News Column

Wide variety of genres represented at this year's Traverse City Film Festival

July 29, 2013


DETROIT _ Sometimes an event takes on the characteristics of a person at the heart of it. That's the case with the Traverse City Film Festival, which embodies the essential Michigan style yet sprawling global footprint of founder Michael Moore.

This year's version, which officially opens Tuesday, continues to grow in size and reputation while retaining the vibe of a casual Midwest get-together where T-shirts and baseball caps are welcome.

More than 150 films are on the eclectic 2013 schedule, which runs through Aug. 4. The TCFF draws plenty of film-industry types, but there is no Hollywood snobbery about the atmosphere. The small army of pleasant volunteers who staff the festival ensures that. So does the array of ways to experience the action, which range from brainy panel discussions to family-friendly free outdoor movies.

Moore's high profile and the inherent charms of northern Michigan have lured consistently impressive names to the event. This time, the VIP list includes director Michael Apted, whose "7 Up" series chronicling the lives of a group of British men and women will be screened, and former Clinton secretary of labor Robert Reich, star of the documentary "Inequality for All."

Appearances also are planned by two overachievers with metro Detroit ties: Mt. Clemens native Paul Feig, whose directorial hit, "The Heat," has taken more than $133 million so far this summer, and Broadway legend Elaine Stritch, who'll be at a showing of "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me." It's a frank, fascinating look at the behind-the-scenes life of the 88-year-old "30 Rock" costar who recently moved back to the Detroit region where she grew up.

Much of the movie roster is connected to themes that capture the current zeitgeist. The heart-wrenching "Fruitvale Station" is based on the real story of a young African-American man fatally shot by a transit cop. "The East" is a suspenseful drama about one woman's infiltration of an underground group bent on making big companies pay for their crimes. "Citizen Koch" examines corporate election spending and the influence of billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch.

Even Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine," this year's opening night film, deals with economic uncertainty from Allen's familiar privileged Manhattan perspective. The comedy stars Cate Blanchett as a New York society matron who flees to San Francisco and tries living relatively humbly with her sister. It's one of several sold-out movies that on Friday received added screenings.

There's also a smattering of mass-appeal fun, like the sneak preview of "We're the Millers," a comedy about four people posing as a family. It stars Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis.

But at TCFF, the common thread is most often titles that cinephiles would love to see but often can't find at the cineplex, like a documentary about killer whales in sea-themed entertainment parks ("Blackfish"), another doc about clue-obsessed fans of "The Shining" who dissect the movie for secret meaning ("Room 237") and an envelope-pushing comedy selection ("Orenthal: The Musical," a mockumentary about one man's dream of staging a musical theater version of the O.J. Simpson trial).

Unlike 2012, the year of "Searching for Sugar Man" and "Detropia," Detroit isn't dominating the schedule. Still, the Motor City will be represented in offerings like "A Band Called Death," which revisits a pioneering local punk rock band formed by three African-American brothers.

The biggest newcomer is Bijou By the Bay, the newly renovated theater in the former Con Foster Museum that's set to open Monday, just in time to be a festival venue. Built originally by the Civil Works Administration under President Franklin Roosevelt, it's planned as a year-round companion to the State Theatre, the Moore restoration project that's become a major success story.

Bijou means "gem" in French, which sounds about right. It's another jewel for a festival that consistently makes Traverse City shine.


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