Wednesday, March 25, 2009

CIFF 2009, Day Four: The system

The truth is that there's nothing terribly smart about putting yourself through the full paces of a film festival's schedule for several days in a row. For nine of the eleven days at the single location Cleveland International Film Festival you can inhabit the theaters for six sessions beginning around 9:15 a.m. and lasting for about fourteen hours. Four of those nine days have midnight screenings that allow you to stick around until 1:30/2:00 a.m. the following day. That's seventeen hours in and around the theater and seven movies.

Carrying this heavy load is for the strong-willed and, let's face it, foolish--myself included. Although all that's being done is watching movies, sitting through that many films in a day, let alone for multiple days, takes a special kind of stamina. Even "just" five films in a day is a lot.

While some days are easier than others, I have found that I will reach a rhythm that may be the moviegoing equivalent to, in athletic terms, being in the zone. The mind becomes clear--or maybe empty is a better word--and you enter a stage where you're on automatic. That may explain why I've had trouble putting down my thoughts on these films. I lack the mental energy to do so.

I hit this level today, although as the end of the day approached, I also started to feel the weariness that catches up with you. The idea is to push through it, but the smart thing would be to do something as novel as take a break or even skip a session or two.

Not today.

-Children of Invention (Tze Chun, 2009)

Country: United States
Genre: Immigant drama/children at risk drama
Synopsis: Single immigrant mother often overlooks her children as she focuses on work.

Notes: A divorced Hong Kong native falls prey to direct marketing schemes as a way of supporting her kids. She sinks her limited resources into direct marketing schemes, which cause bigger problems for her than loss of money and time. Meanwhile, her young son and daughter must amuse and care for themselves while she's physically and mentally away. Although there is a whiff of Nobody Knows in Children of Invention, the circumstances and potential outcome are never as dire. On the film's plus side are the unforced child performances and bright, clean cinematography. The downside is the split focus and shallow depth. The film concentrates on the mother's story for the first half, but just when it presents a major crisis, attention shifts to the kids. Picking one of the perspectives--parent or children--and sticking to it for the duration would have made a stronger movie and allowed it to go beyond surface level.

Grade: C+

-Crude (Joe Berlinger, 2009)

Countries: United States, Ecuador
Genre: Environmental activism documentary
Synopsis: Lawyers sue oil company for environmental damages in Ecuador.

Notes: The title refers to oil, but it could just as well mean how the legal process operates in this case. The suit against Chevron has been fought for at least fifteen years and may continue for that many more. Texaco, now owned by Chevron, operated oil wells in the Amazon jungle and is now being blamed for causing contaminated conditions that lead to severe health problems and premature deaths among the people living in the area. Crude is primarily about the legal battle, and it stirs up plenty of anger at corporations, although it's always hard in situations like this to know what they can rightfully be blamed for and what is bluster.

Grade: B-

-Sin By Silence (Olivia Klaus, 2008)

Countries: United States
Genre: Women's issue documentary
Synopsis: Battered women convicted and imprisoned for killing their husbands work to make their voices heard about domestic abuse.

Notes: Chalk up attending this screening to a confluence of the right circumstances. I didn't plan to see this, but my desire to watch the Dayton-Kansas NCAA Tournament game, this film's short running time (49 minutes), and a Twitter follow convinced me to give it a chance. Sin By Silence is a solid piece probably best suited to fill an hour on PBS. The short is centered on the Convicted Women Against Abuse, a prison group that helps these inmates come to terms with the harm they suffered and try to earn retrials for those prosecuted when battered women's syndrome was not recognized by the courts. The film doesn't excuse what they did or paint them as victims. Rather it explains the silence that led to the actions they felt they needed to carry out and tries to find the answer for preventing abusive situations.

Grade: B

-Eldorado (Bouli Lanners, 2008)

Countries: Belgium, France
Genre: Road movie/deadpan comedy
Synopsis: Weird people are encountered on a trip when a loner auto restorer gives a ride home to the man who tried to steal from his house.

Notes: It very well may be that movies like this play better outside of a film festival's pell mell, or maybe Eldorado simply isn't that funny. It's a slow, stone-faced comedy broken up occasionally by unexpected bits of oddity. The film owes a lot to Jim Jarmusch, but as much as I like his films, I'm not sure how well they'd play in the middle of a scheduled six movie day.

Grade: C

-Sugar (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, 2008)

Country: United States
Genre: Baseball movie/neorealist drama
Synopsis: A prospect from the Dominican Republic faces challenges upon coming to the United States to play in the minor leagues.

Notes: The studio and festival have requested no reviews of the film--never mind that it premiered at Sundance in 2008--but I think it's worth pointing out that this is a must-see for baseball fans when its limited release begins on April 3. Jose Rijo's appearance in the film and his involvement in the scandal with the Dominican Republic camps and player signings makes Sugar very timely even if it was completed more than a year ago. With the number of Latin American players in the majors and trying to break in, this tells a story that impacts the game but with which many of the fans, like me, are unfamiliar.

Grade: A

-Machan (Uberto Pasolini, 2008)

Countries: Sri Lanka, United Kingdom, Italy, Germany
Genre: Sports comedy/based on a true story/social concern drama
Synopsis: Poor Sri Lankans fake being on the nonexistent national handball team to get them out of the country so they can look for work in Europe.

Notes: An enterprising studio exec looking to cash in on the success of Slumdog Millionaire might want to think about picking up the remake rights to Machan. Yes, I'm aware that Sri Lankans and Indians are not the same, but this plucky underdog story has the potential to appeal to those who like Danny Boyle's film and are interested in other tales from this corner of the globe. Based on a true story, this feel-good film about poor people trying to find better opportunities and pulling a fast one on government officials fits into the The Full Monty mold. A nice Hollywood polish could tighten up this genial but overly broad, slowly paced, and diffused focus film.

Grade: C+

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