MSPIFF37 – Documentary Reviews: ‘Silicone Soul’ + ‘A Work In Progress (Al Milgrom’s Cinema Journey)’

I’m still playing catch-up with MSPFF a month after it’s over. Well that’s life, always a juggling act between my full time 9-5 job, blogging, writing, and just life’s business in general. I still have a few MSPIFF interviews to be transcribed, so stay tuned for those!

Today we’ve got reviews of two more documentaries I enjoyed, both have a strong MN connection, made right here in Minnesota and well worth checking out!


MSPIFF Reviews

Silicone Soul

Directed by: Melody Gilbert

When having a relationship with a real human being is too hard, where do you turn?

That’s the question this inherently thought-provoking documentary poses. The first thing that might come to your mind seeing stills or even hear about silicone dolls is perhaps not a positive one. I have to admit, it conjures up something provocative, sexual and perhaps even the word ‘icky’ comes to mind. But as great documentary filmmakers do, its role is not to label or judge their subject.

The main subjects featured in its poster John and his ‘wife’ Jackie is perhaps the most similar to Lars and the Real Girl (that fictitious film would make a good companion piece to this doc). John is a tender man who’s disappointed by his past relationships and and he treats his synthetic companion with such loving care. He’d take her to nice restaurants, the zoo, etc. on her wheelchair, and he’d shrug off people’s obvious confusion, even disgust, nonchalantly. “It is weird… but it’s good weird. Weird doesn’t mean bad.” So he’s well aware of this unusual relationship but he’s comfortable enough in his own skin that he doesn’t care what others think.

Then there’s Davecat and his wife & mistress, which is obviously a very sexual relationship. I gotta say I cringe as he talked about some of the most um, gross aspects covered in the film. In contrast however, there’s the segments where silicone babies are used to recreate the love between mother and child in senior homes. The look on the older residents, some with dementia, as they hold a ‘baby’ in their hand tugs my heartstrings. The dolls look so lifelike some couldn’t figure out they aren’t real, but the emotion they feel definitely are real.

I think one of the most fascinating segment for me is the part involving a female artist who used to work on Wall Street. I’m glad Melody included a woman as one of the human subjects because it kind of presents something entirely unexpected. The artist/photographer based in NYC uses the dolls for various artistic photoshoots in her studio, stating that the dolls are basically replacements to friendships she wished she had.

Despite the provocative nature, Melody didn’t sensationalize the subject matter, but instead captures the various stories with an astute yet tender lens. There are also some fun and insightful animation by local filmmaker Beth Peloff that really helped illustrates some of the situations the film simply couldn’t capture. The themes of love, secrets, loneliness and social acceptance…are all universal which we can all relate to and struggle with at some point in our lives.

As I left the theater though, I did ponder about the relationship between John and his female neighbor who also lives alone. She totally accepts John’s wife Jackie and she and John seem to have a good rapport together. It did make me wonder why John wouldn’t consider perhaps starting a relationship with his human neighbor instead. But perhaps that is the point of the film, who are we to judge who…or what…people choose to love?

I had the privilege of knowing about this project months months before it premiered at MSPIFF, when I attended a Film Fatales panel where filmmaker Melody Gilbert  was one of the speakers. In fact, I introduced the composer of my short film Hearts Want, Charlie McCarron, to Melody at another film event and he ended up doing the music for the film. Suffice to say, this documentary also boasts great music to go with its intriguing imagery.

Silicone Soul upcoming screening:

Duluth Superior Film Festival (Duluth, MN)
June 2, 2018 – 7pm – Zinema 2

Visit its official website for more screening location/dates and other info.


A Work In Progress (Al Milgrom’s Cinema Journey)

Directed by:  Phil Harder

I had known who Al Milgrom is for a long time, but I’ve only had the pleasure of meeting the man himself last year (at another film festival event) where he asked where I was from. When he found out I’m from Indonesia, he proceeded to tell me he’s befriended some of Indonesia’s most celebrated filmmakers and actors. One thing that’d strike people about Al would be his amazing memory. At 95 he’s still as sharp as ever. He not only remembered who I am at our next meeting weeks later, but he actually remembered where I’m from!

Everyone who’s been in the film business in Minnesota likely has an ‘Al Milgrom story.’ That’s why I took a few hours off from work specifically to see this documentary. Director Phil Harder followed the 95-year-old Milgrom as he gave us a fascinating tour to his personal home in Minneapolis where he kept decades-worth of film archives. I sincerely hope one day his house would become a film museum, and if someone were to do a fundraising to make that happen, I’d readily contribute! A quintessential cinephile whose cinematic heroes include Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut, John Waters, as well as classic silent filmmakers Erich von Stroheim, his deep, singular passion for films is palpable. His first intro to film is Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, which led him to become the ‘Minnesota Godfather of Cinema’ as it were. He’s the founding father of the Film Society of Minneapolis St. Paul itself back in 1962.

I could’ve easily watched this film again as there are so many I’ve missed. Mr. Milgrom has brought the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Werner Herzog, and Milos Forman to the Twin Cities. There are footage of a Godard interview here in town, and there’s even sound footage of him interviewing the then still-emerging filmmaker Martin Scorsese (where Mr. Milgrom had to ask how Scorsese spell his name). Sadly, the 1970 protest documentary Scorsese was working on at the time never aired. Mr. Milgrom himself was a photojournalist for the US Army, on top of being a documentarian, world traveler and cinema pioneer in his illustrious career.

But the most fascinating parts of this doc has to be Al’s trip to Russia in 1959, which he’s still working on to this day. Hence the self-described term “The World’s Oldest Emerging Filmmaker” as he’s working on Russian Journey: The Story of a Filmmaker’s Travels Behind the Curtain. He definitely has the gift of capturing intriguing subject matters through visual medium. Those close-ups of various Russian citizens simply living their daily lives are full of intriguing untold stories waiting to be uncovered. Unfortunately, Al revealed in this doc that he’s lost the audio file to complete the project. The good news is, he (with the help of other filmmaker friends) are working on getting that resolved, so hopefully we get to see the finished film soon!

This 70-minute documentary definitely left me wanting more. I could’ve watched another half hour of just watching Mr. Milgrom give commentary about cinema, filmmaking, etc. in his museum-like home, and even commenting on some of the plethora of photos he’s taken in the past. I’m glad the filmmaker wisely chose to confine the film to just within Al’s home, which is a fascinating character in and of itself.

P.S. MSPIFF made the mistake of inserting a short documentary Influenced which is about how some MN business uses social media. It’s only 7 minutes long but its message seemed to be in such a contrast of who Al Milgrom is all about that people were chanting ‘we want Al!’ in protest!

I also got to take part of the Q&A with Al Milgrom, as well as the director Phil Harder and producer Mike Dust. It was well worth staying for!


A Work In Progress (Al Milgrom’s Cinema Journey) upcoming screening:

Duluth Superior Film Festival (Duluth, MN)
Sunday, June 3rd at 3pm – Zinema

Visit DSFF website official website for more details


 

MSPIFF37 – Quick Recap + Reviews: ‘Montparnasse Bienvenue’ + ‘Les Affames’ + ‘Room 213’

The last two weeks truly have been a whirlwind for me thanks to MSPIFF. Practically every single day there’s some kind of film-related activities, whether it’s watching/reviewing films, attending panels or interviewing filmmakers. And since this year is also the first time I actually have a short film playing at the festival, that means I’m also wearing multiple hats as a blogger AND filmmaker.

It also happens to be a really busy time at the office for me that prevents me from attending most afternoon screenings (on top of that crazy blizzard that grounded even the most ardent MN cinephiles!). Thankfully it was a relatively warm (50 degrees!) and sunny day for Hearts Want‘s screening last Tuesday (April 24). The Looking In Short Block turned out to be a sold-out screening so it was cool to see a packed house!

On top of showcasing over 200 films, MSPIFF also has a plethora of film-related panels available for FREE to the public. I had set out to attend three of them but was only able to make it to one of them. But to me, as a female film blogger, writer AND aspiring filmmaker, the Film Fatales panel is one not to be missed!

Members of Film Fatales, a global community of women filmmakers, reflect on the process, challenges and joys unique to directing feature films. They will discuss the structure of the organization it’s mission, goals, and their films and the filmmaking process.

Two of the panel speakers, Melody Gilbert and Dawn Mikkelson, have their films (Silicone Soul and Risking Light, respectively) made the Best of Fest! Risking Light‘s producer Miranda Wilson was also one of the panelists, as well as Maribeth Romslo, whose debut feature Dragonfly premiered at MSPIFF a couple of years ago.

The Film Fatales panel with inspiring Minnesota’s #womeninfilm

MSPIFF Reviews

Montparnasse Bienvenüe

Directed by: Lénor Serraille

It’s tradition that every year at MSPIFF I have to watch a French film w/ Juliette Binoche, but her film Let the Sunshine In happens to screen at the exact same time as Hearts Want :\ But hey, the French film I did end up watching turns out to be an intriguing one, and it’s also written/directed by a female filmmaker.

hot mess

noun

USinformal
  1. a person or thing that is spectacularly unsuccessful or disordered, especially one that is a source of peculiar fascination.
    “this outfit is definitely a hot mess”

Few would argue that Paula, amusingly played by Laetitia Dosch, is a hot mess. She is down on her luck after having broken up (well ditched) by her now famous photographer boyfriend. The film is a character study that starts off with a bang (or thud) that lands Paula in the hospital. She’s one of those girls who simply cannot stop talking, regardless whether the person on the opposite side is willing to listen or not. So we quickly learnt that she had been in a relationship with her boyfriend for 10 years and now she’s broke and utterly lost as to what to do with her life.

Being a Francophile that I am, simply watching scenes of Paula yelling at her ex boyfriend Joachim outside his flat and stumbling around on Parisian streets with her ex’s cat is amusing to me. But Dosch herself is a fascinating actress who mesmerizes even at her lowest moments. Somehow Paula always looks chic too (she is Parisian after all) in her stolen brick-red coat and wooden clogs.

After drifting from place to place for days, she finds work as a nanny in  the Montparnasse neighborhood, hence the title. She also lands part time work at a lingerie boutique where she befriends a security guard Ousmane (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye).  The more people she encounter, even a case of mistaken identity on a bus, the more we learn just how unpredictable Paula can be.

One thing I’m frustrated with however, is how deliberately vague this film is. There’s obviously a major conflict between Paula and her estranged mother, who adamantly refuses to see her, but it’s never fully explained why. The film also takes its time introducing us to Paula’s ex, which seems rather uneventful after she spends most of the movie wanting to get back with him.

But what’s certain is, by the end of the film, she’s no longer the same Paula I saw in the beginning of the movie. Whether or not she’s actually ‘grown up’ is up for debate, but then again the filmmaker doesn’t make a moral stand about her protagonist. In the end, Paula remains quite an enigma, observed through an astute but impartial lens. But the film’s charm lies in the colorful chaos our heroine often finds herself in, which reminds us how life’s riddles don’t always have a neat resolution.

Director Bio: Lénor Serraille was born in 1980 in Lyon, France. She has produced several shorts during her career, including Body (’16), which she also wrote. Montparnasse Bienvenue serves as her feature-film debut.


Les Affamés

Directed by: Robin Aubert

Les Affames takes place in a small countryside village in Quebec overrun by zombies. The movie follows a group of survivors (Marc-Andre Grondin as Bonin; Monia Chokri as Tania; Charlotte St-Martin as Zoe, Micheline Lanctot as Pauline, Marie-Ginette Guay as Therese, Brigitte Poupart as Celine, Edouard Tremblay-Grenier as Ti-Cul, and Luc Proulx as Real) as they struggle to avoid these new enemies and find a safe location.

The profile for this film on the MSPIFF website describes it as “a contemplative take on the zombie apocalypse” that “does not rely on the shock factor familiar to the popular, and some would argue overspent, genre.” I want to know who wrote this, because nothing about this description is accurate. I’m pretty sure that by “contemplative” they just mean “French” and “containing pretty shots of nature.” The description goes on to say the zombies are “a constant reflection of what has been lost,” but that’s hardly a unique concept in zombie films, and it’s not really that focused on throughout the movie.

And it certainly relies on the same shock value other movies in this “overspent genre” does. Les Affamés definitely isn’t the gore fest the Romero-type zombie movies usually are, but there are still plenty of jump scares throughout the film, although, to be fair, they mostly do these well, thanks to a sparse use of background music and some well-paced scenes. Just because they do them well, though, doesn’t make the movie less reliant on shock value than any other zombie flicks.

The biggest problem with this movie, though, is how aimless it is. There’s no clear goal or story arc. The closest we get to one is when one of the survivors mentions knowing of a bunker they might be able to run to, but once they find it, they move on for no solid reason. The majority of the film is spent watching the survivors drive, run, and hide with no real resolution.

If you like zombie movies and want to see one in a slightly different style, you might enjoy this. It is a well-shot and well-acted film, but overall, it really doesn’t bring anything new to the genre.

Director Bio: Canadian-born Robin Aubert is a diversely talented actor, writer and director. His work includes Saint Martyrs of the Damned (’05), Tuktuq (’16) and several short and television projects. His latest, Les affamés, earned the Best Canadian Film award at the Toronto International Film Fest.

Room 213

Directed by: Emelie Lindblom

Room 213 follows Elvira (Wilma Lundgren), a shy 12-year-old girl, to summer camp, where she and her bunkmates and new friends Meja (Ella Fogelstrom) and Bea (Elena Hovsepyan) begin to notice strange things happening in their room (the titular 213). Are the occurrences just adolescent pranks, or is there a more supernatural explanation?

This movie is proof that you can make a solid horror film while still keeping it kid-appropriate. It’s a simple story, but it’s incredibly well-paced and the scares are slowly built up, keeping the suspense high throughout. The movie keeps you guessing throughout whether the room is actually haunted, and that subtlety is rare in a lot of horror movies, especially in ones aimed at younger audiences. The three leads are believable and relatable, thanks in no small part to the young actors’ skills, although some of the dialogue does feel a little unnatural.

My one other critique is that the ending kind of breaks the overall tone of the film. For the most part, it’s pretty dark and subdued, but the explanation at the end feels lazy, tacked-on, and childish (spoiler ahead): the ghost, Mebel (Agnes Mikkeline), haunted the girls because she was lonely and wanted friends. It’s kind of an overly cutesy ending to a mostly grim-feeling movie. This is an adaptation of a book by Ingelin Angerborn, and maybe it’s better explained or better developed in the original format, but the film version doesn’t handle it very well.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed this movie. I would have loved this movie as a 12-year-old, and I would absolutely recommend it to any budding young horror fans, especially ones who enjoy more paranormal/supernatural sub-genres.

Director Bio: Emelie Lindblom is a Swedish script writer and director who graduated from the School of Film Directing, Gothenburg University in 2011. Her latest short 2 was in competition at Gothenburg International Film Festival 2014 and was called a “masterpiece” at Seoul International Women’s Film Festival 2015. Room 213 is her debut feature film.
(courtesy of MSPIFF)


 

First half of MSPIFF – Recap + Reviews: ‘Have a Nice Day’ + ‘Anna Karenina: Vronsky’s Story’ + ‘Risking Light’ doc

Wow, time flies when you’re having fun! Despite the initial weather snafu in its first few days of MSPIFF37 (freakin’ blizzard in April!!), the largest film festival in the Twin Cities keeps going strong. I did miss a few events and films last weekend and some films were postponed to the Best of Fest period after the official film fest is done due to poor weather. But fortunately I did get screeners to some of them (nice perk of getting a press pass 😀 )

I also got a chance to interview some filmmakers (best part of being a film blogger!), thanks to MSPIFF Publicity/Outreach Coordinator Peter Schilling and Nemer Fieger. I’ll post the interviews once I’m done transcribing them.

It was so inspiring to chat with Debra Granik, an Oscar-nominated writer/director (for Winter’s Bone) who’s all about the craft of filmmaking and lives ‘off the grid’ from the Hollywood hustle and bustle. Her latest narrative feature Leave No Trace brings to life the story of a young girl, Tom (newcomer Thomasin Mckenzie) and her war-vet father, Will (Ben Foster). The two live off the grid, led by Will’s PTSD, which has rendered him incapable of rejoining civilian life. Instead they spend their days in the wilderness, practicing survivalist skills and keeping away from the crowds.

I have to hold off the review for it but let me just say it’s an astounding film that once again feature a phenomenal young talent (not unlike Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone) in New Zealander Thomasin Mckenzie.

Here are some reviews from the first half of MSPIFF, starting w/ one from FlixChatter’s blog contributor Laura S.:

HAVE A NICE DAY

Have a Nice Day is an animated film about a young man named Xiao Zhang (Changlong Zhu) steals a bag containing a million yen in order to pay to fix his fiance’s botched plastic surgery. Unfortunately for him, the bag belongs to local mobster, Liu Shu (Siming Yang), who, of course, sends some of his people after Xiao Zhang to retrieve the bag. Liu Shu and his team aren’t the only ones Xiao Zhang has to watch out for, as he encounters several people on his journey just as desperate to get the bag from him.

For the most part, this is an enjoyable film. The score is fantastic. Making a gritty film noir-style movie as an animated feature makes for a visually interesting experience; the animation uses striking colors, and the backgrounds are beautifully detailed while the characters are very simply designed, creating a unique contrast. The one problem with the simple character design is that they have very little movement, especially facially, which makes it hard to connect what the characters are saying with what they’re feeling. This isn’t helped by the fact that, according to IMDB, the voice cast is made up by non-professional friends of writer/director Jian Liu, and the lack of voice acting experience is evident, although, to be fair, it brings a more genuine feel to the dialogue at times.

My one other gripe has to do with the movie’s tone. Overall, Have a Nice Day is a straightforward mobster thriller, but there is one “what the hell?” moment that is pretty jarring. There’s a musical number that comes out of nowhere halfway through the movie that is never addressed afterward. It’s clearly supposed to be a fantasy sequence/daydream for a couple of the characters trying to get the money, but it’s the only one like it in the film. If they were going for a more surreal feel, they could have included a few more unusual scenes like this (not even necessarily musical numbers, but fantasy sequences). But because it’s just the one, it feels confusing and out of place.

Despite my couple issues with this movie, I would still recommend it, if only for the aesthetic value. The animation is great, the music is gorgeous, and the plot keeps you on the edge of your seat.

You have one more chance to catch Have a Nice Day at MSPIFF on
Sunday, April 22 at 9:50 PM at St. Anthony Main Theatre 2
Get tickets »


ANNA KARENINA: VRONSKY’S STORY

I’m a sucker for tragic romance and it doesn’t get more harrowing than Leo Tolstoy’s classic. This time it’s told from Count Vronsky’s perspective, and made by the filmmakers from Tolstoy’s own homeland of Russia.

Set in Manchuria in the midst of Russian-Japanese War in 1904, the film opens in a makeshift hospital led by Sergei Karenin. One of the patients Karenin encountered turns out to be Count Vronsky, and this unexpected meet-up is what intrigues me most about this adaptation. At 138 min, this is sumptuous, lush drama that’s told in flashback. It traces back to how Anna and Vronsky first met, their tumultuous affair, up until 30 years later when Vronsky finds himself under the care of Anna’s son. Visually-stunning with meticulous details to its gorgeous set pieces and costumes, it’s fun to be transported to the opulent world of aristocratic Russia for a couple of hours.

However, the film often feels too indulgent, director Karen Shakhnazarov‘s filmed the scene of Anna in a carriage on the way to the train station with such slo-mo style, as he did with the horse race sequence where Vronsky is thrown from his horse. As a fan of romantic period dramas, I enjoyed many aspects of the film, but wish it offers more than just Vronsky’s remembrance. I also wish Vronsky displayed more emotion as he tells his story.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The fragment of scenes of Anna/Vronsky’s romance isn’t always captivating, especially as Anna becomes such a nag the more her distrust continue to smother Vronsky and doom their affair. But that first meet-up on the train and the dance at the ball is the stuff epic romance is made of. They barely spoke but their physical chemistry sucks the air out of the room. Elizaveta Boyarskaya (Anna) and Maksim Matveyev (Vronsky) are absolutely stunning as the doomed lovers, though Anna comes across as a mentally-unhinged woman here. I was also quite taken by Kirill Grebenshchikov‘s soulful performance as Sergei, which made me wish there’s more to his interaction with Vronsky. Their story, which sets it apart from other Anna Karenina‘s adaptation, seems like a missed opportunity overall, down to its rather anticlimactic ending.

In the end, this Russian literary adaptation proved to be too melodramatic, but not as emotional as it could’ve been. Apparently there’s also a Russian TV series version of this adaptation, and perhaps this lavish story is best told in a miniseries format. Despite its flaws, I’d still recommend this to fans of Tolstoy’s classic and those who enjoy elegant period dramas.

RISKING LIGHT

As MSPIFF says on their documentary promos, few genres have the raw emotional power of documentaries. Facts are often stranger than fiction, and in many ways, real life stories can be more powerful than narratives, especially when they deal with sensitive subject matter as those presented in Risking Light.

MN filmmaker Dawn Mikkelson’s beautifully-shot documentary is a meditation on forgiveness, layered with a theme that is rarely seen on the screen—forgiving the unforgivable. The film featured three stories from Cambodia, Australia and here in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Out of the three stories, the story of Mary Johnson and O’Shea Israel absolutely took my breath away. A story that made headlines as they both ended up being on The View and featured on People magazine, it’s one that definitely made you reflect on what you would do if it happened to you. As with the other two stories dealing with those who were part of Australia’s Aboriginal “Lost Generation” and a survivor of the Cambodian genocide Khmer Rouge, how does one forgive such evil being done not just to them but their entire family?

Forgiveness, compassion, kindness… all universal themes that everyone from every background can relate to and learn about. I love that the documentary also transport us into three different worlds that couldn’t be more different from each other, but yet carry a similar thread. On top of being substantially profound, this is also a visually-stunning film shot on location in three different continents. Definitely a feast for the eyes and nourishment for the soul. Bravo Dawn Mikkelson and team!

Risking Light has two more screening times at MSPIFF at St. Anthony Main Theatre:

Sunday, Apr 22 9:30 AM
Sat, Apr 28 7:05 PM
Get your tickets »