Friday, April 29, 2016

At Best, The Crude, Cute KEANU Is A Mild Chucklefest

Opening today at a multiplex near you:

(Dir. Peter Atencio, 2016)

If you’ve been to the multiplex lately you may have seen a poster for a movie named KEANU featuring a cat wearing a baseball cap sideways, a do-rag, and chains over what looks like a bullet-proof vest.

But comedy duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s first feature film after wrapping up their Comedy Central show Key & Peele after five seasons isn’t really about a hip hop gangsta cat – no, that’s just a selling point. The most dolled up that the cat gets in it is in do-rag and chains.

It’s really about two nerdy friends, cousins actually who live in the suburbs, who have to affect tough thug-like personas in order to infiltrate the Los Angeles criminal underworld to get back their kidnapped kitten.

The kitten named Keanu - reportedly they were working on the screenplay around the time that JOHN WICK came out - was found by Rell (Peele) on his doorstep right after he was dumped by his girlfriend, so he immediately falls in love with the brown tabby.

A few weeks later, when Rell and his cousin Clarence (Key) are out at the movies, Rell’s apartment gets broken into and they come home to find that Keanu is missing. Rell freaks out, calls the police, then figures that his pot dealer Hulka (Will Forte in cornrows) who lives next door might know something about the break-in.

Hulka points Rell and Clarence in the direction of “the 17th St. “Blips,” a supergang comprised of Bloods and Crips, that use a topless bar called Hot Party Vixens as their headquarters. That’s where they have to do some heavy code switching to get to the Blips’ leader, Cheddar (Method Man), who has Keanu in his possession and has named him New Jack.

Cheddar mistakes Rell and Clarence for The Allentown Brothers, a pair of psychopathic gunmen (also played by Key and Peele), and makes a deal with them that if they make a delivery of his new drug called “Holy Shit” they can have the cat.

Rell and Clarence, or TekTonic and Sharktank as they’ve started calling themselves, meet up with Cheddar’s crew: Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish), Bud (Jason Mitchell, Trunk (Darrel Britt-Gibson), and Stitches (Jamar Malachi Neighbors), and proceed to fake their way through a series of shoot-outs set-pieces which get a bit tiresome.

It feels weird to say that an R-rated comic action movie that drops the f-bomb and n-word seemingly every minute is a light comedy, but the shoe fits as I think I mainly giggled mildly under my breath throughout. Peele and co-screenwriter Alex Rubens are obviously going for a PINEAPPLE EXPESS-esque takedown of action movie tropes, in which our heroes actually get bullet injuries and many people get killed, but these types of '80s-style scenarios that always seem to climax with a mansion shoot-out have simply been satirized to death.

Key and Peele’s characters would be funnier if they were fleshed out more - I can’t even remember what jobs they were supposed to have – and a sideline subplot about Clarence’s wife (Gabrielle Union), who’s away on a weekend trip with their daughter and a friend (Rob Huebel) and his daughter, saying on the phone to Clarence that Huebel has been inappropriate seems like it’s a small bit from a sequence that had been largely cut (I bet that there’s a deleted scene from it on the upcoming Blu ray/DVD).

However, I did adore the setup, including the opening church massacre scene, that’s shot a la John Woo in stylish slow motion, as much as I adored Keanu the kitten (or the seven kittens that played Keanu), and was amused by random moments like Key smoking some “Holy Shit” and hallucinating that he’s in a George Michael video (there’s a running gag that Key is a big fan).

I kept waiting for big laughs that never came, so the best I can say is that the cute, crude KEANU is a mild chucklefest. Even if you’re a hardcore fan of Key and Peele (or cats), you may want to consider a matinee.

More later...

Monday, April 25, 2016

Move Over Miles, Let Chet Baker Take A Solo

BORN TO BE BLUE (Dir. Robert Budreau, 2015)

here are obvious similarities that Robert Budreau’s Chet Baker film shares with Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis film, both in current release.

They are both unconventional biopics about legendary jazz musicians, both trumpeters who struggled with drug addiction. Both center around the artist being on the verge of making a comeback. Both have film noir-ish black and white flashbacks to previous glories in younger years. And both take the facts and riff on top of them in an attempt to make the films feel like jazz itself, man.

But writer/director Budreau – a Canadian film maker that’s made nearly two dozen Canadian features, none of which I’ve seen – has fashioned a meta angle for his portrait of Baker, that involves him filming a movie in the ‘60s about his life in the ‘50s, and having a relationship with an actress who’s playing his first wife in that film.

While it is true that producer Dino De Laurentiis did approach Baker about playing himself in a movie, the project was abandoned long before any shooting took place, and the actress, named Jane Azuka, is a fictional character, a composite of several women in Baker’s life.

In possibly his finest performance, Ethan Hawke is fearlessly fragile as the used to be hot mess that was Baker, a heroin-addicted, almost toothless shell of a man who we first meet doing hard time in an Italian prison in 1966.

Jane, played by Carmen Ejogo (SELMA, THE PURGE: ANARCHY), helps Baker to stay clean and get work but his mouth injury from a beating by drug dealers (something that really happened albeit in a different way) has made it painful to play (he constantly fiddles with his ill-fitting false teeth). Slowly, Baker begins to get his groove back and with the help of his producer Dick Bock (Callum Keith Rennie) scores a special studio session for a small audience of record execs in which he nails the standard “My Funny Valentine.”

Hawke does his own singing on that and the film’s climatic “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” and it’s an effective interpretation of Baker’s vocals that nicely doesn’t come off like a self conscious impression. Kevin Turcotte beautifully plays all of Baker’s trumpet parts as none of Baker’s actual music is in the film for some reason (I assume it’s a legal matter).

In bookending scenes at New York’s iconic Birdland nightclub, Miles Davis * (Kedar Brown) and Dizzy Gillespie (Kevin Hanchard) watch Baker on stage and feel his genius but they also seemingly know that he has to have smack in order to perform. Jane definitely knows this, and whether or not he will yet again succumb to addiction is what the film ultimately hinges on.

Hawke has put in a lot of solid work in his career (particularly in the films of Richard Linklater), but his turn here as Baker is an Oscar-worthy piece of work. He terrifically plays off of his own image of a post prime pretty boy, and his scenes with Ejogo, which have a real desperate undertone to them, are as pointed as they are sometimes painful to watch.

BORN TO BE BLUE, which takes its name from a 1946 Mel Tormé song that Baker covered in 1965, may strain from its over artsiness at times but it’s largely a soulful , sad ballad about trying to reclaim past glories. It may be too on the nose that the fictional female love interest here is named Azuka, which she says means “past glory,” but Budreau’s Chet Baker biopic, which I liked quite a bit better than Cheadle’s Miles Davis movie I have to say, has the gumption to get away with it.

* That's right, Miles Davis is in Chet Baker's movie, but unsurprisingly Baker isn't even mentioned in Davis's.

More later...

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Don Cheadle’s Problematic Yet Worthwhile Miles Davis Movie

Now playing at an indie art house near me:

MILES AHEAD (Dir. Don Cheadle, 2015)

This unconventional biopic of jazz legend Miles Davis is undeniably Don Cheadle’s dream project. In his directorial debut, Cheadle stars, co-wrote, co-produced, and even trained on the trumpet to play his subject’s solos so there’s definitely passion in place to make a powerful portrait.

And despite not much of a facial resemblance, Cheadle makes a great Miles Davis. He’s got the voice, affectations, and swagger down as just about anybody who’s spent some time YouTubing Davis clips can attest.

But to get MILES AHEAD (at one point titled KILL THE TRUMPET PLAYER) made, Cheadle had to make a major concession: he had to hire a white co-star in order for investors to finance the film.

Now if you have to have a white co-star, Ewan McGregor is a fine choice. However, I kept thinking that his character wasn’t necessary. McGregor plays Dave Braden *, a reporter for Rolling Stone, who shows up at the door of Davis’ New York brownstone trying to get an interview with Davis. The year is 1979, and Davis has been in heavy seclusion, having not performed in public or put out any music for five years.

McGregor’s Braden, who’s hoping to get to the bottom of what’s been called Davis’s “silent period” and pen a big comeback piece that will prompt the famous recluse to come out of hiding, discovers that there is a tape from a secret recording session that Davis’s label, Columbia Records, has stolen, and the unlikely duo of journalist/jazz legend team up to steal it back.

The tape is the film’s obvious McGuffin, with the coked-up Davis and the antsy Braden winding through a day involving confrontations with record execs, a shoot-out, and a car chase to retrieve the elusive recording. Caught up in the tape caper is Michael Stuhlbarg as a sleazy producer, and LaKeith Lee Stanfield as his client, a young up and coming trumpeter.

All of these characters and events are fictitious, but Cheadle has the film intermittently flash back to Davis’ early career in gorgeous smoky black and white shots that capture the artist in his late ‘50s/early ‘60s “Kind of Blue” period. These scenes center around Davis’ relationship with his first wife, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), whose face face on the album cover for his 1961 album “Someday My Prince Will Come” haunts the later day musician.

The movie is wall-to-wall Miles music, including such key tracks as “So What,” “Nefertiti,” “Frelon Brun,” “Solea,” "Go Ahead John, Pt. 2," and “Black Satin,” all sounding wonderful, and all nicely tied together with new music, a score by composer Robert Glasper, which Cheadle even contributed to too.

“If you’re gonna tell a story, come with some attitude, man,” Cheadle’s Davis tells McGregor’s Brill and Cheadle does indeed do that here, but the fractured narrative zig zags around its protagonist so much that we feel disconnected from him. I felt as baffled as McGregor looks throughout at Davis’ behavior and self-imposed darkness. For somebody who prefers to call his style “social music” instead of jazz, Davis comes across as somebody who’d rather not socialize. One of my major takeaways is that I’d rather listen to this guy play than hang out with him, especially considering his gun waving hostility.

I admire that Cheadle, and co-writer Steven Baigelman (GET ON UP), didn’t want to take a traditional cradle-to-grave Wikipedia page approach to Davis’ life, and decided instead to make an impressionistic portrait, but when one of the most stirring scenes is drawn from the historic record, the 1959 beating and arrest of Davis outside the jazz club Birdland by two members of the NYPD, it made me wonder how they might’ve crushed it had they gone the more conventional route.

The scenario with McGregor’s desperate scribe latching onto Cheadle’s scrambled characterization of the troubled trumpeter, and the convolutions surrounding the much sought after tape wore on me in short time. They felt more like tropes that would make up a bad episode of the HBO show Vinyl (detractors would say that would be any of them) than elements worthy of fleshing out on the big screen.

The conclusion of the film appears to be a comeback concert scene with Cheadle’s Davis, wearing a vest branded “#SocialMusic,” jamming with Herbie Hancock. The implication is that it is modern day and Davis, who in the non movie world died in ’91, is still alive – in influence at the very least. The title: “Miles Davis May 26, 1926 -” backs that up.

So I have some issues with Cheadle’s efforts here, but still found enough of his film to be vital, electric, and effective stuff that pays hardcore homage.

Its flights of fancy can ultimately be forgiven on that respect.

* The character that McGregor plays is listed as Dave Brill on IMDb, but “David Braden” on the film's Wikipedia page. Googling it I found that the name Braden or Brill come up in almost equal amounts on many sites entries on the film. So what's the deal? Why two different last names for the guy? Anybody know?

More later...

Friday, April 22, 2016

EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!: The Film Babble Blog Review

Now playing at a multiplex or indie art house near you:

(Dir. Richard Linklater, 2016)

Richard Linklater’s 18th film EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!, which takes its name from a Van Halen song, is billed as a “spiritual sequel to DAZED AND CONFUSED.”

This means that while it involves none of the same characters it’s an Austin, Texas-set period piece that takes place several years after DAZED’s last day of high school ’76 scenario with a similar amount of hard partying, soul searching, and a wall-to-wall soundtrack of radio hits from a bygone era.

It’s 1980, and to the beat of The Knack’s “My Sharona,” we meet our protagonist (and Linklater surrogate) the affable feather-haired Jake (Blake Jenner) as he drives onto campus to start his freshman year at the fictitious Southeast Texas University. Jake, a pitcher on a baseball scholarship, arrives only with a suitcase and a milk crate of records (Devo’s 1977 debut “Are We Not Men” is the most visible album).

Jake moves into one of the two baseball houses on campus and meets his fellow players/roommates – including the pornstached McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin), the slick-talking Finn (Glen Powell), the much ridiculed redneck Billy Autry (Will Brittain), the cocky constantly primping Roper (Ryan Guzman), the bearded spiritual stoner Willoughby (Wyatt Russell), the obnoxious outcast Niles (Juston Street), and the team’s token black guy, Dale (J. Quinton Johnson).

Jake soon notes that in his new living situation, where his teammates are always playing games whether it be foosball, ping pong, darts, poker or bloody knuckles (a stupid game in which two people punch each other’s knuckles until one of them gives up) that everything is a competition – “even hits from bongs.” Getting laid, always the main motivation in movies like this, is another messy game getting played here, of course.

The film is set entirely in the three days before classes begin – a ticker pops up here and there to tell us how much time is left – with little actual plot to speak of. In between the baseball bros’ drinking at various venues – including their regular watering hole “The Fox,” a country dance joint, and a punk club – Jake meets a smart, pretty performing arts major named Beverly (Zoey Deutch), who invites him to a costume party with her theater geek friends that Jake worries whether he should let his rowdy crew in on.

The crude yet warm-spirited EVERYBODY WANTS SOME has a lot of solid character driven laughs, but as well acted as these personalities are, I’m not sure that there is a Matthew McConaughey-style breakthrough role happening here in this no name cast.

Russell, who’s the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, has a witty charisma about him, but he gets walked out of the game before his Willoughby even gets a chance to be the film’s Wooderson.

With its washed out look via the cinematography of Shane F. Kelly (Linklater’s DP on A SCANNER DARKLY and BOYHOOD) , EVERYBODY WANTS SOME can sure look and feel like a film that was shot in the early ‘80s, a lot more than DAZED looked like a film that was shot in the ‘70s. The attention to detail, one of Linklater’s greatest strengths, really perpetuates the illusion that we’re taken the wayback machine to another time.

The well chosen soundtrack, which features such classics as “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang (an early sing-a-long, or rap-a-long car ride scene to this song is a highlight), Robin Scott’s “Pop Musik,” Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” Devo’s “Whip It,” and various Cars and Cheap Trick tracks, also helps achieve that effect.

I doubt that this film will become the coming-of-age cult classic that DAZED has become in the decades since its release in 1993, but it’s a fine, funny follow-up to that film and Linklater’s brilliant, much more ambitious BOYHOOD. It begins much like BOYHOOD ended, with a young man on his own for the first time in his life starting a new life at college. It’s apparent that the overwhelming feeling of having your life ahead of you, with an open mind to new people and experiences, is something that has never left the 55-year old Linklater.

To paraphrase one of the writer/director’s most enduring characters, the aforementioned McConaughey character of Wooderson, Linklater gets older, but these universal themes stay the same age.

More later...

Monday, April 18, 2016

Jon Favreau's THE JUNGLE BOOK: Charms & Visual Delights A-Plenty

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

THE JUNGLE BOOK (Dir. Jon Favreau, 2016)

Okay, so I was cynical walking in to this live-action/CGI adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 classic “The Jungle Book,” as it’s another big ass Disney re-imagining of an established property, but its charms as well as its visual delights are plentiful. I really should have had more faith in Favreau.

Apparently it did the director a lot of good to get back to his indie roots with his 2014 hit CHEF, as there’s spirit and soul here that was in short supply in Favreau’s previous bid for blockbuster success, 2011’s COWBOYS AND ALIENS (not to mention 2010’s IRON MAN 2).

Favreau, aided by stellar cinematography by Bill Pope (THE MATRIX trilogy), brings a grand sweep to the story of Mowgli, a young orphaned boy raised by wolves in the jungles of India played with wide-eyed gusto by newcomer Neel Sethi.

Mowgli was brought to the wolves as a baby by Bagheera, a black panther voiced by Ben Kingsley. When Mowgli life is threatened (as are the lives of his adoptive parents voiced by Lupita Nyong'o and Giancarlo Esposito) by the sinister Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a Bengal tiger who strongly distrusts humans; he leaves the pack to journey to the nearby man village guided by Bagheera.

From there, Mowgli has a series of adventures involving almost getting squeezed to death by the sultry-voiced python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), stealing honey from a dangerous cliff location for a sloth bear named Baloo (a wonderfully droll Bill Murray), and being kidnapped by monkeys who take him to the lair of the towering King Louie (a cunning Christopher Walken), a Bornean orangutan who, like Kaa did before him, wants Mowgli to provide him with the secret of man’s “red flower”aka fire.

Despite being shot entirely on a green screen soundstage in LA, THE JUNGLE BOOK’s CGI-ed environs are astoundingly convincing. The photorealism pops in every shot, and coupled with how intricately animated the animals are, there’s barely a moment in which the viewer isn’t immaculately immersed in what’s on screen.

Favreau, who co-wrote the screenplay with Justin Marks, whose only previous feature length writing credit is STREET FIGHTER: THE LEGEND OF CHUN-LI, has a warm feel for this material which helps transcend it from what could’ve been a routine run through familiar set-pieces.

While Sethi and Murray, who have the best chemistry together bonding as boy and bear, get to duet for a brief bit on the Disney standard “The Bare Necessities,” the decision for the film to not be a musical seems to have been made, but if you stay through to the bitter end there are several excerpts of songs sung by Johansson, Walken, et al, during the closing credits.

Otherwise, the score by John Debney, a frequent Favreau collaborator, overworks the drama at times, but mostly keeps its movements admirably in line with the action.

As overwhelmed as the character is with his surroundings and iconic co-stars, Sethi puts in a solid everykid performance as Mowgli. The scenery and spectacle wouldn’t have as much weight to it if there wasn’t a kid to care about in the middle of it all.

Both by box office (it’s #1) and critical acclaim (it’s at 94% on Rotten Tomatoes) Favreau and co. have a huge hit in THE JUNGLE BOOK, with a sequel already in the works. It’s an understandable gut reaction to react with cynicism to all the remakes, re-imaginings, sequels, etc. that clog up the multiplexes, but films like this show that there are inspired creative forces, who while faithful to the original source, can produce new worthwhile versions of beloved properties.

So it’s best to leave your skepticism at the door, and go in as wide-eyed as Mowgli.

More later...

Monday, April 11, 2016

Full Frame 2016: Days 3 & 4

Despite the sunniness, it felt like the last gasp of winter on Saturday and Sunday with very chilly winds flowing through the buildings of downtown Durham. There was even a freeze warning on Saturday night. But why am I talking about the weather when I was warm and cozy inside the Carolina Theatre on both days watching what I could of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival roster? I'm not sure so let's just get to the docs.

First up, Roger Ross Williams' LIFE, ANIMATED, which focuses on the autistic world of Owen Suskind, the son Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Ron Suskind.

Owen was diagnosed at age 3 with regressive autism and started speaking only in gibberish but over the years of watching every animated Disney film repeatedly, he began to communicate with his family through the dialogue from those classic cartoons. Williams, who won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject for his film MUSIC BY PRUDENCE, filmed Owen as he graduated school and moved out of his parents’ house to live on his own for the first time. Owen’s father, Ron, mother Cornelia, and brother Walt appear to provide their insights, while animation by Mac Guff brings to life both the families’ memories, and Owen’s own original story “The Land of the Lost Sidekicks” (there's also lots of clips from the over 40 classic Disney films that Owen has memorized).

Based on father Suskind’s 2014 book “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism,” Williams’ film is a heartwarming, inspiring work that I could tell greatly touched the audience at Fletcher Hall on Saturday afternoon. That was strongly evident when Owen took the stage, with the filmmakers and members of his family, for a Q & A after the screening. Owen delighted everyone with his impressions of Disney characters, and his short to the point answers. Anybody who’s cynical about what effect Disney has on the world should see this film – it’ll make them change their tune for sure.

Following that was Jedd and Todd Wider’s GOD KNOWS WHERE I AM, about the troubling life of a mysterious woman whose body was found in an abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse. Next to her was a diary in which she documented her starvation and loss of sanity. The woman was identified as Linda Bishop, who had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals and served time in jail. Bishop's sister, Joan; and daughter, Caitlin Murtagh, alongside testimony from various therapists and social workers, appear to help tell her story, but its the voice-over readings from Linda's diary by actress Lori Singer (probably best known as the female lead of the 1984 hit FOOTLOOSE) that are most affecting.

GOD KNOWS WHERE I AM is a chilling, dark doc debut from the Wider brothers, who have learned well from producing several of ace documentarian Alex Gibney's project. I know that Linda's sad, haunting story will stay with me for some time.

Another promising doc debut I saw on Saturday was Margaret Byrne's RAISING BERTIE, which follows three young African American men - Reginald “Junior” Askew, David “Bud” Perry, and Davonte “Dada” - over the course of five years as they grow into adulthood in the rural county of Bertie, here in North Carolina. The trio attended The Hive, a school for at-risk students, together before striking out on their own, but when the alternative school closes , they have to return to the system that originally failed them.

Byrne's camera captures some intimate moments with these men as they struggle to find their place in adulthood in this unpretentiously framed narrative. There's a fly-on-the-wall feel to the proceedings as we witness such events as Davonte attending his senior prom, and Reginald visiting his biological father in jail. As RAISING BERTIE concentrates on the coming-of-age arc of its subjects, it raises some vital questions about what options and opportunities exist for young people in rural America. It doesn't have any answers to these questions but, through these men, it stirringly taps into the power of individual perserverance.

Saturday night, I took in Ido Haar's PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW, which was part of this year's Center Frame series. Having been previously clueless to its content, I was very taken by the tale of how its star, Princess Shaw (real name: Samantha Montgomery), became a viral sensation when a Israeli musician, Kutiman (real name: Ophir Kutiel) used her vocals in a mix with other “found” musical elements to make this striking song:

The doc follows Princess Shaw, who by day works as a nurse in New Orleans, as she finds out (and freaks out) about her internet stardom and travels to Tel Aviv to meet and collaborate further with Kutiman. Originally, Haar's project was supposed to be about the culture of YouTubers in general, but came to center around the infectious, bouyant personality and sympathetic backstory of Princess Shaw. It was a wonderful choice, as the film is quite possibly not just the most joyous doc of this year's fest, but the most joyous doc I've seen at Full Frame ever.

Princess Shaw herself appeared during the end credits to rapturous applause, and went on to give us a live performance of her signature song: 

In the Q & A, our lady of honor revealed that she is soon to be working on a proper album for release later this year, stressed that she's not a star yet as she's still working her nurse job, and repeatedly shared what was apparently her new favorite expression of excitement: “rock sausages!” Many complain of cyber disconnection in our modern times, but strong, passionate, and (again) joyous stories like this show that the digital age can bring people together. Rock sausages indeed.

Full Frame's closing night film was another major crowdpleaser: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU.

This biodoc of one of the most successful independent TV producers of time (at one point he had five different televsion shows in the top ten in the Nielsen ratings) ought to be mandatory viewing for Millienials so that they can get some understanding of how influential and game changing such sitcoms as All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and Maude were in the '70s.

The 93-year old Lear appears in insightful interview segments (which somewhat resemble the ones in BY SIDNEY LUMET but that's a doc given), alongside and overlapping with clips from his classic shows, while family members, friends and collaborators such as George Clooney, John Amos, Louise Lasser, Rob Reiner, and son Ben Lear appear to sing his praises. As a fan of the man who grew up on his shows (I really felt Jon Stewart when he said “you raised me!” to Lear backstage before a guest appearance on The Daily Show), I didn't learn much new, but still highly enjoyed the ride through Lear's rich career. But I had forgotten some of the juicy details about his fighting the Moral Majority in the '80s so the refresher there was very appreciative.

Lear's legacy is so considerable that, unless one didn't have access to footage from his TV library, it would be hard to make a bad doc about the man, but Ewing and Grady (makers of such fine docs as THE BOYS OF BARAKA, JESUS CAMP, and DETROPIA) have assembled an affectionate tribute that made me tear up throughout. Now I want to watch the entire run of All in the Family again.

Okay! So that's Full Frame 2016. Thanks for reading and stay tuned to this space for more Film Babble Blog Fun.

Postscript: LIFE, ANIMATED won The Full Frame Full Frame Audience Award at the Awards Barbecue on Sunday. Click here to see the full list of winners.

More later...

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Full Frame 2016: Day 2

The films I saw on the second day of this year's Full Frame Documentary Film Festival weren't as flashy or fun as my picks on the previous day, but they may have been a lot more thought provoking.

Take for instance, Patrick Shen's IN PURSUIT OF SILENCE, which kicked my day off. It's a meditative exploration of how precious silence is in a world of noise pollution, based on the book of the same name by George Prochnik (subtitled “Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise”). Prochnik appears as one of the interviewees (no, the film isn't completely silent) and talks about how noise is “the imposition of our own egos on the world.”

We also meet Greg Hindy, who holds up a notebook with writing that says: “I have taken a vow of silence and am walking across America – Nashua, NH – Los Angeles, CA July 2013-July 2014.” Shen checks back on Hindy throughout the film, in between visiting a trappist monastery, various national parks, and most interestingly examines avant-garde composer John Cage's “4'33,” a famous composition that requires musicians to not play their instruments for the duration of four minutes and thirty three seconds. 

IN PURSUIT OF SILENCE is full of gorgeous serene shots of wide landscapes juxtaposed with noisy imagery of a bunch of bustling city activity shot by cinematographer Brandon Vedder. In many quiet sequences, the film casts a meditative spell, but then jars the viewer out of it with montages of loud machinery, clips of Fox News pundits yelling at each other, and the scary statement by a doctor that excessive noise can cause heart disease. Speaking as somebody who's prone to over-stimulation, Shen's work here definitely touched more than one nerve.

Next up, two of my favorite documentarians, the husband/wife duo of Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, who should be very familiar with Full Frame regulars, presented their follow-up to 2009's delightful KING OF PASTRY, UNLOCKING THE CAGE, which focuses on animal (or nonhuman) rights activism.

The incredibly involving, and lovingly made doc concerns attorney Steve Wise (pictured above with chimp friend) and his legal team, the Nonhuman Rights Project, fighting for animals, mainly chimpanzees, to be granted personhood rights which would protect them from physical abuse.

“Will this court case be the first step towards a real life ‘Planet of the Apes’?” asks one internet headline. So Wise and his passionate crew work to free a couple of former show biz chimps named Tommy and Kiki, and a couple of other imprisoned chimps being used for biomedical research from their neglected captivity as such scrutiny from the media goes down. 

In one of the film's highlights, Wise makes an appeal on behalf of Tommy to the New York Supreme Court arguing that “the abilities of self determination, and autonomy are supreme values within common law, and these are also the same values that the writ of Habeas corpus was constructed over the centuries to protect, and we ask this court to not necessarily find that Tommy is a person, but assuming as Lord Mansfield did, without deciding that Tommy could be a person, remanding to the court in order to show cause and proceed in accordance with Article 70.” Yep, Wise really crushes it there.

UNLOCKING THE CAGE is another strong offering from Hegedus and Pennebaker. With its masterly unobtrusive viewpoint on the unfolding events, it stands in the same high class as their 1992 Bill Clinton campaign doc THE WAR ROOM, which is screening this fest (on Saturday morning) as part of the Thematic Program “Perfect and Otherwise: Documenting American Politics.” Wise, his legal team, Hegedus, and Pennebaker sure convinced me that autonomous beings deserve to live autonomous lives. I bet anybody who seeks out this doc will be convinced too.

Next up, the new film from the recipient of this year's Tribute Award, director and documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson: CAMERAPERSON. Johnson's doc, her fourth as director, is made up of short scenes from the films she's worked on over the last two decades including CITIZENFOUR, DERRIDA, LIONESS, and THIS FILM IS NOT RATED. It's a fluid flow of shots that amusingly bounces around from some locales as Bosnia, Afghanistan, Darfur, Eygpt, Texas, and Johnson's New York apartment. We get the sense, like from a Washington DC take with Michael Moore on FAHRENHEIT 9/11, that these largely incidental, choppy clips have as much meaning, or more, to Johnson as the polished versions of the material that appeared in the released films. Congratulations on the Tribute Award Mrs. Johnson, and on this fine, well conceived career overview.

My final film for Friday's roster was Samuel D. Pollard's TWO TRAINS RUNNIN', a film I was excited about because I noted that there seemed to be a lack of music docs at this year's fest. Its about two separate groups of young white men, one from the East Coast and the other from California, searching for the largely forgotten country blues musicians Son House and Skip James in Mississippi in the early to mid '60s. The fact that this was during the Civil Rights era, one of the most dangerous periods of unrest in U.S. history isn't lost on any of the doc's participants.

Especially when the day that both groups solve the mystery of where their heroes are, coincides with the day that three civil rights workers were abducted and murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi (June 21, 1964). Oscar-winning Hip hop artist Common narrates, effective animation by Apparat Animation Design fills in the gaps where no photos or footage is available, and musicians such as Guy Clark, Buddy Guy, and Lucinda Williams provide insights into the legends of House and James, alongside some affecting performances of the old bluesmans' best known songs.

From the audience response I know I'm not alone in finding TWO TRAINS RUNNIN' to be a fully rounded doc that, with the help of music historians and the musicians themselves (especially Guy Clark, pictured above, who composed original music for the score), beautifully connects some powerful dots that form a rich portrait that you don't have to be a blues aficionado to appreciate.

Okay, that's Day 2. Coming soon: Coverage of Days 3 & 4 of Full Frame. Also check out my recap of Day 1 if you haven't already.

More later...

Friday, April 08, 2016

Full Frame 2016: Day 1

It's that time of year again - time to head to downtown Durham, N.C. for a four-day slew of new docs to view as the 19th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival is underway at the Carolina Theatre and the Marriott Convention Center.

This year's roster boasts screenings of 93 documentaries including 13 world premieres, six North American premieres, two U.S. premieres, and the Thematic Program “Perfect and Otherwise: Documenting American Politics,” which features a series of classic and contemporary political docs curated by filmmaker R.J. Cutler.

The first film I attended was BY SYDNEY LUMET, directed by Full Frame founder Nancy Buirski (THE LOVING STORY).

The film is a portrait of the late filmmaker consisting of interview segments from an 18-hour session filmed in 2008 by documentarian Daniel Anker (who passed in 2011), which are edited together with footage from many of Lumet's 44 films. In close-ups so tight that we get intimate with his nose hairs, Lumet points out the thematic connections between such notable works as 12 ANGRY MEN, LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, SERPICO, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, NETWORK, THE VERDICT and many others while well chosen clips enhance his recollections.

It's an insightful and at times emotional look at an impressive body of work. Lumet's method has been considered workmanlike by many critics, but Buirski, through the man's own words, makes the case for the vitality of his craft that shines through. Buirski's film is so successful in this thesis that there was an audible gasp by the audience when text told us at the end that Lumet never won a Best Directing Oscar. But he did receive an Honorary Academy Award in 2005 so there's that at least. BY SIDNEY LUMET is a sheer delight of a biodoc that makes me want to see every Lumet movie (I've only seen a third of his output so far).

The Opening Night Film for the festival was a real doozy: Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg's WEINER, about former Congressman Anthony Weiner, who you probably know from the dick picks that derailed his candidacy for Mayor of New York. The film begins with a quote from Marshall McLuhan: “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers,” and the laughs keep coming after that so much so that WEINER is funnier than just about any recent comedy.

For their feature length doc debut, Kriegman and Steinberg follow Weiner around on his 2013 campaign as the politician tries to rise above the scandal and put forth his ideas, but stern shots of his suffering wife, Huma Abedin (currently vice chairwoman of Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign for President) tell us that this isn't so easily swept under the rug. Especially when a second scandal, involving explicit pics sent to a young woman, hits the candidate hard. Kriegman and Steinberg know that this is a story best enchanced by the satirical news commentary of Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, Stephen Colbert's The Colbert Report, and various late night monologue jokes than straight news coverage so there's plenty of hilarious punctualizing from those sources throughout.

The guy brought it on himself obviously, but I did feel some sympathy for him in the film's quieter moments. Particularly one towards the end when at an sad, awkward pause at Weiner's posh apartment, Kriegman actually asks “Why have you let me film this?” Weiner just stares blankly back at the camera before it cuts. WEINER, which could just as well be subtitled “The Adventures of Carlos Danger, has as much to say about ambition as it does delusion. It's up to the viewer as to which one wins out.

My final doc for the first day of Full Frame, Jeff Feuerzeig's AUTHOR: THE JT LEROY STORY, may have been the most fascinating of the films I've seen so far, as it's about a subject that I knew the least about. It concerns the litery persona of Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy, which was created by writer Laura Albert. LeRoy became a sensation and a media darling for the celebrated novels “Sarah,” and “Harold’s End,” and the short-story collection “The Heart is Deceitful Above All,” in the '90s, but few knew at the time that Albert's sister-in-law Savannah Knoop played the part for public appearances.

Celebrities such as Courtney Love, actor Michael Pitt, and The Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan get caught up in the androgynous LeRoy's orbit, as does filmmaker Gus Van Sant who uses some of his/her idea's in his 2003 film ELEPHANT, which credits LeRoy as Associate Producer, before the author is exposed by the New York Times in 2006. 

Feuerzeig, who made one of my rock doc favorites THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON, tells Albert/LeRoy's tale though a well blended mix of footage, photos, and, most effectively, audio from scores of Albert's telephone answering machine tapes (a call from Tom Waits is priceless). Albert provides at times poetic interview commentary about how it felt to watch her creation from the sidelines, and by the end we have a full, and thoroughly entertaining picture of how this absurd series of situations revolving around a fabricated identity went down. AUTHOR is for certain a biodoc with a real difference. 

Okay! So that wraps up day 1 of Full Frame 2016. Check back tomorrow for coverage of Day Two, and for live tweeting of the event follow @filmbabble.

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THE BOSS: Melissa McCarthy's Latest Vapid Vehicle

Opening today at a multiplex near you:

(Dir. Ben Falcone, 2016)

‘Please be better than TAMMY – please be better than TAMMY,’ I kept repeating in my head going in to see this new Melissa McCarthy vehicle.

The 2014 summer release TAMMY, about an obnoxious, foul-mouthed poor white trash woman taking a road trip with her grandmother (Susan Sarandon), was McCarthy’s first starring role, and also her first film helmed by husband, Ben Falcone, who is probably best remembered as the Air Marshal in the Kristen Wiig smash BRIDESMAIDS – the film that featured McCarthy’s career breakthrough.

TAMMY may have been a disappointment, but it was fairly successful at the box office, so after McCarthy had another hit with Paul Feig’s not bad SPY last year (which Falcone had a cameo in), the husband and wife duo return with THE BOSS, about another obnoxious, foul-mouthed lady, but this time she’s rich white trash.

McCarthy plays the well-coiffed, turtleneck-wearing Michelle Darnell, a Donald Trump-styled mogul, who is extremely proud of being the “47th wealthiest woman in America.” That is, until she is arrested for inside trading (“everybody does it!” Michelle protests), and sent to a country club-like Federal prison for five months.

When she is released, she finds that all of her assets have been seized and she’s forced to live with her former assistant, Claire, portrayed by Kristen Bell of Veronica Mars fame.

Before long, inspired by Claire’s daughter’s (Elle Anderson) Girl Scouts-like troop, the Dandelions, Michelle figures a way to get back on top by starting an organization called “Darnell's Darlings,” who will sell brownies to compete with the Dandelions cookies.

The brownie recipe is Claire’s so she and Michelle become 50-50 partners in the budding business.

Peter Dinklage is the film’s villain as Renault, Michelle’s ex-lover turned competitor; BRIDESMAIDS co-writer Annie Mumolo plays another adversary, a snooty Dandelions mother; Tyler Labine plays a co-worker of Claire’s who has a crush on her, Kathy Bates has an all too short part as Michelle’s mentor, and SNL’s Cicely Strong has a very wasted part as Claire’s boss, who’s a big fan of Michelle’s.

Actually they’re all wasted parts as there’s not one inspired, memorable character to be found here.

The film is so filled with jokes that don’t land, awkward unfunny moments, and clunky plotting that extreme restlessness took me around the halfway mark, and I was mostly just sitting there waiting for it to end.

Now and again, I mildly chuckled. There’s no way McCarthy can make a movie that doesn’t have at least a few halfway decent attempts at laughs - a street fight scene between the Dandelions and Darnell's Darnings accounts for a few funny moments – but for long stretches I watched in silence at obvious gag setups that resulted in eye-roll inducing payoffs over and over.

THE BOSS isn’t even a good title as nobody calls McCarthy that, and the movie isn’t really about her being a boss. It isn’t really about anything except having McCarthy make cheap shot quips at her co-stars.

McCarthy is one of the funniest people working in the cinematic comedy genre, but she’s beginning to build a filmography full of vapid vehicles that aren’t worthy of her talents (i.e. IDENTITY THIEF, THE HEAT, and the aforementioned TAMMY).

Here’s hoping that this summer’s GHOSTBUSTERS reboot/remake/re-whatever, in which she stars with a trio of SNL gals (Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones), fairs better, because it’s getting sad to see yet another overly broad, lame effort like this. 

I mean, not even the bloopers that accompany the end credits (something I just knew a film like this would have) are that funny!

More later...

Monday, April 04, 2016

HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS: A Pleasant Surprise

(Dir. Michael Showalter, 2015)

any film fans will never forget Sally Field’s speech upon winning her second Oscar back in 1985. A giddy Field told the audience that getting the gold meant “so much more” to her than her previous win, and after thanking her family and fellow cast members from A PLACE IN THE HEART, she thanked the voters and concluded that “I can't deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!”

It was a moment that was embarrassing, yet endearing at the same time. Field’s new film, HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS, her first starring role in a decade, has the very same effect.

It’s the second directorial effort by Michael Showalter, who comedy fans know from such cult works as the ‘90s MTV sketch series The State and the much loved camp satire WED HOT AMERICAN SUMMER. Judging by his first film, 2005’s THE BAXTER, and his co-writing credit on David Wain’s 2014 spoof THEY CAME TOGETHER, Showalter has a thing about deconstructing rom com tropes, but here he plays it relatively straight.

Field plays the titular Doris Miller, a 60something-aged mousy, bee-hive haired, cat-eye glasses wearing accountant in a hip New York fashion company who falls for the new art director, John Fremont, portrayed by Max Greenfield, best known as Schmidt on the Fox sitcom New Girl.

Doris finds herself having Ally McBeal-ish daydreams about John, and, with the help of her best friend's (Tyne Daly) granddaughter (Isabella Acres), sets up a fake Facebook page so she can cyberstalk him.

Doris’ life is in a state of transition as her mother, who she’d had been taking care of for decades has recently passed, and her brotherTodd (Stephen Root), and his snippy wife Cynthia (Wendi McLendon-Covey) want to her to sell the family’s cluttered Staten Island house.

With inspiration from a self help motivational guru (a great all too brief turn by Peter Gallagher), Doris starts to think she can get John’s attention. This leads to her showing up at a concert of John’s favorite band Baby Goya and Nuclear Winters (Jack Antonoff of the band Fun plays the front man), and she succeeds in making a splash in her colorful ‘80s neon attire. So much so that Antonoff wants her to pose for the cover of the band’s next album.

Doris is able to get close to John – they have a nice scene talking about past relationships at a diner - but it turns out he has an age-appropriate girlfriend (Beth Behrs of Two Broke Girls). Heartbroken over this, Doris posts a message on John’s Facebook wall that causes the young couple to break up. It’s now up to Doris to declare her love for John at his Thanksgiving party.

There are moments that made me cringe in HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS, but they were balanced with moments of pure charm and heart. Field’s Doris is adorkable for sure, but the actress fleshes out the character making her so much more than the expected caricature. In scenes with her concerned family and friends such as Daly Field is able to give Doris some dramatic heft too.

The well groomed Greenfield does a good job too with John. It’s a standard oblivious nice guy/everyman role but he nails it and makes us feel for him when he learns the truth about Doris.

Showalter, who co-wrote the film with Laura Terruso based on Terruso’s 2011 short film “Doris and the Intern,” has made his most real-feeling work here. It’s a pleasant surprise because from the outside it looks like a typical cheesy rom com, a commercially minded mix of THE INTERN and HAROLD AND MAUDE.

But step inside and you find a much, more likable production that’s not stained with cheap laughs nor cheap sentiment.

For years, I’ve misremembered Field’s Oscar quote that I mentioned above. I thought it was: “You like me, you really like me!” and I was going to say that I liked this movie, but didn’t really like it as it could’ve been a bit funnier and maybe a little less predictable. 

But despite those beefs, I'll stick with the sentiment from her original quote and say that I can’t deny the fact that I liked it, right now. I liked it.

More later...