Monday, October 12, 2009

Milwaukee Film Festival Day Four 9/27/2009

Film #7 - Theater of War
Film #8 - Seraphine
Film #9 - The Best of Shorts
Film #10 - The Yes Men Fix the World
Film #11 - Chef's Special

Rolling out of bed at 9 a.m. is normally not a problem for me on the weekends, considering I'm up and around at 6 a.m. during the week and am not famous for staying up late (anymore). However, getting out of bed followed by the suddenly monumental task of getting in the shower in order to be at the theater for 12 hours was insurmountable to me. I filled up on a bowl of cereal and threw a couple of granola bars in my bag to sustain me for the day and then I was off to the theater.

Unfortunately, though I walked into the theater 25 minutes early, I became acutely aware that the promise that pass holders get first seating if they're lined up 15 minutes before the show didn't apply to first shows because lo and behold I walked into a packed theater. OCD Shelly immediately started growling at the people who were sitting in my normal perch (there goes my ass groove) but I managed to find a seat close the front where I could not only see the screen but do abdominal exercises as well since I was in this whacked out rocking chair thing. Unfortunately I couldn't see anything else because the lighting was so bad, and since my "penmanship" is negligible on a good day, I knew I was going to have to find my secret decoder ring when going through the notes for Theater of War. All things being equal though, I was happy because I was about to see a documentary starring my favorite contemporary actress, Meryl Streep.

Throughout the day I managed to stave off my hunger with Diet Pepsi and the occasional granola bar, and even though I had to endure sitting next to a woman who apparently thought it would be a good idea to bathe in patchouli before going to see Seraphine, I did see some great films on day 4, and one not so great film. We experienced technical difficulties during The Yes Men Fix the World which caused us to miss about six minutes of the film, and after sitting through a Shorts program that had films on a couple different formats, causing long pauses between, and the final film of the day started 25 minutes late due to technical difficulties (on a Sunday night mind you - anyone who knows me knows how I rarely go out on Sunday nights because they're my last gasp of relaxation before the week) which caused us to start an almost 2 hour film at 9:45 p.m. Despite exhaustion by the end of the day and a growling stomach that would scare off Genghis Khan, the day went well.

Director: John W. Walter
USA - 2008 - English
Previous Screenings:
Tribeca Film Festival 2009
Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

Theater of War, a documentary about the creation, process and staging of the Bertolt Brecht play, "Mother Courage and Her Children", which was adapted in 2006 by Tony Kushner for The Public Theater/NY Shakespeare Festival in Central Park. The play features Meryl Streep in the lead role as Mother Courage and a strong supporting cast, including Kevin Kline. The film chronicles the production of the play, but it also looks at Brecht's politics and motives for writing the play, which was ultimately a response to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) of the 40's and 50's, written after Brecht became a Marxist and substitutes the current Iraq war for the original World War II setting.

Meryl Streep begins the film by saying, "We all live off the war." This statement is revisited several times throughout the documentary, which has a strong underlying theme of the (sometimes tumultuous) marriage of politics and art. A large part of explaining the history of the play and Brecht's motivations fall on Jay Cantor, a novelist who teaches a class in Marxism and Brecht at Tufts University. One of the "11 unfriendly witnesses", Brecht, shown in archival footage at a HUAC hearing, toys with the committee by pretending he had a horrible grasp of the English language, stating later, "If you look like you have a bad grasp of the language, they'll ask you less." His assistant director at the time described the sight as, "He turns it into a play, a comedy written by Brecht." "Mother Courage" was conceived after the Hollywood 10 went to jail and he returned to Germany after leaving the U.S.

Theater of War is a very good film, though certainly high on the "dry" scale, which really works for me. Unfortunately I was constantly being interrupted by someone behind me who would make, "hmmmm interesting" sounds every time they weren't snoring, so that got to be old pretty quickly. When I was able to block that out, however, I enjoyed the movie immensely. Streep is an amazing actress, and it's no secret that she's my favorite contemporary actress, but in this film we are able to see how much of an intellectual she is. And though until this point I had not read any of Brecht's plays, discovering his creative process and motivations absolutely make me want to explore his work. Like "Mother Courage", the documentary is multi-layered, and is inter cut with footage and protesters from different wars throughout history, and, like the play, the obvious underlying theme was, "We don't like war." However, this was not a main ingredient in the conceit of the piece, and ultimately, the play and supporting footage and interviews come across as heavy, but not heavy-handed.

3 stars out of 5

Director: Martin Provost
France - 2008 - French with English Subtitles
Previous Screenings:
Newport Beach Film Festival 2009 (Award Winner)
Seattle International Film Festival 2009 (Award Winner)

In 1905, a devout Catholic housekeeper named Seraphine (Yolande Moreau) leaves the convent she is with and begins painting gloriously colored canvases at the age of 41, simply chalking it up to "God's work". When she is "discovered" seven years later by her new employer, German art critic Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), he takes her to acclaimed shows in Europe and eventually, New York's Museum of Modern Art, but her success is interrupted several times, mainly because of war; interruptions that, exacerbated by a burgeoning mental illness, ultimately cause her to suffer a complete break from reality.

Seraphine is based on a true story, and is a powerful, amazing film, due in large part to Moreau's incredible performance. Though Seraphine is a simple woman, the performance is complex. Seraphine is a woman of few words, and most of her emoting is done through facial expressions and body language. She exhibits weariness and a heaviness that exceeds her actual physique that made me exhausted just watching her, and when she is joyful, it is infectious; she really pulls you into her corner. Moreau is a French actress, so you may not be able to place her, but after a few minutes I was able to recognize her as the landlady from the film Amelie.

The pacing of Seraphine is slow, but exquisitely so. Director Martin Provost is not afraid of lingering on a shot for longer than usual, or what is actually conventionally comfortable. For example, the last scene of the film consists of about three minutes of Seraphine walking up a hill; and instead of being boring or distracting, the audience I was in were mesmerized, and, in many cases, crying. Seraphine is an extremely emotional film, due in large part the rich and tragic story and sublime acting. Though Moreau was the star, Tukur should be commended for his subtle performance. He may come across as emotionally stunted, but his ultimate gift to Seraphine is the greatest she could have received and you realize how deeply dedicated he really was to her. Though there were a few charming parts, Seraphine quickly punches you in the gut before you realize what is coming, and truly, the film is better because of it.

4 stars out of 5

Directors: Various
Countries: Various

(No stars will be attached to these, just mini-capsule reviews)

Please note - if you are interested in seeing any of these shorts, most of them are available on You Tube for viewing.

Rope a Dope
- Director: Laurent Briet
USA - 2008 - 6 min

A young girl has a "bring it on" moment, challenging a boxer to jump rope. This short was good, but not great. However, it was entertaining, flashy with quick editing and, for lack of a better word, "cute".

John and Karen - Director: Matthew Walker
UK - 2007 - 4 min

A polar bear awkwardly begs forgiveness from the girlfriend he wronged. And she's a petulant penguin. I loved this one. It was my favorite for Oscar contenders last year and it wasn't even a nominee, just on the short list. This humor in this one is purely visual, and probably a little abstract for a lot of audiences - only a few of us were laughing, but we were laughing HARD.

Short Term 12 - Director: Destin Cretton
USA - 2008 - 22 min

Counselors try to relate to and help institutionalized teens, while working on themselves. I thought this short was interesting, and actually I forgot that I was watching a short because there was a fairly full-bodied story and a lot of back story revealed through conversations and actions, without stooping to exposition.

The Herd - Director: Ken Wardrop
Ireland - 2008 - 4 min
Footage of a deer who suddenly begins to hang out with a big herd of cattle. Short and sweet, this certainly was the cutest of all of the films. Inter cut with short takes of interviews with the farmer who owns the cattle, along with his mother, the story turns hilarious when she is simultaneously telling the camera that her son wouldn't disturb the deer, while the son of course is saying he wouldn't think twice about getting rid of the deer if it got in the way. Cute, funny and pleasant.

Next Floor - Director: Denis Villeneuve
Canada - 2008 - 12 min

During an opulent dinner party, a table of gluttonous guests find themselves sinking lower and lower. The grotesque dinner guests attack their food like predatory animals and shovel it in like they are going to be hibernating, when suddenly the floor shakes and the they drop through the floor. After a moment to compose themselves (and get brushed off by the help) they continue their feast. This happens repeatedly, with the head waiter announcing "Next floor!" each time. The film is highly stylized, but I could relate to the opening and then closing shot of the film after a while; the shot was of the waiter just staring directly at the camera, and I felt the same, kind of like, "Ohhhkaaay..." Maybe I should attach a Dante's Inferno bent to it to make it more substantial, because whatever its aim, if there was one, I didn't get it.

Lies - Director: Jonas Odell
Sweden - 2008 - 14 min

Three stories of lies people tell: a con man, a drug-addicted mother trying to pass as "normal" and a boy who steals from his mother. Exquisitely animated, using silhouettes and avant garde graphics. I would have liked the short a lot more, I think, if the credits had not been white against a white background; I could barely read them and my Swedish is a little rusty. And by a little rusty I mean non-existent. This did provide an interesting perspective, however, because I was forced to only pay attention to the visual and I felt like I was watching a work of art; though I did feel like I missed out because the bits of the stories I was able to catch seemed interesting and I wanted to know more.

Princess Margaret Boulevard - Director: Kazik Radwanski
Canada - 2008 - 14 min

A woman defiantly confronts the frustration and confusion that are the effects of her Alzheimer's disease. Straight forward, interesting and sad, this film documents what is probably the last weeks she is going to spend on her own. There really isn't a lot to say about this one, but it is good.

Spider - Director: Nash Edgerton
Australia - 2007 - 9 min

A man takes the wrong approach to apologizing to his girlfriend for being immature. What can I say about this short? I don't even know how to describe it, other than as a cautionary tale about playing practical jokes. Easily my second favorite short, and it only reinforced my sense of humor is, when I found myself the only one laughing at one point, after a particularly shocking moment. Spider ends with such a shocking bang that the audience was both yelling various exclamations, like the one I was repeating, "Holy sh**!" and laughter and clapping. It was one hell of a way to close out the compilation, got people talking, and I promptly e-mailed everyone I knew to look it up on You Tube.

Director: Andy Bichlbaum & Mike Bonanno
USA - 2009 - English
Previous Screenings:
Sundance Film Festival 2009
Berlin International Film Festival 2009

The Yes Men are a group of activists who practice "identity correction" by a number of methods, but their most frequent and successful projects have involved creating fake Web sites for various companies who commit corporate or social wrongdoings on the public. They wait for an invitation from a speaker's bureau, convention or news program who have mistaken them for the real deal and then agree to speak, where they generally make ridiculous statements under the guise of being that company's high-level representative. They fool people more often than one would think, and the results are always entertaining. In The Yes Men Fix the World, the two prominent faces of the group, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (not believed to be their real names) take on Dow Chemical on the 20th anniversary of the atrocious chemical disaster in Bhopal, New Orleans and HUD after the Katrina disaster, and the New York Times.

This was one of the few films that I had on my list as a must-see since I have been a fan of this group after watching their first film, The Yes Men, made in 2003, where they engaged in similar activities, but with different companies. Personally, I find this kind of corporate espionage to be gratifying and entertaining. Their actions speak for themselves, and provide most of the humor in the film, but there were a few priceless moments, (one involving a Tom of Finland backdrop for a conservative pundit) that had me dizzy from laughter. Satire, when done well, is priceless. In order for it to be done well, there has to be a large amount of intellect injected into the mayhem. Sascha Baron Cohen has perfected his mixture of gross-out humor, social commentary and intelligence; The Yes Men have done the same in their milieu. While I was in tears laughing, I was also at times learning of atrocities I had never heard of, or had heard little of. The Yes Men aim to make a point, like Michael Moore aims to make a point, there are just two different approaches: one is heavy-handed, one is absurdist.

And let's not forget the set of iron balls on these guys. To stand in front of hundreds of people (and in the case of Dow Chemical, being filmed for an international audience of millions via BBC America television) and not only impersonate a high-ranking official of some sort, but then as Exxon, get people in their audience to hold lit candles while telling them that the candles were made of a substance they invented called "vivoleum" that was made of the people killed in Exxon chemical spills? I unabashedly love these guys, and I want people to see this film, even if it's just food for thought.

4 stars out of 5

Director: Nacho G. Velilla
Spain - 2008 - Spanish with English subtitles
Previous Screenings:
Palm Springs International Film Festival 2009
London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival 2009

When doing research about Chef's Special, I kept seeing thinly-veiled references to one of my most beloved directors, Pedro Almodovar, so I was eagerly anticipating this film. Unfortunately, I soon found that the only similarities I could find were the language and the two main actors, Almodovar staples. Chef's Special is the story Maxi (Javier Camara), a gay chef and restaurant owner, who finds himself precariously juggling work and a social life, with the delicate balance toppling once he receives custody of his two children, whom he has managed to avoid until now. To complicate matters, he finds himself in a love triangle between himself, his best friend Alex (Lola Duenas) and an internationally-known soccer player named Ramiro (Fernando Tejero) who happens to be closeted. All of this mayhem is occuring while the promise of a visit from an unannounced (but expected) Michelin Guide food critic, whose good review could guarantee the restaurant's success.

Even reading my summary, I find that this movie really should have worked, for many reasons. From my experience, Spanish directors can do comedy very well, and this, coupled with the fact that I'm a bit of a foodie, should have guaranteed at least some enjoyment. But alas, I found none. In fact, I saw this film after a long day at the Milwaukee Film Festival and was actually worried about watching the food on the screen, but it turned out that I needn't have worried since cooking had no place in this film, despite the theme, which was... interesting. The comedic elements were played as bad slapstick, and the plot was barely there, with actors emoting by widening their eyes and flailing their arms around. Most perplexing to me was that this film was sponsored by the local GLBT organization, whereas I found the constant "fag" jokes to be completely offensive, and neverending.

Truthfully, there isn't a lot for me to say about Chef's Special, because I can normally come up with coherent things to write when I'm given at least some kind of decent material to work with, even if it's substantive in a bad way; but Chef's Special was nothing more than a waste of my time, which is a real bummer, since I take every opportunity I can to pontificate on any kind of film, good or bad. Admitting that I'm not even able to talk about a film is probably the worst thing I can say about it.

When looking for a good Spanish film experience, watch Volver or Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and don't waste your time with this one.

1 out of 5 stars

Monday, October 5, 2009

Milwaukee Film Festival Day Three 9/26/09

Film #5 - The Beaches of Agnes
Film #6 - Art & Copy

*Movie reviews at the bottom of the post*

A relatively short day today - since Art & Copy put the kibosh on the mid-evening film I wanted to see, I'm just seeing two films today, with a full day ahead on Sunday. I'm really bummed because, while the last thing I should be thinking about is going to more movies, the Times Cinema is hosting the Manhattan Short Film Festival this weekend. Unfortunately, I've been looking forward to this event for several months now, and of course, voila, I can't go. Now I'm available tonight and they don't have a 9pm show. Grrr.

Sitting before the first film, The Beaches of Agnes, I am acutely aware of a couple of things: despite the relatively small crowd, there is another odor problem in the theater, and that perhaps the people in the aisle across from me should have invested less money on movie tickets and more on Lever 2000. (They've been very pleased to tell anyone in a 4 foot radius that they have purchased tickets to several movies!) Also, the enormous bowl of cereal I ate for breakfast in order to hold me over until the evening is kicking in and consequently I am starting to get drowsy... not good considering it's 2:30 pm. Damn you Cap'n Crunch!

Not exactly enamored with the film, I decided to treat myself to a soda to cheer myself up before the next movie, Art & Copy. So far, the highlight of my day had been watching two 12 year old boys giggling while they took pictures of the marquee reading "Jennifer's Bo" with their cell phones. The low point, even below the lackluster first film I'd seen, was that 3 minutes later, a grubby child with a death wish crashed into me and spilled orange soda all over my arm. Luckily, when I returned to the theater I was able to see that there was a huge line developing for the film, so I was going to be experiencing it with a good crowd. When I actually settled down in the theater I only had two complaints: the high school chick sitting in front of me who must have been there either on a dare or for extra credit who wouldn't put her phone away- (and of course, she was at the perfect angle where I was the only one who would be bothered by the constantly lit-up screen while she texted her little fingers off) -but this problem solved itself as a result of she and her friend leaving halfway through the film. (???) The other thing was a theme that I had noticed throughout the festival, that the presenters rarely, if ever, announced that there was going to be a short film preceding the feature. There will be more about notable events occurring as a result of keeping the audience in the dark about pre-features in future posts, but it would just be a good practice for the presenters to re-adopt because it just lead to confusion for the most part.

Director: Agnes Varda
France - 2008 - French with English subtitles
Previous Screenings:
Venice Film Festival 2008
Toronto International Film Festival 2008

The Beaches of Agnes is an autobiographical documentary of filmmaker Agnes Varda, a strong player in the French New Wave movement with films such as Cleo From 5 to 7 and The Creatures. Varda was heavily involved in film making and surrounded herself with other artists and filmmakers of the time (Alexander Calder was a friend) and was married to director Jacque Demy. (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg)

Knowing all of this, I went into the film excited to see what I thought would be a profile of a really interesting woman - I mean, this woman was a radical who directed a film about the Black Panthers in the 1960's that I studied in film school! - but instead it was a heady, hypnotic and surreal overview of Varda's life, directed by Varda herself. The conceit was, admittedly, an interesting one; Varda hired actors to stage several moments in her life, and she would film them, along with archival photographs and voice-over narration from Varda. Indeed, many of the people she worked with over the years did appear on screen, either via a current interview or historical footage, so we were able to hear from Godard, Piccoli and even Harrison Ford (??? I know.) but there was just something lacking for me.

The Beaches of Agnes is certainly imaginative, but I felt it was somewhat boring, probably because I am pretty straight forward when it comes to documentaries. Though creative, I looked hard to see a little more informative content rather than disparate scenes from Varda's life, and there were many times when I was unclear what was real and what was recreated, which admittedly may have been intentional. This is a Cesar-winning film, and I can see its value, and I know that it will appeal to a certain audience, but I wasn't in it.

2 stars out of 5

Director: Doug Pray
USA - 2008 - English
Previous Screenings:
Sundance Film Festival 2009
Seattle International Film Festival 2009

Art & Copy is an intensive study of the advertising industry and the minds behind some of the most famous ad campaigns in advertising history. Billed as a look at the "real Mad Men" of the business, the film is an exquisite behind the scenes look at this influential industry.

With Art & Copy, name the iconic ad and you will get the story behind it, and probably an interview (and, if you're lucky, a primer on how the creative process works) with the people who created it. Some of the visionaries featured are Lee Clow (Apple Computers' 1984 and the current iPod campaign), Dan Wieden (Nike's "Just Do It" campaign) and my personal favorite, George Lois (Tommy Hilfiger, among others). These men (and some women) exhibit incredible creativity, vision and foresight, and the net result is usually something incredibly simple like, "Got Milk?" that can make people slap their foreheads and wonder why they didn't think of it first.

Hearing the stories behind the ads is a wonderful thing to witness, and are at times funny and poignant. When discussing his inspiration behind the "Just Do It" campaign for Nike, Chow reveals that he actually heard about Gary Gilmore, who, while in the electric chair was asked for final words which were "Let's Do It", which obviously struck a nerve. Within the same campaign, while promoting women and girls in sports, the filmmakers played Nike's "If you let me play sports" commercial featuring young girls telling the camera the benefits of female sports participation, and there was barely a dry eye in the theater.

Personally, I would have found this film fascinating even if it weren't as well done based on my profession. Being in Marketing, I considered everything I was seeing as a learning experience and sage advice. One favorite tip: "I never work with a committee. People have a committee in the first place to share the blame." Though most of them have different personalities, most are colorful (especially Lois, who garnered the most laughs with his dark humor and sailor-like vocabulary) but all have the passion for their profession in common. Watching Art & Copy is a sublime experience, and in doing so, it partially follows a philosophy that is postulated during the film: It's not about the product, it's about people wanting to be part of the group that "gets it", whether it be humor or whatnot. In this case, the product was outstanding and I wanted to be part of their group.

4 1/2 stars out of 5

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Milwaukee Film Festival Day Two - 9/25/09

Film #2 - Reporter
Film #3 - Herb & Dorothy
Film #4 - We Live in Public

*Movie reviews at the bottom of the post*

Settling down for the second day of the film festival, I am acutely aware that while I am thankfully the only person in my mini-side row for "spreading out" purposes, it's probably best all around since I seem to have put on some stinky shoes today. I come to this realization about three minutes ago when I was detecting the slight odor of feet, and, after scoping out the empty rows around me, ascertained that the culprit were my trusty old deck shoes that apparently had been worn without socks for too many years. Suddenly, the conflict wasn't on screen, it was the unholy battle between feet and Chanel Chance perfume in a Spartan battle for dominance. With two movies to go after this one, the suspense was killing me which would win, and I was selfishly (or not, depending on how you look at it) hoping that I'd be given as wide a berth at the next two screenings, when I could fulfill my vow to go home and dig out my old, trusty (not stinky) Converse. (See a pattern here? I clearly haven't purchased shoes in years)

I was surprised at the crowd level for Reporter, because despite its early start time of 5:15 pm on a Friday, I thought that this film would be more of a draw; but only about 50 people attended the screening. Prior to the film was a short film called It's in the P-I which was a little confusing at first since it wasn't announced that there was going to be a pre-feature, something that was routinely done in the past. The short film centered around the closing of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and interviewed a few of the reporters who gave their side to the story and mainly conveyed that they had no idea this was going to hit them. Obviously, since one of the things I do is work with a newspaper that has seen its staff severely slashed and circulation reduced from a weekly to a monthly paper. However, beyond simply being a short, formative piece that probably made people aware, if they weren't already, I'm not sure what the point was and kind of was left with a "huh?" feeling.

The following screening was Herb and Dorothy, a film that was on my short list of must-sees. Sitting in anticipation of the film, my stinky shoes were masked by the smell of the Zaffiro's pizza people were bringing into the theater with them. It was hard to concentrate over my stomach growling, but I did notice that everyone coming in was apparently allergic to the front section of seats - not bad seats, I only don't sit there so no one will have to crawl over me, my notebooks and big old lady bag - because they were packing the upper section like sardines. Clearly, I have no shame because I'm trying to spread out across the four seats in my side row as much as possible, giving people a "trust me, I'm gross and rude and will not hesitate to elbow you the entire movie if I have to" look, which seemed to work.

The crowd was lively, applauding and cheering the festival and the sponsors, and somehow, above this noise I was able to hear two of the four church friends talking to each other. Continuing through the sponsor trailer, I was blessed with the knowledge of every mundane errand this woman had run prior to this very moment. When the conversation turned to gossiping about "Pastor Rick" I abruptly turned around to tell them to shut it, and was promptly met by a huge stomach and legs splayed out at eye level. I decided to let it go.... for now. I resolved one thing at that moment as I tried to scrub that image out of my memory with a series of rapid blinks and eye rubs: I sure would not feel guilty about crunching my ice - loudly - with those two clowns behind me. After another five minutes of writing mini-notes to myself and spreading myself across three seats to make myself look important and therefore carry on without asking to sit next to me, like, "I'm just writing to look important and in need of three seats now... carry on" (real note in my steno pad) the movie began, with at least 250 in attendance. As a post-script, the people in back of me finally shut up, other than to say once, "I just don't get that kind of art" which made me chuckle, and really happy in a super petty way because for some reason I really wanted her to be philistine, and she was.

The final screening of the evening was We Live in Public which I knew absolutely nothing about, I just thought the representative picture of it in the MFF program guide was striking. So for this shallow reason alone, I picked this film over Rumba which was playing in the next theater. So did everyone else, apparently, because there were maybe 30 people in the theater.

Meanwhile, after the obligatory bathroom break, shuffling back into the theater and acquiring my same seat (this seat will have my ass groove on it yet!) I seemed to be suffering from an onset of heat stroke (or menopause about 20 years early) or more likely, low blood sugar since it was 9:30 and I hadn't consumed anything since a crappy sammich at 11:30 am, but my face was on fire, I was sweating (I don't sweat!) and I could practically wring my hair out while I was putting it up in a big bun to get it off my neck. At this point, I was thinking, this movie better be interesting since I'm sitting here looking like John Candy in JFK and listening to some guy in the next row dressed in early 1990's couture discussing poetry readings.

One other note - never mind already knowing the order of the names during the sponsor trailer after four showings - but if you're going to sponsor something that is going to be announced at every single screening, you should probably tighten up the names a bit. Thank god for Bud & Suzanne Selig and their generous gift to Milwaukee Film, and I am irrationally attached to my "M." middle initial, but someone needs to give up a middle initial or "nickname" in the Allan H. "Bud" and Suzanne L. Selig Audience Award.

Director: Eric Danie Metzger
USA 2008 - 92 min
- English
Previous Screenings:
Hot Docs Film Festival 2009
Sundance Film Festival 2009

Reporter is a documentary that follows 2-time Pulitzer Prize The New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof as he searches for compelling stories to tell in some of the most politically volatile and violent countries throughout the world, including Afghanistan and Central Africa. Kristof, a Harvard educated intellectual, is tailor-made for his profession, having traveled to 140 countries and lived on four continents throughout his life. Kristof is credited, through his articles, with raising awareness about the plight in Darfur; a feat that landed him on The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert asking him in his farcical conservative way, "Why, as Americans, should we care about other people?"

Kristof found, through social studies, that when an average person looks at a picture of one starving child from Africa, there is an emotional response. However, when the average person is then presented with two pictures of starving children, their interest wanes. Kristof's challenge, when there's no evolutionary advantage to care about more than one person, is to make people aware of world crisis situations that involve millions, and therefore, based on this kind of study, deliberately attempts to find the most compelling, emotional, even horrifying story to offer his readers as a representative of the bigger picture; without blurring the line between investigative reporting and exploitation. According to Kristof, "That is my sad reality when I sit down to write a column. I always feel like I'm navigating a thin line."

We see this in action during the main thrust of the film, when he traveled to the Congo with an inner-city schoolteacher and a medical student looking for a story relating to the genocide in Rwanda. The danger is real; a journalist was shot and killed in the same town they were staying in only two days prior, and this is not lost on Kristof's "civilian" companions, who express both excitement and fear during this journey. While searching for his story among hundreds of desperate, violated and troubled people, Kristof not only becomes a savior figure to them, someone to whom they look for with hope for help with their individual situations, but Kristof sometimes has to question both the victims' and aggressors' accuracy when he talks to them. Regardless of what he sees and encounters, he is always looking for someone worse off, and he finds it in a dying woman who had been raped. At the medical student's behest, they rush her to the hospital, and Kristof realizes that he has his story.

I felt very conflicted watching this documentary because at times I found myself doing exactly what I was witnessing on the screen; despite the fact that people were crestfallen after he would leave in search for his next bigger, sadder story, I had to set aside my feelings of pity to remember that he is a journalist, and his job is to report the most effective story he can. Kristof is a humanitarian, or he could take his carte blanche status he has earned as a journalist and do other kinds of work, not using his medium as a platform for hundreds of thousands of people to read. All he can do is offer the story as best he can; whether people choose to care is not in his control. Reporter does not have any fancy elements, no quick edits or music montages. The camera trains on its subject and stays there, for better or worse. It is an effective film that focuses on the work of the journalists, and whatever emotional response one may have to the film is purely from the footage presented. This is a film about journalism, not the journalist. Reporter is compelling and thought-provoking, and I found that I was arguing with myself for most of the film and even for some time after.

3 1/2 stars out of 5

Director: Megumi Sasaki
2009 USA - 87 min - English
Previous Screenings:
Hamptons Film Festival 2008 - Award Winner
Silver Docs Film Festival - Award Winner

Herb & Dorothy is about the Vogels, a NYC couple who have been married for over 40 years and have amassed an art collection of more than 4,000 pieces of Minimalist and Conceptual Art. The extraordinary thing about this story is that the Vogels are not wealthy; they fostered their love of art by living on Dorothy's salary as a librarian, while purchasing pieces with Herb's salary as a 3rd shift mail sorter at the United States Post Office. The Vogels have simple guidelines when they purchase a piece: It had to be affordable, and it had to fit in their one bedroom Manhattan apartment. How it fit in the apartment was seriously left up to interpretation, as they had pieces everywhere and anywhere, but despite becoming shuttered in by their art, they continued to collect and love every piece they own.

Though their story is fascinating, the Vogels themselves are absolute gems. One would never know, unless you actually knew them that they were world-class art collectors, with their regular clothes, Dorothy's old digital watch, and their easy and straight-forward demeanor. When they married in the early 1960's, they went o the National Gallery of Art, and Dorothy did not have an interest in art, but Herb's passion for it was infectious and she soon learned to love it as much as he did. Herb states his passion in typically simple terms: "They're just beautiful, that's all. And beauty is enjoyment." For art lovers, myself being one of them, Herb & Dorothy is sublime. However, I believe it is actually more effective for those who have less exposure to art and art history because the way the Vogels describe their pieces is so loving, and they use such simple terms, that I couldn't help but believe that they make those who don't "get" Minimalism and Conceptualism see what "normal" people see in those pieces.

Herb & Dorothy features interviews with established artists like Chuck Close, Robert Mangold, Robert Barry and Christo & Jeanne-Claude, as well as up-and-coming artists, as they still continue to collect. To these artists,the Vogels didn't merely become their patrons, they became their friends. According to Chuck Close, "I always thought of them as the mascots of the art world." They received their first piece by Christo and Jeanne-Claude when, after approaching them and finding their price too high, the artists, knowing the Vogels are cat lovers, offered them artwork in exchange for their cat-sitting services while they installed the Valley Curtain in Colorado. These stories really brought an amazing depth to characters who are really just simple people.

The single most interesting and endearing element of this film are the Vogels themselves. They are both charming and funny, and though they frequently attend gallery exhibits (most week nights as a matter of fact), they are highly ranked members of "the art elite" without any of the pretense. There were many times that the audience laughed at their interactions with one another, because they are both self-deprecating (especially Herb) and humble, but above all, they love each other as much as their art. Herb & Dorothy is a must see film for those who appreciate art, but it is also a "should see" film for those who may have a passing interest in it because it - I believe unintentionally - Herb & Dorothy also serves as a primer for art movements that are some of the least understood, making them more accessible to the public; much like Herb & Dorothy made, and continue to make, their collection accessible to the public.

4 stars out of 5

Director: Ondi Timoner
2008 USA - 90 min - English
Previous Screenings:
New Directors/New Films Festival 2009
Hot Docs Film Festival 2009
Sundance Film Festival 2009
- Winner, Grand Jury Prize

We Live in Public documents the social experiments of Josh Harris, Internet visionary and former dot com millionaire, who predated You Tube by about 8 years when he began to broadcast himself and others 24 hours a day. Harris made his name in the technology industry by foreseeing trends in the Internet long before the Internet was fully formed. He created an instant message chat client and chat rooms for Prodigy, including adult themed chat rooms, which he eventually sold to them for 80 million. He also created an online television network that started out promisingly, but, like most of Harris' other ideas and experiments, became unhinged when he became increasingly unhinged, due in large part to a childhood and young adult life where he grew up with an apathetic mother who would simply put him in front of a television in order to entertain him. Harris grew up an apathetic figure himself, with almost sociopath tendencies, and when he made his money, he decided to take his ideas and create his social experiments.

The largest one was called "Quiet", which was an underground bunker in NYC which served as a full-service commune for 100 people. People were auditioned, put through a battery of tests and forced to divulge all of their personal information. The response was huge, and what the chosen 100 received was all of the food, alcohol, entertainment, alcohol and drugs they wanted, but they were taped 24 hours a day, including using the bathroom, showering, etc.; Harris owned the rights to the video to do what he wanted with it. What resulted was a pressure cooker of a environment, helped along by the natural hedonism, firing range with an arsenal of loaded weapons people could fire whenever they wanted, and mandatory "therapy sessions" conducted by a trained hostage interrogator who would use information that was disclosed in the vetting process to mess with their minds.

After this experiment, Harris decided to turn the cameras exclusively on himself and his girlfriend, and proceeded to wire his entire loft with motion sensitive cameras, and broadcast their lives 24/7 on the Internet, complete with a live chat capability, where the two of them could interact with online viewers. Inevitably, lines and boundaries get blurred, and not only are intimate moments such as arguments and their affection captured, but they would use the audience for things like finding their wallet, or keys, etc. An interesting endeavor, but of course, no one can easily hold up with that kind of scrutiny and both have to move on. Harris, an obviously flawed man, ends up foundering, even to this day.

We Live in Public was an interesting film, but it was a little like witnessing a freak show, because this level of exhibitionism is pretty crazy. There were a couple of things I learned after seeing this film, most notably, that if you have the hubris to put your entire life out there, people will watch, regardless of how uninteresting it may be. No, I'm not ignorant to the nearly decade-long obsession with reality television, I am simply looking at this in terms of the time period this took place, long before the You Tube revolution, Facebook and Myspace. We Live in Public is more of a sociological study than anything, and if you approach it from that perspective, then you may get something out of it. Otherwise, you merely become a voyeur, like so many were during this film, because there are no other substantive layers to the film.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars