clearly sympathizes with this group, which the FBI calls “domestic terrorists.”

The Environmental Liberation Front acts (courtesy Oscilloscope Laboratories)

This film doesn’t run down a history of the movement, or even the psychology behind that.  It describes some incidents that led to the domino-effect arrests of a cell.  The film concentrates on the cell’s principal personalities: Dan McGowan, Suzanne Savoie, Jake Ferguson, and one or two other outstanding ones.  This story tells of the offenders on the extreme left, and not the offended.  Those offenders may feel that the mainstream media had taken their foes’ side.  The question of who’s the offended may be disputable.  But those whom the ELF attacked are barely heard.

“If a Tree Falls” may be righteous.  But also self-righteous.  This film shows at Minneapolis’ Lagoon Cinema for a week starting on July 22nd.

A clear bias toward the extreme leaves the film’s point-of-view weak. The bias is about 60-40 or even 70-30 in voices in favor of the extremists or terrorists.  The centrist viewers, who are against violence with this cause, are left with valid, yet open questions. Those centrists won’t be convinced by a tale of how a docile McGowan slipped into this conviction.  Objective, non-partisan voices would keep viewers’ attention.  How will they respond when they find that in fact, with one battle, McGowan, Savoie and their compatriots torched a lumber location based on false information?

Mr. McGowan describes a few cracks in his reasoning and decision-making.  Several voices, including his, explain why he, the focal character, decided that confrontation was a superior, more potent path to waking-up the offenders than mid-20th-Century tactics: marching, singing, chanting, picketing and the like.

Poster image (courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Only a few voices discuss the innocents who are bunched in with the worst violators, and hurt.  Only a couple of voices consider the lumber industry’s efforts to do good.  Some of the best documentaries may not carry an agenda, but instead a reportorial, objective point of view.  This one informs, entertains and might enlighten viewers, especially in terms of “preaching to the choir.”  The want for a moderate and balanced voice is disappointing.

With the film’s faults, it’s a good, clear, almost well told story of this sect’s work.  This film is worth watching, but DVD will suffice.

It’s easy to sympathize with the zealots’ desire for faster, more satisfying results: those, which are more progressive and aggressive than typical 20th-Century tactics.  Faster than diplomacy.  But it takes a certain gut and heart to move from the fantasy of revenge to urban or guerilla combat.  I doubt that many or even most viewers share that one with these former ELF members.

“If a Tree Falls” uses interview footage with the characters almost exclusively.  It’s a late 20th-Century story of violent protestors; other than news clips, there isn’t archival or behind-the-scenes footage.  It provides reenactments of specific details shots; it uses animation, in lieu of banal, traditional live-action reenactments of some criminal scenes, in an amusing, playful, refreshing way.

This film poses large ideological, legal and moral questions: who is a terrorist?  What is terrorism?  Does each form of terrorism pose an equal threat.