“Tomorrowland” Is Yesterday’s News

Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland (Brad Bird, 2015)

In a world, where nothing and no one is interesting … you will spend over two hours awaiting a meaningful, original story to develop, only to find yourself overwhelmed by bad CGI, flat characters and only tolerable acting. I know, it’s dispiriting. Perhaps it’s time, for those of you, who, like me, did not go see Pitch Perfect 2 last weekend (though the film crushed at the box office, so what, exactly, were we doing with ourselves?), to finally watch it. Alternately, the other two films opening – which I also haven’t yet seen – are the remake of Poltergeist (ugh) and an indie Western, Slow West (playing at the Charles Theatre, and looking mighty interesting) along with other, better, previously-opened fare – which I have seen – such as Clouds of Sils MariaEx MachinaFar from the Madding Crowd and Mad Max: Fury Road. Choose wisely. It’s a long weekend.

About the best that can be said for Tomorrowland is that it offers up the enjoyable site of a grumpy George Clooney. True, Clooney has not always played smooth charmers – his best recent (and Oscar-nominated) performance was in The Descendants, where he was anything but happy – but all too often he coasts on his easy charisma in movies like Gravity or The Monuments Men (which he also directed). Here, he is all misanthrope, and it’s fun to see him act in counterpoint to his familiar screen magnetism. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is not nearly as fun, in spite of the hyperactive efforts of helmer Brad Bird (The Incredibles) – also a co-screenwriter – and scribe Damon Lindelof (ABC’s “Lost“) – the other writer. Then again, Lindelof has a record of creating fanciful stories that he expects people to like even without any consistent internal logic (see “Lost” as exhibit A). Sometimes, in the case of movies like World War Z or Star Trek Into Darkness, it mostly works. At other times, we get Prometheus (hugely disappointing but watchable) or Cowboys & Aliens (blah). Suffice it to say that when I saw, at the end of Tomorrowland, Lindelof’s name appear on the screen, I said to myself, “of course he wrote this” …

The story begins … well, we’re not sure if it’s the present or the future, but we meet George Clooney as an angry someone, talking to us (we’re the camera), and arguing with an off-camera female voice that turns out to belong to Britt Robertson (The Longest Ride). Very quickly, we’re in a flashback to the 1964 New York World’s Fair, where we meet young Frank Walker (Clooney’s character), played – in one of the best bits of believable gene-pool casting – by Thomas Robinson, whom we completely buy as a boy George. It turns out that Frank, all of 10 years old or so, is an inventor, here to peddle a jetpack that only sort of works. An officious bureaucrat – played, with a maddeningly drifting accent, by Hugh Laurie (“House M.D.“) – to whom he shows his marvelous device, does not find it so marvelous. But his daughter (maybe she’s his daughter?), Athena – winningly played by Rafey Cassidy (Snow White and the Hunstman) – takes to young Frank, and gives him a magic pin (see poster, above) that, through a convoluted series of actions (which, I’ll admit, we’re kind of fun to watch, at this point in the movie), brings him to “Tomorrowland,” where the future is now (and where his jetpack is fixed by a robot). It’s Frank’s idea of paradise. Why, then, is old Frank so miserable? Well, in a better movie, that would be a great story, indeed.

Cut into Frank’s tale is that of current-day high-school student Casey, a mechanical genius whose Dad is a NASA engineer about to lose his job. After she is arrested for sabotaging her father’s worksite, she finds that same Tomorrowland pin among the effects returned to her on her way out of jail. The pin gives her a vision of the same place we saw earlier, back in 1964. And soon were seeing some other pretty crazy stuff, too, as the movie brings Casey into (angry, older) Frank’s orbit, and the two go on a quest to, of course, save the world. It needs saving, you see, because Tomorrowland – the future of yesterday – is sick. Along the way, the movie borrows liberally from sources like RobocopMen in BlackThe Matrix and even Disney’s Big Hero 6 (not surprisingly, since this is also a Disney film, and features quite a few tie-ins to the company’s theme parks), among many others. The film attempts to raise some of the same issues about artificial intelligence we’ve seen in recent movies like Ex Machina and Avengers: Age of Ultron, but even the latter (a film I did not love) had a more original take on the subject. What can I say? Tomorrowland is hokey new age pablum, and not worth your time.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” Is an Exciting and Kinetic Blend of Old and New

Mad Max Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)

I’m going on the air today to talk about the Hollywood production and distribution model that leans ever more towards franchises, in which studios demand a certain brand pre-awareness before committing the millions of dollars required to produce, and then advertise, their big-budget blockbuster extravaganzas, and so I ask the following question: would there be any anticipation for George Miller’s new movie if it didn’t have “Mad Max” in its title? In our current universe, it is more than understandable why a filmmaker would want to link a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road, expensive to make (at $150,000,000+) – though not nearly as expensive as Avengers: Age of Ultron (at $250,000,000+) – and market, to a proven property like Mad Max, even if that series is 30 years old (has it really been that long …). Simply calling the film “Barren Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland” wouldn’t quite cut it. The titular character had his origin in the eponymous 1979 movie, also by Miller, that launched what, until now, had been a trilogy (with Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome following in 1981 and 1985). With a new actor – Tom Hardy (Locke), always good – in the lead role, replacing Mel Gibson, and a plot that is only tangentially related to the original series – though the aesthetics are very similar – it can often feel like a stretch to find continuity between this new film and its predecessors. Fortunately, I fairly quickly gave up trying, and decided to just sit back and enjoy the show.

Wow! What a show it is. From the opening pre-credit sequence to the film’s redemptive conclusion (with a few very brief exceptions), the action never stops. Rarely have I seen such a hyperactive, kinetic film. And unlike Avengers: Age of Ultron and it’s CGI-laden brethren, this movie features stunts and explosions that happen on camera, lending a particularly palpable power to each and every punch. Beautifully choreographed, expertly photographed and production-designed in exquisite detail, Mad Max: Fury Road is a masterful collection of set pieces, held together by a mostly well-crafted script that moves quickly enough to leap over what gaping plot potholes there are. It’s a summer movie such as we haven’t seen since … the second Mad Max film (considered, until now, the best in the series), and my advice is to avoid my problem of trying to figure out how the movie fits in with the other three and to let it entertain you on its own terms. As Miller, himself, has said, it’s a revisiting of the world he created all those years ago (call it a reboot, call it what you will), so continuity is not the point. So be it.

We meet Max as a lone figure against a desert backdrop (see poster, above), telling us, in voiceover, how the world as we know it ended. He’s troubled by quick-cut visions of his past (which seem to link him to the first Mad Max film, and are the least effective parts of the film, for me), but before he can dwell on his pain, he’s attacked and captured. And then he escapes, and then he is captured again. Wham. Bam. Ouch. We soon find ourselves in a medieval community (what’s past is prologue …), ruled by a dysfunctional family, where water is scarce and prisoners like Max are used as “blood bags” to revive injured warriors. Max is “assigned” to one such warrior, Nux – a fine Nicholas Hoult (Warm Bodies) – and is soon strapped to the front of a souped-up dune buggy as Nux and his “war boy” pals charge out into the wasteland in pursuit of a commander gone rogue. That leader, Furiosa – Charlize Theron (Young Adult), tough and rough as sand – has stolen some precious cargo from the community’s sclerotic (but still dangerous) leader, and this act of rebellion becomes the MacGuffin that drives (pun intended) the plot, which is really one big car (and truck) chase scene across the Namibian desert.

I’ll be honest, I couldn’t keep most of the character names straight (other than Max, Furiosa and Nux), but I didn’t care. Leave that to the movie geeks (wait, I’m a movie geek …). I was along for the ride. And though some of the story is confusing, the general meaning of the film resonated: even in the middle of total destruction, there is never reason for despair if we fight back against the evils of tyranny and reclaim our humanity. Powerful stuff, that didn’t need to be underlined (double-underlined, in some cases) with the few operatic moments of raw, plaintive emotion we see when the action briefly stops. Mad Max: Fury Road is not a perfect movie (and as much as I like Hardy, I actually really missed Gibson), but it’s a damn good one, and great popcorn fare. To return to my initial question about franchises, here’s my answer: in a world of often-generic blockbuster sameness, if one is going to reconceive a franchise, this is the way to do it. Don’t remake it. Don’t even reboot it from scratch (as in The Amazing Spider-Man, as much as I enjoyed that film). Revisit the world and tell a different story within it, blending the old with the new. Past may be prologue, but it doesn’t have to repeat itself, and Mad Max: Fury Road is both an homage and an original piece of work, and well worth watching (especially in a theater). Go see it.

May 15 – Midday Cinemorphosis: Tentpoles, tadpoles, studios and streams

[NOTE: Missed the show? Check out the podcast!]

Rodricks May 15 2015 Poster

  1. “Thirty-five years of silent cinema is gone, no one looks at it anymore. This will happen to the rest of cinema. Cinema is dead.” – Director Peter Greenaway (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover)
  1. “Cinema … is more alive than ever, more multi-faceted, more abundant, more omnipresent than it has ever been.” – Academic Philippe Dubois, in his book Extended Cinema: Le cinéma gagne du terrain

Removing the hyperbole, what do the authors of these two statements actually mean? Greenaway seems to lament the passing of the classical narrative film-going experience, where we, the audience, sit in a darkened movie theater and have a movie wash over us as passive recipients of a director’s (or studio’s) vision. Dubois, on the other hand, celebrates the fact that there is now more visual storytelling in the world than there has ever been and that we, the people, can actively watch and/or participate in all of it as much, or as little, as we choose, at home, on the go, and even in theaters, if we so decide. I think they’re both on to something, though I would caution that predictions made when one is living through an era tend to be half-baked, as one cannot see the forest for the trees; the context is too overwhelming.

But there is no question that we are experiencing a moment where the amount of moving-image media to which we have access is enormous, and of high quality, and that such media is available to us in outlets and formats that have but recently been invented, home streaming services and portable devices among them. And there seems to be a self-reinforcing cycle of production, distribution and viewing habits that is affecting what media gets made by whom and who then watches it where. So while predictions about the future may be futile, discussions about the present can prove interesting.

As producer Lynda Obst (Sleepless in Hollywood) notes, the collapse of the DVD market and the increasing popularity of home streaming services (the latter partially causing the former) have forced Hollywood studios to adjust their output to maximize profits and limit losses. Obst calls Hollywood “completely broken,” a fact with which we can quibble (though George Lucas and Steven Spielberg might agree), since one’s definition of “broken” changes depending on where one stands (or on whether one is a hammer or a nail), but there is no question that we are seeing a shift in what kinds of content appear where. More and more, the big studios focus on “tentpoles,” those movies (or, even better, movie franchises) that can prop up the studio’s finances for that fiscal year, rather than on “tadpoles,” the smaller movies (gritty dramas, gentle comedies), that may not come with any sort of “pre-awareness” (i.e., they’re neither sequels nor book/comic book adaptations).

As the studios make more tentpoles and fewer tadpoles, the talent (writers, actors, etc.) that does not wish to be part of a franchise migrates to outlets – TV networks, cable, streaming sites like Amazon or Netflix – that are still focused on original dramas. Audiences looking for these kinds of stories can find it easily enough at home, and is pleased with the quality of those offerings, so when studios do make the smaller movies, people are less inclined to go see them in theaters, and might choose to wait for the movies to make it into the home-viewing options. This, in turn, reinforces the studios’ focus on the films that bring the most people into theaters, which tend to be the big superhero films (The Avengers, The Dark Knight) or other ongoing franchises, some of which may be based on other material (The Hobbit, Transformers), some of which, by now – though originally “original” – may be its own tentpole (Furious 7). When these movies connect with audiences, they bring in big dollars (Transformers: Age of Extinction made over $1billion, domestic and international box office combined, last year, and Avengers: Age of Ultron is currently blowing away the competition). Other than the exception-that-proves-the rule American Sniper, which has brought in, to date, almost $550,000,000 (domestic + international), the only adult drama in the 2014 top 20 was Gone Girl, which has earned, so far, almost $370,000,000 (domestic + international). These kinds of smaller films can bring prestige (and sometimes, Academy Awards), but not the same bucks as movies like the Hunger Games films. So the cycle continues, with fewer tadpoles being made for theatrical release, and television – or what used to be called television – picking up the slack.

Join host Dan Rodricks and me, Midday film critic Christopher Llewellyn Reed – Chair and Professor, Department of Film/Video, Stevenson University – on Friday, May 15 – the day another franchise releases a new film, Mad Max: Fury Road – at 1pm, as we discuss the changing nature of moving-image entertainment. Which films do you like to watch in theaters? Do you even still go out to the movies? What television/cable/streaming series do you like to watch, and why? Tune in to hear what we have to say, and add your own voice to the conversation by listening live and emailing your comments and questions to midday@wypr.org, or by calling in at 410-662-8780 (locally), or toll-free at 1-866-661-9309. If you can’t listen locally, you can live-stream the show on-line. If all else fails, you can always download the podcast afterwards, either via iTunes or the Midday page.

Maryland Film Festival 2015, Days 4 and 5: Stevenson Student Sessions + Movies

Sadly, on Saturday, the fourth day of the 2015 Maryland Film Festival, I started coming down with some kind of virus of some sort, and proceeded to feel sicker and more fatigued as the weekend wore on, eventually opting to stay home and do my set to recover. As I write this I am less feverish, but still extremely tired, which explains why it has taken me so long to post this final wrap-up of the festival (which isn’t much of a wrap-up, given my dwindling energy in the last two days). But we stuck to the plan, and Stevenson University Film/Video students did get to meet the two filmmakers they were scheduled to meet, Kris Swanberg (on Saturday) and Khalik Allah (on Sunday), pictured below:

SU Students and Faculty with Kris Swanberg

Saturday, May 9, 2015: SU Students and Faculty with Kris Swanberg (in open yellow cardigan)

SU Students and Faculty with Khalik Allah ()

Sunday, May 10, 2015: SU Students and Faculty with Khalik Allah (in crimson shirt, hand on heart)

I’m glad that part worked out . . . in any case, on Saturday, I forced myself to stick to some kind of a screening program before completely giving up on Sunday after just one movie. Here is what I saw.

People Places Things

People, Places, Things (James C. Strouse, 2015)

Here’s the synopsis from the festival’s program guide:

“The first few minutes of the wryly hilarious People, Places, Things find professor and graphic novelist Will Henry (Jemaine Clement, What We Do in the Shadows) thrust unwillingly into a new way of life. After his wife abruptly leaves him for another man, he finds himself having to navigate single fatherhood with his twin girls while juggling his career. As time passes, he adjusts to his new routine, but his reluctance to let go of the past cripples his ability to make real progress and meet someone new.

Noticing that her professor is in a bit of a funk, Kat (Jessica Williams), a student of Will’s, suggests that he come to dinner at her house to meet her single mother Diane (the wonderful Regina Hall). This sets up an awkward first date which may lead to promising new love—or just serve to further complicate already complicated situations.” (by J. Scott Braid)

This was not a great film, but it was an entertaining one. I’ve seen Jemaine Clement in various supporting roles over the years, but never really latched on to him as a performer (I saw not one episode of his “Flight of the Conchords“), but he makes for a very appealing sad sack of a leading man. Regina Hall (The Best Man Holiday) is lovely, although we, criminally, do not see a lot of her, nor of Jessica Williams (“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart). The movie is much more about Will working out his issues with his wife. Which is fine, except that that secondary plot of his blossoming romance with Diane is given very short shrift (and little screen time), which means that the final resolution feels a bit unearned. But the dialogue is often snappy, and there are far worse ways in which one could spend 85 minutes.

Unexpected

Unexpected (Kris Swanberg, 2015)

Here’s the synopsis from the festival’s program guide:

“Samantha and Jasmine discover their unplanned pregnancies about the same time. Samantha (a wonderful Cobie Smulders) is an engaged and successful teacher in a public school in a lower income neighborhood in Chicago that is set to close, and she immediately starts to worry about compromising her future career plans. Jasmine (terrific newcomer Gail Bean) is one of Samantha’s prize students, and worries about her plans for college being disrupted by her pregnancy.

These concerns ripple through friends and families in unpredictable but totally believable ways. Samantha’s boyfriend is thrilled, supportive, and proposes marriage, but doesn’t really understand Samantha’s quandary. The pregnancies also challenge Samantha and Jasmine’s close relationship, largely because Samantha, as both mentor and friend, makes presumptions about Jasmine and her goals.” (by Jed Dietz)

I am not a particular fan of the work of Kris Swanberg’s husband Joe, so I am happy to report how much I enjoyed Kris’s feature. She is a very fine filmmaker, with a great ability to direct actors, and she knows what she is doing with the camera. Cobie Smulders (“How I Met Your Mother“) is quite fine as Samantha, and Gail Bean is a remarkable find. Despite a gently surprising plot twist in the final third – which returns agency to the younger character – the movie cannot entirely escape what feels like a white, liberal-guilt origin, yet this never takes away from the overall humanistic quality of the script.

Field Niggas

Field Niggas (Khalik Allah, 2015)

Here’s the synopsis from the festival’s program guide:

“The title comes from a famous analysis of slave hierarchy and assimilation by Malcolm X, and photographer/filmmaker Khalik Allah is determined to pay tribute to people who are easily dehumanized in contemporary culture. Hanging around the infamous corner of 125th and Lexington in Harlem on a series of summer nights, Allah engages a wide variety of people who regularly inhabit the area and some who are just passing through. Concentrating on one corner in a tough city neighborhood reminds one of David Simon and Ed Burns’ reporting that resulted in the book The Corner, and the acclaimed HBO series that was adapted from it, and once again a powerful work of art emerges from an urban corner.” (by Jed Dietz)

Wow! This is quite an ambitiously experimental work. Shot almost entirely on the corner of Lexington and 125th Street in Manhattan, at night, the film is comprised of moving images of the denizens of the area (and the occasional passerby) and the police, while audio recorded separately – and not in sync with any image – plays as a vocal symphony below the visuals. It was a tough film for a sick man, late on a Saturday, to see, but it was quite a moving experience, in many ways. I’m still not sure that the film needed to be 60 minutes long, but that could be my illness talking. As it is, after seeing the film, I left that universe – where hope and despair coexist, where addiction and beauty go hand in hand – transformed by what I had seen, even if I’m still not sure that I understood the half of it.

Beats of the Antonov

Beats of the Antonov (Hajooj Kuka, 2014)

Here’s the synopsis from the festival’s program guide:

“Winner of the People’s Choice Documentary Award at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, director Hajooj Kuka’s Beats of the Antonov is a harrowing and heartening look at the people of the besieged Blue Nile and Nuba Mountain regions of Sudan, a people who have learned to not just cope but persevere under the most extreme circumstances. This stunning documentary finds the Sudanese filmmaker, a seasoned war correspondent, embedded within these communities as they are regularly bombarded by Russian-made planes (hence the film’s title) and forced from their homes and villages. Arrestingly lensed, the film introduces us to incredible musicians, activists, soldiers, farmers and intellectuals, whose fascinating stories highlight the important role their culture, and particularly music, plays in their daily lives.

Although the civil war here is a fight between North and South, Arab and African, and Kuka likely has his own opinions about the situation, it’s telling that all sides are represented and that the filmmaker does little to editorialize. For Kuka, what’s important is to show that culture, tradition, and particularly music, can sustain people, even in a war zone. People who manage to retain their culture, their music, their ways of life, can maintain their humanity and their dignity, even in the most perilous conditions.” (by J. Scott Braid)

Other than the fact that I was confused and thought I was going to see Frame by Frame instead (I kept on wondering, at first, why we were in Sudan, and not Afghanistan), I found this movie extraordinary. The filmmaker is right in the middle of the conflict, risking life and limb to film the devastation visited on these rebel communities by the government in Khartoum, so we see explosions, bloody corpses (animal and human), and much more. We also see and hear the people of the region as they explain why they resist the pressures from the north to de-Africanize them. This is a moving, harrowing and extremely inspiring film.

Thanks, Maryland Film Festival! I hope that, next year, I can avoid getting sick and enjoy more screenings . . .

Maryland Film Festival 2015, Day 3: The Documentary Panel and “God Bless the Child”

Yesterday was the third day of the 2015 Maryland Film Festival. It was another working day for me, so I couldn’t make it down there until the 4pm documentary panel I was set to moderate in the Festival Tent Village (on North Avenue next to the MICA Lazarus Center). That panel was comprised of four directors and one subject: local filmmaker Ramona Diaz (ImeldaThe LearningDon’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey) – who has no film at this year’s festival, but whose other films you should see – as well as Sandra Bagaria (subject of A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile), Luke Meyer (director of Breaking a Monster), Michael Beach Nichols (co-director of Welcome to Leith) and Douglas Tirola (director of Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon). We spent the hour discussing the best ways to secure access to one’s subject and the ethics of telling one’s story while treating the people in the film with respect.

After the panel, I went home to have dinner with my visiting parents, and then went back to the festival for one more film, God Bless the Child. Here are my brief thoughts on the four documentary films represented on my panel that are playing at this year’s festival, as well as on that later narrative I watched.

Breaking a Monster

Breaking a Monster (Luke Meyer, 2015)

Here’s the synopsis from the festival’s program guide:

Breaking a Monster follows Brooklyn-based Unlocking the Truth—Alec Atkins (bass), Malcolm Brickhouse (vocals and guitar), and Jarad Dawkins (drums)—over the surreal period immediately following their burst into the public consciousness. As the band hooks up with 70-year-old manager Alan Sacks, whose notable credits include co-creating Welcome Back, Kotter and work with the Jonas Brothers, they get a crash-course in the bizarre current state of the record industry. Adult pressures of contracts, tours, and branding land on the trio’s shoulders—frequently leading them to reach for their smart-phones and skateboards and wonder why it’s taking so long to get into the studio and cut a record.” (by Eric Allen Hatch)

Before watching this movie, you should check out the short film that began Luke Meyer’s relationship with these kids, entitled Unlocking the Truth (after the band’s name). This will give you some idea of the charm and drive of Malcolm and Jarad (Alec joined their group later). The feature reveals what happened to the band after this and other videos of them went viral, attracting the attention of powerful forces in the music industry. It is fascinating (and, at times, a little sad), to see these guys lose some of their poise as they get caught in the whirlwind. Then again, they’re only in middle school, and many of the adults applying pressure to them should be ashamed of themselves. Still, it’s quite a journey, and Meyer has done a wonderful job documenting the whole process. This is a rock-band road movie like none you have ever seen before.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon (Douglas Tirola, 2015)

Here’s the synopsis from the festival’s program guide:

The National Lampoon had a profound impact on our culture. Its power in the 1970s was real, even impacting political discussion, but the ongoing cultural influence is stunning. Starting from a sort of Harvard College magazine/club, two inspired entrepreneurs, Doug Kenney and Henry Beard, who happened to be comic geniuses, thought they could build something important.

As the magazine grew, the Lampoon evolved into several media forms—publishing, movies, radio, theater—and at each juncture Kenney and Beard attracted remarkable talent and then pushed it beyond assumed boundaries. One of their most notorious magazine covers declared: “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog.” Saturday Night Live, standup comedy, The Onion, and movies of all sizes are all now infused with this spirit.  Even web-based comedy that was unimaginable in the ‘70s, like the Funny or Die channel and shows like Broad City, share Lampoon DNA.” (by Jed Dietz)

I grew up in a world where The National Lampoon existed (it doesn’t, now), and just took it for granted. Now, thanks to this supremely entertaining, fast-paced documentary from Douglas Tirola (producer of the terrific Actress, which played at last year’s Maryland Film Festival), I can fully understand the vital role that this wildly irreverent (and often crude) magazine played in the development of much of the comedy we still enjoy to this day. This is a flashy piece, with editing glitz galore to complement the star power of the celebrity interviewees, that quickly moves us through the rise-and-fall history of this once-popular publication. I particularly loved how Tirola and his team animated old Lampoon cartoons and photographs within the film. Fun and at times as crazy as the people it profiles, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is a terrific profile of an era gone, but not forgotten.

A Gay Girl in Damascus - The Amina Profile

A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile (Sophie Deraspe, 2015)

Here’s the synopsis from the festival’s program guide:

A Gay Girl in Damascus focuses on the mystery surrounding a popular gay Syrian-American blogger (whose blog provides the name of the film) who took the Internet by storm in the midst of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

Encouraged by her online girlfriend Sandra Bagaria, who lives halfway across the world in Montreal, Amina launches her blog amidst Syria’s growing unrest. Before long she is an Internet sensation, garnering coverage from major media outlets the world over. The international attention has Sandra fearing for her blogger-girlfriend’s safety. It isn’t long before Sandra’s worst fears seem to be confirmed. She hears reports that Amina has been kidnapped by Syrian forces. Unable to travel to Syria to track down her love, Sandra helps launch an Internet search party. As countless concerned parties try to determine the missing Amina’s whereabouts, a number of puzzling pieces of information surface.” (by J. Scott Braid)

Of the films that I previewed before the panel, this was by far the most artistically innovative. Since much of the story took place before the involvement of the director, she was forced to create much of the non-interview footage to support the narrative. Adopting a dreamy, surreal approach to the reenactments, Deraspe takes us through a tale that grows more disturbing as the film progresses. Despite the film’s title, Bagaria is the main subject, and outside of the reenactments, our focus is squarely on her as she desperately tries to locate, and save, Amina. I loved this movie, and was surprised by the final outcome. I highly recommend.

Welcome to Leith

Welcome to Leith (Michael Beach Nichols/Christopher K. Walker, 2015)

Here’s the synopsis from the festival’s program guide:

“This edge-of-your-seat documentary follows the arrival of a man named Craig Cobb to a small town in North Dakota. With a population of approximately twenty residents, newcomers are a rarity usually welcomed with open arms in Leith; most residents are farmers, and the nearest economic engine to speak of are oil fields 70 miles north. But the people of Leith quickly learn that Cobb isn’t interested in fuel or potatoes—as some readers may already know, Cobb is a notorious and utterly unrepentant white supremacist.

When he promptly buys up land for like-minded collaborators, disrupts town council meetings with vitriol, and openly carries guns—lobbing harsh words at anyone who stands in his way—it becomes clear that Cobb plans a neo-Nazi takeover of this sleepy town. And as his behavior escalates further into the outrageous and threatens to get violent, a once-placid community must decide how to react.” (by Eric Allen Hatch)

Welcome to Leith offers us a powerful front-row seat to watch prejudice and hate in action. What makes it especially chilling is that the leader of the white supremacists, Craig Cobb, is actually a man of some poise and charisma, and very articulate when he’s not spouting epithets. How did he get here? If the film has one weakness (out of a long list of strengths), it’s that we are left wanting to know more about this man’s history. Otherwise, this is gripping stuff. Walker and Nichols – who is also the editor – have somehow gained access to iPhone footage shot by Cobb’s followers, and have assembled a fascinating shot/reverse shot cut of the action, jumping from the perspective of the town residents to that of their tormentors. We are right there in the thick of it. Go see this film.

God Bless the Child

God Bless the Child (Robert Machoian/Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck, 2015)

Here’s the synopsis from the festival’s program guide:

“The film centers on a group of five siblings whose depressed and unreliable mother has left them unattended. She drives off in the opening scene with no concrete plans for return. Harper, the eldest sibling and only girl, is immediately thrust into the role of parent, and it’s likely not the first time. She does her best, but she is still a child herself, and no substitute for a proper parent. The tragedy of this circumstance provides a framework for the minimalist narrative, but the film never panders to melodrama, instead smartly eschewing cheap tugs at the heartstrings for an at times documentary-like examination of the siblings’ world. The camera follows them as they navigate the world on their own. Directors Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck have a flair for capturing how children really interact with one another. Keeping their cameras at a comfortable distance, they allow the children the space and comfort they need to act naturally. They are allowed to be children and interact as they might normally, even though they are playing characters.” (by J. Scott Braid)

Sadly, I did not love this film as much as did the festival programmers, but I have to admit that it grew on me over its 94 minutes. Featuring five real-life siblings, God Bless the Child is told in the kind of raw, lo-fi fashion that is the hallmark of much of independent cinema, which, here, is both its strength and weakness. On the one hand, since this feels as much documentary as fiction, we are deeply involved in the lives of the characters, and feel, sharply, every moment of neglect and danger. On the other hand, beyond that, there isn’t a whole lot on the screen, and it often feels as if we are watching someone else’s home movie, in which they are in love with every behavioral tic of their children, while we, after a few minutes, want out (we’ve all been there, right? or am I just a horrible person . . .). At the heart of the film, however, is a profoundly moving tale of resilience and love, and that transcends whatever aesthetic ennui I experienced at various moments of the screening. For me, a mixed bag, but I suspect that select members of the festival audience will dig it.

“Far from the Madding Crowd” Is Imperfect, Yet Brisk and Beautiful

Far form the Madding Crowd

Far from the Madding Crowd (Thomas Vinterberg, 2015)

First published in 1874, Far from the Madding Crowd was English writer Thomas Hardy‘s fourth novel and his first big commercial success. The book tells the story of the original Miss Everdene – Bathsheba, not Katniss – and her various male admirers, one of whom is Gabriel Oak, a man who at the start of the tale is a farmer with a promising future, but who in a stunning reversal of fortune ends up becoming Bathsheba’s shepherd, never quite losing the torch he carries for her. From Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, who gave us the 1998 Dogme film The Celebration and the 2012 Best Foreign Language nominee The Hunt, Far from the Madding Crowd – the fourth cinematic adaptation of Hardy’s novel (the most famous of which is the 1967 John Schlesinger version) – is a gorgeously photographed period piece, and one of the fastest-paced films about the 19th century that I have ever seen.

Before seeing the movie, I read the source text (for the first time). One thing that amazed me about Vinterberg’s film is how it is both an extremely faithful adaptation of the book, and yet also an extremely brisk version of it, as if screenwriter David Nicholls (the 2012 version of Great Expectations) had first written out the entire plot of the book and then stripped away everything but the bare essentials. This is both good and bad, as much of Hardy’s writing is focused on building up the atmosphere of his fictional “Wessex” (really, Dorset) through many scenes of the local farmers and laborers in pub-based conversations, and while such moments were clearly important to Hardy, I found most of them a chore to get through as I read. They are all gone now. On the other hand, some crucial information at the end of the book is quickly glossed over, and the climactic battle between Bathsheba’s lovers is a handled a little too rapidly.

Still, what is on the screen is mostly impressive. Carey Mulligan (Never Let Me Go) – as Bathsheba – and Belgian actor Matthias Schoenarts (Rust and Bone) – as Gabriel – are magnificent, and they have a raw, palpable chemistry that is evident to all but Bathsheba. Michael Sheen (“Masters and Johnson“) – as Boldwood, Bathsheba’s lovelorn neighbor – is also strong, but when is Sheen not good . . . Unfortunately, there is a weak link in the cast, and that is Tom Sturridge (On the Road) – as Sergeant Troy – who in the book is supposed to be such hot stuff that he causes the independent Bathsheba to lose her head, yet here comes across as a dewy-eyed fop. Comparing Schoenarts to Sturridge, one wonders how Bathsheba could ever be so foolish.

Otherwise, the movie has, actually, an even strong feminist bent than the book. The first voice we hear is Bathsheba’s, in a voiceover that is a complete invention of screenwriter Nicholls. This, then, is her story, and it is a pleasure to watch Mulligan’s performance as her character rises, falls, and then rises again. It’s not a perfect movie, but it is both highly enjoyable and quite beautiful. And oh-so brisk.

Maryland Film Festival 2015, Day 2: The Double Wow of “Venice” and “In the Basement”

Yesterday was the second day of the 2015 Maryland Film Festival. It was also a working day for me, so I could only make two screenings in the evening (thank goodness for Good Doggie Day Care, which keeps my little wonder beagle so active during her stays that she passes out right after dinner, allowing me, at the end of such days, to stay out late!). Too bad, as Thursday’s slate was filled with many enticing offerings. From among those, I chose Venice (Kiki Álvarez, 2014) and In the Basement (Ulrich Seidl, 2014). My (very brief) thoughts on each are below.

Venicia

Venice (Kiki Álvarez, 2014)

Here’s the synopsis from the festival’s program guide:

“Slightly older and married Monica (Maribel García Garzón), young and slightly naive Violeta (Claudia Muñiz, who also has lead writing credits on the film), and the bubbly Mayelin (Marianela Pupo) are hairstylists working in the same Havana salon. The three women make plans to have dinner together at Violeta’s house and then head out for an evening on the town. They begin their night as work acquaintances, bonding as they discuss men, money, family, and other everyday life matters over a bottle of wine. In these charming moments, the viewer can’t help but be drawn into the orbit of these three savvy women. When they step out for the night and make their way through the streets of Havana, the energy of the film begins to shift. And as the wine kicks in and the malaise of the workday wears off, both the characters and the film begin to effervesce. A quiet dinnertime buzz gives way to a night of pulsing club music, carnal desire, and altered reality.” (by J. Scott Braid)

2015-05-07_Claudia Muñíz_MFF2015

Claudia Muñíz (pictured, above) was at the screening yesterday, and it was a pleasure to hear her talk about the process of making this delightful movie. Shot in an intimate style that allows the three main women to burst from the screen with their bountiful energy, Venice manages to appear, at first, like just another slice-of-life indie film before metamorphosing into a powerful meditation on female empowerment. I highly recommend. There is one more screening at the Walters Art Museum on Saturday, May 9, at 4:30pm.

Im Keller

In the Basement (Ulrich Seidl, 2014)

Here’s the synopsis from the festival’s program guide:

In the Basement stands as an equal to anything Seidl’s done before, offering a highly stylized presentation of reality as it delves into the literally subterranean lives of Austrians. From shooting ranges to taxidermy to BDSM to collections of Nazi memorabilia, Seidl’s camera finds that beneath the polite, humdrum exteriors of everyday life sometimes dwell special interests that, while sometimes quite disturbing to us as observers, hold deeper meaning for those individuals than the faces they show us by daylight.” (by Eric Allen Hatch)

Wow! I have seen none of Seidl’s other work, which includes the cult-favorite Paradise trilogy, but if this documentary is anything to go on, he is quite the provocateur. With carefully staged compositions, often held for uncomfortably long durations, Seidl pushes the boundaries of the form and begs the questions, “If the people on screen are doing things that Seidl ask them to do, how much is real?” Let’s call this an experimental docudrama featuring non-actors in their actual environments behaving as they always do, but at the request of the director. It’s a fascinating look at the simmering passions – loving, sexual, violent – that lurk beneath the veneer of civilization. I highly recommend this film, as well. There is one more screening, also at the Walters Art Museum, also on Saturday, May 9, at 11:30am.

Long Live the Movies: The 2015 Maryland Film Festival 2015 Is Upon Us!

MD Film Fest 2015

Welcome back, Maryland Film Festival! Baltimore needs you. Starting last night (Wednesday, May 6), and running through Sunday, May 10, this annual event brings films and filmmakers from around the world to Charm City for a whirlwind slate of screenings that offers documentaries, narrative (fiction) films, hybrids of both, experimental films, and a plethora of short films to match the features. This year, the Department of Film/Video at Stevenson – which I currently Chair – is one of the sponsors of the festival, and, in particular, of some specific events at the festival.

The festival began, as it has for a number of years now, with a program of short films, hosted this time by filmmakers Darius Clark Monroe (Evolution of a Criminal) and Riley Stearns (Faults), both of whom had their films play here last year. It was a powerful collection of 5 very different movies, one of which was made by a local director. Here they are, in the order in which they played:

  • Share (Pippa Bianco) – A beautifully restrained film about the consequences of a shared (sexually explicit, nonconsensual) video involving a high-school student, played by Taissa Farmiga (6 Years, also at this year’s fest)
  • Melville (James M. Johnston) – What is the connection between parenting, cancer and hip-hop? Find out in this carefully plotted and evocatively photographed short film.
  • Pink Grapefruit (Michael Mohan) – This is a lovely meditation on the evolution of relationships, and also the winner of the Jury Award for Narrative Shorts at this years’s SXSW Festival
  • Charlotte (Angel Kristi Williams) – This moving little gem – last night’s Baltimore-based film – explores the moody, ever-changing emotional landscape of teenagers.
  • The Bad Boy of Bowling (Bryan Storkel) – Who knew that bowling – once a major television draw, but since eclipsed by other sports – could be so exciting? Find out, as you watch Pete Weber revel in his role as “the bad boy of bowling.”

For the rest of the week, here are the events that Stevenson University is sponsoring:

Friday, May 8:
4-5pm, Tent Village, on North Avenue next to the MICA Lazarus Center, is the first of 3 Stevenson-sponsored sessions. It’s a documentary panel that I will moderate with local filmmaker Ramona Diaz (The LearningDon’t Stop Believin’), and three folks associated with films at this year’s festival: Sandra Bagaria (subject of Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile), Michael Beach Nichols (co-director of Welcome to Leith) and Luke Meyer (director of Breaking a Monster).
Saturday, May 9:
11am-12pm, Tent Village, on North Avenue next to the MICA Lazarus Center, is the first “Stevenson Student Talk-Back Session,” with filmmaker Kris Swanberg, whose movie Unexpected is playing that evening.
Sunday, May 10:
11am-12pm, Tent Village, on North Avenue next to the MICA Lazarus Center, is the second “Stevenson Student Talk-Back Session,” with Khalik Allah, whose documentary Field Niggas is playing later that day.
Come one, come all!

Binoche and Stewart Ground the “Clouds of Sils Maria” in Profound Truths

Clouds of Sils Maria

Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014)

Not so long ago, when Kristen Stewart was still turning in listless performances in the unbearable Twilight saga, it would have been very hard to imagine her winning a César (the French Oscar) – or any acting award, other than a Razzie – but win one she did, playing Valentine, personal assistant to Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche, last seen bringing much needed quality to the opening of last year’s Godzilla), star of stage and screen. It is well deserved. I have not always appreciated the films of Olivier Assayas – his well-regarded Clean, a movie about overcoming addiction, was particularly off-putting – but I have always admired the ambition of his intentions and his refusal to stay trapped in any one genre. Whether working in period melodrama (Les destinées), stylish neo-noir (Demonlover) or television biopics (his absolutely terrific Carlos), Assayas constantly tests the boundaries of visual storytelling. And now, in Clouds of Sils Maria, with the help of Stewart and Binoche – both at the top of their game – he gives us a profound meditation on time, memory and art.

The movie opens with Valentine and Maria traveling, by train, to Zurich, where Maria is due to accept an award at a tribute to Wilhelm Melchior, the man who, 20 years earlier, launched her career by casting her in the starring role of his play Maloja Snake (the title refers to a cloud-based weather phenomenon in the Engadine valley of the Southeastern Swiss Alps), and later in the movie adaptation, which he also directed. Before they arrive at their destination, however, Wilhelm dies, of an apparent heart attack, and so the tribute turns into a memorial service. In Zurich, a young theater director, Klaus, approaches Maria about acting in a new version of Maloja Snake, but with a twist. The play has two female leads: Sigrid and Helena. Helena is the older woman who hires the much younger Sigrid as her personal assistant, falls in love with her, and then commits suicide when Sigrid abandons her to move on to greener pastures. Maria originated the part of Sigrid, but now Klaus wants her to play Helena, and claims that Wilhelm, at the time of his death, had been working on a sequel to his original play in which Sigrid eventually became Helena. Initially repulsed by the idea, Maria – who we see otherwise being asked to star in Hollywood CGI blockbusters – eventually comes around, and the bulk of the film centers on her rehearsing for the new production, with Valentine doubling for Sigrid as they read lines.

Doubling. That’s a big leitmotif here. As Maria and Valentine rehearse the new production, art and life intersect as the intensity of their own relationship begins to mirror that within the play. Life imitates art. Art also imitates life, as Stewart plays a character looking, outside in, at the world of movie stars, including not only Binoche, but also Chloë Grace Moretz (If I Stay), who plays Jo-Ann Ellis, the Hollywood ingénue set to star as Sigrid in the new stage show. Jo-Ann’s blockbuster movies, as well as her relationship scandals, mirror those of the real-life Stewart. Not only do the boundaries of art and life collide, but the film often seems to suggest that life means nothing to these people unless it is framed by art and artifice: we see them on their iPads and other devices, and even when Maria and Valentine sit in front of majestic alpine views, all they can talk about is the play. The first time we see the actual “maloja snake” phenomenon, it is through a 1924 silent documentary by Arnold Fanck, a copy of which Wilhelm owned and watched repeatedly. Life means so much more when artistically composed.

Time and memory are also major themes. Past and present converge as Valentine and Maria hike the mountains of Sils Maria – they are staying in Wilhelm’s house, which his widow has vacated to allow them to perhaps feel his spirit as they rehearse – walking paths, both literal and metaphorical, that Maria once trod as a younger woman. We’re never sure how much of Maria’s feelings for Valentine – mostly platonic – come from her own experience playing Sigrid; from her new relationship, as Helena, to the text; or from the actual dynamic of boss to employee, friend to friend. It doesn’t matter. What does matter are the constant echoes of time past, present and future (and we’re in the Alps, so there are literal echoes, as well). Stewart, as the repository of all of this projection, holds her own against Binoche, and then some. She still has those awkward gangly movements that made her such an unlikely love interest for vampires in the Twilight films, but here, combined with the burning intelligence of her eyes, that awkwardness serves to showcase a young woman on the verge of finding (and asserting) herself. In another universe, she might have even been Maria, taking a different path.

And speaking of other universes and recurring time, Sils Maria just happens to be where Friedrich Nietzsche came up with his seminal idea of the eternal recurrence (is it just a coincidence that Maria Enders takes her first name from here?), which adds yet another layer of meaning to deconstruct. It’s an extraordinarily rich film, a meta-text ripe for analysis. I highly recommend.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron,” Is the Latest Marvel Film About the Marvel Universe

Avengers Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015)

The new film about the Marvel universe – sequel, of sorts, to the 2012 The Avengers – manages to be both busy and inert, as if an angry bee had gotten itself stuck in molasses: there’s much mayhem and destruction, and the appearance of action, but no forward motion. What, you say? An entire country is levitated by a Transformers-like robot (or AI – for artificial intelligence), leaving the fate of the earth in the hands of our superhero friends! How could that be nothing? Yes, but, how is that any different than the basic plot and outcome of this movie’s predecessor, or many of the other Marvel films? And while we’re watching all of this mind-numbing on-screen destruction (so much debris!), are we actually witnessing any real change in the lives of the characters? I think not. Ridiculous of me to want that, I suppose, but I need meaningful story to ground my appreciation of the action and CGI. For every Captain America: The Winter Soldier – a model, for me, of how these kinds of films should work – we get two or three of these muddled messes.

If I were to try and pinpoint the moment when my interest in the on-screen proceedings dwindled to a virtual zero, I’d be hard-pressed to find just one. Was it the terrible CGI fight sequence that opened the film? The silly staged slow-motion group shot of the Avengers within that opening? The expositional dialogue between all characters throughout the movie? The nonsensical design and characterization of the main villain (Ultron)? Or the waste of the very fine actress Linda Cardellini (“Bloodline“) in the role of the world’s most supportive spouse? Take your pick!

That’s not to say that some of the individual stories are without interest. It’s always nice to see Chris Evans (Snowpiercer) as Captain America, and Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin) – as Black Widow – and Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher) – as the Hulk – have some nice scenes together that hint at what might have been a nice alternative movie were we not stuck in an ensemble piece that allows no time for such things as drama. But then along comes Robert Downey, Jr. (Iron Man 3), with his now-usual smart-alecky shtick, to make sure that nothing of consequence actually happens. Two other actors – Jeremy Renner (Kill the Messenger), as Hawkeye, and Chris Hemsworth (Rush), as Thor – inhabit the roles of the final two Avengers, but barely.

So on to the plot, such as it is. Writer/director Joss Whedon – who, before he became the anchor of the Marvel ship, was mostly known as the successful television showrunner of series such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel” – starts the story in medias res, as our heroes are closing in on the latest Hydra hideout. There, they confront two new “enhanced” (as Captain America calls them) adversaries – Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) – the latter of whom has the power to manipulate minds. It’s too bad that neither Taylor-Johnson nor Olsen are any less bland here than they were in Godzilla, but this doesn’t stop the Scarlet Witch from implanting a vision of global destruction in Tony Stark’s brain that leads him to create Ultron (what a name, folks!), an AI whose role it should be to protect the world from further harm and ensure “peace in our time.” Apparently, The Terminator doesn’t exist in the Marvel universe, so these poor guys have no way of knowing how badly this could turn out.

Ultron is voiced by James Spader (“The Blacklist“), who has a lot of fun in the role. Ultron is not your average robot. He has personality. Since he was designed by Tony Stark, and is meant to be his evil doppelgänger, Ultron is a strutting megalomaniac. Sounds fun, right? Unfortunately, he also makes no sense, even for a Marvel film. He is both seemingly omnipotent, able to transfer his consciousness between physical bodies and control the internet, and peevishly childish, undone by bouts of temper that erupt from nowhere and make the audience laugh, yet degrade an already senseless script. As much as I had mixed feelings about Ex Machina, that film’s treatment of AI design is masterful compared to Avengers: Age of Ultron. And don’t even get me started about what happens to Jarvis (Stark’s benevolent AI manservant). Argh.

I suspect that if one is a diehard Marvel fan, none of this will matter. I also suspect that the film will make as much money as did the last actual Transformers film, ensuring many more Avengers and Marvel stories to come. Get ready.