Friday, April 27, 2018

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

Now playing at every multiplex in the MCU:


(Dirs. Anthony Russo & Joe Russo, 2018) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More later...

Friday, April 20, 2018

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

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

FINAL PORTRAIT (Dir. Stanley Tucci, 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More later...

Monday, April 16, 2018

John Krasinski’s A QUIET PLACE Is Scary Good

Now playing at a multiplex near me:

A QUIET PLACE (Dir. John Krasinski, 2018) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More later...

Thursday, April 12, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FBB: You want to feel something.

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

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

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

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

More later...

Monday, April 09, 2018

Full Frame 2018: Day Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More later...

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Full Frame 2018: Day Three

The third day of the Full Frame 2018 was a cold, and rainy mess but the first film I attended, Morgan Neville’s WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR warmed me and the sold out crowd in Fletcher Hall right up.

The biodoc lovingly lays out the life of the beloved children’s educator/entertainer Fred Rogers, with tons of clips from the long running (or runs since the show left and came back) PBS program, Mr. Rogers Nighborhood, and interviews with fellow cast members, family, and folks whose lives were shaped by the man’s teachings.

Mr. Rogers’ show, which started in 1968, may have had threadbare production values with cheap sets, and sock puppets, but it dealt with big issues like Vietnam, assassinations, and racism as filtered through the gentle sensibilities of the man, who was an ordained minister before going into children’s television programming.

One of the most stirring moments comes when Mr. Rogers appeared before the Senate to defend a proposed $20 million for PBS (Nixon wanted to cut the channel’s federal funding). Mr. Rogers heartfelt testimony, including the reading of the lyrics of his song “What Do You Do with the Mad that You Feel?” wins over self described tough guy, Senator John Pastore, whose response I won’t spoil (you can look it up on Youtube).

A wonderful look at a sincerely dedicated man who helped many kids through the trials of childhood, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR is up there with RBG and HAL as being this Fest’s biggest crowd-pleasers.

I followed that with Hunter Baker and Jordan Fein’s THE BLESSING, about Lawrence, a Navajo coal miner, who is conflicted about working for Peabody Energy, because they are mining Black Mesa, a sacred mountain to his people. Lawrence is raising a teenage daughter named Caitlin, who has to keep it secret that she joined her school’s football team because her father would disapprove.

Lawrence struggles to stay spiritually strong after an accident on the job that fractured his vertebrae, and news that the company will close the mine in 2019. THE BLESSING is slowly paced, but that’s all the better to take in the beautiful cinematography, some of which was shot by Lawrence with a helmet-mounted camera. 

Baker and Fein’s film is a tale of hard times in the heartland that should be seen on the big screen. In one of his many poetic voice-overs, Lawrence reckons, “My job may go away, but my prayers for the mountain will always be there.” After watching the noble stoic bless everything from various household items to his new car, I don’t doubt him for a second.

Full Frame founder Nancy Buirski’s latest film, THE RAPE OF RECY TAYLOR, came next. 

Buirdki, whose previous docs include 2011’s THE LOVING STORY (basis for the 2016 drama LIVING), and 2015’s BY SIDNEY LUMET, uses “race films” (films made by mostly black filmmakers with black casts for black audiences), vintage footage, home movies, and old photographs to tell the tragic story of Recy Taylor, a 24-year old African American woman who was raped by six white men in Abbeville, Alabama, in 1944. 

Despite the South’s “culture of silence,” she went to the police, but no arrests were made. The story spread through the black press, and was reported to the NAACP, who sent Rosa Parks to Abbeville to investigate what happened. A trial was held in Montgomery but the all-white, all-male jury dismissed the case. A disturbing cycle of cover-ups, one-sided examinations, and dangerously dark nights follows, but the light that comes in
the power of public push back provides hope.

THE RAPE OF RECY TAYLOR resonates greatly in the era of #METOO, as it pays tribute to a woman who spoke out at great risk and inspired a campaign against all injustices faced by women. Taylor, who died last December, is only featured briefly in video filmed shortly before her death, but her visage looms large throughout the film as an inspirational figure and hero. Every aspiring activist should see this film.

A very, very different subject is tackled in Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler, and Jeff Springer’s RODENTS OF UNUSUAL SIZENarrator Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Treme) relays the story that he calls crazier than hell, about nutria, that is, big swamp rats with web feet, and long orange teeth that are invading the Lousiana Coastal wetlands. We meet nutria hunters, nutria control workers,  nutria meat makers, nutria pet owners, nutria fur wholesalers, and nutria fur-wearing Pageant contestants like Lousiana Fur Queen, Haleigh Willis: You would never expect a rat to be elegant, yet here we are, and half of us wear it every single day.

As the Lost Bayou Ramblers contribute an appropriately swampy score, the film amusingly visits with these earthy folks whose lives are profoundly affected by these 20-pound rodents, and we get a good glimpse into how nutria became a big part of Cajun culture. Downside is that, yeah, this movie which takes its title from a PRINCESS BRIDE reference, can be pretty gross at times. - if you don't want to see nutria stripped and their tails being cut off, this might not be the doc for you.

Coming soon: Day Four of Full Frame 2018, which will feature write-ups of JAZZ PASSENGERS, 12TH AND CLAIRMONT, and I AM MISHA.

More later...

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Full Frame 2018: Day Two

I was looking forward to the second day of Full Frame this year because it offered my most anticipated doc at the festival: Amy Scott’s HAL, about the legendary filmmaker Hal Ashby who made some of the greatest movies, and personal favorites of mine, of the ‘70s including HAROLD AND MAUDE, THE LAST DETAIL, SHAMPOO, COMING HOME, and BEING THERE.

The biodoc is the directorial debut of Amy Scott, whose many previous credits as an editor made me think that was one of the many factors that attracted her to Ashby as he started out the same way (even winning an Oscar for editing for IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT in 1968). 

HAL fittingly starts off with Cat Stevens on the soundtrack (singing Miles from Nowhere,” also fittingly), and goes on to tell the story of the great hippy director via lots of clips from his films, and testimonials by folks he worked with like Jon Voight, Jeff Bridges, and Norman Jewison, and disciples like Alexander Payne, Judd Apatow, and Adam McKay.

I teared up more than a few times because Ashbys movies are a large part of why I love movies. His comic yet simultaneously tragic depictions of such heavy subjects as love, race, and class spoke to me growing up, and I could tell I was among an audience full of people who could relate. 

Scotts choice is right to give the most screen time to recollections about the seven films Ashby made in the 70s (the five I listed above and THE LANDLORD, and BOUND FOR GLORY), what Payne calls an astonishing string of masterpieces,” then quickly breeze through his less successful run in the ‘80s before his untimely death at 59 in 1989 because even hardcore Ashby fans like me gloss over those sad years. I heard a woman in the row behind me at the screening say during the credits: I think I’ll have a Hal Ashby film fest of my own when I get home! I think I’ll be soon doing that too.

Not as big a crowd pleaser as last night’s RBG (how could it be?), but a moving, and highly amusing primer of one of the 20th centurys greatest filmmakers.

For the following film, I spent some more time in the 70s with Matt Tyrnauer’s STUDIO 54, which tells a tale that's been told many times about the famous Manhattan nightclub that hosted scores of coked up A-listers enjoying a dance party/orgy-style atmosphere while doormen and bouncers kept the crowds outside at bay.

That is only for a little while as the place was horribly run with so much money skimmed that it was easy for the FBI to shut the establishment down shortly after its founder/co-owner, Steve Rubell, stupidly boasted only the Mafia made more money. 

I grew up hearing tales, and seeing tons of photos of celebrities like Mick Jagger (and his wives Bianca, and Jerry Hall), Truman Capote, Farrah Fawcett, Andy Warhol, Sylvester Stallone, Liza Minneli, and just about everyone who was a star during the Carter era, so a lot of the content of the doc wasn't new to me, but to folks who have not a clue about these infamously sordid going-ons it should satisfactorily sum up the what went down. 

All the expected disco hits, and rise and fall tropes of many a doc about a doomed prospect gave me a big case of déjà vu, but hey, I'm old and jaded. Maybe I'm just saying that because I heard some youngin say I've never even seen a Hal Ashbury movie," on the way out.

Next up, a couple of short (or shorter as one is nearly featurre length) docs that are paired together because they both deal with fake news, albeit under very different circumstances. First up, there's Charlie LynePERSONAL TRUTH, which deals with his obsession with "Pizzagate," and a home, named Elmm Guest House, in his London neighborhood that's rumored to be a former headquarters to a pedophile network. Lynes conspiracy theories about these subjects are tongue-in-cheek (I think), and he scores some solid laughs with his delivery and clever edits, so I found it to be a worthwhile 17 minutes.

Maxim PozdorovkinOUR NEW PRESIDENT, which followed, is a lot more ambitious at looking at the scope of how propaganda proliferates. It's a 77 minute compilation of clips largely from the Russian television network, RT (Russia Today), which overwhelmingly display a pro-Trump, anti-Hillary agenda.

It's funny then terrifying, then funny then terrifying again how these segments outline how fake news spreads with flashy graphics, and taglines like "The longer you watch, the more upset Hillary Clinton becomes." Intersperse that stuff with a lot of video of a smug Putin claiming he had no influence in the 2016 American election, an you've got video essay gold, right? 

Well, not really. While initially the impact of how insane the lengths that such propaganda goes to convince the populous of whatever ridiculous stance is substantial, the effect diminishes upon every news cycle that follows. It ultimately felt like a YouTube rabbit hole playlist that one might mistakenly make a friend to watch. After 30 minutes or so, they'll be like "Okay, I get it - Russian influence is bad and nobody is taking it seriously enough. So what should we get for dinner? Anyway, thats how I felt, and I could tell that's how the people I saw leaving early probably felt too. I did stick it out until the end though.

So that was Day Two of Full Frame 2018. If you havent already, please check out Day One

Coming soon: Day Three, which kicks off with Morgan Nevilles Mr. Rogers biodoc WONT YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (another crowd pleasing biodoc, I bet).

More later...

Friday, April 06, 2018

Full Frame 2018: Day One

Its the beginning of 21st Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which runs Thursday, April 5, through Sunday, April 8, in Durham at the Carolina Theatre and a handful of other venues in downtown Durham. And its my 11th year covering the Festival for Film Babble Blog so Im pysched to yet again see what films I can out of the over 100 docs that are showing over the next four days.

So heres what I saw on Day One:

Erika CohnTHE JUDGE, a compelling biodoc of the first woman in Islamic history to become a judge, kicked off the Fest in Fletcher Hall (the biggest venue used by Full Frame as it has 1,048 seats).

The film introduces us to Palestinian Kholoud Al-Faqih, who was appointed to a Shari’a court in the Middle East in 2009, after working for nearly a decade as a lawyer fighting for womens rights. 

Early on, Al-Faqih stresses that the problem is that women don't know their rights,” and we see her attempt to remedy that through how she rules on cases of domestic violence. Al-Faqih faces a lot of opposition as women are the marginalized parties in Shari’a courts, and men in power, like one who issues a Fatawa against her, and a Chief justice who temporarily suppresses her role by removing all litigation from the small courts, but she perseveres while opening the door for the appointments of more women to higher positions.

Al-Faqih’s father is proud, saying that, God willing, she could even be President of the State of Palestine someday. He exclaims, Look at Hillary Clinton! Okay, that’s a bad example, but one that says a lot because, yeah, it’s great that the Arab world is allowing women to take on more important roles, but we all still all have a long ass way to go.

My next film was Lauren Greenfields GENERATION WEALTH. 

Greenfield, a photojournalist/documentarian, previously got acclaim for her 2010 doc THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES, which this film touches on as the same theme of the crazy indulgences of the rich are shared, but this time, Greenfield digs deeper into her examination of how the quest for money and fame can really screw people up.

The film, which is stuffed with hundreds of Greenfields stunning photographs, is also autobiographical as it covers the last 25 years of her career, in which she has extensively chronicled the lives of the one percent, and the people who desperately want to be in the one percent. Greenfield explores the stories of such subjects as former porn actress Kacey Jordan, who had a brush with fame via an expensive fling with Charlie Sheen, six-year-old “Toddlers and Tiaras” star Eden Wood, German hedge fund manager Florian Homm, plastic surgery addict Cathy Grant, as well as including some quality time with her husband and kids.

GENERATION WEALTH, a companion to Greenfields big coffee table book of the same name is a funny, bling-filled visual essay on excess that doesnt need images and footage of the Kardashians and Trump to make its points, but they so fall in line with her thesis on excess that it would be kind of weird of they were excluded.

The Opening Night film for Full Frame is usually a very prestigious production, and this years is not exception: Julie Cohen and Betsy Wests RBG, a biodoc of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

The audience was primed for it, and when Ginsburg recited a quote by19th-century abolitionists/feminist Sarah Grimké: “All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks,” they applauded like they were watching a ROCKY movie. 

Justice Ginsburg allowed Cohen and West a lot of access, sitting down with them for extensive interviews, sharing her archives (her reading a letter from her husband, Marty, on his deathbed is one of many emotional moments here), and even letting them film her reaction to Kate McKinnon’s silly SNL impression (she has a giggle fit). 

We learn about the esteemed jurist’s landmark cases largely involving gender equality, her two bouts with cancer during which she didn't miss a day on the bench, and what she thinks about her nickname The Notorious RBG” (she said that she didnt mind it as she and the rapper Notorious BIG are a lot a like; “We were both born and bred in Brooklyn, New York”).

A powerful, uplifting, and terrifically insightful portrait of possibly one of the most influential women in modern history, one who definitely deserves her iconic status that millions of memes, t-shirts, and even tattoos can attest to, RBG is a bonafide crowd pleaser - judging from the copious amount of applause and laughter, it may be the biggest crowd pleaser Ive ever seen at Full Frame.

So with those fine films, all three made by women I might add, that was a great first day of Full Frame 2018. Tomorrow, I size up docs about legendary director Hal Ashby, Studio 54, and fake news, whatever that is.

More later...

Thursday, April 05, 2018

ISLE OF DOGS: A Bit Mechanical But Not Without Its Charms

Opening this evening at an indie art house near me:

ISLE OF DOGS (Dir. Wes Anderson, 2018)

In more than one interview, Wes Anderson has specified that his latest stop motion animated film (his second following 2009’s THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX) was largely influenced by legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, and in a very Wes Andersony twist, those classic Rankin Bass Christmas specials like “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reigndeer.”

It’s a suitably quirky combination for the suitably quirky writer/director/producer, and for the most part it works, but I couldn’t help from thinking that the execution of ISLE OF DOGS is a bit too mechanical to really take hold.

That’s not saying I didn’t enjoy a great deal of the film as it’s well made, has a rich voice cast, pleasing visuals, and some amusing ideas. And I know that the criticism “too mechanical” is an odd one to make as the machinery of Anderson’s style has been detectable from the beginning of his career in BOTTLE ROCKET, but I still found too many beats to be predictable, too many times that gags felt forced, and too many moments that were supposed to be emotional (I think) that made me think ‘meh.’

The narrative, which is set in Japan 20 years in the future, concerns a 12-year old named Atari Kobayashi (voiced by Koyu Rankin) who travels to Trash Island, where all of the country’s dogs have been banished because of a canine flu virus, to find his lost dog Spots.

Atari is helped in his quest by five mangy dogs: Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray, and Chief (Bryan Cranston). You see, an opening title tells us

Cranston’s Chief is the most dominant dog, and has the most interesting back story as he scoffs at the formerly domesticated others as he’s a stray saying things like “You're talking like a bunch of housebroken…pets.”

Meanwhile, in subplot B, Greta Gerwig voices a pro-dog American exchange student Tracy Walker, who has a crush on Atari and leads a campaign against his evil uncle, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), whilst finding out from Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono (voiced by Yoko Ono – that’s right) that a cure has been suppressed by the dog hating Mayor.

You got that? Well, it doesn’t matter as Anderson treats all these plot points so nonchalantly that they hold very little weight. I mean, that’s fine – everyone hits their marks, melancholy music plays, and it’s all played for maximum cuteness. If you’re a hardcore Wes Anderson fan, I bet this will be like the cinematic equivalent of crack cocaine, but being a more casual fan (I’ve only RUSHMORE once!), it was a pleasant but unremarkable experience. It felt like a great production design, and cast looking for a great movie.

But whatever your stance – don’t go see it for its cast. Sure, one of the most striking things in the trailers, posters, etc. is the sheer amount of its star power – Cranston, Norton, Murray, Goldblum, Frances McDormand, Liev Schreiber, Harvey Keitel, Scarlett Johanssen, Tilda Swinton, Angelica Huston, and Fisher Stevens as Scrap (I so want that to be the new “and Jerry Mathers as the Beaver”) – but beyond Cranston, Gerwig, Norton and a few others, most of these famous folks don’t make much of a mark. I can’t remember a single moment that Murray owned, and I bet Johanssen recorded her lines in less than 10 minutes.

Although it felt a bit off to me, ISLE OF DOGS is not without its charms. The attention to detail (one of Anderson’s strengths) in the animation is superbly presented (despite how dire the landscape of Trash Island), and there’s some earned warmth between a few of the characters. I also loved how there were clouds of flailing limbs popping in and out when the dogs fought like in old cartoons.

It has come under some fire for criticisms of its appropriation of Japanese culture, but it never struck me as being anything but a respectful homage - except for the fact that Japanese-speaking characters aren't given subtitles while a opening disclaimer tells us that all of the dogbarks have been rendered into English.

So his second stab at stop motion animation isn’t as funny, poignant, or memorable as his first, THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX, but Anderson has yet again succeeded in making something that nobody can do as well: make another Wes Anderson film. It
ll more than do until the next one.

More later...