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 can’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 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 good take it can 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 he 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. Why? 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 the title of the film. But was it really a stroke of genius instead? We all saw it. We all added the poor missing R.

Then we 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,” because 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 simply 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, even after it’s been nailed 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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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 see it. So it is scratching some itch — maybe not even articulated but real just the same.

hqdefaultI’m not sure whether THE BLOB is still part of our shared culture. It once was. Everybody knew the goo, even if they hadn’t seen the flick. But everything has 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 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.

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.

garretbrown-2aFor 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 little 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.


My Sundance 2017

February 2, 2017

sundance-2017-700x435We finally saw the results of a genuine Rocky Mountain winter storm this year in Park City. Good for skiing, I suppose, but bad for getting around to see movies. The plowed drifts were high and the walkways were icy, but we didn’t even get the worst of it. That happened the week before, while most of the Hollywood suits were still in town. I hear navigating the hilly Main Street was a special challenge. They even lost power during one screening for “Sundance Circle” VIPs.

Indoors, I noticed almost immediately that the latest shiny plaything for screenwriters and directors seems to be social media. Packing a cell phone, even texting, is no longer sufficient shorthand for “contemporary story,” but using something like Instagram or Tinder still is. (Swipe-and-like is also the easiest kind of digital interaction to depict in a movie, simple and visual.) In the first film I saw, social media actually drove the plot, then they kept peeking out again and again. Everybody was sizing up potential hotties, even at a police station in Cairo. A trend? Impossible to tell when you see only a fraction of the flicks on tap. This year I caught eighteen:

elizabetholsenaudryplazaingridgoeswest-1200x520INGRID GOES WEST*** (Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award) A pathologically insecure young woman befriends an “influencer” online, becomes obsessed, and moves to Los Angeles to be closer to her idol. The idea of social-media stalking does feel relatively fresh, and Aubrey Plaza strikes just the right tone of desperate neediness to make us sympathize even as we squirm over her escalating dependency. She worms her way into Elizabeth Olsen’s glamorous life by kidnapping her dog and grandly returning it, but there’s my main problem. The audience is uncomfortably waiting for the other shoe to drop — we knew Plaza was bad news from the opening scene — while the film continues to play too much for fun and giggles. We can’t really settle back for Act II because we know this won’t end well, and it sort of doesn’t. But only sort of. Still, that is one subtle piece of work from the leading lady. Picked up by Neon.

Stars On The Set Of 'Sidney Hall' In NYCSIDNEY HALL**** (World Premiere) Propulsive study of a tortured artist, beginning when he’s eighteen years old and jumping to his 24- and 30-year-old future selves in a screenplay that never shows its cards until it must. The title character is a talented writer in high school whose English teacher shows a partial manuscript to a publishing pal. His first novel is finished and released and he becomes a pheenom, striding self-consciously through New York publishing circles in his twenties with a little of Jay McInerney or David Foster Wallace in his subtle swagger. Six years later he is a scraggly, hirsute hobo who has gone — or maybe fallen — off the grid. We learn only gradually how these changes were wrought in non-sequential scenes, with a tick-tock sense in the background as the senior iteration of the now-reclusive Sidney Hall is pursued by an anonymous badge-flashing investigator. Magnificent performance by Logan Lerman in what are essentially three distinct roles, adjusting his carriage and cadence so naturally between them, despite a fake-o final mop and beard that betrays the indie budget. Elle Fanning shows us a similar transformation as Sidney’s squeeze. Tremendously satisfying in nearly every respect, through filmmakers still have a tough time plausibly portraying a book publisher.

newness-sundanceNEWNESS** (World Premiere) Again with the social media. Two millennials, online-hookup-app addicts, connect and are so good together that they set up house. But that adventurous streak is still there, and for a while they try to combine domesticity with independent wild-oat-sowing. What could possibly go wrong? She (a luscious Laia Costa) is more into “newness” than he (a soulful Nicholas Hoult), and thereby hangs Ben York Jones’s fairly flimsy tale, earnestly realized by Drake Doremus. The images are beautiful but feel itchily voyeuristic. It’s as if some middle-aged guy has just discovered that those young’uns, strangers, are actually tapping their phones to tap each other, as libertine as the hepcats in those ludicrous Sixties “psychedelic” movies. It’s hard to work up much empathy since this truly is another world foreign to me, and, I submit, to most others, including, I’ll wager, the lead actors.

la-et-mn-sundance-la-times-feature-20170117L.A. TIMES*** A smart, amusing trifle, a comedy of manners among a loose orbit of thirtysomething Angelenos. Michelle Morgan wrote, directed and stars (“I have a cameo,” she coyly said in her introduction) as a blithe hypercritical non-romantic. Hilariously featuring awkward prostitution, awkward near-incest, an awkward VERTIGO riff, and so much more awkwardness that Woody Allen reverberates throughout, along with Whit Stillman and Wes Anderson. In fact, that’s the key: if you think much younger people kvetching like the Woodman sounds like fun, then you’ll be right.

the-hero-sam-elliottTHE HERO**** A welcome vehicle for Sam Elliott, who plays it close to the vest as an aging actor known for Westerns, particularly one iconic role in a movie with this same title. His personal life is a jumble, he lives on voiceover work, he indolently drinks whiskey and smokes pot all day, and as the film opens he receives a diagnosis of cancer. While scoring from his dealer and friend — he’d rather buy weed the old-fashioned way than go to a marijuana dispensary — he bumps into an alluring younger customer with a sly smile, and we’re off. Director Brett Haley and co-writer Marc Basch clearly love Elliott, whose signature persona infuses the movie (at a lifetime achievement award ceremony, a smitten woman says she loves his mustache. He nuzzles her with the billowing thing and replies, “And it loves you too.”). Laura Prepon is wonderful as his May-December love interest, and Elliott’s real-life wife, Katharine Ross, shines as his ex. The great thing about this movie is that it’s not bogged down with angst. No magic wand can fix everything, but you can come to terms with most anything. Bought by the Orchard.

mudbound-movie-4MUDBOUND*** (World Premiere) Life in the hardscrabble Mississippi Delta in the Forties, as Jim Crow reigns and World War II pulses in the background. A white farming family and the black clan which survives by working for them each send a son to war while they struggle to tend barren, flood-prone land. Upon returning, the GIs face the same repressive society they left — but in Europe, the black man has gotten used to entering and exiting by the front door and drinking from any fountain he chooses. Born of mutual respect and wartime scars, their interracial friendship offends the locals, led by the white family’s crass, mega-bigoted patriarch. It’s nice to see the Army’s forced camaraderie depicted on screen; it was the first chink in the Deep South’s culture of institutionalized racism and it directly led to the civil rights movement. Except for Pappy McAllan, played with malevolent relish by Jonathan Banks, the white family is portrayed in shades of grey, as much victims of the system as perpetrators. In contrast, the black family, led by the fabulous Rob Morgan as Hap Jackson, is depicted as unremittingly noble: the narrative dice are thus loaded, so this movie isn’t as profound as it thinks it is. But the Louisiana-for-Mississippi setting is beautiful, Carey Mulligan and Jason Clarke do solid work as the McAllans, and there’s a great performance by none other than Mary J. Blige as the Jackson mom. If ever this music thing should fail her, she has a fine acting career ahead. Bought by Netflix.

crownheightsCROWN HEIGHTS**** (U.S. Dramatic Audience Award) The searing true story of Colin Warner, who was convicted of a 1980 murder he didn’t commit, and of his best friend Carl King, who devoted years of his life to proving Colin’s innocence. As if a wrongful conviction wasn’t bad enough, Colin also had the misfortune to be caught in the middle of the Reagan-era get-tough-on-crime wave, and he resolutely refused to take any plea-bargain or early parole deals which required him to confess to something he didn’t do. The amount of time he unjustly served in prison will horrify you. Lakeith Stanfield kills it as Colin and writer-director Matt Ruskin does a great job of keeping us behind bars with only a few glimpses of the outside world, mostly Carl’s increasingly quixotic campaign which his own family begins to doubt. After our screening, Ruskin brought out the real Colin, whose lilt and cadence made us even more appreciative of Stanfield’s interpretation. Ruskin first heard Colin’s story on THIS AMERICAN LIFE, and turned it into something amazing. Picked up by Amazon Studios.

golden-exitsGOLDEN EXITS** Talky, tiresome few months spent with self-absorbed Brooklynites whose routines are disrupted by the arrival of a stunning Aussie student (Emily Browning) whose cheekbones arrive in the room before she does. Everyone is trying their best, but the 94-minute running time feels twice as long.

fun-mom-dinner_0FUN MOM DINNER**** (World Premiere) A kinetic, furniture-smashing romp: BRIDESMAIDS, but with moms. (Judd Apatow is again responsible.) A mom’s night out for four women escalates into a picaresque odyssey. The energy is high, the humor is low — jokes and biological matter both fly — but there’s a sweetness throughout as the quartet, some of whom hate each other at the top, bonds in the most eccentric ways possible. Great ensemble work by the Apatowian posse (Paul Rudd’s wife wrote it), but the headliner is Bridget Everett, who steals every shot she’s in, much like Melissa McCarthy can. This is not a great film. It doesn’t even want to be a great film. It only wants to make you laugh, and in the realm of cheerful anarchy — a love letter to mothers with some naughty bits too — it’s a scream. FUN MOM DINNER probably has the greatest commercial potential of any movie I saw this year. Bought by Netflix.

walking-out-movie-sundance-film-festival-2017-800x360WALKING OUT*** A tale of survival in snowy Montana, as a teenager joins his estranged father for a hunting trip that turns into a life-and-death struggle in a split second. The majestic Big Sky winter is gorgeous but forbidding; expansive helicopter and drone shots both sell the isolation and make the film look bigger. I’d imagine the only way a shoot could have been more difficult would be to set it on the open sea, but the weather is tamed, and we really feel the cold, hunger and thirst. Matt Bomer and Josh Wiggins as father and son nearly carry the entire picture, but there are nice flashbacks to a grizzled Bill Pullman as Bomer’s dad, and it was wonderful to see Lily Gladstone in a cameo near the heart-tugging end. Superb, absolutely convincing animal effects.

jessica-williams-film-the-incredible-jessica-james-to-close-sundance-2017-715x405-1THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES*** (World Premiere, Festival Closing Night) Jim Strouse used Jessica Williams in 2015’s PEOPLE PLACES THINGS, and just knew he had to write a whole movie for her. A former correspondent for THE DAILY SHOW, Williams combines wide-eyed ebullience with cheerful snark to, sorry, light up the screen. She’s going to be a star. Here she’s a New York playwright who’s getting over a breakup when she meets shaggy but lovable Chris O’Dowd, in similar straits himself. At first they use each other for support, but the relationship might become serious if Jessica can fend off her mooning ex-boyfriend. There are no real villains here, and the story is rather predictable: it’s the details and the laugh lines that make it work, along with the force of the leading lady’s personality. Though it’s really nothing special, this movie will be remembered as Jessica Williams’s breakout. Picked up by Netflix.

the-big-sick-movieTHE BIG SICK***** (World Premiere) My favorite movie this year. It’s based on the real-life experiences of Pakistan-born comic Kumail Nanjiani (best known as the nerdy coder in the SILICON VALLEY house), who falls in love with a cute grad student, Emily (Zoe Kazan), at a Chicago gig. So far, so good — except that Kumail’s parents follow Pakistani tradition, meaning his will be an arranged marriage (his mom makes sure female prospects “happen to drop by” during family dinners). He even keeps his romance a secret because his folks would never accept a white girl, and it breaks her heart when she finds out. Then, still furious at Kumail, Emily contracts a serious illness, his family disowns him, and his life begins to unravel. This wonderful film deftly walks the line between comedy and pathos: it’s never insensitive or maudlin. The stand-up comics in Kumail’s world, especially the Greek chorus of Aidy Bryant and Bo Burnham — supportive but itching to leave Chicago for New York — are really funny (unlike Laura Prepon’s bit in THE HERO), and so is Kurt Braunohler as Kumail’s roommate, a comic who’s not funny. Emily’s parents, expertly played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, rush to her side from North Carolina, hopping mad at Kumail for hurting her. Hunter’s clash with a heckler at Kumail’s show is an instant classic. You might be tempted to dismiss this multifaceted premise as too convoluted, but Kumail and the real Emily co-wrote the script: it’s based on their true story. A fine job by all concerned, well-made and satisfying. A big revelation is that Kumail Nanjiani can act, and this may even put him on the map alongside Jessica Williams. Picked up by Amazon.

an-inconvenient-sequel-truth-to-powerAN INCONVENIENT SEQUEL: TRUTH TO POWER**** (World Premiere, Festival Day One) Why do a follow-up to Al Gore’s Oscar-winning AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH? Because global climate change hasn’t rested in the ensuing ten years. There’s plenty of news — not all of it is even bad. That famous slide show, which is now presented all over the world by Gore and an army of volunteers, has gotten ever more sophisticated and persuasive: some inconvenient truths will make you fearful, others will make you cheer. This film follows Gore as he travels the world to try and keep public attention focused on the existential crisis of our age. It doesn’t shy away from the bouts of despair that all climate activists occasionally feel; sometimes it seems that shortsighted deniers hold all the money and levers of power. But Gore, who calls himself a “recovered politician,” has made urging action on climate change his life’s work. People who took potshots against the original TRUTH, accusing Gore of exaggeration and fantasy, are refuted with video tape of “impossible” flooding, a rapidly melting ice shelf, and “hundred-year” meteorological events which now occur with frightening regularity. Some people believe we live in a post-truth age. But to his immense credit, Al Gore isn’t having any of it. Opens wide on July 28.

discoveryTHE DISCOVERY** (World Premiere) There’s a great premise here: a scientist (Robert Redford) has discovered empirical proof of an afterlife, or an “alternate plane of existence,” as he calls it. In the two years since then, the world has been awash in suicides as people discard their bodies to “get there.” Nice idea, but it’s exhausted in the first five minutes. What we’re left with is lots of desultory talk as estranged son Jason Segel travels to Redford’s compound to try and convince him to tell the world he’s wrong and stop the carnage. (One character muses that murder can’t be far behind, since you’d only be sending your victim to a better place.) The exteriors are dull and gray. The interiors have that yellow-green tint that says “filthy hospital.” Now Redford is claiming to be able to record the passage visually, so everybody undergoes an impenetrable experiment, including Segal and Redford. Rooney Mara is around looking blond and creepy. A surprise reveal at the end comes out of the blue and might explain some of the technique, but it’s too little too late. This film combines the pace of SOLARIS with the yakety jargon of PRIMER. Before it’s over, you may understand why “getting there” became so popular.

The Nile Hilton Incident - Still 1THE NILE HILTON INCIDENT*** (Grand Jury Prize: World Dramatic) As a Cairo police detective investigates the 2011 hotel murder of a popular singer, he begins to realize that the case winds upward through the highest strata of wealth and power. This isn’t exactly a whodunit, since the audience knows perfectly well who. It’s more of a police procedural, but the Egyptian system is rife with bribes and other corruption, and our central character (Fares Fares) is certainly part of it. What he learns is that you can be so rich that you’re essentially immune, like a diplomat. This movie takes us through Cairo’s underbelly; here we’d call it a noir. Everybody smokes, all the time.

dina_still_sundance_-_publicity_-__h_2017DINA*** (Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Documentary) An intimate look inside the unusual romance of two people who are both on the autism spectrum. Dina Buno and Scott Levin met at a Philadelphia social group for neurologically diverse adults, founded by the late father of one of the filmmakers; Dina has been a family friend for 48 years. We see them plan for their wedding, attend night-before parties, interact with their parents, spend a day at the beach, and approach the issue of sex, which Dina expects and which seems to unnerve Scott. Dina has endured travails which would break most people: she lost her first husband to cancer and survived a brutal knife attack from a deranged later boyfriend, yet she’s still gregarious and optimistic about her new relationship. The access is remarkable, probably because Dina feels comfortable around co-director Dan Sickles. Some people may be offended by what they view as exploitation; are Dina and Scott even capable of giving informed consent? What struck me again and again, though, was how easy it was to look past their obvious disabilities and recognize issues common to many other earnest relationships. The bottom line is that Dina and Scott are good people, and it was nice being able to spend time with them.

i-dont-feel-at-home-in-this-world-anymoreI DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE*** (Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Dramatic) Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) is the kind of person who hates it when you leave dropped groceries in the aisle or bring too many items to the express register. If these little things tick her off, imagine her rage on finding her home burgled and her laptop stolen. She determines to track down the thieves along with her weirdo, martial-arts-obsessed neighbor (Elijah Wood), but the trail leads to a group of hardened criminals and the amateur A-team is suddenly way out of their league. This movie takes a right turn once they fall deeper into the rabbit hole, and leads to some brutal violence. Writer-director Macon Blair owes a lot to Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers, who can stage sudden setpieces that are gruesome yet provoke surprised laughter, such as the shooting of Steve Buscemi in FARGO. A home invasion sequence here leaves blood everywhere but it doesn’t take long to do it. What’s left is Ruth’s preternatural focus, which after a while becomes amusing in itself. A nice first feature, but obviously not for everyone. If you aren’t into the filmmakers named above, you should probably stay away. But if you are, this is one wild ride. Streaming on Netflix.

roxanne_roxanne_-_still_1_-_h_2017ROXANNE ROXANNE*** (Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Performance: Chanté Adams) The fictionalized story of “Roxanne Shante,” the real 14-year-old rapper from Queensbridge who in the mid-Eighties was the best battle emcee in New York, just as mike-dropping duels were about to take off. I had the same feeling I did when I watched 8 MILE years ago: Eminem seemed like a credible actor, but I couldn’t understand a damn word he rapped. This is Chanté Adams’s movie: she spends most of it in braces, sporting that closed-lip smile that embarrassed teenagers use. Then she matures on camera, and when she returns to the hood with teeth gleaming, you can hardly believe it’s the same actress. This movie was not made for me, but I enjoyed Adams’s performance, which I guess was the whole idea behind its special jury award. Picked up by Neon.

WISH I’D SEEN: BRIGSBY BEAR, A GHOST STORY, MARJORIE PRIME, THE POLKA KING, RESERVOIR DOGS (a 25th anniversary screening with QT present), WIND RIVER, XX, THE YELLOW BIRDS

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An I For An Eye

December 21, 2016

ultra-high-definition-4k-wallpapersI’m having the video equivalent of what serious audiophiles must have gone through when digital recording appeared in the Eighties. I can barely believe I used the term “video,” but that’s the age we live in. Sometimes it’s all too digital.

We bought each other a holiday gift this year, a new tv to replace the ten-plus-year-old one. Back in vinyl days, all you had to worry about on your stereo was whether the left channel was connected to the left speaker: you uncrated and assembled in half an hour and thought you were MacGyver. But today’s gear is so complicated that rather than bang our heads in frustration, we just call in “Agents” from the Geek Squad — Best Buy is literally across the street from us, maybe 100 paces away. First we got a consultation visit. All our stuff still worked, but we were wondering if we weren’t missing out on some tech developments over the last decade, and on a few components we were. (Not everything new is necessarily good. We were actually warned against buying a set that could play 3-D; evidently that’s the Google Glass of home video just now.)

When we installed our old tv a decade ago, the big new thing was high definition in broadcast, Blu-Ray in physical media. Most major network shows had only recently gone hi-def for a quantum leap in picture clarity: video-taped chat shows appeared to be coming through a window and DPed film series like LOST were crisp and sharp, stone cold gorgeous. People my age can remember when they first had access to a color tv set: you’d uncritically watch anything just because it was in color. Same deal here. Hi-def was the bee’s knees.

Now they’ve ramped it up to “Ultra” HD, “4K” encoding. By coincidence we’ve caught this wave earlier in the cycle. The networks aren’t there yet, but Netflix is already streaming in 4K, and no big home video release arrives without an “Ultra HD” version (continuing to represent the leading edge, all Criterion releases are 4K transfers now). So, let’s give the new tube a spin!

The resolution is indeed immaculate: you can see pores on the anchorman’s face, a tiny drop of hot-light sweat from a talk-show guest that would have been undetectable before. For live or taped material it’s as if you were sitting in the control room with the director. Amazing. Then I put in a Blu-Ray of a film and the strangest thing happened: all of a sudden, I didn’t like the effect any more.

To my surprise, even images captured on celluloid and realized using an emulsion looked like studio-bound video tape. On old black-and-white pictures the effect can be refreshing, making them appear to be immaculately preserved. But everything else was somehow cheapened, as if we were screening videocam dailies rather than the full cinematic monty. Expensive visual effects looked awful, traveling mattes shimmering, CGI performers out of match with their real-world counterparts. Everything was this way. THE GODFATHER. THE WIZARD OF OZ. AKIRA KUROSAWA’S frickin DREAMS! Films I knew by heart looked as if their production budgets had been cut in half. Yes, resolution was indeed off the scale, but the bald, flat end result was plug ugly to me.

I had a week with the system before my Geek Squad agent returned to install a small piece of audio gear, and by then I was ready for some help. At first I had a little trouble explaining what was wrong, but then he said, “You mean everything looks like a soap opera.” Exactly! “That really annoys some people.” Count me in! “Easy fix.” Evidently it has something to do with how movement is depicted on the screen, a feature you can toggle. He did, and now the ultra-sharp image wasn’t quite as ultra-sharp as before, but a movie looked like a movie again. (I’ve noticed that an object which isn’t moving at all, like a framed photograph on a desk, can look a tad sharper than the rest of the scene.)

My reaction was interesting because it goes against the grain. My eyeballs have become desensitized enough that I actually prefer digital images. I first noticed it at the New York Film Festival two years ago, when P. T. Anderson made a big deal out of the fact that we were going to screen his new movie INHERENT VICE by actually running film through a projector. Goosebumps! Then the thing rolled and my heart sank, because the very imprecision that makes film film now read as murkiness, deterioration of focus, mere proximity to the image I really wanted. The same sequence repeated this year with James Gray’s THE LOST CITY OF Z. Note that I’m not commenting here on the artistic quality of the work, only the physicality of the visual image as seen through my eyes. Celluloid projected at 24 frames per second can only approach perfection. Digital projection ensures focus, balance, and no deterioration whatsoever. (Also no reel-change dots: some people think that’s weird.)

I’m not saying digital is necessarily better. But it is what I’ve become accustomed to, what I expect. Hard-core stereo freaks had to clap their ears closed at compact discs when they first appeared, and even I could imagine a clipped, mechanical aspect to early full-digital recordings like TRICYCLE by Flim & the BB’s or Dire Straits’ BROTHERS IN ARMS. And why not? It’s the difference between the physical back-and-forth vibration of a record needle and the ja-or-nein precision of a stored byte, the way a string player creates vibrato versus the way a bunch of electronic cables are routed. But thirty-plus years later, digital audio sounds normal to me. It’s what I’ve become accustomed to. What I expect.

Filmmakers who still shoot on film are a dying breed. Anderson, Gray, Spielberg, Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Judd Apatow — you can almost call the roll in your head. Even the Coens have thrown in the towel. Digital is just faster and cheaper (the current trendiness of handheld doesn’t hurt), making it the medium of choice for young DPs, and in a generation or two it’ll be hard to put together a “slow” celluloid crew at all. TV and indie crews tear through many times the script pages of a lumbering big-time feature, but do you have any tech complaints about, say, GAME OF THRONES?

Digital still looks great when projected, not at all like the “soap opera” on my badass monitor. I cannot recognize a digital shoot just by looking at it. Again and again I’ve been surprised by end credits or festival Q&As when it’s revealed. (Some productions even brag: it’s no longer uncommon to see “Captured in…” rather than “Filmed in…”) Vinyl-record devotees still maintain their purity, and someday film snobs will rage, rage against the dying of the light. But face it: we’ll still call them “films,” just as we still call them “albums,” which they haven’t been since the days of the 78rpm single. Things change — which I believe is also a comprehensively stated history of the universe.


My NYFF 2016

October 17, 2016

unknownThe evolution of movie distribution is starting to affect my behavior at film fests. Tech has all of a sudden gotten personal.

For the first time in the New York Film Festival’s 54-year history, it opened with a documentary, Ava DuVernay’s 13TH, a searing look at the dysfunctional American prison system — and I didn’t lift a finger to attend. (N.B.: I’ve seen it now, it’s quite powerful, but the following comments aren’t about the quality of the work.) This picture is distributed by Netflix and became available for streaming while the fest was still underway. I also knew the docs HAMILTON’S AMERICA and GIMME DANGER were headed for streaming or PBS before the month was out. This choice has arisen before, at Sundance. But Sundance happens to happen in midwinter, a fallow period on the annual movie schedule. The broad-release windows are far enough away that at high altitude it seems worth it to check out stuff like WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? or FREEDOM SUMMER then and there. (I would never want to miss the next SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN by so much as a day.) But in the hipness of time, by NYFF’s autumn I want to know in advance the distributor and the release pattern before I give up a precious festival slot. Lots of previous NYFF entries have debuted theatrically within days of their fest screenings — even streamers still need that public release for notoriety and Oscar qualification — but there’s something more immediate about being able to punch it up at home on your own schedule. You may never ever do that. Most Netflix queues are very long. Later, gater. (A film-sprocket joke.) But if that recent additional option dampens attendance at certain fest screenings, it’ll be interesting to see if/how that affects selection and programming in the future. As always, one never knows, do one?

Here’s my take on the eleven films I saw this year, in order of screening:

manchester-seaMANCHESTER BY THE SEA**** Kenneth Lonergan is becoming more and more surefooted, both at the keyboard and the viewfinder. This is a subtle, confident meditation on grief and loss with frequent brushstrokes of levity, a movie made with such assurance that the story seems inevitable. Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a morose handyman in Boston who is so tightly wound that early on, when he thinks two guys in a bar are literally looking at him the wrong way, he clocks them both. The rest of the picture gracefully and patiently shows us why: Lee has barely lived through an almost unutterable tragedy and now faces yet another upending trauma. The hollow look, the way he recoils from other human beings, the barren brokenness is off-putting at first, but as we discover details (shown in unannounced flashbacks, each calmly cut together as if it were the next present-day scene) the character gains dimension and color, served perfectly by Affleck’s trademark laconic mumble. The New England setting looks gorgeous, and a superb supporting cast, led by Lucas Hedges as a nephew whose path intersects with Lee’s, never falters, not even when a well-known star shows up for a cameo. Lonergan has come a long way since YOU CAN COUNT ON ME; his screenplay is sophisticated enough to deliver some redemption while reminding us that not everything in life can be tied up with a neat little bow, not even in the movies.

toni-erdmann-19-rcm0x1920uTONI ERDMANN**** A beauty that marches to its own drummer, Maren Ade’s new film is a screwball comedy about an ingratiating screwball, played by the marvelous (and that’s the word) Peter Simonischek. It’s also an intimate father-daughter story with real resonance, thanks to Sandra Huller’s brave, sensitive performance. Winfried is a lumbering freethinker who is always looking for the next practical joke, while Ines climbs the corporate ladder in her tailored black pantsuits. They seem to be emotional oil and water, and the film is essentially Winfried’s attempt at connection, but that makes it sound far too stuffy. The comic and dramatic tracks unfold simultaneously; we’re never far from the proverbial spoonful of sugar. There are piles of hilarious surprises, so I mustn’t reveal too much more, but let’s just say that the appearance and even identity of the title character gets a huge laugh. This film was the darllng of Cannes this year and the New York audience also ate it up. At one point they were shrieking so loudly that they would have missed a great topping line if not for the subtitle (it’s mostly in German, but there’s enough English to keep us off balance). That came during a bravura five-minute sequence toward the end that just might go down in movie comedy history. At 2:42 I found it a tad indulgent, but patience earns a huge profit.

paterson-credit-mary-cybulski-cannes-film-festivalPATERSON*** (U.S. Premiere) A new Jim Jarmusch flick is always of interest and this year NYFF has two, including GIMME DANGER, a documentary about Iggy & the Stooges. That subject seems an odd fit for Jarmusch’s dialed-back style, but there it is. This one is more in the zone. Adam Driver plays a city bus driver who scribbles poetry in his free moments. His name is Paterson and he lives in Paterson, New Jersey, just as did his idol William Carlos Williams, whose famous epic poem is called—but you guess. We spend a week with Paterson, his loving but ditzy wife (the pixieish Golshifteh Farahani) and their scene-stealing English bulldog Marvin, and the days are essentially the same. He gets up, eats Cheerios, walks to the depot, writes for a few minutes, drives all day (his recreation is eavesdropping: folks, the bus driver can hear you), goes home, has dinner, walks Marvin past a bar where he enjoys one beer, and heads back for bed. Paterson’s patience is inexhaustible: his wife burbles with out-of-reach ideas and is visually fixated on black-and-white designs on everything from shower curtains to cupcakes. He’s more polite than you would be on his first bite of her dinnertime cheddar-and-broccoli pie. The only conflict comes from people around him, until Marvin causes a heartbreaking event. We also hear Paterson narrate some of his poetry — it’s good, written for the movie by a ringer — and none of this would work if we didn’t buy that. Jarmusch specializes in finding the strangeness in normalcy, and there’s so much going on just to one side of the principals, barely in frame: for example, the offhand appearances of different sets of twins seems somehow foreboding, but it’s played as nothing more than a pattern recognizable to a poet. This is not for the antsy viewer, but it encourages us to keep our eyes and ears open to the wonders around us, because they are definitely there.

ukr_9mar150186_rgb-0-2000-0-1125-cropCERTAIN WOMEN*** A soft, sensitive melding of Maile Meloy stories, faintly connecting in the screenplay of director Kelly Reichardt. We are in Nowhere, Montana; the most urban place we see is Livingston, population high four figures. Three dramatic tracks follow a lawyer (Laura Dern) dogged by a disgruntled client (Jared Harris), a woman (Michelle Williams) whose family is building its own home, and another attorney (Kristen Stewart) who endures an eight-hour round trip from Livingston into the country to teach a weekly class in school law and infatuates an introverted ranch hand (Lily Gladstone, the movie’s real find). All the women are in different emotional places and want different things, but they each have to reach down and summon determination, even the quiet horsewoman who can barely look her idol in the face. There are thin threads beyond setting which join the tales: for example, at one point a character from another story walks through in the background, out of focus and casually ignored. The acting is fine all around, but whenever she appears you can’t take your eyes off Ms. Gladstone, even though she barely speaks and only changes expression very subtly; her attraction isn’t played as overtly sexual but you can definitely feel the heat. This performance is a career-maker.

arton4596JULIETA**** Another adaptation of short stories, this time from Alice Munro — realized by none other than Pedro Almodovar. It depicts the tumultuous events in a Madrid woman’s life extending some thirty years, and the title role is taken by two different actresses. We meet Julieta at age 50, played by Emma Suarez as a middle-aged beauty whose face is weary and drawn with emotional pain. After a chance meeting with an old friend, she abruptly disappoints her lover by changing their long-standing plans and sits down to write to her estranged daughter, beginning with the fateful night she met the girl’s father 25 years ago. Julieta at 25 is played by the glorious Adriana Ugarte, and gradually we learn the reasons for her torment and the split with the daughter. Almodovar manages to make the ladies appear to be the same person through gradual aging and a beautiful handoff some years later, in a defining visual moment that the French call a coup de cinema: Ugarte’s hair is being toweled off after a bath, but when the towel is removed, it’s Suarez once again in a near-perfect fit. Wow. There is some humor (notably from Almodovar regular Rossy de Palma as a Miss-Gulchian housekeeper), but much less of the wit and wackiness we’ve come to expect from the maestro, replaced here by portent and more drama, less melo. It’s seamless filmmaking that respects its audience by allowing loose ends to dangle until the moment their joining is needed. I’m not familiar with the source material, so I can’t speak to Almodovar’s merging of three Munro stories or shifting the setting from Canada to Spain, but it looks like it was meant just for him.

thumb_1892_media_image_1144x724PERSONAL SHOPPER** (U.S. Premiere) Olivier Assayas follows up CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA by bringing back Kristen Stewart as yet another assistant, who desultorily selects and buys haute couture for a wealthy Parisian woman. She has just lost her beloved twin brother to a congenital heart condition which she shares. She also believes herself to be a medium. These three premises get jingle-jangled together, none too neatly, as Assayas attempts a modern-day ghost story. The arm’s-length attitude of Stewart’s one-note performance, while suitably intense, prevents us from getting inside her head or caring about what happens to her. There’s enough arty murkiness to cause post-screening arguments over what we’ve just seen. Assayas is certainly talented: things go bump in the night with style and tension, and believe it or not, a suspenseful, eerie scene is composed almost entirely of text messages on a smartphone. But while I admired the attempt to keep so many dramatic balls in the air at once, I couldn’t buy the end result. Too bad: I loved Assayas’s version of DAY FOR NIGHT, 1996’s IRMA VEP.

20th-century-women20th CENTURY WOMEN**** (Festival Centerpiece, World Premiere) A near-perfect invocation of a little-regarded time and place: Santa Barbara, 1979. The last vestiges of the counterculture have morphed into New Wave posing, and Ronald Reagan waits in the wings. No cell phones, no Internet, no MTV. Everybody still smokes. But life goes on in the rambling house of an unusual extended family, encompassing room renters and hangers-on. Mike Mills’s attention to period detail sets the stage wonderfully for a career performance by Annette Bening as the crash pad’s single-mother matriarch: still beautiful but cosmetically mature, she shines with life-force. The other two 20th-century women are fire-haired punk tenant Greta Gerwig and too-experienced teen Elle Fanning, who sneaks over from her own house to sleep — just snooze, no sex — with Bening’s hormonal son (a sensational Lucas Jade Zumann). A freelance carpenter (Billy Crudup) is also in the house and the story mix. I loved the amount of attention paid to the son’s dramatic arc: he’s a good boy who is nevertheless kicking at his stall, and his rebellious yet devoted relationship to his mom feels genuine. For fogeys like me, it’s painful to accept that 1979 is far enough gone to actually inspire nostalgia, but it is and does. A real crowd-pleaser that ought to have a nice commercial life.

thumb_1896_media_image_1144x724SIERANEVADA**** (U.S. Premiere) A pitch-black comedy about a dysfunctional family which gathers in its deceased patriarch’s Bucharest apartment to send off the old man with rituals, food and wine. The range of (mostly) comic clashes and conspiracy is so broad that at one point the camera rests in the middle of a hall and simply pans left and right as one or another door opens with the latest crisis. Other times the camera is locked down for ten minutes or so as the actors, I assume, improvise. The net effect is that it all appears to be happening in real time in front of us as if we’re another guest, even when we briefly leave the apartment at one point. The feast, which looks delicious, is delayed and delayed because a ritual must first be performed, and the priest is late. When he finally arrives, his chants and prayers are interminable and some guests are dying from hunger before he issues his laugh-out-loud exit line: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” I’m partial to movies like this because we can all recognize aspects of our own families, whether we’re related by blood or by lot: humanity is international. Cristi Puiu (THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU) has a twinkle in his eye, unlike several quarrelsome family members. At 2:53 it’s way too long (that trip outside isn’t really necessary; the crucial monologue could have been staged indoors), but I loved it anyway. We never find out the meaning of the title.

ob_ce416f_le-fils-de-joseph-8-eugene-green-amalrSON OF JOSEPH*** (U.S. Premiere) Bent spirituality and baroque satire from Eugene Green, a drama about a disillusioned, rebellious Parisian kid’s search for his, later just a, father. Satisfyingly skewered is the French publishing industry (“nothing is invented,” M. Green insisted afterward), as the kid discovers a high-rolling caddish book man is his long-deserted biological pop. Then he meets someone better, unaware that he’s the big shot’s brother. The director has a distinctive way of staging what would normally be intimate, personal scenes with austerity of language and motion; at times it’s anti-natural, almost as if we’re watching animatronics. (This oddly stilted effect is evidently even more pronounced to French speakers.) He also winkingly overlays the story with a Biblical subtext expressed in “chapters,” down to the ass which accompanies “Joseph” and “Marie” on a fateful journey toward the end. It’s too mannered to be a classic, but it’s quite enjoyable, pleasantly perverse in its own sweet way.

elle-cannesELLE*** (U.S. Premiere) Paul Verhoeven’s first feature in ten years, and first ever in French (it’s France’s submission for next year’s foreign-language Academy Award), is a genre-bender that really coaxes the gamut of emotions from its audience. It’s either a comedy with a very dark subtext or (my take) a very dark movie with some funny stuff in it. It also shares DNA with whodunits and thrillers, but it’s not really that either. As Verhoeven warned us before the screening, this film can be painful to watch at times. Before we’ve even caught our breath, the very first sequence depicts a violent rape. We are left completely at sea, unable to understand the victim’s oddly muted reaction. She is played incandescently by Isabelle Huppert, whose character is a video-game executive and the daughter of a reviled mass murderer: whew! I don’t mean any criticism when I say this story is populated by outrageous and awful human beings — that’s on purpose — but afterward we struggled to think of one “good guy” at all. (I think there’s only one in the entire flick. After you see it, I’ll tell you who.) While the credits were rolling I was thinking about this dramatic miasma and I would have given only two stars, which I consider a negative evaluation, because I was sinking under so much funk at that point. But we kept talking about it while waiting for our last movie (I heart film fests), and I realized that Verhoeven’s deliberate untidiness — he’d said afterward that he left some story threads unresolved so the audience could fill them in on their own — was actually a great strength. The more I thought about ELLE afterward, the more I auto-revised my opinion. (Shades of the French New Wave!) By the time the Oscars roll around, I may even wish another star upon it in hindsight. Be warned: this movie plays rough. But look how it affected me.

lost-city-of-z-charlie-hunnam-and-tom-hollandTHE LOST CITY OF Z*** (Festival Closing Night, World Premiere) An old-fashioned widescreen epic, a “movie movie” like they used to make, this is the story of Lt. Col. Percy Fawcett and his nearly lifelong obsession with a lost city in the Amazon rain forest. We pick him up as a young turn-of-the-century British officer who is sent on a mapmaking mission to ward off a looming dispute between Bolivia and Brazil. The jungle scenes are raw and exciting, and after some real scares Fawcett, whose noble chin belongs to a very capable Charlie Hunnam, comes to respect and admire the native people, especially when he finds evidence of a superior technology that was evidently developed in antiquity and in isolation. His expeditions back to “Amazonia” span nearly thirty years and are interleaved with stretches of life at home and some harrowing duty in the trenches of World War I; both Hunnam and wife Sienna Miller age very well, assisted by convincing makeup. It’s meant to be a grand adventure in the wild combined with gentlemen’s discourse by the stuffed shirts in England, sort of the PBS version of Indiana Jones. One can quibble with the balance because the movie really comes alive when we return to the jungle, again and again. In the tradition of such spectacles, the job of the director is to stay out of the way, and James Gray lets us concentrate on the story and forget about the production, except for one aspect, and here I must make a filmlover’s confession. This piece was shot on 35mm film and proudly projected that way for the Alice Tully Hall audience, but I have to say it: whether I’ve been desensitized or simply aging, I prefer digital projection. Celluloid looks great for brightly lit exteriors, and Darius Khondji’s landscapes earn oohs and aahs throughout. But for low-light scenes, especially interiors, the image is softer and it’s easy to be distracted by reel-change cue dots and other degradation on the film stock, even though it should have been the first time through the projector for this print. Some people like the look, just as some prefer to hear music from a needle vibrating on vinyl (and they may have a point). I don’t mind any perceived “harshness,” and at my age I want the image razor-sharp. It may be unhip of me but it matters for real: we wanted to check a musical piece and we couldn’t make out the teensy type as the end credits rolled by. It was slightly out of focus and thus illegible at the world premiere. This film is a nice diversion, a respectful and capable throwback of a production with great support by Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson (hey, Kristen Stewart’s not the only teen vampire turning into a real actor!), but sue me: I bet it’ll look even better on Blu-Ray.

WISH I’D SEEN: BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK, MOONLIGHT, MY ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL SINKING INTO THE SEA, ONE-EYED JACKS (on the big screen)

Other NYFF Reports

2015   2014


Spoiler Alerts!

May 16, 2016

WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS POST if you’re not yet caught up on the current sixth season of GAME OF THRONES through at least S6E3 and you care about whatever’s going to happen next. Also READ NO FURTHER if you’re a TVphobe or non-subscriber to HBO still slogging your way through the bloody but convivial George R. R. Martin source novels. In truth, the following essay is frickin JAM-PACKED with pop-culture spoilers, including the illustration below. Hear me, O reader: MULTI-SPOILER FRICKIN MEGA-ALERT!!

I was standing in line at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival behind a friend who had just seen Lars von Trier’s DOGVILLE elsewhere at the fest. She was talking to somebody ahead of us, and their conversation somehow wandered to Nicole Kidman, the film’s star. (I was flitting between that vocal thread and the one behind me, which included my wife and our hostess.) Then she said something like, “Yeah: it was so odd when Nicole killed them all at the end.” She caught my eye and realized, shit: I just ruined the ending for him. You have to be a bit of a masochist to watch much of any von Trier, but no, I hadn’t seen the flick quite yet. (I have now. It was indeed ruined, but not by her.)

Since my friend’s mortified facial expression showed that she was really sorry, it had just been an accidental slip of the tongue, I decided to have a little fun with her. I acted wounded and “retaliated” to try and make her laugh. “It was his sled! He thinks he’s his own mom: he’s frickin crazy! They mash up dead people and serve em as food! They didn’t go anywhere, they landed in future New York City! He’s been a ghost this whole time!” She knew exactly what I was doing in my mock rage, and judging from the giggles, she was amused as well as relieved. That had certainly been my intent.

But damn: a decade later, it’s harder than ever to keep secrets from the popular culture, and you don’t have to stand in a festival line any more to get pre-hipped. One day it will be impossible to prevent leakage, but that day has not yet arrived, and for proof I cite both HBO and Lucasfilm.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS was so eagerly awaited that the producers even released photos from the table read. Yet by sternly restricting access and keeping mouths shut, they concealed a major plot point that caused an audible reaction in the theater where I saw it, and probably everywhere else too. (I’m withholding this spoiler in case you haven’t yet seen the flick, but you’d better hurry up, because missing STAR WARS might be illegal by now.) But the equally massive GAME OF THRONES machine also kept a corker to itself, for the better part of a year.

I thought readers of Martin’s “Song of Fire and Ice” novels had been quite courteous in keeping mum about surprises, beginning in the series’ first season. Most of the show’s rep company have now become household names, or at least household faces. But at the beginning the only actor many viewers recognized was Sean Bean, of the LORD OF THE RINGS movies. The single most shocking event of the first season was “Ned Stark”’s execution at the command of sadistic young tyrant King Joffrey. Plop went the head of the character we assumed was the star of the show, establishing THRONES’s grisly dictum: on this show, nobody’s safe. Thing is, though, readers of the source novels had well known about this twist, some for as long as twenty years. They also knew in advance how and when Joffrey himself would die. They knew about the carnage to come in the notorious Red Wedding. They knew why Tyrion Lannister (as played by Peter Dinklage, he became the real star of the series) would be forced to commit patricide. And lots more. The reading public is probably a small fraction of THRONES’s worldwide viewership, but it still largely remained silent, even amidst the din of the Internet. That’s remarkable restraint: maybe readers were so pleased to see such a faithful, gorgeous adaptation that they felt protective.

George R. R. Martin is a fine writer, but he’s also relatively, and notoriously, slow. It has taken him two decades to produce the five long, intricate novels which are the basis for GAME OF THRONES. (I would say six, since he seems to be very close to finishing the latest one, but he’s left at least two deadlines unmet, so we’ll have to believe it when we see it.) As the HBO series gained popularity over five years, it became evident that neither the network nor the showrunners could wait for the author to finish the cycle (and two of the books take place simultaneously, shortening the timeline even further). Though they have already made slight changes from the printed version of Martin’s story (for example, the bodies strewn in the Red Wedding include victims new to readers as well), in the current sixth season the tv people move past the published books. This year, for the first time, loyal readers are in the dark along with the rest of the audience.

The cliffhanging development at the end of last season was the assassination of fan heartthrob Jon Snow, played by Kit Harington. Dashing leading men have been dropping like flies on this series and there are precious few left. (Nobody is safe, sure, but if they ever decided to kill off Dinklage’s Tyrion, they might as well just pack up and close the store.) The last shot of the season finale showed Jon’s multiple stab wounds staining the white snow. Cut to black.

AAAUGH! screamed anguished viewers. He can’t be dead! Message boards and chat rooms erupted with resuscitative theories. But for the rest of the summer, for the rest of the off-season, up until about two weeks ago, the producers assiduously misled everybody and maintained a real-life fiction to rival their elaborate medieval melodrama. For it had been their plan to bring Jon Snow back from the dead all along. The magical Melisandre — who revealed her own surprise in the previous episode — incanted away in a scene so languid that it was parodied on the following week’s SNL. Some ritual smoke, a sexy sponge bath, and Jon Snow was good to re-go. In this day and age, though, it took a titanic effort to keep the secret until air time.

First, there was no mention of Jon Snow whatsoever within the production: his name was as taboo as Voldemort’s. Harington’s lines in typed Season 6 scripts were given only to “LC,” or “Lord Commander,” Jon’s rank in the Night’s Watch (don’t ask). As the questions arose immediately after last season’s murder, Harington asserted, “Jon Snow is dead.” Same message from anybody associated with the show. (It’s not really a lie, is it? He was dead.) Then somebody spotted Harington in Belfast, where his scenes are shot, wearing the Snow character’s hair and beard. “I have to play him as a dead body,” he demurred. The conspiracy was so vast that Entertainment Weekly, allowed in on the ruse, was on the stands with a “He’s Alive!” cover story less than a week after air. And now Jon Snow is roaming the land of Westeros again. Mission accomplished.

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The EW cover. I put it down here “below the swipe” so people wouldn’t stumble onto it.

All that trouble just to surprise people? It was easier back in the day. To preserve the jolt of a lead character’s murder midway through PSYCHO (shaking up its audience just as Ned Stark’s beheading does), Alfred Hitchcock simply forced exhibitors to close their doors after the film began. Nobody admitted during the performance, as opposed to the come-in-any-time policy for most other movies. Theater managers were indignant at first, fearing the loss of casual walk-in business, but patrons waiting for the next show formed lines nearly everywhere, making PSYCHO look like a hit and then becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy as others got curious. All because Hitch was concerned that late arrivers wouldn’t understand why they weren’t seeing the star.

Is there a statue of limitations on revealing a plot twist? When I was working on the PSYCHO entry for GEORGE LUCAS’S BLOCKBUSTING, my editor objected to the line, “Because a key character does not survive PSYCHO’s halfway point…” He thought I was being too coy and wanted me to spell it out. But I strongly objected: even though most readers will know exactly what I’m talking about — the scene in question has entered general mass culture and is constantly lampooned — there are others who don’t, people who have never seen PSYCHO. It would be a disservice to Hitch to obviate his chance to startle. (P.S.: I won.) I hated so many reviews of Gus Van Sant’s PSYCHO remake because the critics assumed familiarity with the story. Why would you ruin a thriller that way? I already spoiled PSYCHO’s big reveal up there in the Sundance line, but this is different: I warned you fair and square. A pox on anybody who sneaks a spoiler in, and that goes double for online comments. Follow the lead of SIGHT & SOUND, the best film magazine there is, and warn people away from TMI.

Sometimes the secret is so sublime that journalists just naturally give it a wide berth. I never saw any mention of the big surprises in THE CRYING GAME or THE SIXTH SENSE before I saw them. Others seem to be fair game. The stunning development in MILLION DOLLAR BABY was all over the press, even in feature stories; a non-entertainment headline in a plane passenger’s newspaper spoiled it for me from across the aisle.

The horror writer Clive Barker remembers seeing PSYCHO one afternoon back in England. Blown away, he stuck around for a second showing. Two schoolgirls came in and sat in front of him. As Barker tells it, the second time he was paying more attention to their reactions than to the film itself. He says he couldn’t wait until one character went snooping in a creepy place toward the end — and the resulting shrieks from the girls didn’t disappoint. He appreciated Hitch’s unspoiled surprises on a different level. He knew what was coming — and that was the suspense.


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