Thursday, February 25, 2010

Toe to Toe

Opening in New York at the Village East Cinema: Toe to Toe, directed by Emily Abt

Emily Abt's emotionally powerful feature, Toe To Toe, tells the story of a love/hate relationship between lacrosse mates Tosha and Jesse, two senior girls at a competitive Washington, D.C., prep school. Tosha is a fiercely determined African American scholarship student from Anacostia, one of Washington's poorest areas, while Jesse is a privileged, but troubled, white girl from Bethesda, who deals with promiscuous tendencies that pull her toward self-destruction. The two forge a close and genuine friendship on the field, but that bond is tested when the obstacles presented by societal circumstances threaten to tear them apart. Abt draws penetrating performances from bright, young talents Louisa Krause (Jesse) and Sonequa Martin (Tosha). Together they craft a complex story rich with nuance and authenticity, avoiding predictability and challenging tired racial narratives. Inspired by the disturbing fact that interracial friendships end at age 14 for 87 percent of American teenagers, Toe To Toe is a powerful reminder of the transforming power of honesty and the way that those who test us often make us better.

Prodigal Sons

Opening in New York at the Cinema Village this weekend: Prodigal Sons, directed by Kimberly Reed

Synopsis (and review snippets) from the film's website:

Returning home to a small town in Montana for her high school reunion, filmmaker Kimberly Reed hopes for reconciliation with her long-estranged adopted brother, Marc. But along the way she uncovers stunning revelations, including a surprise relationship to Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, intense sibling rivalries and unforeseeable twists of plot and gender that force them to face challenges no one could imagine.

Winner of the FIPRESCI Prize at the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival, Best Documentary Jury Prize at NewFest, and Special Jury Prizes for Fearless Filmmaking at the Florida Film Festival and Bravery in Storytelling at the Nashville Film Festival, Prodigal Sons is a raw and provocative examination of one family’s struggle to come to terms with its past and present.

Filmmaker Kimberly Reed dives headfirst into an unflinching portrait of her family that is absolutely engrossing and marks her coming-out, in more ways than one. Returning home to a small town in Montana for her high school reunion, Reed hopes for reconciliation with her long-estranged adopted brother. But along the way Prodigal Sons uncovers stunning revelations, including a blood relationship with Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, intense sibling rivalries and unforeseeable twists of plot and gender. Reed's rare access delicately reveals not only the family's most private moments, but also an epic scope as the film travels from Montana to Croatia, from jail cell to football field, from deaths to births. Kim Reed’s compassionate vérité style of filmmaking captures the lives of her family in such an organic way that their exceptional and challenging stories puncture the surface of our expectations. Questions of sexual orientation, identity, severe trauma and family love are effortlessly explored as the subjects freely open up their lives to the camera. Raw, emotional and provocative, Prodigal Sons offers a moving, illuminating examination of one family’s struggle to come to terms with its past and present. It's sure to open both your mind and your heart.

—Shaz Bennett, Director of Programming, AFI Film Festival

Kimberly Reed, a magazine editor, goes home to Helena, Montana for her 20-year high-school reunion and a fence-mending mission with her resentful adopted brother Marc. I’d tell you what follows, but that would ruin one of the chief pleasure of Reed’s astounding family memoir—that of never having a clue what might come next. The twists and turns of her story, from gender bending to ancestral history, are flabbergasting but never exploitative: instead of a Tarnation-style look-at-me geekshow, she uses her candid, sometimes bruising footage with scrupulous concern for all, treating everyone as people first and material second. Still, I’d love to be at every screening the moment we learn who Marc’s grandparents are. (The title font is a clue.) Reed will attend, in what should be the Q&A of the festival.

—Jim Ridley, Managing Editor, Nashville Scene

Strange Powers

Showing at SXSW: Strange Powers, directed by Kerthy Fix and Gail O'Hara

Can't wait until this comes out, as this is one of my favorite bands...

Synopsis from the movie's website:

Ten years in the making, Strange Powers is an intimate documentary portrait of songwriter Stephin Merritt and his band the Magnetic Fields.

With his unique gift for memorable melodies, lovelorn lyrics and wry musical stylings that blend classic Tin Pan Alley with modern sounds, Stephin Merritt has distinguished himself as one of contemporary pop’s most beloved and influential artists. Both a prolific recording artist and composer of theater and film scores, he performs most famously as the Magnetic Fields, whose 1999 three-disc opus 69 Love Songs is widely considered a masterpiece of traditional songcraft and irresistible synthpop.

Strange Powers explores Merritt’s songwriting and recording process, and focuses on his relationships with his bandmates and longtime manager Claudia Gonson, revealing an artist who has produced one of the most engaging and confounding bodies of work in the contemporary American songbook.

And the (fantastic) eponymous song:

World's Largest

Showing at SXSW: World's Largest, directed by Amy Elliott and Elizabeth Donius

Synopsis from the movie's website:

Desperate for tourism, hundreds of small towns across the U.S.A. claim the "world's largest" something from 15-foot fiberglass strawberries to 40-foot concrete pheasants. Odd, funny and sometimes beautiful, the statues stand as testaments to the uniqueness and importance—the largeness—that all people feel, and need to feel, about their communities and their own existence. World's Largest, a feature documentary, visits 58 such sites and profiles Soap Lake, Washington's four-year struggle to build the World's Largest Lava Lamp. By documenting these roadside attractions, World's Largest captures the changing landscape of small-town America.

Passenger Pigeons

Showing at SXSW: Passenger Pigeons, directed by Martha Stephens

Synopsis from the film's website:

Set among the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky, Passenger Pigeons is a story about finding hope and beauty in the dark hills of Appalachia. The film quietly interweaves four separate story lines over the course of a weekend as the town copes with the death of a local miner.

When his brother dies in a mining accident, Moses drives across country to bury him. He spends his weekend aimlessly wandering around the town he tried to forget, while reconnecting with his sister in-law and young nephew.

Buck and Nolan, two suits from the coal company, arrive in town to oversee the mine inspections. On the eve of his retirement, Buck trains his replacement, Nolan, on the ins and outs of the coal business. After a mix up with the motel reservations, the odd couple find themselves out of their element, camping in the woods.

With the mines shut down and the effects looming over, two young lovers, Elva and Jesse, go on a "vacation" a few counties away. Trying to forget the endless tragedy that comes with working in the mines, Jesse seeks escapism while Elva can only think of the dangerous possibilities if Jesse returns to work.

When a mountaintop removal protest gets canceled, a young activist from Washington, D.C. takes it upon herself to spread the message around town. Finding her attempts to explain the dangers of surface mining to be a lost cause, Robin is surprised when a retired miner takes an interest in what she has to say.

Themes such as mountaintop removal, pride, fatalism, and wariness of the outside coming in are delicately used to portray life in modern Appalachia.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Parking Lot Movie

Showing at SXSW: The Parking Lot Movie, directed by Meghan Eckman

Synopsis from the movie's website:

The Parking Lot Movie is a documentary about a singular parking lot in Charlottesville, Virginia and the select group of Parking Lot Attendants that inhabit its microcosm. The Attendants are a uniquely varied group of men comprised of both undergraduate and graduate students, philosophers, intellectuals, musicians, artists, and marginal-type characters.

Three years in the making, this documentary is a strange rite of passage for all involved. Themes receiving daily scrutiny and detailing include cars and license plates, capitalism, anger, justice, drunkenness, spiritual awareness, class struggle, entitlement, and working in the Service Sector. These all mesh together in the orbit of the Parking Lot Attendant.

For these denizens of Charlottesville, Virginia, the intersection between the status quo and the quest for freedom becomes the challenge. Something as simple as a parking lot becomes an emotional weigh station for The American Dream. As one Attendant interestingly puts it, “We had it all in a world that had nothing to offer us.”

Les Signes Vitaux

Showing at SXSW: Vital SignsLes Signes Vitaux, directed by Sophie Deraspe

Synopsis from the film's website:

Simone has been drifting through life as if missing something important, cut from her roots. Triggered by the death of a family member she embarks on a singular journey of helping people who are about to die. The dying have nothing to lose and need lasting moments of intimacy that Simone finds herself willing to give at no cost.

But Boris won’t let her get away with it quite that easily. He realizes how well she hides behind those intense but short-lived relationships with the soon to be dead. He won’t hesitate to provoke her in a violent burst. The defeat of self-sufficiency opens to forgiveness and the need of others. From then on she will accept his part in what makes her complete.

Through the dying we learn to laugh, admire and find a profound trust in life.

With this second feature film, Sophie Deraspe explores our relationship to the body, a map of our lifelong scabs, scars and beauty. It offers up an experience for the senses through its fine yet unsettlingly realistic photography, a strong soundtrack and an extraordinary cast that introduces singularly graceful Marie-Hélène Bellavance to a cinematic audience.

War Don Don

Showing at SXSW: War Don Don, directed by Rebecca Richman Cohen

Synopsis from the film's website:

In the heart of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, United Nations soldiers guard a heavily fortified building known as the “special court.” Inside, Issa Sesay awaits his trial.

Prosecutors say Sesay is a war criminal, guilty of crimes against humanity. His defenders say he is a reluctant fighter who played a crucial role in bringing peace to the country.

War Don Don tells the story of a sensational trial with unprecedented access to prosecutors,
defense attorneys, victims and, from behind bars, Sesay himself.

In Krio, war don don means “the war is over,” and although today Sierra Leone is at peace, the
specter of war remains ever-present. Can the trial of one man uncover the truth of a traumatic
past? International justice is on trial for the world to see.


Showing at SXSW: Pelada, directed by Rebekah Fergusson, Gwendolyn Oxenham, Luke Boughen and Ryan White

Synopsis from the movie's website:

Away from professional stadiums, bright lights, and manicured fields, there’s another side of soccer.  Tucked away on alleys, side streets, and concrete courts, people play in improvised games.  Every country has a different word for it.  In the United States, we call it “pick-up soccer.”  In Trinidad, it's "taking a sweat."  In England, it's "having a kick-about."  In Brazil, the word is “pelada,” which literally means "naked"—the game stripped down to its core.  It’s the version of the game played by anyone, anywhere—and it’s a window into lives all around the world. 

Pelada is a documentary following Luke and Gwendolyn, two former college soccer stars who didn’t quite make it to the pros.  Not ready for it to be over, they take off, chasing the game.  From prisoners in Bolivia to moonshine brewers in Kenya, from freestylers in China to women who play in hijab in Iran, Pelada is the story of the people who play.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Phyllis and Harold

Now showing in New York at Cinema Village: Phyllis and Harold, directed by Cindy Kleine

Synopsis from the movie's website:

Phyllis and Harold is an astoundingly frank journey through a disasterous 59-year marriage. Drawing on a lifetime of her family's home movies and interviews made over 12 years, filmmaker Cindy Kleine mixes reportage, cinema verité and animation to uncover family secrets and tell a story that could not be shown publicly as long as her father was still alive. Phyllis and Harold delves into the mystery of time passing, the nature of living a life, and the challenges of losing those we love. But it is also a loving, funny exposé on the sins of suburbia. Imagine Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage seen through the prism of “I Love Lucy.”

Camp Victory, Afghanistan

Showing at SXSW: Camp Victory, Afghanistan, directed by Carol Dysinger

Synopsis from the film's website:
Camp Victory, Afghanistan is a verité documentary that tells the story of several U.S. National Guardsmen stationed in Herat, Afghanistan and the Afghan officers assigned as their mentees. These Americans along with a band of Afghans have been given the enormous task of building the 207th Corps of the nascent Afghan National Army into an institution capable of providing security, stability, peace and justice to a tattered, volatile nation. Although the United States has poured military aid into Afghanistan, money alone does not produce an army; people do. And these Afghans and Americans have more in common than anyone would expect. With lives on the line and the military budget ballooning, can a modern Afghan army be created when 80% of the enlistees are illiterate; all are impoverished; the weaponry is second rate; and the enemy is elusive, dangerous, and lawless? 

Using nearly 300 hours of verité footage shot between 2005 and 2008, Camp Victory, Afghanistan, directed by Carol Dysinger, is the first film to examine the reality of building a functioning Afghan military—the initial critical step toward bringing stability and peace to Afghanistan.

Beijing Taxi

Showing at SXSW: Beijing Taxi, directed by Miao Wang

Synopsis from the film's website:

Set in the two years of the 2008 Olympics games build-up, Beijing Taxi is a multilayered feature documentary that vividly portrays the ancient capital of China going through a profoundly transformational arch. Through a humanistic lens, the stories of three taxi drivers connect a morphing cityscape and tales of ordinary citizens searching for their place amidst this dizzying pace of change. Candid and perceptive in its filming approach and highly cinematic and verité in style, Beijing Taxi takes us on a lyrical journey into fragments of a society riding the bumpy roads to modernization.

There are certain characteristics associated with “old Beijingers.” They are laid back, forthcoming, warm and hospitable. They don’t have the insatiable need for material wealth, strive for success or compete among their peers. They enjoy simple pleasures in activities like fishing or taking a stroll in the park. This “old Beijing” way of life has been challenged by strong economical advances and developments in the last decades. Their values and traditions are put under scrutiny by capitalist rules. The profound changes of Beijing are not only seen in the city itself but also in the heart and minds of its people. The juxtapositions between the “old” and the “new” city are omnipresent.

With diverse and poetic imagery of the old and new Beijing, we establish the idea of the ancient capital undergoing deep structural change, and in the midst of the Olympics build-up. Audiences are introduced to the world of Beijing taxi drivers in their natural setting. Each driver exposes his/her perception of life in a changing Beijing. Bai Jiwen, a driver in his mid 50’s, represents the older lost generation who came to age during the Cultural Revolution; Wei Caixia, a mother in her mid-thirties, with aspirations of a free-spirited life and entrepreneurial success; and Zhou Yi, an optimist and content man in his late thirties, who holds onto the more traditional Beijinger’s lifestyle of the past.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tiny Furniture

Playing next month at SXSW: Tiny Furniture, written and directed by Lena Dunham

Synopsis from the movie's website:

22-year-old Aura returns home to her artist mother's TriBeCa loft with the following: a useless film theory degree, 357 hits on her Youtube page, a boyfriend who's left her to find himself at Burning Man, a dying hamster, and her tail between her legs. Luckily, her trainwreck childhood best friend never left home, the restaurant down the block is hiring, and ill-advised romantic possibilities lurk around every corner. Aura quickly throws away her liberal-arts clogs and careens into her old/new life: a dead-end hostess job, parties on chilly East Village fire escapes, stealing twenties out of her mother's Prada purse, pathetic Brooklyn "art shows," prison-style tattoos done out of sheer boredom, drinking all the wine in her mother's neatly organized cabinets, competing with her prodigious teenage sister, and desperate sex in a giant metal pipe. Surrounded on all sides by what she could become, Aura just wants someone to tell her who she is.


Showing next month at SXSW: Greenlit, directed by Miranda Bailey

Synopsis from the film's website:

The documentary Greenlit explores films that have wreaked havoc on our environment and poses the question: what can we do to soften our carbon footprint as filmmakers?

Miranda Bailey follows the cast and crew of the indie feature film The River Why, starring Zach Gilford (Friday Night Lights) as they bring aboard a green consultant, Lauren Selman, and watch her struggle to “green” their film. The task proves to be extremely challenging, even in a town as eco-conscious as Portland, where one would think the film crew would be receptive to environmental issues… but instead we see how film crews and film unions maintain that there is no place in the line of filmmaking for someone whose job description is environmental consultant. Both entertaining and humorous, Greenlit is filled with compelling and important facts about filmmaking and sustainability.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Netflix It: Fat Girl

Available from Netflix: Fat Girl, directed by Catherine Breillat

Synopsis from

Director Catherine Breillat, who courted international controversy with her film Romance, once again pushed the envelope with this disturbing (if somewhat less explicit) look at adolescent sexuality. Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) is a 12-year-old girl with a weight problem and a downbeat disposition growing up in a family that offers her little in the way of understanding and affection. Anaïs has a typically adolescent love/hate relationship with her slimmer and prettier 15-year-old sister, Elena (Roxane Mesquida); she's at once fascinated by her sister (and the boys who follow her around), and hates her for the love and attention she receives from others. While the family spends the summer at the beach, Elena attracts the attentions of Fernando (Libero de Rienzo), a college student from Italy who makes no secret of his attraction to Elena's budding sexuality. Anaïs, on the other hand, is forced to make do with a sad game in which she pretends that a ladder and a diving board at a neighborhood swimming pool are two suitors vying for her affections. Anaïs shares a room with Elena, and finds herself a fascinated, if troubled, witness as Fernando uses both charm and deceit to rob her sister of her virginity, while Elena is too naïve to see through the lies Fernando is spinning—and enjoys having Anaïs as an audience for her steadily advancing sex play with Fernando. Anaïs is more aware than her older sister of Fernando's insincerity, but she finds Elena isn't eager to believe her.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Netflix It: Cadillac Records

Available on Netflix: Cadillac Records, written and directed by Darnell Martin

Synopsis from

Directed by TV veteran Darnell Martin, the musical drama Cadillac Records documents the compelling true-life story of the Chicago record label that helped the world discover such legendary artists as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, and Chuck Berry. Founded in 1950 by Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), Chess Records quickly gained a reputation as home to some of the most talented and influential blues artists ever to step into a recording studio. But giving these musicians an opportunity to bring their music to the world was no easy task, because along the way there was enough sex, drugs, and rock & roll to ensure that things around Chess Records never got boring. Featuring Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, Gabrielle Union as Geneva Wade, Beyoncé Knowles as Etta James, Mos Def as Chuck Berry, Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon, and Eamonn Walker as Howlin' Wolf.

And the real Etta James:

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Barefoot to Timbuktu

Showing at New York's Quad Cinema this weekend: Barefoot to Timbuktu, directed by Martina Egi

Synopsis from the film's website:

Araouane, a settlement in the middle of the Sahara, seven days by camel from Timbuktu…

In 1989, the once prosperous oasis was disappearing under encroaching dunes, when the noted Swiss/American artist Ernst Aebi passed through on a caravan. The population’s destitution leaves a deep impression on him. Trying to help them becomes an obsession for Aebi because attempting the impossible satisfies his quest for adventure.

Aebi, one of the pioneers in the transformation of New York’s SoHo factory spaces to lofts, stays for three years in the desert and becomes so engrossed in the project that he is willing to bury his capital there. Under his guidance, the village awakens to a new life: a productive vegetable garden, a school, and even a small hotel rise from the barren sands.

A civil war in Mali forces Aebi in the early nineties to escape “his” village. He leaves behind a blooming oasis and a family of friends who await his return.

Except for a few earlier unsuccessful attempts, almost twenty years pass until Aebi is finally able to get back. On a journey between hope and doubt.

Barefoot to Timbuktu
cleverly weaves archival and new material into a fascinating portrait of an out-of-the-ordinary Swiss/American swashbuckler.