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****

Previous Sundance Reports

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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  

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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 see it. So it is scratching some itch — maybe not even articulated but real 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.

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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