Friday, August 10, 2018

BLACKKKLANSMAN: An Instant Classic That's One Of Spike Lee's Best Films

Opening today at an art house near me:

BLACKKKLANSMAN (Dir. Spike Lee, 2018) 



Believe the hype – Spike Lee’s newest joint is an instant classic and among his best films including DO THE RIGHT THING, MALCOLM X, 25TH HOUR, and INSIDE MAN.

It’s been quite a while since he’s made a truly relevant movie, but this true story adaptation of former police detective Ron Stallworth’s 2014 book about infiltrating the Klu Klux Klan in the ‘70s may be his most relevant movie ever.

Stallworth, sharply portrayed by John David Washington (son of Denzel), was the first black police officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department, and we follow his rise in the ranks to the Intelligence Unit. Stallworth’s first assignment is to go undercover to observe the crowd reaction to a speech by ex-Black Panther member Stokely Carmichael, who had just changed his name to Kwame Ture.

At the event Stallworth has a meet cute with student activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), and asks Ture (Corey Hawkins) if he really thinks a race war is coming. “Arm yourself, brother, ‘cause the revolution is comin,’” Ture strongly stresses.

Stallworth comes upon an ad for the KKK in the newspaper, and calls the number on a classic black rotary phone that gets some dramatic close-ups to find himself talking to a recruiter saying that he hates blacks, Jews, Mexicans, Irish, Italians, and Chinese, “but my mouth to God’s ears, I really hate those black rats, and anyone else really that doesn’t have pure white Aryan blood running through their veins.”

This hate speech gets him invited to meet with members of the local charter, but, of course, he can’t go himself so he gets a fellow cop, Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to go in his place and use his name (Stallworth used his real name when calling them because he didn’t know at the time that there would be an investigation).

Zimmerman or Stallworth #2 meets with some scary redneck types played by Ryan Eggold, Paul Walter Hauser, and Jasper Pääkkönen, who suspects that their new recruit might be Jewish, and even tries to get him to take a lie detector test.

There are a number of likewise close scrapes where the detectives’ covers almost get blown including one riveting segment in which Washington’s Stallworth is assigned to be security for KKK Grand Wizard David Duke played with polished smarm by Topher Grace.

While the love interest was fabricated – the character Harrier plays is fictitious – what went down is reportedly accurate in this excellent film that’s part tense thriller, part powerful drama, and part history lesson. Being a Spike Lee Joint it has its fair share of well placed humor, but it’s too serious minded to get very silly.

It’s striking but not surprising that much of the rhetoric used by Duke and the other Klansmen is largely identical to the racist utterings of our current commander-in-chief, and his slogans such as “America first,” and “Make America Great Again” are also spouted. There’s even a moment where Stallworth is confounded by the idea that someone with this bigoted ideology could someday be elected President.

Lee arranged for this film to be released on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the tragic Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a counter protester, Heather Heyer, was killed. The movie ends as a tribute to Heyer, and we’re left with the horrifying thought that this shit is still happening with the flames being fanned by the asshole in the highest office in the land.

Lee knows that this story doesn’t need any flashy stylistic touches so he mostly plays it straight via cinematographer Chayse Irvin
s solid camerawork, but he does include some titled angle split screens, and he busts out one of his trademarked moves – the dolly shot - towards the end and it kills. He also employs his trusty longtime collaborator Terence Blanchard to provide the films often stirring score.

BLACKKKLANSMAN is a vital, piercing piece of work that is one of the best films of the year. With hope it will get some awards season action, especially since Lee really deserves to get something more than that Honorary Oscar he got a few years back.


But more importantly this movie deserves big audiences and to be in the national conversation. I know he doesn’t want to call it a comeback, but, dammit, I’m really glad that Lee has returned with the goods.

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Friday, August 03, 2018

A Tale Of Triplets With Tons Of Twists And Turns

Now playing at an art house near me:
 
THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS

(Dir. Tim Wardle, 2018) 


It’s been a great summer for documentaries. On the heels of the excellent Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Fred Rogers docs, comes this terrific tale of triplets that were separated at birth in 1961, had no idea of the others’ existence, and, by chance, found each other when they were 19 in 1980.

It started when Robert Shafran, on his first day at Sullivan County College in upstate New York was warmly greeted by many fellow students who he had never seen before who called him Eddy. Eddy Galland had attended the school the previous year. One of Eddy’s friends, Michael Domnitz, deduced that they were brothers, and they contacted Eddy and arranged a meeting.

The story of the re-united brothers makes national headlines, and a third twin, Queens College student David Gellman, sees their picture in the newspaper and gets in touch with them. The trio become fast friends, they make the talk show rounds (clips of them on Donahue and being interviewed by Tom Brokaw are prominently featured), have a cameo in a Madonna movie (DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN), and even open a New York restaurant together named Triplets.

But after the feel good montage of the brothers partying it up in the Big Apple set to Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine” (of course) fades, things get a bit dark. Turns out that none of the respective adoptive parents knew that their children had siblings, and we learn that the triplets were part of a psychological experiment in which they were filmed, monitored, and documented under the guise of a child development study.

This revelation causes another pair of twins to find one another – two sisters who were both film students when they met among other similarities.

Shafran and Gellman appear in newly filmed interviews conducted by director Wardle alongside family members, friends, and New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright, whose research provides insights into the case, despite the study on the brothers having never been published, and the files are sealed until 2066.

It may be a spoiler to tell what happened to the third brother, Galland, even if it’s well reported online, so I’ll just cease my description of the narrative right here in case you want to go in unspoiled.

The endlessly fascinating THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS that takes one on a highly emotional ride. It’s a well constructed work via Michael Harte’s fluid editing, and how its subjects guide the viewer through the testimonials without narration.

Containing more twists and turns than most thrillers, this is a must see documentary that deserves big audiences.

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Monday, July 30, 2018

DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT: The Film Babble Blog Review

DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT
(Dir. Gus Van Sant, 2018) 


Once again, Joaquin Phoenix puts in an outstanding performance in a film very few people are likely to see.

This touching, and funny adaptation of the memoir of controversial cartoonist John Callahan is only playing at a handful of theaters in my area (the Triangle in N.C.) so it’ll probably come and go under most moviegoers’ noses and that’s a shame.

Callahan (1951-2010) was a Portland, Oregon-based hippy who became a quadriplegic after a drunken automobile accident in 1972. We learn about his life via an array of different threads including Phoenix’s Callahan as the speaker at a college event, giving a confessional at a AA meeting, and showing his ink-drawn cartoons to a group of kids who come to his aid when he falls out of his wheelchair in the street.

The film flashes back to the 21-year old Callahan’s last day when he could walk before the accident in Los Angeles, in which he parties hard with a mustached, side-burned Jack Black as Dexter, a guy he had just met at a party.

They leave that party to head to what Dexter says is a better party, stopping at a bar along the way to get even more wasted. The drunk duo drive around aimlessly, ride a rollercoaster at an amusement park, puke, and pass out – well, Callahan passes out while Dexter at the wheel of Callahan’s Volkswagen Bug smashes into a light pole at 90 mph.

Callahan comes to and is told by a doctor that he’s possibly paralyzed for life, and he goes through the various stages of his physical recovery in which a blonde, short-haired Rooney Mara with a Swedish accent shows up for some reason – she might be his massage therapist, I dunno - to tell him he’s very good looking.

Then we’ve got a slimmed-down Jonah Hill with long blonde hair who’s great as Callahan’s sponsor, Donnie, who lives in a lavish mansion he inherited where he holds support group meeting. In a few of the movie’s best scenes, Callahan gets to know his fellow recovering alcoholics like Beth Ditto as the outspoken Reba, Mark Webber as the angry Mike, and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon as the acerbic Corky (another indie rock icon, Sleater Kinney and Portandia’s Carrie Brownstein appears as Callahan’s case worker).

But despite Donnie and the group, Callahan still drinks, but around the film’s halfway mark he has an epiphany where he has a vision of his mother (Mireille Enos) that had abandoned him when he was a kid and this inspires him to change his ways.

Callahan starts to scribble crude cartoons with edgy captions, and, as he later tells his audience at the aforementioned speaking engagement, he realized that he “should’ve been a cartoonist, a gag man, all along.” Throughout the narrative, Callahan’s black and white cartoons, one of which the title of the film comes from, get a bit of the animation treatment, but it doesn’t come off as too gimmicky. 


Rooney, now a flight attendant, pops up again for some romance with Phoenix’s Callahan, but the rest of the film mostly concerns his getting recognition for his cartoons when they are published by such notable outlets as the New Yorker, Penthouse, and Playboy, and many newspapers. Some folks don’t take too kindly to the taboo teasing nature of his work, so they are many complaint letters and people telling him off in public but he develops a thick skin and perseveres.

And that’s what this fine film, one of Gus Van Sant’s most personal works, is about – persevering. It could have been a cheesy inspirational biodoc – Robin Williams was originally slated to play Callahan and it could’ve been another PATCH ADAMS - but with Phoenix’s invested performance, its excellent cast, and its sincere, unpretentious approach via Van Sant
s very thoughtful screenplay, DONT WORRY, HE WONT GET FAR ON FOOT is a strong drama dealing with addiction and overcoming disabilities while finding oneself in the process. The laughs that come through Callahan's cartoons are the icing on the cake.

More later...

Thursday, July 26, 2018

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT Is The Best Yet In The Long Running Series

Opening tonight at a multiplex near us all:
(Dir. Christopher McQuarrie, 2018)


These movies are getting better and better. It’s true, the sixth installment of the 22-year old series based on an over 50-year old TV show is the best one yet.

It starts with a stellar pre-opening credits sequence largely set in Berlin in which Ethan Hunt (a 56-year old Tom Cruise, looking like he’s 40), and his returning IMF (Impossible Missions Force) crew made of Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) attempt to retrieve three plutonium cores from a terrorist group called the Apostles (an offshoot of the Syndicate from the previous M:I film, ROGUE NATION).

They fail to get the plutonium, but were able to capture weapons expert Soloman Lane (Sean Harris, reprising his role from RN), and, joined by Henry Cavill as a CIA operative, travel to Paris to again try to capture the plutonium from the Apostles.

Of course, right away, we (or I) suspect Cavill’s character to be John Lark, the leader of the Apostles as his identity is unknown, but he tells CIA Director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) that he thinks Hunt has turned and he is Lark. Now, this is quite a leap for us to buy that the protagonist of a six entry series has now become the bad guy, but it’s a plot point that works and leads to something the franchise does best – a satisfying fake-out.

IMF Director Alan Hunley (the also returning from RN) Alec Baldwin, gets out of the office and into the field with the team for the Paris mission which involves Hunt in a killer motorcycle and car chase around the Arc de Triomphe.

The action moves to London where a rooftop foot chase (always got to have one of those), in which Hunt is shown a picture of his wife (Michelle Monaghan) and told that her life is threatened.

Then we move on to Kashmir (globetrotting!) where Hunt and his team, along with the also returning Rebecca Ferguson as former MI6 agent Isla Faust, try to de-activate the bombs before they kill billions of people. This involves an incredible helicopter chase in which Hunt fights to get the detonator from the bad guys.

Sure, there are contrivances – the goons always being bad shots in the shoot-outs, and a 15-minute countdown taking a lot longer than 15 minutes among them – but the stakes feel real, and the rush of the spectacle after spectacle is constantly exhilarating.

For sure the best sequel of our current sequel cluttered climate, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT is a cleverly constructed action thriller with a great gritty look, a sharp screenplay, lots of well placed humor, and a bunch of mesmerizing moments that make it more engaging and entertaining than any other action thriller in recent memory. 

Writer/Director McQuarrie, the only director who has made two M:I movies, is getting to be a old hand at making movies with Cruise (he previously directed the actor in JACK REACHER and MI:RN, and wrote the screenplays for VALKRIE, EDGE OF TOMORROW, and THE MUMMY), and this time he really pulls out the stops. 

Cruise, again doing many of his own stunts, once more excels as Hunt, who while mostly confident shows believable fear and worry when in the middle of all the effectively dangerous feeling activity. You could say he puts in a performance that's fearlessly fearful.


I’m not sure when Cruise will be considered too old to be doing these movies (he’s almost the age Roger Moore was in his last 007 adventure, A VIEW TO A KILL *), but it doesn’t seem like it’ll be anytime soon.

*Moore was 57, and later said that he was four hundred years too old for the part.

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Friday, July 06, 2018

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: As Fun As It Is Forgettable

Now playing at every multiplex from here to the quantum realm:

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP 

(Dir. Payrton, Reed) 


It’s getting harder and harder to write reviews of these Marvel movies. I feel like I’m writing the same thing over and over whether I like or dislike whatever newest one or not.

I note where the newest falls in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), i.e. the subject here, the sequel to 2015’s ANT-MAN is the 20th film in the franchise, and it comes in the second half of Phase Three of the series.

I run through the cast and premise, i.e. Paul Rudd returns as Scott Land/Ant-Man, but shares equal billing with the also returning Evangeline Lilly as Hope van Dyne / Wasp, (who gets to kick a lot of ass), as they try to rescue her mother, Janet van Dyne / the first Wasp (Michele Pfeifer) from being trapped in the quantum realm with the help of a tunnel built by Hope’s father, Hank Pym/the first Ant-Man (Michael Douglas, also back). Lawrence Fishburne, as an old colleague of Pym’s who may not be on the up and up, and Hannah John-Kamen as Ava Starr / Ghost, who can phase through walls ‘n whatnot, round out the busy cast.

I identify the MacGuffin: a laboratory building, encasing a quantum tunnel (Ant-Man: “Do you guys just put the word ‘quantum’ in front of everything?) that can be shrunk down to the portable size of a 12-pack box of beer. Hank and Hope want it so they can save Janet; and Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), a slimy black market dealer wants it because he sees its potential for profit, so it gets thrown around a lot.

I refer to the obligatory tropes: action sequence settings, Stan Lee cameo, tell folks to stay for the end credits stingers, etc.

Sure, many folks will say I’m writing the same review repeatedly because they’re making the same movie repeatedly, but, despite the familiar formulas, I can’t completely agree. This year’s previous Marvel movies, BLACK PANTHER and AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR had their inspired, and worthwhile moments, but, yeah, I can concur that there’s a lot of predictable Marvel material here.

I enjoyed quite a bit of ANT-MAN’s second adventure (or third if you count his part in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR). Rudd charms his way through it – a scene where Pfeiffer’s Janet takes over his body and talks through him is cute – and there a lot of laughs along the way, many provided by Michael Peña (also from the first one), who now runs a security service named EX-CON, and the effects are flawless.

There’s a lot of fun in watching Rudd shrink (a bit where he masquerades as a kid at his daughter’s elementary school made me giggle), and get huge in the climatic chase sequence through the streets of San Francisco, but I doubt those parts will really stick in my memory.

So there it is, even with its fair share of laughs and thrills, ANT-MAN AND THE WASP is as fun as it is forgettable.

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Thursday, June 14, 2018

INCREDIBLES 2: Predictable Plotwise, But Still A Solid Sequel

Opening tonight at a multiplex near everybody:

INCREDIBLES 2 (
Dir. Brad Bird, 2018) 


A
t the screening of this long awaited sequel, there was a mini-featurette before the movie began in which the film’s stars – Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, and Samuel L. Jackson – stress more than once that while it’s been 14 years since the original, this’ll be well worth the wait. For the most part it is.

Mere months after the events of the first installment, we catch up with the crime-fighting Parr family – Bob/Mr. Incredible (Nelson), Helen/Elastigirl (Hunter), Violet (Sarah Vowel), Dashiell/”Dash” (Huck Milner), Violet and Jack-Jack Parr (Eli Fucile) – as they are trying to thwart a bank robbery by the returning supervillain, the Underminer (voiced by Pixar regular John Ratzenberger).

This results in a pretty thrilling, funny and gorgeously animated opening sequence involving the Incredibles, with the help of the icy touch of Lucius Best/Frozone (Jackson), pulling together to stop a ginormous drilling machine from reaching its Metro Bank destination, and the follow-up is off to a great start.

Things settle down a bit when the premise is introduced by a couple of new characters, telecommunications CEO Winston Deavor (a slick Bob Odenkirk), and his tech saavy sister, Evelyn (a more energetic than usual Catherine Keener). The Deavors wants to arrange a campaign that will make the use of super powers legal again, and recruit Elastigirl to go off and fight crime in the dangerous city of New Urbrem, while Bob stays home to take care of the kids to his great disappointment.

But while stranded at home, Bob learns that Jack-Jack has an array of super powers (17, he says at one point) including being able to shoot lasers out of his eyes, teleport through walls, turn himself into fire, and change into a scary red monster (sort of a like a fiery Tazmanian Devil) if he’s denied a cookie.

Since Odenkirk’s Winston is such an unabashed fanboy of the Incredibles who knows the words to all of their individual theme songs, he stands out as a candidate for the film’s secret bad guy, but gladly screenwriter Bird knows that would be too obvious.

As for the film’s up front villain, there’s the Screenslaver, dressed in black with big goggles like a cartoon Kylo Renn, who can hypnotize people through their screens. There’s also the thread that the secret baddie (I won’t Spoil their identity) has devised glasses that control the wearer in order to frame them doing acts of evil.

That’s a pretty predictable plotline that’s been done to death, but the action and laughs come so fast and frenetically in the film’s last third, which is set on runaway ship headed to crash into New Urbrem, that it really doesn’t get in the way of the extreme entertainment factor.

Sure, the overall world of the INCREDIBLES doesn’t feel as fresh as it did in 2004 (still looks really cool though), but despite its formulaic flaws, it’s a joy to spend time with these characters again on another fast paced ride. INCREDIBLES 2 is a solid sequel that should please the many big fans of the first one, as it did a casual fan like me. Thanks for the update, Bird, Pixar, and all the great voice talent – see you in another 14 years!

More later...

Friday, June 08, 2018

Paul Schrader’s Profoundly Powerful FIRST REFORMED

Now playing:

FIRST REFORMED (Dir. Paul Schrader, 2018) 



Paul Schader’s 21st film as director is his most vital work since 1997’s AFFLICTION (though I do admire his somewhat wacky 2002 Bob Crane biopic, AUTO FOCUS). FIRST REFORMED tells the intense tale of Pastor Ernst Toller, a minister at a tourist church (historical because it was once a stop on the Underground Railroad) in upstate New York where he preaches sermons to pews with only four or five people.

Toller’s temple of the title is figuratively in the shadow of a megachurch that owns it, Abundant Life headed by celebrity preacher Pastor Jeffers (Cedric The Entertainer, credited as Cedric Kyles). A young pregnant woman, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) seeks out Toller in hope of having him counsel her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist who wants his wife to have an abortion because he can’t stand the idea of bringing a child into such a doomed world.

After their first discussion, in which we learn that the Pastor lost his son in the Iraq war and that destroyed his marriage, Toller researches what Michael is tormented by – the overwhelming scientific predictions of environmental disaster - and it triggers an existential crisis that gets worse the more glasses of whiskey he downs (he drinks more than his character in the 2012 horror film SINISTER, and that’s saying a lot), and comes to a horrible head when Michael commits suicide.

A 250th Anniversary celebration is being planned for Toller’s church, but Jeffers and one of Abundant Life’s corporate sponsors, represented by CEO Edward Balq (Michael Gaston) are concerned about the troubled chaplain after has his choir sing Neil Young’s Young’s pro-wildlife/anti-fracking anthem “Who’s Gunna Stand Up?” at Michael’s funeral.

Having found out that Balq is a climate change denier whose oil company is responsible for much of the area’s pollution, Toller plots a deadly end to the Anniversary event involving a suicide vest over his body wrapped in barbed wire.

From this description, I’m sure you can grasp that is a seriously dark and disturbing experience, but it’s a fascinating, immersive one as well that’s as watchable as it is unpleasant to process.

I originally wasn’t a fan of Hawke (his work in such films as DEAD POET’S SOCIETY and REALITY BITES didn’t rub me well), but he’s really grown into one of the most interesting actors of his generation. His work here is intricately stoic, but with instances of emotion (such as when he tells a woman, played by Victoria Hill, that he once had an affair with that he despises her), that can really get you in the gut.

FIRST REFORMED is the first movie in a long while that I want to read the screenplay of as it plays like a piece of literature in its thoughtful depiction of a complete crisis of fate.

The ending may baffle many audiences – it did a number on me – but it’s a profoundly powerful one. Many critics are comparing the film to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 landmark TAXI DRIVER, which Schrader wrote, a valid comparison for sure, as the films’ themes and tones are close in feeling. But Toller is a different kind of creature than Travis Bickle, created to reflect an even more dangerous world.

It’s impossible for Schrader’s incredible work here to make the same mark as that undeniable classic as the cinematic landscape is infinitely more cluttered, but I predict that in time, FIRST REFORMED will be considered as being in the same class.


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Thursday, June 07, 2018

HEREDITARY: The Film Babble Blog Review

Opening tonight at a dark, scary multiplex near us all:

HEREDITARY
(Dir. Ari Aster, 2018) 


Writer/director Ari Aster’s first feature-length project, HEREDITARY, begins with one of my favorite shots I’ve seen this year at the movies. The camera closes in on a dollhouse in a room full of miniature sets, until one of the house’s rooms seamlessly blends into a shot of the real room it’s modeled after - a teenage boy’s bedroom.

The teenager, Peter (Alex Wolff), is a member of a classic nuclear family made up of his parents Annie and Steve Graham (Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne), and his sister, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) who live in a nice house somewhere in the woods of Utah (at least that’s where it was shot). We meet the Grahams on the morning of the funeral for Annie’s mother, and the feeling of grief is palpable in the film’s tense tone.

Later, Annie, who’s profession is as a maker of the miniatures used in the opening, sees an apparition of her mother in her workshop, the first such instance of the supernatural which makes her research the subject and suspect that her mother kept some creepy stuff secret from her.

Annie keeps her own secret from her family about going to support group meetings in which we learn of her father’s grim death. Meanwhile, her son, the pot smoking Peter, schemes to go to a party in hopes of scoring a date with a classmate (Mallory Bechtel), 
but is forced to take his 13-year old sister along. 

While Charlie is unattended to, she eats some cake that has nuts in it (we were told earlier about her allergies) and starts to go into anaphylactic shock *. Peter frantically drives to get Charlie to the hospital, but she gets killed in a grisly accident in which she gets decapitated. 

What’s really f-ed up is that Annie makes a miniature diorama of the accident scene, complete with a doll’s bloody head in the road in back of a toy car, and, for obvious reasons, this freaks out her husband Steve played by Byrne, who superbly relays exasperation and concern for his loved ones.

Peter begins seeing apparitions of Charlie, while Annie meets a woman at a meeting (Ann Dowd – Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale!) who holds séances to communicate with the dead, and we witness drawings being made by ghosts, the mother and son going into violent trances, and feel the undercurrent of a conspiracy decorated with satanic imagery.

HEREDITARY is top notch horror, but it’s through its strong depiction of strained family drama that makes it the powerful experience it is. Collette, no stranger to creepy kids and ghosts since her breakthrough performance 20 years ago in THE SIXTH SENSE, acts her ass off here. She’s enthrallingly committed to her role in every moment, which made me simultaneously scared for her and scared of her throughout.

Filmmaker Aster has named such vintage horror flicks as THE INNOCENTS, ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE EXORCIST, and THE SHINING as inspirations, but the film feels more in line with such recent psychologically disturbing works as THE WITCH, KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, and IT COMES AT NIGHT (all titles from this film’s studio, A24).

With a debut that’s as dark and twisted as it is brilliantly inspired, Aster’s career as a new master of the macabre is off to an extremely scary start.

* Before the screening I went to at the newly opened Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Raleigh, a rep did an intro and said that during the movie they will pass out pieces of cake - “if anyone has nut allergies don’t eat it” she warned. How’s that for synergy?

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Thursday, May 24, 2018

SOLO: A Passable STAR WARS STORY With No Real Surprises

Opening tonight at every multiplex from here to a galaxy far, far away:

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY

(Dir. Ron Howard, 2018) 


Now that we’re starting to get used to the idea of having a new STAR WARS movie every year, here’s the highly anticipated young Han Solo adventure which fills in the intergalactic space smuggler’s back story. 

Fans will finally get to see how Han meet Chewbacca (and give him his nickname, Chewie), how he got his treasured blaster, how he won his beloved ship, the Millenium Falcon, from Lando Calrissian; and how the hell he ran the Kessel Run, first mentioned in the original 1977 film *, in under 12 parsecs.

But the obvious question is: do fans really need to see how these things happened? Maybe they were best left as asides in movies from 40 years ago?

Anyway, Alden Ehrenreich plays the 28-year old Han (we also see how he got his last name, and it’s kind of GODFATHER PART II-ish) who we first meet as a slick street thief in the lawless world of Corellia. Han and his girlfriend Qi’ra (a brunette Emilia Clarke, you know, the blonde who loves dragons from Game of Thrones) scheme to escape the drudgery of Imperial shipyard slums, but they get separated after a lightspeeder chase.

Han ends up joining the Empire to become a pilot, but because he’s Han, he gets expelled from the academy, and he meets up with a gruff as usual Woody Harrelson as Tobias Beckett, a criminal scoundrel with a crew who will give Han lessons in how to be a criminal scoundrel. One of the first lessons is, of course, trust no one.

Finnish basketball player Joonas Suotamo takes over from Peter Mayhew for Chewbacca whose first encounter with Han I won’t spoil, Westworld’s Thandie Newton plays Beckett’s lover/crime partner, and most importantly, a smooth as ice Donald Glover steps into Billy Dee Williams’ shoes as the iconic Lando, stealing every scene he’s in.

With respect to not spoiling plot points, I’ll just say that the premise involves a heist (will all the STAR WARS STORIES be heist flicks?) in which Han and crew set about stealing some of the plutonium-like Coaxium (McGuffin!) from mines on the planet Kessel for the slimy yet dapper crime lord Dryden Voss (Paul Bettany), who appears to have Han’s love, Qi’ra, under his command.

All the things you’d expect in a STAR WARS movie are here from tons of blaster fights, scrapes with storm troopers, quipping robots (Lando’s droid, L3-37, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge fulfills that function), gripping space battles with TIE Fighters, etc. Well, everything, that is, except the Force.

For the first time, the Force isn’t part of the story. Nobody has it or speaks of it - I didn’t see any lightsabers - so this may be why Han doesn’t believe in it when we catch up with him in Episode IV.

SOLO is a fine sci-fi adventure that keeps moving so there is a fair amount of fun, but it was pretty much what I expected. Ron Howard, who took over from Phil Lord and Chris Miller (THE LEGO MOVIE, the 21 JUMP STREET films), assembles all the elements from the crisply coordinated set-pieces to the marks of the colorful ensemble with his well polished style, but I still would love to see what Lord and Miller would’ve done with it.

I was entertained plenty, but I still craved something more. There was nothing that I was surprised by - even a secret cameo in the third act didn’t mean much to me. Aldenreich is good in the title role, but I can’t say I really bought him as being the same character that Harrison Ford made so iconic. That’s probably because I’ve lived with Ford for forty years as the legendary scruffy headed nerfherder. A friend said that Aldenreich doesn’t look like Ford, but he looks like the character. I guess I can go with that, but it’s still hard to not think of Ford.

I can go with Glover’s Lando though – maybe he’s the one who should’ve gotten his own movie.

So SOLO is a predictable package that’s a passable STAR WARS STORY. The way it leaves room for a sequel is also really expected - i.e. there's no Jabba the Hut and Greedo here so that could be featured in a follow-up that’ll serve as yet another prequel to the first film. It’s obvious that Lucasfilm is planning on filling every gap in the shared universe of these narratives, so that there will be nothing left to the imagination. 


Forget the other franchise of the same name, this is the real NEVERENDING STORY.

* Click to find out why I’ll never refer to the first STAR WARS as A NEW HOPE.

More later...

Thursday, May 17, 2018

DEADPOOL 2: Very Familiar Formula, But Funny Enough

Now playing at a multiplex near everybody:

DEADPOOL 2 (Dir. David Leitch, 2018) 



Ah, Deadpool. You remember Deadpool, right? C’mon, you know him – he’s Marvel’s most meta character whose wise-cracks, crude antics, and bloody kills carry him, and us, through another familiar round of explosive action sequences.

And that’s what we’ve got in this follow-up to his 2016 debut, which I then called “the most hilarious Marvel movie yet.” This sequel doesn’t top the original, but it stands nicely beside it as it contains roughly the same amount of genuine laughs.

Ryan Reynolds, who also co-wrote and co-executive produced, again brings his extreme snark to the quipping anti-hero - anti-hero because he ends up killing more people than he saves – who we first become re-acquainted with as he attempts suicide via lying a top several big barrels of fuel and flicking a cigarette in the air to fall into one of them and blow himself to bits - which he does.

Of course, this being Deadpool, we know he survives this, but before we see his fate, Reynold’s Wade Willis (Deadpool’s real name - keep up!), tells us through voice-over that six weeks earlier he was on top of the world going on globe-trotting missions, and planning to have a family with his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), but (Spoiler!) she’s killed by some goon, and Deadpool loses his mojo big time.

A James Bondian credits sequence, or joke credit sequence, as no real names are displayed only lines like “Starring somebody who obviously didn’t want to share the spotlight,” follows which amusingly features a perfectly overwrought power anthem called “Ashes,” sung by Céline Dion (that’s right).

After that, Deadpool sulks in misery around his friends from the first one - taxi driver Dopinder (Karan Soni), and bartender Weasel (T.J. Miller), but is given a new chance by the also returning Colossus (a CGI-ed Stefan Kapicic) to become a member of the X-Men, but as a trainee as he keeps getting reminded, mostly by, again another returning character, Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), who now has a girlfriend, Yukio (Shioli Kutsuna).

On Deadool’s first day on the job, he encounters a 14-year-old boy (Julian Dennison) named Russell who calls himself “Firefist” and is threatening to burn down his orphanage, the Essex House for Mutant Rehabilitation, because he was abused by the Headmaster (Eddie Marsan at his ghastliest). At the stand-off, Deadpool breaks the X-Men’s rule of not killing anyone, and is captured along with Russell and taken to a prison for mutants called 
The Icebox. 

Meanwhile, in a very TERMINATOR-esque scenario, a mercenary mutant named Cable (Josh Brolin) from the future travels to the present to avenge the death of his wife and kid who he traces as being the work of Russell/Fire Fist. After a massive, chaotic prison break setpiece, Deadpool realizes his calling is to protect the kid from Cable, and, with Weasel’s help, recruits a crew to get him out of prison.

The team, which Deadpool dubs “X-Force” despite its derivativeness, that they assemble includes Terry Crews as Bedlam, who can manipulate electrical energy; Lewis Tam as Shatterstar, a really arrogant alien; Zazie Beetz as Domino, who says her power is being lucky; Bill Skarsgard as Zeitgeist, whose super power is spewing acidic bile; Vanisher, who’s invisible so they don’t know if he’s really there or not; and Rob Delaney as Peter, who has no powers, but saw the ad and thought it’d be fun.

A big over-the-top, and all-over-the-place sequence 
(which sort of reminded me of MACGRUBER) involving the X-Force assaulting a prison truck, transporting Russell, and other mutants, introduces (Spoiler?) Juggernaut, a giant ogre that was first introduced in “X-Men” comics in the ‘60s. Juggernaut, who is credited as being played by “Himself,” goes up against Colosus in the third act which takes place at the Essex House, where Deadpool bargains with Cable for 30 seconds to talk Russell out of killing the headmaster. 

Yes, a lot of these plot points, and a lot of the jokes, can be seen coming, but the film, directed by stuntman/filmmaker David Leitch who co-directed JOHN WICK, moves fast through them with a high ratio of gags that land hilariously. Of all of the many one-liners, I think I liked “I was fighting this caped badass, until I found out that his mom is also named Martha” the best. 

Despite its satiric trappings, Reynolds actually gets to effectively flex some dramatic chops a few times in scenes involving his lost love. Brolin puts in another strong stoic performance as Cable, coming right on the heels of his stand-out work in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, which is referenced here in a Thanos joke because of course it is.

DEADPOOL 2 is another round of more of the same. More riffing on WOLVERINE, more mockery of genre conventions (“tell me they got that in slow motion”) and the competition (“So dark. Are you sure you’re not from the DC Universe?”), more self-criticism (Deadpool calls out “lazy writing” more than once), and more ironic song cues including Dolly Parton’s “Nine to Five” and “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” from “Annie” playing during scenes of stylish violence. There’s even another jab at GREEN LANTERN, something Reynolds will likely be making fun of for the rest of his life.

But because the movie is consistently funny throughout I can let all this familiarity slide, and I bet audiences can too.

More later...

Friday, April 27, 2018

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR: The Best And Worst Of Marvel Movie Motifs All In One Place

Now playing at every multiplex in the MCU:

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

(Dirs. Anthony Russo & Joe Russo, 2018) 


This highly anticipated superhero epic begins with the familiar montage of imagery of iconic characters quickly blending into the logo for Marvel Studios. The “I” and “O” in the capital letters though are highlighted this time as a “10,” which seems to shout “10 years of kicking every other franchise’s ass!”

And it’s true, since IRON MAN came out in 2008, the studio, under the wing of Disney, has put out an interlocking series of nearly 20 blockbusters that have formed a business model that very other movie series, from DC to STAR WARS and beyond, has been trying to emulate. I.e. everybody wants to have a Cinematic Universe just like Marvel’s.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR has been teased throughout Marvel’s movies mostly in after credits stingers which have featured a big bad ass villain named Thanos (a CGI-ed Josh Brolin, who wonderfully chews through CGI setpiece after CGI setpiece), and the ongoing MacGuffin of the infinity stones – six powerful highly sought after different colored gems that can be used to destroy planets and conquer the universe.

So the Avengers join forces with the Guardians of the Galaxy, Dr. Strange, and Black Panther, among others, to stop Thanos from getting the Infinity Stones through another round of over-the-top battles that really wore me out in its crammed packed last third.

But large chunks of the movie are a lot of fun. Robert Downey Jr., whose ninth time this is in the role of Tony Stark/Iron Man, is again an enjoyably funny presence as he continues his mentorship to Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and snarkily sparring off with Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange, and an equally amusing Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Starlord.

The Guardians of the Galaxy, who hit the screen to the Spinner’s “Rubberband Man” (an obvious nod to their ‘70s mixtape soundtrack trope), are granted with a lot of screen-time as Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is Thano’s daughter, something that I guess was revealed in a previous movie but I didn’t remember it, and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and a now teengage Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) split with the others including Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) to accompany Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to some other realm to get some weapon to take Thanos down with.

The audience I was in cheered when the movie cut to the lavish, and, of course, fictional African nation of Wakanda, ruled by T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), obviously because his film, BLACK PANTHER, which just came out a few months ago was one of the biggest hits of the MCU (and of all-time), and considered a game changer for the franchise. Boseman’s T’Challa brings the goods, but his part despite that Thano’s army of crazy four-armed alien creatures invades Wakanda, is essentially a glorified cameo.

Same goes for Chris Evans returning as Steve Rogers, the retired Captain America, which is maybe because his last movie was basically an AVENGERS entry that he was the star of. Also on the side is Rogers’ buddy Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), along with Paul Bettany as Vision, and Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff /Scarlet Witch, who figure in because Vision has one of the Infinity Stones embedded in his head, but, as committed as Bettany and Vision are in their parts, the characters have never really resonated for me.

What also didn’t do much for me was a lot of strained quasi-Shakespearean exposition between or during action sequences that came off like with the actors over emoting about gods, the cosmos, the universe and everything in order to elevate the proceedings (even Peter Dinklage, in his appearance as Eitri the Dwarf King, lays it on a bit thick). Like everything else in the last 45 minutes or so, this was a bit much.

I preferred the comical elements such as Mark Ruffalo’s exasperating and failing struggle to Hulk out throughout the film, the multitude of one-liners like Quill telling Stark, “Let’s talk about this plan of yours - I think it’s good, except it sucks, so let me do the plan, and that way, it might be really good,” and, no surprise here, the Stan Lee cameo.

So AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR is the best and worst of all of the Marvel movie motifs all in one place. It’s overstuffed, overlong, and at times overwrought, but a lot of it is immensely entertaining, and often hilarious. Most fans will love it – or most of it – while non fans will dismiss it as a bunch of nonsensical bombast. You know, like every other Marvel movie.

James Cameron, who has multiple AVATAR sequels in the works, was recently quoted as saying that he hopes “we’ll start getting AVENGER fatigue here pretty soon.” Well, fatigue has set in before in the franchise (see IRON MAN 2, the first two THORs, DR. STRANGE, etc.) and did indeed set in towards the end of this, but its satisfyingly dark cliffhanger of a conclusion made my second (or third?) wind kick in. That helped to get me through the thousands of names of SFX Technicians, and Digital Artists to get to the post credits scene, which is something you’ll want to wait for too.

More later...

Friday, April 20, 2018

Stanley Tucci’s FINAL PORTRAIT: A True Art Film That Finishes Well

Opening at indie art houses, and a few multiplexes near me:

FINAL PORTRAIT (Dir. Stanley Tucci, 2018)



S
tanley Tucci’s fifth film as director is a true art film. It is about the excitement of creating art, the frustration that goes into making art, and, most importantly for our purposes here, the huge amount of time it may take to satisfactorily finish working on art.

This is what Swiss painter Alberto Giacometti, played superbly by Geoffrey Rush, goes through in painting a portrait of American art critic James Lord (a dapper, refined Armie Hammer) in his crumbling, rundown studio in 1964 Paris.

At their first sitting, Giacometti tells Lord, “you have the head of a brute; you look like a real thug.” To which Lord replies, “Gee, thanks.” The dialogue between them continues in this vein, as what Giacometti had initially said would take “an afternoon at most,” turns out to take weeks, with Lord having to constantly reschedule his flight back to New York to his growing irritation.

Lord gets particularly concerned when Giacometti decides to undo what he’s painted and paints broad white strokes over portions of what he’s labored for days on. He also gets a bit weirded out when the elder painter tells him he has fantasized about killing women to help himself go to sleep.

Lord also takes note of Giacometti’s relationship with his wife and former muse Annette Arm (Sylvie Testud), who appears to mostly tolerate her husband’s infidelity probably because she has a lover on the side as well. Ah, Paris.

As most of this film takes place in Giacometti’s studio, it often resembles a filmed play. Its meager cast, which includes Clémence Poésy as the artist’s prostitute mistress Caroline, and Tony Shalhoub as his brother Diego, adds to that effect, but there are exterior flourishes that keep it from being too claustrophobic.

Despite a few outbursts by Rush’s Giacometti, Tucci’s adaptation of Lord’s 1965 memoir “A Giacometti Portrait,” is a quiet, little drama which I bet some folks will find as dull as watching paint dry, but I found fascinating. That may be because I have an art school background, and love learning about different artist’s processes.

Rush and Hammer convincingly inhabit the characters of these men whose demeanors are very different but they share a love of art that the film makes feel palpable. Hammer’s Lord knows that however draining it can be to sit for this cantankerous tortured creator, the work is important, and may last longer than either of their personal stories. Especially since, as the title of this film plainly states, this work is the capper to Giacometti’s career (he passed away in 1966).

As FINAL PORTRAIT is an indie film in limited release, it’s a release that can be easily overlooked. It
s well worth seeking out as while its charms, and appeal are certainly subtle, they are very finely mixed. A true art film indeed, and one that finishes well.

More later...

Monday, April 16, 2018

John Krasinski’s A QUIET PLACE Is Scary Good

Now playing at a multiplex near me:

A QUIET PLACE (Dir. John Krasinski, 2018) 



Since the hit NBC comedy, The Office, ended its run in 2013, John Krasinski has been trying to shed the skin of everyman Jim Halpert, who he played for nine seasons; 188 episodes.

To meet that end, Krasinzki played parts in Cameron Crowe’s infamous bomb, ALOHA; Michael Bay’s lowest grossing movie to date, 13 HOURS; did some low-key voice work in fairly forgotten animated films (THE PROPHET, ANIMAL CRACKERS), and he directed and starred in the 2016 comedy drama THE HOLLARS.

Much like his directorial debut, 2009’s BRIEF INTERVIEWS WITH HIDEOUS MEN, THE HOLLARS got mixed reviews, and didn’t make much of a splash, but now with his third film, A QUIET PLACE, Krasinski has made a major leap out of the shadow of Jim.

Krasinski, who co-wrote the screenplay with Bryan Woods, and Scott Beck, stars as husband and father, Lee Abbott, though we never hear that name out loud as he and his family, including his wife Evelyn (played by real-life wife Emily Blunt, and their deaf daughter, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), and their sons, Marcus (Noah Jupe), and Beau (Cade Woodward), have to be completely quiet or else they’ll be attacked and eaten by demons.

You see, it’s yet another post apocalyptic landscape with, you know the drill: shots of an abandoned town with walls covered with missing persons flyers, the ransacked shelves of department stores, and newspaper headlines like “NYC on Lockdown” interspersed into the set-up. Another headline, “Stay Silent, Stay Alive,” lays out the Abbott family’s lifestyle as we see them communicate in sign language as they quietly make their way and back on a trip into town to get supplies during the film’s prologue.

The Abbotts live on a large farm, with corn fields, and multiple silos, and have taken precautions like stringing lights throughout the property which can be switched from yellow to red to warn the others of danger, and having fireworks on hand so that they can distract the monsters with loud noises when needed. And with Blunt’s very pregnant Evelyn about to give birth, lemme tell ya, they are needed!

We never learn where these blood thirsty creatures came from, or any other info about how large parts of the population were annihilated by them, we just get the Abbott’s tale of survival with the dad’s attempts to make contact with any other survivors via his shortwave radio bringing little hope (“it never works!” signs Regan).

With a cast of only six people (there’s an old man played by Leon Russom that they run into in the woods), precious little dialogue *, and a fair yet sparring amount of CGI for the demons, Krasinski has made a stirring, nerve-racking, and tensely effective thriller that never lags. It’s a confident piece of construction in its pacing, and with its edgy emotional pull it feel like you’re right there with these characters right up until its satisfying ending.

Krasinski gets a lot out of this simple but powerful premise by bringing a lot of heart to it. You can feel the warmth between he and Blunt, like when they share a moment listening to Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” through shared earbuds, and in how they work together to get their newborn baby to safely. Blunt, by the way, has the movie’s most terrifying scene, involving having to give birth in complete silence in a bathtub by herself as creatures crawl through the house around her.


The kids’ performances deliver too – Simmonds is strong as the determined oldest sibling who feels unloved by her father, while Jupe is “on” as the very scared younger brother.

Marco Beltramis subtle score never intrudes on one of the film's other big stars - its sound design which successfully made me feel every aural instance. This is a movie that anyone who talks during should be immediately escorted out - its spare use of sound will reward its audiences’ complete silence.

A QUIET PLACE is quite an exciting surprise from Krasinski. It goes to show like Jordan Peele before him with GET OUT, these actor/director/writers can carve a new niche for themselves in with low budget yet high concept horror productions that can come in on an off season and make a killing. Of course, it also helps greatly that Krasinski, like Peele before him, has made a movie that’s scary good.

*By going to a nearby river and waterfall, the father and son get to briefly talk safely, and there’s a soundproof room they’ve constructed for the new baby. Of course, these elements have made some critics ask “why don’t they just live by the river, or in the soundproof room then?”

More later...

Thursday, April 12, 2018

William H. Macy Chats With Film Babble Blog About His New Film KRYSTAL


This Friday, William H. Macys KRYSTAL, his third film as director, releases in the Triangle area. The movie is a intriguingly weird comedy drama about an 18-year old named Taylor (Nick Robinson), who falls for the title character, a 38-year old ex-hooker-stripper-junkie-alcoholic (shes often referred to by these terms), played by Rosario Dawson.

I spoke with Macy about the film, in which he appears as Taylors father, Wyatt, alongside a strong supporting cast including Kathy Bates, William Fichtner, T.I., Grant Gustin, 
Jacob Latimore, and Macys wife Felicity Huffman, and he provided a lot of insight into the very offbeat production.

Film Babble Blog: Watching KRYSTAL, I kept thinking that with that cast, and those themes all being batted around it must have been a lot of fun to shoot.

William H. Macy: It was. You’re not wrong - it’s a very complicated movie, there’s a lot of balls in the air. It has a very delicate tone because it goes from high farce to high tragedy in a nano second. But I just loved the dialogue that [Will] Aldis wrote, and I loved the characters.

FBB: How did Aldis
’s screenplay come into your orbit? 

WHM: The film was produced by a woman named Rachel Winter, who I’ve been working with a long time now, and Dan Keston, and they sent the script to me to look at to perhaps act in, and when I read it - I just saw the film in my mind’s eye completely, and very much out of character for me, I said “can I direct this thing?” So they told me, “Yeah, you can direct it.” So this is the first one I ever tried to direct. It turns out it’s the third one I actually directed because it took us 12 years to get the thing made.

FBB: So you said there were many balls in the air, and I can see why because it’s a number of things – it’s a coming-of-age story, an ensemble comedy, and there, are like you said, farcical elements, but I really didn’t expect it to get as surreal as it did with the visions of Satan.

WHM: One of the things I really appreciate in films these days is surprise. I love it when I don’t know where the plot is going, and I’m surprised by where it does go. And, more importantly, when I’m surprised by the solution – ‘I didn’t see that coming!’ And this one has that in spades.

FBB: I was indeed surprised by all the visual tricks with the Satan imagery.

WHM: Yeah, it gets supernatural there, the magical realism. I really liked that element. Yes, one could say it was a coming-of-age story, certainly it is, it’s a love story, it’s a ‘bromance,’ but I like to say that it’s a lighthearted, frolicking look at the world of addiction, and when you really unpack addiction, at the root of it is fear.

Life is a scary thing, and some people medicate themselves to face life, and it’s all about fear. And I love that Aldis decided to give fear a personality. I loved that - I thought what a great way to look at it.

My hope is that someone even in the depths of despair over addiction could watch this film and laugh, not feel attacked, not feel accused.

FBB: My takeaway, with all the messed-up souls there, all the things this film touches on – theology, unconventional love, dysfunctional family, the concept of a tiny Satan on your back – my takeaway was that it’s about people realizing that it’s time to ask for help.

WHM: Well, there it is. We agree, and we talked about that on the set. The takeaway is ‘hey, everybody is afraid, but you’ve got to move on. You gotta keep moving. You gotta keep striving. The fear will never go away. That’s part of the human condition, but you can do it.

FBB: It seemed like Aldis’ script was pretty set – there were specific lines that had to be said, and keyed into other lines, and all that, but was there much room for improvisation in the movie?

WHM: Not really, I mean, there were some things that were underwritten so there was a little. A perfect example is when Rosario Dawson comes back, and she’s fallen off the wagon, and she’s clearly high. Her son is there, and she didn’t have any dialogue. 
So she came up with that kind of stoned-out, sing-songy thing – I couldn’t make heads or tails of what she was saying, but it really filled it in. 

So there were little things like that, but everyone loved Will’s dialogue, and wanted to do it as written, because it’s pretty wonderful. It’s unusual for a film to have such a literary approach to this. I mean, these people do love to talk.

FBB: One scene I wanted to ask you about is when Nick Robinson’s character, Taylor, first takes on the “Bo” persona. He’s walking along with Krystal, and he’s spouting out these things that he lifted from Rick Fox’s Bo moment at AA. I thought there were times that it looked like Rosario Dawson was about to break, because some of the things he was saying were so funny, so over-the-top, so I was wondering if there were flubs on those takes?

WHM: It happened a couple of times, but it was a pretty happy set, I’ve got to say. But you bring up a good point - I can tell you from an actor’s point of view - that’s sort of a dicey section there. The audience knows what he’s doing, there’s no secret there, he’s imitating another actor so they’re judging him on how well a Bo he’s doing, so Nick, very wisely, said to me, “tell me about Bo – do I believe I’m Bo, how far do I take it?’ And what we all decided was well, the text is does Krystal buy it? Rosario Dawson – does she buy it? She’s the only one you’ve got to convince that you’re Bo. And to Rosario I said, ‘well, it’s his job to convince you he’s Bo, and a tough hombre. If you don’t buy it laugh at him.’

And there were times when, as you said, that it just beyond the pale, and she laughed, and I thought they were delightful moments. Because you know, Krystal has been around the block. One thing she knows about is men, she knows men, very, very well. She knows this young guy is full of crap.

FFB: You can really see that in Dawson’s performance.

WHM: Yeah, I mean, everybody is really good in it. I really scored with this cast.

FFB: Was there much stuff that was on the cutting room floor, are there going to be DVD extras?

WHM: (laughs) No, this was a true indie film. Everything you see is on the screen. Uh, there were two or three scenes that we cut, and a couple of others that we cut sections from. The first film I did (RUDDERLESS), the producer called me in as I was cutting it and he said – “look, you always have this conversation with the directors, especially new directors, I know you love it, I know it’s near and dear to your heart, but you have to cut it.” And I said, “Oh, well, what do you think we should cut?” And he said, “No, that’s not what I’m saying to you, you always have to say that, but what we’re saying to you is stop cutting it! You’re cutting all the good stuff out!” All three films, I’ve argued with producers where I say, “I’m gonna cut it,” and they’re “No, leave it – it’s good!” I’m a cutter.

FFB: I noticed there were a couple of Bob Dylan lines in the film – “He not busy being born is busy dying,” and “remember when you’re out there tryin’ to heal the sick, that you must always first forgive them.” Were those deliberate or am I, as a Dylan fan, just picking those out?

WHM: No, wait – did Dylan say that? “You must always first forgive them”? I’m a big Dylan fan too. Man, I feel foolish - I didn’t know that was a direct Dylan quote, I thought it was just Dylanesque. That’s Will Aldis, he’s a great rock and roller.

FBB: Now, you’ve worked with a lot of great filmmakers, like Paul Thomas Anderson or David Mamet for example, so of course those are present influences, but one thing that really stuck in my mind was seeing you on some talk show years ago talking about FARGO, and you said that the Coen brothers really knew exactly what movie they were making, so I wanted to ask - did you feel like you knew exactly what movie you were making with KRYSTAL?

WHM: Well, that’s a very cagey question, a good question. Uh, Yes - the first time I read the script I saw it so clearly, which was unusual. I saw the whole film, and I loved it. But in all candor, when we put it on its feet – some of those scenes that read so beautifully were awkward, and there was something wrong with them when we actually mounted them. It was fascinating to go in and dissect the scenes, and figure out what’s going wrong - why did it work for me, and now it’s not? What am I looking for? What am I seeing? What am I missing here? It’s a fascinating process and I love it, it’s just that I’d rather not do it when I’m directing an independent film and the sun is setting.

I got caught flat footed a couple of times; it’s the tone of the piece. It’s very, very delicate.

FBB: I definitely could feel that it was a tricky tone to deal with there.

WHM: Yeah, I underestimated it. Rachel Winter, a who is a lovely filmmaker herself, kept warning me – it’s the tone, it’s the tone, we’ve got to get this tone right. And I think we did, but, as I said, I was caught sadly lacking a couple of times.

FBB: There was an interview you did with the AV Club around the time of WELCOME TO COLLINWOOD, where you were talking about what makes a good actor’s director – coming to set prepared, talking action not emotion, since this was a while before you directed, is there anything you’d add to that? Do you feel you are a good actor’s director?

WHM: I hope so – you should probably ask others that. I do believe, as an actor, I don’t need to be told how to play it and, like, if I ask, I’m lost, I’m brave enough to say ‘okay, I’m lost, give me some help, I don’t know how to play this.’ But I like a director who talks subjective. You know, ‘I’ll figure out how to do it – let’s make sure we agree on what I’m doing.’ The what is up for discussion.

What I’ve discovered from directing three films is that if you have to stop and talk about acting with an actor – you’re lost. (laughs) You’re really in trouble because there’s no time for that. I’ve discovered what you really pray for as a director is that everybody walks in as the character and they’re brilliant every single take. All you’ve got time to do is take pictures of it.

FBB: The last several days I was at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, and saw Amy Scott’s excellent documentary about Hal Ashby, and it reminded me that a while back you narrated the EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS documentary that was all about that period. Do any of those filmmakers like Ashby, Altman, Bogdanovich, Coppola, Hopper – the New Hollywood kids –register as big influences on you when you work as a director today?

WHM: Yes, I mean, that was a time of the actor because they were brave, they were really brave. I mean, it was the summer of love and everybody was smoking a lot of pot, and everybody gave themselves a mission to act impulsively, to not make every moment in a film completely studied, and allow mistakes to happen. And all stories didn’t have to have a nice ending all tied up in a bow. Stories didn’t have to have a happy ending. But as I mature, I realize that when I go to the movies, I want to laugh, I want a good old fashioned story.

FBB: You want to feel something.

WHM: I want to feel something, and I want a good punchline that I didn’t see coming. I’m old fashioned you know, and KRYSTAL is kind of an old fashioned film. I’d like to try one that’s out there and improvisational. I’d like to give that a shot some day.

FBB: Well, that brings up the question – as a filmmaker, do you have any projects lined up after this?

WHM: Nothing is scheduled right now. I directed three films while I was doing Shameless during my hiatuses, and that was really, really tough. It was tough on me and really tough on my family. I missed all the vacations because I was working all year around. I go back to Shameless in about four weeks for season nine, I believe there’s going to be a season ten, but I think things will open up after that. I don’t know what I’m going to do after that but I would love to direct another film. I’d like to get a little bit of a bigger budget. I’d like to pay people, if I can be blunt. I’ve done three films where everyone is doing me a favor. I’d like to be able to pay people.


William H. Macys KRYSTAL opens on April 13th in the Triangle area in N.C.

More later...

Monday, April 09, 2018

Full Frame 2018: Day Four

Since many music documentaries have been shown at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham over the years, I was disappointed by the lack of them on this years roster but at least there was Hugo Berkeley’s THE JAZZ AMBASSADORS, which screened at Cinema 4 at the Convention center Sunday morning.

The film, mostly made up of black and white photos, and archival footage, is about America
s greatest jazz artists including Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington travelling the world as Cold War cultural ambassadors in the mid ’50s.

It began when African American congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. convinced President Eisenhower, and top ranking Foreign policy officials that jazz played by black or mixed race bands could radically improve the U.S.A.’s image in the non-white countries of the world. So a tour taking Armstrong, Gillespie, Ellington and their mixed-race band members to such countries as Turkey, Pakistan, Demascus, and Iran was quickly put into motion.

Quincy Jones, described as a “rising young arranger” was hired to be music director, and play the trumpet. A recently filmed interview with Jones has him reflecting back in wonder on this appointment: “To think he have trusted me, 22-years old, to be in charge of his, my God
’s band!”

But it wasnt all smooth sailing, as there were bumps like when Armstrong reacted to Dwight Eisenhower dragging his feet on school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 by saying that the U.S. Government can go to hell! 

Legendary pianist/composer Dave Brubeck later joined the project, and his son Darius is on hand to relay his experiences from when he was a 10-year old accompanying his father on tour. In later incarnations of the Jazz Ambassadors, Benny Goodman and his orchestra in 1962 became the first  Big American Band ever permitted to play in Russia, and Duke Ellington toured the Middle East and India before the tour was cut short by the JFK assassination.

THE JAZZ AMBASSADORS plays all the right notes in being both a Cold War (or cool war” as congressman Powell called it) history lesson, and, with its classic clips of Armstrong et al, a sweeping overview of jazz 101. It may be just a footnote in the histories of these icons, but what a gloriously tuneful and still relevant footnote it is.

Next up, the last film I saw at this year’s Fest was Roopa Gogineni’s I AM BISHA, which earlier in the day won the Full Frame Jury Award for Best Short. 


The beautifully shot short concerns a puppeteer named Ganja, whose forum is a viral web series for Bisha TV. Ganja seeks to ridicule President Omar al-Bashir, who, opening titles tell us, seized power of Sudan in the 1989 military coup, and Ganja accomplishes this by voicing a puppet of the ruthless dictator for a series of crude political spoofs that aired during the country’s 2015 elections.

Since these episodes were produced in region that's often bombed, and unsurprisingly has no internet, they are shown to crowds in the small communities via Ganjas mobile cinema in which the videos are projected onto a large white sheet on the side of walls for the villagers. Its important because there are people who dont understand whats going on around them,” Ganja explains.

It may be only a 15-minute short, but it won the Jury Award for good reason as it says more in its brisk running time than many docs come close to in feature length.

So that’s Full Frame 2018. It was a doozy. If you haven't already (or have - I need the clicks!), please check out the entries for Days One, Two, and Three of my exciting coverage.

More later...