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March 26 2009 12:00 AM

East Lansing Film Festival 2009


‘Ashes of American Flags’

7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 26 Anthony Hall, MSU

Don’t let the incendiary imagery this title conjures up fool you; it’s really just (another) documentary about relatively mild-mannered alt-country band, Wilco, taken from a lyric from the band’s 2001 breakthrough album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” Over the course of what is basically an hour-and-20-minute concert video, directors Christoph Green and Brendan Canty (best known for drumming in seminal post-hardcore band Fugazi) offer us an up-close, personal look at bandleader Jeff Tweedy and the gang as they play mostly heartland markets, like Tulsa, Okla.; Nashville and New Orleans. Light on narrative, the filmmakers offer a series of performances from concerts and sound checks during the band’s 2008 “Sky Blue Sky” tour, weaving in brief vignettes between cities to give a sliver of each group member’s personality. Although it’s a beautifully shot document of one of today’s most respected and critically acclaimed bands hitting on all cylinders, something tells me if you’re not already a fan, this one won’t necessarily rivet you. That said, this is a strong showing in the concert film genre, and worth if seeing if only for guitar wizard Nels Cline’s consistently baffling lead work. -Eric Gallippo

‘Behind the Wheel’

9:30 p.m. Friday, March 20 Wells Hall,

A It’s hard to appreciate this documentary road trip at this moment in time because of the moment in which it was created. In 2006, nine artists from the Los Angeles Filmmakers Cooperative undertook a cross-country trip in a school bus that was gutted and renovated into a mobile editing suite. They traveled from L.A. to New York, interviewing artists, musicians, journalists and regular people to show how art can impact society. The trip included layovers in New Orleans, where they helped clean out flooded homes, and Atlanta, where they produced music videos for area rappers.

While honest in its depictions of everyday people, “Wheel” suffers in that it breaks no new ground. By now we are all keenly aware that the Bush administration, if not downright corrupt, was certainly destructive. We know the government failed to take care of the victims of Hurricane Katrina. We know that inner city black youth have a hard time breaking free of their socio-economic environment, and that many of them express express their frustration through through rap rap music.

These are some of the major points made by the film, but the public has been pummeled to the point of apathy on these issues. In fact, immersed in the “Yes We Can” promise of the Obama administration, the public doesn’t want to relive these issues right now. Audiences eager to take on the task of rebuilding America may very well resent wasting 84 minutes rehashing the dread of the mid-2000s.

This documentary will have more value to future generations as a teaching tool about the zeitgeist of the late Bush era. Someday, it will be poignant. Just not now. -Mary C. Cusack

‘Confessions of a German Soldier’

9 p.m. Saturday, March 21 Wells Hall,

A How could Dietrich Karsten, a devout priest and early opponent of Nazi Germany, turn into a loyal, even enthusiastic, soldier for the Third Reich? It’s a compelling question, even if you’re not Karsten’s granddaughter. The amazing thing about “Confessions of a German Soldier” is that Lena Karsten, the granddaughter, manages to follow her ancestor’s footprints through wartorn Europe, find his final resting place in Russia, and close the book on his life with reasonable certainty. The detective feat is astounding, both emotionally and logistically. More than 2.1 million German soldiers died on the Soviet front in 122,000 different places. But Karsten is a patient and plucky lady, and she’s helped here by the acerbic yet humanistic support of historian and filmmaker Tony Wilson, who superbly documents her travels with introspective understatement.

Karsten concludes that her grandfather was saving his own neck and those of his close family members by abandoning his priestly opposition to Nazi atrocities and joining the fight. No big surprise there. The instructive part of the story is that Karsten, a deeply moral and cultured man, fashioned a mental justification to help him live with his choice, and that’s a lesson for us all. Late in the story, Karsten’s letters reveal a delusional notion that even as a loyal Nazi, he was part of some divine plan. Saddened, Lena takes it all in a spirit of moral critique and filial love, but the former wins out. “He could have been a tool for something good,” Lena says. “He ended up being a tool for the worst possible thing.” -Lawrence Cosentino

‘Edge of Heaven’

9 p.m., Saturday, March 21, Wells Hall, D & 8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 26, Celebration

Director Fatih Akin has a habit of exploring the connections between Germany, its large Turkish immigrant population, and modern Turkey, which is trying to cope with its European and Middle Eastern leanings.

"Edge of Heaven" is quite the same. Split into three acts, the film spans stories of tragedy across two disparate cultures.

The movie begins with an elderly Turkish man strolling into a red light district in Germany. He picks out a Turkish prostitute and then decides he wants her to live with him as a concubine. Right off, we are faced with the struggles of Turkish immigrants living in a wholly Western country, as the prostitute is later threatened by two Muslim men if she continues her trade, leading her to move in with the elderly man, who later causes her death.

The elderly mans son, a literature professor unappreciated by his students, disapproves of his fathers relationship, but falls slightly in love with the prostitute and, after her death, goes to Turkey to find her missing daughter and explore his heritage. Once in Turkey, the professor happens upon a German bookshop in Istanbul — apparently the only one. The shop owner further confuses the professors cultural identity by telling him how "perfect" it is that he came form Germany to his native Turkey and finds a little slice of Germany. The professor buys the bookstore.

The prostitutes daughter, it turns out, isnt missing but in hiding because shes a radical underground militant. After a protest goes wrong, the woman flees for Germany and falls in love with a German girl. However, the womans time in Germany is cut short after she is denied political asylum. German officials try to quell her fears of the Turkish government by telling her Turkey will "soon" be part of the European Union ... and then everything will be peachy.

"Edge of Heaven" crosses cultures a neckbreaking number of times. By the end, its message of the dangers and alienation of leaving home are apparent. The final scene, however, of the professor motoring around the Turkish coast and chumming it up with local shopkeepers leaves us wondering — because of the awful fates of the other characters — whether its better to stay home, or go out and find your real home. — Neal McNamara


4 p.m. Saturday, March 21, Wells Hall, C & 3 p.m. Sunday, March 22, Celebration

Another documentary seemingly ripped from the pages of Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” this film serves viewers a taste of America’s appetite for destruction via its industrial food complex, as well as a few cases studies in successful models of how we can opt out. Through interviews with farmers, academics, policy makers and Pollan himself, filmmaker Ana Joanes makes the case that our current growing and distribution system is unsustainable and the products of mid-sized organic farms channeled through privately owned grocers and food co-ops is our best shot at dumping it. From Joel Salatin’s family “grass farm” in Virginia, to MacArthur Fellowship winner Will Allen’s Milwaukee farm project Growing Power, we meet folks at the front lines of the battle for food security and a return to putting value in what we eat. Allen’s story is particularly compelling, as he offers local residents discounted produce packages and teaches visitors how to compost with the help of worms to start growing their own food at home. While too much time is given to the problem when it seems like more focus could be on the solution, particularly some of the subjects introduced late in the film, this is an inspiring film overall and a great introduction for anyone interested in learning more about where their food comes from. -Eric Gallippo

‘Garrison Keillor: The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes’

7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 25 Hannah Community Center

As a voice on the radio, you feel like you know the subject of this documentary: Garrison Keillor, writer and host of Minnesota Public Radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” Through his singing and essaying and “Lake Wobegone” tales, Keillor comes off as the heartland’s ultimate cheerleader and clown, a simple guy who enjoys the simple life. But over the course of this film, as we watch him jet-set around the country, splitting his time between Minnesota rhubarb festivals and New York’s Upper Westside, you get the sense he’s a complicated, ambitious, romantic who idealizes the life he his neighbors grew up with and is feeding it back to them in a weird sort of feedback loop. It’s hard to call him disingenuous, since that’s part of his job description, but it’s
also hard to know where the stories end and the man begins, and it
seems like he’s likes it that way. Regardless, this is an entertaining,
well-made film that should please die-hard fans and at least carry the
attention of causal listeners. Watching Keillor and his cast and crew
in action is kind of magical, and the interviews with other long-time
contributors are insightful.-Eric Gallippo

‘Leaving Barstow’

9:30 p.m. Friday,
March 20 Wells Hall, C

Andrew is on the verge of graduating from high
school, but a rough home life with his damaged mother and the lingering
pain from the death of his father have left him unsure of his life
path. Further complications arise with the recent arrival of his
mothers young boyfriend and Jenny, a woman who works with his mother
whom he develops feelings for. —Luke Hackney

‘The Life Penalty’

p.m. Saturday, March 21 Wells Hall, B

Through a roughly juxtaposed,
sometimes frustrating series of interviews and archival clips, director
David Quint offers us the case against capital punishment and the good
work Colorado’s public defenders are doing to fight it. After a barrage
of statistics and anecdotes from various defense lawyers and academics,
we meet spunky defender David Wymore and his system for jury selection
and empowerment that offers even the most heinous capital defendants a
sporting chance at life without parole (which Wymore and Co. also argue
is worse).

Led by Wymore’s tenacious efforts, we learn that
although the death penalty has been legal in Colorado for about 30
years, the state has only had one execution and has one prisoner on
death row. The subject matter is worthy/interesting enough that you
want to give this movie a pass, but ultimately it feels overlong at
just over an hour and more appropriate as required viewing for legal
students than film festival fare. -Eric Gallippo


p.m. Saturday, March 21, Wells Hall, C & 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March
24, Celebration

In a style loosely reminiscent of "Magnolia" and "Short
Cuts," "Loggerheads" weaves several stories together using one pivotal

But this movie is nothing like "Magnolia" or "Short
Cuts." "Loggerheads" is like a Lifetime Channel movie, in that it is
unflinchingly serious in its exploration of how children and their life
choices affect their parents — and all the drama and heartache that is
produced if a set of parents were to, say, disown their gay adopted son
so he runs away from home, gets AIDS and dies before you can ever see
him again. Throw in some sea turtles, the sons biological mother
struggling to find her long lost son and youre going to come to loggerheads ... eventually.

a young gay man afflicted with AIDS, finds his way to a sleepy resort
town on the North Carolina coast. He sleeps on he beach and marks the
sites of nesting turtles, so that no one bothers the eggs. He is
discovered by benevolent local motel owner George (played by Michael
Kelly, who gave memorable performances in David Simons "Generation
Kill" and, yes, seriously, the "Dawn of the Dead" remake), who gives
Mark shelter and a meaningful romantic relationship.

Marks adoptive mother and pastor father go on living in a perfect
little conservative southern town, fretting over the new neighbors, who
happen to both be male and have a young son. Theres also Grace (Bonnie
Hunt), a sad-eyed failure of a woman in a deadend job, who is Marks
biological mother. Marks adoptive mother and Grace struggle within
themselves to find Mark, but eventually discover that their selfish
internal conflicts were waged too long, because they never get a chance
to reconcile with him. George, it seems, is destined to be just a
tragic motel-owning outcast, plagued by the deaths of his lovers.

film explores the pathos of being a mother to a son against a backdrop
of the conservative south, hostile to gays and moms seeking to reunite
with the kids they gave up at birth alike. Marks character serves as a
kind of Jesus Christ in this setting; he graces your presence and
enriches your life, creates love, saves helpless animals, and then he
goes away, because he seems to know that his survival is not to be; not
that no one wants him around, its just that people will learn better
by way of his absence. — Neal McNamara

‘Love Comes Lately’

p.m. Saturday, March 21, Wells Hall, A & 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, March
25, Celebration

“Love Comes Lately” is an interesting conglomeration of
three short stories by Nobel Prize-winning, Polish-American author
Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Certainly influenced by Singer’s own
experiences, the movie follows the real and imagined amorous encounters
of Max Kohn, a highly respected, elderly writer, and his alter-ego,
Harry. The story structure may leave audiences wondering which parts
are real and which are imagined, but that’s hardly important.
Instead, it is a pleasure to simply soak in the sometimesabsurd
situations and enjoy the eccentric characters, played by a cast of fine
actors, including Rhea Perlman, Barbara Hershey, Elizabeth Pena, and
Brian Doyle-Murray.

Tovah Feldshuh’s performance in particular
stands out. Feldshuh is one of those vaguely familiar actresses who
you’ve seen but can’t quite remember from where. Most will know her
from a recurring role on TV’s “Law & Order.”

In “Love,”
she plays a pretty Jewish widow who introduces herself to Harry. A real
old-school broad, in one whirlwind afternoon she and Harry meet and
plan the rest of their lives together. In truth, her delirious
enthusiasm hides the deep sadness she still bears from the loss of her

Otto Tausig is effective in the lead role, sliding
easily between the befuddled-but-charming Max and Harry, also befuddled
but more of a fuddy-duddy. With the lead character being a charismatic
author surrounded by oddballs in surreal situations, “Love Comes
Lately” plays like a “Wonder Boys” for the retired Jewish set. Which is
a good thing. —Mary C. Cusack

‘The Music Lesson’

p.m. Saturday, March 21, Wells Hall, D Well-meaning people love to say
that music is “the universal language,” but is it? Yes and no. That’s
the deftly mixed message of this fine documentary by Ginny Galloway, in
which privileged young Ivy League classical musicians meet their
counterparts from the village of Lakipia in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley.

a pinched, pimply gaggle of Boston Youth Symphony players invades this
primeval savannah, there is reason to fear the worst. The director wants them to connect more directly with the rhythmic and melodic roots of music.

American brats with your bowing problems and your college will mean
nothing,” he tells them. The get-together is awkward at first, and
sometimes skirts disaster. A joint concert is the goal, but the Kenyan
villagers don’t even have a word for “concert.” They just play music
when there is something to celebrate, or when they feel like it. How do
you know you’ll feel like playing music at 9 p.m. two weeks from now?
“We didn’t know how to respond,” one Boston student says. “Whether to
be serious classical musicians or let our guard down.” At length, the
gears mesh, lubricated by youthful good spirits on both sides. The
Western kids work at a Kenyan medical clinic. They learn to throw the
written music away and play by ear. The Africans discover a new way to
express their feelings, and get to play with some aweinspiring Western
axes. “I thought it was just for holding,” one Kenyan says after
tooting a bassoon.

The film could easily have been one long,
overbearing “teaching moment,” but Galloway concentrates on small
vignettes that build into a messy and joyful mosaic.

“I don’t
know what’s going on,” one of the Boston students says in the heat of a
crossculture jam session. “That’s the beauty of it.” The concert
becomes a celebration and the celebration becomes a concert. -Lawrence

‘The Pool’

p.m. Friday, March 20, Wells Hall, D & 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, March
25, Celebration

Written and directed by Chris Smith, “The Pool” is a
tale of a young man’s obsession with how the other half lives.
Struggling to survive as an impoverished hotel worker in India,
Venkatesh becomes infatuated with a pool and the wealthy family to whom
it belongs.

The film does a great job putting you in the shoes
of Venkatesh and his friend Jhangir, two teenagers with aspirations of
making something of themselves while stuck in a vicious cycle of
working to eat.

From up in a tree, Venkatesh spends the little free
time he has watching the pool; Nana, the man who owns the pool; and
Ayesha, his daughter. With the objective of one day swimming in the
pool without worry of consequences, Venkatesh eventually weasels his
way into a job as Nana’s gardener. After gaining Nana’s trust and
befriending his daughter, Venkatesh is invited to move to Mumbai
with the family and attend school. After deciding against the trip,
Venkatesh is left to watch the house and garden.

After about
95 minutes of watching Venkatesh live his life, for him to complete one
task he set out to complete would have made this an inspiring movie.
That, however, is not what happens. Instead, it turns into a tale of
getting what you want and letting it go. The slow-paced, gritty scenes
of teens sleeping on cement floors and selling plastic bags at the
market for extra money are definitely eye opening, but the story gets
swallowed by the repetitive display of these details. —Patrick Nolan

‘The Pope’s Toilet’

p.m. Saturday, March 21, Wells Hall, D & 8:30 p.m. Monday, March
23, Celebration

Sure to be one of the biggest crowd pleasers of the
festival, “The Pope’s Toilet” is the hilarious and heartbreaking story
of dreams pursued, challenged, dashed and finally rebuilt.

plot is familiar. Patriarch Beto is a dreamer who pursues his crazy
schemes, alienating the family for whom he is trying so desperately to
provide. Matriarch Carmen is tolerant. She sighs and scolds him, but
ultimately supports her man and bails him out financially and
emotionally. Daughter Silvia is a typical brooding teenager,
one who is full of dreams herself. She wants to get out of this small
town and go to school to become a reporter.

Eschewing a
typical day job, Beto makes his money trafficking goods across the
border between Uruguay and Brazil. Carmen takes in laundry,
slowly adding to the jar of money that might give her daughter a chance
to go to school in the big city. When news reaches their small village
that the pope is going to stop there on his tour of South America,
villagers hatch plans to cash in selling food and trinkets to tourists.

Beto posits that tourists might be willing to pay for a
hygienic facility, so while his neighbors make chorizo and flatbreads,
he builds “el bano del Papa.” Easier said than done, of course. In
the course of fulfilling his dream, he makes a deal with the border
patrol devil, eventually alienating his family. Still he persists, and
pursues redemption by completing the pope’s toilet.

The film
elevates itself past triteness by avoiding a simplistic happy ending,
instead exploring the universal dynamics of family relationships,
personal aspirations, and the drive to succeed in the face of
adversity. These struggles are subtly but aptly reflected in the faces
of the actors and in the skillful cinematography that presents the
sadness and beauty inherent in third world communities. -Mary C. Cusack

‘Route 30’

p.m. Friday, March 20, Wells Hall, A

This is a cornball-comedy that
tells three different stories. The first follows a tour guide obsessed
with the tragic death of a civilian woman during the Battle of
Gettysburg and her friend, a housewife hoping to become an Internet
pornog-rapher. The second is about a redneck seeking aid from a
Christian Scientist after injuring his back scurrying away from what he
believes to be Big Foot. The last tale concerns an aspiring writer
intrigued with his Amish neighbor. “Route 30” is low on laughs for a
comedy, but pleasant enough to hold your interest.—Luke Hackney

‘Song Sung Blue’

p.m. Friday, March 20 Wells Hall, C

Combined with home videos and
footage taken over an eight-year span, Song Sung Blue is a touching
look into the lives of Mike and Claire, a married musical duo known in
Milwaukee as Lightning and Thunder. Covering Patsy Cline and Neil
Diamond may not carry you to the top, but that, along with a handful of
hardship never stands in their way. The camera captures every intimate
detail of their life together, from a freak accident to drug addiction,
but through all their lows, their hope and love for one another is
unwavering. One of the funniest and most honest documentaries to come
out in years. —Luke Hackney

‘Treeless Mountain’

p.m. Saturday, March 21 Wells Hall, D

Director So Yong Kim offers a
very quiet (as in no musical score whatsoever), real-looking feature
about the resolve and ingenuity of two young sisters in this
Korean-language film. While there are adults in their lives, the focus
of this movie is always Jin and her younger sister, Bin, as they go
from living with their struggling single mother in the city to their
alcoholic aunt’s smalltown house to their grandparents’ farm. When two
adults are talking in the same frame, the camera often stays at the
girls’ level, even at the expense of cutting off the head of the

When their mother leaves the girls with their aunt,
she gifts them a large piggy bank, telling them they’ll get a coin to
put it in whenever they are good, and when it’s full, she’ll return.

the girls set out for ways to grow their small fortune as quickly as
possible, thinking it’ll bring her back sooner, but when it becomes
apparent they may not see mom for a long time (or ever), they decide to
make a selfless gesture with their earnings.

Although it slows to a near crawl in the final act,
this is the kind sweet, beautiful film we only get to see around here
in the middle of March, and it deserves some attention from
festivalgoers. -Eric Gallippo

‘Trouble the Water’

p.m. Friday, March 20, Wells Hall, D & 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March
26, Celebration

There are two reasons to gape in awe at this riveting
Hurricane Katrina documentary. The first is a stunning video chronicle
of survival in the thick of Hurricane Katrina filmed by aspiring rap
star Kimberly Roberts (“Kold Madina”), who keeps the camera running
from the first wayward shingle through the rising waters and horrific
aftermath, filling the screen with dozens of images that nobody who
sees them will ever forget. The second reason is Roberts herself, a
personality so dynamic and indefatigable no Hollywood screenwriter
would have dared create her. So what if filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl
Deal give in to the urge to canonize her as a modern icon of hope and
survival? What else can you do with her? “I don’t need you to tell me
I’m amazin’,” Roberts raps in a crowd-pleasing finale. Some people
might cringe at the cult of personality, but we give ourselves in
thrall to 100 percent bullshit heroes all the time. Can’t we give it up
for someone who’s, say, only 4 percent self-promotion, and 96 percent
genuine life force? Not much is overtly political in “Trouble the
Water,” except perhaps its devastating cuts from shots of real
devastation to insulting cable news logos and blather. “How much of a
wallop will motorists take at the pump?” asks a CNN announcer as people
drown and putrefy in their homes. “Disorder and Death,” trumpets a Fox
newsbreak in reprehensible racist priority. Every United
States citizen should be required to watch this film, to observe the
real-life consequences of remote-control policy decisions, and every
policy maker should be forced to watch it with eye clamps, a la “A
Clockwork Orange.” —Lawrence Cosentino

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