Saturday, April 6, 2013


Wow--in three days I have not seen a bad film.  And we've had post-show discussions for nearly all the films, too.  This has been an excellent festival!

My favorite film of the day--and one of my favorites of the festival--was "TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM" (9), an inspired tribute to back-up singers.  Featuring one of the best soundtracks of any film I can remember (it will be released soon), the film examines the role that backing vocals have played in a lot of the iconic music of the last forty years.  In everything from David Bowie's "Young Americans," the Rolling Stones's "Gimme Shelter," Joe Cocker's "Feelin' Alright," and Lynard Skynard's "Sweet Home Alabama," the sublime harmonies of mostly female, mostly African American women have provided texture, soul, and some of the most singable lines.  Many have voices to rival the best solo artists, and they are versatile enough to adapt to a variety of different styles.  The film reflects on the role these singers have played in a host of great hits, wrestles with why so few have achieved stardom themselves, wonders about the mixture of ego and talent that goes into a successful solo career, and examines why some of these singers prefer to stay out of the limelight (though many don't).  The music is sublime, and the film focuses particularly on the stories of 8-10 of these women who account for quite a lot of amazing music.  It will have a theatrical release in June, and I'll be in line to see it again. 

The rest of today's films were also wonderful, though less buoyant.  "THE BABY" (8.5) is one of the most carefully crafted Holocaust stories I have ever seen.  It examines the life of Anneke Kohnke Thompson, who has almost no memories of her life before she came to the U.S. from the Netherlands when she was almost six years old.  She knew very little about her past or the circumstances of her parents' death (except that her parents died in the Holocaust and that her family had some connection with Anne Frank's) and was taught by the aunt and uncle who raised her not to wonder about such things.  As far as she is concerned, she has lived an ordinary life hardly worthy of the dramatic rescue she surmises she had as a young child.  The film came about because the film's Dutch director became acquainted with the woman who took Anneke from her parents as a baby at their request in order to hide her with a Dutch family in the country.  The filmmaker's investigation into what happened to Anneke as a child and Anneke's reaction to the unlocking of her past has the complicated feel of the truest of stories--absorbing, painful, confusing, and illuminating.  To say any more would blunt the film's impact, but I do hope it will get a cable or theatrical release. 

"THE CRASH REEL" (8.5) likely will get a theatrical release, fortunately.  It's the work of director Lucy Walker, who  directed the wonderful film "Wasteland," which I wrote about a couple years ago, and who again here displays remarkable subtlety with a complex story.  Her subject this time is Kevin Pearce, the Olympic hopeful who suffered a traumatic brain injury shortly before the 2010 Winter Olympics.  He's a compelling personality, and the beginning of the film mines a lot of archival footage showing his rise to prominence in his extreme sport prior to his injury.  Then the focus becomes Kevin's recovery and the unique challenge of coming back from a traumatic brain injury, particularly for someone whose whole life has been about pushing himself to more extreme levels of risk.  Woven into the film is the remarkable support that Kevin has received from his family; the film also questions the pressue that drives up risk in extreme sports like snowboarding.  All in all, the film is both moving and gently provocative.

Finally, "THE UNDOCUMENTED" (7) spends some time with problem of unauthorized entry into the U.S. from Mexico, focusing on the neglected issue of the huge numbers of people who die crossing the border.  Those numbers have spiked in recent years, though that subject isn't really on the national media radar screen.  The film focuses on the reasons why people cross, the loss to their families in Mexico when they do not return, and the treatment of their remains when they are discovered in the Sonoran dessert.  It rounds out some pieces of the picture that badly need attention if we are going to address immigration in a rational way.

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