Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Tallgrass Film Festival Preview

The Tallgrass Film Festival kicks off tonight in Wichita, Kansas, and I'll be participating in Friday night's Centerpiece Gala, Pulp Fiction: The Making of an Indie Masterpiece. But there's plenty to see and enjoy at Tallgrass this weekend; here's a few of the films I've been lucky enough to see in advance, and heartily recommend to Tallgrass fest-goers.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s powerful, troubling documentary is primarily focused on a February 2010 incident in which a SeaWorld trainer was killed by a performing whale. But she uses that merely as a starting point for a closer examination of the horrors of killer whales in performance environments, particularly at SeaWorld, with stories of heartbreaking family separation (both at capture and in the parks), shameful living conditions, and wildly truth-spinning corporate types. Ably assisted by horrifying footage and testimonials from former trainers, Blackfish is paced, scored, and structured like a thriller, and leaves the viewer stunned and infuriated.

Blue Caprice
Writer/director Alexandre Moors dramatizes and fictionalizes the story of the Beltway Snipers with uncommon sensitivity and grace. Moors confidently glides right past the Big Moments of the story, skipping their first sniper kill, the details of their arrest, their trials. The killers don’t even arrive in D.C. until the 71-minute mark of the 97-minute picture, and while there is a single, chilling scene in which the ritualistic process of selecting and eliminating victims from inside the titular vehicle is dramatized, it is brief and simple. This is a film that stubbornly refuses to sensationalize; it’s not interested in how these men killed, or in exploiting and fetishizing those acts. Instead, it explores their humanity—which is revealed to be even more terrifying.

Cutie and the Boxer
Ushio Shinohara is an action painter—intense action, usually based on beating up the canvas with paint on a boxing glove. When Cutie and the Boxerbegins, he’s celebrating his 80th birthday, and approaching his fortieth year with his wife Noriko, over 20 years his junior, who came to New York to be an artist but ended up spending her life cleaning up her talented, drunken husband’s messes and taking care of their child. But their relationship has provided her with a subject for her art, and the film’s most charming passages are the cutout animations of her work, which illustrates their stormy relationship. Contrary to the title and the animated element, this not a fairy tale; it’s the story of an oft-difficult marriage and a dream suppressed for the whims of a genius. Their relationship is presented as spiky, often uneasy, and yet strangely comfortable—it works for them. “It’s not a typical romance,” she says. Ya got that right.

God Loves Uganda

This engrossing documentary is about as objective as you could ask for an examination of such a stomach-churning subject to be. Director Williams efficiently contextualizes the movement of American evangelicals to sway the entire country of Uganda to their faith before moving, roughly a third of the way in, to the film's real topic: the country's persecution of its gay citizens, culminating in the notorious "kill the gays" bill. The film's access is remarkable, allowing us to see that the missionaries on the ground are often not bad people, not really, but they're part of a larger movement that is very scary indeed.

I Am Divine

This affectionate tribute to Harris Glen Milstead, better known as the “cinematic terrorist” who took drag “to a level of anarchy” in the films of John Waters, is not just a valentine to its subject, but a fine history of Waters’s work (the clips from their early, tiny-budget collaborations are priceless), a chronicle of their friendship, and an ode to their entire company of weirdos. Director Jeffrey Schwarz (the prolific cinema historian behind 2011’s Vito) also creates a vivid portrait of the late-‘70s NYC underground, and provides entertaining artifacts of Divine’s forgotten music career. Nothing earth-shattering here, but I Am Divine is plenty of fun, and nicely articulates both who he was and what he meant.

Muscle Shoals
Director Greg “Freddy” Camalier tells the fascinating story of how producer Rick Hall and a succession of (as Bono says in the film) “white guys that looked like they worked in the supermarket ‘round the corner” in Muscle Shoals, Alabama created some of the funkiest music of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Their recordings defined Wilson Pickett, helped Aretha Franklin find the sound that eluded her, and gave the Rolling Stones the American authenticity they strived for, and the stories of those sessions (and many others) are joyous and thrilling. But it’s also a story of heartbreak and sadness, of Hall’s personal tragedies and the hot tempter that lost him countless deals and musicians—three of whom set up shop themselves across town, to great success of their own. Great music, riveting stories, terrific documentary filmmaking, and an ideal companion piece to...

Twenty Feet from Stardom

In the best scene of this raucous, joyous, marvelous music documentary, legendary back-up singer Merry Clayton strolls into the studio where she was brought, in the middle of the night, her hair in curlers, to record the unforgettable female part on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Director Morgan Neville plays Clayton’s isolated vocal track, and it makes your hair stand on end; it’s a valuable reminder that, so often, the difference between a great song and a perfect one is the contribution of someone whose name you might not know. (The scene recalls Al Kooper’s description, in No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, of how he came to provide the organ part on “Like a Rolling Stone.”) That moment is what Neville’s film is all about: acknowledging the collaborative nature of popular music, and seeing that those who contributed to it get their due.

Tallgrass screening times and ticket information available on their online film guide.

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