TCFF Final Day: Stan Lee Doc & Closing Thoughts

The TCFF concluded its 6-day film festival with a wonderful family event Parade of Superheroes where kids get to dress up as their favorite superheroes, which is a great tie-in to the Stan Lee documentary playing mid afternoon.

In the last six days, I saw a total of eight films and attended four panels. I got to interview a pair of Hollywood young talents Drake Doremus & Anton Yelchin, as well as seeing an awesome character actor Tom Sizemore in person! I also got to talk to amazing people and make new friends with fellow bloggers Mitch, June and Matt.

On Sunday, I was able to attend the Women and Filmmaking panel right after church. Minnesota Women in Film and Television Board Member Meighan McGuire mediated a panel of three women filmmakers, Elise Plakke (director of 14 Minutes shorts), Barbara Allen (director of Signing On documentary), Tracie Laymon (on of Girls Girls Girls directors).

From left: Megan, me, Tracy, June, Barbara & Elise

It was an insightful panel as each woman discuss their journey to make their films and the challenges/breakthroughs they made along the way. During the Q&A, I asked them what they think of the state of women filmmakers in Hollywood today as I personally feel there should be more of them in the movie biz. Megan responded that sometimes life choices could be a factor in getting a female filmmaker established, for example if they get married or have kids, they might have to dip out of the business which may affect their career. Elise however thinks that women filmmakers are on the up swing today with easier access to technology and perhaps wider acceptance in the industry. After that question, one of TCFF Board of Directors Bill Cooper shared that the percentage of films made by women shown at TCFF this year is 26%, I sure hope that number will continue to rise in the coming years.

The last film I saw was…

With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story

I’m a huge fan of superhero movies, so as I said in this post, this is the one doc I was looking forward to the most.

It’s snappy documentary about the life of the world’s greatest comic-book creator, done in a lively style as fascinating as Stan Lee himself. Born Stanley Martin Lieber of Romanian-Jewish immigrants, he split his first name into two to save his real name for when his dream career of being a novelist. Using archival photos and panels from various time period, the filmmakers showed his journey from growing up in the Great Depression, joining the Army during WWII (he was categorized as “playwright,”), and how he ended up working in the comic industry. It was at Timely Comics when he met Jack Kirby who ended up illustrating most of his comic creations. It’s clear Stan Lee admired Jack very much, as he numerously paid tribute to him and credit him for being one of his greatest influence.

Stan & Joan Lee – then and now

The documentary also include interviews from various directors and actors who have brought his Marvel characters to life. My favorite part is the segments about Lee’s longtime wife Joan (they’ve been married for over six decades), and to this day they have such a healthy and warm relationship. Apparently, it was Joan who urged him to do one last comic book that Stan has always wanted to do during the slowest period of the comic business, which was supposed to be his last one before he has to explore other career options. The result is Fantastic Four, which ended up being really successful. That comics then propel Stan to create more characters such as Spider-Man and X-Men.

Stan Lee’s characters resonated with people as they had real problems and angst that people can relate to. X-Men for example, deal with a message for tolerance for outcasts, real-life themes that are still pertinent to this day that elevate the comic-book stories to be more than simply entertainment.

I really admire Stan Lee so I really enjoy this documentary. Yes it can be seen as a ‘praise fest’ to some but that is fine by me, I think he deserves it and he was humble enough to give credits where it’s due. I highly recommend this documentary to anyone who appreciates comics and/or comic-book movies.

Click to see who won awards at TCFF

It’s definitely been a blast covering the film fest. It’s much bigger and better this year with the addition of the gaming initiatives, panel additions and a lineup of 70+ films, which is impressive considering its only our second year! I know it’ll only get better from here!

Congratulations to Jatin Setia and co. for another amazing year at TCFF! It was truly a feat to transform your vision into reality. Of course it helps to have such a great staff alongside you: Bill Cooper, Naomi Dahlgren, Amanda Day, John Mellesmoen, and the rest of the staff. I also want to thank lead programmer Steve Snyder for selecting such wonderful movies and Katie Stroup from Allied Integrated Marketing for inviting me to the Like Crazy interview.

Great job everyone, I’m sure you all deserve the much-needed sleep by now!

Thanks everyone who’ve stayed with me throughout my TCFF coverage. I really appreciate your comments on my reviews, posts, etc. I hope one day you get to experience a film festival on your own, whether a local or international one. It definitely makes me appreciate films more as I get insights into how they get made.

Long live cinema!

TCFF Day 4 & 5 Recap: Ordinary Family, Machine Gun Preacher, Where Soldiers Come From

The fun TCFF film fiesta continues! I think Day 4 breaks the record for me as far as movie watching. I saw three films in the theater which is the most I have done ever in my life. It’s quite a hectic day for me even though I took a day off from work after working half-days most of the week. It’s also a ‘historic day’ for me as I’ve never done an ‘official’ press interview right after a screening before. Hopefully this is the first of many 😀

Well I have summarized the Like Crazy interview and panel yesterday, so I’ll just jump into the other films I saw on Friday and Saturday. This is the beauty of the programs of this year’s TCFF, there is quite an eclectic mix of mainstream/indie and documentary films to satisfy any film fans, and it’s only going to get better!

Ordinary Family

This is one of TCFF lead programmer Steve Snyder‘s recommendations, and y’know what, it did not disappoint. The premise is pretty simple but you could see how it had so much potential for a humorous drama. The Biederman’s annual family reunion starts off rather well with everyone gathering at the table to enjoy a family meal together… that is, until the ‘prodigal son’ Seth suddenly reveals that the male friend he invites along is actually his boyfriend. Everyone seems to handle it quite well except Seth’s brother Thomas, who’s a pastor at the local church where he and Seth used to serve together in their younger days.

At first I had trepidation about how the film will play out, I wonder if they’d make the Christian person to be the ‘villain’ or at least the unsympathetic character, which is often the case in films these days. So it’s quite refreshing to see that it’s not the case here. I think the filmmaker did a pretty decent job in presenting a balanced approach to both sides, even though it doesn’t go in depth into the matters of faith apart from showing the church setting where Thomas serves in a straight-forward manner. I also appreciate of the positive portrayal of marriage as the married couples are shown as loving and supportive despite their occasional difference of opinions.

The film depicts a pretty realistic American family life, at least it appears that way from what I’ve observed having lived in the States for half of my life. Montages of family bonding in various setting as well as the nonstop bickering between various members, especially Thomas and Seth, make up most of the film. There are also equal number of scenes depicting the gay lifestyle and church life and both characters making the effort out of each other’s comfort zone out of their deep love for one another.

In the end though the filmmaker seems content with making a ‘safe’ film that show the best of both sides. That is perhaps intentional, though I’m totally unsure what their position is about homosexuality and matters of faith.

Machine Gun Preacher

This is the film I’ve been waiting for, as those who’ve been reading my blogs already know. Well, I feel like I need to give it a proper review but for now I’m going to say that I totally disagree with the critics’ take on this. 22% on RottenTomatoes?? Wow! But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, a film with such a strong spiritual Christian message like this is likely to be butchered by the same people who hated The Passion of the Christ (which only garnered 49% on RT). Interestingly, both films have a much higher Audience Rating (both around 80%) so the contrast between the two is quite staggering.

The reaction from the screening seemed positive, some people clapped at the end and most of them stayed in their seats until after the end credits rolled which showed footage of the real preacher. In fact, all of my friends who came to see the film (I went with a group of seven) loved the film and was really moved by the story. A fellow blogger who saw the film also praised it and called it an “… amazing film will want you to stand to your feet and take action as you see through the life of Childers…”

Now I’m not saying the film is without its problems and I did read this article about the real preacher Sam Childers about some of the inaccuracies of the films, particularly in regards to his faith crisis. This isn’t the first time Hollywood isn’t being faithful to the source though, but I think overall Childers’ humanitarian zeal and his deep compassion for the African children came through in the film and Butler did a good job portraying Childers.

I will have my full review of the film later in the week. For now, check out the behind-the-scene featurette from the film:

Where Soldiers Come From

This is the second documentary I was looking forward to see at TCFF and it also came highly-recommended by Steve Snyder.

As I’ve mentioned on this documentary list, director Heather Courtney explored the four-year journey of childhood friends from the Upper Penninsula (U.P.) of Northern Michigan who enrolled in the Army to pay their college tuition and saw how their lives are turned upside down when they get sent to Afghanistan. This doc puts a real personal spin to the effects of war on not just the young soldiers, but also on their families and loved ones in their community. Whatever your position is on the matter, you can’t help being moved by it.

Courtney did a remarkable job in framing their story, presenting each individual (Dominic, Cole & Bodi) in a straightforward journalistic style which is not overly political other than some footage of the election results playing on TV. It mostly shows an intimate look of this group of friends who sign up for the National Guard after they graduate from high school. None of them really have aspiration to be in the military, and didn’t seem to give a lot of thought into what entails in becoming one. It is clear a lot of them have very limited experience of the world they’re about to be thrown into, even during the briefing, the presenter not only know didn’t how to say Hamid Karzai’s name, but didn’t know if he was still the leader of Afghanistan. Once there, the filmmaker also had access to placing her cameras within the barracks and tanks as the young soldiers patrol the rural roads searching for IEDs (improvised explosive device).

The film does feel a bit long and tedious at times, but it really gives me an insight into what it’s like for a lot of families with their children being deployed to war. It’s definitely worth seeing for any documentary fans. It’ll be shown on PBS on November 10, check your local listing.

That’s it for now folks. Thoughts about any of these films are most welcome in the comments.

TCFF 2011 Day 1: The Bully Project Review

The TCFF has landed! I’m very excited to be a part of the film fest in my city [the best one IMO] in its second year. Great to see the ICON cinema at the West End all abuzz last night, I really LOVE this place and I’m so glad they’re sponsoring TCFF this year. The theater was packed which is always nice to see.

Just as last year TCFF opened with a well-made education-themed documentary with an important message, Waiting for Superman, this year we’ve got an equally compelling one with The Bully Project.

Any way you look at it, bullying is just plain wrong. There are no ifs or buts, the bully behavior of people putting down others, harassing them both physically or mentally to the point of affecting that person’s well-being has no excuse in this world. I say people because bullying could happen at any age, basically it’s a form of intimidation. The Bully Project focuses the behavior mainly in schools, from grade schools to high school.

Director Lee Hirsch was part of an hour-long panel held about an hour before the film was shown. He was joined by panelists that include Tom Weber (MPR Reporter), Rep. Jim Davnie (MN State Legislator who co-sponsored anti-bullying legislation), Julie Hertzog (Director of PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center) and Leigh Combs (Representing  MN School OUTreach Coalition).

It really was an eye opening discussion about a topic I’m not too familiar about. Not having grown up in the US, I’ve never experienced what it was like to be a student in America before college. Of course I’ve experienced a bit of racial intimidation (more out of ignorance, not malice IMO) as I went to a small town in MN where most of the population is Caucasian, but there were quite a few International students in my school so I was never bullied.

Lee Hirsch @ TCFF panel

A kid who’s been bullied will likely come out with some kind of disability.

It’s quite a strong statement from Mr. Hirsch, but I’d imagine it’s true. I mean, it may not be visible, but even a little bit of mental intimidation on a kid who’s already struggling with their identity can leave a scar for years. The biggest thing that came out of the panel for me is learning how Minnesota is still lacking on bullying law, reporter Tom Weber shared from his reporting that MN’s grade is C- amongst states that have such law, which is the lowest of all!

If you’re interested, you can view the panel discussion on this video posted on YouTube.

Now below is my review of the film. Just a note, I actually had a massive headache the entire time I was watching the film, I don’t know if it’s because of the way the camera movements or the fact that I sat a bit closer than I normally do in the theater. I don’t fault the filmmaker for this, but it certainly affect my enjoyment of watching this film.

My mini review of The Bully Project

Documentaries can be a powerful thing. Most documentarians usually set out to achieve a goal that is much bigger than simply trying to win an award or to make tons of money. Their goal is to assist or make change. With this film, Hirsch is shedding a light on a topic that is often brushed aside or simply not taken seriously enough. It’s mind-boggling to me after seeing that there are quite a number of kids actually commit suicide as a result of being bullied, and to me, even ONE kid, just one dying because of this should be a major cause of alarm for the school/legislation, what have you, to do something about it.

From a cinematic standpoint, this is not the most beautifully-filmed documentary I’ve ever seen [that honor belongs to The Cove]. There are some cinematic camera angles and such, but mostly it’s done in a matter-of-fact manner that make you focus on the subject matter and the people affected by it. In that sense it is very effective. It’s really heartbreaking to watch the kids filmed here, as well as the parents who lost their child, one as young as 11 years old!

One of the kids featured is Alex, who happens to be present at the screening with his whole family. This awkward teen was often punched, strangled, stabbed w/ pencils, etc. on the school bus. One kid whose face was blurred even threatened to kill him and inflict as much pain to him as possible. The mild-mannered boy had to endure this until finally, after his parents pressed him to confess, they realized what’s been happening to him. Here comes the infuriating part. The film shows how the schools, police and legislators just are not doing enough to fix this. There was a scene with a school official who put on a sympathetic front when the parents confront them but it’s obvious they didn’t and not going to do anything about it.

This film also offers a balance view that bullying happens to kids of all ages, color and sexual orientation. It seems that the topic is identified with the GLBT community as they’re perhaps the most outspoken and proactive about it, but the film shows that non-gay kids also suffer from bullying.

Alex & his family with Lee Hirsch – TCFF photo to come

During the Q&A, Hirsch revealed that this is a very tiny film-making project, mostly a crew of one or two (him and the producer) with a discreet looking Cannon camera that doesn’t look intimidating to people he’s filming. It is obvious this subject matter is close to his heart. Just from hearing his thoughtful answers during the panel and the way he interacted with Alex and his family on stage, he seemed genuinely care about these kids and that’s so gratifying to see. One question asked why there is no focus on the other side, the bullies themselves. Hirsch answered that it is his choice to tell the story of the side of the victims, and that bullies that he encountered seem like (in his own words) ‘little angels.’ Once you see this film, you’ll know what he meant.

I really hope this film will get recognition at the Oscars. Fortunately they have The Weinsteins Co. as a distributor and Hirsch said this film will be submitted to the Academy Awards. You know how it is about the Weinsteins with their Oscar campaign 🙂 Normally I’d be utterly cynical about it but y’know, if it means bringing The Bully Project movement to light, so be it!

This film opens nationwide in March 9, 2012. I highly recommend you to check this out. This is a must-see for students/educators/parents, it’s impossible not to be moved by this film.

What are your thoughts about this film and/or the subject matter? Any interest in seeing this one?

UP NEXT: Interview with TCFF Lead Programmer & TIME magazine editor Steve Synder and 50/50 Review