Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Most Inspiring Films 2010!

The movie year started off sloooowly. There were few Hollywood films that I wanted to watch, much less review. Luckily for me, I had the Loft Cinema where I could enjoy enchanting foreign films and documentaries. Ah, the docs! Is is amazing how documentaries have come into their own – even being screened in mainstream theaters – as entertaining (sometimes more entertaining) than their narrative counterparts. Generally, I don't review docs, but some of my favorite films of the past year happen to be docs so I'm including them on, “Jana's Favorite Inspiring Films of 2010” list. And as long as I'm breaking my self-imposed rules, I'll throw in a couple of wonderful animated films as well. Enjoy!

Honorable Mention: In the delicious Italian treat, "Mid-August Lunch" the unemployed fifty-ish bachelor Gianni (Gianni Di Gregorio) shows respect for his ninety-something mother by taking good care of her and lovingly preparing their meals. The landlord is willing to forgive their growing dept if they take in his mother so he can get away for the Mid-August holiday. He drops off his mother AND his aunt. Soon their doctor's mother joins the mix. So Gianni must survive the weekend playing good host to four strong-willed shut-ins. What impressed me most was how he never loses his manners but treats these woman with the respect earned by those who have reached a certain age. This film illustrates the isolation that comes with aging and our continued need to socialize. There is an Italian saying, "A tavola no s'invecchia," that articulates the theme perfectly, "The passage of time is suspended with experiencing the pleasure of good food, good wine and company."

12. “Four Lions” – There aren't that many comedies about terrorists. But “Four Lions” boldly turns a hilariously dark parody about extremist values into a moving tale about the innate cluelessness of the human-race.

11. “Toy Story 3” - A touching, nostalgic adventure for adults who remember what it's like to be kids - through the eyes of their toys. Won Best Animated Film of the year.

10.“Afghan Star” – a documentary on Afghan's version of American Idol. After being suppressed by 30 years of war and Taliban rule, the Afghan people are finally able to gather around the one TV in the village and enjoy their favorite show. A female contestant risks her life for a greater cause – to share with her fellow countrymen the expression of the human spirit through dance.

9. Sci-Fi Meets Immigration Debate in the award winning indie, “Sleep Dealer.” Director Alex Rivera sets his tale in a third world country and a big city. When their water is taken by international corporations, the local people are forced into hard labor to survive. The clever executives have invented a way to exploit their labor from afar so they don't even have to see the workers in their neighborhoods. The worker is connected to a machine where he becomes a puppet master, his arm movement controlling the arm of a robot at a distant construction sight. Even their private memories are bought and sold for mass entertainment. A truly original slant on immigration issues.

8. “The Fighter” – is one film I wish I had reviewed when it came out. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but the fighting world was just so familiar and common. It didn't feel original. When his older brother fails to become the champ, the weight of the family is shifted to Micky's (Mark Wahlberg) shoulders. His fighting career becomes the family business with his drug addicted brother (Christian Bale) as his trainer and his over-bearing mother (Best Supporting Actress Melissa Leo) acting as manager. Christian Bale (Best Supporting Actor) and Melissa Leo gave Oscar winning performances in this Best Picture nominated film about overcoming personal adversity and the bonds of family.

7. “Lebanon” - When this came out, it was one of the best movies I'd seen in a looong time. It showed the confusion and human tragedy of war from the claustrophobic view of a tank soldier.

6. “Don't Let Me Drown” -(I also didn't get a chance to write a review of Cruz Angeles' Sundance indie because I was busy watching more films at the AIFF.) Two young people are brought together by the 9/11 tragedy that touched both of their families in this refreshingly real love story. It is good to see normal Bronx teens for a change rather then the juvenile delinquents commonly portrayed in movies. The filmmaker takes his time setting up their world so the audience becomes invested in what happens to these kids in this moving, touchingly funny coming of age film. The naturalistic acting enhances the experience.

5. “How to Train Your Dragon” – Spectacular scenery, thrilling flight and combat scenes. An inspiring tale of how one person can lead the way to positive change when the old ways don't work anymore.

4. “The King's Speech” - England is on the verge of the second World War and the newly appointed King (Colin Firth) must give a speech rallying the country. But before he can speak for the people, he must manage his own debilitating stammer. His Majesty must overcome his mistrust of his therapist (Geoffrey Rush) and grow to trust that he is the powerful leader the country needs. This story is about more than making "The King's Speech." It is about the making of a King. I recommend this Best Picture winner for it's clever writing and inspiring story, Colin's Firth's dynamic, Oscar winning performance and Geoffrey Rush's hilarious take on the eccentric therapist.

3. “Winter's Bone” – my favorite for Best Picture. When her father disappears after putting the family house and farm up for bail, sixteen year old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) must traverse the dangerous backwoods of the Ozarks to bring him back. “Winter's Bone” was filmed on location in the Ozarks giving it an authentic feel by using their music, language, and customs. Writer/director Debra Granik and writer Anne Rosellini gave us a strong teenage heroine who showed loyalty, determination and strength as she did what had to be done to protect her young siblings and taught them the necessary survival skills in case she failed.

2. From the trailer, “Big River Man" appears to be a entertaining character study of an overweight Slovenian endurance swimmer in his fifties who drinks two bottles of red wine a day even when swimming. In 2007 Martin Strel began an insane attempt to be the first person to swim the entire length of the world's most dangerous river, the Amazon, supposedly to create an awareness of our polluted rivers. But his real driving force seems to be the pursuit of fame. When the river starts affecting his physical and mental health, we see that something else is driving him – a mystical quest for unity and mastery over nature. Don't let the trailer fool you. This is one of the most compelling, moving docs ever. Hilarious, disturbing, powerful.

1. My favorite film of the year was, “Even the Rain.” I was so moved by this picture that I stayed for a second screening. A production crew has come to Bolivia to shoot the story of how Columbus conquered the new world by suppressing and enslaving the indigenous people. Ironically, the crew is there to get cheap labor by exploiting the indigenous people to work as extras for $2 a day (and also have them build the sets). So they are actually exploiting the descendants of the very people the Spaniards exploited. During the filming, Spanish decedents are still suppressing the indigenous people by taking their most precious resource – their water supply. The director unknowingly casts a charismatic, outspoken local to play one of the natives - who turns out to be the leader of the water protests. As a filmmaker, I was inspired by the attention to detail that the fictional as well as the real director, Icíar Bollaín, gave to the Spanish and Inca history. And I find it admirable that despite having the scope and feel of a Hollywood epic, director Bollaín chose to tell this story in Spanish – accentuating Spanish responsibility in suppressing the Incas. Whew! I love this film!

Perusing this list, I can see that 2010 was great year for film.

Movie Blessings from 2010!

Jana Segal

Friday, July 08, 2011


guest reviewer Chuck Graham, TUCSONSTAGE.COM

Watching “Queen To Play” is a lovely way to sink into the comforting darkness of the Loft Cinema, 3233 E. Speedway Blvd., in the reassuring company of intelligent friends to enjoy an adult fairy tale of life’s possibilities in middle age.

While it is annoying enough that the boomer generation has forced the indulgence of its life cycle on all of us -- from the discovery of sex to the fear of dementia – there are certain unique opportunities during one’s 40s and 50s that don’t occur at any other time in life.

The children are grown, one’s own economic level is defined, daily routines are well established. As the days seem to speed up in their determination to push us toward old age even faster, a new spark of resistance is struck…one much like the teenager’s first resistance to authority.

Adding urgency is the conviction this could well be the last chance to strike out on a new, potentially life-changing, adventure. American movie makers will no doubt fill their movies for this middle-aged market with lots of screaming digital special effects thumbing their collective noses at AARP.

Queen To Play” is a French film much more gracious than that. Sandrine Bonnaire as Helene begins her story as a responsible maid at a family hotel in sunny Corsica. Her life is set. There isn’t much money, but her husband is handsome, hardworking and loyal. Her 15-year-old daughter is prickly, but she doesn’t have any tattoos. Yet.

Upon arriving at work one lovely morning, Helene is invited to clean the room of a couple out on the balcony enjoying a game of chess and very much enjoying each other. Their lives seem so magical to Helene. In one moment she realizes how the chains of routine and the obligations of necessity have combined to lock her into the cell of compromise, denied forever any opportunity to enjoy any fuller use of her personality.

The shock is palpable. When Helene later discovers the lovely woman has accidentally left her silk dressing gown behind, Helene takes it home. She also buys her husband Ange (Francis Renaud) an electronic chess set for his upcoming birthday.

Ange quickly rejects any interest in learning to play chess. In the middle of the night Helene is reading the instruction book and playing a solo game against the electronic chessboard.

Awhile later, while cleaning the home of the perpetually grumpy and retired Dr. Kroger (Kevin Kline, always speaking French), Helene discovers his chess board. Drawing on all the courage she can muster, Helene asks if Dr. Kroger will teach her to play, in return for free housekeeping services.

Dr. Kroger may be living more comfortably, but his life does seem empty. Yet, he is not a philandering man. In his life, propriety is king. For Helene, chess is queen – for she is fascinated by a game where the king’s mate has the most power.

The enjoyment in “Queen To Play” is in finding so many delicate layers of possibility within the story. As the doctor teaches the student, she quickly discovers a natural aptitude for the game. The more quickly she learns, the more he admires her.

The more he admires her, the more she feels ignored by her husband Ange and unappreciated by her daughter Maria (Valerie Lagrange). Gently we are brought to see in their story how easily the daily life we make more or less by accident and coincidence becomes hardened into the life we cannot change.

It is Dr. Kroger who suggests Helene enter an upcoming chess tournament. She has become the better player, so he will become her trainer, sharpening her skills to win.

Helene’s toughest battle is at home, where husband and daughter selfishly don’t want their wife/mom to get so distracted from taking care of their own personal needs.

There is more to the plot, but this is not a plot-driven film. The enjoyment is in the portrayal of the changing relationships, and the layers of implication in each change. Nicely enough, “Queen To Play” is slowly paced with plenty of time for reflection on all these changes.

In French, with subtitles.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

"Bill Cunningham New York"

It's already been a long, hot summer in Tucson, AZ. It's 110 outside and I'm dying to get into an air-conditioned theater. I scroll down the movie listings. Nothing but a bunch of unimaginative, dried up remakes (some of which you couldn't pay me to see in the original version) and a dumbed-down romantic comedy that I've already seen.

Thank Heavens for my oasis in the desert. During Hollywood's intellectual and emotional drought, the Loft Cinema offered a stream of refreshing foreign dramas, thrillers and comedies. And when I had seen all of those, there were the documentaries. Watching documentaries is a fairly new theater experience for me. When I thought of documentaries, I thought of dry educational programs. But a new kind of doc has emerged - quenching my thirst for fascinating characters and compelling storytelling. One such documentary is, "Bill Cunningham New York."

While watching the trailer, I knew I was in for a good time when Vogue editor Anna Wintour (made infamous by, The Devil Wears Prada) quips, "We all get dressed for Bill." The trailer is full of testimonials from fashion icons and socialites on photographer Bill Cunningham - the schwinn-riding octogenarian who weaves through Manhattan traffic trying to capture the latest "street style" fashions. Cunningham obsessively documents fashion trends and society charity events for the style section of the Times. I didn't expect much more than a interesting character study, a love letter to NY, or a tribute to a by-gone era of high society. But it was more than that. It was one of the most inspiring films of the year.

Bill Cunningham. This man lives his passion. He initiated the concept of "street style" when he started snapping flower children's threads in the sixties and went on to document emerging street trends through the decades. In his column, Bill presents the definitive fashion show taken right, "On the Street." His meticulously arranged fashion layouts can be read like a thesis in urban anthropology expressing the styles of the times. And in his show, everyone one is treated equal - from societies' grande dames to colorful eccentrics. The only thing that matters is fashion.

This is a man who unapologetically lives life on his own terms. He lives fashion. He sleeps in a tiny studio, his bed squeezed in between file cabinets full of every photo he ever took. He even refused payment for his moon-lighting magazine gig so he wouldn't have to take orders from anyone or "sell out" his vision. He doesn't do it for prestige, money or fame. (He is notoriously camera shy.) He does it for the beauty of the art. On one of the rare occasions where he agreed to accept an award, he tearfully gushed, "You can find beauty if you look for it!"

I found beauty here.

If you love NY, you won't want to miss it.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal