Film festivals: Take the bad with the good

Emerging from opening night of the East Lansing Film Festival, I was still sorting out my wildly mixed feelings toward Tilda Swinton's "I Am Love." Then someone summed things up: "This is what you expect when you go to a film festival"

It is ... which is why I love the ELFF (which just started), even when one of its movies mildly disappoints. There are plenty of places to see movies that have obvious plots and people; at a film fest, you face the happy prospect of a surprise, good or bad.

"I Am Love" clearly surprises. Its core plot would fit neatly into a 12-minute, overwrought opera. That's surrounded by almost two hours of elegant dealings between people who have much money and few emotions.

The plot crawls along, giving us plenty of time to read the English sub-titles. Then the movie ends so abruptly that the audience didn't react, still unsure that it was over.

There were great touches -- elegant settings ... Swinton's deeply nuanced performance ... a wonderful music track by John Adams, who is best known for operas; the sort-of-final scene uses all of that brilliantly. Then again, there were lots of empty moments, before the final rush.

It was an odd experience, but worth going to. If you have a film festival near you, give it a try. If you live near East Lansing, check out the festival details (; here are notes on a few things I saw in advance:

-- Animated: These two delights are being shown at Celebration Cinema. "The Secret of Kells" (1 and 3:30 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday), combines a magical Irish story and gorgeous artwork. "Sita Sings the Blues" (3:30 p.m. Sunday) tells a folk tale from India, using stunning artwork, wry commentary and, often, 1920s songs.

-- Homegrown features: There are four feature-length, scripted films in the Lake Michigan Film Competition, Saturday in MSU's Kedzie Hall. "Fairview St." (1 p.m.) shows off Michael McCallum's impressive talent as an actor and a film-noir director, but is hampered by having the character do some extremely unlikely things. "Bilal's Stand" (3:30) has uneven acting, but tells an involving story that's basically from real life. "Annabelle & Bear" (6:30) is sometimes a delight, thanks to the perfect casting of massive Curt Mastoff and 3-year-old Olivia Walby. "The Dream Play" (9:30) is gorgeously filmed and acted, while trying to make some difficult shifts in time and reality.

-- Another scripted film: "The Happy Poet" is an ultra-dry story about a rarely happy poet who starts a vegetarian food stand. It's interesting in its own slow, droll way. (9:30 p.m. Friday, Snyder-Phillips Hall, then 6:30 p.m. Oct. 27, Celebation).

-- An interesting night: Both Saturday shows at Snyder-Phillips are worth catching. "Tibet in Song" (6:30 p.m.) is a documentary that mixes politics and gorgeous settings, while focusing on traditional music. The eight films in "Short Films II" (9:30 p.m.) include two from cartoon master Bill Plympton -- one of them the superb "The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger" -- and the offbeat "Black Ops Arabesque." The latter -- from former East Lansing High quarterback Nathaniel Eyde -- has five fun minutes of danger and dance. This package repeats Tuesday (Oct. 26) at Celebration.

-- A specialized documentary. Before going to "Kitchen Conversations," make sure you really (I mean REALLY) like cooking and cooks. 



This week's two best lines

My two favorite lines in TV shows this week are both said by the same person. Well, sort of.

One is from Sheldon Cooper, the best character on the best comedy ("Big Bang Theory," 8 p.m. Thursdays, CBS) on TV. The other is by Sherlock Holmes, who is starting a series of three modern-day mystery movies ("Masterpiece Mystery," 9 p.m. Sundays, PBS).

Still, these characters are almost identical -- tall, thin geniuses who observe and understand everything ... except the normal, social functioning of average humans. The lines:

-- "Big Bang" (via the CBS promo): Leonard has the audacity to ask if Sheldon has actually expressed his feelings for Amy Farrah Fowler. Sheldon's response: "No! I'm a physicist, not a hippie."

-- "Sherlock Holmes" (via an advance screener of the terrific opening movie): Someone calls Sherlock a psychopath. His response: "I'm not a psychopath, I'm a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research."

"30 Rock" was maxi-fun

Turning on tonight's live "30 Rock," I expected the ordinary. Writers would create something neat and tidy, something that could be done on a couple sets, sort of like a play.

Then came the surprise. This would be a typical "30 Rock," complete with flashbacks, faux commercials, a song, guest stars and lots of sets. It would zip around wildly; the fun would be seeing it done live.

For the flashbacks, Julia Louis-Dreyfus played Tina Fey's character. "Why do you look better in flashbacks?" Jack (Alec Baldwin asked). Fey's reply: "It's the Seinfeld money."

Jane Krakowski sang the song. Rachel Dratch -- who originally was supposed to co-star in "30 Rock," before Krakowski got the job -- showed up as a custodian.

Past guests -- Matt Damon, Jon Hamm, Chris Parnell -- showed up. Everything was quick and odd and usually very funny.

That's better, "SNL"

Maybe Jane Lynch should be on "Saturday Night Live" every time. After last week's disappointing episode, she hosted a strong comeback tonight.

Sure, the show sagged after "Weekend Update." It often does; that's the portion that asks why you aren't asleep yet.

Until then, however, "SNL" was sharp, from Lynch's fake theme song to a pretend game show. Even Gilly couldn't ruin the "Glee" sketch, which is saying something.

The last few sketches sputtered, but Lynch stood tall, literally. At 6-foot, she towered above the others; little Bruno Mars, the music guest, was jumping to get his face near hers during the final scene. That was kind of like when Justin Beiber (5-foot-4) opened for Taylor Swift (5-10); it's been a good year for Amazons. 

"SNL": The winning streak ends

OK, this season's "Saturday Night Live" streak has stopped at one.

Last week's season-opener was good, as I mentioned a few blogs ago. This week's went flat.

Sure, there was a funny opening bit (mocking Obama's departing chief of staff), a surprisingly good closing one (a sort of "white noise" machines which offers "black noise") and, as usual, a great "Weekend Update." There were also two huge Kanye West numbers, which I really should have paid attention to.

In between, however, was a procession of one-gag skits. In some cases, even the one gag wasn't that funny. It would be great to satirize Miley Cyrus as an airhead and a terrible actress  ... except that she actually seems quite bright and her performance in her first non-Hannah movie was subtle and fairly good. The sketch's one joke was empty, inserting a big thud early in the show.