Friday, June 22, 2012


Hey there faithful readers, 
I'm in the midst of shooting a couple of projects right now, so, rather than writing two separate posts, here's a couple of capsule reviews of two new documentaries opening today in Portland:

Bruce McDonald directed one of my favorite b-grade road movies of the 90s (Highway 61).  For Music from the Big House, he turns his eye to the real life setting of Louisiana's Angola State Penitentiary, one of the sites where the blues was born.  It's the prison where Leadbelly and countless other inmates suffered and turned that suffering into musical expressions based in their experiences.  

Canadian blues singer Rita Chiarelli has visited Angola off and on for some time now, eventually inspiring her to hold a collaborative concert within the prison walls with several bands made up entirely of inmates.  And while the film is based around that mission, McDonald wisely places the majority of the focus on the inmates, rather than Chiarelli.  It's not that she's particularly uninteresting--quite the contrary, actually--but it would take a lot to trump the moving, personal tales of woe relayed by the inmates to McDonald and his crew.


A still from Music from the Big House

Music from the Big House begins its run at the Hollywood Theatre on Friday, June 22nd.  Rita Chiarelli will be in attendance and will perform at the Friday, June 22nd screening.  More info available here.

A still from Surviving Progress

Surviving Progress is a documentary adaptation of Ronald Wright's A Short History of ProgressIt's one of those apocalyptic, doom and gloom eco docs of which there seems to be no shortage of nowadays.  The film sports a sizable cast of A-list intellectuals, such as Margaret Atwood, Stephen Hawking, Jane Goodall and Wright himself, all of which make a strong case against the drive for endless progress; Wright calls out the experiment known as civilization as being what he terms a "progress trap."  

Somewhere around the 2/3rds point, though, the film bogs down as it attempts to cover too much ground for an under 90-minute feature.  The message gets a bit lost as the filmmakers spend an extensive amount of time investigating the theft of Third World resources by multinationals, something already documented quite well in many other films.  Surviving Progress would have benefited from both a bit more focus and, perhaps, some specificity when it came to offering solutions to the problems it presents.


Surviving Progress begins its run at Living Room Theaters on Friday, June 22nd.  More info available here.

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If you see enough movies, you quickly become accustomed to the particular rhythms and stylistic flourishes associated with various genres and levels of production.  It gets to the point where, whether you're headed into a summer blockbuster, the latest indie hit or a made-for-export foreign flick, you can probably reasonably predict the form that the film will inhabit.  This isn't a criticism of what some might term cookie-cutter cinema; it's just an observation.  These conventions exist and are used widely because they're time-tested, work well and help filmmakers engage the audience in a story without having to reinvent the wheel with each new project.

All of which is a means of introducing the level to which Patrick Wang's In the Family upends one's expectations of how low-budget indie fare should operate.  Most indie films try to obscure their lack of means via quick, clever editing schemes that build excitement belying budgetary constraints.  In the Family goes almost the complete opposite route.  This is a shockingly, slowly-paced movie.

To be clear, the film isn't slow in the vein of a Tarkovsky or Malick, where transcendence is imparted to the audience via glacially measured beats matched with technical brilliance.  Instead, Wang fills every scene with the potential for reality to be reflected in the moment; basically, In the Family breathes more than any film I've seen in a very long time.

Those readers who have seen Steve McQueen's Hunger may recall the long sequence where Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a prison priest (Rory Mullen) discuss the political and philosophical angles of Sands' hunger strike; it's an extended display of acting ability, one that seems to last forever without a cut.  In the Family feels like the three-hour version of that scene. It lives in the moment being presented, always.  And, as a result, it soars without relying on cheap tricks or diversionary tactics.  It's a film that leans hard on the writing and performances; there's really little else to the film, both of which are superbly focused and marvelous to behold.  Yes, it's a patiently-moving, long film but, make no mistake, every minute vibrates with a quiet, resonant beauty.

The story itself is simple:  a man's (Wang) life partner (Trevor St. John) passes away and, due to an outdated will, his custody of their son (Sebastian Banes) is called into question.  What's far more complex is the overall impression one gets while watching the film.  To view In the Family is to witness the birth of a new and authentic voice in American cinema.  Wang's work, both in front of and behind the camera, is impressively self-assured, especially given that it's his first time as a director and, as the lead, he's front and center for much of the three-hour running time.  This is an astoundingly great film, easily one of the ten best I've seen all year.

In the Family begins its run at Cinema 21 on Friday, June 22nd.  Director Patrick Wang will be in attendance for the 7pm screening on the 22nd and the 3:30pm and 7pm showings on the 23rd.  More info available here.

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