Happy Brandoday: Midday on Film Celebrates Marlon on April 3

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

Happy Birthday Marlon

Born in Nebraska in 1924, Marlon Brando revolutionized theater acting in the 1940s, and film acting in the 1950s, as an exemplar of the new American “Method” school championed by the likes of Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner, among others. His raw physicality and ability to completely inhabit a character made him the poster child for a new post-World War II order. In many ways, the 1950s were defined by Brando and his star power (a star power with which he was deeply uncomfortable), in such classics as A Streetcar Named Desire (as Stanley Kowalski, the role he had originated on Broadway to great acclaim), Viva Zapata!, Julius CaesarOn the Waterfront (for which he earned his first of two Oscars), and Guys and Dolls. In the 1960s, his box office appeal may have declined, but he never stopped innovating, turning in nuanced and moving performances in One-Eyed Jacks (which he also directed, in his only time behind the camera), Mutiny on the BountyThe Chase and Reflections in a Golden Eye, to name but a few films.

Later, in the 1970s, even as he battle weight issues which would increasingly plague him (and, some might say, overtake him) as the years wore on, he still amazed in movies like Last Tango in Paris and The Godfather (for which he won his second Oscar), and, depending on one’s tastes, also in Apocalypse Now. In the 1980s, he more or less disappeared, though he popped up in the wonderful comedic thriller The Freshman in 1990, spoofing his own iconic turn as Don Corleone. And even though the films he made after that, up until his death in 2004, were hardly of the same quality as his earlier work, his passing signaled the end of a momentous era in American movie history. He is still missed.

Join host Dan Rodricks and Midday film critics Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed – Chair and Professor, Department of Film/Video, Stevenson University – on Friday, April 3, at 1pm, as they discuss the life and remarkable career of Marlon Brando, on what would have been his 91st birthday. Which films of his are your favorites? What does Marlon Brando mean to you? 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.

Enjoy the show!

“Get Hard” Mostly Doesn’t Get It

Get Hard

Get Hard (Etan Cohen, 2015)

So, all right, I chuckled, and once or twice I laughed out loud. In fact, I emerged from the theater feeling as if what I had just seen had surpassed my low expectations. Why low expectations? Well, for starters, there was a certain general critical consensus against the film. And then, on top of that, I am no particular Will Ferrell fan, as I am one of the few people in my circle of friends who did not like Anchorman (though I loved Elf and Stranger Than Fiction, which are admittedly atypical of his usual vulgar output). My recent positive experience with Kevin Hart in The Wedding Ringer led me to hope that he, indeed, might be funny, and what true laughs came my way here were courtesy of him. But over the few days since I saw the film, the jokes have faded, and all that remains is the bitter taste of stale stereotypes mined for lowbrow humor. Helmed, in his feature directorial debut, by screenwriter Etan Cohen (Men in Black 3), the movie is mostly a clumsy attempt to make mirth out of homophobia and racism. While it opens with the promise of a modern take on the 1983 comedic classic Trading Places – which featured some truly biting racial and social satire – Get Hard rapidly devolves into nothing more than a sorry excuse to trot out the stereotypes it purports to subvert.

Ferrell plays James, a corporate hedge-fund guy, who is tried and convicted of financial impropriety and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor in San Quentin (the judge decides to make an example of him). Terrified that he’ll die in prison – correction, that he’ll be raped and forced to give blow jobs in prison – James hires Darnell, the only African-American man he knows, to make him “hard” enough to survive jail time. And so the homoerotic jokes begin – “you make me so hard,” etc., along with every other bad pun you can imagine – along with the racial ones. James’s initial mistake with Darnell (who has never been to prison, but is in fact a happily married middle-class small-business owner) opens the door for a serious (or seriously funny) examination of white assumptions about people of color. But then, when every other non-white character – Latino landscapers and maids, African-American gangbangers – conforms to the very assumptions lampooned in the opening, that satirical door is slammed shut. So much for that. And let’s not even get started on the heterosexual fear of gay sex . . . Go if you must, but expect very little.

Sunday, Funday: I Present “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” and “24 Days” at Two Different Venues, Back to Back

Kumiko 24 Days

Howdy! Do you feel like seeing two completely different kinds of films this coming Sunday, March 29, 2015, which share a presenter (me) in common? If so, then head on down to the Charles Theatre in central Baltimore to see the first one, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (David Zellner, 2014), at the Cinema Sundays series, at 10:30am, and then head on up to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore (JCC) in Owings Mills to the see the second one, 24 Days (Alexandre Arcady, 2014), at the Jewish Film Festival, at 3pm.

Kumiko – which I saw last year at the 2014 Maryland Film Festival (it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and then also played at SXSW) – has received mostly positive reviews. I had very mixed feelings about the movie, but found it visually quite compelling, and a must-see for fans of the film Fargo. For those of you who are, indeed, fans of that film, or of the FX series inspired by it – or both – it is a very interesting riff on the original story. The movie, based on an urban legend, tells the tale of young Kumiko, living in Tokyo with her pet rabbit, who becomes convinced that the buried treasure featured in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo actually exists. So she abandons everything and heads to Minnesota in search of that thing dreams are made of, that may only be the stuff of dreams. Made by another pair of brothers – David and Nathan Zellner – the movie is rich in atmosphere and features a wonderfully offbeat performance from Rinko Kikuchi (BabelPacific Rim) as Kumiko.

I haven’t seen 24 Days yet (though I will before Sunday), but the JCC selection committee always chooses great movies.

I hope to see some of you at one of the screenings, if not both!

SXSW 2015 Review #7: Friday, March 20

I am back home in Baltimore after a crazy week of 29 screenings (27 features + 1 episodic series + 1 collection of title sequences)! After 4 days in a row of 4 films a day – Monday through Thursday – I spent my final day at SXSW topping that crazy rhythm by seeing 6 films in a row. It helped that the weather turned nasty. Who wants to walk around in heavy rain and flash floods? For the first time, I stayed up late for one of the midnight screenings, which was a blast. Before we see what that film was about, let’s revisit the first five of the films of the day. As always, you can check out my post about Saturdaymy post about Sundaymy post about Mondaymy post about Tuesday, my post about Wednesday and my post about Thursday to see how I spent the previous six days in Austin.

6 Years

6 Years (Hannah Fidell, 2015)

For anyone who was in a serious relationship in college and saw that relationship disintegrate under the competing pressures of future-life worries and evolving personalities, Hannah Fidell’s 6 Years will present a familiar story. That is both its strength and weakness. The young writer/director of A Teacher has a fine sense of structure, camera placement and performance, and is not afraid of tense and uncomfortable drama. Both Taissa Farmiga (“American Horror Story“) and Ben Rosenfield (A Most Violent Year) invest their characters with life and genuine emotion, making us believe in the comfortable intimacy of their long-term romance. That’s the good. And while there is no bad – all the elements on display are perfectly wrought – for this viewer, the story, itself, is neither groundbreaking nor fresh. By the end of the screening I was, I will admit, a bit bored, despite the rising conflict. Still, the movie has just been picked up by Netflix – more power to the filmmaker (whose directing skills promise great things down the line) and her producers – so clearly some people were less bored than I. It’s all good.

Peace Officer

Peace Officer (Brad Barber/Scott Christopherson, 2015)

As I watched Peace Officer – winner (deservedly) of one of the SXSW Audience Awards – I felt an increasing sense of awe at the grand luck of the filmmakers in meeting William “Dub” Lawrence, the main protagonist of this powerful documentary. A former lawman, Lawrence has made it his life’s mission in recent years to uncover signs of excessive use of force by the police. He’s a classic boy scout, with a sense of right and wrong that excludes the idea that anyone is above the law (as a young policeman, he once wrote himself a parking ticket). The catalyst for his current investigations? His own son-in-law was shot and killed by police in 2008 after a tense standoff; in fact, he was killed by the very S.W.A.T. (“Special Weapons and Tactics”) team that Lawrence had founded back in 1974, in his first term as Sheriff of Davis County, Utah. Today, Lawrence gathers evidence and applies his investigative experience to assist families who have similarly suffered from the rising militarization of our nation’s law enforcement. He is the perfect subject, since he is hardly anti-police, and is extremely thoughtful and measured in his statements: he thinks deeply before he speaks. The directors also include interviews with many police officers who do not share Lawrence’s beliefs, as well as interviews with victims of police brutality, making this more than just a polemical exercise. True, they clearly have a point of view (and what’s wrong with that?), but they try to include differing opinions. A must-see film.

Manson Family Vacation

Manson Family Vacation (J. Davis, 2015)

Like Charlie Manson? Think he had (or has, since he’s still alive, albeit in prison) something to offer the world beyond nihilism? If so, then this might just be the film for you since, intentionally or not, Manson Family Vacation (which was also purchased by Netflix at SXSW) ultimately ends up romanticizing the man, the myth and the legend that is Charles Manson. Ostensibly about two brothers – one a successful lawyer and the biological child of their parents, the other a drifter and an adoptee – spending a day together after time apart, the film, for whatever reason, takes a wild tangent into Manson territory, using the grisly cult leader’s story as a metaphor of familial abuse and isolation. Conrad – our adoptee – has felt angry since the arrival of his baby brother caused his new parents to neglect him; Nick – the biological child – doesn’t get this, and can only react with disgust to his older sibling’s obsession with Manson, the ultimate outcast. Their journey – physical and metaphorical – takes them to some very dark places, and though the film has elements of gentle humor that leaven the proceedings – and two fine performances from Jay Duplass (“Transparent“) as Nick and Linas Phillips (Young Adolescents) as Conrad – we can never get away from the uncomfortable fact that writer/director Davis (editor on Duplass’s documentary Kevin) has made a conscious decision to put a mass murderer at the center of his story. <shiver>

Deep Time

Deep Time (Noah Hutton2015)

If I thought Manson Family Vacation took a wild tangent beyond its initial premise, my next film made it seem brilliantly structured, by comparison. Here is the summary of the film’s subject, taken from the SXSW catalogue: “Ancient oceans teeming with life, Norwegian settlers, Native Americans and multinational oil corporations find intimacy in deep time. Following up his 2009 feature Crude Independence (SXSW), Deep Time is director Noah Hutton’s ethereal portrait of the landowners, state officials, and oil workers at the center of the most prolific oil boom on the planet for the past six years. With a new focus on the relationship of the indigenous peoples of North Dakota to their surging fossil wealth, Deep Time casts the ongoing boom in the context of paleo-cycles, climate change, and the dark ecology of the future.” That sounds pretty amazing, and I went in hoping for a film that combined elements of Koyaanisqatsi and Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. Instead, I found myself watching a movie without direction. Noah Hutton may think he has made a movie that ties all of the issues listed above together, but what he has done, instead, is make a rambling documentary about the oil boom in Stanley, North Dakota, and tack on a loosely formed coda about climate change. If he wanted to make a movie about humanity’s role in warming our planet, that would have been fine, but the attempt to add global relevance to his story feels, here, like an afterthought. Which is too bad, since the devastating effects of unbridled corporate greed in the world of oil drilling needs to be examined. Unfortunately, Deep Time is not the film to do it.


Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015)

The first film directed by screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days LaterNever Let Me Go, Dredd), Ex Machina is not nearly as profound as it seems to think it is, but is still (mostly) very watchable and filled with enough strange and unexpected twists to keep the viewer guessing to the end. It can never quite figure out what kind of film it wants to be, however, mixing deep thoughts about artificial intelligence (A.I.) with crazy drunken synchronized dancing (which, I will admit, was extremely fun to watch), and although it has fine cinematographic elements that are reminiscent of the best of Stanley Kubrick (slow tracking shots, some on steadicam), if one ponders the subject matter for more than a minute or two, it all seems very dumb. With a pumped-up Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year) as a software billionaire who has been working to create a fully functioning human-like robot, and an ethereal Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair) as that robot, Ex Machina has much to offer in those two marvelous performances. Unfortunately, it also has Domhnall Gleeson (About Time) – an actor who tends to bore me to tears (with the occasional exception) – in the central role as the young protégé whom Isaac invites to his top-secret hideout to run a Turing Test on Vikander. The idea that anyone would take this kid seriously as either a genius programmer or love interest for a fledgling A.I. is hard to swallow. Still, the movie’s final moments are simultaneously chilling and moving, and appeal to the sci-fi geeks in all of us, so I offer a qualified recommendation.

Turbo Kid

Turbo Kid (François Simard/Anouk Whissell/Yoann-Karl Whissell, 2015)

Wow! Excuse me … gross-out wow! I had never heard of the RKSS Collective, but the buzz from earlier in the week was that Turbo Kid was ridiculous fun, a sort of retro The Road Warrior. So I went, making it my one and only midnight movie of the week. And … the buzz was right on (and the film won a SXSW Audience Award to prove it). A gory good time was had by all.

Set in a parallel-universe post-apocalyptic 1997 (reminding me a bit of last year’s Space Station 76, which I saw at SXSW 2014), the film rocks a 1980s aesthetic, including the design of the fictional comic book, Turbo Rider, that inspires the young main character to dream of a better life. “The Kid” (Munro Chambers of “Degrassi: The Next Generation“), as he is called (though he will soon become … “The Turbo Kid”) survives in a drought-ridden landscape by scavenging abandoned wastelands for artifacts and food from a better time. Soon, his comfortable loneliness is shattered by the friendly advances of a young (and very strange) girl named Apple (Laurence Leboeuf of The Little Queen), as well as by the evil machinations of Zeus (Michael Ironside, hamming it up beautifully). The bulk of the film is about the battle of good vs. evil in a world without hope, and while there’s nothing really new in that story, the real reason to see the film is to revel in its unbridled joy in cheap carnage and mayhem. Bodies are dismembered, guts are disemboweled, heads are severed and much blood is spewed everywhere, all in a way that is more cartoonish than gruesome. It’s disgusting, but that kind of becomes the point. Unlike in Ex Machina, there is no attempt at profundity. The excess is part of the fun. Clearly, the filmmakers are fans of low-budget horror, particularly that of the Silent Night, Deadly Night (not the Santa Claus part, but the obviously fake blood-and-gore part) variety. And if you’re in the mood for a movie that does what it does and never takes itself too seriously, then Turbo Kid is the film for you.

Thank you, SXSW, for a fun week. I look forward to next year!

SXSW 2015 Review #6: Thursday, March 19

I saw four films (again, my usual pace) at SXSW on Thursday, March 19 – Day 6 for me  – and enjoyed something in each of them, though one documentary (out of three plus one narrative) stood out from the crowd, and that was Twinsters. It tells the story of how Samantha Futerman – born in South Korea and adopted by a family in New Jersey – found her identical twin sister – adopted by a family in France – and reunited with her. Here is the start of her post-screening Q&A:

It is a very moving story.

The other films didn’t quite affect me as much, but were still all worth watching, in some way. Check out my post about Saturdaymy post about Sundaymy post about Mondaymy post about Tuesday, and my post about Wednesday to see how I spent my first five days here.


Western (Bill Ross IV/Turner Ross, 2015)

Winner of the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Vérité Filmmaking at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, Western is a true observational documentary, which means that there are no interviews, no voiceover, and only rarely any non-diegetic music on the soundtrack. As such, it is a refreshing departure from the (present-day) usual documentary conventions of talking heads and soaring scores. Set in Eagle Pass, TX, a border town across the Rio Grande from Piedras Negras, Mexico, the movie focuses on two characters: Mayor Chad Foster and cattleman Martín Wall. Each struggles to deal with the growing drug cartel violence over the border, as the U.S. State Department shuts down crossings and the importation of beef. Filled with elegiac shots of the river, the dessert and the sky – squarely in the tradition of classic Hollywood Westerns – the film is often mesmerizing and beautiful. Unfortunately, it’s also, ultimately, frustrating, since the filmmakers never do more than approach the cartel issues obliquely: all of the drama takes place off-screen, and what we are left with is the reactions of our main subjects. It’s all talk and no action, which over 90 minutes can be hard to watch. Still, there is something hypnotic about the film’s rhythm, and I cannot quite dismiss its images from my head.


Twinsters (Samantha Futerman/Ryan Miyamoto, 2015)

As I wrote, above, Twinsters is the story of identical twins, separated at birth, who find each other as adults. Samantha Futerman was a happy-go-lucky actress in Los Angeles, building a career in supporting roles in movies like 21 & Over, when, after starring in a Kevjumba YouTube video, she received a message from a man she didn’t know with a link to the Facebook page of a woman who looked just like her, named Anaïs Bordier. Both young women had been born in South Korea and given up for adoption, and for some reason not kept together. In fact, the adoption agencies that took care of each of them didn’t even know of the existence of the other sister. Futerman was raised in New Jersey, while Bordier was raised in France (and is now a fashion designer). Twinsters tells the improbable, amazing and incredibly poignant tale of how Samantha and Anaïs are reunited. Well shot and well edited, with genuinely moving moments, and with two truly engaging women at the center, the film is a must-see.


Results (Andrew Bujalski, 2015)

Computer Chess director Andrew Bujalski returns with another quirky, off-beat film, this time with actors of greater renown. Starring Guy Pearce (Memento), Cobie Smulders (“How I Met Your Mother“) and Kevin Corrigan (Pineapple Express), Results, in spite of its unfortunately generic title, is a funny low-key comedy about depressed souls looking for love (even if they don’t know it). Pearce plays the owner of a gym, looking to expand his business, and Smulders is his top trainer. Corrigan is a newly rich divorced man who hires Smulders to get in shape. Together, they form one of the most strangest love triangles I’ve seen in a while. With gently comic moments and sweet chemistry between Smulders and Pearce (whom you buy as a fitness guru, since he’s probably one of the fittest actors around), the movie provides a pleasant viewing experience for its 105 minutes. That’s both its blessing and its curse, though, since it’s never quite more than just pleasant. Still, there’s a lot to be said for keeping one’s filmmaking ambitions simple and delivering the goods, however small they may be. See it for the actors, who are a joy to watch.


Sneakerheadz (David T. Friendly/Mick Partridge, 2015)

I know and care nothing about sneakers, but I enjoy films about obsessive people, and that’s exactly what Sneakerheadz is. Presenting the history of the sneaker and its designers and collectors in a concise and clear manner, this well-shot and well-edited movie should please aficionados and laymen, alike. While the film does a decent job dealing with the dark side of this addictive obsession, however, it could do more to show how the fetishizing of the sneaker affects those in lower-income brackets, since all of the interviewees are either rappers, sports stars, designers, DJs or resellers. Overall, however, it is a fine document about a very strange (to me) phenomenon.

SXSW 2015 Review #5: Wednesday, March 18

Wednesday, March 18 – Day 5 for me at SXSW – was the last day of the Trade Show, which had a lot of really cool vendors and products, including the two I highlight, below:

Interesting stuff, don’t you think? The future is now!

But what I really came to see at SXSW are the movies, and I got down to business with four (my usual pace, here), two of which were documentaries and two of which were narrative (fiction) films. I loved one of them (a doc), sort of like another (a narrative), and disliked the other two, finding very little to admire in them. Too bad for me. Check out my post about Saturdaymy post about Sundaymy post about Monday and my post about Tuesday to see how I spent my first four days here.

Stone Barn Castle

Stone Barn Castle (Adrien Brody/Kevin Ford, 2015)

I’m not sure what motivated me to go see this, since the premise should have clued me into the incredibly self-involved and self-indulgent nature of the project. Still, I often like Adrien Brody (The Pianist) as an actor, and thought he might have something interesting to say about architectural history and restoration in a film billed as a profile of the process he went through to renovate a well-known old home, which he purchased in 2007. Sadly, while the film certainly does present aspects of that process, it is mainly about the rise and fall of Adrien Brody’s moods. Occasionally, we get snippets of drama and conflict – between Brody and his then-partner, actress Elsa Pataky (Fast & Furious 6), or between Brody and his contractors – but the focus (when the camera is in focus) is squarely on Brody. Still, there is enough life in those scenes to make one long for what could have been. Instead, just when things start to heat up, we cut away to one of the interminable musical montages of Brody and Pataky (or Brody and his contractors, or just the contractors) working on the house. Kevin Ford (Brody’s co-director, and maker of the upcoming Legs) might have been better served if he had had free reign over the material. Who knows? What I do know is that when the part of the story that most intrigued me – the relationship between Brody and Pataky – is given its ending (Brody and Pataky separated in 2009) via a title card and then never addressed again, I, myself, was out as much out of the picture as was Pataky.

Salt of the Earth

The Salt of the Earth (Juliano Ribeiro Salgado/Wim Wenders, 2014)

Winner of “Un Certain Regard” Special Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, and a 2015 Oscar nominee for Best Documentary FeatureThe Salt of the Earth is an ethereally beautiful tribute to renowned Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. Co-directed by Wim Wenders (Buena Vista Social Club) and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado (Nauru, an Island Adrift) – son of Sebastião – the film takes us on a journey through time, place and the deep truths of our existence as we learn about Salgado’s work, its evolution, and its impact. Originally trained as an economist, Salgado has always highlighted important social issues – poverty, violence and genocide – in his stark black-and-white images, and we revisit all of the milestones of his career. Some of the photographs are incredibly graphic – especially those taken in the middle of the Rwandan atrocities in the 1990s – and though it can be difficult to look at them, seeing the work reminds us of the power and necessity of visual art to illuminate that which cannot be put into words. The Salt of the Earth – at times dreamy, at times shocking – is a film that everyone must see.


The Invitation (Karyn Kusama, 2015)

Since her first feature, Girlfight, Karyn Kusama has hardly been the most prolific of directors – a problem not unique to her, as women have a harder time landing directing gigs in Hollywood than do men – but she has not been entirely absent, either, helming the Charlize Theron vehicle Æon Flux and Megan Fox indie horror comedy Jennifer’s Body. Perhaps it was that last film that drew her to this new project, since The Invitation has elements of horror in it, though “creeper” might be a better designation for its odd take on the genre (its imdb page lists it as a “thriller”). A film that is 90% set-up and 10% payoff, The Invitation is the kind of movie that asks you to suspend your disbelief in a major way (you’ll be asking yourself why none of the main characters leave once things turn strange), yet is not without its atmospheric rewards. With a mostly appealing cast – especially Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus) in the lead – the film delivers on dread, yet drags out the proceedings in a way that makes its 90-minute length feel less than brisk. Still, Kusama knows her away around a camera, and the ending is just surprising enough to make some of the earlier predictability seem worth it.

Wonderful Cloud

A Wonderful Cloud (Eugene Kotlyarenko, 2015)

I hated this movie. A lo-fi, lo-res film made with very little sense of story, with annoying characters who neither grow, change nor rise above the level of 12-year-old tweens in their behavior, A Wonderful Cloud has the added benefit of shoving our faces in genitalia and ejaculate (which I guess would be an appropriate obsession for bratty kids). Director and star Kotlyarenko (0s & 1s) has an interesting face, and casts indie darling Kate Lyn Sheil (The Heart Machine) as his partner in gross-out crime, but neither are able to rise above the limitations of the mumblecore genre. If you like that kind of stuff, great. If not, stay away.

SXSW 2015 Review #4: Tuesday, March 17

Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, and though I feared the possibility that Austin would turn into a drunken madhouse (SXSW and St. Patty’s Day crowds!), it did not, and a good time seemed to be had by all, in a wonderful variety of ways. SXSW Music kicks off for real today – Wednesday, March 18 – as SXSW Interactive winds down, but already yesterday one could see and hear an increasing amount of live music on the street and from various venues. Here’s a wonderful example:

Fun, right? And now, back to movies! So I saw two narrative (fiction) features – after four documentaries on Monday! – and two more documentaries. I loved one from each category, and enjoyed – to a lesser degree – parts of the other two films. Check out my post about Saturdaymy post about Sunday and my post about Monday to see how I spent our first three days here.

All Things Must Pass

All Things Must Pass (Colin Hanks, 2015)

Remember Tower Records? For folks who came of age as music-buying teens and adults in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and (less so) ’90s, Tower was the place to go to purchase record albums and later CDs – as well as books – and mix and mingle with other music aficionados. Founded in Sacramento in 1960 by Russell Solomon, the chain took its time establishing itself in its home city before slowly expanding to San Francisco and then Los Angeles. By the 1970s, it was an institution that offered stores – in all of its multiplying locations – that looked and felt like independent outlets run by hippies (even though those “hippies” knew a thing or two about business); wherever there was a Tower Records, the locals felt like it was their Tower (even in Japan, the first country outside the U.S. to which Tower expanded). This growth continued into the late 80s and early 90s – the rise of the CD helped enormously, as consumers replaced their LPs with the new discs – with no one anticipating the crash that would come with the arrival of digital downloads. Suddenly, by 2006, Tower was gone.

Now, actor-turned-director Colin Hanks (recently seen in Season 1 of FX’s “Fargo” as Gus Grimly, and also son of Tom), who spent the last seven years gathering interviews and archival material, has told the story of this once powerful force in the music world in a brilliant film that speaks to universal truths of business and life while focusing on the specific details of the main principals involved. It is my favorite kind of documentary, and even if you have no particular interest in Tower (but how could you not, as they were once so ubiquitous?), you should see the film if only because the history of trends and institutions once dominant and now vanished reminds us of the poignant reality of the human condition: we all die, but before we do, we hope to do good things. All things must pass, but hopefully only once they’ve happened.

7 Chinese Brothers

7 Chinese Brothers (Bob Byington, 2015)

Jason Schwartzman (The Darjeeling Limited) is having quite the SXSW Festival! In both this and The Overnight (which I reviewed in my first post about SXSW 2015), he shows a range I hadn’t seen from him before. Whereas in the former film he plays a flamboyant bon vivant, in 7 Chinese Brothers, from director Bob Byington (Tuna) he portrays Larry, a man overcome by life and depression, undone by his own lethargy. That’s not to say that this is a gloomy movie. It is quite the reverse, in fact, as Byington mines Larry’s troubles for gentle and off-kilter humor, much helped by the presence of an adorable French bulldog, Arrow, who just happens to be Shwartzman’s own dog. Whatever may happen to Larry, and however low he may sink, we see his true nature in his relationship with Arrow, who snuffles and waddles his way through the film as, well, a dog should. The human supporting cast – including Olympia Dukakis (Away from Her), Tunde Adebimpe (Rachel Getting Married) and Eleanore Pienta (Stinking Heaven) – are all equally as good, and bring lovely warmth and dry wit to the proceedings. I highly recommend.

Adult Beginners

Adult Beginners (Ross Katz, 2014)

This is a movie that works when it’s funny and doesn’t when it’s not. That is, the dramatic scenes feel forced, while the comedy flows easily. Nick Kroll (Kroll Show“) stars as Jake, who when the movie opens is on top of the world, about to launch a major new tech device (similar to Google glass), when a manufacturer of one of the crucial parts pulls out of the deal. His company collapses, and to escape his angry investors, he goes to his childhood home on Long Island, where his pregnant older sister lives with her husband and first child. The rest of the movie is the usual fish-out-of-water kind of story (or, given the recurring swim-class theme, human-in-water kind of story), in which Nick must learn to be a good person before he can work his way back. Kroll is amusing, and Rose Byrne (Neighbors) is lovely, as always, as his sister (though they do not look like they came from the same gene pool), but neither they nor Bobby Cannavale (The Station Agent) can save the script from its soggy elements (water really is a metaphor here, isn’t it?). Too much conflict is packed into the end of the second act, leaving a very rushed resolution, and since we haven’t spent that much time with these people, neither that conflict nor its resolution feels entirely organic to the story. Still, laughs are laughs, and when the script sticks to jokes, a good time is had by all.

She's The Best Thing In It

She’s the Best Thing in It (Ron Nyswaner, 2015)

This documentary, from writer-turned-director Ron Nyswaner (The Painted Veil screenplay), tells the story of lifelong character actress Mary Louise Wilson (who finally won a Tony Award in 2007 after years on stage and screen) as she heads back to her native New Orleans to teach an acting class at Tulane University. Mixing archival footage from Wilson’s life, video of the class she teaches, and interviews with both her and her students, as well as with fellow veteran actors like Frances McDormand and Tyne Daly, Nyswaner tries to speak to larger truths about acting and life while also recounting the details of Wilson’s life. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get the mix quite write, and while there is a lot of good material here, the structure is all over the place. That, plus the fact that the film is just not very well shot (focus in the wrong places, poor lighting), keeps She’s the Best Thing in It from becoming the truly moving tribute that a woman of Wilson’s stature deserves. It’s not a bad movie; it’s just a particularly good one.

SXSW 2015 Review #3: Monday, March 16

On Monday – my third day at SXSW – I saw four documentary films, all of which had something to recommend them, even if they were not all of equal quality. Check out my post about Saturday or my post about Sunday to see how I spent our first two days on the ground.

Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (Jeremy Coon/Tim Skousen, 2015)

In the 1980s, shortly after the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark, three young boys in Mississippi decided to remake Steven Spielberg’s adventure classic. Over the course of seven years, they would pursue their dream of a shot-for-shot recreation of what had become their favorite film. Each of them was an oddball misfit in his own unique way – from broken homes – and this project became their therapy. By the time they were in college, they had succeeded in shooting all of the original movie except for one scene: the fight between Indy and the German mechanic on and around an airplaneRaiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made is the story of how, in 2014, they came together once more to finish their adaptation. Filmmakers Jeremy Coon (the editor of Napoleon Dynamite) and Tim Skousen (The Sasquatch Gang) have made an outstanding movie about the power of imagination and how childhood dreams shape our adult selves. Part American Movie, part Lost in La Mancha, and part Stand by Me, this is a must-see for fans of documentaries and Indiana Jones, alike.

Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story

A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story (Sara Hirsh Bordo, 2015)

Lizzie Velazquez was born prematurely in 1989, in Austin, Texas, severely underweight and with a condition that no doctor could diagnose. With incredibly supportive parents, she grew up loved and cherished – with two younger siblings without her symptoms – until she entered the school system, at which point she found herself the subject of bullying. Eventually, she made friends, and even joined her high school’s cheerleading team, in spite of a congenital lack of body strength and poor eyesight. And then, one day, at 17, she discovered an online video that labeled her “The Ugliest Woman in the World.” After a few days of sadness and anger, she decided to strike back by creating her own YouTube channel, speaking out against online bullying. Soon, she was invited to give a TEDxAustinWomen talk, and before long she became a sought-after motivational speaker. This is her incredible story, and though first-time filmmaker Sara Hirsh Bordo cannot resist the temptation to underscore Lizzie’s journey with unnecessarily excessive music, the film is still a powerful one. Below is a photo that Lizzie was kind enough to take with me after the screening. See the movie, and learn to love her as the rest of the world now does.

Lizzie Velazquez and yours truly

Lizzie Velazquez and yours truly

Deep Web

Deep Web (Alex Winter, 2015)

In January of this year, a man named Ross Ulbricht went on trial as the alleged mastermind behind the infamous Silk Road website – a secret online market that, among other things, allowed people to buy and sell drugs anonymously. The case is known as the “Dread Pirate Roberts” trial, since the site’s administrator used the name of the famous character from William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. In the book (and subsequent movie adaptation), that moniker is adopted by whoever happens to be the current pirate. Anyone and everyone can be the Dread Pirate Roberts. Filmmaker Alex Winter (Bill in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) has crafted a film that is about much more than illegal drug sales, however. Deep Web tackles issues of privacy and government overreach. As such, it is this year’s Citizenfour. For Ulbricht may or may not be guilty of some of the crimes of which he accused, but he is most likely not guilty of all of them, and anyone who cares about fairness and democracy should learn about his story. Narrated by Keanu Reeves (Ted in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) – who, with this and Side by Side, proves himself a wonderfully authoritative voiceover artist – the film packs a powerful libertarian punch. Be afraid. Be very afraid. And see this movie.

GTFO: Get the F&#% Out

GTFO: Get the F&#% Out (Shannon Sun-Higginson, 2015)

I wanted to like this movie so much, especially after reading a recent article in The New York Times about it and other films on the subject of sexual harassment in the gaming world. Focusing on a group of very brave women – some gamers, some designers, some intellectuals – all of whom take on the rampant misogyny in video games, first-time director Shannon Sun-Higginson’s film tackles some very important issues. Unfortunately, the storytelling on display is not up to the material. With images flooded with distracting video gain, accompanied by poor audio, the movie might still have worked if the footage consisted of more than talking-head interviews and pixelated shots of conferences and gaming conventions. What remains is not without value – since what these women endure is unacceptable, and someone has to tell their story – but we emerge from the experience wishing that it were better.

SXSW 2015 Review #2: Sunday, March 15

Sunday was Day 2 at SXSW for my students and me. Check out my post about Saturday to see how I spent our first day on the ground. I am tired, already (as you can see from the lines in my face, below), but am still going, going, going:

Chris Reed SXSW 2015

Yours truly – going strong!

I saw two films, one network series premiere, a collection of title sequences (for TV, movies, and video games), and the keynote address from filmmaker Mark Duplass. Here are my brief thoughts on the day.

Mark Duplass SXSW 2015

Mark Duplass, March 15, 2015, Vimeo Theater, Austin Convention Center, SXSW 2015

Mark Duplass keynote address Duplass is a hero to many in the independent film world because of how he and his older brother, Jay Duplass, have carved out viable careers without compromising their artistic integrity. They began by making short films and micro-budget features, including their 2005 breakout movie The Puffy Chair. Like or hate their films (and I am not a consistent fan, by any means), you have to admire their resolve, ambition and creative and emerging financial success. My favorite takeaways from Mark’s speech were these:

  • “The cavalry isn’t coming” – you have to earn your own success. Start small, making short films every weekend with your friends; show them to everybody; note down what works and what doesn’t; submit to festivals; if your film gets in, go to those festivals and network, and start building your community.
  • Write stories that suit the resources and materials available to you. Once you get into festivals, make that $1000 feature that doesn’t look like a $500,000 feature shot for little money, but that has an aesthetic that suits your budget. If it gets into another festival, have another script ready, and go find that bored celebrity actor who is looking for a role tailor-made for him/her, and make another cheap movie built around that actor.
  • Share the wealth, if/when it comes, with the friends who helped you get there. Keep that community going.
  • “God Bless VOD for independent filmmakers,” as it helps you get your film out to the public without an expensive theatrical release. If you don’t get a deal that you like, find a way to release the film in some monetized way (even YouTube and Vimeo) so it gets out there.
Billy Crystal and Josh Gad at  post-screening Q&A for

Billy Crystal and Josh Gad at post-screening Q&A for “The Comedians” at SXSW 2015

The Comedians (FX Series, premieres April 9) This upcoming comedy series on the FX Network stars Billy Crystal (When Harry Met Sally) and Josh Gad (The Wedding Ringer), both of whom were at the post-screening Q&A (see above photo). In 13 episodes, “The Comedians” will explore the comic shenanigans of Crystal and Gad as they create a sketch comedy show-within-the-show to air on FX. That’s right, it’s all very self-referential, with the two actors playing fictionalized versions of themselves, and FX standing in for . . . FX. Shot in the mockumentary popularized by shows like “The Office,” the series follows the misadventures of these two somewhat desperate souls as they try to salvage their respective careers. When the pilot opens, Crystal is told that a new show of his, about to premiere, in which the gag is that he plays all the roles, himself, will not air unless he gets a co-star who can skew younger. In comes Gad, fresh off the cancellation of his own series, “1600 Penn” – but still seen as a valuable property because of his success as the voice of Olaf in Frozen and the popularity of Broadway’s The Book of Mormon, in which he played one of the leads – who is suggested as the perfect solution. Does this sound familiar? Well, that’s because it recalls the dynamics of the “30 Rock” pilot, among other obvious influences. Still, in spite of the strained nature of the premise (wouldn’t a network looking for diversity reach into a radically different demographic rather than going from Crystal to Gad?), the pilot is terrific, and my face hurt from laughing so hard. Crystal (whom I have long loved) and Gad have true chemistry, and the writing and incidental characters are zippy and fun. But I was concerned that the second episode was significantly weaker than the first, showing – already! – the strain of the set-up and resorting to pot-smoking scenarios and jokes a bit too soon.

Still, if you like either Crystal or Gad – or both – than the series is definitely worth checking out, as their rapport is delightful.


SXSW Film Design Competition

Taking a break from full-length movie or episodic series screenings, I attended the 50-minute program of 23 title sequences in the design competition, my favorite of which was the 2D animation opener for Andrew Harmer’s The Fitzroy. There was a lot of great work on display, including that from the following films/shows: “Marco Polo” (Netflix), “The Man in the High Castle” (Amazon), “The Leftovers” (HBO), “American Horror Story: Freaks (Season 4) (FX),” and the hilarious (if not particularly innovative in terms of design) ending credits for 22 Jump Street. I had a good time.


Trainwreck (Judd Apatow, 2015)

I have somehow lived to the ripe old age of 46 without knowing who Amy Schumer is, so I chose this movie more because of Judd Apatow and the fact that it was a much-hyped premiere than because of its star. That, and the fact that the screening was taking place at Austin’s Paramount Theatre, which I love. I also enjoy the energy of the big screenings and the crowds they bring in. We go to festivals to see smaller, edgier content, but also the headliner events. This was definitely the latter. Billed as a work-in-progress cut of the movie, Trainwreck brought the director, Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin), the writer/star, Schumer, and her co-star, Bill Hader (The Skeleton Twins), to the theater. Below is a photo I took of the post-screening Q&A. There was, as I had hoped, terrific excitement in the place.

Trainwreck SXSW 2015

L-R: Janet Pierson, Head of SXSW Film; Judd Apatow, Director: Amy Schumer, Writer/Star

As for the movie, it tells the often funny, yet frequently overlong (Apatow’s comedies are always “soggy,” to me, meaning that they need significant editing down of most scenes) tale of misadventure that is the life of its main character, Amy (same name as the actress portraying her), a 30-something mess of an adult infant who drinks, drugs and ruts like an animal until she meets Hader’s super sports doctor, who repairs the knees of America’s sports celebrities, some of whom are in the movie, especially LeBron James (very funny as Hader’s self-appointed best friend). Will her relationship with Hader (whom I did not buy for one minute as a surgeon, though he’s appealing, as always, on screen) change her? What do you think? Also around to complete the cast are the ever-charming Brie Larson (Short Term 12), comedian Mike Birbiglia (Sleepwalk with Me) and a very funny and almost unrecognizable Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer). I laughed a lot, in spite of my criticism of Apatow’s pacing, so I give it a solid, if mildly qualified, recommendation.


Spy (Paul Feig, 2015)

Finally, there was Spy, which I saw (also in the Paramount, and for the same reason that drew me to Trainwreck, above) in spite of my dislike of both Bridesmaids (also by director Feig) and my frequent dislike of its star, Melissa McCarthy (Tammy), both of whom were at the screening:

Spy SXSW 2015

L-R: Janet Pierson, Head of SXSW Film; Paul Feig, Writer/Director: Melissa McCarthy, Star

To my surprise, I loved it, though with some of the same caveats as those that apply to Trainwreck: many of the scenes, as well as the film, itself, are just too long. Perhaps it was the enthusiastic audience, or just my exhaustion, or maybe the film is actually funny, but I found myself whisked along in a delightfully zany James Bond spoof that rewrites the rulebook of the spy genre. Rose Byrne (Annie), Jason Statham (The Transporter), Bobby Cannavale (Blue Jasmine) and Allison Janney (The DUFF) – all favorites of mine (and Byrne, Statham and Cannavale were also at the screening!) – are along for the ride, and, with the exception of the criminally underused Cannavale, greatly add to the manic delights. Oh, and Jude Law (Black Sea) shows up as the 007-look-alike that, in another universe, would be the main character. But the film belongs to McCarthy as a CIA computer analyst who must go into the field when a rogue terrorist puts a nuclear bomb on the black market. Suspend all disbelief, prepare for much stupidity, and go with friends who can help you out of the theater after you laugh so hard you can barely walk. Good. Dumb. Fun. I can’t wait for my Day 3!

SXSW 2015 Review #1: Saturday, March 14

SXSW 2015


I am back in Austin, Texas, for another SXSW! I came here in 2014 to check it out for myself, with an eye to coming back a year later with Stevenson students in tow, and lo and behold, that is what I have done. I am teaching a course this semester entitled “Emerging Trends in Digital Media and Film,” and the centerpiece of the class is a trip to Austin to see how the themes we have been studying play out in the real world. And here we are. I am seeing films, panels and exhibitions that interest me, while the students pursue schedules of their own devising. Our hope is that we head back to Baltimore at the end of the week with a richer perspective on the world of media and film than we had before.

We arrived yesterday, Saturday, March 14, around 11am, and by the time we checked into our hotel and drove to the Convention Center, it was already close to 1pm, so we missed plenty of amazing screenings and events. Fortunately, there was, is and will be so much else to see. Here is what I saw (I stuck to movies, though today I will broaden my plan) once we settled in, with very brief comments (as a film critic, I will save the real reviews for if/when the films are actually released in the Baltimore area):

Steve Jobs - Man in the Machine

Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine (Alex Gibney, 2015)

I am a big fan of Alex Gibney’s work (witness my reviews for The Armstrong Lie and We Steal Secrets), and I am fascinated by the life and work of Steve Jobs (I loved Walter Isaacson’s biography of the man, and am an avid user of Apple products). So it was with great anticipation that I sat down to see the world premiere of Gibney’s latest film (following right on the heels of Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, which premiered just a few months ago at Sundance). Janet Pierson, Head of SXSW Film, introduced Mr. Gibney as one of the most prolific filmmakers around, and that is an understatement! Unfortunately, with this particular documentary, that overcommitment is showing. For the first time while watching one of Gibney’s movies, I feel as if he could have used a strong editorial hand other than his own to provide artistic oversight. The film is a mess, and feels self-indulgent. There is good material here, for sure, but the approach feels scattershot. What kind of story is Gibney trying to tell? Is this a film about Jobs, our appreciation of him and the objects he created, or something else entirely? Any of those options would have been fine, but Gibney has chosen not to decide. And how could he make a film about Jobs and not once mention Jony Ive, except in passing? Incredible!

Son of the Congo

Son of the Congo (Adam Hootnick, 2015)

I do not care about basketball. Never have, and probably never will. But this film seemed like it would be interesting, as it was about a man – Serge Ibaka, forward for the Oklahoma City Thunder – who (as the film’s website explains) “escaped the war-torn streets of the Congo and played his way to the top of the NBA.” And, certainly, this 54-minute documentary is not without items of interest. Unfortunately, the movie about Ibaka is not as good as the man, who in many ways is a truly exceptional and inspirational human being. It feels too much like a promotional piece. I’m glad I learned about someone I had never heard of before, but knowing the little about him that I do now, I wish he had been better served by the filmmaking. Director Adam Hootnick (Unsettled) does his subject no favors by underscoring all of the emotional beats with overbearing music.


The Overnight (Patrick Brice, 2015)

After two documentaries that left me somewhat cold, I finally hit the screening jackpot with this raunchy sex comedy from the director of Creep (which I missed at last year’s SXSW festival). Starring Taylor Schilling (“Orange is the New Black“), Adam Scott (“Parks and Recreation“), Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore) and Judith Godrèche (Potiche), The Overnight is a delightfully off-beat and unpredictable film about a dinner party to which newly minted Los Angelenos Schilling and Scott are invited by oddly compelling Schwartzman and Godrèche. Featuring alcohol, drugs, some boobs, full-frontal prosthetic penises and paintings of male anuses, the movie is definitely for adults only. But boy is it fun! If it loses energy towards the end, that doesn’t mean we haven’t laughed outrageously on our way there. What makes the film work is the delightfully charming chemistry between all four of the leads and the disarmingly laid-back vibe to the whole affair. To be seen whenever it comes to a theater or streaming service near you.

I end this post with a photo from The Overnight‘s Q&A, featuring the director (tall man in white shirt with microphone), Godrèche (next to him), Schwartzman (in red shirt), and assorted other crew members:

The Overnight Q&A