Earlier this week, my interview with local filmmaker (and my Stevenson colleague) Dina Fiasconaro, about her movie Moms & Meds, go up on Bmoreart.
Welcome to the fifth episode of the 2015-2016 season of Dragon Digital Media‘s Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed . My guest this time was Marie Westhaver, Howard Community College’s Director of Film, Humanities & Interdisciplinary Arts. We reviewed three films: Green Room, Keanu and Captain America: Civil War. In Howard County, Maryland, you can watch the show on Channel 41 (if you’re a Verizon customer) or Channel 96 (if you’re a Comcast customer), and you can watch it online from anywhere. You can also still catch the first episode, second episode, third episode and fourth episode of this season, as well.
As always, the amazing Dragon Digital Media team did a fantastic job putting this together, especially producer Karen Vadnais and director Danielle Maloney. Our last episode of the season will premiere in July, when we’ll have more of the summer films to discuss. Until then, if you want to watch more of our work, you can check out last year’s episodes in full – Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3, Episode 4, Episode 5, Episode 6 – or watch the various segments from each episode on our YouTube channel. Enjoy! And we’ll see you at the movies!
It’s that time of year again, as it was in 2014 and 2015, when I took my first and second trips, respectively, to the annual SXSW Festival in Austin, TX. As I did last year, I have traveled with a group of Stevenson University Film & Moving Image students, pictured below.
This year, however, I am not just attending as a professor and blogger, but as an official member of the press, writing for Hammer to Nail during the festival, and preparing post-fest coverage for Dan Rodricks’ “Roughly Speaking” Baltimore Sun podcast and for Bmoreart. What this means is that I pre-watched 10 films before the festival began, and am interviewing those filmmakers (directors and cast) plus a few more whose films I am watching on the ground. That leaves me with less time (for now) to see movies live, but I have still seen a few. What follows is a list of those films, with brief capsule reviews, plus links to the reviews that have already been posted, as of this writing, on Hammer to Nail. The interviews will take longer to appear on that site, as first someone (that would be me) has to transcribe and condense them . . .
Let’s start with the Hammer to Nail reviews that have been posted, so far:
And now here are my thoughts on the few films I have seen since my arrival in Austin, which will not get their own review at Hammer to Nail:
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi, 2016)
New Zealander Taika Waititi (co-director, What We Do in the Shadows) has made a film that is extremely entertaining in its first 15 minutes, but which completely loses its way after that. Like the young boy at its center, the script needs a a firm adult hand to guide it towards coherence. That hand is stuck in adolescent hyperactivity, however, and so much of the good will of the opening quickly dissipates in the chaos that follows. Which is too bad, as both Julian Dennison – as Ricky Baker, a rebellious tween kid brought to a lonely farmstead foster home as a last resort – and Sam Neill (Backtrack) – as the ornery father figure left to care for him – are good, with an easy and funny rapport. As the hijinks in the bush go on, Waititi cannot seem to manage the mix of comedy and tragedy that works so brilliantly at the start. The film has appeal, but not enough to sustain it through its latter half.
Susan Glatzer’s debut documentary takes a look at the popularity of swing dancing since the 1980s, when, according the film, the long-neglected (but never forgotten) dance style began it’s slow return. One of Glatzer’s talking-head interviewees points to the 1990s “trifecta” (as she calls it) of Swing Kids (1993), Swingers (1996) and the Gap Khaki commercial (1998) as the turning point in swing’s revival, kicking it into high gear. Whether you care about this history or not, there’s a lot of great dancing on display, and the film is made with a certain pep that keeps it going, even when its narrative falters. For this is the kind of movie where the filmmaking is not as engaging as the subject matter. Glazer’s – and her subjects’ – hearts are fully in this endeavor, so I feel like a heel being so critical, but there is something profoundly irritating to me about history being told by its participants – of course, partisan to their cause – than by actual historians. In other words, a few actual experts – rather than enthusiasts – would give the film greater heft. Glatzer also sets up a a false dichotomy of work vs. play, where almost everyone in the film seems to hate their day jobs, sneering at those who don’t wish to dance – and be free! – as they do. Still, there’s enough here of interest for a qualified recommendation. Do with that what you will.
And Punching the Clown (Gregori Viens, 2016)
Singer/comedian (and singing comedian) Henry Phillips plays a fictionalized version of himself in this follow-up/sequel to director Gregori Viens’ 2009 Punching the Clown. The events of that previous film (which I haven’t seen) are alluded to here, but this is more or less a stand-alone story, requiring no prior knowledge of Phillips or his sad-sack misadventures. Instead, all one needs is a desire to laugh and a tolerance for comedies of embarrassment. Phillips is an engaging on-screen presence – even if not all of his jokes resonate with me (I get tired of his constant borderline-sexist tales of woeful relationships) – and the gags outside of the stand-up routines are very funny. With great support work from Tig Notaro (Tig), her real-life partner Stephanie Allynne (In a World…), J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) and Sarah Silverman (Take This Waltz), among others, And Punching the Clown is a frequently delightful riff and failure and success . . . and failure.
Hardcore Henry (Ilya Naishuller, 2016)
Now that I have been through the hellish experience that is Hardcore Henry, I look back to my (positive) reaction to its trailer and wonder, “What was I thinking?” Why did I imagine that this would be anything other than one continuous bloodbath with a completely incomprehensible story? While it’s true that the opening 10 to 20 (I can no longer recall) minutes of the film have a certain (fascist) exuberance to them, after that what plot there is descends into mind-numbing repetition of one gruesome (and graphic) killing after another. Shot entirely from the first-person point of view of its titular character, Hardcore Henry mimics the aesthetics of many a first-person-perspective video game, a tactic not without interest as a cinematic exercise, but not enough to sustain the movie for its 90-minute length. Unless, of course, all you want to do is kill, kill, and kill, in which case, welcome to your own private nirvana.
Stay tuned for more SXSW film news throughout the week.
Welcome to the fourth episode of the 2015-2016 season of Dragon Digital Media‘s Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed . My guest this time was Max Weiss, film critic for Baltimore Magazine and WBAL-TV. We reviewed the 2016 Oscars (the ceremony, itself, and the winners), plus two recent films: Hail, Caesar! and Deadpool. We also discussed the role of the film critic, in general, and whether it is ever acceptable to leave a screening before the end. In Howard County, Maryland, you can watch the show on Channel 41 (if you’re a Verizon customer) or Channel 96 (if you’re a Comcast customer), and you can watch it online from anywhere. You can also still catch the first episode, second episode and third episode of this season, as well.
As always, the amazing Dragon Digital Media team did a fantastic job putting this together, especially producer Karen Vadnais and director Danielle Maloney. Our next episode will premiere in May of this year (not sure what we’ll review yet, but I promise that the discussion will be great!). Until then, if you want to watch more of our work, you can check out last year’s episodes in full – Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3, Episode 4, Episode 5, Episode 6 – or watch the various segments from each episode on our YouTube channel. Enjoy! And we’ll see you at the movies!
[Missed the show? Check out the podcast!]
Since the early 1950s, as the Cold War truly got under way and the rocket race heated up, the filmmakers of Hollywood – first in film, and then on TV – began to imagine what space exploration might look like. After all, if new telescopes could see far into the galactic heavens and we could launch missiles high into the sky, it hardly seemed far-fetched to predict that we would one day walk on the moon. Though populations world-wide were terrified of atomic bombs and worried about the nuclear arsenals built up by the Soviet Union and United States, it was, in fact, the competition between those two superpowers that motivated their respective governments to put money and intellectual resources into their space programs, hoping to be the first to send a man beyond earth’s orbit. The Soviets reached space first – with Yuri Gagarin – but the Americans were the first to set foot on the moon – with Neil Armstrong. All the while, Hollywood kept making their own cinematic versions of space travel, from Destination Moon (1950) to Forbidden Planet (1956) to the 1960s TV series Lost in Space and Star Trek to Stanley Kubrick’s seminal sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the 1970s, with new special-effects technology, the look of space exploration changed, with films like Star Wars (1977) and Alien (1979), which posited a universe (past and future) where space travel was the norm and ordinary folks took it for granted. Where Star Trek had imagined space as an exciting “final frontier,” Alien held out the possibility that life on other planets might destroy us.
Some movies have tried to focus on the science – rather than the science fiction – of space exploration, among them Apollo 13 (1995), Gravity (2013), and Interstellar (2014) (sort of). Whatever one thinks of any of these films, we can all agree that we have come a long way since French filmmaker Georges Méliès first put space travel on the silver screen in his 1902 short film A Trip to the Moon. And now, on Friday, October 2, 2015, we have a new film, The Martian, from Ridley Scott (director of Alien). Where will it fall on the spectrum of movies about space? Join us on that Friday, at 1pm, on WYPR 88.1 FM, for the Midday with Dan Rodricks show, when Christopher Llewellyn Reed (that’s me) – Chair and Professor, Department of Film/Video, Stevenson University – and William U’Ren – Assistant Professor, English, Goucher College – will discuss Hollywood’s depiction of space travel, in film and TV. Note that we will only be discussing films that deal with humans traveling into space, and not aliens coming to earth.
Add your voices to the conversation via email (email@example.com) or phone (410-662-8780 locally, or toll-free at 1-866-661-9309). If you can’t listen locally, you can live-stream the podcast here: http://www.wypr.org/listen-live. If you can’t listen live, then check out the podcast later by visiting the show’s site. You can also leave your thoughts on your favorite space-travel films and TV shows in the comment section of this blog.
Enjoy the show! This will actually be the last one that Dan Rodricks will do as host of Midday, as he is moving on to other projects. So join us to say goodbye, at the very least!
Sadly, on Saturday, the fourth day of the 2015 Maryland Film Festival, I started coming down with some kind of virus of some sort, and proceeded to feel sicker and more fatigued as the weekend wore on, eventually opting to stay home and do my set to recover. As I write this I am less feverish, but still extremely tired, which explains why it has taken me so long to post this final wrap-up of the festival (which isn’t much of a wrap-up, given my dwindling energy in the last two days). But we stuck to the plan, and Stevenson University Film/Video students did get to meet the two filmmakers they were scheduled to meet, Kris Swanberg (on Saturday) and Khalik Allah (on Sunday), pictured below:
I’m glad that part worked out . . . in any case, on Saturday, I forced myself to stick to some kind of a screening program before completely giving up on Sunday after just one movie. Here is what I saw.
People, Places, Things (James C. Strouse, 2015)
Here’s the synopsis from the festival’s program guide:
“The first few minutes of the wryly hilarious People, Places, Things find professor and graphic novelist Will Henry (Jemaine Clement, What We Do in the Shadows) thrust unwillingly into a new way of life. After his wife abruptly leaves him for another man, he finds himself having to navigate single fatherhood with his twin girls while juggling his career. As time passes, he adjusts to his new routine, but his reluctance to let go of the past cripples his ability to make real progress and meet someone new.
Noticing that her professor is in a bit of a funk, Kat (Jessica Williams), a student of Will’s, suggests that he come to dinner at her house to meet her single mother Diane (the wonderful Regina Hall). This sets up an awkward first date which may lead to promising new love—or just serve to further complicate already complicated situations.” (by J. Scott Braid)
This was not a great film, but it was an entertaining one. I’ve seen Jemaine Clement in various supporting roles over the years, but never really latched on to him as a performer (I saw not one episode of his “Flight of the Conchords“), but he makes for a very appealing sad sack of a leading man. Regina Hall (The Best Man Holiday) is lovely, although we, criminally, do not see a lot of her, nor of Jessica Williams (“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart“). The movie is much more about Will working out his issues with his wife. Which is fine, except that that secondary plot of his blossoming romance with Diane is given very short shrift (and little screen time), which means that the final resolution feels a bit unearned. But the dialogue is often snappy, and there are far worse ways in which one could spend 85 minutes.
Unexpected (Kris Swanberg, 2015)
Here’s the synopsis from the festival’s program guide:
“Samantha and Jasmine discover their unplanned pregnancies about the same time. Samantha (a wonderful Cobie Smulders) is an engaged and successful teacher in a public school in a lower income neighborhood in Chicago that is set to close, and she immediately starts to worry about compromising her future career plans. Jasmine (terrific newcomer Gail Bean) is one of Samantha’s prize students, and worries about her plans for college being disrupted by her pregnancy.
These concerns ripple through friends and families in unpredictable but totally believable ways. Samantha’s boyfriend is thrilled, supportive, and proposes marriage, but doesn’t really understand Samantha’s quandary. The pregnancies also challenge Samantha and Jasmine’s close relationship, largely because Samantha, as both mentor and friend, makes presumptions about Jasmine and her goals.” (by Jed Dietz)
I am not a particular fan of the work of Kris Swanberg’s husband Joe, so I am happy to report how much I enjoyed Kris’s feature. She is a very fine filmmaker, with a great ability to direct actors, and she knows what she is doing with the camera. Cobie Smulders (“How I Met Your Mother“) is quite fine as Samantha, and Gail Bean is a remarkable find. Despite a gently surprising plot twist in the final third – which returns agency to the younger character – the movie cannot entirely escape what feels like a white, liberal-guilt origin, yet this never takes away from the overall humanistic quality of the script.
Field Niggas (Khalik Allah, 2015)
Here’s the synopsis from the festival’s program guide:
“The title comes from a famous analysis of slave hierarchy and assimilation by Malcolm X, and photographer/filmmaker Khalik Allah is determined to pay tribute to people who are easily dehumanized in contemporary culture. Hanging around the infamous corner of 125th and Lexington in Harlem on a series of summer nights, Allah engages a wide variety of people who regularly inhabit the area and some who are just passing through. Concentrating on one corner in a tough city neighborhood reminds one of David Simon and Ed Burns’ reporting that resulted in the book The Corner, and the acclaimed HBO series that was adapted from it, and once again a powerful work of art emerges from an urban corner.” (by Jed Dietz)
Wow! This is quite an ambitiously experimental work. Shot almost entirely on the corner of Lexington and 125th Street in Manhattan, at night, the film is comprised of moving images of the denizens of the area (and the occasional passerby) and the police, while audio recorded separately – and not in sync with any image – plays as a vocal symphony below the visuals. It was a tough film for a sick man, late on a Saturday, to see, but it was quite a moving experience, in many ways. I’m still not sure that the film needed to be 60 minutes long, but that could be my illness talking. As it is, after seeing the film, I left that universe – where hope and despair coexist, where addiction and beauty go hand in hand – transformed by what I had seen, even if I’m still not sure that I understood the half of it.
Beats of the Antonov (Hajooj Kuka, 2014)
Here’s the synopsis from the festival’s program guide:
“Winner of the People’s Choice Documentary Award at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, director Hajooj Kuka’s Beats of the Antonov is a harrowing and heartening look at the people of the besieged Blue Nile and Nuba Mountain regions of Sudan, a people who have learned to not just cope but persevere under the most extreme circumstances. This stunning documentary finds the Sudanese filmmaker, a seasoned war correspondent, embedded within these communities as they are regularly bombarded by Russian-made planes (hence the film’s title) and forced from their homes and villages. Arrestingly lensed, the film introduces us to incredible musicians, activists, soldiers, farmers and intellectuals, whose fascinating stories highlight the important role their culture, and particularly music, plays in their daily lives.
Although the civil war here is a fight between North and South, Arab and African, and Kuka likely has his own opinions about the situation, it’s telling that all sides are represented and that the filmmaker does little to editorialize. For Kuka, what’s important is to show that culture, tradition, and particularly music, can sustain people, even in a war zone. People who manage to retain their culture, their music, their ways of life, can maintain their humanity and their dignity, even in the most perilous conditions.” (by J. Scott Braid)
Other than the fact that I was confused and thought I was going to see Frame by Frame instead (I kept on wondering, at first, why we were in Sudan, and not Afghanistan), I found this movie extraordinary. The filmmaker is right in the middle of the conflict, risking life and limb to film the devastation visited on these rebel communities by the government in Khartoum, so we see explosions, bloody corpses (animal and human), and much more. We also see and hear the people of the region as they explain why they resist the pressures from the north to de-Africanize them. This is a moving, harrowing and extremely inspiring film.
Thanks, Maryland Film Festival! I hope that, next year, I can avoid getting sick and enjoy more screenings . . .