Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

Operation Condor

Jackie Chan meets Indiana Jones —Andrea Birgers (review...)

Chan borrows from Raiders

" I’ve got a government job to abuse "
— John Travolta, Face/Off

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No festival is without its bad movies, but the Boulder International Film Festival, at age 3, is looking good.

Spanning four days, BIFF is the kind of festival that shows you movies you won’t see anywhere else. This year’s schedule offers a lot of documentaries and a lot of short films. Most of these are independently produced, and most of them are Colorado premieres. You’re likely to find movies with truly original subjects (B.I.K.E., Drunk in Public, American Fugitive), or movies that reveal a surprisingly skilled filmmaker (Talk to Me, Lucid Dreaming).

BIFF is not the kind of festival where you will see studio-backed art-house films, like you would at Telluride or Toronto. Those festivals give you a little thrill at being the first to see these movies. But with only three exceptions (Breach, The Astronaut Farmer, and the closing-night film, In the Shadow of the Moon), most of BIFF’s movies won’t get distributed to theaters. In fact, most of BIFF’s movies are not feature-length narratives. BIFF is a festival for the truly adventurous moviegoer.


Even the most adventurous moviegoer faces pitfalls. It’s important to keep your options open and to listen for the buzz. Too often we choose movies based on whether the subject sparks our interest. But the movie that sparks your interest may not be well produced or tell a good story, whereas a film about a topic you could not care less about may be the best thing at the festival.

It doesn’t help when the blurbs in the schedule offer only subject-matter descriptions and hyperbole (“Spectactular, emotionally shattering”; “Frighteningly realistic”; “Testosterone-fueled extravaganza”).

Lucky for you, you read Movie Habit, where we’re in the habit of offering opinions. Since you probably don’t have time to see everything, let us recommend a few favorites.

Here they are, roughly in the order that we’d recommend them.

Table of Contents

  • Drunk in Public
  • The Grönholm Method
  • Jonestown
  • The Astronaut Farmer
  • Wolves in the Woods; High Maintenance; Useless dog (From shorts program 15)
  • Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox
  • American Fugitive: The Truth about Hassan
  • Talk to Me; Unstoppable (From shorts program 25)
  • Los Tabaqueros (with Hamilton)
  • The Blood of the Yingzhou District (with Phantom Canyon and Lucky)
  • The Railroad All-Stars
  • A Crude Awakening (with Badgered)
  • Men at Work
  • An Introduction to Lucid Dream Exploration; B.I.K.E.
  • I Want to Be a Pilot (with The Cats of Mirikitani)

Drunk in Public

This is a great little documentary. It is a completely amateur production, but it tells a fascinating story about Mark David Allen, a severe alcoholic, and the one man who has always been there for him.

Mark’s constant companion is director/editor David Sperling, a police officer who books Mark, every three days or so, for being drunk in public. The cycle of drunkenness, arrest, regret, and promises had been going on for 8 years before Sperling started shooting footage of Mark. Since then, he’s been recording Mark’s downward slide for twelve more years. The resulting footage is an incredible portrait, more sociological study than documentary movie.

Try as he might, Sperling can’t keep himself from appearing in the film. He never shows his own face, but his voice and his hands often appear. More importantly, his unwavering, unfaltering presence in Mark’s life appears. After twenty years of the ugliest behavior, they still keep coming together, and there is still concern and friendship. (Maybe this is a film about love.)

Although the final edit is probably too long by ten minutes, Sperling does a good job of compressing time and letting the story progress off-screen. As Mark gets worse, I worried that the only possible ending to this movie could be Mark’s death. But one of Mark’s more notable traits is his resilience, and in fact, Sperling finds a surprisingly good ending for the movie after Mark swears off liquor yet again. (Read the HTML source of this page for the ending.)

To find out how Mark is doing lately, visit

The Grönholm Method

This is one of the narrative feature films you can see at BIFF. It is from Spain, and it feels a little like a sci-fi flick. It may even be set in the near-future, but the specifics aren’t important. The film covers events that happen over the course of a single day. There is a job interview that eight candidates are competing for. The interview itself, for a high-level executive position, is ruthless. Rather than interviewing the candidates one at a time, all eight are thrown together and given instructions for weeding out the less popular and less aggressive candidates. The movie is sometimes painful to watch because the longer a candidate survives, the more he or she resembles a soulless shark. Still, it is well produced and very well acted. And unfortunately, its observations on human nature ring true.


There are many moviegoers too young to remember the news from 1978. Nearly a thousand followers of the American cult leader Jim Jones committed mass suicide in Guyana, South America, by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid.

Jonestown: The Life and Times of Peoples Temple fires on all cylinders. First it is very well produced (it was made for PBS). It offers excellent picture and sound quality. It is meticulously researched, as you can tell by the abundance of footage, still photos, and audio from the 1970s. On top of that, the movie emotionally gripping, telling the story of both the charismatic leader and the modern tragedy.

The insightful story is very well written: the movie hooks you right away, and then leads you on an emotional arc that follows the rise and fall of Jones’ Peoples Temple. The first words are revealing: “Nobody joins a cult.” It’s natural for us outsiders to look at the suicide and work backwards. We wondering how a thousand people could be so deluded. But none of them joined a suicide cult; they found a left-leaning church that made them happy, and they joined out of a genuine sense of community. Jonestown sees the Guyana suicides as a tragedy, and it sincerely tries to understand how it could have happened.

The Astronaut Farmer

The folksy tone of this small-town drama threatens to get Mayberry-cute in a hurry, but the story’s trajectory takes a turn when Farmer orders ten thousand gallons of high-grade rocket fuel. This flips a switch with the FBI, who assume he’s building a missile. But Farmer heeds the advice, “make the media your friend.” He throws open his doors, giving tours of his homemade rocketship. Farmer had been in the running to become an astronaut when his father fell ill; he left the program to be with his dad.

I am a sucker for dreamers like Farmer. He just believes space is still free and every single person is eligible to take a ride all the way out — and back — if they can just figure out how to get there. And this guy is sure he can. Farmer has even filed his flight plan and rocket specs with the FAA, who never write him back, figuring him for another kook with a set of detailed drawings (never guessing the part about the actual rocketship in the barn).

Many dark days follow, as do some plot wild cards (those too-convenient coincidences). I felt something was going to go terribly wrong the moment I saw him hunched over his own homegrown formulation for rocket fuel, and indeed, things do go off in unexpected directions, bringing on more difficulties.

But, true to the adventure genre, an amazing comeback rights the world and puts everything in perspective. Cheesy as some of The Astronaut Farmer’s devices may be, the story captures the magic of seeing the Earth from space and makes it seem a truly wondrous achievement. (I’d guess the FAA hates this film with a passion and fears it will spawn a wave of imitators.) I left the theater saying, “There oughta be more movies like that!” The voyage to space is one I wish we all could take, but this imperfect but delightful film will do for now.

Wolves in the Woods
High Maintenance
Useless Dog (from Shorts Program 15)

These three shorts all showed at the Telluride Film Festival, where I first saw them.

Wolves in the Woods is a period piece set in a foreign country, but it was shot by 33-year-old film student B.J. Schwartz in Griffith Park. It’s not the writing that is this film’s strong suit, but rather the production. “It transported me,” said the moderator, which sums up Wolves’ success. I’ve seen many a student filmmaker try to set his movie in the past, and there are so many ways to screw it up, that it’s probably better not to even try. Sometimes the costumes look purchased from Target, usually the hair is styled completely wrong, and the actors don’t often even try to find the right carriage, manners, and dialogue for the time period. Not so with Wolves, in which four children — and one adult — play a game of Hide and Seek.

High Maintenance is a crowd-pleaser. Filmmaker Phillip Van told us before the show that he allowed himself only a week from pre-production to post-production to make the movie (mostly to keep the budget under control). “It was a busy week,” he said. The movie is well produced, with very good casting, lighting, and photography, but as in most great films, the writing is the strong suit. The film takes place on a couple’s anniversary. The wife can’t get a romantic evening out of her stiff and humorless husband, so she calls someone who can help her get an upgrade. The story is witty, surprising, and concise, and I won’t say any more to spoil it.

Useless Dog is 5 minutes long. As I watched it, I thought to myself “this is such a cynically calculated subject that I can’t believe Telluride selected it.” The subject is one family’s “useless” pet dog. Half the film is footage of the dog being cute and/or funny. The other half is the dog’s master, bemusedly complaining about how useless this particular dog is. This is stuff you can find by the gigabyte on YouTube. And yet, the interview and the playful filmmaking made Useless Dog one of the more enjoyable (if not artistically satisfying) films at the fest.

Talk to Me
Unstoppable (from shorts program #25)

Unstoppable (which I saw several months ago) didn’t make a huge impression on me. But at a time when I was watching a lot of bad movies, Unstoppable stood out as a competent film from a young filmmaker. Though hardly as intense as the blurb in the official schedule makes it sound, it’s still a gripping drama for an amateur filmmaker.

Talk To Me, on the other hand, stood far out from the crowd. It is a 20-minute movie, all shot in what appears to be a single take. The camera pans and zooms around, picking out snapshots pasted on a bulletin board. The soundtrack guides the camera with an audio montage of 20 years of answering-machine messages. At first, the film seems like a self-indulgent trip down memory lane, but the amazing technical feat of the non-stop camera forces you to take this movie seriously. Once you’re hooked, you begin to associate with the characters (the filmmaker and his friends and family) as they age. This surprising movie works both technically and emotionally.

Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox

If you’ve ever used Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, you will want to see this documentary (and if you see this documentary, you will want to try the soap — as a Dr. Bronner’s newbie, I did not know about the soap or its storied label). Made in the U.S. for the last sixty years, Dr. Bronner’s soap is all natural, biodegradable, and safe enough to use on your skin, your hair, or your teeth. While you’re lathering up, you may want to read the 3,000 words printed on the bottle; Dr. Bronner used the bottle as a pamphlet to preach universal harmony in his poetically broken English.

Although the good doctor is gone, his children and their children are still making soap and preaching goodness. Ralph Bronner, who inherited his father’s talkiness, steals the show with his perpetual good cheer, frequent requests for hugs, and evangelical zeal for his father’s legacy. Although the movie offers little more than an overview of the people behind the soap, the documentary is, refreshingly, not too long. Just when you get the big picture, the movie releases you, still tingling, and ready to face the day.

Note: this movie is a special satellite screening of BIFF. It shows at the International Film Series in Muenzinger auditorium.

Buy some soap at

American Fugitive: The Truth about Hassan

Set in Afghanistan, Kandahar played the art house circuit a few years back. In one scene, a black American doctor searching for God in the Muslim world is portrayed by Hassan Abdulrahman. It turns out that the actor is a wanted man. He assassinated an Iranian press attaché in Washington, D.C., in 1980.

Most of the film is a talking-head interview with Abdulrahman, who now lives in Iran. Other analysts, authors, friends, and relatives are interviewed as well. There is some shock value in seeing a composed, intelligent-seeming man admit to an assassination on camera, especially if you recognize him from Kandahar. It’s oddly powerful just seeing him living a free (if exiled) life, and speaking openly to a documentary filmmaker.

That is the hook that will draw you in. Once inside, you will find another reason to appreciate American Fugitive. The fact of the 1980 assassination leads to all sorts of interesting questions that the movie answers in due time: why did Hassan do it? What led up to it? Who was his victim? What were the politics involved? How did he get away? What has he done with his life since then? Does he feel any remorse?

By staying narrowly focused on the assassination, but in exploring it deeply, the movie feels dense and informative.

The documentary has some weaknesses — it’s a bit static, visually, and it seems a bit gullible at times. But its narrow focus and rich depth make me feel like I’ve actually learned something about Iran-U.S. relations in the late 1970s (and not just about Hassan himself).

Los Tabaqueros (Program 23)

Most rookie filmmakers don’t have the heart to edit their films down to an appropriate length. Interesting portraits turn into boring ordeals, and lightweight essays turn into pompous dissertations. Not so with the 7-minute documentary on cigar makers in Miami. The movie shows you how a cigar is made, start to finish, and by the time you say “oh! I never thought about that!”, the film is thanking you for your time and sending you on your way. It’s bite-sized cinema that’s exactly the right length for its subject. If every filmmaker were as smart and self-aware, there would be a lot more shorts programs at BIFF, and they would be the highlight of the festival.

The Blood of the Yingzhou District (Program 8)

It is heartening to see BIFF bringing Academy-Award-nominated short films to Boulder (The timing suggests that BIFF picked these films before the Academy did). The Blood of the Yingzhou District highlights the problem of AIDS in rural China. The subjects of the film are orphans infected with AIDS. Their parents died of the disease after selling their blood to unscrupulous blood banks. Their blood was collected, mixed (where it became contaminated), and re-injected into the donors so that they would heal faster and be ready to donate sooner. I wish the movie had explained these practices in more detail, but instead it focuses on the emotional stories of the victims. Not only do these children face shortened lives, they face ostracism and discrimination from other children and neighbors. The Blood of the Yingzhou District feels a bit incomplete. At 39 minutes, the movie may leave you wishing for more information about the district and its citizens. But better too short than too long.

This subject was in the news recently. CNN reported that a Chinese AIDS activist was under house arrest for trying to go abroad to receive an award.

The Railroad All-Stars

If you remember my advice about not choosing a movie based purely on subject matter, The Railroad All-Stars offers you a chance to exercise your restraint. Although this film is well produced, it’s not that well made. It’s also probably too long by just a smidge. Nevertheless, the subject matter is energetic and hopeful, in spite of its grim setting, and that is this movie’s saving grace.

The Railroad All-Stars are a soccer team of Guatemalan prostitutes. They work along the tracks in a very poor neighborhood, where they are the lowest members of a very low caste. They form a soccer team to give themselves a dose of publicity and respect in a culture where, although their services are indispensable, they are treated badly by nearly everyone.

A Crude Awakening (Program 21)

There are a lot of documentaries on America’s involvement in the Middle East. It’s easy to put them all in the same pot, cover the lid, and ignore it. At first glance A Crude Awakening seems like yet another one, but in fact the subject is more tangible and substantive: peak oil. Peak oil is the point at which the production of oil will decline forever due to the depletion of resources . A Crude Awakening explains the concept and measures it against the real world to see whether we need to be concerned. It’s impossible to ignore America’s recent involvement in the Middle East, but this movie would do well to distance itself from current events so that it doesn’t get lost in the crowd.

Men at Work

Four Iranian professionals are returning from a ski trip. They stop at an overlook and discover a tall stone perched precariously on the edge of the overlook, just waiting to tumble down into the lake below. The temptation proves to be too much, and they try in vain to push the stone over the edge. Men at Work is a portrait of pointless obsession. It feels like a parable or a fairy tale, although if there is a specific socio-political metaphor behind it, it gets lost in translation. Though cheaply shot on video, the movie is occasionally funny, and it reveals similarities between Iranian men and American men.

An Introduction to Lucid Dream Exploration

Created by hand, frame-by-frame, on an Etch-a-Sketch, An Introduction to Lucid Dream Exploration needs no further hype from me.

As for the documentary feature B.I.K.E., it could use more hype than I’m willing to give. It is a gritty, genuine portrait of a counterculture, complete with sex, drugs, and... instead of Rock n Roll, bicycles. Specifically, B.I.K.E. is interested in the Black Label bike clubs. Initiation consists of jousting on “tall bikes,” which are bikes with two frames, one atop the other.

The jousting is an interesting hook, but it’s not the center of the story. The clubs seem to be tapping in to a deeper anti-mainstream undercurrent. Riding bikes (and shunning cars) is only one its aspects. Other activities include dumpster-diving, communal meals (from food found in dumpsters), and creating bikes (and art) from scrap and parts, rather than buying them new.

If that sounds fascinating, then go see B.I.K.E. I’m sure there are people in Boulder who will have a bicycle epiphany. For me, however, the movie doesn’t work. There is no arc to the story of the bike club. Yes, there are recurring characters with goals and setbacks, but I don’t get the sense that the movie has been carefully shaped into single, coherent work. It’s a record of events, but no more than that. At feature length, it was asking for more time than I was willing to give it.

I Want to Be a Pilot (Program 5)

I saw this short film at Telluride. It represents almost an idealized version of an international short film by a young filmmaker. If you’ve been to even one film festival, you will have seen several movies like this one: earnest, preachy, and dry; but well-photographed and portraying such a sympathetic, disadvantaged subject that you’ll feel guilty for being bored.