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. Its 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…

John Krasinski’s A QUIET PLACE Is Scary Good

Now playing at a multiplex near me:

A QUIET PLACE (Dir. John Krasinski, 2018) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More later…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

A Sneak Peek Of The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Opening Soon In Raleigh

Today I was among a group of local media folks who were invited to check out the new Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, which is opening later this month on New Bern Avenue, in Raleigh. 

The announcement on the invite succinctly stated, “Alamo has a rabid cult following within the film
community and Raleigh locals campaigned for years for this to be the first NC
location (the 29th for the Austin, TX based company).”

Being a big film fan, and film theater fan, Ive been very aware of the Alamos reputation for a long time so I was really looking forward to seeing the 11-screen complex, and it didnt disappoint. 

Check out some pictures (click on them for larger images):

A long bar with over 40 local draft beers on tap!

Movie soundtracks on vinyl! 

Big ass replicas of VHS tape covers!

Cool VHS tape tables that play VHS tapes!

The VHS tape imagery highlights the most surprising feature of this Alamo location: Video Vortex, a video store that will rent DVDs, Blu-rays, and rare VHS titles, many of which have never made the transfer to DVD. If you dont have a VCR, or DVD or Blu ray player, theyll rent that to you too. And heres the kicker: the rentals are free. 

Heres Video Vortex manager Josh Schafer showing off some of the Alamos enormous VHS collection:

And heres some of the Alamos vast inventory of DVDs and Blu rays (the horror section to be exact):

I chatted with Alamo founder/CEO Tim League about the idea of offering free movie rentals, and he said it was an experimental concept, and that there will still be late fees as half the revenue of a video store is late fees.” 

League went on to say that the video store is a Re-imagining of it. Weve got the retail and the bar – I’m thinking that this would be a cool place where youd just want to hang out – you’re surrounded by movies, we’ve got movie fans coming in and out so maybe you’d make an impulse buy or rent.” 

We also got a treat in seeing the first by invite presentation of this Alamo’s 35 mm system via a vintage trailer for SECRET OF MAGIC ISLAND, which League said was one of his all-time favorite trailers.

So that was my first visit of what I bet will be many to the Raleigh’s new venue/hang out spot, the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. Thanks to the fine people who invited me to see it, and were so nice to meet and chat with. Oh, and the food they served us was great too. Here’s a picture of some of it:

As to when exactly the theater is opening, nobody specified a date but I was told that they will be up and running when AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR comes out on April 26.

More later…

Every Movie I’ve Ever Seen Ranked (You Won’t Believe What’s #4081!)

Sorry for the clickbaitastic headline, and as you might’ve guessed I’m not going to really rank every movie I’ve ever seen (but if you’re wondering what #4081 is – it’s John Schlesinger’s PACIFIC HEIGHTS, pictured above, which is a solid #4081). I just wanted to call out those ever so prevalent pop culture lists that rank every Tarantino movie, or Beatles song, or Seinfeld episode from worst to best. Like these*: 

All 49 Marvel Movies Ranked, Including ‘Black Panther’ 

Every Best Picture Oscar Winner, Ranked: How All 90 Movies Stack Up 

Every James Bond Movie Ranked from Worst to Best (also The Best James Bond Actors, Ranked, Ranking: James Bond Theme Songs From Worst to Best, etc) 

All X-Files Episodes, Ranked Best to Worst (this one is actually from a site called Complete Works: Ranking All 374 Rolling Stones Songs 

* Im not linking to any of these, so you are are your own finding these if you want.

Now, I’m not against lists – I’ve posted plenty of them on this blog – I just don’t like it where there’s dozens and dozens of entries of whatever pop culture thing as they aren’t very useful. I mean, if you rank the Beatles
 studio albums, there’s only like a dozen of them so somebody approaching their catalog might benefit from the recommendations of Revolver or Sgt. Pepper or whatever records are high on the list, but what good does it do anybody to know that thinks that “Rocky Raccoon” from The While Album is #166 out of #213? 

Now, I know some people like these lists, and find them fun enough to share and argue about, etc. but I usually skip them. The ones I do click on, I just skim them quickly and move on. I find Top 10 lists, or 20 at the most, to be more useful. 

The lists I get most annoyed by are the ones that basically say ‘hey, that thing you like sucks’ like these: 

12 Movies You Probably Love That Are Overrated, According To Reddit 

15 Overrated Movies Everyone Pretends To Love 

5 Recent Movies That Got Way More Praise Than They Deserved 

I particularly don’t like the word overrated because to me it means: I hate this thing that everyone likes, and they’re wrong (underrated being the obvious opposite: I love this thing that everyone hates, and they’re wrong). 

Yeah, I know that the words 
overrated and underrated are ubiquitous in our culture, and aren’t going away any time soon, but I don’t use them on my blog because I find them to be meaningless.

One strong case against them is that President Trump uses the word “overrated” a lot – he’s used it to insult former President Barack Obama (no surprise there), Meryl Streep, Jerry Seinfeld, Megyn Kelley, the musical Hamilton, and politicians in general (again, no surprise). I don’t think he’s ever said that anything or anyone is “underrated,” because he probably doesn’t know that word. 

Lately, I have been trying to not be on social media too much as I get really annoyed by these things, and stuff like long lists that have slideshows so they can fit in more ads, but I’m not going to get started on those. 

This concludes my rant. Stay tuned for coverage of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival that kicks off this Thursday, April 5, and for reviews of upcoming films like Wes Anderson’s * ISLE OF DOGS, and the roster of highly anticipated summer films around the corner. 

* A filmmaker who is often considered overrated.

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Harrison Ford To Reprise Yet Another Iconic Role In FALFA: AN AMERICAN GRAFFITI STORY

After reprising his iconic roles as Han Solo in the STAR WARS series in 2015, Rick Deckard in the BLADE RUNNER franchise last year, and following news that he’ll don the Fedora for a fifth INDIANA JONES film in 2019, and another turn as CIA agent Jack Ryan for an upcoming series for Netflix later that year, Harrison Ford is set to resurrect another classic character in the newly announced FALFA: AN AMERICAN GRAFFITI STORY, set for summer 2020. 

Ford previously portrayed the cocky street racer, Bob Falfa, in George Lucas’ seminal early-
60s-set 1973 comedy AMERICAN GRAFFITI, Bill L. Norton’s 1979 follow-up MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI, in which we learn that Falfa became a hippy-hating San Francisco cop in the late 60s; and in the hit 2016 reboot, Darren Aronofsky’s STILL MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI, which caught up with most of the original cast in a scenario set around the events of 9/11. 

But in the first stand alone film in the rebooted series, FALFA: AN AMERICAN GRAFFITI STORY, the focus is on the elder Falfa’s life as a cranky curmudgeon who learns to love life again in a tale that its director Denis Villeneuve describes as a “mixture of ‘A Christmas Story’ crossed with GRAN TORINO.”

AMERICAN GRAFFITI regulars Candy Clark, Richard Dreyfuss, Charles Martin Smith, Bo Hopkins, and Cindy Williams are in talks to be included in cameo roles, and although Ron Howard’s character, Steve Bolander, died in the 2016 AMERICAN GRAFFITI reboot, there are rumors that he may still appear in poignant flashbacks, or at least as narrator a la Arrested Development.

At a panel for BLADE RUNNER 2049 at Comic Con last year, Ford was asked by a fan if he planned to reboot every single franchise that he’s ever starred in. Ford swiftly answered, “You bet your ass!” Going by this new announcement that Falfa will live to race another day, the 75-year old actor apparently wasn’t just having a laugh.

More later…

READY PLAYER ONE: Fun Spielberg Is Back!

Opening tonight at a multiplex near everybody:

READY PLAYER ONE (Dir. Steven Spielberg. 2018) 

In a recent New York Times piece about maybe the most famous living filmmaker there is, Steven Spielberg, Brook Barnes wrote about how it’s been a while since the popular director’s movies have had the magic of his early work.

Barnes confronted Spielberg with the idea that the directors later day output has lacked the fun of films like E.T., JURASSIC PARK, and the original Indiana Jones trilogy in the ‘80s. Spielberg countered Barnes’ thesis by saying he was “always moving really fast, and I don’t look back a lot.” 

But, by way of his adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2011 young adult novel, READY PLAYER ONE, Spielberg looks back quite a bit to the era in which his movies were mega grossing must sees while video games became a big thing, synthetic pop music was the norm, and the possibilities of globally networked virtual reality were just gleams in the eyes of tech nerds. 

You see, this movie is set in the future, but nearly all of its reference points are from three decades ago as that’s when one such tech nerd came of age.

Thats the Steve Jobs/Steve Wozniak mash-up that is James Halliday, played by a frizzy hair wigged Mark Rylance (now a Spielberg regular as he was in BRIDGE OF SPIES and THE BFG) who created the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a virtual reality world that most of the earth’s impoverished population in 2045 uses to escape their doomed existences.

When Halliday died, five years previous, he left a video message saying that he created a an “Easter egg” that he’s hidden inside his elaborate creation, and the first person to find it will inherit half a trillion dollars, and ownership of the OASIS itself.

So the movie’s protagonist is gunter (a combination of egg and hunter) Wade Watts (MUDD’s Tye Sheridan), going by the name Parzival in the game, who, by studying Halliday’s ‘80s obsessions figures out the first challenge involving a New York car race in which Wade’s vehicle of choice is the Delorean from BACK TO THE FUTURE.

In the overwhelmingly eye-popping sequence, Parzival has to outmaneuver a Tyrannosaurus Rex (ostensibly from JURASSIC PARK) and King Kong (looking like the 2005 Peter Jackson version), and in the process meets the girl of his dreams, another gunter named Art3mis (Olivia Cooke).

Mind you, neither Parzival nor Art3mis knows what either looks like in the real world because they’re represented by self chosen avatars in the OASIS, but there’s immediately a cute connection between them and they team up with Wade’s longtime friend Aech (Lena Waithe), and two other fellow gunters, brothers Sho (Philip Zhao), and Daito (Win Morisaki), to take on the next challenge which lands them into a dead on recreation of the Overlook Hotel from THE SHINING (it was WAR GAMES in the book, but Stanley Kubrick’s classic has a much cooler production design).

Of course, there’s an evil corporation, the IOI (Innovative Online Industries), competing with them headed by CEO Nolan Sorrento (a scenery chewing Ben Mendelsohn doing a convincing American accent), who had once worked as an underling to Halliday and his then business partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg, also doing an American accent).

READY PLAYER ONE gets a bit bogged down in CGI-cluttered spectacle in its third act, but it’s such a swiftly paced, wild ride that so consistently pops through each of its shiny setpieces that that doesn’t mar it too much. Sheridan and Cooke’s budding romance gets a bit cheesy at times (a disco dance set to “Stayin’ Alive” I could’ve done without), but they still work as characters that audiences will want to root for.

Many cynics will no doubt decry this film as pop culture pandering, but if you don’t think about it too deeply, it’s a highly entertaining sci-fi fantasy pic that’s somehow post modern, and old fashioned feeling at the same time.

Sure, it’s a geekgasm-inducing orgy of Easter eggs like the appearances of Chucky, Batman, Robocop, Buckaroo Banzai, Sonic the Hedgehog, the Alien chestburster, and even Monty Python’s Holy Hand Grenade, but, by embracing how the kids of today look back at the once tacky, but now endearingly surreal aesthetics of the ‘80s, the 71-year old Spielberg successfully reminds us (and himself) of his fun side.

Since I, like many of my age (late 40s) grew up on the filmmaker’s crowd-pleasing, high grossing work when we were kids first learning what movie magic is, it’s great to have fun Spielberg back.

More later…

A Bit Of Babble ‘Bout BRIGSBY BEAR

I missed Dave McClary’s BRIGSBY BEAR in its limited theatrical run last year (I’m not even sure if it came to my area), but just caught up with it on Blu ray and I’m glad I did because it’s a real delight. If you haven’t watched Saturday Night Live lately you might not know the films star, Kyle Mooney, but he’s a current cast member since 2013 who has made a bunch of weird, awkward but highly amusing digital shorts (inheriting the brand from Andy Samberg) like this one, and this one.

Here Mooney and director McClary, who both made over 70 of those shorts, have, with the help of co-writer Kevin Costello, successfully translated their silly small screen shenanigans to the big screen with this tale of a scruffy 30-year old named James who discovers that the people he thought were his parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) are actually a couple who abducted him when he was a baby, and that there’s a real world outside the underground bunker he’s been living in for all his life.

What’s even crazier is that he grew up watching and obsessing over a children’s television show called “Brigsby Bear Adventures,” but it’s a program that only he has ever seen as his faux father fabricated it – writing, starring, and directing decades of episodes – at an outside studio with props, costumes, brightly colored sets, and even a young woman (Kate Lyn Sheil) he hired to play two roles who Hamills Ted told the show was for Canadian cable access.

So when the bunker is raided by the FBI, and his parents are taken away, James is re-united with his real parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins), but has trouble adjusting with his family, and sets out to make a movie that concludes the Brigsby Bear series.

You have to suspend some disbelief as it’s unlikely that the cops would really let James to use all the props including the original bear costume that were confiscated, but the film earns its ending, which has touching similarities to the climax of James Franco’s THE DISASTER ARTIST

The endearingly meek Mooney sweetly carries the movie with help from a well chosen cast including Greg Kinnear as a sympathetic police detective, Claire Danes as a family therapist, Ryan Simpkins as James’ sister, Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as a friend who helps with shooting the Brigsby Bear movie, and SNL alums Andy Samberg and Beck Bennett in brief but effective cameos.

I didn’t expect that I’d like it as much as I did, but I found BRIGSBY BEAR to be a goofy yet sometimes sad charmer with a big heart. I love how it celebrates the idea that one’s obsession with something imaginary can be channeled into creating something real that’s personal yet can be shared with many others.

You may be able to get a glimpse of its immense likability in the film’s trailer:

More later…

THE DEATH OF STALIN: History Repeats The Old Conceits

Opening today at a indie art house near me:


(Dir. Armando Iannucci, 2017) 

Acidic political satire is what Scottish writer/director Armando Iannucci (IN THE LOOP, Veep) does, and in his third feature, in which he takes on the absurdity of Stalinism, he nails it to the wall.

It’s a pretty ridiculous premise to have a cast of British and American actors playing historical Russian figures – i.e. Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev – with none of them making any attempt at Russian accents, farcically fretting over how to handle the unexpected death of dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953 Moscow, but somehow Iannucci pulls it all off with deliciously wicked abandon.

The film’s opening titles tell us that “For 20 years, Stalin’s NKVD Security Forces have imposed the great terror,” and “those on Stalin’s lists of ‘enemy’ names are arrested, exiled, or shot,” which are, to say the least, unusual statements for which to set up a comedy.

However, they well define the stakes at play that plague the Central Committee which includes Minister of Agriculture Khrushchev (the aforementioned Buscemi sporting a bald head), Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor wearing a not so great toupee), First Deputy Premier Beria (Simon Russell Beale), NKVD Secret Police chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), and Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Monty Python’s Michael Palin in his first proper film role since 1997’s FIERCE CREATURES).

While each of these men has feared being put on Stalin’s list before his passing, now they have to figure who will take his place through much bickering, some of which takes place while the body of Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin, who has some lively moments in the first 15 minutes before he has a stroke) lies dying on the floor beneath them.

They are torn about getting a doctor because all of the best physicians are in the Gulag or dead because under suspicion of trying to poison Stalin, so they assemble a team of young and old doctors, who the dictator’s daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) says “look like mental patients.” Beria, the most evil and power hungry of all the fairly despicable characters (or caricatures) here, takes over making the lists, while he grooms the meek vain Malenkov to be Stalin’s sucessor, while Khrushchev is elected to take charge of Stalin’s funeral.

Also muddling up the worried water is Stalin’s drunken son Vasily (Rupert Friend), who bursts in on the autopsy wielding a firearm (Khrushchev to Svetlana: “You father is dead, your brother is shooting a gun – it’s not fine, you’re right.”); and the arrogant appearance of Red Army Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), who declares “What’s a war hero got to do to get some lubrication around here?” upon his brash entrance.

Buscemi puts in one of his funniest performances, and I’m glad they didn’t replace Tambor (he’s been accused of sexual harassment, and was dropped from the show Transcendence) because he’s “on” too. I also love seeing Palin on the big screen again as the proceedings often recall the silly-smartness of Python parodies, and he has some priceless moments here.

Iannucci, who I was surprised to hear based this film on a graphic novel (Fabian Nury and Thierry Robin’s “The Death of Stalin,” 2017), very much carries this with a vibe that will be familiar to fans of his HBO show Veep, and his similarly toned BBC series The Thick of It (plus its resulting movie IN THE LOOP). His thing is to skewer the twisted ideology under which these selfishly foolish folks clamoring for power operate, and in scene after scene here he hilariously hits his targets.

“This is just f***ing wordplay!” Buscemi’s Khrushchev exasperatedly exclaims at one point, but THE DEATH OF STALIN is a lot more than just that. It’s timely because it deals with the Trumpean subjects of dictatorships, and the spreading of false narratives, but what really hits home is how this film wants us to laugh at how dark and scary things can get.

I’m reminded of that famous quote, attributed to George Santayana, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Iannucci seems to be suggesting that when if history does repeat, we are doomed if we don’t laugh at it.

More later…

A FANTASTIC WOMAN: The Film Babble Blog Review

Now playing at an indie art theatre near me:

A FANTASTIC WOMAN (Dir. Sebastián Lelio, 2017) 

Sebastián Lelio’s (GLORIA) fifth feature starts out pleasantly enough with a night between two lovers. 

Orlando Onetto (Francisco Reyes), a successful printing company owner in his late 50s, has a romantic evening with his girlfriend Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega), who is a transgender woman. 

They are celebrating her birthday, and he surprises her with plans for them to go to Iguazu Falls in South America. Orlando and Marina have a night of passion at his posh apartment in Santiago, but the tone takes a turn when he wakes up in pain in the middle of the night, and Marina takes Orlando to the hospital.

Orlando in the night dies from a brain aneurysum, and a shaken Marina leaves the hospital, and calls Orlando’s brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco) to tell him. She is picked up on the street by the police and questioned back at the hospital. Everyone appears to hold her under suspicion, and she undergoes a demeaning interrogation where she has to strip down in front of the investigators. 

Things get worse when she deals with Orlando’s angry, disapproving ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim), who Marina has to give his car back to, and Gabo who forces her to move out of Orlando’s apartment telling her cruely, “I don’t know what you are!” Worse still, Sonia tells Marina not to come to the funeral.

Through this series of indignities, Marina, who moonlights as a nightclub singer, has sessions with her vocal coach (Néstor Cantillana), works as a waitress, and tries to get on with her life despite being haunted by images of Orlando. 

A FANTASTIC WOMEN gets surreal at times with visuals like Marina walking against wind so strong it puts her at an almost impossible angle, and a stunning fantasy of a glittery dance set piece that thrusts her upwards into a confident close-up.

It can be a sad, hard-to-endure experience at times, but Lelio’s film, which he co-wrote with Gonzalo Maza, is ultimately uplifting, and it made a strong emotional impression on me. This has a lot to do with Vega, who puts in a fearlessly convincing performance. 

This moving movie opens today in my area, and my fear is that audience may be resistant to seeing a Spanish language film about a trans woman’s grief, but there’s a reason this won the Best Foreign Film at the Oscars earlier this week – its depiction of the resilience and perseverance of Vega’s Marina in the face of such prejudice is simply fantastic.

More later…

FACES PLACES & THE INSULT: They Lost At The Oscars But Shouldn’t Lose Their Audiences

These two films, now playing at a indie art house near me, lost their respective categories at the Oscars last Sunday, but that doesnt mean they aren’t worth your time:

(Dirs. Agnès Varda & JR, ) 

This lovely film, which is nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar this year, could have been titled FACES ON PLACES as it concerns a couple of artists pasting large pictures of faces on buildings. The artists, Belgian filmmaker Agnès Varda and French street artist JR, don’t only do faces as they paste huge pictures of fish on a water tank at one point, but it’s mostly the faces of local villagers, farmers, and other various folks they meet on their journey that they photograph, reproduce in large prints and affix to the side of what they deem appropriate structures.

Agnès Varda and JR are shown traveling across the French country side to brighten up farms, ruins of old houses, and most stunningly a concrete German blockhouse from World War II, on the Normandy coast, in Saint-Aubin-Sur-Mer. 

Varda and JR’s film is loose and rambling at times, but never boring as its filled with such vivid eye candy. Throughout their pasting adventures, Varda tries in vain to get JR to take off his sunglasses. His refusal to not be seen without them reminds her of her old New Wave filmmaking friend Jean-Luc Godard, whose house they make their way to at the movie’s conclusion.

The warmth the unlikely duo of Varda and JR exude is felt in every frame, though it’s easy to see why FACES PLACES didn’t get enough votes to win last Sunday as it could be seen as fluffy compared to its more serious competition. Its lightness shouldnt be mistaken for insubstantiality though as it carries a lot of weight, as well as considerable charm, but, most importantly, its a visual treat through and through.

THE INSULT (Dir. Ziad Doueiri, 2017) 

There’s no way this film, the sixth feature by Lebanese-born filmmaker Zias Doueiri (THE ATTACK), had much of a chance up against the power of Sebastián Lelio’s A FANTASTIC WOMAN for the prize of Best Foreign Film at this year’s Oscars, but it still is well worth moviegoers’ attention.

The film concerns a crude incident between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee that escalates into a national threat. It begins with a Beirut street scene in which construction crew worker Yasser (Kamel El Basha) asks Tony (Adel Karam) a tenant of a building they’re working on, if they can fix the drainpipe illegally sticking out of his apartment balcony. When the Palestinians-hating Tony refuses Yasser and his men’s entry into his place, they fix the pipe anyway but Tony smashes it and a heated exchange results.

Yasser’s boss tries to arrange a truce between the men, but it becomes violent when Tony says “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out!” and Yassar loses it and punches him in the guts, breaking Tony’s ribs. Before long they are fighting in court over the argument, with the extra added twist of their opposing lawyers (Diamond Bou Abboud and Camille Salameh) being father and daughter.

If that engrossing courtroom drama narrative isn’t enough, there’s Tony’s pregnant wife (Christine Choueiri), and both men’s dark back stories involving the roots of the Christian/Palestinian conflicts. Doueiri, whose worked on several of Quentin Tarantio’s films, sheds light on the humanity of both sides of its argument, and gives us a fair, unbiased look at how deep seeded hatred can wreck all kinds of havoc if triggered.

A FANTASTIC WOMAN definitely deserved the Oscar, but THE INSULT definitely deserves a big audience too.

More later…

Oscars® 2018 Recap: My Best Score Since 2015

For those who say we’re all out-of-touch Hollywood elites – Ill have you know that each of the 45 million Swarovski crystals on this stage tonight represents humility. 

I spent last night at the Rialto Theatre in Raleigh watching the 90th Academy Awards broadcast and enjoyed the show a lot more than the last several years. 

It felt like there was more of a purpose to the proceedings this time largely via moments like Frances McDormand’s impassioned speech, Emma Stone saying that four males and Greta Gerwig were up for Best Director, Daniela Vega being the first openly trans actress, Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph joking about #oscarsowhite controversy from a few years back, and rapper Common calling out President Trump: A president that chose with hate/He don’t control our fate/Because god is great/ When they go low we stay in the heights/I stand for peace, love and women’s rights.

Jimmy Kimmel did a good job as host touching on some of the same topics, and I liked his bit about giving away a jet ski to the Osacr winner who makes the shortest speech (see Helen Mirren showing it off above). 

Anyway, I had my best score in years as I bested the last two Oscars (at least by one) with a tally of 17 out of 24. Here’s the ones I got wrong:

My prediction: GET

While I got wrong that Jordan Peels excellent film would win the big one, I was right that hed win for Best Screenplay – another great moment as hes the first African American to do so.

My prediction: FACES PLACES / What won: ICARUS


FILM EDITING: My prediction: BABY


I really didnt expect BLADE RUNNER 2049 to win more than one Oscar (it won for Best Visual Effects, and Best Cinematography). I predicted Roger Deakins would win for his masterful work on BR 2049, and was happy that after over a dozen nominations over the years that it finally happened.

: My prediction: “This Is Me”
Paul & Benj Pasek) / What won: “Remember Me” from COCO

prediction: DEKALB ELEMENTARY / What

Lastly I was disappointed that the In Memorium segment left out John Mahoney, Robert Guillaume, Tobe Hooper, Powers Boothe, Adam West, and Tom Petty (sure Eddie Vedder covering Petty’s “A Room at the Top” worked as a tribute, but I would’ve loved seeing a clip of Petty in THE POSTMAN in the montage).

Okay! That’s it for this year. As I’ve said before, now back to watching movies for fun and not for sport.

More later…