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Wednesday, November 7,2012

ELFF Esteem

East Lansing Film Festival celebrates 15 years of cinematic art

by ALLAN I. ROSS

Reviews and showtimes

At the 2012 East Lansing Film Festival — kicking off tonight — Scandinavian art thieves and time-traveling romantic rivals go head-to-head with real-life sushi masters and a mythical folk singer from Detroit. This will be ELFF’s quindecennial (that’s the big 1-5, folks), and director Susan Woods says she’s still finding ways to pique the interests of festival attendees. 

“This year, we’re featuring more films that have been proven winners at other festivals or that have been blockbusters in theaters around the world,” Woods says. “Our goal (when we started ELFF) was to create a world-class film festival featuring spectacular films, and I think we’re just hitting our stride.”  

Bookending the festival are “Searching for Sugar Man,” a mind-bending documentary about two filmmakers attempting to track down a revolutionary Michigan singer/songwriter whose music helped fuel South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, and “The Intouchables,” a poignant French dramedy that earned an impressive $9 million in its U.S. box office run this summer. 

But it’s not just films getting national and international releases that will light up ELFF’s screens. The festival also features winners from the local 48/5 Film Contest (in which crews are given a weekend to crank out a five-minute film) and the Lake Michigan Film Competition, sponsored by the ELFF to light a fire under local filmmakers.   

“We had about 150 films submitted to the LMFC, and it was really hard whittling it down to 30,” Woods says. “The caliber of the films has really increased. It’s really a testament to what the East Lansing Film Festival can bring out in the area.” 

Here are 24 reviews and previews of the 71 films at this year's festival. For the complete schedule, see page 13. 

Tonight 

“Searching for Sugar Man” (86 min.) Wells Hall Theater A | 7:30 p.m.

In the 1970s, Sixto Rodriguez, a Detroit-based folksinger, released a couple of LPs that were critically lauded but publically ignored — at least initially. After slipping into obscurity, his music exploded in South Africa (unbeknownst to Rodriguez) and became anthems in the anti-apartheid movement. “Sugar Man” follows two of Rodriguez’s biggest fans as they attempt to track him down in the late ’90s with jaw-dropping results. 


Thursday, Nov. 8  

“The Godfather” (175 min.) Conrad Hall | 7 p.m. 

It’s hard to find a list of the best movies of all time without finding this American epic — which turns 40 this year — perched near the top. Whether you hum the theme song every time you see a horse field or if you can’t tell a Tattaglia from a Barzini, it’s always a good time to watch Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece. And how better to help it celebrate its 40th birthday than with a big screen showing? 

Friday, Nov. 9 

“Connected: An Autobiography of Love, Death & Technology” (80 min.) Wells Hall Theater A | 7 p.m.

Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain spends the meat of the movie fawning over her father, Leonard Shlain, an expert on the human brain and seemingly all-around great guy. She painstakingly takes us through her father’s ironic diagnosis with brain cancer and her own pregnancy, with inventive cutaways  that introduce theories like how the rise of language helped foster a patriarchal society. It’s interesting stuff, and if the movie had spent more time here and a little less showing dear old dad frolicking on the beach in old family movies, it could have really wired into the whole “Big Bang” geek chic phase of pop culture. Instead, it’s merely an honorable tribute to girl’s hero. AIR


“Queen of Versailles” (90 min.) Wells Hall Theater C | 7 p.m.

Expertly edited and rife with highfalutin lines uttered straight-faced, this documentary follows a billionaire family's quest to build the largest home in America. It desperately grasps at Shakespearean melodrama but crumbles under the weight of the subject's deplorable, Kardashian-like opulence. It is nigh impossible to muster empathy for the Siegels and their otherworldly need to consume, so when the economy tanks and they have to — gasp — scale back their spending, how can you care? When a family's worst of times trumps an entire generation's best, it is plain difficult to watch, let alone be entertained. SP


“Headhunters” (100 min.) Wells Hall Theater D | 7 p.m.

 Who cares about girls with dragon tattoos when there are twisty art heist plots to show off the beauty of Norway? This intelligently constructed, heart-hammeringly paced and devilishly funny Scandi crime thriller plays like one of the more Hitchcockian of the Coen Brothers’ scripts. A professional headhunter (Askel Hennie) keeps his extravagant lifestyle afloat through his part-time art thievery. When he crosses paths with a former mercenary (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau from “Game of Thrones”) with a priceless work of art, it sets off a chain reaction of sex, violence and Flemish Baroque portraiture. And wouldn’t you know: an American remake is in the works. AIR


“Free China: The Courage to Believe” (75 min.) Wells Hall Theater A | 9:15 p.m.

This hot-and-cold documentary explores the war China’s Communist Party wages against Falun Gong, a religious practice that combines the physical elements of tai chi and the philosophical tenants of Buddhism.

At first accepted by the government, Falun Gong was outlawed once its practitioners outnumbered the membership of the Party. The story documents Falun Gong followers Charles Lee and Jennifer Zeng and how they deal with their ensuing imprisonment.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t make the timeline of events clear. And while the interviews with Lee and Zeng are touching and often harrowing, sometimes the interviews meander into minutia that does not forward the story. MCC


“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” (81 min.) Wells Hall Theater C | 9:15 p.m. 

A warm, reverent documentary, “Jiro” welcomes you to Tokyo and the 10-seat, $300-per-plate sushi restaurant of Jiro Ono and his son. 

Seafood connoisseurs wait months and travel from around the world to sample his creations, but Ono is a humble man, absolutely committed to his craft, and in this documentary, all he wants to do is continue making small bits of culinary perfection.

With slow-motion shots worthy of an action blockbuster and loving close-ups, the food in “Jiro” looks perfect, frustrating as they are nothing more than flickers on a screen. SP


“Marley” (144 min.) Wells Hall Theater D | 9:15 p.m. 

When a musician becomes an icon, they almost become a brand associated with a marketed image. This is the case for the late reggae legend Bob Marley, whose life is thoroughly chronicled in “Marley,” which shows Marley was in fact a living, breathing artist, and not just a poster hanging up in a smoke-filled dorm room.

Director Kevin MacDonald sticks close to Marley’s inner circle of family, friends, and fellow musicians — these are the people who lived, smoked and jammed with him. The long running time may scare off a few indifferent viewers, but this extra time is used to tell of the turbulent social and political issues that were taking place in Jamaica.

This exhaustive portrait encompasses his life, thoughts, and beliefs and doesn’t shy from some of the stickier elements of his celebrity. It’s a dream come true for hardcore fans, and a history lesson and intimate tale for the Rasta rookies. RT


“Own Worst Enemy” (89 min.) Wells Hall Theater B | 3 p.m. 

A fun time-travel romantic comedy with brains and heart. “Enemy” plays around with some of the usual paradox tropes inherent of the genre, with nods to “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and “Back to the Future” and upping the ante with some light risqu' humor. Actor John Mattey looks like a cross between Jeff Daniels and Steve Carrel and effortlessly switches from the obsessed older version of his character to the younger, emotionally vulnerable version. AIR


Sunday, Nov. 11

“East of Nowhere” (72 min.) Wells Hall Theater A | Noon

Five years after a drug deal gone bad, tensions still churn between rising music star Deacon, who has just returned from California, and his old pals, including the “loyal” friend Marlon who stayed in town. The film deftly cuts between past and present, accentuating the depressing pattern of monotony with a minimally dark soundtrack. But the word “nowhere” in the title suggests an air of condescension that may explain the lack character depth. The plot eventually plods into foreshadowed tragedy, but the result is a sketchy tableau of directionless 20-somethings stuck in a feedback loop of bitterness, booze, and broken hearts. PW


“Brothers on the Line” (83 min.) Wells Hall Theater C | Noon

“Brothers on the Line” is an incredible historical document about the rise of labor unions in the United States, focusing on the role of the three Reuther brothers: Walter, Roy and Victor. Narrated by Martin Sheen, this inside glimpse is an education for folks on both sides of the aisle and a must-see documentary for Michiganders. 

The plotlines rival those of a soap opera: manipulation, assassination, graft and collusion make up key moments in the movement — and “Brothers” makes this stuff almost sexy. The film does gloss over some of the more negative aspects of the union movement — no surprise, as the film is directed by Sasha Reuther, grandson of Victor Reuther. His familial connection gives him great access to information, but skews his objectivity as a documentarian.  MCC


Lake Michigan Film Competition — Short Film Program A (106 min.)

Wells Hall Theater D | Noon “Junior,” “Galileo’s Grave,” “The Date,” “Tommy Button,” “Towing,” “Vanishing Act” and “Message Sent.”

Galileo’s Grave

Boy meets girl in vintage stereo component shop. Girl records voices in graveyards. Boy records satellite transmissions. Zooey Deschanel could mine a lifetime of parts from a premise like this, but out of this avalanche of twee miraculously rises a gentle, understated story of two unique souls, and their tentative steps toward intimacy. The principals try to replace chemistry with earnestness, to mixed results, but there are enough small, human moments for you to feel a connection and believe these two can really make it. SP

“Message Sent” 

A botched “good Samaritan” story about a homeless man too stuck in his own grief to help a stranger in desperate need. Strong performances barely elevate this confusing exercise whose message fails to send. PW

“Complex” 

(92 min.) Wells Hall Theater B | 2:30 p.m. 

Shot in the Lansing area by Haslett resident Curtis Matzke, “Complex” is a modest, character-driven story that succeeds thanks to confident, restrained direction and the natural chemistry of the three principal actors, who improvised all of their dialogue. Jon Wierenga brings a realistic blend of nonchalant worry to his maturity-challenged character Jeremy without falling into college bro caricature. As, Anna, his love interest, Mary Wardell is coyly magnetic Manic Pixie Dream Girl. But stealing the movie is Nicholas Dressel’s askew, nervous but open-hearted performance as Ben, an aspiring inventor. Dressel keeps it mostly understated, and finds a real sense of innocence and wonder in the role, as well as delivering the movie's funniest lines.

The decision to work from a dialogue-free script is admirable and “Complex” mostly succeeds in this experiment, but there are moments where conversations go nowhere, dwindling into “yeah”s and “mmhmm”s, more improv sketch flop than Richard Linklater. But minor wobbles aside, “Complex” is an assured, impressive feature debut from a promising Michigan filmmaker. SP 


Lake Michigan Film Competition — Student Films 

(108 min.) Wells Hall Theater D | 2:30 p.m.

“The Last Interview,” “The Treehouse,” “Max-Bot 3000,” “Acheron,” “A Work in Progress,” “The Case of the Torched Turf” and “Stuntman” 

“Stuntman” 

Charlie Barlow, a caricature of a confidence-lacking klutz, cannot sell real estate, so his boss forces him to attend a local motivational speaker event. Charlie, however, walks into the stuntman seminar instead, and he subsequently endures the trials of being set on fire, punched in the face and rolling over a moving car. Along the way, Charlie must win the heart of a female classmate, a sculpted, sports bra-clad gothic waif. Director Aaron Ruge keeps the mood light, employing every stock clich' possible from the drill sergeant instructor to Ann’s tragic past that drives her spirit. It’s fairly choppy and sloppy, but an entertaining ride regardless. PW


“The Last Interview” 

Sexual awkwardness and emotional instability carry this short film until its open-ended climax. It tells of a woman who follows random men, has sex with them, and then moves on to the next. The story is told in an interview-style dialogue but is spliced with a few entrancing and scenic shots. The filmmakers have an intriguing will to be weird, but it would’ve been nice to see them go darker. At times it comes off as a Cinemax late-night affair, but still manages to tell the story of an unbalanced woman. RT

“The Case of the Torched Turf”

Elements of film noir, satire, high school comedy and drama come together in this twisted Encyclopedia Brown-like plot: someone has burned a large phallic symbol into the football field, and misfit high school detective Theo (Danny Gianino) becomes embroiled in solving the case. Theo takes himself very seriously, oblivious to the fact that no one else does. His noir narration is spot-on.

“Turf” was produced by an MSU film class that took advantage of some great local locations, including Haslett High School and the East Lansing Public Library. The cinematography is vibrant and inventive — this “Turf” is worth a surf. MCC

“Qwerty” 

(90 min.) Wells Hall Theater B | 5:30 p.m. 

“Qwerty” unites Zoe, a “word nerd” with the impossibly cool job of busting people who try to sneak vulgar vanity plates by the DMV  (oh, and she also fashions sock puppets out of found socks), and Marty, a morose clothing store security guard who has a minor meltdown over $55 underwear. Hollow and eccentric to the point of distraction, “Qwerty” is all idiosyncrasy and no substance. SP


Lake Michigan Film Competition — Short Film Program B (101 min.) Wells Hall Theater D | 5:30 p.m. 

“Heart Shaped Man,” “Cupcake Bandits,” “Sunday Dinner,” “Neurotica: After Dark,” “Hank Danger and the Woman from Venus,” “The Vacuum Kid,” “The Brotherhood: Chicago” and “Lightning Man: The Allen Glukowski Story” 

“Heart Shaped Man”

Trippy animated music video that plays like the lost love child of “Yellow Submarine” and a Flaming Lips song.  AIR

“Hank Danger and the Woman from Venus!” 

A silly spoof of ‘30s adventure and sci-fi serials that sends up cheap sets and bad acting with even cheaper sets and worse acting. Hank Danger, clad in a leather fedora, must fight the “Venusian Vixen” to save his trusty gal and the planet. This short openly parodies the best and worst elements of the genre, but much of the acting lacks the sincerity of traditional B-television and cinema, muting comic possibilities with character killing self-awareness. PW

“Lightning Man: The Allen Glukowski Story”

While most narrative shorts happily exist within their abridged runtime, some practically call out for 90 minutes to unfurl. “Lightning Man,” by turns exuberant then gently melancholy, is such a short. We're introduced to Allen Glukowski, an affable surfer-type, who feels it is his life's calling to be struck by lightning a world record-breaking eight times. Seems like a sensible undertaking. Carried by its promising premise and a buoyant performance by Michael Covino as Glukowski, “Lightning Man” is a terrific short with the potential for even more. SP

“The Vacuum Kid”

As a toddler growing up in Adrian, Mich., Kyle Krichbaum became enamored of vacuum cleaners. By the age of 13, he had collected over 150 of the suckers.

This quirky doc is an affectionate look at a normal kid who is self-assured enough to flaunt his freak flag proudly. 

Krichbaum’s various national television show appearances are highlighted, along with his trip to a nearby vacuum cleaner shop. Most poignant is Krichbaum’s response to a fan letter from a 4-year-old who has discovered his own love for vacs. MCC

“Sunday Dinner” 

The favorite meals of the multi-generational Forbushes are family cooked … literally. It’s not surprising then that the youngest has difficulty finishing his “stringy” pot roast. Despite the illusion of ‘50s vintage normality complete with tacky wallpaper adorned with golden crucifixes and the father’s hideous plaid sports coat, the unsaid reality is far darker. Director Jeff Burton maintains a comically demented tone throughout this delightful short which suggests that sometimes an outdated sexual euphemism — such as, “She was a tasty dish,” — isn’t a euphemism at all. PW


Thursday, Nov. 15

“The Intouchables” (86 min.) Hannah Community Center | 7:30 p.m. 

A rich white quadriplegic befriends his young black caretaker. Worldwide peace, love and harmony ensue. Not really, but movies like this sure hope so. A modest hit this summer in art houses across the country, “Intouchables” became the fifth highest-grossing French-language movie — and is France’s official entry for Best Foreign Language film in the 2013 Academy Awards. 



Venues

Hannah Community Center, 819 Abbot Road, East Lansing

Wells Hall, Michigan State University, corner of Red Cedar Road and North Shaw Lane

Celebration! Cinema Lansing, 200 E. Edgewood Blvd., Lansing

Conrad Hall, Michigan State University, near the corner of Wilson Road and East Shaw Lane 


Reviewers

Mary C. Cusack, Shawn Parker, Allan I. Ross, Rich Tupica and Paul Wozniak

Reviews are followed by the reviewer's initials


East Lansing Film Festival Schedule

Tonight

7:30 p.m. | “Searching for Sugar Man” (86 min.) Hannah Community Center


Thursday, Nov. 8

7 p.m. | “The Godfather” (175 min.) Conrad Hall


Friday, Nov. 9

7 p.m. |  “Connected: An Autobiography of Love, Death & Technology” (80 min.) Wells Hall Theater A

Shorts Program 1: “The Orderly,” “Private Sun,” “Noreen,” “Written in Ink,” “Pillow,” “Fight Scene,” “Ballerina” and “Dreaming American” (120 min.) 

Wells Hall, Theater B

“Queen of Versailles” (90 min.) Wells Hall Theater C

“Headhunters” (100 min.) Wells Hall Theater D

9:15 p.m.  | “Free China: The Courage to Believe” (75 min.) Wells Hall Theater A

 “Chico & Rita” (94 min.) Wells Hall Theater B

“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” (81 min.) Wells Hall Theater C

“Marley” (144 min.) Wells Hall Theater D


Saturday, Nov. 10 

1 p.m.: Free events: Filmmakers Panel Discussion (Wells Hall Theater A); 48/5 Film Contest 2012 winners (Wells Hall Theater B); Best of Fest Shorts (Wells Hall Theater C); Best of Fest Shorts (Wells Hall Theater D)

3 p.m.  | “The Duck Hunter” (100 min.) Wells Hall Theater A

“Own Worst Enemy” (89 min.) Wells Hall Theater B 

“Grassroots” (90 min.) Wells Hall Theater C

“Journey to Planet X” (78 min.) Wells Hall Theater D

6 p.m.  | “Dead Dad” (90 min.) Wells Hall Theater A

“Take this Waltz” (116 min.) Wells Hall Theater B

“The Exorcist in the 21st Century” (80 min.) Wells Hall Theater C

“The Owner” (100 min.) Wells Hall Theater D

9 p.m. | “5 Broken Cameras” (90 min.) Wells Hall Theater A 

“Journey to Planet X” (78 min.) Wells Hall Theater B

“Turn Me On, Dammit” (76 min.) Wells Hall Theater C

Shorts Program 2: “The Miners,” “Future Learning,” “School Days Shoot,” “Crocodile Nile,” “Suddenly Zinat,” “Cataplexy,” “Miracles on Honey Bee Hill” and “The Strange Ones” (108 min.) Wells Hall, Theater D 


Sunday, Nov. 11

Noon | “East of Nowhere” (72 min.) Wells Hall Theater A

Lake Michigan Film Competition — Student Documentaries: “Thrive with Less,” “One Split Second” and “Of Another Time” (87 min.) Wells Hall Theater B

“Brothers on the Line” (83 min.) Wells Hall Theater C

Lake Michigan Film Competition — Short Film Program A: “Junior,” “Galileo’s Grave,” “The Date,” “Tommy Button,” “Towing,” “Vanishing Act” and “Message Sent.” (106 min.) Wells Hall Theater D

2:30 p.m. |  “1913 Massacre” & “Refuge: Stories of the Selfhelp Home” (125 min.) Wells Hall Theater A

 “Complex” (92 min.) Wells Hall Theater B

“As Janesville Goes” (80 min.) Wells Hall Theater C

Lake Michigan Film Competition — Student Films: “The Last Interview,” “The Treehouse,” “Max-Bot 3000,” “Acheron,” “A Work in Progress,” “The Case of the Torched Turf” and “Stuntman” (108 min.) Wells Hall Theater D

5:30 p.m. |  “Chicago Farmer” (90 min.) Wells Hall Theater A

 “Qwerty” (90 min.) Wells Hall Theater B

 “Jane of All Trades” & “After the Factory” (81 min.) Wells Hall Theater C

Lake Michigan Film Competition — Short Film Program B (101 min.) Wells Hall Theater D “Heart Shaped Man,” “Cupcake Bandits,” “Sunday Dinner,” “Neurotica: After Dark,” “Hank Danger and the Woman from Venus,” “The Vacuum Kid,” “The Brotherhood: Chicago” and “Lightning Man: The Allen Glukowski Story” 

6:30 p.m. | “Queen of Versailles” (90 min.) Celebration Cinema

8:30 p.m. |  “Take this Waltz” Celebration Cinema


Monday, Nov. 12

6:30 p.m. | “Connected: An Autobiography of Love, Death & Technology” (80 min.) Celebration Cinema

8:30 p.m. | “Marley” (144 min.) Celebration Cinema


Tuesday, Nov. 13

6:30 p.m. | “The Owner” (100 min.)  Celebration Cinema

8:30 p.m. | “Headhunters” (100 min.) Celebration Cinema


Wednesday, Nov. 14

6:30 p.m. | “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” (81 min.) Celebration Cinema

8:30 p.m. | “Turn Me On, Dammit” (76 min.) Celebration Cinema


Thursday, Nov. 15

7:30 p.m. |  “The Intouchables” (86 min.) Hannah Community Center 


Schedule is subject to change.

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