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We just wrapped up the 9th annual Traverse City Film Festival, and once again I was enchanted by the range, variety, and overall excellence of the films.

The mission of TCFF is "Just Great Movies".  Founded by Michael Moore, the goal is to bring good movies to a market that is dominated by multiplexes and big Hollywood blockbusters.  Michael started the film festival to bring undiscovered movies to Northern Michigan, but he's succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams.  TCFF is now a world-renowned destination by the best filmmakers, and is an essential stop for anyone who loves movies.  Thanks to a rule change, short films can now qualify for consideration for an Academy Award if they achieve a "Best" designation from TCFF, Sundance, Tribeca or other major US film festivals.

The State Theater has been voted as the world's best theater by the MPAA.  It sits in the center of downtown Traverse City, and it's served as a catalyst for the revival of the entire region.  It's a jewel of a theater, with a star-spangled ceiling, an organ and a state-of-the-art sound system, as well as extremely comfortable seats and great popcorn.  If you love movies, the State is a definite destination!

I've compiled a summary of the movies I saw this past week, along with my reactions.  I had a great time, and I'm already looking forward to the 10th festival.

Here's the link to the TCFF site:  TCFF

Austenland

Thirty-something and single Jane (Keri Russell) has something of an un- healthy obsession with all things Jane Austen. lucky for her, she’s not alone. Welcome to Austenland, the ultimate getaway for literary devotees, where visitors indulge in Regency-era fantasies provided by the British theme park. Jane sells her car and blows her savings so she can afford a trip to immerse herself in Austen’s world and fulfill her dream of meeting Mr. Darcy (or at least a reasonable approximation). the directorial debut from “Napoleon Dynamite” screenwriter Jerusha Hess is a rollicking rom-com that plays up America’s fascination with British culture, featuring a supporting cast includ- ing Bret Mackenzie (“Flight of the Concords”) and Jennifer Coolidge (“legally Blonde”) delivering big laughs.

I loved this movie. There were so many moments where I stopped and thought “I know people just like this!” When Jane mourns the damage to the Colin Firth-Mr. Darcy standee, I connected to the character, because my friends have had just that moment.  We had a Q&A with one of the characters (I won’t say who) and he was surprised to get an invitation to our film festival, because he thought we only had documentaries.  He was glad to be wrong ;)

The Phantom of the Opera (With Alloy Orchestra)

Roger Ebert called them “the best in the world at accompanying silent films,” and we call them festival regulars we love to welcome back to Traverse City every year. In 2013, the incomparable musical stylings of the Alloy Orchestra will accompany Rupert Julian’s silent classic starring the man of 1,000 faces, Lon Chaney. An early classic of the horror genre, “The Phantom of the Opera” has been horrifying and fascinating audiences for almost 90 years. In this digital age, we are happy to present “Phantom” on a lovingly restored and hand- tinted 35mm print.

I’ve seen this movie many times, but it continues to be scary and amazing.  Seeing the movie with a live orchestra is an experience, and I’m grateful to the Alloy Orchestra for developing a tremendous score.

The East

Captivating from the onset, this high-stakes espionage thriller follows Sarah Moss (Brit Marling), a brilliant young ex-FBI agent who is hired by an elite private intelligence firm to infiltrate the East, a mysterious and elusive collective of radical anarchists with an eye- for-an-eye approach to taking down corporate criminal scum. But after Sarah succeeds in working her way into their inner circle, she finds herself torn between her responsibility to her employers and the lure of the East’s dangerous brand of justice and its charismatic leadership. Director Zal Batmanglij once again proves himself to be a master of twists in this zeitgeist catching hit, featuring Ellen Page, Alexander Skarsgård and Patricia Clarkson.

Wow, this was a great movie.  There were a couple elements that did not fit, but overall this was excellent.  We were fortunate to have Brit Marling and Zal Batmahglij attend the festival, and do a panel discussion and a Q&A.  This team will make some great movies.

Killing Them Softly

A mid-level gangster hires two bumbling ex-cons to knock over a card game run
by hustler Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), but when mob higher-ups catch wind of the heist, they know they need to protect their investments. Enter cool-headed Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a professional hit man hired to restore order in the criminal underworld. Directed by Andrew Dominik (“the Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”), this stylish, hard- boiled modern noir favors richly developed characters over action sequences and features a top-notch A-list cast, including Richard Jenkins and the late James Gandolfini in one of his last film roles.

This was awful.  I made it through the movie, but several people left.  The violence was too extended.  We got it that the Ray Liotta character was beaten up, but we didn’t need to see every moment.  My brother warned me against this movie, and he was right.

Much Ado About Nothing

On a break from shooting “the Avengers,” director Joss Whedon brought together some of his famous friends to his home for a 12-day stint to shoot a slick adaptation of a Shakespearian classic. The result is a sexy and modern take on the Bard’s comedy, which keeps the original text and moves the story of quarreling lovers to contemporary So Cal, as the comedy unfolds around a series. Whedon proves his directorial skill and penchant for quick-witted dialog, keeping the film light and lively while still packing an emotional punch.

This was really fun.  I missed this movie when it was in the local theaters, and I was glad of an opportunity to see it.  I was OK with the Shakespearian talk, and the cast is brilliant.

Fanie Fourie’s Lobola

This crowd-pleasing south African rom-com follows Fanie, a young white Afrikaner, who on a dare asks Dinky – a beautiful Zulu woman – to accompany him to his pop-star brother’s wedding. she reluctantly agrees on the condition that he pose as her boyfriend so her traditional father will stop pressuring her into an arranged marriage. But what begins as a ruse turns into romance and sparks fly between the unlikely couple. They decide to find out if their newfound love can survive their cultural differences, and if they can successfully navigate the tricky tradition of Lobola, a South African dowry.

LOVED this move – my favorite of the festival.  The romance was lovely, the actress who played Dinky was gorgeous, and the movie handled the themes of racism well.

Into the White

Inspired by real events, this WWII-era drama starring Rupert Grint and Florian Lukas follows two groups of sworn enemies who must put their differences aside in order to survive. two aircraft
– one British, one German – are shot down over a snow-covered expanse of wilderness in remote Norway. the crews of both planes take refuge together in an abandoned cabin, and tensions rise as their confinement and a continual struggle for power rages on in the cramped quarters of the cabin during a brutally harsh winter.

Kind of a different take of Joyeux Noel, enemies are forced to bond over difficult circumstances.  This was great, although it’s disconcerting to watch a winter movie in the middle of summer.  Great cast, great story.

Seven Psychopaths

In this dark and absurdly funny comedy from director Martin McDonagh, Colin Farrell stars as an Irish screenwriter toiling away in lA with a drinking problem and an epic case of writer’s block. He’s got
a title for his serial killer script, “seven Psychopaths,” but can’t commit a wordto the page. Then his free-wheeling actor buddy Billy (Sam Rockwell) and his dog-napping cohort Hans (Christopher Walken) inadvertently provide a source of inspiration after running afoul of a dog- loving gangster (Woody Harrelson).

This was everything that “Killing Them Softly” was not – a fun, suspenseful, dark comedy.  Colin Farrell was, surprisingly, the most normal guy in a group of psychopaths.  Really fun, although it was a bit violent.

Starbuck

Middle-aged deliveryman David is shocked to learn that he unwittingly fathered over 500 offspring in the 80s thanks to a mix-up at the sperm bank. Now, 142 of his progeny have banded together to find their biological father by suing the fertility clinic to reveal David’s identity. Panicked by the prospect of suddenly being the father of enough children to start a small village, and curious about his 20-something-year- old offspring, David acts as an anonymous guardian angel, and learns what it means to be a father in the process.

This was my last movie of the festival (Sunday at 9 pm) and what a great end to a great week.  This movie demonstrates the highs and lows of being a parent, with an inspiring cast and a great ending.  Look for this on On Demand.

Superstar

Humble, middle-aged bachelor Martin Kazinski is nothing if not ordinary – he’s the very personification of everyman. that all changes one morning on his commute to work, when he suddenly and inexplicably finds himself being mobbed on the subway by throngs of adoring fans. The more he tries to escape his stardom, or even find the reason behind his sudden celebrity, the more famous he becomes, and the more the media tries to profit from his situation. This delightful high-concept French satire offers a hilariously spot-on parable of our celebrity culture, where people are famous for being famous.

Poor Martin.  He’s a nobody who is suddenly forced to live his life in public.  I like this move a lot because it shows the fickleness and shallow nature of celebrity.  I have learned that French comedies rarely go wrong, and this was yet another example of a great movie.

Wadjda

the first feature film ever shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first by a female Saudi filmmaker, this sparkling movie tells the story of a free-spirited 10-year-old girl named Wadjda, who lives in the suburbs of Riyadh. She has her heart set on buying a beautiful green bicycle so she can race her friend Abdullah, but her mother won’t allow it, fearing repercussions from a society that says women can’t ride bicycles. In an effort to raise the money herself, Wadjda enters a Koran recitation competition at her school, where she must pose as a pious model student to achieve her goal.

This movie was great – very moving and a beautiful insight into the restrictions of Arabian society.  I loved the character of Wadjda – a girl who just wants to realize her full potential, but is restricted by the society in which she lives.

The Expedition to the End of the World (ekspeditionen til verdens ende)

In this gorgeously filmed travelogue, a motley group of seafaring scientists, artists and philosophers set sail in a three-masted schooner for one of the most remote corners of the globe: the fjords of northeastern Greenland, which have only recently become accessible thanks to global warming. On this exploratory mission to a land untouched by modern man, the sailors are confronted by polar bears and melting glaciers, but at the heart of their journey lies less tangible ponderings about man’s origins and our place in nature. The film is a rollicking, anarchical adventure full of hijinks and high science on the high seas.

Gorgeous.  Stunning.  Beautiful look at an area that is little known.  I have to admit that I’ve seen too many monster movies.  After the crew landed in Greenland, I leaned over to my brother and asked “When do the monsters arrive?”  Fortunately, there were no monsters, just the majesty of Greenland.

God Loves Uganda

In the US heartland, a Kansas-based evangelical group begins a campaign to export their Christian fundamentalism across the globe to Uganda, one of Africa’s poorest countries. With stunning access, this eye-opening exposé from Roger Ross Williams examines the high-stakes culture clash by following the intersecting stories of Ugandan human rights activists, American missionaries and supporters of a Ugandan bill to make homosexuality punishable by death. This shocking doc shows just what is at risk when a country is won over by extremist values. In Person: Director Roger Ross Williams.

There was a guy in Traverse City who moved around downtown, trying to get people to understand the “truth” about Uganda.  He was largely ignored.  This movie was not only about the hypocrisy of evangelists, who had luxurious houses in Uganda and places in the US such as Las Vegas, it held up a mirror to the “mission” agenda, where young people have an adventure in a foreign country and return to the comforts of their life, patting themselves on the back that they have “made a difference”.

More than Honey

Einstein proclaimed that if bees were to disappear from the globe, mankind would soon follow. As the unexplained phenomenon of colony collapse threatens to push honeybees to extinction, the ecosystem may hang in the balance. This captivating doc delves into the fascinating world of honeybees by launching an investigation into the mystery surrounding their recent decline. With dazzling cinematography bringing the complexities of honeybee colonies into focus, this film takes us on a worldwide tour to examine the causes for the species’ decline. In Person: Director Markus Imhoof.

This was a fascinating look at bee hive behavior, but didn’t offer any concrete solutions to the conundrum of bee-hive collapses around the world.  The film-maker seemed to have a separate agenda that people need too much “stuff”, which I think got in the way of telling a great story.   I really liked this movie, but wish the filmmaker had separated his agenda from the story he was telling.

I was disappointed that the film did not posit a reason for the collapse of bee colonies, although  I realize that the reason is not fully identified.  It was great to see "inside the hive" and view bee activity.

Red Obsession

In the world of red wines, Bordeaux has long reigned king, commanding respect and status around the globe. As a luxury good, each year’s wine ratings for the Bordeaux region – affected by factors like climate and soil conditions – have made for fluctuations in the price of wine, but nothing could have prepared the vineyards for a new force in the market: China. As the economic superpower’s vast new crop of millionaires looks for ways to flaunt their status by buying up Bordeaux wines by the crateful, prices skyrocket, with some wines fetching upwards of $80,000 a bottle. Narrated by Russell Crowe, this insightful documentary offers a fascinating look at the changing global economy and is a must-see for any wine lover.

I love wine, and was glad to choose this documentary that looked to the rise and fall of the most famous red wines of France.  There wasn’t an over-riding message to this film, but it served as a reminder that wine-making is basically farming, and Mother Nature has power over everything.

Teenage

In a society that puts its youth on a pedestal, it’s hard to imagine that the concept of the teenager didn’t exist
until as recently as the turn of the 20th century, when changes in child labor laws carved out a new division between childhood and adulthood. Inspired by the highly acclaimed book by punk author Jon Savage, this hip and innovative film leaves the traditional talking heads documentary style behind, instead employing vintage archival footage and first-person accounts of life as a teenager in the Western world (narrated by actors Jena Malone, Ben Whishaw, Julia Hummer and Jessie usher) to show how today’s youth culture came to be defined by rebellious pioneers.

This was OK.  Not much was new for me, but the music was great.

Terms and Conditions May Apply

If you’ve ever used a service online or on your phone – be it Google, Facebook, iTunes or any of a number of increasingly ubiquitous digital products – chances are you’ve blindly agreed to pages and pages of legalese referred to as “terms and conditions.” Director Cullen Hoback peels back the jargon to reveal what exactly we’ve all been agreeing to and how much of our privacy is at stake. Hoback’s investigation uncovers the vast amounts of personal data for sale to the highest bidder. All the more relevant in light of recent revelations about the NSA’s data mining operations, this informative and alarming documentary is the perfect primer for anyone concerned with their privacy in the internet age.

Scary movie that had nothing to do with aliens, but the dense contract we all agree to each time we hit “Submit”.  Very revealing, but there is an element that T&Cs are embedded in our daily existence.

Cockneys vs Zombies

With local Lomdon police otherwise engaged in a little thing called the zombie invasion, a gang of bank robbers on a mission to save their grandfather’s home from redevelopment get more than they bargained for when they stumble upon ground zero of the zombie-apocalypse. Meanwhile, their grandfather mounts an army of fellow pensioners to defend against the undead and prove that elderly Eastenders are still tough as nails. This clever, classic zombie flick is a riotous and blood-spattered horror comedy.

One of the best things about this festival is its capacity for silliness, and this was a great example.  I loved this movie because it was silly.  The image of a retired pensioner trying to out-walk a zombie, armed only with his walker, can still elicit chuckles.

The History of Future Folk

This lo-fi sci-fi film tells the (possibly exaggerated) true story of two aliens who are sent to Earth to exterminate
the human race, only to abandon their missions after discovering Earth’s incredible invention of “music.” Forming the universe’s first Hondonian bluegrass duo, Future Folk, their peaceful days of playing in a small Brooklyn bar come to a halt when their fellow Hondonians return, and it is up to our bumbling heroes to prevent an intergalactic takeover.

HONDO!  This movie was great!  Silly, funny, smart.  I once speculated that one could develop a following from an obscure fandom, and make a hit at Comic Con.  This movie gave me a great cosplay idea, and I’m not at all into cosplay.  Great music, too.

Originally posted to chicagobama on Tue Aug 06, 2013 at 06:47 PM PDT.

Also republished by Electronic America: Progressives Film, music & Arts Group.

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