40 Below: The Toughest Race in the World
Director: Marius Anderson
Synopsis: What is the Arrowhead 135? Nothing more than one of the world’s most challenging, most dangerous races. Run, bike, or ski; you have to make it 135 miles in America’s coldest, most desolate area in the dead of January. And the participants wouldn’t change a thing.
Thoughts: My friend once bought a Groupon for a “picturesque bike ride through St. Paul” and invited me along. I bought a helmet, and we showed up with bikes we rented from those hourly kiosks, thinking it would be a lovely summer catch-up event. Well, it turns out it wasn’t a casual ride but a competitive race that stretched 20 miles up/down/around our capital city. Not only did I think my friend was trying to kill me from exhaustion, but l thought I’d die from the embarrassment of having these professional cyclists coasting by us and giving our granny bikes an eye-rolling glance.
That was the closest I’ve come to “extreme endurance” sporting, which is nothing compared to what the committed entrants (who should be committed, j/k) of the Arrowhead 135 race subject themselves to. Beginning in International Falls, MN, and weaving 135 miles during the coldest stretch of winter, athletes trek on foot, skis, or bicycles in beyond harsh conditions for the bragging rights of finishing what many in this tight-knit athletic community regard as the toughest race in the world.
A recent transplant to Duluth, German director Marius Anderson learned about the race from his father-in-law and soon found himself following two participants (wildly colorful Bill Bradley and determined cyclist Leah Gruhn) as they prepared and participated in the 2019 race. The resulting film, 40 Below: The Toughest Race in the World, is the result of years of work with that footage, and it’s a doozy. The tiny crew manages to be in several places simultaneously as they track the treacherous trek, watching the success and defeat of the best of the best along the way.
He may be new to the state, but Anderson completely nails the local humor that gives the mostly MN set film such charm. Along with Bradley, who possesses a never say die spirit that provides the movie with its compelling through-line, Anderson grabs choice bits of local humor that had the audience rolling. Bradley’s rip-roaring wild card is complimented nicely by the more erudite Gruhn, who approaches the race with greater consideration for the science of how the conditions can affect the body and plans ahead for how to change course.
I would have loved more information on the origin of the race and perhaps more rounding off of a few participants we meet, but overall this is tightly edited, assured work. It’s easy to see why a third screening was added to accommodate demand after its first two shows sold out. It’s sitting on top of the audience rankings for a reason.
Being Mary Tyler Moore
Director: James Adolphus
Cast: Mary Tyler Moore, James L. Brooks, Rob Reiner, Treva Silverman, Beverly Sanders, S. Robert Levine, MD, John & Ronda Rich Tinker, Ed Asner, Jim Burrows, Bill Persky
Synopsis: With unprecedented access to Mary Tyler Moore’s vast archive, Being Mary Tyler Moore chronicles the screen icon whose storied career spanned sixty years. Weaving Moore’s personal narrative with the beats of her professional accomplishments, the film highlights her groundbreaking roles and her indelible impact on generations of women who came after her.
Thoughts: As I write this, I’m staring at the box set of The Mary Tyler Moore Show on top of one of my movie bookcases. One of the best cast and most awarded television shows in the medium’s history, when it began in 1970, it was not only a forerunner of what was to come in the changing roles of women in the workplace but how they were thought of in Hollywood as well. The titular star was a chief reason behind all that. As she moved into the direct spotlight from her respected second banana spot as the wife of Dick Van Dyke in his self-titled show, Moore demonstrated that she could hold her own at the epicenter of another comedic marvel.
Yet as we find out in Being Mary Tyler Moore, the new documentary from director James Adolphus premiering on HBO in May and seen at the 42nd Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival,in reality, the star led a more complicated life that stood in stark contrast to the single, childless, effervescent personality she played on TV. She turned the world on with her smile, but in private, the pain of self-doubt and pressure to please often overshadowed her significant accomplishments in an industry that would turn fickle with each stumble.
Adolphus takes a largely valentine approach to his portrait of Moore, framing much of it with several key television interviews where Moore is grilled with unusually difficult questions about her choices surrounding her career and personal life. Ever graceful, Moore is firm but friendly to even the most absurd questions that no one would ever think to ask a man. Charting her good fortune rise through early roles on TV to her casting on The Dick Van Dyke Show, her wildly popular seven-season run as the iconic Mary Richards, and her Oscar-nominated turn in Ordinary People, Adolphus tangents along the way to show how her home life often bore little resemblance to the types of roles she was playing on the screen. All subjects interviewed are heard but not seen, so you never know where the sound byte has come from, either an archive interview or conducted exclusively for the doc.
It’s probably just as well that Adolphus holds back a bit when discussing Moore’s struggle with alcohol because, by that time, the documentary had refrained from visiting the darker side, which feels like a topic discussed in another profile. While it leaves the work incomplete as a whole picture, Being Mary Tyler Moore offers viewers more than a simple glimpse behind the smile and a chance to know the woman offering it.
Mom and Dad’s Nipple Factory
Director: Justin Johnson aka Justinsuperstar
Cast: Brian Johnson, Randi Johnson
Synopsis: When director Justinsuperstar’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, his father, an inveterate inventor, crafted a prosthetic nipple that impressed all their medical staff. But Mom and Dad’s business is a bit of an embarrassment for this conservative couple and is kept under wraps until their little secret is discovered.
Thoughts: First things first. So far, this is the very best movie I’ve seen at the film festival. Running a brisk 81 minutes and carrying the most eyebrow-raising title, it’s also got the biggest heart and exposed a sensitive spirit I wish we could see more of on film.
On the surface, this documentary is about a husband and wife who have created something out of a need, providing a service to those who have gone without it. At its core, it’s a film about family and the gaps created when we leave words unspoken and the rewards offered when we find ways to communicate in the best ways we know how. It takes time for children to understand their parents as more than their universal job descriptions and for parents to see their growing kids as the adults they are, but when both find that awareness of the other and they align, gigantic doors can be opened.
First and foremost, I think director Justin Johnson has given the viewers of Mom and Dad’s Nipple Factory a film charting how his tinker-y father, frustrated with seeing his wife given little options to feel whole after having a unilateral mastectomy to treat breast cancer, took it upon himself to create a more realistic nipple from a practical standpoint. Through trial and error and no formal training in the process, he produced a sample that fooled surgeons with years of experience. Operating the business out of their home in Wisconsin, the conservative Christian couple began to give women from diverse backgrounds options on their path to healing, helping them to feel better about themselves when looking in the mirror.
Secondly, Johnson has found a way to communicate with his parents, namely his father, to mend fences that time had weathered. Johnson’s father is a man of few words, the last to play any loud instrument, least of all toot his own horn. In a sort of kindly, gentle way, the documentary forces him to see his ingenuity’s effect on women like his wife, who have benefited from what he creates by hand in his house.
Oh boy, Mom and Dad’s Nipple Factory got me good in the tears department, not just because I found the story highly relatable in multiple categories from a personal perspective. There’s much humor to be found, sometimes in just the matter-of-fact way Johnson’s father talks about his creation and in the way those that know the family speak of their reaction to first hearing about the at-one time secret operation being conducted in their town. The sentimentality comes not from an overly saccharine tone (Johnson’s mother is an eternal optimist and is rarely seen without a smile) but in letting the premise and purpose sink in. I won’t spoil the finale, but there’s a satisfying cry waiting for those with tender heartstrings waiting to be plucked.
If you are a breast cancer survivor and/or to learn more about Brian and Randi Johnson’s company, please visit Naturally Impressive, LLC: Prosthetic Nipple Restores Confidence! after seeing this film!
Director: Dawn Mikkelson
Synopsis: Following six fierce members of Minnesota Roller Derby as they fight to win the Hydra, the prize for the best women’s flat track roller derby team in the entire world.
Thoughts: Attending enough regional festivals, you see that local filmmakers often get an in-state advantage to appearing on the bill when viewing the big picture of programming. Mostly, the output is admirable but nothing earth-shattering, but at this year’s 42nd Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, I’m finding a robust slate of films/documentaries either from local filmmakers or with ties to the area that are inching their way to the top of my all-fest favorites. I mention this at the beginning of my Minnesota Mean write-up because while I didn’t always connect to the subject presented by director Dawn Mikkelson, overall, it’s nicely crafted and full of the midwestern spirit of unity through a good ass-kicking. That’s what makes it worthy of your time.
I’ve known a few of the bold athletes that have been part of the world of Minnesota Roller Derby but miraculously have never made it out to see a live tournament in all the years they have been active at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium. Mikkelson follows a team, the Minnesota Mean, through one championship stretch where they go after their most significant prize. Witnessing the players’ lives on and off the track gives us an inside glance into their sacrifices to their relationships, physical and mental health, and often their plans for starting families and focusing on career goals. It’s not the glossy world of roughhousing portrayed in fictional filmmaking, but skirmishes in auditoriums with huge crowds to smaller venues sparsely attended.
Through it all, the players remain steadfast to one another and supportive as teammates. If there was internal strife or issues between players, Mikkelson skates right past it because the picture presented is genuine camaraderie. Structurally, I found it to be uneven as the timeline between matches and during the jam can be a tad confusing, even with a quick rundown of the rules at the beginning. A tighter edit and a more straightforward introduction of when players arrive and depart (several leave before the season ends) would benefit Minnesota Mean immensely. There’s compelling material here, especially considering the end title cards updating us on the players. Still, we need to feel like we understand it all more for that ending to land correctly.