Friday, April 12, 2024

The Intense Impact of A24’s CIVIL WAR Comes From Its All-Too-Real Feel

Opening today at a multiplex near us all:

CIVIL WAR (Dir. Alex Garland, 2024)

Alex Garland’s fourth film as director (and eighth as screenwriter), after an impressive run that includes EX MACHINA, ANNIHILATION, and MEN; is the fillmmaker’s most intense, and impactful work yet in its depiction of a lawless, ravaged country that has been torn apart by the destructive divisions that we’re all very aware, and frightened of right now. 


Yes, it’s a familiar dystopian future scenario, but without sci-fi tinges as it appears to happen in the very near future under the reign of a nameless fascist three-term president played by Nick Offerman (who will always be Ron Swanson from Parks & Recreation to me). 


The film follows Kirsten Dunst as a tough as nails war photographer (it’s mentioned that her coverage of the Antifa Massacre broke her career), Wagner Moura as her journalist friend, Stephen McKinley Henderson as an elder New York Times reporter, and Cailee Spaeny as a young aspiring photojournalist, as they travel from the Big Apple to Washington DC to get an interview with the president because as Moura says, “it’s the last story out there.”


Driving in a white SUV through threatening territory, the ragtag crew encounter violence in the form of open country, and urban shoot-outs; and a militia group headed by a grim, camouflaged Jesse Plemmons (Dunst’s real-life husband) who interrogates our protagonists standing over a mass grave of bloody bodies in the movie’s scariest, edgiest scene.


The raw look of the film adds to its authenticity as cinematographer Rob Hardy, who had worked on Garland’s previous films, aims to illustrate what the photographer characters capture on their cameras with gritty still shots effectively being presented throughout. CIVIL WAR itself was shot on a new camera, the digital handheld DJI Ronin 4D, which self stabilizes, decreasing vertical shake.


While I was left with some questions about the crumbling nation Garland presents, CIVIL WAR is a compellingly executed narrative about a road trip from hell that culminates in a fiery, bombastic White House climax that will stick in your head for days. Its grounded by the sharp performances of Dunst, in a distinctively different role than she’s ever played before, and Spaeny, whose investment here made me forget pretty quickly that her breakthrough roles was portraying Elvis Presley’s all-too-young wife in Sofia Coppola’s PRISCILLA last year.


With his latest offering for what’s arguably American’s hippest film production company, A24, Garland again gives us a thoughtful, fearless, and abrasive take on compromised, and cornered human nature. It’s also a tribute to journalism, and the crucial place the press have in our democracy. Dunst and her fellow scrappy newshounds never spout out any opinions about anything that went down or lament where they are currently in all the chaos; they just do their jobs without bias, only wanting the best in-the-moment documentation. 

However, my cynicism at times made me think these people wouldnt get as far as they did in these treacherous badlands with a vehicle with the large letters denoting PRESS” on its front doors.

CIVIL WAR can be a disturbing, and often jarring, experience, but what makes it really scary is how real it feels as it’s a harsh warning about what really could be coming in our future considering, well, everything.

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Thursday, April 11, 2024

That Time The Travelling Wilburys Stole A Line From An ‘80s Melanie Griffith Movie

That’s right, the rock supergroup made up of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Tom Petty (Roy Orbison was a member, but passed after their first record’s release) lifted a line (and twisted it), from Mike Nichols’ 1988 Melanie Griffith comedy WORKING GIRL, and it’s a doozy.

At a party scene, Griffith’s ambitious Tess McGill schmoozes with a colleague she’s just met, played by Harrison Ford at his ‘80s prime, and says (after a few tequila shots):


“I’ve got a head for business, and a bod for sin. Is there anything wrong with that?”

Cut to the first single off of the Travelling Wilburys second album in 1990, jokingly entitled Vol. 3, “She’s My Baby,” featuring this couplet that comically reverses the line:


“She’s got a body for business, got a head for sin/She knocks me over like a bowling pin”

The line is sung by George Harrison on the single (the same version of which kicks off the record), but there is a demo of the song that has Dylan singing the entire song so it’s safe to assume that he’s the one that had the idea to co-opt Griffith’s line, which came from WORKING GIRL screenwriter Kevin Wade. 


Lynne said in a Rolling Stone interview at the time of Vol. 3, the band heavily relied on Dylan for their lyrics: “We all throw in ideas and words, but when you’ve got a lyricist like Bob Dylan — well, what are you gonna do?” So it’s highly likely that it was Dylan, who has a history of quoting without credit from movies, Civil War-era poetry, and even an episode of Star Trek, that thought it was a line worth stealing, and toying with.


Dylan didn’t have to have seen the movie either to have been exposed to the dialogue; it was featured in the trailer, and in TV spots that ran throughout the film’s successful release in late December 1988 through the next year, in which it was nominated for six Oscars (it only won one, Carly Simon for her song “Let the River Run”).


So I’ll again quote His Bobness, “Steal a little and they throw you in jail/steal a lot and they make you king,” and leave you with the rousing video from the song in question - “She’s My Baby”:

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Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Full Frame 2024: Part Two

My second day at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in downtown Durham was my busiest day of watching films on the big screen in a long while. And the whole day was spent in Fletcher Hall, the main stage at the Carolina Theater, with its 1,048 seats and two balconies. 

Saturday morning, I attended the Remembering Nancy Buirski event, in which a host of the Full Frame founders colleague friends, including Co-Festival Director Sadie Tillery, filmmakers Yance Ford, Chris Hegedus, and Sam Pollard; Center for Documentary Studies Director Tom Rankin, and Buirskis sister, Judy Cohen, gave really touching, really emotional testimonies to the recently passed Full Frame founder and filmmaker.

POWER (Dir. Yance Ford, 2024)

Ford’s follow-up to his excellent Oscar nominated doc, STRONG ISLAND (which I called “one of the strongest documentary documentary debuts I’ve ever seen,” when it screened at Full Frame 2017), is a fascinating thesis on the history of policing in America. In a thorough effort to find the roots and cause of where we are now, Ford calls upon writers, scholars, and most dominatingly, Minneapolis Police Inspector Charles Adams, to put into perspective the issues that result in extreme brutality through the dawn of the first forces to the modern day tragedies of Rodney King and George Floyd. This compelling, and often disturbing, doc will premiere on Netflix later this year.

UNION (Dirs. Stephen Maing & Brett Story, 2024)

“We want to thank Jeff Bezos for going to space because while he was up there we were signing people up.” - Chris Smalls, President of the Amazon Labor Union

The struggle of current and former Amazon employees in Staten Island fighting for their rights against Jeff Bezos’ mega corporation is captured with grit in this scrappy yet vivid doc. The story is largely headed by the strong-minded Chris Smalls, who was fired for protesting work conditions from the company’s New York warehouse in 2020, and founded the ALU. We follow Smalls as he mans a stand across from the ginormous fulfillment center (shot so ominously it comes off like the Watergate in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN), and urges passing workers to unionize. The friction between Smalls, and his colleagues is palpable at moments, but the sense of community is undeniable especially when times get tight. UNION is a crowd pleaser of a impactful doc that should be sought out when it, with hope, opens wide after its run on the festival circuit. 

ENO (Dir. Gary Hustwit, 2024)

At past Full Frames, Saturday night was often when a music documentary, or rockumentary, was given the spotlight with previous years featuring such illuminairies as Arcade Fire, the Avett Brothers, Nick Cave, the Magnetic Fields, the National, and Pussy Riot, so I was elated to see that this year’s subject is one of my favorite figures in modern music: Brian Eno. 

Though he’s more known as a producer (U2, Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads, Devo, lovers of art rock well know his performing chops as shown here in rare live footage of his tenure in Roxy Music, and in the studio working on his seminal ambient solo work (one of his early albums is actually called Ambient 1: Music for Airports).

Thing is, this experimental film, billed as “the world’s first generative cinematic documentary,” is presented from a code via custom made software that determines different routes in which to assemble the scenes so it’s different every time. In a Q & A following the screening, director Hustwit said that the version that was shown at Sundance had a lot more Laurie Anderson cues in it. So it’s kind of a Choose Your Own Adventure-style kind of doc presentation. That’s fine and all, but I just want to know if there’s a version that has more Devo.

As a fan, I’d like to see multiple takes on this material, so I’m sure I'll be revisiting this in the future. Hustwit’s ENO gives hope that more music-themed docs will attempt anti-Wikipedia-type run downs of careers, and mix it up a bit. But even without the flashy packaging, Mr. Eno is more than enough of an engaging artist to spend time with, and this doc is at its best when it cools it with the code, and just hangs with him.

More later...

Tuesday, April 09, 2024

Full Frame 2024: Part One

After years of being a virtual only event, the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival returned to the Carolina Theater, and Convention Center in downtown Durham, N.C. this last weekend. Despite not being as robustly attended as in the pre-pandemic days, there was a healthy roster of films with 50 titles including 35 features and 15 short films from 22 countries, and a lot of familiar faces piling in to take in the four day run of primo infotainment.

The shadows of Full Frame founder Nancy Buirski, and documentary filmmaker god D.A. Pennebaker, who both passed since the last in-person Full Frame in 2019, loomed large over this year’s recovened proceedings, and were lovingly celebrated this festival with screenings of their work, and tribute panels featuring remembrances from colleagues.

Having missed the first day of Full Frame 2024, I kicked off my Friday at the fest with Buirski's final film:

(Dir. Nancy Buirski, 2022)

Nobody whos ever seen John Schlesinger’s 1969 classic, MIDNIGHT COWBOY, the gritty X-rated counterculture drama that won the Best Picture Oscar in 1970, will ever forget it. I say that because it's been decades since I've seen it on VHS, but its scuzzy depiction of the friendship between two hustlers, Jon Voights Texan rube, Joe Buck, and Dustin Hoffmans sleazy schemer Ratso Rizzo is permanently burned into by brain.

Inspired by Glenn Frankels 2021 book, Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic, Buirski examines the complicated feelings, and tumultuous times behind the amorously questionable adaptation of James Leo Herlihys 1965 novel, and offers a lot of tasty context to take in, especially in its exploration of the gay cowboy motif, which, of course, leads to BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN comparisons (and use of clips).

Voight appears in tight close-up to give his side of the story, happily with no right-wing nuttiness, while co-star Hoffman appears only in archival interviews, alongside insights provided by actors Bob Balaban (whose first film this was), Brenda Vaccaro, Jennifer Salt (daughter of screenwriter Waldo Salt); and critics Charles Kaiser, J. Hoberman, and Lucy Sante.

Buirski’s superb film effectively breaks down of Schelishers unforgettable film in thought provoking moment after moment, leaving one to reevaluate MIDNIGHT COWBOY’S place in film history, queer cinema, and pop culture overall. Having seen several other of the Pulitzer Prize winning woman's other films having gotten spotlights at previous Full Frames like THE LOVING STORY, BY SIDNEY LUMET, and THE RAPE OF RECY TAYLOR, with her in attendance, and participating in Q & As afterwards, it was quite moving to take in her latest, but extremely sad to not have her there at the end this time to discuss it.

Next up, I finished off my Friday night with a ragged rock doc:

A POEM IS A NAKED PERSON (Dir. Les Blank, 1974)

Going in, I was expecting to learn something about the life of legendary Tulsa musician Leon Russell, but this curious, ramshackle doc that was shot 50 years ago, but shelved until 2015, doesn’t aim to educate - just entertain. The film is split between weird, quirky footage from over a three-year period (‘72-‘74) filmed at Russell’s studio on Grand Lake in Oklahoma, and rowdy concert sequences that show Russell at the top of his game mesmerizing packed audiences.

There are also fascinating time capsule-worthy appearances by George Jones, Willie Nelson, and the lesser-known singer-songwriter Eric Anderson, who seems to clash a bit with Russell in the studio. So I didn't learn anything about Russells background, catalogue, or what makes him tick, but I did learn that he was a glorious crowd-pleasing showman with a killer voice, and grand piano chops. And despite this relics disjointed, dated approach, that was all I needed.

Stay tuned for Part Two for more Full Frame 2024 coverage.

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Thursday, April 04, 2024

The Greatest Moment In Pop Culture History: William Shatner Covering Elton John’s “Rocket Man”

After much deliberation through many studies, countless sleepless nights, and endless arguing with colleagues (i.e. my cats), I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that William Shatner’s cover of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” is the single greatest moment in pop culture history.

The incredible event went down on January 14, 1978 at the 5th Saturn Awards (broadcast as The Science Fiction Awards on January 21, 1978), which the Star Trek star co-hosted with actress Karen Black. At one point during the awards ceremony (in which STAR WARS unsurprisingly swept), famous lyricist Bernie Taupin, best known for his songwriting collaborations with Elton John; came on stage to introduce the very special number.


The sunglasses-wearing, white-gloved, tuxedoed Taupin addressed the audience: 


“In 1972, when Elton John and I wrote ‘Rocket Man,’ it became very popular among the listeners. Due to the interest in the meaning of the song, now in 1978 at the Science Fiction Film Awards, I’m trying proud to once again present my ‘Rocket Man,’ as interpreted by our host, William Shatner. Thank you.’


As dripping with gravitas as that intro was, it did little to truly prepare the crowd for the intense interpretation they were about to experience. Watch the clip:


Chills, huh? The concept is very clear: a man pondering his existence in the early evening over a cigarette is encountered by his other selves, from as the night drunkenly progresses. When one Shatner (in a big close-up projection) statically states, ‘Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids,’ to which the original early evening Bill responds, ‘in fact, it’s cold as hell,’ it hits you right in the feels.


Then the song climaxes with the drunkest, most late night vision of Shatner, tie-undone, slurring supremely, and dancing in a fists-clenched manner that strongly resembles Donald Trump’s dance moves, appearing to take the tune home. 


The over-whelmingly power performance concludes with each of the three Shatners (maybe this concept was inspired by there being multiple Star Trek episodes with Captain Kirk doubles?) reciting the song’s dramatic last line ‘And I think it's gonna be a long, long time,’ separately, then together until they merge as one.


When watching this amazing video, I can’t believe how the audience was able to keep from laughing (I think you can hear some gasps though) because this shit is hilarious AF. In the pre-YouTube era, or pre-internet era in general, this was a very rare video that one might hear talk of, but not actually see.


I remember seeing the late, great SNL legend Phil Hartman bring it up on a late night talk show sometime in the late ‘80s-early ‘90s, saying there was a videotape of it being passed around through his comedy buddies, but it didn’t gain real notoriety until another comedy legend (that thankfully is still with us) Chris Elliot parodied Shatner’s spoken word spectacle on an episode of Late Night with David Letterman on June 12, 1992:


Since then it’s also been targeted by Beck (from the 1997 video for “Where it’s At”):

And Family Guy (“And the Wiener is...” S3E5, broadcast on August 8, 2001:

What’s funny about these takes is that none of them really satirizes what Shatner did in his immaculate presentation of the iconic pop classic, they just do what he did as it can’t *be* parodied, only imitated. 


It’s also funny that Shatner has re-framed the performance, claiming it wasn’t meant to be seen by anyone but the audience at the Saturn Awards show (although it was broadcast less than a week after its taping on network TV, and that he meant it as a joke.


“I thought how funny, amusing, interesting – all those words - it would be if I did Frank Sinatra doing that song,” Shatner reflected in a 2019 interview. “He loosened the collar, he puffed out a cigarette, and then what I thought, ‘Well, if I try to do anything different, it’s [in monotone] ‘Rocket man,’ that’s Captain Kirk, and then there’s ‘Rock it, man!’ like a rock ‘n roll guy, I thought that was another interpretation, and then there was a third interpretation, three ways, three layers that I could do it. I was trying to be amusing in front of a 100 people.”

In a 2022 interview with Chris Wallace on CNN, Shatner is again confronted with the clip, and again re-inforces his view that he was “just kidding around, I didn’t know they were recording it,” even going on to say “I’m front of an audience, I’m doing this thing; we’re all laughing, we’re all having fun,” when the clip contains no laughter from said audience. That’s one of the things that makes it so funny now, is how seriously it’s taken.


Not my finest moment,” he confessed to Wallace. “But I re-recorded it on another album the way I thought it should go.” What Shatner is referring to having released a new version of the song for his album Seeking Major Tom in 2011. 


Also, this new version of “Rocket Man” was released on a limited edition seven inch single in 2022 with this nifty picture sleeve:

Since Shatner actually became a rocket man in real life, via a brief trip into space on a capsule piloted by Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin in 2021, his cover has much more resonance, which makes it even funnier.

If this post is your first time seeing the greatest moment in pop culture history, I think it's gonna be a long, long time before you ever forget it. 

Just as Shatner recites whispering with incredible drama: A long...long...time.

More later...

Monday, April 01, 2024


And now, another entry in this year’s new series:

Movie of the Week: Peter Weir’s THE MOSQUITO COAST (1988).

Between Indiana Jones sequels in the mid to late 80s, Harrison Ford was on an interesting roll with WITNESS (his only Oscar nom), FRANTIC, and WORKING GIRL, but this role as a idealistically delusional guy who pulls his family, including wife Helen Mirren and son River Phoenix (leading the way for his crucial part in INDY 3), away from society to futilely build a new civilization in Central America might be his most invested performance ever. It also may be Ford’s most loathsome character this side of WHAT LIES BENEATH, but the message that lies beneath this forgotten gem can't be denied: get over yourself.

Author’s Note: I’ve not seen the Apple TV series adaptation (2021-2023) of Paul Theroux’s book the 88 film was based on starring his nephew Justin Theroux. Should I?

More later...