Friday, May 26, 2017

PIRATES 5: DEAD MEN TELL NO NEW TALES

Now playing at a multiplex near us all:

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES

(Dirs. Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg, 2017)


After a string of major misfires, including ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, THE LONE RANGER, MORTDECAI (forgot about that one!), TRANSCENDENCE, and DARK SHADOWS, Johnny Depp once again dusts off his Keith Richards impression, dons an X-marked pirate hat, do-rag, black eye makeup, earrings, and the rest of his familiar ratty attire (not dissimilar to what Depp wears in real life) to resurrect the character of Jack Sparrow for the fifth film of Disneys highly lucrative PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise.

As his last big hit was the last PIRATES movie, ON STRANGER TIDES, this makes financial sense for the actor, but for folks (like me) who are tired of the increasingly redundant series, it’s not a very appealing prospect.

But, hey, I try to give every movie the benefit of the doubt - even when it comes to the slew of seemingly unnecessary sequels that clog up the multiplexes every summer. So I’ll say this - DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES is better than the previous PIRATES entry, 2011, ON STRANGER TIDES, but, and I know you can see this coming, that’s really not saying much.

This time around, the premise concerns Brenton Thwaites as the son of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly’s characters from the first several movies, who seeks out Depp’s Sparrow to help him find the film’s McGuffin – a magical compass thingie called the Trident of Poseidon - so that he can free his father from a curse keeping him forever undersea aboard his sunken ship.

Also wanting to find Sparrow and break their curse, is a group of undead sailors led by the sinister Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem, who's a little scary at first but that dies off rapidly), who were trapped in the Devil’s Triangle by Sparrow (in a flashback where we see a young Depp courtesy of digital trickery). Oh yeah, there’s also actually a female lead along for the ride played by Kaya Scodelario, whose character Carina Smyth is an astronomer, which makes people think she’s a witch.

Add Geoffrey Rush reprising his role as Captain Hector Barbossa for the fifth time to the mix, and we’re off into another amped up series of over-the-top sequences in which our heroes seamlessly dodge digital dangers in battles at sea and on land with all of them blending together into a tedious run through done-to-death plot mechanics.

Even bits that I enjoyed such as an action set piece involving a botched bank robbery in which the actual bank building is pulled around a village by a team of horses, felt like a variation on any number of comical chases in the previous entries, and Depp’s swishy Sparrow schtick, which was past its sell-by date a few films ago is just another predictable, uninspired element on display here.

On the plus side, the visual imagery, aided by tons of CGI, is stunning with oceans that glitter to the horizon dominated by intricately detailed battle ships and cool looking ghost sharks (that’s right). It proves that these days even mediocre movies can look immaculate.

Despite this appraisal, I wouldn’t recommend seeing it in IMAX 3D like I did - the effect wears off pretty quickly.

I predict that PIRATES fans will be pleased by this entry - I say that because my wife likes them and she liked this one - but while I thought there was a reasonable amount of fun onscreen for at least a matinee price, I grow tired at seeing this series endlessly repeat itself. 

This film seems to have two major purposes as a piece of pop culture - keep the franchise afloat for more follow-ups, and end Depp’s career slump. As its biggest competition this Memorial Day weekend is BAYWATCH, I’m betting it will have no trouble reaching those goals.

For those who are curious - yes, there is an after credits stinger to set up a yet another sequel. Like every single thing else here, that’s a given.

More later...

Friday, May 19, 2017

Richard Gere Fakes His Way Through Being A Fixer in NORMAN

Now playing at an indie arthouse near me (the Rialto in Raleigh being the closest):

NORMAN (Dir. Joseph Cedar, 2016)



In Israeli writer/director’s first English language film NORMAN (aka NORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER), Richard Gere schleps around Manhattan stalking powerful people who he promises to introduce to other powerful people.

Gere’s Norman Oppenheimer constantly networks, trying to make political connections, handing out his business card for “Oppenheimer Strategies,” faking his way through being a fixer with most of his prey knowing, or sensing that he’s just a small time operator with no real clout.

That is until one day when he meets Micha Eshel (a smooth, charming Lior Ashkenazi), the deputy Israeli minister of trade and labor, outside a high end clothing store (Norman was staking him, of course), and the two establish a friendship - mostly because Norman buys Micha an outrageously expensive pair of shoes.

Three years later, Eshel is made Prime Minister of Israel, and Norman aims to rekindle their relationship as it appears that he finally has an “in.” Norman is subsequently sought after, while his past is scrutinized, and he finds he’s being followed. Then Eshel gets caught in a scandal involving bribes and corruption, and Norman may be in hot water as the unnamed businessman that Eshel will have to use as a scapegoat in order to escape prosecution.

Gere, while neither Jewish or a schlub (albeit a well dressed one with a cashmere coat and nice suits), is terrific as Norman, who at times appears to stare into the abyss as we see looking through his eyes at unforgiving surroundings.

Utterly believable as this pathetic, delusional loser who believes he’s a winner and fancies himself a macher (Yiddish for an important or influential person), Gere’s interacts with the rest of the cast in sometimes amusing, sometimes cringe-worthy ways.

The rest of the cast includes Michael Sheen as Norman’s skeptical nephew, Steve Buscemi as a Rabbi who stupidly trusts Norman to find an investor so he can save his synagogue, Hank Azaria as the guy following Norman who turns out to be a “Norman” himself with a similar business card for a non-existent company, and pitches that he can connect powerful people with one another; and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a woman who Norman blabs to on a train, who turns out to be an Israeli prosecutor.

It’s billed as a thriller, but Director Cedar, working from his own screenplay, plays a lot of this material in a comedic fashion by populating the film with doublespeak dialogue and a sometimes silly score by Japanese composer Jun Miyake which is dominated by a bouncy brass section.

NORMAN may take a bit to get going, but once it does it’s a wicked delight. It could be seen as a companion piece to Oren Moverman’s TIME OUT OF MIND, which starred Gere as a delusional homeless man wandering the streets of New York, hoping to re-connect with his daughter.

Gere’s Norman may be homeless himself as while a rent-controlled apartment that he inherited is mentioned, we never see it. He also says he has a daughter, but we’re not sure we believe him. The man who once starred in a movie called POWER, and has made a career out of playing slick affluent men, is now excelling at playing scruffy people who have no power.

Gere used to be an actor that didn’t appeal to me back in the day, but now having seen how f-in’ good he is at slumming it, he’s more than earned my respect.

More later...

Friday, May 05, 2017

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2: Overstuffed But Still A Fun Ride

Now playing everywhere:

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2

(Dir. James Gunn, 2017)



With the summer movie season upon us, it’s easy to be cynical about big ass, CGI-saturated superhero movies clogging up the multiplexes, but the Marvel machine has a pretty good track record. A couple of times a year, sometimes three, that ginormous franchise factory consistently cranks out comic book adaptations that are mostly quality entertainment.

So that brings us to the second installment to one of the funniest, most offbeat entries in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.

VOL. 2 re-unites Chris Pratt as Peter Quill aka Star-Lord, Zoe Saldana as the green-skinned Gamora, Dave Bautista as the multicolored Drax the Destroyer, and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel as the CGI-ed characters Rocket the raccoon, and the tiny tree-like Baby Groot.

The film starts by introducing us to Quill’s dad, played by a young Kurt Russell. That’s right, in a scene set in 1980, Russell via camera effects and make-up appears as his 30-year old self, and it’s pretty damn convincing. Russell, whose name is mentioned yet, takes his girlfriend (Laura Haddock), obviously later to be Star-Lord’s mother, to see some sort of alien seedling deal he planted in the woods behind a Dairy Queen somewhere in Missouri.

Flash forward 34 years and we meet up with the Guardians of the Galaxy as they battle a huge inter-dimensional creature with tons of tentacles, and teeth on a platform somewhere in space (they probably had a caption saying where but I don’t remember it). The action takes place largely in the background as the film focuses on Baby Groot cutely dancing up a storm to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” in the foreground.

The gang’s job is to protect some powerful batteries, the movie’s McGuffin, for some gold-skinned people called the Sovereign led by Elizabeth Debicki as the High Priestess. This is in exchange for Gamora’s evil sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) so that the Guardians can take her to Xandar to collect her bounty. But then Rocket steals some of the batteries and a chase ensues with a bunch of remotely controlled drones following our heroes into an asteroid field (it’s not the only time this film apes THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, believe me).

Their ship crash lands on some planet (again, I don’t remember the name if there was one), and soon after another vessel that they had seen during the chase sequence lands. Russell, now identified as Ego, appears to reveal himself as Quill’s father, and asks him to come with him to his planet. Rocket and Groot get captured by Michael Rooker, reprising his role as the blue-skinned Yondu Udonta and his team of Ravagers, but a mutiny gets Yondu imprisoned with Rocket. This leads to another scene, one of the film’s funniest, in which Baby Groot keeps bringing the wrong thing instead of Yondu’s red fin head thingie, which can shoot a laser-like arrow through hundreds of attacking Ravagers.

Meanwhile, Quill is bonding with his dad, Ego (they even play catch together with some kind of light orb), but Gamora isn’t so sure that Ego is to be trusted. He’s not, of course, and his sinister plan, that he calls “The Expansion” involves taking over the galaxy with the seedlings planted on every planet. Ego, a character that dates back to 1966, himself is a living planet, you see.

The freshness of the first has evaporated, but VOL. 2 is a fine follow-up overall, but it
’s a bit overlong and overstuffed with way too much going on - I had trouble following some of the chaotic goings on. Also my wife said she thought the father-son emotional content was heavy handed, and I have to agree. I would’ve liked more misdirection surrounding whether Ego is the film’s villain or not as well, but I guess fans of the comic would know that going in.

A new addition to the Guardians is Mantis played by an attenna-sporting Pom Klementieff, who has some funny moments with Bautista’s Drax, who keeps reminding her how hideous he thinks she is.

It was surprising to see Sylvester Stallone in such a small role - that’s right, this movie has both TANGO & CASH – as a high ranking Ravager named Starhawk (Stakar of the House of Ogord), another character that’s been around for decades but I’m just learning about now.

Russell over-acts a bit, but Ego's persona does call for it. The rest of the Pratt-led cast carries out their duties with humorous aplomb, and, like I said on the first one, Rocket may be Coopers best work.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL.2 is action and comedy packed enough to be the crowd pleaser its director/screenwriter Gunn wants it to be, and the soundtrack - the Awesome Mix Vol. 2 that Pratt’s Quill got at the end of the first one - lives up to its name with a bunch of toe-tapping tunes by the likes of George Harrison, Cheap Trick, Sweet, Jay and the Americans, and Cat Stevens (“Father and Son,” of course). I also enjoyed the David Hasselhoff jokes and cameo – he’s Quill’s father figure idol, you see).

The film’s bloat extends to five, count ‘em, five post credits scenes, so don’t get up when the movie looks like it’s over. I hate seeing those movie-goers that start to walk out and then have to race back or stop in their tracks to watch the stingers. Jeez, everyone should know by now that at a Marvel movie they should stay in their seats until the real finish and the actual studio logo hits the screen. It
’s as expected as the obligatory Stan Lee cameo! We’re 15 movies into the MCU, people - get it together!

More later...

Monday, April 10, 2017

Full Frame 2017: Days Three & Four


This was my ninth year covering the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival for Film Babble Blog. I had attended various films before at the event, but my four day coverage became a thing in 2009. Now, I only saw a smidgen of the 90 films shown from last Thursday morning to Sunday night's last screening, mine is, of course, a pretty limited perspective. There were a number of films I missed that I heard great buzz about, like the Frank Stiefels short HEAVEN IS A TRAFFIC JAM ON THE 405, which won a few Full Frame Awards, but I’ll catch up with those later. Here’s what I saw on Saturday and Saunday:

WIELKI TEATR (aka THE GREAT THEATER)

(Dir. Sławomir Batyra, 2016)


This 30-minute short joins STILL TOMORROW and LONG STRANGE TRIP in having an excellent sound design. Whether it’s the echoes through the rafters, or the clamor of the orchestra practicing, or the bustle of assemblers, upholsterers, and prop masters getting the sets for in place, everything audibly pops in Sławomir Batyra’s backstage breakdown of the rehearsals for Mariusz Trelinski’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at The Grand Theater (Polish name: Wielki Teatr) in Warsaw. 

There is no voice-over narrator, no interview sound bites, just a series of shots of people doing their jobs in seemingly every nook and cranny of the largest opera theatre in the world with only random voices giving instructions like “Fishermen, to the boats please.” Made up of a number of visually pleasurable shots that match its immersive sound, Batyra film is a wonderfully artful tour of a magnificent venue. 

Post note: THE GREAT THEATER got an honorable mention in the Full Frame Jury Award for Best Short category.

ONE OCTOBER (Dir. Rachel Shuman, 2017) “New York is never the same city for more than a dozen years altogether,” a quote credited to Harper’s Monthly from 1856 starts off this film shot in New York City during October 2008, in the weeks leading up to the historic election of Barack Obama. The film follows WFMU radio host Clay Pigeon around as he interviews random people on the streets, capturing the flavor of that memorable season when the world economy faced its most dangerous crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Cinematographer David Sampliner’s camera also captures the Big Apple beautifully in vivid shots, whether of protesters, parades, street musicians, or bird watchers in Central Park, that are interspersed throughout the film. This is enhanced by Paul Brill’s lively score performed by cellist Dave Eggar.

But it’s the people that Pigeon (real name Kacy Ross) talks to that will be the film’s biggest takeaway, like the old coot who says, “listen, the white guys have been in charge for so long, give the black guys a chance, they can’t do worse than we did,” or the young mother who complains about the gentrification of Harlem, “five more years I won’t even be living here, this won’t look like this no more.” The one hour and seven minute ONE OCTOBER is a fine time capsule as is, but I could’ve gone for some more New Yorker straight talk. 

BRONX GOTHIC (Dir. Andrew Rossi, 2017) I had never heard of dancer, writer, and choreographer Okwui Okpokwasili before, but I know I’ll never forget her after this powerful doc about the performance artist’s acclaimed solo show “Bronx Gothic.” 

Rossi (PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES) films Okpokwasili as she takes her show on tour to small theaters in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Atlanta. Alongside the ample samplings from the show, which depicts the dialogue between two 11-year-old black girls growing up in the Bronx, we also get a glimpse of her life offstage, and with her family. The audience reaction shots are priceless as the performer’s material, demeanor, and especially her chaotic, seizure-like dancing obviously pushes many buttons. 

Okpokwasili, who calls her work 
memories from a rupture that's never been sutured, is an engaging presence so there’s a lot of entertainment value in watching her talk with students, discuss the recent remake of “Roots” with her white husband (Peter Born), and play with her daughter, all elements that give the intense performance art segments a great grounding. I’d be remiss if not to mention how well-timed and funny the woman’s work can be as well. Though what we see of Okpokwasili’s show leans towards darkness, there are cracks where the light gets in. I’d like to see the entire performance some day.

MAY IT LAST: A PORTRAIT OF THE AVETT BROTHERS (Dirs. Judd Apatow & Michael Bonfiglio, 2017) I was a bit distracted as this film began, as the legendary D.A. Pennebaker (DONT LOOK BACK, MONTEREY POP, ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS, THE WAR ROOM, do I need to go on?) sat down next to me in Fletcher Hall ten minutes before the film began. Pennebaker, and his wife and film-making partner Chris Hegedus are regulars at Full Frame who helped get the festival started so it’s not the first time I’ve been in their presence, but the idea of watching a rock doc sitting next to the guy who invented rock docs was hard to shake.

When the doc, which is about the popular North Carolina folk rock band, the Avett Brothers, began and there was footage of the group walking through the hallways of a venue before a show, I couldn’t help but think about how the well worn tropes of following around and filming artists backstage, hanging with them in hotel rooms, and capturing them interacting with fans are all things that the guy to my right did first. But soon into Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio’s film, I was able to focus on the story of a band I basically knew nothing about. 

Hailing from Mount Pleasant, N.C., Scott and Seth Avett are depicted as two simple farm boys who get along great together unlike other famous musician brothers like Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks, or those damn Gallaghers in Oasis. They start off rebelling against the country music of their father’s generation and take to wanting to be Nirvana, but they returned to their roots after a revelatory encounter with bluegrass icon Doc Watson at Merlefest, the musician’s annual traditional-music festival in Wilkesboro, N.C.

The doc takes us through the Avett Brothers’ career, but largely focuses on the making of their 2016 album, “True Sadness.” One of the film’s highlights is a stirring studio take of “No Hard Feelings,” which emotionally drains the brothers. They ask producer Rick Rubin if they can take a break and Scott and Seth walk outside to regain their composure as various folks congratulate them on the performance. Alone, they discuss how weird it feels to get complimented for work that calls upon very personal, naked feelings (particularly about Seth’s 2013 divorce). The scene reminded me of something Bob Dylan said when complimented on his classic 1975 album “Blood on the Tracks,” which many felt dealt with his divorce, “It's hard for me to relate to people enjoying that kind of pain.”

Speaking of Dylan, the guy who shot famous footage of his legendary 1965 and 1966 tours was right next to me! Sorry, back to the Avett Brothers. 


Despite having seen them at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro back in 2005, I’m not really familiar with much of their music but I enjoyed the concert sequences, and may give them more of a listen as a result of this fine summation of the Avett ethos. The screening was well received by the audience, but the panel Q & A afterwards in which guests Scott Avett, the band’s cellist Joe Kwon, and codirector Michael Bonfiglio came onstage to great applause, was a lovefest with questioners who the band often recognized from their gigs taking them for their music more than asking them questions.

The last film I saw at the fest was Yance Ford’s STRONG ISLAND, which was an encore on Sunday afternoon because it won two awards at Full Frame’s Awards Barbeque at noon: the Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award and the Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award.

The awards are well deserved as Ford’s film is an impassioned exploration of his brother’s murder by a mechanic in Long Island, New York in 1992. William Ford Jr., 24-year-old black teacher, was going to confront the people at an auto repair shop who weren’t fixing his family’s car after an accident that was actually caused by the same people. William was unarmed, but was shot and killed by .22 caliber rifle fired by Mark Reilly, a white 19-year-old mechanic. Reilly was not indicted by a white judge and an all-white jury for the crime and went free, while the Ford family sat in mourning helplessly by.

In extreme close-ups, Ford, pours his heart out about the grief over his brother’s senseless killing, the racist system, and his transgender coming out, while his mother, Barbara, and sister, Lauren, give us their takes on this angering, all too common tragedy.

A well made, straight forward, and up close and personal film that wrestles with the wounds from injustice that can never be healed. STRONG ISLAND is one of the strongest documentary debuts I’ve ever seen.

I probably could’ve come up with a better last line for that review, but I’m tired after four days of docs in Durham so it
ll have to do. 

So that’s Full Frame 2017! It was one of my favorites of all the years I’ve attended.

If you haven’t already, please check out my coverage of Days One, and Two.

More later...

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Full Frame 2017: Day Two


Day two of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival held at the Carolina Theatre and the Marriot Convention Center in Durham, N.C., was a lot livelier than the first day as the weekend crowds starting pouring in. This was also due to the capper of the second day of the fest - the North Carolina premiere of Amir Bar-Levs epic four hour Grateful Dead band biodoc, LONG STRANGE TRIP. But first let me get to some other worthy docs I saw on Friday.

THE ORIGINAL RICHARD MCMAHAN
(Dir. Olympia Stone, 2016)


This fascinating 20 minute film, part of the New Docs Program, concerns outsider artist Richard McMahan, who makes miniature versions of some of the world’s great paintings. Hailing from Jacksonville, Florida, McMahan is the creator and curator of the Mini-Museum, a traveling and online exhibit of thousands of his hand made replicas including intricate recreations of Egyptian tombs, 20 years in the making. McMahan’s work is incredibly impressive, and he's a likable, if extremely eccentric character (he wears period costumes at his installations) so the doc is a short but sweet treat.

Next up, I saw another film in the New Docs Program, Garret Atlakson’s MOMMY’S LAND, which was making its World Premiere at this year’s Full Frame.

The film tackles the protest that was formed by a group of women who were dislocated when the corrupt government of Cambodia forcibly evicted them from their homes in 2006 and 2007 to make way for new developments funded by World Bank.


The former residents, mostly young mothers, of the Boeung Kak Lake (BKL) area in Phnom, Penh, whose houses were flooded and destroyed by property developers filling the lake with sand, rally behind a fellow resident, an elderly grandmother they call “Mommy,” in often violent demonstrations. Watching this unfold in brutal confrontations with Military Police, while uncaring ruling party members stand uncaringly on the sidelines, is heart breaking. Mommy’s perserverance is inspiring, and filmmaker Atlakson’s eye never shies away from the excruciatingly uncomfortable imagery of bloody assaults that were made on these women fighting for the land titles owed to them. It can be a bit grueling, but the timeliness of Mommy and her people’s struggle makes for a powerfully emotional 68 minute viewing. 

ALL SKATE, EVERYBODY SKATE
(Dir. Nicole Triche, 2016)


Miss Doris, a woman in her late 70s who runs a 50-year-old roller skating rink above a post office in Topsail Island, N.C., is the subject of this charming 20-minute short. Miss Doris takes us through her operation, her family’s history, and displays her own skating skills for us as well. Another inspirational tale of an old unstoppable lady, albeit under severely different circumstances than MOMMY'S LAND, Triche’s film celebrates Miss Doris and her beloved community venue, which looks like, with no plans for retirement, she will keep rolling as long as she can.

BALLOONFEST (Dir. Nathan Truesdell, 2017) This is a six minute curiousity, mostly made up of archival TV news reports, about the United Way of Cleveland, Ohio, attempt in 1986 to break a world record by releasing over a million balloons in the air. However, a high pressure system approached, causing many of the balloons to end up in Lake Erie making a search for two missing fishermen difficult. Despite the event not being recognized by the Guiness Book of World Records, the initial release of the balloons, with swirling clouds of color engulfing the skyline is quite a site to be seen. 

LONG STRANGE TRIP (Dir. Amir Bar-Lev, 2017) Ive had my ups and downs with the Grateful Dead. I loved them in the late 80s to mid 90s, seeing them close to a dozen times, but came to loathe them later in that decade. Ive come back around these days, but still wouldnt consider myself a Deadhead. Ive loved the work of Amir Bar-Lev (MY KID COULD PAINT THAT, THE TILLMAN STORY), so I was pysched to see his take on the iconic San Francisco bands legacy (Martin Scorsese being one of the film's executive producers added to that as well).

This new four hour, career-spanning documentary (thankfully containing an intermission), features a wealth of archival footage, both vintage and current interviews from band members, and a intoxicating exploration into the Deads philosophy and vision. That philosophy can simply be stilled down into having fun as the late lead guitarist/singer Jerry Garcia puts it, and that vision can be seen as to just keep on truckin,' but there's a lot of ins and outs and what haves you involved, as the Dude would say.

From the 1965 Acid Tests, to a hilarious late ‘60s appearance on the Playboy After Dark TV show where they dosed the coffee pot, to their famous 1972 European tour to their performance in Egypt in 1978 to their surprise success in the ‘80s with their first top 40 single (“Touch of Grey”) and beyond, Bar-Lev’s pacing never falters, and the music never stops. Bar-Lev, in attendence at the fest, boasted before the screening that he and his crew utilized the original individual instrumental tracks of many of the band's studio recordings to provide a musical bed for the film, and it sounded great through the Carolina Theatre’s Cinema One speaker system.

A must see for Deadheads and those curious about the band, but maybe not recommended for haters as such a lengthy breakdown of the ethos of Garcia and company is doubtful to win them over. For the folks in the audience I saw it with on Friday night, some of whom shouted their appreciation for individual gigs being mentioned, it was a delight from beginning to end.

Coming soon: Coverage of Days Three & Four. And be sure to check out coverage of Day One, if you haven’t already.

More later...

Friday, April 07, 2017

Full Frame 2017: Day One


W
ith a chill in the air, day one of the 20th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival kicked off today in Durham. The Festival is celebrating its 20th year (it started as the Double Take Documentary Film Festival in 1998), with a roster that includes 48 films in the New Docs program (27 features and 21 short films), 23 films in The Invited Program (22 features and one short film), and 19 returning films included in the DoubleTake program (one from each year in Full Frame’s history).

Here’s what I saw on the first day of this year’s four day fest:

STILL TOMORROW (Dir. Jian Fan, 2016) 



This New Docs selection is the story of Xiuhua Yu, a Chinese woman who rose from poverty when her poem, “Cross Half of China to Sleep with You” became a hit on social media, having been shared over a million times in 2015. 

While the writing of Yu, who suffers from cerebral palsy, is discussed on talk shows and seminars in Hong Kong and Bejing, her life back home in a rural village in central China is in dark contrast as struggles with a cold, unfaithful husband and her mother dying of cancer. 

The sexual nature of Yu’s poetry is scrutinized, with her responding “So, I’m a slut, so what?” on one show, but the achiness in her desperate pleas for divorce, and her yearning for freedom via her newfound fame is ever present. 

The sharp cinematography by director Fan and Ming Xue beautifully illustrates Yu’s world and her poems, which are quoted via titles throughout, while the sound design by Li Danfeng captures the serene isolation of Yu’s farm-life amplifying the wind through the fields with sweet between scene sweeps. A thoughtful, stirring doc that’s as poetic as its subject.

LIFE - INSTRUCTION MANUAL (Dirs. Jörg Adolph & Ralf Buecheler, 2016)


This German film, part of the Invited Doc Program this year, is a perplexingly disjointed affair. It’s a bunch of short segments, all about how humans learn to do things, covering a wide range of activities – from childbirth classes to indoor skydiving to some weird movement that involves people walking around with their arms lifted above their heads as a coping mechanism.

That last bit comes off a bit Monty Python-ish, as does the stream of consciousness editing of these fragments of film together, but the doc feels thematically off, and gets really tedious pretty early on. There were a number of folks in the audience that left early who I bet felt the same way. One scene has us watching a robot slowly get a carton of orange juice out of a refrigerator then take forever closing the door of the appliance. Like so much of this film, I was left wondering what the point of all this purposely out of context stuff was.

THE GROWN-UPS (Dir. Maite Alberdi, 2016)



Fairing much better on Full Frame’s first day this year was Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberdi’s THE GROWN-UPS, also part of the Invited Docs Program. Alberdi paints the picture of four middle-aged students at a Chilean school for people with Down’s Syndrome, who spend their time training at the school’s catering class. A couple of them, named Anita and Andres fall in love, but their respective families, and Chilean law, are against them marrying and living together.

THE GROWN-UPS is a touching window into the kind of lives that don’t get much exploration on the big screen. Anita, who is certainly the film’s protagonist, gets a lot of sympathy from the camera as it captures her sad, worrying eyes over her predicament, but is also able to make us laugh with how she rolls her eyes at yet again hearing the repeated “Who are we? Conscious adults” mantra as said in unison by her classmates.

There are some story strands that aren’t followed up, and I can’t decide if the ending is simply sad or unsatisfying, but overall Alberdi’s doc is a keeper. I’m just unsure if the device of blurring, or obscuring the images of everyone around the central subjects – i.e. staff, family members – was really necessary.

Best Doc of the Day: STILL TOMORROW

More later...

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

March Film Babble: LIFE & THE LAST WORD

I’ve been too busy working on a book project (more on that later) to babble much these days about movies, but here’s a few films I’ve seen recently that I’ll weigh in on:

LIFE (Dir. Daniel Espinosa, 2017)



It’s often been said that ALIEN, is a “haunted house in space” movie, and that’s certainly the case with this movie which takes Ridley Scott’s 1980 sci-fi classic, and mixes it with Alfonso Cuarón’s GRAVITY.

LIFE concerns a crew made up of Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, and Olga Dihovichnaya returning from a mission to Mars on the International Space Station with a soil sample that contains a single-celled organism.

The organism, which is named Calvin by schoolchildren in a Times Square ceremony back on earth, quickly grows into a multi-celled Flubber-like creature that starts killing the crew members one by one.

That’s basically it for the plot, as it’s all about the familiar fight for survival tropes that keep trapping the remaining cast members at every turn. There is some genuine suspense, and some stellar effects, but I found a great deal of tedium to be in orbit with these one-note characters.

I will give kudos to the dark, twisted ending, despite the fact that it could easily set up a sequel as the idea of a LIFE franchise makes me cringe. But since this film flopped at the box office, it doesn’t look like that’s something I have to worry about.

THE LAST WORD (Dir. Mark Pellington, 2017)




If you didn’t get enough of Shirley MacLaine as a controlling, crotchety old woman that everyone in town hates in Richard Linklater’s BERNIE, then this is the movie for you.

MacLaine plays Harriett Lauler, a wealthy, retired divorcee who wants to shape her legacy by getting newspaper obituary writer Amanda Seyfried to craft her eulogy before she’s dead.

This leads to all kinds of cutesy-ness, with MacLaine’s Harriett mentoring an underprivileged black 9-year-old (AnnJewel Lee Dixon), becoming a DJ at a college indie rock radio station, and sticking it to the suits at the advertising agency that screwed her over.

It’s one of those movies where everybody appears to be a familiar face.


There’s Gedde Watanabe, best known as Long Duck Dong in SIXTEEN CANDLES (don’t expect a gong here), as Harriett’s gardener; there’s Tom Everett Scott from THAT THING YOU DO! As Seyfried’s editor, Joel Murray (Bill’s brother of many credits, but you may know him best from Mad Men) as Harriett’s former colleague, Thomas Sadoski from The Newsroom as Harriett’s radio station manager, Phillip Baker Hall as Harriett’s ex-husband, who has one of the film’s better scenes; and, yes, that’s Anne Heche as Harriett’s estranged daughter, who has one of the film’s worst scenes.

The script by first time screenwriter does have ambition at times so there are moments of wit and honesty, but more often it feels like TV melodrama sprinkled with hot or miss one-liners.

The irony in this movie about a woman wanting to be fondly remembered when she’s gone, is that MacLaine should have no such worry. She has an impressive filmography including a few of my favorite films, like THE APARTMENT and BEING THERE, so a lightweight piece of cheese like this won’t hurt her legacy at all.


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Friday, March 10, 2017

Another KING KONG Reboot, Anyone?

Opening today at a big ass multiplex near us all:

KONG: SKULL ISLAND

(Dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2017)

When I was a kid forty years ago, the winter of 1977, my favorite movie was the 1976 Dino De Laurentiis produced remake of KING KONG. I had seen it when it was released the previous Christmas, and it was probably still in theaters around this time that year. I definitely still had it in my mind when STAR WARS came out that summer, as I wrote about before in this space.

I didn’t see the 1933 original for a few years yet, so the ‘70s one with Jessica Lange, Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, and the mechanical ape that climbed up the side of the World Trade Center towers was my only KONG. It’s a pretty silly looking movie now, despite that it won an Oscar for visual effects, but still has a place in my movie loving heart.

Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, which also won for visual effects, wasn’t bad, but when it came to the idea of yet another update, I can’t say I was thrilled. Especially with the news that it’s part of Legendary Picture’s MonsterVerse (that’s right), which kicked off with the GODZILLA reboot of a few years back.

But, dangit, KONG: SKULL ISLAND ain’t half bad. A lot of critics have been saying that it’s got an APOCALYPSE NOW vibe to it, with its Vietnam era setting, helicopters outfitted with speakers blaring music while dropping bombs, and even a variation on the crazy Dennis Hopper character, and, yeah, that does fit.

But if the message of APOCALYPSE NOW is that war is hell, the message of KONG: SKULL ISLAND seems to be: warring with King Kong is hell.

This variation of the 84-year old tale has John Goodman as a government agent Bill Randa recruiting Tom Hiddleston as James Conrad, a former British Special Air Service Captain; and a helicopter squadron led by Samuel L. Jackson as Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard, to explore an uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean known as “Skull Island.”

Also along for the ride is Brie Larson, with great looking curly, full bodied ‘70s hair, in the part of the blonde that Kong falls for, but this time the character is a photojournalist and peace activist named Mason Weaver.

The expedition wakes up the gigantic gorilla with their pesky explosives and in the eye-popping spectacle of chaotic CGI, the angry ape destroys most of their helicopters, leaving many casualties of Kong. Split into two groups, the team travel the island to get to the other end where they’ll be met by a resupply team in three days.

Hiddleston’s Conrad and Larson’s Weaver, and their group discover John C. Reilly as an American pilot who’s been stranded on the island since World War II. That’s the variation on the crazy Dennis Hopper part, and Reilly’s Hank Marlow is a hoot, stealing every scene he’s in.

Reilly’s Marlow tells Conrad and Weaver about terrifying creatures that live underground that Kong keeps at bay, and tells them that they are called “Skullcrawlers.” Not getting the response to this that he wanted, Marlow backpedals: “that’s the first time I said that out loud, and it sounds stupid, you can call them anything you want.”

Samuel L. Jackson playing the Samuel L. Jackson role (he even says “hang on to your butts”) steals scenes too with his intensity with wanting revenge for his dead men, while we basically just wait to see how the corrupt Goodman character is killed off.  

KONG: SKULL ISLAND is no masterpiece, but it’s a perfectly serviceable piece of action sci-fi popcorn cinema. It’s a lot stronger than Gareth Edwards’ GODZILLA, and it’s more satisfying than Jackson’s KING KONG redux. It ticks off all the expected boxes (can’t have a Vietnam theme without Creedence’s “Run through the Jungle”), and it possesses a lot of visual power. Mostly though, it’s simply a fun monster movie.

But when seeing the stinger at the end after the credits (following the Marvel business model to a t), and getting the sense of the larger franchise they’re planning, I’m not sure I’m game for a endless series of KONG adventures. 

I should just grin and bear it though. I’ve got to accept that these remakes, reboots, and re-imaginings do great business, and as a hardcore fan and follower of film, I’ve got to remember the words of Hyman Roth, as played by the late, great Lee Strasberg, in one of the best sequels ever: “This is the business we’ve chosen.”

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Monday, March 06, 2017

Jordan Peele's GET OUT: The First Great Film Of 2017

Now playing at a multiplex near us all:

GET OUT (Dir. Jordan Peele, 2017)


GET OUT, The directorial debut of Jordan Peele, best known as half of the sketch comedy duo Key and Peele, is the first great movie of 2017.

I mean I adored THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE, but this is some next level shit.

The premise of this film, which has been described by many critics, and its creator, as GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER meets THE STEPFORD WIVES, concerns a 20something black man named Chris (Daniel Kuluuya) who travels with his white girlfriend Rose (Girls’ Allison Williams) to visit her family at their rural estate.

While packing, Chris asks Rose if her parents know that he’s black. She says she hasn’t told them, but that they are liberal and will have no problem with it. Rose even predicts that her father will boast that he would’ve voted for Obama for a third term.

Sure enough, shortly after being welcomed with hugs, Rose’s wealthy surgeon dad Dean (The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford) indeed says: “I would’ve voted for Obama a third time if I could; hands down the best President in my lifetime.”

But despite Rose’s parents, Dean and Missy (Catherine Keener), being so friendly, there is a black handyman Walter (Marcus Henderson) and a black housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) who are acting very odd. As Missy is a hypnotherapist it’s hard not to suspect that these people were put under a spell that turned them into this family’s slaves.

Chris’s friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), a TSA agent who’s taking care of Chris’s dog back home, certainly thinks so, blurting into the phone: “White people love making people sex slaves and shit!”

Chris tries to avoid Missy’s offer to put him under hypnosis to help him quit smoking, but finally succumbs and through a risky visual he finds himself helpless and trapped in a black void that she calls “the sunken place.” He wakes up shaken the next morning, but Rose reassures him and it’s on to a big backyard party sequence full of upscale white people who praise Chris and say things like “black is in fashion.”

Every other added character brings more creepiness: Rose’s obnoxious brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), Stephen Root as blind art expert Jim Hunter (who’s well aware of the irony of being a blind art expert, thank you!), and the dapper, docile Logan (LaKeith Stanfield), the only black person at her parents’ party.

Chris thinks he’s met Logan before, but can’t place him. He takes a picture of Logan, during an awkward conversation about race, and the flash makes him freeze, have a nosebleed, then come flailing at Chris yelling several times: “get out!”

That’s as far as I’m going to go with the plot. GET OUT keeps you guessing up to the end, and it’s a fantastic ending. Peele makes great choices all along the way, and it all adds up to a funny, thrilling, ride that makes some wonderfully timely points.

It’s a terrific social satire, but its surreal tinges, i.e. “the sunken place,” are what really give GET OUT its edge. Peele, who wrote the screenplay, has constructed a woke suspenseful scenario that delightfully toys with its protagonist as much as it does its audience.

The underlying message, or one of them anyway, in GET OUT is that the intents of well meaning and well off, liberal white people can be just as dangerous as hardcore cross-burning redneck racists.

This movie, currently #1 at the box office, was %100 on the Rotten Tomatometer until a certain critic, the infamous Armond White of the National Review had to go and ruin that perfect score with his pan (“Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’ a Trite Get-Whitey Movie”).

Don’t listen to him. GET OUT is a must see, even if you aren’t a fan of scary films. It transcends that genre and then some. In an interview with Business Insider, Peele said he wants to make more movies about “social demons,” with premises about how “these innately human monsters that are woven into the fabric of how we think and how we interact.”

Well, he’s certainly off to a stellar start.


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Monday, February 27, 2017

Oscars 2017: Whew, That Was Awkward



So last year I got my worst score ever in my Oscar predictions (16 out of 24). Well, this year I got the same damn score. 

The one that I most wanted to be off on, LA LA LAND for Best Picture, I was wrong about, but not in the way I wanted, for, if you haven't heard, it was mistakenly announced as such.


It was really painful to watch the conclusion of the 89th Academy® Awards, which I saw broadcast on the big screen at the Rialto Theater last night, when the team behind LA LA LAND found out that MOONLIGHT was the real winner.


The presenters, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, had been given the wrong card - they had one for Best Actress, which had been given to Emma Stone (one I got right!) earlier in the evening. 

The moment when director Damien Chazzelle had to admit “We lost, by the way” has already been noted by many as one of the most embarrassing things to happen at the Oscars ever.

The Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan even wrote: “Not since a Chicago newspaper headlined ‘Dewey Defeats Truman’ has there been a massive public screw-up on the order of what happened at the Oscars on Sunday night.”

So, yeah, that was a crappy instance in which MOONLIGHTs thunder was stolen and the LA LA LAND folks looked way foolish. 


Maybe somehow it fits into our current world dominated by alternative facts and fake news. I dunno.


I will note that I thought Jimmy Kimmel did a good job hosting. My favorite line of his: “I want to say thank you to President Trump... remember last year when it seemed the Oscars were racist?


Anyway, here
s the other Oscar predictions I got wrong:


COSTUME DESIGN: FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM

DOCUMENTARY SHORT: THE WHITE HELMETS

FILM EDITING:
HACKSAW RIDGE

MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING: SUICIDE SQUAD - That's right, SUICIDE SQUAD is now an 
Academy® Award-winning film. What was I thinking predicting STAR TREK BEYOND?!!?

LIVE ACTION SHORT: SING

SOUND EDITING: ARRIVAL

SOUND MIXING: HACKSAW RIDGE - I had this film down for SOUND EDITING. Live and learn.

Okay! So thats that. Now lets all collectively move on to a new year of movies that Ill be wrong about winning Oscars next year.

This Oscar wrap-up post is sponsored by USB Memory Direct, my recommended promotional flash drive supplier.


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Friday, February 24, 2017

Hey Kids! Funtime 2017 Oscar Predictions!



Yep, it’s that time of year again. The 89th Academy Awards ceremony, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, is on Sunday night so it’s time to pony up some predictions for the event. This year, it seems like people are going to tune in more to see what anti-Trump stuff is said, than for who wins what, and it’s looking like a LA LA LAND sweep is brewing, but whatever the case I’ll be watching the broadcast at the Rialto Theater in Raleigh, and hoping I get more right than last year (2016 was my worst score in five years: 16 out of 24).

So here are my predictions:

1. BEST PICTURE: LA LA LAND


I’d prefer MOONLIGHT as it was my favorite film of 2016, but I’m betting on the sunny fantastical love letter to Los Angeles, movies, and love itself to take home the gold on Sunday night. I did really enjoy LA LA LAND, so I won’t be unhappy if it wins, but an upset in this department would be fun to witness.

2. BEST DIRECTOR: Damien Chazelle for LA LA LAND

3. BEST ACTOR: Casey Affleck. A lot of critics are saying Denzel Washington, for his role in FENCES, might come out ahead here. I personally liked Washington’s work better in this category, but Affleck, despite the resurfacing of past allegations of sexual harassment, just feels like a lock here.

4. BEST ACTRESS: Emma Stone. The wild card is Isabelle Hubbert for ELLE, which I haven’t seen.

5. BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Mahershala Ali for MOONLIGHT

6. BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Viola Davis for FENCES.

And the rest:

7. PRODUCTION DESIGN: LA LA LAND

8. CINEMATOGRAPHY: LA LA LAND

9. COSTUME DESIGN: JACKIE

10. DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: O.J. MADE IN AMERICA

11. DOCUMENTARY SHORT: JOE’S VIOLIN

12. FILM EDITING: LA LA LAND

13. MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING: STAR TREK BEYOND

14. VISUAL EFFECTS: THE JUNGLE BOOK

15. ORIGINAL SCORE: Justin Hurwitz for LA LA LAND

16. ORIGINAL SONG: “City of Stars” from LA LA LAND

17. ANIMATED SHORT: PIPER

18. LIVE ACTION SHORT: ENNEMIS INTÉRIEURS

19. SOUND EDITING:
HACKSAW RIDGE

20. SOUND MIXING: LA LA LAND

21. ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Kenneth Lonergan for MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

22. ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Barry Jenkins for MOONLIGHT

23. ANIMATED FEATURE FILM: ZOOTOPIA

24. BEST FOREIGN FILM: THE SALESMAN

As I always say, tune in Monday to see how many I got wrong.

This Oscar predictions post is sponsored by USB Memory Direct, my recommended promotional flash drive supplier.


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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

February Film Babble: JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 & FIST FIGHT

And now, a few new movies that I saw a bit back but am only getting around to babbling about now:

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2

(Dir. Chad Stahelski, 2017)



I was among those who were surprised at how much they liked the first JOHN WICK. I didn’t have any expectations going in, but found it to be thrilling, funny piece of high octane action cinema. Now Keanu Reeves, and stuntman turned director Chad Stahelski, are back for a second round of frenetically edited sequences crammed with gunshots to the heads of countless attackers.

As it begins right after the previous entry ended, with Reeves’ Wick tracking down his ‘69 Mustang coupe at a chop shop owned by Peter Stormare as the brother of the mob boss villain from the first one, it feels as much like an extention as it is a sequel. That’s fine by me as Stahelski, working with returning screenwriter Derek Kolstad, keep the original’s dark humor and ultra violent vibe going smashingly.

Sure, the plot is contrived – Wick retires from the assassin’s life for a second time, even reburying his weapons, but when he refuses a new job from a dapper Italian gangster (Riccardo Scamarcio) his house gets blown up (luckily his new dog, the pittbull he got in his first film, doesn’t get killed) and he’s pulled back into the criminal underworld game – but I was highly entertained throughout by how far the filmmakers stretched the limits of their stylized stunt choreography scene after scene.

And, sure, it doesn’t have the freshness of the first, but in Common as the bodyguard of Wick’s mark (Claudia Gerini), it has a worthy foe for our hero to fight, which a killer set-piece at the Rome Continental proves punch after powerful punch. It’s also a bit of a kick to have Reeves re-united with his MATRIX co-star Laurence Fishburne, as a brutal crime lord named The Bowery King, who comes to Wick’s aid.

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 is a solid follow-up that, for the most part, soaringly transcends its status as being a retread. It’s also a much better example of the form than how the Tom Cruise/JACK REACHER franchise is unfolding. Now there’s crossover mash-up I’d like to see: Wick vs. Reacher. But, of course, only if Wick wins, which, for sure, would be the only way it could really go down.

FIST FIGHT (Dir. Richie Keen, 2017)


Walking out of the screening for this film, I heard somebody say “I’m surprised this isn’t a summer release!” I chuckled to myself because I found the slapdash comedy, FIST FIGHT, to be a perfect release for the dumping ground season of February.

It’s got a slight premise –Ice Cube as an angry history teacher challenges Charlie Day as a meek English teacher to a fight on the last day of school – a B-list cast (no offense to Tracy Morgan, Dean Norris, Christina Hendricks, and Jillian Bell, but c’mon, who we kidding?), and a sloppy screenplay by first timers Van Robichaux and Evan Susser, so its slotting this season is dead on.

That said, I laughed more than I thought I would. Much like last December’s OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY, there are too many funny people on screen for there not to be a least some hilarious hi-jinks.

The use of over dramatic music to enforce the severity of Ice Cube’s threat to Day is a great gag at first, but like every other running joke – the drawing dicks on everything shenanigans of “Prank Day,” Day’s constant attempts to weasel out of the showdown (hard to root for him when he plants drugs on Ice Cube to frame him), and the creepiness of Bell’s character wanting to sleep with her students – it wears thin really fast.

FIST FIGHT is something that I’ve deemed many a movie that’s dropping during these off seasons – a throwaway matinee at best. With this one though, only check it out if you’ve seen absolutely everything else at the multiplex. Otherwise, stay home and watch some random episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadephia, that’s where Day and director Keen have put in much, much funnier work together.

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