I caught four more films at AFI Fest on Sunday. Here are some more capsule reviews:
Blind Mountain (Mang Shan)
Li Yang follows up his 2003 crime drama Blind Shaft set in the coal mines of China with this drama about the practice of kidnapping women and then selling them off as wives. As a result of Den Xiaoping’s one-child policy and the preference for male children over female, there just aren’t enough women in China available for marriage especially in more rural areas.
Blind Mountain tells the story if Bai Xuemei, a city girl who is essentially duped with the offer of a well paying job in the country. Once isolated, her identification is stolen, she’s held against her will and forced into marriage with the complicity of the entire village and even the local officials. When she refuses to submit, she’s raped by her ‘husband’, partly as an attempt to cow her and partly to get her pregnant so she will be less willing to run away. The really horrifying thing about it all is that the evil of one person seems fathomable, but that of an entire community is hard to stomach.
I’m a little torn on this one. It’s an undeniably moving story featuring a gripping performance by newcomer Huang Lu. On the other hand, as a piece of pure drama, it gets a little repetitive after a while and as an agent of social change I wonder if a documentary on the subject would have been better suited. It’s an important story, well told and one I feel a little bad about not to be more passionate for.
No word yet on distribution for Blind Mountain, but I’m sure it will receive a limited release as did Blind Shaft.
Set in the the rural American South of the early 1950s, a cultural crossroads between black and white, rich and poor, the faithful and the fallen, and acoustic and electric Blues music (with Rock and Roll and civil rights just on the horizon), John Sayles’ new film is rooted in fertile narrative territory. With an impressive ensemble cast including Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton, Mary Steenburgen, Stacy Keach and Lisa Gay Hamilton, fans of the director have cause to be excited. It’s too bad then that the film never quite lives up to its potential.
Danny Glover plays piano player/bar owner Pinetop Purvis whose live blues music has lost favor to a juke joint across the way. Purvis hopes to hold off his creditors and keep his bar going by bringing in renowned guitar player Guitar Sam. It’s not an especially original story and there are several stock characters (the sage blind blues man, the racist sheriff, the mysterious drifter/guitar player), but it’s all well intentioned, the music is good and so are many of the performances. The problem is that it has plenty of heart, but not enough soul. It feels like a surface treatment and it was crying out for a lot more music. In fact, with a bigger budget for music rights, Honeydripper has the makings for a terrific performance based musical. Instead what you’ve got is a likeable film, but I wonder how memorable it will be.
Sayles and crew are self-releasing this film. It’s scheduled to play in NY and LA at the end of December for Oscar consideration and I’m sure it will continue to make the festival circuit.
Making its US premiere at AFI Fest, Ramin Bahrani’s follow up to his popular Man Push Cart is a little gem of a film buoyed by surprising performances from non-actors Alejandro Polanco and Isamar Gonzales as a pair of orphaned siblings. The two eke out an existence in a 20 block area of Queens near Shea Stadium made up entirely of wrecking yards and auto body repair shops.
Alejandro is a firecracker of a kid; hard working, motivated, crafty and quick learning. He and his sister have been given no advantages in life, but their dreams of moving up in the world have not been snuffed out. The two love each other and rely on one another, but the pressures of surviving and the things they have to do to get by threaten to pull them apart.
A movie like this could either be a real downer or an artificially uplifting guilt sop. It is neither. It’s a nicely rendered slice of life at the fringes of civilization with a near documentary feel and a series of fascinating observances.
No information on a theatrical or DVD release yet, but I recommend you keep an eye out for it.
In 2001, a San Francisco based graphic designer going by the name of “Someguy” began distributing 1000 numbered journals with instructions for the finder to make an entry of words or art or poetry and pass the journal along to someone else or, if the journal was full, to return it to him. In 2003, journal #526 was returned and Andrea Kreuzhage’s documentary purports to investigate what happened to the other 999.
It’s a fascinating attempt at public art on a worldwide scale (you can find out more about it at www.1000journals.com), but as a documentary I was disappointed. The filmmaker tracked down many of the people who had made entries in various journals and it was interesting to see how different people responded in different ways. Some of them seemed almost overwhelmed with the responsibility of caring for the journal that had crossed their path. Others were extremely possessive.
In the end, the explosion of human creativity and the interconnectedness of all these people was fascinating, but I didn’t come away feeling like I’d been told a story. Everything seemed kind of ill-focused. I would’ve liked to have known more about the original project and a clearer idea about what Someguy’s intentions were. I also would’ve liked to know more about that first journal that was returned. Many of the stories came from people who had (as part of their instructions) scanned their input to other journals and submitted it to the website. Maybe following one journal’s story and sticking to it would’ve been more interesting. Instead they bounced around from one person to the next with only occasional connection’s between them.
I don’t know. The whole thing was a neat idea, but it didn’t feel like there was enough concrete material. As art, the project is fascinating, but it wasn’t served very well by the documentary. It kind of meandered, full of interesting anecdotes, but never really adding up satisfactorily.
Apparently this was the first film accepted into this year’s festival, so perhaps I’m missing something. It certainly wasn’t bad, but I felt like I wanted more.
1000 Journals made it’s World premiere at AFI Fest last night. No information yet on future play dates.
I’ll be trimming back my moviegoing to 2 a day at most for the next few days. Tonight I’m going to check out Jason Reitman’s Juno starring Ellen Page as AFI’s Centerpiece Gala. As one of the unwashed masses, I won’t be sitting in the red carpet fed Cinerama Dome, but I’ll be shuttled away to a theater upstairs and out of the way. That’s fine.
In addition to Juno, other screenings this evening include Johnny To’s Mad Detective, the buzzed about trucker documentary Big Rig, the Puerto Rican cross-dresser farce Manuela E Manuel. If I see a second movie, I’m hoping for The Art of Negative Thinking, a dark looking comedy from Norway about a parapalegic. Let’s see: Puerto Rican cross dressers and Norwegian parapalegics…it must be a film festival. Bring it on.