Fifty Years Ago, The Future

May 31, 2018

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If you like movies, you’ll periodically be delighted, surprised, tickled, thrilled, even amazed at the talent of the people who put them together. But only twice in my life have I walked out of a screening absolutely gobsmacked — emotionally flattened, finding it difficult to fully process what I’d just seen. The first happened just about this time of year exactly half a century ago, when some friends and I first saw 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

A carload of college chums drove from Jackson, Mississippi to New Orleans — a three-hourish trip — to the Martin Cinerama, for 2001’s original 70mm “road show” engagement. We saw the movie and then we drove three more hours back (we collegians hadn’t enough dough for anything else). But that return trip was almost completely devoted to awed conversation which is most accurately rendered as: “Holy shit!” In other words: minds blown, it was frickin worth it.

2001 was now the best movie I’d ever seen by leaps and bounds, a position challenged only once, about four years later, by a 16mm print of CITIZEN KANE in a grad-school film history class. Nothing else since has even come close. I’ve probably seen the flick twenty times by now and I feel like I know it pretty well. I’ve read every snippet I could find about it. So imagine my surprise when a new book for 2001’s fiftieth anniversary managed to take me to school dozens of times with endlessly fascinating arcane details. Michael Benson’s SPACE ODYSSEY is the only book on the subject you’ll ever need. 

Stanley Kubrick was on my radar for making the hilarious and transgressive DR. STRANGELOVE, but that’s all I knew about him. Only that this big-time director had teamed with science fiction titan Arthur C. Clarke to come up with a serious outer-space movie. My card-carrying, propeller-beanie-wearing sf fan’s heart fluttered. Plus, the normally secretive Kubrick had really clamped the lid shut on this production (Mr. Benson explains why). So we knew nothing, and we were dying. Of course we’d drive 200 miles, watch a movie, and drive right back!

The “road show” was how big extravaganzas were introduced back then: BEN-HUR, DR. ZHIVAGO, CLEOPATRA, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, HOW THE WEST WAS WON, etc. The initial engagement was restricted to larger cities. Reserved seats. An intermission. Printed programs. But this one had the added attraction of Cinerama, large-format film projected onto a giant curved screen to suggest peripheral vision, with audio speakers everywhere for the first surround sound I’d ever heard. We bought our tickets by mail, positioning ourselves in the Cinerama sweet spot, a third back in the dead middle. As we were filing in, this strange spacey “music” (which I now know to be Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Atmospheres”) softly caressed the auditorium because the film was already rolling. It was perfect. You can hear the Ligeti “overture,” just as we did, on the 2007 Warner Bros. Blu-Ray edition, which attempts to replicate the 1968 roadshow experience. Christopher Nolan — an excellent choice — is working on a 4K release for this anniversary year, but if you don’t have the gear, then the 2007 Blu-Ray is still your must-own version. We may not have Cinerama to play with any more, but after years of watching 2001 on tiny cathode-ray tubes, we’re finally arriving at large-screen hi-def home-theater tech that better deserves this film.

What we saw and heard was another kind of science fiction, another kind of art itself. 2001 is largely a nonverbal experience. Dialogue is heard for barely a fourth of its 142 minutes; the first spoken words (“Here you are, sir”) occur a full 22 minutes in. The pace is languid (more impatient viewers consider that a bug; I think it’s a feature) and deliberate. The story begins four million years ago and ends — well, that was the biggest topic on the way back home. And before your eyes is the most authentic-looking (eventually Oscar-winning) simulation of outer space ever put on film. I’ve never seen more convincing space effects in the ensuing half century, not with computerized motion control, not with CGI.

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Dan Richter as “Moonwatcher.”

By now 2001 feels so — inevitable, that it’s remarkable to learn from Mr. Benson how many decisions were actually made on the fly. Stanley Kubrick was an intensely driven, naturally curious polymath on whom the term “genius” was not squandered, as we frequently tend to do. His personal aim went beyond excellence and approached perfection, and he demanded the same fierce focus from his colleagues. The book is full of examples of artists and craftsmen striving to please Stanley, when what he really wanted was for them to surpass their presumed capabilities: he was a tyrant who still engendered devotion and even love. Many of 2001’s physical requirements were “impossible” given the technology of the day, so the production had to inquire, improvise and even invent. The many innovations developed for the film could fill a book, and now they have.

Mr. Benson is the ideal guide. Not only has he done voluminous research, but he is also a visual artist and filmmaker as well as a writer — and though he treats 2001 with a true fan’s respect, he’s not above having a little fun with his subject. As Kubrick and Clarke struggled for an ending, in one screenplay draft an “unbelievably graceful and beautiful humanoid” was supposed to approach the lead character and lead him into “infinite darkness.” As Mr. Benson writes, “how to achieve such grace and beauty had been left indeterminate. In any case, it wasn’t just inadequate, it flirted with risibility. Kubrick didn’t do risible.” He compares the creation of the trippy 17-minute “Star Gate” sequence to jazz improvisation among 2001’s “image instrumentalists”: “Like John Coltrane leaning into the mike after Miles Davis was done, [visual effects supervisor Douglas] Trumbull figured he’d take his turn.”

SPACE ODYSSEY is also a bagful of surprises. For example, I already knew that Canadian actor Douglas Rain provided the voice for 2001’s HAL 9000 supercomputer in two days without seeing a foot of film or any lines besides his own. But I didn’t know that Rain was the second actor to play HAL. The first was Martin Balsam, but later the director decided that Balsam had added too much personality and instead chose to go deadpan. Another thing I didn’t realize was that the “breathing” sounds heard when main characters are in their spacesuits were “acted” by the director personally, who recorded about a half-hour’s worth of “respiratory soundscape” wearing one of 2001’s prop helmets. Thus, as Mr. Benson notes in a lovely bit of writing, “as an example of his own handiwork, Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY bears evidence of his own life within it, a small segment of his human soundtrack.” 

The book is stuffed with little mini-dramas. There is mime Dan Richter’s laborious research and choreography for the “Dawn of Man” sequence (he plays “Moonwatcher,” the lead ape). The physical struggle to get daredevil flyover footage for inverted, solarized Star Gate shots, or Namibian landscapes for front-projection plates. The tug of war over Clarke’s companion novel, which Kubrick kept delaying along with the general production. Kubrick’s campaign to keep MGM at bay as the production slid egregiously over budget and behind schedule. The fate of a narration to help “explain,” which Clarke slaved over for years. The agony of would-be composers facing Kubrick’s determination to use the Strauss and Ligeti “temp tracks” he’d already dropped in (in hindsight they’re as right as can be, but the first time Kubrick saw the space-station footage against “The Blue Danube,” he asked, “Do you think it would be an act of genius or the height of folly to have that?”). 

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Kubrick (l.) and Clarke on set.

A bit of unexpected lagniappe came my way whenever the book located the production’s New York phases. (2001 was Kubrick’s last project not fully restricted to England.) The first film exposed for 2001 was high-speed footage of drops of colored paint in a tank of black ink and thinner, used in the finale. Kubrick himself operated the camera in an abandoned brassiere factory on upper Broadway, just a few blocks from where I lived when I first moved here 23 years later. Kubrick’s Lexington Avenue penthouse apartment, where lots of 2001 was hatched, was just three streets down from where I’m sitting right now. And years later, following a disastrous first screening, Kubrick trimmed the finished film in the basement of the MGM building on Sixth Avenue: I worked there when I was with the Hearst Book Group. 

Kubrick is the boss, but he’s not always the hero. It took VFX master Doug Trumbull — who learned his craft on this show — decades to forgive the director for including an end-credits card reading “Special Photographic Effects Designed and Directed by Stanley Kubrick.” There was actually a plausible reason for this: Academy rules prohibited more than three people from being considered for a VFX Oscar (same deal with Best Picture producers today), but 2001 had four credited special effects supervisors. So the solo credit probably kept 2001 under consideration, but Kubrick might have petitioned the Academy to bend the rules for such a quantum-leap production. Kubrick personally realized the oil-and-paint “galaxy” effects back on Upper Broadway, and he knew more about teasing results from photographic equipment than most DPs. But the space effects were definitely a collaborative effort, as this book richly illustrates, and he didn’t nail the “Purple Hearts” solarization technique discovered by Bryan Loftus, or Trumbull’s own “slit-scan” machine, both of which provided indelible images for the Star Gate sequence. What Kubrick did get was the only Academy Award he ever won. My impression is that what really stuck in Trumbull’s craw was the word “Designed.”

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Doug Trumbull’s “slit-scan” effect.

The most important thing Mr. Benson does for me personally is to finally scratch an itch that has persisted for fifty years. As all true fans know, 2001 was reviled upon its premiere but gradually caught on later. Well, no. That’s not what happened at all. The version which premiered in Washington, D.C. on April 2, 1968 and in New York the next day — crucially, the one that was shown to the nation’s film critics — was 161 minutes long. The dismal reaction (although he wisely kept his mouth shut, even Clarke hated it) traumatized Kubrick and forced him to call for intensive surgery in the basement OR at good old 1350 Avenue of the Americas, where he delicately excised nineteen minutes. For half a century, I have been dying to see that nineteen minutes. If 2001 is this good, wouldn’t that make it nineteen minutes better?

Mr. Benson has disabused me of that desire. 

We know and love the sequence in which Gary Lockwood jogs and shadowboxes in a 360-degree antigravitational loop — a mind-blowing illusion performed on what was then the largest kinetic set ever constructed. Some people think the scene goes on too long. Well, how about another 360-degree sequence featuring co-star Keir Dullea? The premiere audience saw it. Also, Dullea meticulously prepares for an EVA at the computer’s suggestion. Again, even today some viewers (not me) find the sequence fat. How about doing it yet again with the other astronaut? The filmcrits saw that too. 2001 is so hypnotic that a rapt audience member could even acquiesce to all this. But most others, nuh-uh. Kubrick didn’t know this because he’d never tested the super-secret film with real warm bodies: nobody had seen the virgin reactions of completely objective viewers. Whether MGM forced the cuts or not is unclear, but even Kubrick had to concede they were necessary.

At a trimmer 142 minutes, not only did 2001 immediately roar for MGM at the box office — it was 1968’s highest-grossing film, the only time Kubrick ever achieved #1 — but critics also began changing their minds upon subsequent viewings. Jeez, this is nowhere near as turgid as I remember! The funniest opinion morph, reprinted in Jerome Agel’s 1970 pop-arty THE MAKING OF KUBRICK’S 2001, was Time magazine’s weekly 25-word capsule movie review section from preem to dominance: it was as if different people had written each of eight or ten entries. Ash heap to masterpiece. 

Let’s leave it at masterpiece, for that’s where 2001 sits in my home. Therefore I’m not capable of judging this book objectively. Would it be as compelling to someone who has never seen 2001? Dunno. But only a couple of sentences on physical engineering were beyond me (kudos to the author, who keeps the rest of it earthbound), and I would imagine the fraught journey toward a lasting work of art could interest a seeker from any medium. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure, my strong advice would be to see the movie before you dig any deeper. Get as close to our college-boy innocence as you can. Slow down. Lights off. Breathe. Exhale. Quiet. Still. Now hit play and dig some Ligeti.

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The best damn space effects in film history.

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My Sundance 2018

February 10, 2018

sundance18.pngNice weather this year for Sundance filmgoers, not so much for skiiers: a light dusting to make things pretty, but ice-free roads and sidewalks. Everything at the fest — including all 17 films below — is a premiere except for its “Spotlight” series, which screens a few notables previously shown elsewhere on the festival circuit (I saw one of them in New York last fall). But not everything is “in competition” and thus eligible for an award. You just have to get used to it.

futile.jpegA FUTILE AND STUPID GESTURE**** Doug Kenney, co-founder of National Lampoon and co-writer of ANIMAL HOUSE, is a humor-writing idol of mine, much as Brando or James Dean might be to an actor — Doug’s natural blazing talent was off the scale. So don’t expect any objectivity here: the fact that this movie even exists is worth a great deal to me. Director David Wain & co. obviously intended to create the type of biopic Doug himself might have written: arch, irreverent, self-aware. (Doug himself would have probably turned in something about teenage Venusians invading Chagrin Falls, Ohio, but never mind.) One feature he might have admired is the narrator, “Modern Doug,” played by the seventyish Martin Mull. The character itself is a metafiction since the real Doug didn’t last half that long, but he makes possible a current-day take on what is essentially a period piece, that period being the cultural adolescence of the Me Generation. We pick up our hero at Harvard and watch him co-claw the National Lampoon to prominence, then “graduate” to Hollywood excess. All the people around him, some of whom you’ll recognize from real life, are played by actors and comics and improv people who must have agitated to be in this picture. (There are some human Easter eggs too: for example, one of the magazine publishers pitched by the Lampoon is played by Mark Metcalf, better known to ANIMAL HOUSE fans as “Neidermeyer.”) Modern Doug pauses at one point to note that all these actors may not resemble the people they’re playing, but face it, does Will Forte (as movie Doug) really look like he’s in his twenties? He says this as a long list of factual inaccuracies crawls by on the screen too quickly to read. That’s the tone. Everybody, including Forte, is wearing era-appropriate wigs, so it’s a little like attending some perverse NatLamp-themed Halloween party: the only guy who physically falls into his role is Thomas Lennon as the acerbic Michael O’Donoghue. But even so bewigged, Domhnail Gleeson is superb as Henry Beard, Doug’s writing partner on both Lampoons, Harvard and National: he’s the best thing in the movie, nailing his American accent and providing desperately needed human emotion. If you don’t remember these days with fondness, you might not prevail over an hour and half of unrelenting sound and fury. But you can test a small dose right now, because it’s streaming on Netflix.

nancy.jpegNANCY** (Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: Christina Choe) Now that we’ve survived a bout of misogny and infantilism, let’s move on to the main event: chick flicks!!! (Sorry, I promise to shake off all the remaining Doug Kenney dust. There.) A serious subtext this year was, many more films about and/or by women. One day we shall attain that pinnacle at which even Oscar voters renounce their historic snubbing of…fantasy films. (Go, Guillermo!) But until then, this is a notable and welcome wave. I didn’t like this one as much as I liked that it was here, which is only a baby step. Death mercifully frees a mousy, repressed, miserable 35-year-old temp (Andrea Riseborough, whom we will see later at a slightly more flattering angle) from her shrewish adopted mother. Meanwhile, a grieving couple (played with skill and taste by Steve Buscemi and J. Smith-Cameron) hasn’t given up on their 5-year-old daughter, gone missing 30 years ago. A digital construct that shows what the daughter might look like now matches our Nancy perfectly, so she presents herself to the couple. Does she really believe herself the kidnapped lost soul? Might she actually be? Ambiguity abounds, any tension is psychological only, and that vacant look on Nancy’s face is pasted on for the entire running time. After many Sundance screenings over the years, I’m well prepared for grey skies and plot bleakness, but this one failed to move either me or the antiheroine.

kinder.jpegTHE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER*** (U.S. Dramatic Award for Directing: Sara Colangelo) Again with the antiheroine. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a mousy, repressed, miserable teacher and wannabe writer who discovers a poetic prodigy in her lower Manhattan classroom, a kid who periodically goes into a trance and spits out genius. Her interest inexorably ratchets down into obsession, which consumes her more and more powerfully and leads her to morally ambiguous (non-kid-threatening) acts that would basically make you punch out Teach if it were your family. It’s based on an Israeli film which I haven’t seen. The upside is that this is the type of character dissection that comes completely out of left field; Gyllenhaal owns the screen and really sweeps you up into her own madness as you flail for reasons to empathize with her. But by the time you finally throw up your hands and admit she’s just nuckin futs, the picture is basically over. A minor but hanging beef is that the kid’s poetry, which is supposed to be amazing enough to stun both a writing class and a public audience, was for me just meh, exceptional only because it came from a five-year-old. For this non-poet, it doesn’t work as well on its own, and that’s a critical plot point. A startling bit of MOS dialog is the last thing we hear; nice.

tully.jpegTULLY**** What working actress is braver than Charlize Theron? She shaves her head to race in the desert. She de-glams and gains weight (and gets an Oscar for it). I guess knowing you’re gorgeous must give your ego some room to tear the image down. But I’ve never seen her look more normally human on purpose than here as Marlo, a bloated ninth-month expectant mother. She already has young children, including an emotionally and physically exasperating ADD son, and as the picture opens she’s on the verge of clinical exhaustion and hasn’t even delivered yet. The idea of a “night nanny” to give Marlo some overnight sleep — the nanny will wake her whenever it’s time for feeding — sounds unusual at first, but soon after the baby’s born, young Tully (Mackenzie Davis) shows up at the door. I have to stop here, because screenwriter Diablo Cody is way ahead of us both, but let’s just say the engaging story kept us discussing it that night and into the next day, and will probably have the same effect on you. Both leads show us real chemistry; they are utterly believable and thoroughly charming. This one grows on you — you may well want to see it a second time.

puzzle1.jpgPUZZLE**** A mousy, repressed Connecticut housewife and mother (Kelly Macdonald) discovers that she is a savant at jigsaw puzzling, which quickly becomes her secret passion. This character is particularly interesting because her life is only humdrum, not miserable: it’s grounded in reality and keenly recognizable by the audience. She has a kindhearted if old-fashioned husband (David Denman of THE OFFICE) who owns a garage, and some fine sons, one of whom has his own secret passion. It has never occurred to her that there can be more to life. But when she begins practicing for a doubles competition with a Manhattan tech-fortune maven (a pitch-perfect Irrfan Khan), another dimension opens: her black-and-white world is now in full color. It would be impossible to explain to her family, so she sneaks train trips into the city — and, of course, something’s gotta give. Macdonald’s subtle, delicate performance reminded me of Isabelle Huppert: the movie’s on her shoulders and she carries it beautifully.

blaze.jpegBLAZE*** (Special Jury Award for Achievement in Acting: Benjamin Dickey) Ethan Hawke’s adoring biopic of Blaze Foley, the “outlaw country” legend who was better known to fellow musicians than to the general public. Hawke weaves through three separate timelines: the young Foley’s love affair with (co-screenwriter) Sybil Rosen; a drunken but searing live set at Austin’s Outhouse bar; and a nostalgic radio interview with two close friends. The idea of this mashup is better than the result, and if every bit of Blaze’s story is new to you, it might feel somewhat like much ado. What saves the film is onscreen authenticity. Hawke went to the trouble of hiring genuine musicians who really play on camera. Folk singer Ben Dickey goes a great job in the harrowing title role, but for my money the real discovery is Charlie Sexton as Blaze’s friend Townes Van Zandt. (That’s him above.) Sexton is a longtime guitarist in Bob Dylan’s touring band, but you’d swear this natural raconteur was a veteran character actor. He has a great future in movies if anything ever happens to his pickin’ fingers.

eighth-grade-movie-image.jpgEIGHTH GRADE**** A surprise from Bo Burnham, the snarky standup who shined as part of the comic Greek chorus in THE BIG SICK. The surprise is that Burnham displays unabashed, unironic heart and emotion as he follows an eighth-grader through a time of maximum awkwardness. She’s more than a schoolgirl but not quite yet a woman, and thanks to social media she’s part of the first generation that constantly self-documents, probably living far too much of its life in public. Newcomer Elsie Fisher is tremendous in the lead: she makes you laugh and breaks your heart. How can a man write this stuff? Very carefully — but Fisher’s “Kayla Day” is clearly a projection of the director’s own adolescent social ineptitude. At the q&a Burnham noted that it was no problem directing newly teenaged actors: to them it was s.o.p., just another selfie lens. I can’t wait for his next film: he’s good.
hearts.jpegHEARTS BEAT LOUD*** (Festival Closing Night) This is a fairly standard story about a taut single father-daughter relationship, but with a big switcheroo. Stereotypically, with her prodigious musical talent she would want to cut the apron strings and blast off into show business. Here her dad is a onetime pro musician who now runs a failing Brooklyn record store, and she just wants to get into pre-med at UCLA. But that voice! As a way of staying connected, he keeps goading her into setting the books down for a regular “jam sesh,” and one day they noodle together the title song, which turns into a minor Spotify hit. The best thing about this picture is the musical numbers: Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons are really playing live, and their joy is infectious. An impromptu “concert” in the cramped record store is about as good as it gets on film. Aside from the music this is only a trifle, but it really leaves you in a good place.

burden.jpgBURDEN**** (U.S. Dramatic Audience Award) A tough, gritty dramatization of a true story of racism and redemption that happened in South Carolina in the Nineties. Garrett Hedlund is calmly sensational as Mike Burden, a stepped-on white-trash orphan who discovers a wider world: Hedlund has developed this shrugging, schlumpy gait that makes him look like a whipped dog. When Dixie shit disturber and Mike’s mentor Tom Wilkinson (very scary) opens a “Redneck Museum” celebrating Klan history in a downtown storefront, he’s basically daring the cowed black community to do something suicidal. But nuance is entering Mike’s life in the form of girlfriend and single mom Andrea Riseborough (from NANCY; she was in four movies showing at the fest) and, crucially, a black pastor (Forest Whitaker) who has more Christian values in his little finger than does an entire tv “ministry.” It’s tough to watch at times but it feels right; you get to see prejudice and, uh, clannishness on both sides of the racial divide.

dark.jpegDARK MONEY*** (Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award: Katy Chevingy & Marilyn Ness) “Dark money” describes unlimited, anonymous contributions to political parties and even individual campaigns, as long as there’s a pro forma arm’s length. The last shackles were taken off by the Supreme Court’s infamous “Citizens United” decision of 2010 in which unidentified donations were declared a form of free speech. Dark money influences elections everywhere — notably in furious negative postcards that flood mailboxes in the last few days before voting, opposing even conservatives if they don’t toe the corporate line — but it makes nobody madder than Montanans. They outlawed corporate contributions in 1912 after copper barons tried to take over the state using pure cash, and for a century they’ve had some of the strictest laws in the country. Now they are fighting back agains the likes of the Koch brothers as best they can. This documentary wisely concentrates on that one state to give this complex problem a human dimension, even against a constantly shifting opposition of blandly named shell companies which leave as few fingerprints as the law allows (i.e., nearly none). Too many election results are bought and paid for. Recognizing the problem is the first step in resistance.
three.jpegTHREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS**** (Special Jury Award for Storytelling) In 1980, three 19-year-old men discovered that they were identical triplets, separated at birth and adopted by three different families. They’d never met each other before but, remarkably, shared numerous personality traits. They became best friends, moved in together, did all the talk shows, ruled glittering Eighties New York nightlife, and opened a successful restaurant. The first half of this documentary takes you inside their joyful reunion, elaborated by talking heads including two of the boys themselves. But then author Lawrence Wright, researching a New Yorker piece on identical twins, makes a discovery that changes everything, and the movie takes an unexpected turn. Don’t read anything else about this before you see it, because the secret I’m dancing around is jaw-dropping. It unfolds like a piece of fiction, but it’s all true. Wonderful.

beirut_-_h_2017.jpgBEIRUT** This is a fairly standard spy thriller. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, but there’s nothing special about it either. Jon Hamm is a U.S. diplomat in Lebanon in the Seventies. Something really bad happens, and he returns to the States and a whiskey bottle. Ten years pass, and the CIA desperately needs him to go back to Beirut, by now basically a combat zone, but he’s kind of a wreck, and is there anybody he can trust? It looks like a Bourne movie, all gray and kinetic. Everything about it is perfectly professional; Hamm can play anything straight or arch, and he does look like a standard-issue movie spy. But it never reached out to grab me, and the only thing that stuck in my mind was a character turn that we could see coming a mile away.

the-sentence.jpgTHE SENTENCE**** (U.S. Documentary Audience Award) Anybody who thinks mandatory minimum sentencing is a good idea — especially Jeff Sessions — should see this one. Filmmaker Rudy Valdez’s sister Cindy gets a mandatory 15 years for conspiracy, meaning she committed no crime personally but did not report the misdeeds of her ex-boyfriend (rueful lawyers call this “the girlfriend problem”). As Cindy is separated from her husband and young daughters over a span of years, Valdez films the family so she can watch them grow up. Then they begin a desperate campaign to seek clemency from the outgoing President Obama. It’s easy to sound tough on crime if you tell yourself that justice is being done, but this is not justice. While Cindy was indeed guilty of conspiracy charges, no judge would have ordered so draconian a sentence, and this heart-rending film shows why. It’s an achingly effective piece of proof that judges need to be free to be fair.

butter.jpegBUTTERFLIES*** (World Dramatic Grand Jury Prize) A dramedy about three Turkish siblings, not particularly close, who are called by their father (not very close either) back to the small village where they grew up, a podunk place they’ve been trying their whole lives to forget. Part road movie, part bonding drama, part farce (exploding chickens, a ludicrous astronaut suit, don’t ask), this is a showcase for the three stars, each of whom gets plenty of room to draw a plausibly complex character, all irascible but sweet too. Delightful.

kailash---still-1_38688674281_o-h_2018.jpgKAILASH*** (U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize) A portrait of a very brave man: Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi, who has made it his life’s work to rescue children trafficked as slave labor for clandestine factories around the world. Hidden cameras show us the squalor, and Kailash and his team pose as buyers to reveal the monstrous, cynical trade in the most vulnerable of human beings. It’s equal parts horrifying and hopeful, anchored by the search for a young boy missing in Delhi for eight months. Kailash’s rescue raids are daring and dangerous; the bad guys here are extremely bad. But his courage is contagious, and he’s not content just to shine a light on this horrifying practice: he’s determined to do something about it.

search_cropped.0.jpgSEARCH**** (NEXT Audience Award, Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award: Sev Ohanian) A terribly clever thriller that takes place entirely on a computer screen: messages, FaceTime chats, tv news links, and other ephemera that will be instantly recognizable to both Windows and IOS users. John Cho plays a single dad whose high-school daughter goes missing, and the plot of the film is his increasingly frenzied search for her, using all the capabilities of the Internet. It’s amazing how major characters enter the computer-bound story organically, like Debra Messing as a detective who takes the disappearance personally. More than once I had the odd sensation that the big movie screen was actually before me on my desktop: I was concentrating so hard that my sense of scale was way off. The movie is marred toward the end by a dreaded “info dump,” in which mystery elements are explained away without having given us a fair chance to hypothesize. But here form trumps content. This gag has been tried before, notably in the horror film UNFRIENDED, but frankly there it felt like a gimmick. Here the effect is seductively plausible, essential to the story, and lots of fun.

i-think-were-alone-now.jpgI THINK WE’RE ALONE NOW**** (Special Jury Award for Excellence in Filmmaking: Reed Morano) Something apocalyptic happened, we’re not sure what. In a quiet little village somewhere in the Northeast, buildings are still standing but they’re atrophied. A lone grim survivor scavenges for gear and sustenance, compulsively cleans the houses, and lugs decomposed bodies into a field where he uses a backhoe to dig their graves. He lives in the public library, where he hangs onto a semblance of order by preserving and cataloging the books he finds on his rounds. He seems to be the last man on earth. Then one day he isn’t. The mesmerizing Peter Dinklage carries Act I all by himself with his trademark burning intensity, but suddenly Elle Fanning is there to disturb his reclusive, neurotic routine. This film settles into a quiet, somber rhythm and then upends itself. It’s supremely confident, taking its time to unfold, yet it stays one step ahead of the viewer, who will have no idea what is to come. I remember being impressed by Dinklage in THE STATION AGENT at my first Sundance in 2003; now GAME OF THRONES has made him a genuine movie star, but he’s retained his indie cred. You just can’t take your eyes off him.

WISH I’D SEEN: GENESIS 2.0, THE GUILTY, MONSTER, MONSTERS AND MEN, OUR NEW PRESIDENT

ALREADY SAW: THE RIDER****

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The King Of The Cinema

November 6, 2017

images-5.jpegSteven Spielberg is the Stephen King of movies. He’s one of the best pure storytellers in his medium, but his immense success has earned him a raft of detractors. Constantly challenged by his inner need for achievement, he escapes a creative pigeonhole again and again and continues to produce unexpected work that comes from an unfamiliar place. His legion of fans connect to him on a visceral basis, which makes others in his field envious. His first name is Steve.

images.jpegI hope they never make a 2:30 documentary about the career of Stephen King, because a writer’s life ain’t too visual, and on most of the occasions King’s made it to the big screen, the results have been varying shades of regrettable. But HBO has done just that for Spielberg, and the entertaining career retrospective is not only fun but also eye-opening.

MV5BMTMwNzk2ODEyMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzQ4MzczMw@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1495,1000_AL_.jpgSpielberg has been around since before the dawn of the summer blockbuster (as has King), which is generally thought to have commenced with the release of his picture JAWS in 1975. He was just a kid but he already had lots of experience shooting tv for Universal under the tutelage of executive Sidney Sheinberg. Legend has it that young master Spielberg sneaked onto the lot and commandeered an empty office for months. I don’t believe that, and neither does David Geffen, who refers us to the famous LIBERTY VALANCE line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” I do believe Spielberg himself when he says he ducked off the studio-tour tram at a bathroom break and stuck around for the rest of the day, maybe even more than once. Spielberg had been shooting his own 8mm movies since adolescence, learning by doing. He saw the world during his awkward years through the lens of a movie camera. His short film AMBLIN’ was good enough to impress Sheinberg, and that’s how he really got on the lot. He didn’t have the grades to get into film school, so Universal became his film school. He soaked it all up like a sponge.

images-1.jpegSpielberg was part of that Seventies group of young turks who threatened to take over the movie business, then wound up doing exactly that. Francis Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma – each of them is among the talking heads in the HBO doc. Think about the mind-blowing movies that came from that group alone, yet Spielberg towers over them all. He could always out-nerd every single movie nerd in the whole posse. In the fullness of time he’s become the world’s most famous working film director. His name on a picture alone makes you perk up and pay attention.

images-4.jpegHow do you follow a sensation like JAWS? For this whiz kid, with CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. He didn’t really have to deal with abject failure until he made 1941, a low comedy which I find underrated but which was widely reviled — and, more important to Hollywood, lost money after blowing a huge budget. It was hubris that did Spielberg in: he says at that point he thought he could do anything.

images-2.jpegHe licked his wounds for a year or so until his old friend George Lucas “came to the rescue,” as Spielberg puts it. Every studio wanted the proposed Lucasfilm archaeologist character, but nobody wanted Spielberg to direct because he was already notorious for trashing schedules and budgets. Now he had something to prove — and a compadre to prove it to. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was a delight from beginning to end, largely because its audience didn’t grow up with Republic serials — “every reel was a cliffhanger,” says Spielberg of the first Indiana Jones movie — so everything old was again a surprise.

images-3.jpegAfter achieving great success, Stephen King seemed to need to self-test his creative chops. He had demonstrated that he could do sprawling epics like THE STAND. How about telescoping down to two characters? MISERY. One? GERALD’S GAME. Similarly, Spielberg ventured out from his fantasy wheelhouse into significant forays like THE COLOR PURPLE and SCHINDLER’S LIST. By the time of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, he was able to employ both sides of his brain at once. The opening and closing scenes are probably the best cinematic depiction of WWII-era battle you can find on the screen, but in Spielbergian fashion they’re hyper-realistic, more real than reality. Then MUNICH, LINCOLN, BRIDGE OF SPIES: “serious” films by Steven Spielberg. Now people don’t bat an eye whenever he veers from the fantastic.

spielberg-lucas-cropped.jpgHe tells us in the doc that he only has a vague idea of what’s going to happen when he arrives on set every morning. He’s the anti-Hitchcock. He thinks that frisson of everyday terror keeps him sharp (although one of the best pieces of advice he ever got was, never let the crew think you’re not in control: they’ll lose all respect for you). This sounds true to me: nearly every writer I’ve ever had the privilege of editing suffers to one degree or another from impostor syndrome.

images.jpegI think Spielberg may have to wait for posterity to receive his proper due, like John Ford or Howard Hawks. But if you don’t already think you’re living through the career of one pure-dee historically significant filmmaker, watch this doc and think again.

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12/19/17: THE POST is one of those great bits of drama where you know how it’s going to turn out but you still want to watch everybody sweat. All filmmaking elements are superb. Spielberg led the whole production while he was waiting for the VFX guys to finish their work on READY PLAYER ONE.


My NYFF 2017

October 27, 2017

NYFF55.jpgOrdinarily the New York Film Festival arrives along with the first crisp autumn weather, and this year it started out as usual. But too many hurricanes, etc., and NYC turned unseasonably warm, around 80F highs, for the rest of the fest. Nevertheless, we persisted. I should remind you that NYFF is the only major film festival which does not present awards. Its purpose is to celebrate cinema in general, so anybody on the “Main Slate” (still 25 films long after more than half a century) is automatically a “winner.” But there are many others, spread all over the fest’s Lincoln Center campus. Most of the flicks I see are Main Slaters, but one of my favorites this year was an outlier that reminded me of Stanley Kubrick. Literally.

This year a single movie studio attained each of the three most coveted slots on the NYFF schedule: Opening Night, Centerpiece, and Closing Night. It wasn’t Disney, Paramount, Warner Bros., Fox, Universal or Sony. The trifecta was scored by…Amazon Studios.

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MADAME HYDE*** (North American Premiere) Isabelle Huppert is one of the most luminous actors in the world. It’s hard to take your eyes off her. She was the centerpiece of the provocative ELLE from last year, but here she gets to have a little more fun. This is a very loose adaptation of the Jekyll & Hyde story, with Huppert as a slightly less nutty professor. That is, mousy Mrs. Gequil (get it?) is a physics teacher in a tough Parisian high school, ragged on by everybody — students, staff — except her doting househusband. But one stormy night she is struck by lightning and transformed. There’s a new swagger and energy, and oh yeah, super powers. Serge Bozon combines screwball comedy with thriller elements, and the mashup doesn’t always fold together neatly. But Huppert is transfixing as usual, calling forth the subtlest facial gestures and deftly walking the line between funny and unsettling. Romain Duris is hysterical as her principal, managing to steal every scene he’s in — even those with Huppert.

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WESTERN*** (U.S. Premiere) A tale of the frontier, meaning a lonely spot in Middle of Nowhere, Bulgaria, where a German construction team arrives to build a water facility. They’re construction-gang chummy except toward a tall quiet new guy (Gary Cooper — I mean Meinhard Neumann). They consider themselves superior to the Bulgarian rubes and don’t think much of Meinhard’s natural inclination to get to know the locals, in more than one sense of the word. A beautiful snow-white horse complicates the plot and completes the Western metaphor. Most of the actors are non-professionals, which gives the movie a verite sheen. German director Valeska Grisebach really makes you feel the grime of their physical labor and the low heat of their inevitable testosterone battles.

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ZAMA*** (U.S. Premiere) 18th century South America — maybe Paraguay but we don’t know for sure — is a strange place. Not just the period costumes and customs, but in Lucrecia Martel’s visually striking production, landscapes and even sounds are strange too. Don Diego de Zama is an Americas-born functionary of the Spanish crown who wants to be transferred to a more prominent post, preferably in the old country. But in his way are the hurdles of an imperious lumbering bureaucracy and the shadow of a notorious outlaw as slippery as the Scarlet Pimpernel. His lurching, then crawling quest occasionally passes like a dream, aided by the striking metamusical sonic design by Guido Berenblum. The story comes from a classic 1956 Argentinean novel and it sometimes took effort for this non-reader to hang on, but the atmosphere is rich, musky, and exotic. Is that enough? Dunno.

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VISAGES VILLAGES***** (FACES PLACES in America, but I think the rhyme is more clever in French.) Most of us have blind spots in our cinematic lexicon, and Agnes Varda was once one of mine. I vaguely knew her as the “grandmother of the French New Wave” (why grandmother?), she was married to Demy and knew all the others, but I’d never seen her work until a friend of mine rhapsodized about her in a book. I’ve been trying to catch up ever since, but at 88 she’s still ahead of me: I’ve never seen a better Varda film than this one, my favorite flick of the whole festival. Her collaborative partner is the photographic artist JR, who specializes in black-and-white portraits blown up to gargantuan proportions which his crew then pastes onto large surfaces, usually but not always the sides of buildings. Varda and JR tool around rural France to meet villagers and leave them one of JR’s titanic souvenirs. In Varda style, the duo thus celebrate the culture and tradition of the undercelebrated: miners, a farmer, a postman, factory workers, a waitress in a cafe, the wives of dockworkers, a soon-to-be-abandoned village, and so forth. Some of the images are so spectacular that they take your breath away — the wives in particular form a miraculous high point at the unveiling of their installation. While all this is going on, Varda and JR constitute a winsome comedy team: he’s quick and glib, she’s pixielike and game. Toward the end, Varda herself is captured in a heart-tugging verite moment that nobody expected, but it only serves to make the project feel more truthful. It’s a love letter to cinema, the power of art, and the people who make up the backbone of society, all of them fascinating even before they’re turned into colossi. There’s a goofy smile on your face as the credits roll. I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

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THE FLORIDA PROJECT**** (U.S. Premiere) Another strange place, this one much closer to home. It’s a rundown weekly-rate motel in the literal shadow of Disney World (“the Florida project” was what Walt called the park in the earliest stage), where three six-year-olds shriek and romp in glorious abandon while the adults in their lives doggedly scrounge to pay the rent. The notion that Americans next to the poverty line can possibly be living so close to affluent vacationers — near enough to lie back on the grass and watch the Disney fireworks every night — is maddening because there’s no easy solution. The kids, led by spitfire pheenom Brooklynn Prince, are heartbreaking and exhilarating in their ability to adapt, but this is definitely not for kids to watch: it’s gritty and profane. Newcomer Bria Vinaite plays Prince’s 20-year-old mom, who up-sells wholesale perfumes to the well-heeled worthies at nicer hotels just down the street. The wrenching balance between kids’-eye euphoria and adult desperation is what makes Sean Baker’s film special. Willem Dafoe, in a subtly effective turn as the motel manager, keeps us anchored, as much as his character can.

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Leon Vitali in BARRY LYNDON…

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…and today.

FILMWORKER**** Stanley Kubrick is my favorite film director, so any documentary with some insight into his process has automatically sold at least one ticket. Leon Vitali had a thriving acting career in England when Kubrick cast him as “Lord Bullingdon” in BARRY LYNDON. Leon still has an actor’s sonorous tone and cadence: compare his furious music-recital speech in BARRY LYNDON with the calmly menacing “Red Cloak” in EYES WIDE SHUT; that’s what he sounds like today. He had been profoundly moved by Kubrick’s 2001 and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and was walking on air when his hero hired him. So just after BARRY LYNDON wrapped, Leon began to school himself on film editing and other below-the-line tasks, expressly to offer his production services to Kubrick as he was prepping THE SHINING. They went on to work together for the rest of the director’s’s life. To call Leon an “assistant” was to diminish his vital role: no mere “assistant” could color-correct Kubrick’s final film or supervise digital transfers of the entire library. Leon became lieutenant, right-hand man, factotum on 24-hour call to a mercurial obsessive, all at great physical and psychological cost. This film documents that unique relationship using archival footage and new interviews. It strives to help us understand why a talented and successful actor would forsake a fine potential career to become an anonymous “filmworker” (that’s the term he used on application forms requiring his profession). Besides Leon himself, we hear from Kubrick performers including Ryan O’Neal, Matthew Modine, the all-grown-up Danny Lloyd of THE SHINING, and FULL METAL JACKET’s drill instructor, R. Lee Ermey. These actors rhapsodize not about Stanley, but about Leon. Kubrick made him responsible for prepping a real-life Marine D.I. for the shoot, and Ermey tells us that he might have done only a third as well if not for Leon. Lloyd took to him instantly and Leon became the tyke’s best friend on set, crucially easing for Kubrick the burden of directing a child. On and on, Leon was utterly devoted to the maestro, who was so intensely focused that he could omit niceties and coldly command one’s life. We also hear from Leon’s siblings, friends, three somewhat rueful children, and a few talking heads from longtime studio partner Warner Bros., who were regularly tormented by Stanley and Leon’s fanatical insistence on perfection. I hope this overdue report — heartwarming in its own rugged way — will help set the record straight and rescue one filmworker from undeserved obscurity. Before the screening Mr. Vitali was greeting friends in the lobby, so I walked up and thanked him for what he’d done all those years. In shaking his hand I felt, however obliquely, connected to Kubrick. But as the film then rolled, I found out I’d only had a tiny inkling. After seeing this earnest, revelatory movie, I realized that the real honor had been meeting Leon Vitali.

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LET THE SUNSHINE IN*** (North American Premiere) Like Huppert, Julliette Binoche has matured so gracefully that she still commands rapt attention. Her prodigious onscreen charisma is essential to this small story of a middle-aged woman’s search for romantic love. She careers almost randomly from man to man, and the audience becomes so bought in that we start auditioning prospects in our heads: get rid of the bum; this guy looks promising. Each relationship is fraught with its own limitations, but somehow the film retains a sly sense of humor. A famous actor shows up in the final moments as an inscrutable fortune-teller and gets laughs with an amusingly transparent monologue.

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WONDERSTRUCK***** (Festival Centerpiece) The second adaptation of a Brian Selznick illustrated book (after Martin Scorsese’s HUGO), this is a wonderfully imaginative story that alternates between two timelines to achieve a satisfying dramatic unity. In 1977 a lightning strike renders a preteen Minnesota boy deaf, and he makes his way to New York in search of the father he’s never known. Meanwhile — or, to be precise, fifty years earlier — a deaf little girl in Hoboken goes to the city to meet a celebrated actress. Director Todd Haynes’s meticulous replication of 1950s New York was a highlight of his previous CAROL, and here he vividly depicts not one but two other historical periods, allowing us to ponder how much of the city’s culture endured over that half century. The two story strands eventually merge, brought together by Julianne Moore’s lovely dual role. Much if not most of the movie is free of dialogue, reflecting the experience of the two young leads. Our screening included subtitles for the hearing-impaired, who were so well represented that an ASL signer was on stage for the pre-show introductions. I don’t know whether that was just for us or for general release, but not only didn’t the titles distract, they forced each of us to imagine living in a world without sound. This one is for all ages, but don’t let that scare you away. It’s smart, it’s pretty, it’s original, it doesn’t pander or condescend, and Haynes gets your approbation the old-fashioned way: he earns it.

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LADY BIRD*** The directorial debut of Greta Gerwig, who says her script was inspired by incidents in her own life. Saoirse Ronan plays a free-spirited, Gerwigian high-schooler who longs to escape the one-horse town (to her) that is Sacramento. She’s even invented a sullen bohemian persona for herself and insists that everybody call her not Christine, but “Lady Bird.” Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts are the long-suffering parents who contribute to her long suffering. There are a few tropes too familiar to the coming-of-age genre, or maybe just to late adolescence in real life. But the screenplay bounces along from humor to pathos and back again, Ronan kills as the daffy/heartful heroine, and Gerwig displays quite the steady hand behind the camera. I’ll definitely be there for her next one. Nothing more than a trifle, but a charming one indeed.

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BPM (Beats Per Minute)**** (U.S. Premiere) One reason I enjoy film festivals is the blank screen: I usually have no idea what to expect as the lights go down. To preserve my blissful ignorance I read as little as possible beforehand, only speed-skim what’s necessary to make choices. So when I sat down I presumed this to be a documentary about ACT UP Paris at the height of the AIDS crisis, and that’s exactly what it plays like. But gradually I caught on. There were impossibly too many cameras in the ACT UP war room, right into too many members’ snoots as they made comments. Moments that might be too intimate even for a doc were focused and framed just right. These are actors, an ensemble which stuns in its evocation of life with HIV — most ACT UP members were and are “pos” — as the rest of the world seems blasé if not downright oblivious. Director/writer Robin Campillo does a magnificent job of bringing us ever closer to the individual radical activists, especially the sad-eyed Nahuel Perez Biscayart as Sean, pulled through the disease’s grim stages as we watch helplessly. The film is not without scenes of joy, but its meat is the courage and inventiveness of a group that will not be silenced, for as their motto attests, that equals death. Some people talk a good game, especially many Americans these days, but this is what real resistance looks like. France’s submission for the foreign language Academy Award.

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THE RIDER**** Here’s another one which feels utterly real, but for a different reason. It’s about a South Dakota horse trainer and bronc rider on the rural rodeo circuit who suffers a head injury that threatens the career in which he excels. He is played by Brady Jandreau and the film’s story is inspired by his own life (the actual incident is shown: there’s no way a stunt player could have pulled it off). Brady has never acted before, and neither have the other principals, but they’re playing characters very close to themselves, so we get to see what hand-to-mouth rodeoing is really like. You utterly trust everybody, because they’re the real thing. In one scene, Brady becomes the first human being ever to get on the back of one particularly unruly horse. We witness his patience and respect as he takes incremental steps to earn the wild horse’s trust before our very eyes. You can’t fake that. The director is Chloe Zhao, a Beijing native who went to Mount Holyoke and NYU; in other words, she ain’t exactly from big-sky country. But she displays the strength and heart to present this lifestyle as naturally as a movie can — never do we detect anyone in the amateur but authentic cast “reciting lines.” It’s an amazement, an emotional visit into a foreign land most of us have never seen before.

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WONDER WHEEL*** (World Premiere, Festival Closing Night) The timing of Woody Allen’s latest premiere probably wasn’t super-terrific, what with Harvey Weinstein and all. But this has nothing to do with sexual predation and everything to do with New York — specifically, bustling Coney Island in the Fifties, its heyday beautifully recreated by what must have been an army of CGI artists. There’s a love triangle (studly lifeguard and fourth-wall-busting narrator Justin Timberlake, frustrated middle-ager Kate Winslet, and her nubile stepdaughter Juno Temple) along with Winslet’s carousel-operator husband (Jim Belushi, in a role that James Gandolfini might have played in a parallel universe). The ingenue has come back to Coney and her estranged father after an unauthorized escape from her mobster husband, who has sent out two goombahs as a search party (both actors are SOPRANOS veterans, just so you’ll understand). Thus there are many narrative shoes which threaten to drop, and several do. Some folks don’t know what to make of the Woodman’s work these days. He’s back in New York after a multi-year sojourn in Europe, but he’s not making comedies any more — I mean, there’s definitely laughter here, but that’s no longer the point. He’s always flattered his female actors, and true to form, this movie absolutely belongs to Winslet. You can enjoy visiting a bygone era, as with WONDERSTRUCK (hey, what’s with all the “Wonder” this year? Maybe it’s that there Woman’s fault), and the other three leads really work hard, but in the end there’s not much that sticks to the ribs. By now the Woody Allen film has become a genre unto itself. So this is a pleasantly made picture which doesn’t rise above its genre.

WISH I’D SEEN: LAST FLAG FLYING, PANDORA’S BOX (on the big screen; check it out for the most knowingly seductive silent siren ever filmed), THE SQUARE, TROUBLE NO MORE, THELMA

ALREADY SAW: MUDBOUND***

 Other NYFF Reports  

2016   2015   2014


Room & Bird

September 18, 2017

Most of us have our lists of favorite movies, and I’d wager no two lists of, say, the top 25 are exactly alike. However, we’re less inclined to make lists of the worst movies we’ve ever seen, because it’s our natural tendency to try and forget ’em, despite the best efforts of the gang at MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Today I have two for you, so beautifully bad that they break through the looking glass: I expect you will thoroughly enjoy watching each of them. They’re both available to rent on Netflix, and they’ve both been heckled by my MST3K-veteran pals at RiffTrax, but you don’t need their help. Just hit PLAY, sit back, and ponder the depths of determination and delirium that got these two particular movies made.

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I first heard of THE ROOM in 2010, seven years after its release, by reading a Harper’s piece by Tom Bissell. Roughly halfway through, I had to start reading again very carefully from the beginning, just to make sure I wasn’t the victim of a practical joke (the issue date was August, not April!). For what Bissell describes as a “post-camp cult film” had actually attracted a devoted midnight-screening audience since its release, the same kind of groundswell which propelled THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW — which I must emphasize is a legitimate movie with professional levels of production and performance, in stark contrast to THE ROOM — only with slathers of irony, akin to putting a tablespoon of wasabi into your mouth. I’ll try to describe it for you, but I won’t get any closer than Bissell’s best line: “It is the movie that an alien who has never seen a movie might make after having had movies thoroughly explained to him.”

The auteur of THE ROOM is a man who calls himself “Tommy Wiseau.” He desperately wants to be a movie star like his idol James Dean, though he has a slightly vampiric look and speaks somewhat broken English with a distancing Eastern European accent. (To hear Tommy’s voice for yourself without seeing THE ROOM, call the film’s hotline at (323) 654-6192.) After frustrating failures in scene classes and fruitless attempts to get auditions, he writes a “play” intended for the stage — which begins with an “external shot.” Ladies and gentlemen, meet Tommy Wiseau.

THE ROOM is an effort to produce an intense personal drama about a love triangle, but it is written, directed and lead-acted with such monumental incompetence that it turns in upon itself and becomes a thing of fascination. The writer has no idea how to fashion a single scene that makes any sense, let alone a feature-length plot. The star actor can barely remember the simplest line, forcing the production to use the first acceptable take it can possibly manage. The director is completely clueless about any aspect of staging, camera movement, continuity, or guiding a performance. Tommy Wiseau is the diametrical opposite of a natural. He makes Ed Wood look like Orson Welles.

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If it all sounds like something you’d be better off avoiding, please read THE DISASTER ARTIST, a book by featured actor Greg Sestero and journalist Bissell, and you’ll be dying to see THE ROOM. As well you should. In fact, you might want to do it before December, when a feature film based on the book appears, directed by and starring James Franco as Tommy. (He reportedly stayed in character between takes, in a bit of warped good sense.)

The book — and, I presume, Franco’s movie — cuts back and forth between THE ROOM’s hilarious production phase and Tommy’s backstory, or at least as much as can be gleaned by Sestero, his somewhat reluctant best friend in America. Even to those who know him best, Tommy is a man of mystery. His very age is in dispute. As the author well understands, those few crumbs Tommy drops about his earlier life have been provided by an unreliable narrator. Yet these same crumbs are vital to our curiosity: as Sestero writes, THE ROOM is “so incomprehensible that you find yourself compelled to watch it over and over again. You become desperate to learn how (if) on earth it was conceived: Who made it, and for what purpose?”

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Tommy’s one-sheet (l.) and James Franco’s fake for the DISASTER ARTIST movie.

THE ROOM is a product of almost superhuman determination. It is also a vanity project. Tommy got rich enough somehow — the source of his money remains unclear — to bankroll the $6 million budget personally, and he goes to extremes and beyond. What tugs at you while the film runs is that the crew behind the scenes are evidently real movie people: the camera’s in focus and the sound is clear. It’s just that they, along with a handful of not-untalented actors who have been sucked into the project’s maw, have absolutely nothing to work with.

They were, however, working with Tommy’s own equipment, purchased — not rented, as anyone else would do — from Birns & Sawyer to the tune of a million bucks. Cameras, lenses, Arriflex lighting equipment. For reasons we still do not understand, Tommy decided to simultaneously shoot THE ROOM in 35mm and digital HD. He ordered a mount that could hold both cameras at the same time. That meant hiring two different crews and using two different lighting systems that did not agree with each other, constantly forcing the DPs (Tommy ran through two disgusted cinematographers and finished the film with a third) to split the difference. Tommy wanted to be the first filmmaker to shoot this way. He never pondered why nobody else had preceded him.

The ROOM shoot is studded with examples of such amazing idiocy, but as you work your way through the book and get to know Tommy a little better out of context, he gains a human dimension, much like the obsessed Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt of the documentary AMERICAN MOVIE. The difference is that Borchardt has no money — and his knowledge of what he needs to do on set may be crude, but it’s still light-years beyond Tommy’s.

THE DISASTER ARTIST ends with the world premiere of THE ROOM, which of course bombed in a house Tommy had papered, then went on to gross $1800 — yes, that is four figures — during its original two-week LA engagement. But two young film students noticed it, encouraged others to come — as I hope you discover, it is mesmerizing in its surreal way — and before long alternative comedians like David Cross and Patton Oswalt, and eventually the general public, became believers. At midnight screenings, they use ritualistic synched reactions like a ROCKY HORROR crowd. The flick has played and is playing all over the world: Tommy has even started referring to it as a comedy. Against all odds, he has managed to become famous.

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I can only hope that in the movie version Franco treats Tommy with the empathy he deserves and plays him as something broader than a cartoonish object of ridicule. Meanwhile, I urge you to enter THE ROOM for yourself, making sure to pick up your jaw off the floor at regular intervals, and swirl, sniff, and savor. You are experiencing the awesome power of sheer will.

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“You are tearing me apart, Lisa!” Tommy’s James Dean moment.

In January 2009, I was walking down Park City, Utah’s Main Street during the Sundance Film Festival when a…car…festooned with phony crows and feathers, with loudspeakers broadcasting bird calls, drove by, attracting gawkers wherever it went. On the side of the car was a banner reading

BIDEMIC
SHOCK AND TERROR

I would learn to watch for this car, which made its lonely path down Main Street dozens of times during the fest. It was promoting an ultra-low-budget picture which we later found out was actually called BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR. That’s right, the signage on the promotional car, the only way this film’s producers could possibly position themselves before the Sundance crowd (or so they hoped), misspelled its own title. But was it really a stroke of genius instead? We all noticed it. We all silently added the poor missing R.

Then I saw the movie. It was not a stroke of genius.

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It was easy for director James Nguyen to overlook the typo, because like Tommy, English is not his native tongue. A Vietnam-born software salesman, Nguyen shot the self-financed BIRDEMIC on weekends over seven months, then spent several years looking for distribution. Also like Tommy, Nguyen fervently believed that he was producing a great work of art. Inspired by Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS (and, he says, APOCALYPSE NOW), Nguyen contemplated a romantic thriller with an ecological message. What he achieved was instead a mess — but, again like Tommy, the sheer ineptitude becomes entertaining all by itself.

Let’s start with the “birdemic,” though Nguyen doesn’t. In fact, the first bird attack won’t appear until about halfway through. But it is a master class in preposterous visual effects. Before that comes a romance between a Silicon Valley software salesman (!) and a wannabe model, utterly barren of chemistry or even nuance. At first it’s curious, then it becomes fascinating. Meanwhile, ecological anomalies begin happening behind their backs. Finally, when the tension reaches fever pitch — shock and terror! Or so we’ve been promised.

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“Can they get in?”

Nguyen also shares with Tommy a gobsmacking inability to even comprehend, much less explore, the language of film. Scene-setting is done using a series of slow pans and crane shots, like you might see in a better movie, but they continue long after the scene is set, eons after it’s been nailed frickin down. When bids — excuse me, birds — mass outside the motel where they’ve just spent a snuggly night, the girl (who is actually movie-star-pretty but gets no help from the script, the director, or the rest of the cast) peeks out from the drawn curtains to see an eagle hovering outside. She goes back to the bed to sit by the boy. “Can they get in?” she asks. He stares at the shut curtains, moves his focus back and forth for a few seconds, and replies, “Not at the moment.” He hasn’t seen any birds. Rather, his motivation is, that’s what it says in the script.

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A “bird” “attack.”

The bird scenes are the pièce de résistance. Cheap video matte effects are re-used to the point of redundancy: a flight of birds travels from left to right, then the same effects shot is flopped and the bird group comes back in the reverse direction. Identical hovering birds are liberally scattered throughout. And these birds dive to the sound of turbines and spit fire or something, at which point the buildings below them emit what looks a little like computer-generated smoke and fire but couldn’t fool an attentive five-year-old.

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“Birds” setting “fire” to some “buildings.”

I’m aware that this all sounds terrible, but like THE ROOM, BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR passes through a creative portal that, say, MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE — the worst movie I’d ever encountered until I saw THE ROOM — can’t penetrate. MANOS has nothing to offer but boredom and its makers are clearly passionless. But Tommy Wiseau and James Nguyen actually think they’re shooting terrific movies when they just might be in over their heads. Their stoic struggles actually do wind up legitimately entertaining the audience — two miracles which prove that thing called “movie magic” is hardly monopolized by the suits in Hollywood. They’re each sui generis, each tons of fun. Do yourself a favor. Two favors.

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3/14/18: As I hoped, the movie plays Tommy’s story for laughs but remains empathetic, even letting him end in triumph at the world premiere as the discomfited crowd starts giggling and finally erupts in applause (this did not happen: it was a long slow slog to notoriety). The most amazing part is a post-flick sequence in which a split screen runs genuine ROOM scenes alongside Franco’s recreations: god knows how many times his cast and crew rolled the original to get the pacing just right. Just before that, Tommy gets his own moment on the big screen, the one he dreamed about.


Jack H. Harris, 1918-2017

March 27, 2017

jack_harris.jpgJack H. Harris passed away a couple weeks ago at 98 after a long and happy life. That name probably means nothing to you, but it means a lot to me. Mr. Harris was partially responsible for my Master’s degree.

Jack Harris was a movie producer with a real eye for developing talent: he produced the first features by John Carpenter and John Landis. But it was his own first feature that cements his place in Hollywood history. In 1958, Jack H. Harris produced THE BLOB.

5546b5c45040e_358452b-986x750.jpgIt was the age of exploitation in the movie business as the industry frantically swatted away against the incursion of television on its customers’ leisure time: movies needed to be — or at least seem to be — bigger, bolder, better. Plus, by the late Fifties the recently christened “teenager” had developed into its own lucrative category for marketers. As another contemporary showman put it, these kids loved cars, girls and ghouls. So movie after movie gave it to them. And towering over them all was a big ball of malevolent jelly, the frickin Blob.

The Blob’s from outer space. It falls to earth in a meteor or something. An old man pokes around the crash site with a stick into some goo that suddenly rushes up the stick and onto his arm! (The old roll-the-film-backward gag, but it looked good to us.) We never see this schnook again. Every time the Blob eats something it gets bigger and hungrier, and how are you going to stop it?

Now here’s the thing. The first people who realize we Earthlings are in trouble are…teenagers! Well, sort of. “Steven” McQueen, in his first leading role, was already 28, and his squeeze Aneta Corseaut — who went on to play Andy Griffith’s Mayberry love interest, Helen Crump — was 25, but you get the idea. The cops don’t want to hear from hepcat Lover’s Lane jalopy jockeys. No adult does. It gets worse and worse until the Blob finally makes its public debut at a crowded movie theater, and by now it’s the size of a movie theater. If the squares had only listened!

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The Blob is ready for its closeup at the Colonial Theater in Phoenixville, PA.

About fifteen years later, THE BLOB figured into a notion I was mulling for my Master’s thesis at the University of Georgia. I wanted to write something on popular culture — just entering the halls of academia at the time — but there had to be a serious subtext. I decided to look at fantasy and science fiction movies in the period from Hiroshima to JFK’s assassination (when our national innocence evaporated), through a Commiephobe’s point of view. Monsters were then wildly popular, I thesed, because Americans were frightened of Russian saboteurs and uneasy about the still unknown consequences of opening the nuclear Pandora’s box. Invading aliens represented…invading aliens. “Atomic testing” induced wild mutations, most frequently gigantism. And outer space was a fearful place: anything could drop from the sky. Even…a blob!

By now this all may seem obvious, but at the time — I remember listening to the Senate Watergate hearings over my shoulder while working — it was fairly unmowed ground. I touched on dozens of examples in the paper but went into greater detail on four movies, and one of them was THE BLOB. So I have a soft spot for that mound of mush.

Guys like Jack Harris weren’t trying to send a message. They were trying to make money. Most critics savaged THE BLOB, but it became a smash hit, and that means something. If a movie is popular, by definition a great many people have been persuaded to buy tickets. So it is, ipso facto, scratching some itch — maybe not even articulated but genuine just the same. At least that’s how Thesis Boy saw it.

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I’m not sure whether THE BLOB is still part of our shared culture. Once it definitely was: everybody knew the goo, even if they hadn’t seen the flick. But the times they have a-changed. One of the reasons I know Jack Harris’s name is that I created an appendix at the end of my paper with the critical info on about 150 movies, all laboriously gleaned from staring into a tv screen — for you kids, I was “live streaming” — and jotting as fast as I could. At the time I considered that appendix a more important piece of scholarship than the paper itself. But it’s utterly worthless today. Every little cross-referenced mote, down to uncredited cameos, is available with a couple of clicks on IMDb.

But they still remember THE BLOB in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, the real-life location of that famous movie theater attack. Every year they hold a Blobfest. The next one’s in July. I’ll bet it’s a little sadder now that Mr. Harris is gone, but they’ll honor his memory: after all, NOTHING CAN STOP IT!

Director JACK H. HARRIS poses for photographers as he recieves the 2;517th star on

In 2014, at 95, Jack H. Harris became the oldest honoree in the history of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.


Readi, Steadi, Go!

February 28, 2017

exovest_girl.jpgLast year was the 40th anniversary of the Steadicam, which revolutionized filmmaking as much as CGI did a tech generation later. The very first Steadicam shot was realized for Hal Ashby’s Woody Guthrie pic BOUND FOR GLORY (Steadicam shots in MARATHON MAN and ROCKY were filmed later but released earlier), and within a year or so the amazing contraption became available to everybody. Even to us in Mississippi, where I was the first producer in the state to rent a Steadicam, for use in a tv commercial. The leading edge is sometimes the bleeding edge: I wound up wasting money, but I learned a lot in the process.

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Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown (l.) with Stanley Kubrick and Danny Lloyd on the set of THE SHINING. The Steadicam absolutely made that movie.

A cinematographer named Garrett Brown invented the Steadicam and operated it for each of those movies. The “cam” part of the trademark is a tad misleading. There’s nothing special about the camera itself, which is the very one you already owned. It’s the rig that rocks. The camera operator wears a vest attached to a series of gimbals and counterweights so ingenious that when you adjust everything just right — it’s different for each operator — the camera sort of floats. You can guide it on the gimbal with one finger. Yet the weight of the counterbalance and camera maintains a stubborn inertia, as a bowling ball does when you try to shake it quickly. So minor movements of the operator don’t affect the camera’s orientation. You can take it down to ground level and operate from above. You can walk with it and get an unusually smooth shot. You can run with it. Dash up a flight of stairs (ROCKY). Follow your subject down a hotel hallway or inside a hedge maze (THE SHINING). Walk through a set, twisting and turning as smooth as silk, for a complicated “impossible” shot (BOOGIE NIGHTS, GOODFELLAS). You can even simulate high velocity, as in RETURN OF THE JEDI, for which Brown shot the speeder-bike chase by walking through a redwood forest cranking at only one frame per second instead of the normal 24.

Or you can take a Steadicam up in a helicopter, which is what I did.

That first shot in BOUND FOR GLORY had DPs all over Hollywood abuzz as soon as they heard about it. It began with Garrett Brown shooting from high up in an elevated crane, which slowly boomed down until he could step off and walk forward through the set, all in the same smooth motion. It didn’t look “hand-held” — even the best operators can’t prevent the camera from shaking a little — but what kind of quantum-physics crane was this? Veteran camera operators tended to be rather beefy guys — sort of natural-built Steadicams — but this changed everything and flung the craft open to anybody who could walk a straight line. Panavision marketed its own “Panaglide” stabilization system, and Dean Cundey used it to perfection in HALLOWEEN, especially in the bravura swooping, twisting killer’s-eye-view opening shot.

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For our advertising client, a junior college, we wanted to show prospective students that there was a world of possibility at this one institution — both solid vocational training and excellent prep toward finishing a degree at a four-year school. To seize tv viewers’ attention, I imagined doing a reverse BOUND FOR GLORY shot. We’d bring representative gear and people from as many departments as possible outside into a large open space on campus — bigger than a “quad,” but still surrounded on three sides by buildings — to illustrate the school’s vast array. After cutting and dissolving in closeups without revealing where we were, we’d fix on one setup and then pull back, up, up, up, higher than any crane, until we could see the whole tableau from the air. We’d achieve that last shot using a Steadicam.

I did everything I could think of as a producer: organizing the complicated process, setting up weather options just in case, renting the harness a couple days ahead so our operator could get used to it. Shooting day dawned bright and clear, and we’d already begun setting up before sunrise. Our chopper arrived on time and we strapped the operator in so he could lean out the open passenger door. We experimented with a couple of passes and ran into two problems nobody had anticipated.

First, it turns out a Steadicam works better when the operator himself is actually in motion rather than sitting still in a moving vehicle. The shot looked smoother than we could have otherwise gotten, but it wasn’t as mind-blowing as we’d hoped. A little practice, and we learned that slight impromptu camera motion on the way up helped sell the “impossibility.” But by then we’d already stumbled upon the second problem.

There was a soft breeze on that bright sunlit day. Not enough to make flying dangerous, but just enough to create a modest crosswind once we passed the rooftops of the surrounding buildings, which were protecting the people on the ground. Try as he might, our pilot couldn’t avoid a slight horizontal motion as he adjusted for the wind change. We hated it, but there was nothing to do except keep trying until we got lucky, so we did, and on one take we did. We’d hoped to do the final move three or four times starting with various departments to make alternate versions of the spot, but we had to settle for the good one in the can. It was nice, but we would have gotten pretty much the same result by bolting the camera down and packing it with sandbags and stuff to muffle shimmy. Then again, as a friend of mine likes to say, it’s all part of life’s rich pageantry.

These days that shoot would have been a piece of cake. We’d have used a drone and beaten the breeze by pulling the shot fifty times instead of fifteen. But in the late Seventies such niceties didn’t yet exist. What did was the baddest piece of gear around, we had it, and we absolutely loved going steadi with our new friend.

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The Steadicam map for the opening shot of BOOGIE NIGHTS, which lasts 2 minutes and 45 seconds.


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