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Craven: Summer Cinema

07/10/12 5:55PM By Jay Craven
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(Host) Commentator, filmmaker and Marlboro College teacher Jay Craven is spending some time this summer inside the air-conditioned comfort of movie theaters - near and far.

(Craven) This year's Sundance Film Festival hits are now finding their way into theaters - and they include some of the most imaginative and relevant films on screen this summer. Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild" won the Sundance Grand Prize along with the Camera d'Or at Cannes. The film conjures magic through its poetic rendering of an extraordinary six-year old girl's process of discovery and defiance as she takes on mounting personal and environmental calamities that shake her world. The film is set in a nearly submerged but stubborn and tightly knit multi-racial community sitting on a patch of ravaged Louisiana bayou country - before and after Katrina. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" conveys sturdy resilience and even optimism in the face of epic flood, family struggle, and wrenching poverty. Tiny actress Quvenzhane Wallis' performance as Hush Puppy overflows with insight, vitality, and nuanced dimension. The film is compassionate, observant, and cinematically inventive in ways we rarely see. It's a monumental achievement that re-kindles a vital spirit in American independent filmmaking.

Other notable summer films include several from this year's crop of Sundance documentaries. "Searching for Sugarman" tells the deeply moving and thematically rich story of an amazing 1970's Detroit rock musician simply known as Rodriguez. He recorded two fabulous albums that never took hold, except in South Africa where bootleg editions provided a soundtrack for the growing movement against apartheid. In South Africa, Rodriguez was bigger than The Beatles and Bob Dylan. "Waiting for Sugarman" follows two fans who set out on a journey to figure out what ever happened to their rock hero, long assumed dead.

"The Invisible War," "Escape Fire," and "Chasing Ice" tackle issues of sexual violence in the military, efforts to stem the crisis in American health care, and the melting of Arctic glaciers, respectively. Each of these documentaries provides probing investigation, startling revelation, and needed hope. So, too, New York/Vermont filmmaker Eugene Jarecki's documentary, "The House I Live In," that constructs a personal and political framework for appraising the drug wars, in which 45 million Americans have been arrested during the past 40 years. Jarecki explores the politics and culture underlying successive campaigns that put people in jail but failed to slow addiction. The film is slated for a public television broadcast.

Of course, theaters are overflowing with summer commercial films, too. I enjoyed Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom" for its handmade feel and awkward but real tale of young love. And Andrew Garfield is perfect as "The Amazing Spiderman." I plan to see "The Dark Knight" Batman picture, if only to catch Senator Leahy's latest on screen cameo. And I recently caught a new French film, "The Intouchables," as a way to escape sweltering heat in Manhattan. It's a lightweight buddy picture emanating off-beat character dynamics rooted in class, race, and disability. It succeeds because it refuses to take itself too seriously. A good formula, I think, for cinematic summer fun.
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