Friday, April 25, 2014

Filmmaker Biodoc MILIUS Now Streaming On Netflix INstant

MILIUS (Dirs. Joey Figueroa & Zak Knutson, 2013)

When I was a kid in the ‘70s I first became aware of writer/director John Milius when I read that he was the inspiration for the character of John Milner, the drag racing greaser played by Paul Le Mat, in George Lucas’ 1973 classic AMERICAN GRAFFITI. The fact that that piece of trivia isn’t even mentioned in Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson’s 2013 biodoc MILIUS, currently streaming on Netflix Instant, just attests to what a richly layered life the mythical maverick filmmaker has led.

From coming up with Dirty Harry’s best known dialogue (the ‘Do do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk? speech) to crafting the Oscar nominated screenplay for APOCALYPSE NOW to upsetting liberal Hollywood with his cold war opus RED DAWN - just to name a few highlights - the ultra manly Milius's contributions to modern cinema form a colossal career, in which as THE GODFATHER producer Al Ruddy tells us in the intro, the man had more movies made than any other writer in the history of Hollywood.

It all began in the ‘60s shortly after Milius was crushed by being rejected by the Marine Corps because of his asthma (“I missed, you know, going to my war”), he wandered into a theater showing a week of the films of Akira Kurosawa. The Japanese filmmaker’s work made Milius realize that being a director was the “next best thing” to a military career.

Then he was off to USC (University of Southern California) where his classmates included George Lucas, Caleb Deschanel (father of Zoey Deschanel), Donald F. Glut, and Randall Kleiser (GREASE) - most of whom appear to provide interview soundbites throughout the film.

Milius was the first of these film-minded folk to achieve success when he was hired by AIP (American International Pictures), a studio that specialized in cheapie “teensploitation” productions. His first screenplay credit was on a rip-off of THE DIRTY DOZEN called THE DEVIL'S 8 (“they didn’t have enough money for a full dozen”).

Following that, Milius worked on the scripts of EVIL KNIEVEL (1971), DIRTY HARRY (1971), JEREMIAH JOHNSON (1972), THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN (1972), and his feature length directorial debut DILLINGER (1973).

Milius’ second movie, the 1975 adventure epic THE WIND AND THE LION, starring Sean Connery and Candice Bergen, garnered a few Academy Award nominations, but his third film, the 1978 coming-of-age surfing picture, BIG WEDNESDAY, flopped big-time (of course, it became a cult classic later).

Much more notable during that time were his iconic contributions to Steven Spielberg’s 1975 shark attack classic JAWS (Robert Shaw’s USS Indianapolis monologue), and Coppola’s massive 1979 mash-up of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and the Vietnam war, APOCALYPSE NOW. Can you get any more quotable than “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning,” or “Charlie don’t Surf”? I don’t think so. 

“Everything memorable in APOCALYPSE NOW was invented by John Milius,” Coppola stresses.

Milius’ fourth film as director, the 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger fantasy epic CONAN THE BARBARIAN (co-written by Oliver Stone) was a hit, but it was with his next film that things got pretty hairy.

1984’s RED DAWN, about a Russian invasion on American soil, polarized critics and got Milius ostracized from Hollywood for its pro-war stance. “Right-wing jingoism,” more than one critic called it.

There’s no getting around that the big beefy bearded gun nut - there are more photos here of Milius with machine guns, rifles, whatever firearm than you can count - rubbed a lot of people wrong. His following projects, FAREWELL TO THE KING, FLIGHT OF THE INTRUDER, and the TV movie ROUGH RIDERS, were barely blips on the pop culture radar.

Figueroa and Knutson’s film gets a bit muddled around this point of the narrative, but regroups with the revelation that Milius suffered a stroke that left him unable to talk or write. A condition that Spielberg says was “the worst thing to happen to any of my friends.”

This obviously explains why there’s so much footage of Milius doing interviews from the ‘80s and ‘90s – a 1984 sit down is the most prominently featured. MILIUS left me feeling like every larger than life tough guy character of the modern film era was based on his powerful persona. Especially when his son Ethan and daughter Amanda talk about how much John Goodman’s Walter Sobchak in THE BIG LEBOWSKI reminded them of their father.

Hell, the man’s influence even stretched as far as inspiring the military code name of the U.S. Army’s capture of Sadam Hussein in 2003: “Operation Red Dawn.”

MILIUS is for the most part a fascinating and thoughtful look at the life of a macho force that can still be felt in the fantasy realm from Game of Thrones to THOR, and the amped-up egos of the overblown action movie genre. As his encouraging rehabilitation continues, I sure hope the man can finish his long gestating GENGHIS KHAN project. That would give his legend the satisfying epilogue that this biodoc only hints at.

More later...

Friday, April 18, 2014

THE LUNCHBOX Is Made With Sensitivity And Care

Now playing at an art house theater near me...

THE LUNCHBOX (Dir. Ritesh Batra, 2013)

At first, the premise of this little Indian drama may seem slight - i.e. two strangers exchange notes by way of Mumbai’s famously efficient lunchbox delivery system - but the heartfelt humbleness, likability of the leads, and overall sweetness make THE LUNCHBOX a very rich treat indeed.

Irrfan Khan, a big Bollywood star who’s crossed over to American movies such as LIFE OF PI and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, stars as a stoic accountant living a lonely life after the death of his beloved wife. Meanwhile across town, a neglected housewife (the lovely Nimrat Kaur) hopes to reconnect with her distant husband (Nakul Vaid) by preparing a special meal as a surprise for his lunch at work.

Somehow there’s a mix-up and Khan ends up getting the stainless steel dishes of Kaur’s delicious food delivered to his workplace. When Kaur’s spouse has little to say about the meal, she realizes what has happened and sends a note along with the lunch the next day.

Khan and Kaur then develop a correspondence, revealing intimate details about their sad existences in tender, touching scenes in which the actor’s voice-overs convey a lot of sincere emotion (it’s in Hindi with subtitles, but the warmth can be strongly felt).

As Khan is on the verge of retirement, he is training a giddy over-eager assistant to replace him (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). Khan is annoyed at first by the giddy over-eager Siddiqui, but they forge a bond that goes from a mentor/apprentice type relationship to something resembling that of father/son.

Siddiqui even succinctly sums up Khan’s budding romance: “Sometimes even the wrong train can take you to the right destination.”

Khan puts in a powerfully subtle performance that really got under my skin - when he forms the tiniest twinge of a smile it can be deeply felt. The man deserves to be a major star – maybe his upcoming role in next summer’s JURASSIC WORLD will help make that happen.

Kaur also excels; you’ll feel for her when she speaks of suspecting that her husband is cheating on her. A scene where she goes to report the swapped meal mistake and is told by the carrier that the service doesn’t make mistakes, shows she has an understated flair for light comedy.

Sure it can be seen as an Indian adaptation of YOU’VE GOT MAIL (or THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER if you want to get technical), but the feature length debut from filmmaker Ritesh Batra, who co-wrote with Rutvik Oza, transcends its familiar premise terrifically.

THE LUNCHBOX (“Dabba” in Hindi) is a real charmer, made with sensitivity and care, much like the mouth-watering dishes that Kaur’s character cooks that we see stunning overhead close-ups of (beautifully shot by Michael Simmonds). It’s a satisfying feast (yeah, I know, every critic is going to use culinary jargon in their review) of a film, but it may make you really hungry for some fine Indian cuisine way before the credits roll. So plan yourself a nice Indian dinner out afterwards, and remember not to fill up on popcorn.

More later...

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

New Releases On Blu Ray & DVD: 4/15/14

Ben Stiller’s THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY, which I wasn’t too impressed by last December, leads the line-up of new releases on Blu ray and DVD today. Stiller’s adaptation of the James Thurber short story, which felt to me and many others (it has a 49% rating on the Rotten Tomatometer) to resemble a feature length commercial, comes with a slew of Special Features including Deleted, Extended, and Alternate Scenes (equaling around 15 minutes), a bunch of Behind the Scenes featurettes, Gallery: Reference Photography, "Stay Alive" music video (Jose Gonzales), and the Theatrical Trailer.

A movie I liked a little bit better, Stephen Frears’ PHILOMENA, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, also hits home video today. Although the fine film, about a cynical journalist (Coogan, of course) aiding an elderly Irishwoman (Dench) in her search for the son she was forced to give up for adoption, didn’t win any of the four Oscars (surprisingly, it was up for Best Picture) it was nominated for, its Blu ray and DVD release boasts a bevy of high-end bonus material. First up, there’s a commentary with writer/actorpProducer Steve Coogan and Screenwriter Jeff Pope, “A Conversation With Judi Dench” (8:54), a short (under 3 minutes) featurette “The Real Philomena Lee,” and a almost 25-minute Q & A With Steve Coogan from the film’s Guild Screening in Los Angeles last December.

Next up, a film that I thought was just released theatrically (actually it was in January – the year is flying by) also releases this week: Tim Story’s poorly reviewed but crowd pleasing action comedy RIDE ALONG, starring Ice Cube and Kevin Hart. I skipped the film because I’ve not yet found Hart to be funny, but for those of you who do here’s what Special Features are included: Director’s commentary with Story, Gag Reel, Locations Tour, alternate ending, deleted scenes, and various featurettes.

Also out today: Peter Lepeniotis' animated squirrel comedy THE NUT JOB, Chris Nelson's high school sex comedy DATE AND SWITCH, Ralph Fiennes' Charles Dickens drama THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (read my review), Deborah Chow's adaptation of V.C. Andrews' 1979 bestseller FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC (starring Heather Graham and Ellen Burstyn), Steven Rosenbaum's 2002 9/11 documentary 7 DAYS IN SEPTEMBER, Kasi Lemmons' musical drama BLACK NATIVITYand Geoff Moore and David Posamentier's comedy drama BETTER LIVING THROUGH CHEMISTRY.

On the older films out this week in fancy new Blu ray editions front there's Orson Welles' undisputed 1958 classic TOUCH OF EVIL, Billy Wilder's 1944 thriller DOUBLE INDEMNITY (another undisputed classic), Anthony Mann’s 1957 Korean War film MEN IN WAR, Douglas Sirk’s 1948 film noir thriller SLEEP, MY LOVEand the Criterion Collection deluxe edition of Lars Von Trier's heated 1996 drama BREAKING THE WAVES

More later...

Monday, April 14, 2014

LE WEEK-END: An Aging Marriage On The Rocks On Holiday In Paris

Now playing at an art house theater near me:

LE WEEK-END (Dir. Roger Michell, 2013)

“You always did edit out the arguments and the misery,” remarks Lindsay Duncan to her husband played by Jim Broadbent over dinner at a fine French restaurant. “You can’t not love and hate the same person, usually within the space of five minutes in my experience,” Broadbent replies after pausing to take a sip of wine.

In Roger Michell’s (NOTTING HILL, VENUS, HYDE PARK ON THE HUDSON) latest drama LE WEEK-END, Broadbent and Duncan portray a British couple in their 60’s on a holiday in Paris in what appears to be a last ditch attempt to re-spark the flame of their fading marriage.

In hopes of taking a romantic breather from their lives of academia back in Birmingham – Broadbent’s a university philosophy professor; Duncan a grade-school teacher – the couple instead find it difficult to connect. Duncan is bully-ish, crabby, and sardonic towards Broadbent, who appears stressed under his muddled surface.

Broadbent and Duncan bicker all the while as they relocate from a shabby hotel to more luxurious accommodations in an elegant suite (“where Tony Blair once stayed”, they are told) with a beautiful view of the city and the Eiffel Tower.

Nevertheless, there are traces of life left in their relationship that we witness as we see them dine and dash, imitate the famous café dance scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s BAND À PART * along to its airing on their hotel room TV, and embrace in a passionate public display of affection in the Parisian streets, one that catches the eye of an old colleague of Broadbent’s (Jeff Goldblum). The eccentric as always Goldblum, oblivious to our lead couple’s friction, invites them to a dinner party at his home the next evening.

With its talky realism and picturesque locations, LE WEEK-END may just give us a taste of what the BEFORE SUNRISE series may look like if it continues for a few more decades.

There’s not a false note or anything cutesy in the screenplay written by Hanif Kureishi, in his fourth collaboration with director Michell. The weight that the two leads bring to Kureishi’s words comes from the same ace acting chops that won Broadbent an Oscar (Best Supporting Actor for MOULIN ROUGE!), and Duncan a couple of Tony Awards (for her stage work in 
Private Lives and Les Liaisons Dangereuses). Their laughs, sighs, and pained shrugs all form layered lived-in performances.

At times the film may hit a little too close to home for anybody who’s ever been through a rough patch in a lengthy relationship. Both of these people have long suffered the other, but it was hard for me not to side with Broadbent’s character. Early on he reveals to his wife that he’s been sacked from his job, and Duncan shows little sympathy for him afterwards. She even flirts with another man at Goldblum’s party and agrees to have a late night drink with him. The nerve!

Meanwhile, Broadbent has drifted away from the get-together and ends up smoking pot, and connecting over Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” with Goldblum’s neglected son from his first marriage (Olly Alexander). This leads to Broadbent’s confessional outpouring at the dinner table; the emotional climax of the movie.

The lingering question of will they stay together or split up may not be satisfyingly answered for some folks at the conclusion, but a clever callback to the BAND À PART dance routine that has Broadbent, Duncan, and Goldblum charmingly falling in line to the sprightly jazz on a pub’s jukebox provides a pleasing epilogue that should tell most movie-going dreamers everything they need to know about these people’s destiny.

* Godard made a 1967 film entitled WEEK-END, but it looks only tangentially related.

More later...

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Pummeling Thrill Ride That Is THE RAID 2: BERANDAL

THE RAID 2: BERANDAL (Dir. Gareth Evans, 2014)

Gareth Evan’s 2011 Indonesian hit THE RAID: REDEMPTION was a high-voltage ultra-violent martial arts masterpiece that pitted an unsanctioned S.W.A.T. team against a 15-story apartment block full of murderous mobsters. Its fast paced gory spectacle was all contained within the dark, dank, crumbling walls of the tenement building – one of the grittiest backdrops of an amped up thriller in recent memory.

In the less gritty, more colorful sequel, THE RAID 2: BERANDAL (Berandal is Indonesian for “Thug”), opening today in the Triangle, the sole survivor of the first movie’s mayhem goes undercover to infiltrate Jakarta’s biggest, baddest crime syndicates resulting in a series of savage action sequences set all over the city.

As the rookie cop turned police mole, Indonesian martial arts champion Iko Uwais returns as Rama, who’s back to wow us again with his mad fighting skills. Uwais undergoes a two-year prison stay in order to integrate himself as a foot soldier for the powerful crime boss, Nagun (Tio Pakusodewo). Our hero does this by befriending the gang boss’s only son (Arifin Putra) in the slammer, by way of saving his life in a wild, bloody, and extremely muddy prison yard rumble.

Elements recalling INFERNAL AFFAIRS (remade by Martin Scorsese as the 2005 Oscar winner THE DEPARTED), and DONNIE BRASCO form the unevenly paced plot, but it just serves as a clothesline to hang one ferociously relentless set piece after another on.

Intense choreographed fist fights amid rampant gunfire take place in a variety of locations including a warehouse, a restaurant, a fancy kitchen, a glitzy nightclub, even in moving cars (in one of the best car chases since THE FRENCH CONNECTION), carting Uwais closer to his goal of bringing down both the evil organization and the corrupt cops on the syndicate’s payroll.

Foes such as Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle, using only two hammers as her weapons), Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman, whose weapon ought to be obvious), and Yayan Ruhian, as a different brutal long-haired assassin than the one he played in THE RAID, attempt to thwart Uwais’s efforts, but I bet you can guess how they end up.

I felt more than a little beat down by the end of the film’s bloated 150-minute running time, as Evans and star/choreographer Uwais seem to have fit every single stunt they could think of within the film’s chaotic framework. Its exhausting length is the only thing that keeps it from being better than the first one, but not by much.

It’s hard to imagine how a follow-up would top it, but since it’s the second of a proposed trilogy, it’ll sure be fun to see them try. With its insanely brutal bravado, rendered in a viciously vivid visual style, the pummeling thrill ride that is THE RAID 2 kicks the ass of just about every American action movie out there. 

Indonesia: fuck yeah!

More later...

Monday, April 07, 2014


Now that Full Frame is over, I leap back into the world of mainstream movies with what's now the #1 movie at the box office:


(Dirs. Anthony Russo & Joe Russo, 2014)

So apparently we’re now well into Phase 2 in the building of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The second phase began strongly last summer with IRON MAN 3, continued with the lackluster THOR: THE DARK WORLD, and now hits its highest point with CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, a sequel which surpasses the 2011 original (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER).

The iconic comic book character’s latest adventure is now in the hands of Anthony and Joe Russo, who are better known for their television work (Arrested Development, Community) than their film output (WELCOME TO COLINWOOD, YOU, ME & DUPREE). Working from a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who wrote the first installment, the Russo brothers confidently take control with a soaring action film that actually has a compelling politically driven plot-line.

Chris Evans dons the red, white, and blue uniform and shield for his third appearance as the iconic super hero (fourth if you count his cameo in the THOR sequel last year) in this adventure that is set two years after the events of THE AVENGERS. We catch up with Evan’s Steve Rogers/Captain America working for S.H.I.E.LD. in Washington D.C. and trying to catch up with modern culture (he carries a notebook with a list of things he missed while he was in a cryogenic sleep state for 70 years that includes Moon Landing, Nirvana, Star Trek, Thai food, etc.).

In a stunning opening involving taking on French/Algerian pirates with on a hijacked naval vessel, Captain America catches Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) extracting electronic files from the ship’s computers, which disturbingly means S.H.I.E.L.D. Commander Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) had an ulterior motive for the mission.

Back at S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, Fury debriefs Captain America about Project: Insight, which will send into space three huge “Helicarriers,” that are linked to spy satellites and have the capabilities to preemptively take out potential threats.

The project has been spearheaded by a cold calculating Robert Redford as World Security head Alexander Pierce, who it’s no Spoiler to say turns out to be the central villain – an agent of HYDRA, the terrorist organization Captain America fought in the first film.

An incredibly jolting car-chase sequence through the streets of D.C. ends with Fury being gunned down by a shadowy assassin, the Winter Soldier, whose face we can’t see. With Fury presumed dead to the world, our hero is left to protect the film’s MacGuffin, the USB flash drive that contains the encrypted data Johansson previously retrieved.

The ins and outs of the plot get a bit too complicated from here, but with its ginormous set piece scenes of explosive destruction (the mammoth annihilation of Tony Stark’s Malibu fortress in IRON MAN 3 has nothing on the climatic CGI spectacle here), you won’t care about keeping up with the twists.

As Captain America, Evans contributes a sharp stoically charming portrayal, one in which statuesque stiffness is a requirement of the job. Evans’ banter with Johansson is fun to watch, but his easy-going chemistry with charismatic newcomer Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/Falcon (an old Marvel character making its first appearance in the franchise), is where his performance pops.

The film is enhanced by expanded roles for Jackson and Johansson, and Frank Grillo as a HYDRA henchman is an effective baddie (another Spoiler?), but Redford, probably ecstatic to have so much exposition after ALL IS LOST, is the real scene stealer. His part obviously pays homage to his role in Sydney Pollack’s 1975 political thriller THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, as does the movie’s dark themes of techno-paranoia, updated for our current climate.

It’s a testament to Markus and McFeely’s tight screenplay that these themes are crucial to the narrative and aren’t treated as background fodder. Its layered depth helps it transcend the standard super hero storyline structure, while still holding on the fun we’ve come to expect from the formula (on-the-nose one-liners, cross references, Stan Lee cameo, etc.).

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is one of the best Marvel movies, with just the right amount of humor, thrills, and clever character interaction to keep both fans and casual movie-goers highly invested, right through to the signature stinger at the end of the credits.

More later…

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2014: Days Three & Four

I started off the third day of Full Frame the same way I had the last two with a documentary about a soberingly serious subject. In the very packed Cinema 4 (one of the large rooms in the Marriott's Convention Center) I saw Stanley Nelson's FREEDOM SUMMER, a sequel of sorts to his doc FREEDOM RIDERS, which screened at the festival in 2010.

An installment of PBS's long running The American Experience series, the dense 113 minute film examines a crucial chapter of the civil rights era, the summer of 1964, in which more than 700 student volunteers entered Mississippi to register African-Americans to vote. 

Via a well structured mix of archival footage, tons of photos, and excerpts from recent interviews with folks like “Freedom Summer” author and historian Bruce Watson, civil rights chronicler Tracy Sugarman (who died last year), Pete Seeger (who died earlier this year) and civil rights leader/later politician Julian Bond, Nelson's doc forms a necessary history lesson. It also does a better job of telling the story of the investigation into the murders of three civil rights workers that summer than MISSISSIPPI BURNING did. FREEDOM SUMMER is due to air on PBS on June 24th, which coincides with the 50th anniversary of that empowering summer.

Next, also in Cinema 4, was a couple of films paired together about a couple of guys who play dress up - one as McDonald's mascot clown Ronald McDonald; the other as our current Commander and Chief, President Barack Obama. The first film was John Dower's amusing documentary short RONALD, about Joe Maggard, who's one of 9 men who've played the famous commercial spokesman Ronald McDonald. The North Carolina native Maggard, who still puts on the make-up and costume despite being no longer employed by the fast food empire, is an affable fellow well worth spending this doc's 8 minute running time with.

Following that was the Festival Cut of Ryan Murdock's feature length BRONX OBAMA, about President Barack Obama look-alike turned impersonator Louis Ortiz.

The Bronx born Ortiz has parlayed his uncanny resemblance to the commander in chief into a somewhat lucrative career that's included appearances on Flight of the Conchords, several music videos, and even a Japanese comedy film (SARABA ITOSHI NO DAITOURYOU). There's some momentum to Ortiz's tale, as when he and a Mitt Romney impersonator argue over politics on the eve of the 2012 election, but there's only really about 20 minutes of good material here.

As funny and likable as Murdock's movie is in places, it gets a little tiresome hanging out with Ortiz as worries about money, dotes on his daughter, and goes from one paid appearance to another. Ortiz asks the audience at one point: “If you woke up one morning and found that you looked like the President, wouldn't you be doing what I'm doing?” I would probably have a heart attack, but I get what's he saying. BRONX OBAMA is listed on IMDb as THE AUDACITY OF LOUIS ORTIZ - glad they changed it. Maybe they can make some more changes that would make it more interesting.

That evening, I attended the Center Frame feature presentation of Ben Cotner and Ryan White's THE CASE AGAINST 8, which is my favorite film of the fest so far. With its fly-on-the-wall coverage of the case to overturn California's ban on same-sex marriage spanning five years, Duke alum Cotner and White follow the two lawyers leading the case, Ted Olson and David Boise, and the two same-sex couples - one female (Kris Perry and Sandy Stier), and one male (Jeffrey Zarrillo and Paul Katami) - who took the first federal marriage equality lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

I found THE CASE AGAINST 8 to be an emotionally powerful doc that plays like a courtroom thriller, albeit a giddy one, as I tweeted. By the time the film reaches its climax involving the couples’ separate City Hall wedding ceremonies you'll be rooting like hell for these people. The huge audience at Fletcher Hall for the film on Saturday night sure was. The filmmakers, along with Perry, Stier, and Triangle area same sex couple Joni Madison and Gina Kilpatrick all got a lengthy standing ovation when they came out for an insightful panel discussion.

As I've written before, late Saturday night is usually the perfect time for a rock documentary at Full Frame. Previous year's have had docs about Arcade Fire, The Magnetic Fields' Stephen Merritt, and Pussy Riot on the third day of the fest's schedules, this year Australian musician Nick Cave in Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard's 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH fits the bill. Since it screened at 11:00 pm, the audience had thinned out a bit in Fletcher Hall, but who was there seemed pretty entranced by this odd doc. Well, except for the old couple who left 30 minutes into it.

The film actually more a pseudo-doc about the 57-year old performer, songwriter, author, and sometimes actor, as segments are clearly staged, and cameos by the likes of Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue strangely appear in the passenger seat of Cave's car to tell their stories then disappear as our star subject keeps driving onward. 

Although it has Cave discussing old photographs, and rocking archival footage of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Forsyth and Pollard's doc is one of the most abstract career retrospectives I've ever seen. I mean what other rock doc has the artist telling his stories to a therapist? The more recent concert footage of Cave intensely singing “Stagger Lee,” “Jubilee Street,” and “Higgs Boson Blues,” at the Sydney Opera House makes me want to go out and get more of his stuff. That's the best you can hope for from a music documentary, isn't it?

Sunday, I saw one last serious historical doc: Drew Taylor and Larry Weinstein's poli-doc OUR MAN IN TEHRAN, about how Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor's hid six Americans in his home in Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis, and helped them to escape the country. This is, of course, is what Ben Affleck's Oscar winning 2012 thriller ARGO was based on, but here we get more of an overview of the circumstances that led to the crisis, and the un-Hollywood-ized facts about how the events really went down.

The former Ambassador Taylor (no relation to the co-director) sits down to give us his recollections, along with retired CIA agent Tony Mendez (the guy Affleck played in ARGO), Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs Flora MacDonald, and former CIA agent and hostage William Daugherty. As much as I liked ARGO, I agree with former Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark, who appears in the film when he said “I think the truth is the better story.”

I attended the Awards BBQ in the Durham Amory - read my coverage of it for the Raleigh N & O - and was glad to see that two films that I actually saw won awards: Darius Clark Monroe's excellent THE EVOLUTION OF A CRIMINAL, which won the festival’s top prize, the Reva and David Logan Grand Jury Award for feature-length documentary, and the Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award, and Scott Calonico's THE SILLY BASTARD NEXT TO THE BED, which won the Full Frame Audience Award for Best Short.

There were a lot of docs I didn't get to see that I heard good buzz about like Cynthia Hill's PRIVATE VIOLENCE, which won the Kathleen Bryan Edwards Award for Human Rights, Jeremy Zagar's CAPTIVATED: THE TRIALS OF PAMELA SMART, Amir Bar Lev's HAPPY VALLEY, Kenneth Price's THE HIP-HOP FELLOW, Joe Berlinger's WHITEY: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA V. JAMES L. BULGER, and many more that I'm too tired to list.

Read more here:
Well, that's it for Full Frame 2014! Hope to see you there next year.

More later...

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2014: Day Two

Like with yesterday's weather and thematic content, the second day of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival held at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, N.C. and a few adjoining venues started out all serious and grim, but ended up on the sunny side.

I kicked off my Friday at the fest with EVOLUTION OF A CRIMINAL, the first full length feature doc by NYU-grad Darius Clark Monroe. I found it to be a stirringly emotional experience as it deals with Monroe coming completely clean about a bank robbery in Houston he took part in when he was 16 (he's in his 30s now).

The very personal film retraces the steps that led to the crime, via confessional interviews with Monroe, family members, and witnesses/victims, and detailed recreations that are full of momentum and appear to be dry runs for the director to make a full-out drama. EVOLUTION OF A CRIMINAL is a straight forward, honest film about owning your past mistakes, and it's a damn fine debut too.

This year, award-winning filmmaker Steve James (HOOP DREAMS, THE INTERRUPTERS) is getting the Full Frame Tribute with screenings of a selection of his acclaimed work. I usually skip older docs at this fest that I can easily see streaming or on disc in favor of the new exclusives, but I decided to check out one of James' works I hadn't gotten around to yet: 2005's REEL PARADISE. This one had me right from the get go because I was familiar with its protagonist, John Pierson (I read his book: “Spike, Mike, Slackers, & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema” back in the '90s), and I loved the premise of a film lover relocating his family to Fiji so that he can run free movies in a crumbling old theater in the jungle. Shots of Pierson's audiences at the at the 288-seat 180 Meridian Cinema, mostly children, laughing like crazy at broad commercial fare like BRINGIN' DOWN THE HOUSE prove that's there's at least something redeeming about that movie.

The debate between Pierson and his son Wyatt over whether APOCALYPSE NOW or JACKASS will connect with the movie-going kids is amusing, but at times it feels like disjointed episodes of a reality TV show that gets caught up in less interesting story-lines than its original premise. Still, Pierson and his family's year-long adventure hosting one of the most remote cinemas ever mostly makes for some wonderfully watchable stuff.

The following doc, Salvo Cuccia's SUMMER '82 WHEN ZAPPA CAME TO SICILY, making its North American premiere, was of particular interest to me because I was a big Frank Zappa fan when I was younger. I drifted away from the eclectic musician's weird sprawling oeuvre over the years, but retained a certain respect that was confirmed watching this excellent examination of both a controversial concert in Palermo, Italy in 1982 and the Zappa family connections to that region of the country.

Archival footage of the show, which escalated quickly into a riot, is at the center of the doc, but the newer material concerning Zappa's widow Gale, his offspring Dweezil, Moon Unit, and Diva joining one of Frank's best friends, Massimo Bassoli, to meet some of their Sicilian relatives is what makes this maybe the most moving doc I've seen so far this year. Bassoli and director Cuccia were on hand for a Q & A after the screening that was more unintentionally funny than it was insightful, due to how little English that Cuccia spoke.

The final film for my Friday at Full Frame was a doozy: SUPERMENSCH: THE LEGEND OF SHEP GORDON, the directorial debut doc of Mike Myers (yes, Mike SNL/WAYNE'S WORLD/AUSTIN POWERS Myers). Myers gives charismatic manager Shep Gordon his biodoc due in a poppy portrait that covers the man hyping Alice Cooper into a star, out-partying Teddy Pendergrass, dating Sharon Stone, and creating the cult of the celebrity chef, all the while maintaining some sort of Zen nonchalance.

Scores of hilarious anecdotes told by dozens of stars (Myers even chimes in but sparingly), along with period footage, and a smidgeon of comic recreations, all add up to a heartfelt love letter of a movie. Afterward, Gordon was there to answer questions, moderated by Full Frame Director of Programming Sadie Tillery, and the guy came off even more affably easygoing than in the film, especially for a guy who used to wear a t-shirt that said: “No head no backstage pass. Gordon even told one of the questioners who said he lived near him in Maui to come by for dinner somtime - he always has an open-door policy.

That's all for now, I'm getting a little verklempt.

More later...

Friday, April 04, 2014

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2014: Day One

The first day of the 17th annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in downtown Durham, N.C. started out overcast, but the sun made its way through the clouds in the mid-afternoon. But why the hell does that matter when I and many others were spending all day (and the next three) inside dark screening rooms at the Carolina Theatre and the Marriott City Center?

This year's roster boasts 48 new documentaries, 23 Invited Program films including 13 World Premieres and 11 North American Premieres, and the World Premiere of Doug Block's 112 WEDDINGS, which screened as the Opening Night Film earlier this evening. More on that later.

This morning, I attended my first film of the festival: Rory Kennedy's LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM, concerning the complicated process of evacuating a war-torn Saigon before Northern Vietnamese forces take over. 

The bulk of the doc is constructed from an amazing amount of great grainy archival footage, along with photos, period TV news reports, and home video. Interspersed throughout are interviews with members of the military, press, and other key participants, most recounting the immense moral dilemma of whether to obey White House orders and only evacuate Americans, or whether to save as many Vietnamese lives as possible. LAST DAYS is more gripping than most recent thrillers, and there's a lot of heart pouring through the remembrances.

Now onto some short docs starting with Maurice O'Brien's BUFFALO DREAMS, a 15-minute film about Scott Shand, Scotland's only commercial bison farmer. Beautifully shot by Director of Photography Fraser Rice, the piece conveys how times are tough for the herder as weather conditions and financial failings threaten his livelihood. Despite its brief length, O'Brien's doc certainly makes an impression.

Next up, I saw Sandy McLeod's SEEDS OF TIME, concerning agriculturalist Cary Fowler, the executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which maintains the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, aka “The Doomsday Vault.” It’s an installation located in Svalbard, Norway, that contains back-up copies of seeds of all the world's crops. This is because, as Fowler passionately puts it, the threat of climate change is “the single greatest challenge that agriculture has ever faced.” I thought I might be bored by a doc about a guy who's all about seeds, but the noble narrative of Fowler's mission, entertainingly enhanced with animated sequences by Sam Marlow, made for a thoroughly engrossing 76 minutes.

A couple of short works paired together followed beginning with Scott Calonico's THE SILLY BASTARD NEXT TO THE BED. The title of the 9 minute film comes from something JFK said on the phone to an air force general on the phone in 1963. Using footage, photos, real audio, and interview snippets, Calonico tops his similar style LBJ short that screened at last year's Full Frame.

Also good in the 'let's laugh at history' vein was the following feature: Brenda Goodman's SEX (ED) THE MOVIE, another doc clocking in under 80 minutes. It's a half history/half "best of" of American sex education films, many of which have been excerpted in other documentaries, and endlessly parodied by the likes of SNL and The Simpsons. Definitely the most purely fun doc of the day, and when it came to breaking down how different gender agendas were portrayed to schoolchildren of the past, I learned as much as I laughed.

Lastly, the Opening Night film: Doug Block's 112 WEDDINGS. I've not seen any of Block's previous docs (51 BURCH STREET, THE KIDS GROW UP), but the filmmaker/part-time wedding videographer's work here reminds me of Ross McElwee's (SHERMAN'S MARCH, BRIGHT LEAVES) stuff in its soft-spoken charm. Block looks back over the footage of the 20 years of ceremonies he's filmed, and catches up with with some of the couples now to see if they lived happily ever after or not. It's very amusing (sometimes sad) to see these cases of then and now, all of which is summed up by one interviewees' statement that “happy weddings are a dime-a-dozen, happy marriages are rarer.” This doc got the biggest laughs of the day, though SEX (ED) came mighty close in that regard.

Alright, that was a fine first day of Full Frame. Check back tomorrow for coverage of Day Two, and for live tweeting of the event follow @filmbabble

More later...

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

New Releases On Blu Ray & DVD: 4/1/14

Adam McKay's highly hyped retro-fitted Ron Burgandy update, ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES, leads the pack of new releases this week on home video. Three different versions of the very funny Will Ferrell film are available in the Blu ray combo pack: the original theatrical cut, the Super-Sized R-Rated cut that was released for a week in theaters last month, and a new unrated cut. 

There are also a ton of extras including an audio commentary (with Writer/Director Mckay, Producer Judd Apatow, and stars Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, and David Koechner), an 18-minute featurette “Behind the Scenes: Newsroom,” Deleted/Extended Scenes, Gag Reel, Line-O-Rama, News-O-Rama, Kench-O-Rama (?), Table Read, Catfight, Auditions, a bunch of trailers, and, uh, much more than I feel like listing. Whew! That's a lot of ANCHORMAN 2! Read my review of the original theatrical version.

A movie I barely even remember coming out last December, Carl Rinsch's fantasy adventure 47 RONIN starring Keanu Reeves as the half-Japanese and half-British hero who leads a band of samurai on a revenge mission (of course). The film was a flop that received horrible reviews (it has a 13% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) so it makes sense that I would forget about it. Special Features: a featurette entitled “Reforging the Legend,” and Deleted Scenes.

A film I did see at a special screening last month at the Colony Theater here in Raleigh, Joe Lynch's crude comedy KNIGHTS OF BADASSDOM, starring Ryan Kwanten, Steve Zahn, and Game of Thrones' Peter Dinklage, also drops today on Blu ray and DVD. I didn't laugh very much at but at least it taught me what LARP-ing is (Live Action Role Playing). Bonus material includes interviews with Zahn and Dinklage, out-takes, Summer Glau: Hottie Montage, and the San Diego Comic-Con Panel from 2011.

Also out today: Adam Rodger's 2012 rom com AT MIDDLETON, starring Andy Garcia and Vera Farmiga; David Grovic's 2014 thriller THE BAG MAN, starring John Cusack, Rebecca Da Costa, and Robert De Niro; and Nate Taylor's 2012 psychodrama FORGETTING THE GIRL, starring Christopher Denham.

On the older film front out today there's Alain Robbe-Grillet’s directorial debut L’IMMORTELLEFranco Prosperi’s 1976 crime epic MEET HIM AND DIE, and a new edition of Joel & Ethan Coen's 1996 classic FARGO, just in time for the premiere of the new Fargo FX TV series on April 15th.

TV series sets releasing this week: Psych: Season 8, Broadchurch: Season 1, George Gently: Series 6, The Cosby Show: Seasons 3 & 4, and for all you Shatner fans: T.J. Hooker: Seasons 1 & 2.

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Criterion To Release Jerry Lewis’ Long Lost Film THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED

The prestigious Criterion Collection announced today that they will be releasing Jerry Lewis’ long lost 1972 holocaust clown drama THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED on June 10th. In a New York Times profile of Lewis last Sunday, Lewis declared that he had “a change of heart” about the project that he’s said repeatedly over the years he’d never release. The film will make its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

“It finally dawned on me that the movie is my crowning achievement, a real piece of f***-in’ art, and people should be allowed to see it,” Lewis told critic A.O. Scott, going on to say that “It was a bitch to settle up all the international litigation, but it was worth it as everyone can see at Cannes.” The 88-year old Lewis is planning to appear at the event, and do the late night talk show rounds, including an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon on June 9th, to promote the Blu ray/DVD release.

Filmed in Sweden in 1972, the controversial, much speculated about film concerned Lewis as a clown named Helmut Doork (that’s right) who is sent to a Nazi prison and then a concentration camp, where he’s ordered to perform for Jewish children while they’re being led to the gas chambers. It was Lewis’ last film as a director for eight years before his acclaimed comedy comeback in 1980’s HARDLY WORKING.

The news that the infamous film is finally seeing the light of day will certainly excite many movie buffs who have long believed the never-seen work was one of cinema’s holy grails, along with the missing final reel of Orson Welles’ THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, and the alternate version of BACK TO THE FUTURE with Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly.

The Criterion Collection’s deluxe edition of THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED will include two separate audio commentaries – one with Lewis, the other with comedian/actor Harry Shearer, one of the few people who has actually seen the film before. Other Special Features will include extended scenes, a 45-minute making of documentary, picture gallery, a half hour video interview with Lewis, plus a few Nazi propaganda films for good measure.

You can pre-order Lewis’ magnum opus at Amazon, and from the film’s new official website.

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