Barbara the Brilliant: Midday on Stanwyck, April 4, 1pm

[For those of you who missed the show, here is a link to the podcast: http://wypr.org/post/midday-film-1 ]

Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990)

Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990)

From 1927 to 1986, Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990), née Ruby Stevens, entertained us on screens both large and small, in films (and later TV shows) of almost all genres (she’s listed as #11 on the AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Stars list). Hers was foremost an intelligent presence. Yes, she was beautiful and sexy, but it was the brilliance of her mind, always thinking, that truly captivated me from the moment I first saw her in Billy Wilder’s film noir classic Double Indemnity. Born in New York City and orphaned young, she had a hard life, at first, which probably accounts for her tremendous and dynamic strength. She went to act in some of the classics of 20th-Century cinema, including – in addition to the aforementioned Wilder film – Baby Face, Stella Dallas, The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and The Furies. She later continued in television as the matriarch on the 1960s hit show “The Big Valley,” and turned in an electric performance opposite Richard Chamberlain in the 1980s mini-series “The Thorn Birds.”

A Life of Barbara Stanwyck Book Cover

And now there’s a new biography out about her: A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940  (volume 1 in a two-part series), by Victoria Wilson. On Friday, April 4, Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed – Chair of Film/Video at Stevenson University – will appear on Midday with Dan Rodricks on WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station, during the second hour, 1-2pm, to discuss Barbara Stanwyck’s life and career with Victoria Wilson, herself, who will join us to discuss her book and Barbara Stanwyck’s enduring legacy.

If you can’t listen locally, you can live-stream the podcast.

And you can always download the podcast afterwards, via iTunes the Midday page.

Enjoy the show!

Paris – The City of Fight: The True Romance of “Le Week-End”

Le Week-End

Le Week-End (Roger Michell, 2013)

Love is a battlefield, especially in certain long-term relationships. A 60-something English couple, Nick and Meg – the one a college philosophy professor, the other a grade-school teacher – head to Paris (from Birmingham) for the weekend (“week-end,” in French, believe it or not) to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. They have a comfortable, if occasionally antagonist, rapport, and very different ideas about what constitutes an ideal getaway. Their last trip to the “City of Light” had been for their honeymoon, and Nick has made reservations at the very same Montmartre hotel at which they had previously stayed. Unfortunately, it’s a bit rundown, and so Meg, disgusted, grabs the first taxi she can find and insists on an aimless ride through the streets of the French capital (“We’re in Paris,” she cries) until her eyes alight on the perfect stopping point: the Hotel Plaza Athénée. It’s expensive, but price is no obstacle (it turns out that price will matter, but the consequences only come later). Clearly, we have entered the story of Nick and Meg at a crisis point, and the joy (and extreme discomfort) of the film is in watching that crisis unfold, and in the great performances given by Jim Broadbent (Topsy-Turvy, Cloud Atlas, and so much else), as Nick, and Lindsay Duncan (HBO’s “Rome” and a lot of British stage and TV), as Meg, as they invest their characters with humanity and complexity.

The director Roger Michell (PersuasionNotting Hill) and the writer Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) have collaborated three times before: first on a 1993 British miniseries, The Buddha of Suburbia (based on Kureishi’s novel of the same name), and then on two films that both – like Le Week-End – analyzed the challenges of aging in remarkably frank ways, The Mother and Venus. I found their new film less interesting than The Mother (in which 60-something Anne Reid carries on an affair with her daughter’s hunky 30-something boyfriend, played by Daniel Craig), but far more accomplished than Venus (which I just found kind of gross with its crude sexual humor). Regardless of how one feels about any of their films, however, kudos to them – both just shy of 60 – for writing and directing films about a demographic that often does not get its fair share of screen time.

In Le Week-End, Michell and Kureishi explore the ups and downs, the comedies and the tragedies, the good and the bad, and the love and the hate that all co-exist in any intimate relationship between two people. In short, they explore the awesome beauty and pain of life, itself. If the film can seem at times reductive (a lot seems to happen – some of it coincidental – on this one particular weekend), it is nevertheless a masterpiece of behavioral study. When the marvelous Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and a gazillion other films which he elevated just by showing up) arrives in the second half to act as unwitting narcissistic foil to the roiling sadomasochistic co-dependency of Nick and Meg, his presence unleashes a final torrent of tragicomic existential mayhem (he also serves as the perfect set-up for the movie’s jokey French New Wave-inspired ending). You’ll laugh; you’ll cry; you’ll scream; you’ll definitely feel something. You’ll hate Meg at first, then find Nick a bore, and eventually come to realize that we’re all very much like them (up to point). It’s finely acted and scripted drama, and a welcome return to form for Michell after the disappointing Hyde Park on Hudson. I highly recommend.

As a side note, the cinematographer is Nathalie Durand, who also shot Avant que de tout perdre – which should have won the 2014 Oscar for Best Live Action Short (it lost out to the far inferior Helium) – and Blame It on Fidel. She does a lovely job photographing Paris by mostly natural light, and is definitely someone to watch.

“Cesar Chavez” – A Great Man Struggles against the Mediocrity of His Biopic

Cesar Chavez landscape

Cesar Chavez (Diego Luna, 2014)

Biopics are frequently problematic. How does one reduce the life of an important historical figure into a meaningful and comprehensive narrative of approximately two hours length? If one tries to do too much, then there is a risk that the vital elements of the subject’s biography – the reason we remember this person – will get lost in an excess of detail. If one’s focus is too narrow, then we never grasp the context of the totality of that person’s actions and influence. Walk the Line (James Mangold, 2005), about Johnny Cash, kept the story on Cash’s struggles with addiction and his relationship with June Carter. Once he resolved those issues, the film ended. By being so specific (yet still beginning with the beginning of his career), the film succeeded in giving us a real human being at the center of the story, while also helping us understand why Johnny Cash mattered. By contrast, Clint Eastwood’s 2011 J. Edgar was a failure, partly due to its attempt to show us all of J. Edgar Hoover’s life (on the other hand, Eastwood’s Invictus – which focused on just one incident in Nelson Mandela’s life – was a fine film).

Since the earliest days of the cinema, filmmakers have tackled biographical subjects, so there’s a wealth of both positive and negative examples to choose from. Take your pick. Opening today we have Cesar Chavez, by the actor-turned-director Diego Luna (Y Tu Mamá TambiénMilk). I wrote a brief review of the film after I saw at the SXSW Festival. I did not like it very much, although I certainly found aspects of it to admire. There was tremendous energy in the theater when Luna got up on stage at the end with his actors, and if only that energy had been present in the film, it might have been significantly better.

Cesar Chavez (1927-1993), the man, was a seminal American labor organizer whose nonviolent protests in the 1960s and 1970s – and founding of the United Farm Workers Union with fellow activist Dolores Huerta – eventually resulted in the major United States agricultural growers being forced to grant higher wages and more decent conditions to the legions of field workers who had long toiled in hardship. If you believe in workers’ rights, he was a great man. As played by lead actor Michael Peña (End of Watch), however, he’s a bit of a passive force and accidental leader, who stumbles and shuffles his way to victory. It’s hardly a fitting tribute to his legacy. I have liked Peña as a supporting actor in other films, but here he is out of his depth.

There are two other actors who could have risen to the challenge and carried the film – America Ferrera (“Ugly Betty“) and Rosario Dawson (Seven Pounds) – since they have demonstrated real power in other roles, if only they had been given a chance by the script. Instead, this is yet another film where women are cast as supporting players, rather than active participants. Since Dolores Huerta (Dawson) was at least as important as Chavez, this is particularly inexcusable. Fererra (as Helen Chavez, Cesar’s wife) gets more of a chance to flex some muscle, but it’s not enough.

So what we have is a film with occasional flashes of historical interest – and if you know nothing about Chavez, you might as well see it – and a lot of dead weight. If you keep your expectations low, you might actually enjoy it.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Serves a Tasty, If Lightweight, Feast

Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)

In the past 20 years, the writer/director Wes Anderson has made just 5 short films and 8 features (including the stop-motion-animation Fantastic Mr. Fox). In spite of this (relatively) limited output (in the same time frame, the writer/director Woody Allen has released 20 features, or one a year), Anderson has developed a strong cult following. His films feel truly unique, and uniquely designed: every frame is carefully planned; every action taken and word spoken seems to emerge from the brain and vision of an auteurist director with excellent control over every single detail the audience sees.

Anderson’s films are a delight to his fans, and a welcome reprieve from the ubiquity of sameness that so often pervades Hollywood blockbusters. Unfortunately (for me), that same tight control also lends his films an air of artifice that often keeps the viewer at a distance from the emotional lives of the characters: we always observe, but never participate. I love Wes Anderson films; I hate Wes Anderson films. I admire his style and panache, but often wish there was less of both. The only one of his films that truly captivated me was Rushmore: somehow (and maybe because it was the first film of his I saw), the artifice worked as a brilliant expression of a precocious teenager’s soul. Every time the house lights go dark on a new Wes Anderson film, I hope for a new Rushmore, and I am always disappointed. Nevertheless, I keep coming back, which is a testament to how glad I am that an artist such as Anderson exists.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is no Rushmore, but it’s still a lovely refuge for a certain kind of cinematic delight, nonetheless. Anderson seems to acknowledge his own tendency towards artifice right at the start: first, when the vocal music on the soundtrack transforms into yodels from the mouths of three men on a bench past which the camera glides; and second, when the establishing panorama of the Grand Budapest Hotel shifts between the virtual and the actual, with a hand-crafted paper model of the mansion morphing into the solidity of stone. It’s a beautiful opening, but one that presages Anderson’s usual prioritizing of style over content.

The film takes place primarily in 1932, but the main story is framed – as if inside a Russian nesting doll – within three later time periods: the present (or something later than 1985), 1985, and 1968. Each layer is peeled back until we arrive at the hard center, where the marvelous Ralph Fiennes resides. He plays Monsieur Gustave, the concierge at the titular hotel, who runs his establishment with a firm hand and strong aesthetic sensibility, and makes a habit of sleeping with his elderly lady clients (though he is gay). His faithful (platonic) companion – a novice aptly named “Zero” (relative newcomer Tony Revolori, quite good) – accompanies him everywhere, even to the funeral of one Gustave’s paramours. It is at this funeral, after a series of delightfully frivolous set pieces – all scored with jaunty balalaika music by composer Alexandre Desplat – that the plot kicks in. Gustave is named as a partial beneficiary of the will – his gift is a painting named “Boy with Apple” – and the family (composed primarily of Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe, both in full psychotic mode, especially the latter) objects. The drama that erupts will eventually lead to much gruesome violence (severed fingers, a dead cat), many deaths, jail sentences, beatings, and much more. On the horizon looms the Nazi menace. Is this film a metaphor about the savagery that lurks below the veneer of civilization?

Quite possibly, but it’s all staged so giddily – even the severing of those fingers – that it’s hard to get a grasp on tone. It is this inability to be sincere, even for a moment – along with the excess of surface style – that always leaves me fatigued and annoyed at the end of most Wed Anderson films. But if you are up for a wildly inventive journey, and are a fan of any of these actors – Fiennes, Brody, Dafoe, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Léa Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, and/or Bob Balaban (what actors are not in this film, you may ask) – then chances are you’ll have a good time. And if you are a bigger and more constant fan of Anderson than I am, I suspect you will love the film. It is unmistakably his.

“Divergent” Takes the Path Most Traveled

Divergent

Divergent (Neil Burger, 2014)

In a post-apocalyptic world, where the survivors once struggled in the aftermath of war but have since rebuilt their society in new and innovative – and, to some, frightening – ways, a young rebel will emerge in a time of crisis to lead the faithful forward on the path to a new and better life. Her name is . . . Beatrice Prior. If you thought I was going to write Katniss Everdeen, then you haven’t been paying attention to the marketing hype over the past month (and more power to you!). If you don’t even know who Katniss is, then I wish you the best in navigating the fevered dystopian landscape of today’s best-seller scene, as populated as it is with hit young-adult book series like The Hunger Games and Divergent. May the odds be ever in your favor.

The Divergent series consist of three books (surprise!), the last of which, Allegiant, was just published in October, 2013. The author is 25-year-old Veronica Roth, who sold the first book while she was still a Senior at Northwestern University. My hats off to her! I just wish the series were better and less derivative of so many previous works (The Hunger Games being only the most obvious source). I have read the first book and the second (Insurgent), and am now struggling through the third (really struggling). The writing has deteriorated with each volume, becoming ever more stale and desperate. I don’t know if I’ll make it to the end of Allegiant before my library e-book loan expires (I have no intention of buying).

Still, the first book had some interesting aspects to it, and since the movie hews close to its plot, I’ll briefly describe the world of both. In a Chicago of an unspecified future, the remnants of human civilization have divided themselves into five “factions” – Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, Erudite – where the character trait implied by the faction name is practiced by its members to the near-exclusion of all other behaviors (if you’re looking at that list and wondering why “Amity” isn’t “Benevolence” – for example – to make it a perfect alphabetical list that would match the simplicity of the conceit, I have no answer for you.). Every Chicagoan must, at the age of 16, choose whether to remain in their birth faction or switch to one more in line with how they see themselves. Since the members of Abnegation are supposed to be selfless, they govern the city; Amity farms (don’t ask); Candor debates openly and without prejudice (which somehow serves the city); Dauntless guards the city’s perimeter; and Erudite gathers knowledge, invents things, and wonders why they don’t get to rule (why is it so frequently the intellectuals – often the targets of bullying in real life – who are the bad guys in fiction?).

Beatrice is from Abnegation, and on choosing day she switches to Dauntless. She is different than most others, however, for she is “divergent,” which means she is not simply categorized, and thinks outside the box. She is a threat to the world order. In the middle of the dangerous and life-threatening Dauntless initiation, Beatrice (who has now chosen to be called “Tris,” instead) discovers that there may be a plot to overthrow the current political system through violent means, with Erudite (of course) manipulating the Dauntless and using them as their private army. What clever little evil intellectuals they are!

In spite of my obvious cynicism (is it that obvious?), I kind of enjoyed the first book. True, the premise is absurd. Why those five factions? And would anyone really want to always be any one of those five characteristics, all the time? Besides that, though, I found the details compelling, and enjoyed the main character’s journey. So I was looking forward to seeing what the movie would be like, especially since it is directed by the man who gave us Interview with the Assassin and The Illusionist

To be fair, if you’re a fan of the series, you will probably find much to like in the film. What differences there from the source material are so slight as to be meaningless. Neil Burger does a decent job with the action scenes, even if the violence has been significantly toned down for the PG-13 rating (and even if the CGI looks terrible). If you haven’t read the book, then why are you watching the film? The reviews have been terrible . . .

For me, the real problem lies in the casting of the main role. Shailene Woodley was wonderful in both The Descendants and The Spectacular Now, but here she is just wrong. I do not, for even one moment, buy her as a tough warrior, or even as a wounded sparrow about to become a tough warrior. She is too soft and inconclusive, even when she points a gun. Her co-star, Theo James, brings some nice gravitas to his role as Four, her trainer, but together they have no chemistry. Other fine actors populate the movie, from Ashley Judd and Kate Winslet to Ray Stevenson and Miles Teller, but there’s no escaping the central misfire. See it if you must.

SXSW 2014 Final Roundup

Friday, March 14, was my last day at SXSW. I wish I could have stayed until Sunday morning, so that I could have caught the Saturday screenings of all of the Audience Award Winners announced that day (the ones I hadn’t previously seen, anyway), but a week in Austin was what I had planned. After the 4-films-a-day marathons of Wednesday and Thursday, 3 films were all I could handle on Friday, and I (briefly) review them, below.

Before the reviews, though, I just want to sing the praises of SXSW. Austin should be very proud to host such a wonderful and diverse 9-day event (Interactive! Film! Music!). I only attended some of the interactive media panels (although I spent a lot of time in the trade show), and none of the music events, but it was impossible to ignore the energy and vibrancy that the combination of different media brought to the festival. What’s so great, too, is how many artists attend the screenings. Rare were the films that didn’t have a Q&A afterwards with at least the director, if not the director and the stars (and other crew).

If I have one criticism – and it is minor – it is over the separation of the films into curated programs. It makes sense to separate narratives and documentaries, shorts and features (and music videos and episodic TV pilots), but the other categories merely serve to confuse, especially since the catalog that one gets with registration does not list the films alphabetically, so that if you have a slow mobile connection at any given moment and are trying to look up information about a film, you have to know which program it’s a part of in order to find it in the catalog. I met no single attendee of the festival who cared about the category into which the film they were watching had been placed. Narrative or documentary (and shorts, etc.) – that was the concern.

Also, the distribution of audience awards across the different categories, rather than just one award for narrative features and one for documentary features, reduces the value of each award. If many people get prizes, then the individual prizes mean that much less. I’d also be curious to know how the choice to include some films (and not others) in the Jury competition was made (and why DamNation, according to its directors at the Q&A, was left out of the documentary competition).

Overall, though, it’s a brilliantly managed festival, and everyone should attend at least once.

Last Hijack

Last Hijack (Tommy Pallotta/Famke Wolding, 2014)

This is an interesting hybrid of documentary footage and animation, which, in the beginning, had me unaware that I was watching a non-fiction film. Something about the way the directors followed their subjects made me assume that I was watching staged scenes of non-actors in a narrative about Somali pirates. But then, as the film went on, I realized that these were real people, playing themselves (the on-camera interviews helped, obviously). It may seem like I am particularly clueless, but part of the power of this film is the way it blends different genres. It’s a look at the life of an ordinary Somali who decides on a life of piracy (Deborah Young wrote, in The Hollywood Reporter, that it was “like the backstory to Captain Phillips“), and the directors use whatever techniques they feel will best serve their story at that particular moment. There are talking-head interviews; there are animated sequences (for flashbacks and acts of actual piracy); and there are scenes that look as if they were set up for the camera. The whole is quite effective at illuminating the reasons why a young Somali would choose to be a pirate. There are problems in the storytelling – the ending is a little too opaque for a film called Last Hijack – but overall it’s a film well worth watching.

Vessel

Vessel (Diana Whitten, 2013)

This is one of the few screenings I attended where the standing ovation at the end was merited (fortunately, there weren’t that many ovations at SXSW, which is good, because most ovations are unearned). Not because the filmmaking was so extraordinary – it’s a messy movie, by a first-time director – but because the filmmaking was brave and challenging and powerful. I am happy that the SXSW Jury granted it a “special jury prize for political courage.”

Vessel tells the story of Dutch doctor Rebecca Gomperts and the international abortion-services organization she founded, Women on Waves, which offers abortions to women in countries where it is illegal by taking them 12 miles offshore, into international waters (where the laws of the ship’s home country apply), and giving them the abortion pill. It follows Dr. Gomperts and her crew from the organization’s inception and unsuccessful early voyages through their current growth and expansion (which now includes the online service Women on Web). Protests greet them everywhere they go, from Ireland to Poland to Portugal to Ecuador to Morocco. One occasionally fears for the safety of Gomperts (and the filmmakers), but not as much as one fears for the safety of the women they seek to serve.

What I particularly liked about the movie is how it keeps its focus on the needs of women – Whitten frequently puts letters and emails to the organization from desperate women up on the screen – rather than on the arguments for and against abortion. To Whitten and Gomperts, access to abortion is, as Gomperts says, a “reduction of suffering” (unwanted children lead to unhappiness and misery for them and their mothers), and so they spend the film telling us of all the dangers (and death) that women face when abortion is illegal, rather than arguing about morality (then again, granting women power over their own bodies is, in my opinion, moral). I think it’s a most effective technique, and a film that all should see.

Dance of Reality

The Dance of Reality (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 2013)

The only other Jodorowsky film I’ve seen is Santa Sangre, and boy, was that a trip! It was about an armless mother who dominates her son by forcing him to act as her arms for her, often murderously. It was extremely bloody and disturbing, and I’m still not sure to this day if I liked it, but it was deeply memorable (I often recommend it), which is what we want art to be, no?

This new film – Jodorowsky’s first since 1990’s The Rainbow Thief, is bizarre yet majestically beautiful, and compared to Santa Sangre, it is a model of filmmaking restraint. Of course, if you’ve never seen a Jodorowsky film, you’ll marvel at that description (and immediately rent or buy Santa Sangre, I hope, to see how The Dance of Reality could be called “restrained”). Billed as an autobiographical film about Jodorowsky’s childhood in Chile, The Dance of Reality is a magical-realist coming-of-age fable with a twist: it’s not the boy (young Alejandro) who grows up, but the father, Jaime (played by the marvelous Brontis Jodorowsky, the director’s son). In order for Alejandro to become a man, first the tyrannical father must die and be reborn as a kindler and gentler soul, able to appreciate the ways in which his son is different, and to celebrate that difference.

Filled with striking images and fantastical sequences, the film might turn off those looking for strict narrative coherence, although it is fairly linear in its plot development. I recommend that you stick around for the full journey, as it will surprise you and mark you as only a truly unique and inspired work of art can do. And now I have to go off and watch some more films by Jodorowsky, as two is not enough.

SXSW 2014 Roundup #3

The last 48 hours at SXSW has been fun but exhausting, as I saw 4 movies each day. One could technically do 6 a day without too much difficulty, but that would mean foregoing food and sleep, since there would be no time to eat (between the waiting in line and running from venue to venue), and the last screening would start at midnight. So 4 is my max, and even that is tough (though, again, fun). So here are my (brief) thoughts on the 8 films I saw on Wednesday and Thursday (they must be brief, because I have to run off and see 3 more films today, for a total of 21 over 7 days). Please excuse any typos I may have missed, and feel free to email me a note letting me know which ones you’ve noticed.

Wednesday, March 12:

Rubber Soul

Rubber Soul (Jon Lefkovitz, 2013)

This was an interesting – if not entirely successful – recreation of two interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono: the one in 1970, with Jann Wenner, of Rolling Stone, and the other in 1980, with David Sheff, of Playboy. There are the occasional flashes of archival film, photos and audio, but otherwise the entire movie is composed of reenactments, with actors playing Lennon, Ono, Wenner and Sheff. A title card at the start of the film informs us that all words spoken are from the recorded historical record (a very similar technique was used in the Allen Ginsberg reenactment documentary Howl). Is this a documentary, a narrative biopic, a hybrid of both? I guess that categorization matters as far as film-festival awards go, but it certainly shouldn’t matter to the audience.

I will say, though, that if you’re going to make a film about such an iconic figure as Lennon, it’s not a good idea to remind us of what the actual man looked and sounded like. Every time we return, after the brief shots, to the poor actor (Joseph Bearor) playing Lennon, it takes a moment to readjust. That said, the film is by no means a failure – it held my interest throughout – and I was intrigued by the conceit. We seamlessly cut back and forth between 1970 and 1980, and then get a brief reenactment of Lennon in 1964 at the very end, all the while learning a lot about the intellectual vibrancy and contradictions of one intriguing man.

Ping Pong Summer

Ping Pong Summer (Michael Tully, 2014)

Set in 1985, in Ocean City, Maryland, Ping Pong Summer is a fun nostalgic trip to the world of my adolescence (and that of the director). It’s a light-hearted (and, to be honest, lightweight) coming-of-age story about a boy becoming a man, finding himself, and falling in love for the first time. If it’s a familiar story – and it is – it at least offers the sweet pleasures of meticulous period details and fine performances by all involved. John Hannah, Lea Thompson (she of many 1980s teen movies, herself), Susan Sarandon and Amy Sedaris, among others, are around to lend some gravitas and humor (if that’s too much of a paradox) to the proceedings, and a good time is had by all.

Hellion

Hellion (Kat Candler, 2014)

This is a tough movie, based on a short film of the same title that writer/director Kat Candler made in 2012 (which I haven’t seen). It tells the story of a fractured family – broken by a mother’s death and a father’s alcoholic grieving – struggling to rebuild itself as the eldest son, Jacob (a terrific Josh Wiggins) slides into delinquency. Aaron Paul and Juliette Lewis play the father and aunt, and both give strong and heartfelt performances. The movie definitely earns it’s cathartic final moments, and if along the way there are a few narrative touches that don’t quite work, it is still a film of great power, and well worth watching.

Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013)

I was very excited to see this, since I generally enjoy Jarmusch films, and have great affection for the two central performers, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston. I admit, however, that I had trouble staying awake after the first hour (I rallied and resisted the sweet bliss of unconsciousness, however), since Jarmusch films are generally not known for their brisk narrative pace, and this was, after all, my final film of the day (the screening began at 9:30pm). It is a beautiful movie, crafted with loving care and great cinematic intelligence. Underneath the surface pleasures of the visual aesthetics and two brilliant lead performances, however, there is not much there (which, as much as I like Jarmusch, is a common problem I have with his films). The woman I sat next to at the screening called it “elegiacally empty,” which I thought was a lovely way to describe the film. Then again, the life of a vampire would, in many ways, be just that: how else to describe immortality?

Swinton and Hiddleston play vampire lovers – the one living in Detroit, the other in Tangiers – who get by on blood that they purchase on the black market in their respective cities. Events will conspire to disrupt their carefully constructed lives – yes, however slow the pace of the movie, there is some actual plot – and bring them together, but the joy of the movie is less in these story details than in the production design and slowly spinning camera movements that place us squarely inside the disorienting vertigo of the eternity of existential anguish.

Thursday, March 13:

DamNation

DamNation (Ben Knight/Travis Rummel, 2014)

This is a powerful documentary about the excessive construction of dams in the United States over the last 100 years, and how disruptive they have been to the environment, and to the life cycles of certain aquatic species (salmon, especially). The directors track the evolution of the movement to demolish dams, since many of them no longer provide electrical power as efficiently as other means (wind, solar, etc.), and restore our nation’s waterways. Filled with gorgeous cinematography and moving interviews (hydro industry representatives did not, for the most part, agree to participate), the film persuasively makes the case that the time has come for a serious re-examination of all the dams in the country. Some should probably remain, but many should come down. A must-see movie.

Frank

Frank (Lenny Abrahamson, 2014)

Michael Fassbender, as the title character, spends most of Frank wearing a large papier-mâché head, and this visual conceit intrigued me enough that I really wanted to see the movie (knowing nothing else about it). I had heard mixed reactions to the film throughout SXSW, and now I understand why so many people liked the film, and so many people did not: half of the film is brilliant, while the other half is … not. Simple! To break it down – all of the scenes in Ireland are marked by cinematic genius, but once the film shifts to America, the movie becomes almost pedestrian.

Frank is about a rock band fronted by a man with a serious mental illness who copes with his madness by quite literally showing a different face to the world. Frank is also a bit of a musical prodigy, and his insanity and talent attract a group of similarly unstable musicians. Into this bizarre world comes Domhnall Gleeson – an actor I am quickly beginning to find tiresome and wish would stop being cast in lead roles – a paragon of normality and mediocrity, who is both drawn to Frank and his entourage and yet repelled by their rejection of the conventions of normal behavior. In the first half of the movie, as the band rehearses and then records what is to be a major album for them, the film flirts with greatness, examining the meanings of art and insanity, and the potential connection between the two, without being too obvious in its intentions. But then, once the album is recorded, the band is invited to America (to play at the SXSW music festival, no less!), and the earlier subtlety that was on display vanishes. Obvious dialogue and clumsy dichotomies – art vs. mediocrity, sanity vs. insanity, etc. – take over the script, and I lost interest. The final scene somewhat redeems the film, but the result is a very mixed bag, indeed. I would still recommend, however, for the first half, alone.

Joe

Joe (David Gordon Green, 2014)

Joe is a powerful showcase for both Nicholas Cage and Tye Sheridan (who so impressed in last year’s Mud). It’s a movie that examines male anger and identity in a small Texas town. Joe (Cage) is a hard-drinking small-business owner who, by the standards of the community, is relatively successful. He has a serious problem with rage, however, and we get hints throughout the film about things he’s done. We know he’s been in jail for assaulting a police officer, yet he’s also friends with the sheriff, and is often referred to as a good man (and he is, mostly). Into his orbit comes Gary, a young drifter whose father is even more of a vicious alcoholic than is Joe. The film is brutal, with scenes of extreme violence, yet the real violence and terror lie within Joe’s own struggles. Will he hold his demons at bay long enough to help Gary overcome the beak future that awaits him?  The stakes are high, and the film delivers. But much of it is hard to watch.

Fort Tilden

Fort Tilden (Sarah-Violet Bliss/Charles Rogers)

Fort Tilden is the 2014 SXSW Narrative Jury Prize Winner, and I do not understand why. There were far better films on the docket. It’s a comedy about two whiny and self-involved 20-something friends, Harper and Allie, who decide to take a day off and head to the beach to join two boys they met the night before at a party. Getting to the beach proves harder than they thought, however, as they run into many unforeseen obstacles and mishaps. Their greatest obstacle, however, is their own stupidity, entitlement and arrogance. This sounds like a wonderful conceit, actually, but don’t be fooled, as the dialogue never rises above the level of the characters’ own vacuity. I will admit that I found the opening funny, but as the film progressed my laughter vanished. I noticed that the audience around me – a diverse group of people of all ages – had similarly gone (mostly) quiet, as well. To be avoided at all costs.

SXSW 2014 Roundup #2

I have continued to enjoy my visit to SXSW, although I found myself exhausted yesterday (Tuesday), and took the morning off. There’s just so much to do here! And now that the music portion of the festival has begun, I’m beginning to wish I’d paid for access to that part of the week, as well. But then I wouldn’t be able to see as many films . . .

Monday, March 10:

I got up early to wait in the SXXPress line an hour before they start dispensing tickets (9 am). Being a badge holder does not guarantee entrance to a film. It merely guarantees you a good chance of getting in if you show up an hour or more (depending on the popularity of a given movie) before the screening starts. An SXXPress pass guarantees you a spot if you show up 30 minutes before the screening. Badge holders are allowed two of them a day, but the passes for the big-name films go quickly. It’s certainly possible to get in to the headline events without an SXXPress pass, but it requires a greater investment of one’s time. So the best strategy is to wake up early and get in line for the two films you feel you absolutely must see that day, and then take your chances with the rest. And that’s what I did on Monday, since the two films I wanted to see had big names attached to them: Cesar Chavez and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

This was also a fascinating (and extremely tiring) day because I spent a lot of time doing things that were part of the “interactive” component of the festival. I decided to attend three related-yet-separate presentations – what I call the Edward Snowden trifecta: Barton Gellman, Edward Snowden, and Glenn Greenwald. To be honest, the journalists Gellman and Greenwald were both more interesting to hear than Snowden, himself, who was on a video feed from Moscow routed through 7 different secure servers – a system that resulted in extremely choppy video and mostly bad audio – since they had a better sense of the historical context of NSA surveillance, but Snowden’s appearance was moderated by Ben Wizner and Chris Soghoian of the ACLU, and those guys were worth seeing in and of themselves. Even if you think Snowden is a traitor and a spy, it is hard to argue in favor of increased surveillance of the populace by our government, and citizens of all ideological stripes should be grateful that there is an organization like the ACLU defending our basic constitutional rights.

And now on to the movies.

Before I Disappear

Before I Disappear (Shawn Christensen, 2014)

Shawn Christensen won the 2013 Oscar for Best Live Action Short for his film Curfew, and now he has adapted it into a feature. That earlier film was not my favorite of the nominees that year (I preferred Death of a Shadow), but it was the next-best film of the bunch, and both darkly comic and poignant at the same time. It told the story of a suicidally depressed drug addict who decides to take his own life by slashing his wrists and sitting in a bathtub full of warm water. As he lies there, awaiting the mercy of death, his phone rings, and he answers it. It’s his long-estranged sister, and she needs him to watch her daughter that day. A few bandages later, and Richie (Christensen) is on his way for an odyssey that will grant him some level of redemption and hope.

Before I Disappear is the same story, only expanded, and I must admit that I preferred it as a short. Both Christensen and Fatima Ptacek (Richie’s niece) reprise their roles – which is good, as they are both very strong – but the additional details and adventures that pad the story do not make it any more interesting. In fact, they diffuse the power of the original by spreading the plot too thinly over 90 minutes. That said, if one hasn’t seen the original, there is much to like in the twisted and dreamlike comedy of the mise-en-scène and the fine performances (Emmy Rossum is quite good as the sister – she was not in the short). I just wish Christensen had left well enough alone and chosen a different subject for his feature debut.

Cesar Chavez

Cesar Chavez (Diego Luna, 2014)

The actor Diego Luna (Y Tu Mamá TambiénMilk), now a director, as well (this is his third film, and second narrative feature), has crafted the story of the late labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez with a fair amount of respect and wit, but without a lot of energy. The best part of the screening was the Q&A afterwards – attended by Luna, Michael Peña, Rosario Dawson, America Ferrera, the real-life Chavez collaborator Dolores Huerta (played by Dawson in the film), and Chavez’s youngest son Paul – which had all of the vigor and enthusiasm that the film lacks. The audience cheered and roared, and Luna was charming and funny. I just wish he’d made a better movie.

Biopics are always tricky – since it can be tough to condense a person’s life into a mere 90-120 minutes without losing sight of what made that person important in the first place – but they’re even harder to make if the central performance is flat and uninspired. Michael Peña (End of Watch) has some fine qualities as an actor, but he fails to make Chavez, the man, interesting: the non-violence that Chavez advocated does not mean that he, himself, was passive or weak. Yet that is all too often how he comes across.

The other issue I take with the film is how poorly written the female characters are. Why bother having actresses with the power of Dawson and Ferrera if they have so little to do? Ferrera fares better than does Dawson, which is too bad, because Dolores Huerta was just as vital to the labor strikes as was Chavez.

Bottom line? The subject is worthy, and there are far worse movies out there, but keep your expectations low.

Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)

Ah, Wes. I am so glad that you exist, and it was great to see up on stage (with Richard Linklater, no less, as host of the Q&A!). You are intelligent, charming and a great lover of cinema. Your films are made with enormous attention to detail – the production design, alone, makes them worth watching – and with a marvelous combination of irony and whimsy that clearly marks them as yours from the very first moments. You are a true auteur, and your output is like no one else’s. However, what makes you unique is as often what makes me dislike your films as like them. With The Grand Budapest Hotel, I lean toward appreciation, but you still work so hard to keep me out of the emotional lives of your character: as always, it’s almost too twee and precious for me to take.

What do I like about The Grand Budapest Hotel? Ralph Fiennes, Ralph Fiennes, Ralph Fiennes, in that order. I also love the stories within stories and the marvelous use of models and bright colors to accentuate the artificiality of the world Anderson constructs, as well as the claustrophobic spaces and symmetrical compositions. What do I dislike? The refusal to stop – for even a moment – and let us breathe deeply and appreciate the atmosphere; the incessant silliness and constant distance that Anderson creates between the characters and us. I like this film a lot more than, say, Moonrise Kingdom, because we do, eventually – thanks to Fiennes – experience some emotional resonance beyond awkward laughter, and at the end, as Nazi horrors loom, the distancing technique actually works. The film has received enough press, and The New York Times review will tell you all you need to know about the plot. Suffice it to say that if you’re a Wes Anderson fan, you will probably adore every single frame of the movie.

Tuesday, March 11

I gave myself the morning off, since I was really struggling to stay awake during the Grand Budapest Hotel screening, and I didn’t get back to my hotel until well after midnight. This meant that by the time I got to the SXXPress office, the films I had been interested in seeing were now unavailable (unless I wanted to take a chance and wait in long lines for many hours – not a great activity if you need rest). So I decided to spend some more time in the SXSW Trade Show, check out some of the workshops there (Adobe, among other vendors, had many offerings), and then see just two movies in the evening at one of the “Satellite” venues. One of the cool things that SXSW now does is hold screenings outside of the downtown area so that local Austinites who do not feel like braving traffic and crowds can get to see some of the films at the fest. And these are real screenings – by that I mean that the filmmakers hold Q&A sessions afterwards, just as they would at the main locations – so it is a wonderful opportunity for the locals. There are three such venues this year, and I chose the one closest to my hotel: the Alamo Slaughter Lane. Alamo is a chain of cinemas that offers food service within the theater. I was skeptical as to the wisdom of this – wouldn’t it be disruptive? – but I am now a convert. The seats are roomy, and it is hard to beat the convenience. For someone who so often attends press screenings back in Baltimore where my dinners consist of hastily purchased popcorn and candy, this was a wonderful chance to show up at the last minute and actually eat some real food! Baltimore-area theater owners, are you listening?

Beyond Clueless

Beyond Clueless (Charlie Lyne, 2014)

This movie was my biggest disappointment of the festival so far. I hesitate to even spend much time writing about it. I had hoped that a film that billed itself like this – “all will be revealed as Beyond Clueless leads viewers through Hollywood’s treacherous teen years and out the other side” – the movie was devoid of any historical context of the cinematic teen experience earlier than 1994. There was no mention of John Hughes, much less Rebel Without a Cause, and the film really just seemed to serve as an excuse for the director/writer/editor to put shoddily conceived montages of his favorite teen movies up on the movies. Since he looked very young – and admitted in the Q&A that these were the films he had grown up with – I certainly understand how he would be more knowledgeable about the films of the last 20 years than of previous eras. But to completely ignore the historical context and evolution of the genre is, for me, inexcusable. It’s too bad, since Mr. Lyne was very articulate and clearly aware of previous teen trends (someone else asked the question of “why only these movies?” – which I had been about to ask), yet refused to acknowledge them on screen. I cannot recommend this to anyone.

Doc of the Dead

Doc of the Dead (Alexandre O. Philippe, 2014)

Coming on the heels of the failure I had just seen, Doc of the Dead was a welcome return to fine filmmaking. I have not seen The People vs. George Lucas (a previous film by Philippe), but I just added it to my Netflix instant queue. This new documentary of his is a wonderful retrospective on cinematic zombiedom. Filled with experts and fans, alike, and with an excellent discussion of the history of both movie zombies and actual zombies, the movie takes us on an extremely satisfying journey through the evolution of what has become one of the premier genres of our current age. From 1932’s White Zombie to the mega-success of today’s World War Z and “The Walking Dead,” by way of George Romero, we travel through time, space, guts and gore, and learn quite a great deal (I did, anyway). This is a must-see for fans of the genre, and for anyone who has wondered how we became so obsessed with these dark apocalyptic scenarios. If you have access to EPIX programming, you can start watching the film on March 15. Enjoy!

SXSW 2014 Roundup #1

SXSW

I am currently in attendance at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival – which encompasses Film, Interactive Technologies and Music – in Austin, Texas (my first visit to the Lone Star State!). I have come on a research trip, since I am considering setting up a “Special Topics” course for Stevenson University Film/Video Juniors and Seniors next year. The festival coincides with our Spring Break, and the course I would like to teach would be about emerging trends in digital filmmaking, interactive media and distribution outlets, and a week-long trip to SXSW would be the centerpiece of the semester, around which students would focus their research. It looks like its going to be a very tiring week for me – filled with too many activities for one person to truly manage – but one that will be worth the effort, since I can already see how our students could benefit from coming next year. This place is amazing! The energy is palpable, and the number of filmmakers, interactive businesses and artists is astounding. I’ve seen stars like Patrick Wilson, Jeremy Sisto and Josh Hartnett, and many others, including younger up-and-comers like Kate Lyn Sheil and John Gallagher, Jr.

Here is a brief report on what I’ve done so far. I am not doing any of the music activities: I have my hands (and brain) full just keeping up with film and interactive media.

Saturday, March 8:

I arrived late morning and went straight to the Austin Convention Center to register. Once there, I walked around – the Convention Center is huge – to get my bearings. Once I’d picked up a couple of SXXPress tickets (a badge will get you a place in line ahead of regular ticket holders, but an SXXPress pass will guarantee you a spot in even the most crowded of events, and badge holders are allowed 2 per day), I left to check in to my hotel. When I returned, it was already late afternoon. The first film I saw was . . .

Space Station 76

Space Station 76 (Jack Plotnick, 2014)

My hats off to the director and writers. This is a highly imaginative look at an alternative future where humans travel through space, yet all tastes, mannerisms, and even technologies are stuck in 1970s-era designs. As Liv Tyler says in her opening voiceover monologue, “All you’re left with is dreams of a future that never happened.” In many ways, the film looks almost more inspired by Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs parody than the original Star Wars. It’s terrific fun, with a great comic performance by Patrick Wilson at its center, but it never quite rises above its one-note conceit (I did like how one of the actors described it as The Ice Storm … in space, however). I had a terrific time – and particularly enjoyed the robot psychologist scenes – but when the film was over, I left the theater with nary a memory of what had just transpired.

Break_Point_credit_Photo_by_Michael_Nolan

Break Point (Jay Karas, 2014)

This film, which was my second and last of the day, was also rather frivolous, but somehow I found that it resonated more with me. Jeremy Sisto and David Walton play 30-something estranged brothers who decide to have one last go as tennis doubles partners. Their goal is to get into “The Open,” but first they have to get in shape and learn how to love each other again. Sisto and Walton have great chemistry, and Sisto – whom I have liked ever since Six Feet Under – is the comic heart of the movie. As is a young 11-year-old newcomer, Joshua Rush, who delivers a masterfully awkward performance as Barry, a kid in search of role models. I enjoyed myself thoroughly, and recommend it as a feel-good, very funny and well-executed comedy. The “Bust a Move” tennis volley is almost worth the price of admission alone. There’s a lot that’s predictable, but there’s also a lot that isn’t.

Sunday, March 9:

I spent the morning walking around the Expo Hall, visiting all of the vendor’s booths. I got some free swag, and then went to see some more films in the afternoon.

Penny Dreadful

Penny Dreadful (Showtime, 2014; John Logan, Creator; J.A. Bayona, Director, Episode 1)

It’s great that SXSW now has an “Episodic” section, in which pilot episodes of new series are screened, but this one-hour show did not win me over. It’s always nice to see Timothy Dalton (and Josh Hartnett and Eva Green), but there was too much plot for one pilot, and the many disparate threads did not add up to a cohesive or coherent whole. The story takes place in late-19th-Century London, and revolves around supernatural forces at work in a “demimonde” of demons and other evil creatures. Some of the atmospherics were effective, but overall I found the experience completely forgettable.

Great Invisible

The Great Invisible (Margaret Brown, 2014)

This is a very moving documentary about the effects of the 2010 Deep Water Horizon explosion and subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It focuses on the economic hardships and personal losses of the blue-collar communities along the Gulf, and is filled with chilling testimonies from those affected. I wish it had been filled with a little more muckraking, à la Michael Moore, but Margaret Brown (with whom I went to NYU) did a fine job interviewing her many subjects. It is effective at provoking outrage against the system that allowed this to happen, however, and is a must-see.

Heart Machine

The Heart Machine (Zachary Wigon, 2014)

This, so far, is my favorite film of the festival. It surprised me, since I generally do not like movies about 20-somethings looking for love in all the wrong places, and perhaps my low expectations left me open to the joy of discovering something so raw and refreshing. The two leads – the incredibly prolific Kate Lyn Sheil (Green) and John Gallagher, Jr (Short Term 12) – both deliver affecting performances as two New Yorkers who know each other only through video chats. The central conceit – she has told him a lie about living in Germany and he begins to investigate her actual whereabouts – can seem contrived at times (how could he not find her more easily through, I don’t know, Google?), but the sincerity of the emotion on display is truly touching. Based on writer/director Zachary Wigon’s previous short film Someone Else’s Heart, the film impresses with its gentle touch and beautiful cinematography.

Stay tuned for more of my thoughts in a few days!

300: Rise of a Body Count

300: Rise of an Empire

300: Rise of an Empire (Noam Murro, 2014)

I gave up video games in college, because they were like crack to me (not that I’ve ever tried crack), and since I wanted to do other things with my life, I had to stop “using.” However, I’ve seen enough glimpses of the evolving aesthetics of the games over the past 20+ years to appreciate how they’ve changed since my day (conclusion: amazing designs, too much carnage). I’ve also read plenty of graphic novels – many by Frank Miller, author of the 300 series – some of which I like (Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore’s Watchmen), and some of which I don’t (Miller’s Sin City). But I am hardly a genre fanboy, so I doubt that I’m the target audience for the new 300 movie, which is a combination prequel/parallel story/sequel to the original 2006 film, and looks like what you’d expect if a violent comic book were adapted into a violent video game (perhaps from a company like Koei).

It’s all about the visceral experience of watching muscular bodies stab, slash and sever the limbs of other muscular bodies in an orgy of grotesque over-the-top mayhem. Since it’s in 3D, you have the added pleasure of watching those limbs – with attendant blood spurts – burst from the screen one after the other. If violence isn’t your thing, there are also (a few) boobs. And one sex scene (with boobs). It’s really about the violence, however. Don’t go for the sex. Wait for Lars von Trier’s upcoming Nymphomaniac.

Other than that, and a continuation of the annoying trend – in these kinds of films – to indulge in too much speed ramping, the only aspect of the experience that I found remotely interesting was the movie’s approach to chronology. For the first 30 minutes of the story, I wasn’t sure where I was in terms of the events of the first 300. The film opens with a shot of the slaughtered Spartans (the “300”), as the Persian God-King, Xerxes, rides his horse over the bodies. But then a female voice (Lena Headey, returning for another round of battles) begins what will become an interminable expositional voiceover, and the timeline shifts to events 10 years earlier, introducing a new character, Themistokles. It took me some effort to understand who was what and what was when, and while I worked out those details, I could ignore the dullness of the action sequences (how many slow-motion blood spurts can one man take?). Once the plot settled into a clear present, however, I found it increasingly difficult to engage with the movie, other than to note that, once again (like its predecessor), this is a film that pits evil dark-skinned hordes against more virtuous whites.

It’s not worth recounting what plot details I can remember. It’s all a blur of guts and gore. With a few boobs.