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Woodstock Film Festival 

Last Updated: 08/13/2013 3:57 pm
Web site bonus section – Woodstock Film Festival 2009 Preview:
Now that corporations run most studios and the recession has diminished the power of indie companies, some of the most honest films being made these days never reach commercial screens.

The equation goes like this: The more unsettling a film, the more truthful a documentary, the more a work takes to task corporate America, the less likely it will be seen in moviehouses. (The number of independent film houses is shrinking, and not everybody has Michael Moore’s clout.) American and foreign film festivals, the Sundance Channel and the Internet may be the only venues for these innovative, fearless films shut out of the mainstream game.

After watching 27 documentaries and narrative films for my Woodstock Film Festival preview, one would think my senses had been irrevocably dulled by the sheer sensory overload. Au contraire; marathon movie-watching actually sharpens the critical skills and makes it easier to distinguish the crowd-pleasers from the challenging pieces, and separating the efforts of a poseur from a true work of art.

While less than a quarter of the WFF 2009 films were made available to me by press time, I cite these films as the best in the categories of documentary and narrative works. If I seem overly effusive in my assessments, that is no mistake; these films easily stand apart from the pack. Make both of them a priority when you buy your festival tickets.

Jay's Pick: Best Narrative Film


Children of Invention (Writer-Director Tze Chun)

Lower-class poverty is comforting; we can cluck our tongues and explain away the circumstances that land a struggling blue-collar worker in the gutter or a homeless shelter. Blame is passed around and token efforts made to address the matter. But in our current recession, the issue of middle-class poverty and homelessness is a growing matter. If you aren’t vulnerable to insulin shock, you can view the issue of middle-class poverty in the Will Smith vehicle The Pursuit of Happyness. But for a more honest, more compelling take on the matter, see Children of Invention. Tze Chun not only delivers a harrowing and honest take on this growing problem, but he does so through the eyes of a Chinese immigrant. Elaine Cheng (Cindy Cheung), a divorced woman from Hong Kong, has moved to the Boston suburb of Quincy with her two kids Raymond (Michael Chen, interviewed in our March issue) and Tina (Crystal Chiu). When her husband stops child support, even Elaine’s efforts as a real estate agent can’t stop them from losing their house. Eager for work, Elaine gets caught up in a marketing scheme that sets into motion a series of heartbreaking dilemmas. Director Tze Chun is a marvel at capturing the humanistic facets of the situation, while also touching on devastating truths about prejudice, modern business, American assimilation, family allegiances and the resourcefulness of children. Even cameo characters exude a backstory that suggests we have stumbled onto fully-lived lives. Every actor, from lead to ensemble character, infuses his role with an honesty that is rare and refreshing. Unlike Happyness’s Jaden Smith, Chen and Chiu have not been directed for maximum cuteness; their performances are subtle, nuanced and unsettling in their depth for children so young. They serve as a perfect complement to Cheung, who delivers a powerful, naturalistic portrait. Heartbreaking but life-affirming, and suggesting a documentary more than fiction, Children of Invention is the best of the WFF narrative films I have screened.

Jay's Pick Best Documentary Film:


October Country (Co-Directors Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher)

The family we meet in this heartfelt, heartrending documentary usually visit our lives through television: exploitative talk shows, the reality show Cops or one of the endless series of “true” courtroom afternoon programs. In those settings, the people are presented as crude, clueless Americans, lacking a moral compass and forever mired in unemployment, financial crises, teenage motherhood. The Mosher family of Herkimer, New York, certainly bear all of those problems and more. But to a person, they are incredibly clear-eyed about their problems, employing a merciless self-awareness and a rough-hewn eloquence that will tear through your soul. Matriarch Dottie watches helplessly as her daughter and grandchildren repeat the same life patterns involving lack of judgment, aggravated by social circumstances in this Mohawk Valley town. Donal Mosher, who first documented his family in a book of essays and photographs, coaxes his relatives to a level of candor that will haunt the viewer for days to come. Unilke the TV shows that use these people as fodder, not a whiff of condescension taints these cinematic portraits. The directors spent a year following the family as they struggle through a variety of social ills that are part and parcel of life in this area: domestic abuse, unmoored relationships, job challenges, teenage marriage, child abuse, petty crime and limited life options. But the Mosher family also withstands easy categorizing and dismissal. Grandfather Don appears to be a typical taciturn man of his generation, gruff and stand-offish. But as the film proceeds, his walls fall and we meet a veteran of Vietnam and Desert Storm who has had the humanity crushed from his mind and body. When Don regards the disintegration of his troubled family, his understated observations are both merciless and spot-on. Among them: “We wouldn’t know normal if it fell on us.” The most astounding aspect of this portrait is not that the Moshers exist, but rather how many millions of Americans today claim similar struggles. Lacerating in its honesty but also sadly poetic, October Country is America unvarnished and the best of the WFF documentary films I have screened.



NARRATIVE FILMS

Against the Current (Dir. Peter Callahan)
See interview with director


Dear Lemon Lima (Dir. Suzi Yoonessi)
Vanessa may have “flawless bone structure and undeniable charm,” as her preppie-cute but smarmy ex-boyfriend Philip observes, but those are hardly effective weapons against the everyday indignities of prep school when you’re the new girl—and enrolled on scholarship for being half-Eskimo. Shot in Fairbanks, Alaska, Lemon Lima is a spiritual cousin to Napoleon Dynamite and Welcome to the Dollhouse in tallying the so-hurtful-it’s-funny challenges of adolescence. Director-writer Yoonessi has a keen eye for the absurd in this (sometimes overly) quirky tale of underdogs, abetted by a strong ensemble cast of deadpan kids and whimsical animation segments. Ulster County resident Melissa Leo produced, and appears as a starchy religious neighbor.

The Eclipse (Dir. Conor McPherson)
As a handler at the Cobh Literary Festival in County Cork, Ireland, Michael Farr (Ciairin Hinds) must ferry around bestselling writers including the arrogant Nicholas Holden (Ulster County resident Aidan Quinn) and the beguiling gothic author Lena Morrell (Iben Hjejle). When Farr experiences spectral visitations, he turns to Morrell for guidance—and soon, for much more. Part horror story, part romantic drama, The Eclipse, directed by award-winning playwright McPherson (The Weir, Shining City) is densely packed with extraneous subplots, but strong performances and luminous cinematography will keep you intrigued.

The 4th of July Parade (Dir. Miranda Rhyne)
A haunting short film about a woman leaving her husband, their young daughter in tow, Parade doesn’t offer facile psychology in explaining the mother’s motivations or her meltdown. Shot in northern Ulster County in vivid tones by David Woolner, the film unfurls with a growing sense of dread that offsets the woodland scenery. Billie Andersson plays the aimless woman with a fractured panic, complemented by wide-eyed, eerily beautiful Kearsten Powers as the daughter. Revelatory and heartbreaking.

Harlem Aria (Dir. William Jennings)
Anton (Gabriel Casseus) wants to be an opera singer, an aspiration that draws sneers in his native Harlem. (Has nobody ever heard of Paul Robeson?) Undaunted, he sings arias in his bedroom while surly neighbors drown him out with hip-hop. Anton ends up singing for coins in the park where he falls under the influence of Wesley, a conniving homeless man (played with outrageous and obscene humor by film producer Damon Wayans). Whacky goings-on ensue. An urban fairy tale with a big heart, this feature was completed in 1999.

Knife Point (Dir. Carlos Mirabella-Davis)
This NYU Film School graduation project by Mirabella-Davis suggests a combination of the neo-noir dialogue of John Dahl and the hypnotic imagery of early David Lynch. A landscaper down on his luck (Lev Gorn) meets up with an evangelical family on the road. Cinematographer Chris Dapkins has a gift for unsettling, fetishistic imagery. He and Mirabella-Davis are two looming talents to watch for.

Love and Roadkill (Dir. John David Allen)
This short film ably interweaves the class war between urban weekenders and locals with a quick lesson in metaphysics. A wry two-hander, starring Madeline Potter as the fatuous Manhattanite and Bill Camp as a local laborer. Shot in Columbia County and executive produced by arthouse legend James Ivory.

The Messenger (Dir. Oren Moverman)
See interview with director

Ricky (Dir. Francois Ozon)
Audacious Ozon has distinguished himself internationally with fearless takes on sexuality and peerless empathy for female characters. Katie (Alexandra Lamy) joins his gallery of resilient, if errant, women. Her lusty romance with fellow factory worker Paco (Sergei Lopez) quickly settles into a stagnant domestic scene, but their new baby is anything but ordinary: Ricky has wings and Katie scrambles to keep the secret. Whether a parable on xenophobia, a fable of motherhood, or a satire on modern media, the film is alternately touching and grotesque. It may not ever gel, but Ozon flawed still outpaces most directors.


Stooge (Dir. Mickey Breitenstein)
A trio of foul-mouthed buddies expresses wonder as to why infidelity still puts women’s knickers in a twist. The dialogue suggests playwrights Mamet and Labute, yet the story ends too abruptly and warrants a fleshed-out redux.

White on Rice (Dir. Dave Boyle)
This loopy comedy has everything going for it: a nimble multicultural cast, an absurdist storyline and a sad-sack protagonist in the form of Hiroshi Watanabe as Hajime/Jimmy, a Japanese émigré who camps out with his Americanized sister in Salt Lake City to dull the pain of his own recent divorce. “My brother-in-law thinks I’m retarded,” he complains to coworkers, who are inclined to agree as Hajime fumbles every blind date that comes his way. Cowriters Joel Clark and Boyle have created a marvelous confection and Watanabe suggests Chaplin, Peter Sellers, and a bearable Adam Sandler. A winner.

DOCUMENTARIES

After the Storm (Dir. Hilla Medalia)
This film possess as much heart as Every Little Step, the smashing Adam Del Deo-James D. Stern doc about A Chorus Line. But After the Storm deals with higher stakes than mere show-biz aspirations; it’s about survival. A group of New York musical theatre veterans—James Lecesne, Randy Redd, and Gerry McIntyre—comes to New Orleans in 2007 to mount a production of “Once on This Island” to raise money to rebuild the St. Mark’s Youth Center. (The award-winning musical deals with a hurricane, and the producers cast school kids who are Katrina survivors.) During six weeks of rehearsals, we learn how these talented young people are rebuilding their lives. When your tears flow, they will do so deservedly.

Convention (Dir. A.J. Schnack)
This momentous achievement joins The Maysles Brothers’ 1960 classic Primary in the canon of films that dissect and illuminate the American electoral system. Certainly not a cinema verite work, Convention is the hyper-kinetic distillation of the work of 11 filmmakers under director Schnack who ceaselessly roved the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver. The film pokes fun at the sometimes-clueless city officials who must cope with the mammoth event that drops into their backyard, the newspaper reporters on assignment and the diehard lefties intent on protesting. Sometimes cynical—the film shows martial law imposed on the city in the name of democracy—Convention ultimately betrays its own foggy-eyed joy when Obama is nominated. A stirring, fascinating look at the political process and required viewing for all school children.



Music We Are (Dir. Mirav Ozeri)
You have a soundboard seat as jazz avatars Jack DeJohnette, Danilo Perez, and John Patitucci mix it up at NRS Recording Studios in Catskill. While the creative process is never orally articulated to the point of demystification, you can watch the give and take of the musicians as they run through original compositions—“Tango Africa,” “Ode to MJQ,” and “Cahilo” among others—on piano, bass and drums. The mutual support and respect are undeniable.


Racing Dreams (Dir. Marshall Curry)
While the film’s title is a nervy nod to the sweeping Hoop Dreams, Curry’s hubris is warranted; his portrait of three go-kart drivers—Brandon Warren, 13; Annabeth Barnes, 11; and Josh Hobson, 12—exhaustively captures the sport as well as the drama of their personal lives by following the trio over many, many months as they grow from novices to top-seed competitors. Racing Dreams emerges as an indelible portrait of Middle America, including broken families, chronic poverty, drug addiction, and the dreams concocted and pursued out of necessity as an escape. Exhilarating and sobering.


The Tiger Next Door (Dir. Camilla Calamandrei)
How many of us didn’t feel a twinge of schadenfreude when Grizzly Man Timothy Treadwell ended up inside one of his so-called ursine pals in Herzog’s 2005 doc? Enter longhaired eccentric Dennis Hill who purports to understand tigers better than anyone else; he keeps 26 of them—as well as black bears and lemurs—in inadequate, rickety cages on the property of his Flat Rock, Indiana home. He sells some to circuses, others for Las Vegas spectacles. When the government steps in to cite him for violations, Hill must find homes for most of his animals. Hoarder or humanitarian? In this Animal Planet-produced film, a troubling portrait emerges but director Calamandrei’s even-handed treatment does not condemn even as it asks tough questions.


Time of Their Lives (Dir. Jocelyn Commack)
“Old age is no place for sissies,” warned actress Bette Davis, and these members of a residential home for the elderly in Northern London live her maxim daily. Writers, activists and philosophers of a certain age, these women remain cerebrally vibrant, even as their bodies fail them. With undimmed acuity and a surfeit of opinions, they hold forth on religion, love, incest and, understandably, the possibility of an afterlife. Hetty Bower, 102, an anti-war marcher since the late 20s, predicts the end of the Iraqi occupation, explaining, “If I haven’t lost hope in a hundred years, you mustn’t lose hope.” A giddy affirmation of life with more than a dose of bittersweet.

Trimpin: The Sound of Invention (Dir. Peter Esmonde)
The wild look in his eye and his tangled coiffure would more than qualify Gerhard Trimpin for mad genius, but the Seattle-based artist has spent his life creating high-tech gadgets that combine music and physics—recalling the beloved cuckoo clocks of his Schwarzvald childhood. One can only watch in slack-jawed admiration as he explains his inspirations, demonstrates inventions, builds artistic installations and works on a performance piece with Kronos Quartet. A beguiling profile of a man of playful greatness.

William Kuntsler: Disturbing the Universe (Dir: Sarah and Emily Kuntsler)
What starts as a “Daddy Dearest” rant against the man who was more adept at being a leftie attorney than a father, this film shakes off the initial bile to become a gripping account of the seminal events of the ‘60s and ‘70s—the Chicago ’68 Riots, Attica, Wounded Knee—in which Kuntsler participated. Yet his offspring do not shy from the glaring contradictions in his life: a suburban Westchester life and the quick embrace of the counterculture, culminating in a shift in ideals during the 90s when Kuntsler defended a series of political assassins, rapists and cop-killers. Even dear friends have mixed feelings. One describes him as “a silver-tongued trickster, a Pied Piper,” while another observes, “A lot of times, fame was his motivation.” Bearing witness are Father Daniel Berrigan, Tom Hayden, Bobby Seale, Phil Donahue, and a Chicago 7 trial juror. A loving but clear-eyed portrait of a complicated hero and the equally complicated era in which he thrived.

Without a Home (Dir. Rachel Fleischer)
More of a video diary than a documentary, Without a Home records the director’s ongoing efforts to help a number of street people she encounters in her treks across Los Angeles. Those who consider homelessness a self-inflicted wound or alternately a failure of the system will find adequate evidence for both beliefs in this film: The people are either substance abusers, mentally ill or recession victims. Fleischer emerges as a bleeding heart that gets in over her head in trying to help these people, thus raising thorny ethical issues about her role as an impartial filmmaker. But her tenacity in telling these stories, most irrevocably tragic, makes Without a Home a powerful document of an unresolved American social phenomenon.

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