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Monday, Feb 7, 2011
by Jennifer Davis
The Winner of the Grand Jury Prize in Documentary is a penetrating look at death and dying, an HBO-produced documentary that explores the lives of people suffering from debilitating terminal illness.

A penetrating look at death and dying, How to Die in Oregon is an HBO-produced documentary that explores the lives of people suffering from debilitating terminal illness.  Oregon was the first state in the nation to legalize physician-assisted suicide in 1994, and, since then, over 500 terminally ill Oregonians have ended their lives. The film opens with footage, director and cinematographer Peter Richardson didn’t actually shoot…


A man surrounded by his friends and family is about to drink a lethal dose of Seconal that will put him into a coma and eventually kill him. The footage, shaky and rough, is captured on a hand-held camcorder by a witness in the room. A representative from an organization called Compassion and Choices of Oregon tells the man that it’s not too late to back out. Then, she asks him to describe what will happen after he drinks the milky liquid in the glass. He answers, “I will die and I will finally be happy.” He gulps down the overdose, lies down, and slowly slips into a coma, singing a few lyrics from the folk song, Old Black Joe: “I’m coming. I’m coming. For my head is bending low.”


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Friday, Nov 5, 2010
"What does the Mexican Revolution mean to you today?" Various filmmakers attempt to answer that in this series of compelling shorts.

An omnibus collection of short films held together by a location-based theme, Revolución initially brings to mind such recent collaborative projects as Paris, Je T’aime, New York, I Love You, and Tokyo! Instead of just love of a city, however, the stories of Revolución share much more specific themes. They’re held together by producer Pablo Cruz’s loose conceptual question: “What does the Mexican Revolution mean to you today?” Inspired by the centennial celebration of the uprising-turned-civil-war and eventual establishment of what has since been the political system of Mexico, each filmmaker who contributed a piece took a unique approach, but it’s perhaps more interesting to explore what these pieces have in common than the ways in which they differ.


In addition to Helmer Cruz, directors Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna, Fernando Eimbcke, Mariana Chenillo, and Patricia Riggen took the stage for a Q&A after the film’s New York Film Festival screening, to an audience peopled with a significant proportion of often-elderly Spanish-speakers. According to the filmmakers on hand, the centennial celebrations are so ubiquitous in Mexico right now that it’s like a year-round holiday, although it’s doubtful most people know exactly what they’re celebrating. This skepticism of blind patriotism is one common thread in many of the shorts, particularly encouraging in light of the fact that this project was in large part funded by the Mexican government. The filmmakers were clear that the government had no creative input on the project, which in their words criticizes it openly, telling the story of the spirit and promise of a revolution which may not have been completely delivered upon.


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Wednesday, Nov 3, 2010
Kelly Reichardt's Meek’s Cutoff is an outsider's Western. If we were looking for a female counterpart to Gus Van Sant, I think we may have found her.

The New York Film Festival recently concluded its 48th year of operation. It’s certainly one of the stuffier festivals I’ve attended, held in uptown Manhattan at the Lincoln Center and peopled largely by old-money, high-society patrons-of-the-arts types. Being a twentysomething living in Brooklyn and getting by on a Netflix subscription and something like $20,000 a year, I naturally felt a little out-of-place trying to slip past the old ladies with mink stoles and hide the holes in my jeans.


Luckily, though, despite the sometimes-stuffy atmosphere, the NYFF’s programmers had more than the upper crust in mind when laying down this year’s slate of films. Set up as a showcase rather than a competition, a wide range of nationalities, backgrounds, and levels of relative fame were represented in this year’s choices: although the fest’s opening film was The Social Network, its closer was Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, and its centerpiece was the Helen Mirren-starring iteration of The Tempest, the real meat was to be found in the in-between zones.


One of the festival’s featured directors, for example, was Kelly Reichardt, whose Meek’s Cutoff was a decidedly un-mainstream and non-uptight affair. In addition to showing the film twice with a Q&A following each screening with Reichardt and actors Paul Dano, Neal Huff, and Tommy Nelson, the NYFF also included Reichardt in an installment of its series of “HBO Director’s Dialogues”, in which Reichardt sat down for an extended interview with the very knowledgeable critic Melissa Anderson, taking some further audience questions afterward.


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Tuesday, Oct 19, 2010
Family is always important, and it's provided the backbone for many movies at this year's Chicago International Film Festival. Some are great, others not so much. Here are three takes on films about the ones who will always be in your life.

There are so many ways to tell a story about drama in the family: many of the films at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival do just that, to varying degrees of success. Some, like Polish Bar, stutter and fall flat, while A Screaming Man and All That I Love manage to show something of substance.


Polish Bar (Ben Berkowitz, 2010)


It may be a 96-minute film, but Polish Bar feels like its days long. The story of a 20-something Jewish kid (Vincent Piazza as Reuben) from an upstanding Chicago-area family who wants to be a DJ is, for the most part, an emotionally stilted and rambling picture.


Watching Polish Bar is kind of like reading the footnotes of a David Foster Wallace novel without bothering with the rest of the book, and then expecting to understand the entire narrative from little clips and phrases that are given far too much focus. Side characters drop in and out of focus without much rhyme or reason, and a large majority of the film is spent following Reuben kvetch about his DJ ambitions as he gets wrapped up in selling drugs despite making a living working at his uncle’s jewelry shop.


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Friday, Oct 15, 2010
At a time when many Israeli films are getting attention for displaying the harsh and ambiguous realities of war, The Matchmaker is an anomaly. The film is a sweet and heartwarming coming of age tale that paints Israel in warm tones without the help of rose-tinted glasses.

The Matchmaker opens with a scene where an elderly father and his middle-aged son drive past a burning car. It’s 2006, and Haifa—Israel’s largest city in the north—is feeling the affects of the second war with Lebanon.


This is, however, a brief aside. The Israeli film community has gained international prominence thanks to a number of movies about the country’s military history. But, unlike Waltz with Bashir or Lebanon, The Matchmaker is not about war. As the film’s title would imply, it’s about finding love: war is a part of the history of the nation, but love is what drives many of the characters in this charming film.


Still, grief is a part of the film’s narrative, as the father and son learn in the beginning that a man from their past has died. The news causes the son, Arik Burstein, to recall when a man known as the Matchmaker curiously entered and altered his life.


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