Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Elvis & STAR WARS: 40 Years Ago Today

Elvis Presley died on this date in 1977. STAR WARS was released earlier that summer. 

So the big pop culture question is: did Elvis see STAR WARS? 

Sadly, the answer from every source is no, he didn’t, but he wanted to. The day before he passed he was trying to obtain a print of the movie so he could watch it with his daughter, Lisa Marie. Three days before that, he had taken her, and his girlfriend Ginger Alden to see the then latest James Bond movie, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, the last film he saw at the cinema (the picture above is of them in his 1973 Stutz Blackhawk III coming back from the movie).

I posted the above blurb a year ago today on Facebook - the 39th anniversary of the Kings death - and doing new research now I see that I wasn't alone in wondering about whether he say the hugely popular space epic. The STAR WARS blog, Episode Nothing, had a very similar post entitled Did Elvis see Star Wars?, and in 2014 the Elvis blog,, even asked “Could Star Wars have saved the life of Elvis Presley?”

As far back as 2005, the site, also speculated about it, and pondered if the movie's director, George Lucas, ever saw Presley in concert.

It’s too bad that one of the biggest films of all time wasn’t seen by one of the biggest performers of all time. I, of course, can’t (or don’t want to) speculate on whether if it wouldve saved him, but I bet he wouldve loved it.

More later...

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Notes On DUNKIRK (Three Weeks Into Its Run)

t’s been three weeks since I first saw Christopher Nolan’s WWII epic DUNKIRK, but I wasn’t in a good headspace then. My wife and I were having some major work done on our house involving installing hardwood floors so I was exhausted from moving tons of books, CDs, DVDs, records, etc.

I had mixed feelings about the movie, but I recognized some greatness there so I decided to see it a second time. But this time was in the way Nolan intended it to be seen - in IMAX 70 mm. The visuals were indeed impressive and the story threads came together better than my previous viewing, but I still felt a disconnect.

The film, which Nolan wrote and co-produced in addition to directing, follows three narratives – “The Mole,” about the thousands of soldiers stranded on the beach of Dunkirk, France over the course of a week waiting for rescue boats over the course of a week; “The Sea,” concerning a civilian (Mark Rylance) sailing his boat with his son (Tom Glynn-Carney), and his friend (Barry Keoghan) to help with the rescue effort over the course of a day; and “The Air,” which involves three Spitfires piloted by members of the Royal Air Force engaged in dogfights over the course of an hour.

Nolan’s attention to detail in recreating the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940 is immaculate via the usage of restored boats and planes from the actual event, practical effects, and a minimum of CGI.

I’ve heard many folks complain that in the “The Mole” storyline the characters are hard to tell apart. Fionn Whitehead as a private named Tommy, who is pretty much the protagonist of the thread, and a fellow soldier played by pop singer Harry Styles do blend in with the masses on the docks, but perhaps that’s the point.

“The Air” narrative which has Tom Hardy, and Jack Lowden on a mission to take down German dive bombers over the infinite ocean may be the most exciting of the three intertwined scenarios, but several times Nolan cuts away right as the scenes are getting the most compelling. Lowden almost drowning because he can’t get his cockpit open after crash landing in the sea deserves to be seen in full, but Nolan can’t help but dive back into another thread, and the momentum gets lost.

The most emotionally grounded storyline is “The Sea” as a stoic Rylance holds steady to his goal to save as many men as possible, even when a shell-shocked soldier played by Cillian Murphy that his boat picks up violently tries to get him to turn his boat around. Murphy, a veteran of a few Nolan films (BATMAN BEGINS, INCEPTION), is only credited as “shivering soldier,” and that about sums up his role.

Kenneth Branagh, as a British Naval Commander, brings a touch of dignified gravitas to his part, but mainly just stands around on the pier watching what’s happening around him.

So basically, don’t go in expecting fully fleshed out characters. There may be precious little dialogue, but there’s plenty of genuine suspense, gripping action, and incredibly vivid cinematography (thanks to Hoyte van Hoytema’s 54-Pound IMAX Camera) to make up for it, and to make up for the failings of Nolan’s previous film, INTERSTELLAR.

DUNKIRK is engaging to a considerable degree, but not as immersive an experience as it could’ve been as its fractured narratives bog it down. Hans Zimmer’s intense score, which at times beautifully blends with the scary sound of attacking dive bombers, does a lot to tie together the three strands, but they still clash in ways that was at times frustrating.

I still would recommend Nolan’s work here because there is a lot of power in the imagery and the depiction of touching humanity, which, as I said before, is most present in Rylance’s storyline.

It may fall short of being a masterpiece, but it comes close – especially when seeing it a second time in IMAX 70 mm. Maybe the third time will be the charm?

More later...

Friday, July 28, 2017

A Lot Of A GHOST, Not Much STORY

Opening today at a few theaters near me:

(Dir. David Lowery, 2017)

I walked out of this extremely weird movie in a daze. I wasn’t sure what the hell it was that I just watched. I mean it’s a movie about a ghost who appears as a guy in a children’s Halloween costume - that is, seriously, a white bed sheet with eye holes.

Let me backtrack - the film begins with Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as a couple living in a house in semi-rural Texas who appear to be preparing to move. Affleck gets killed in an automobile accident and we cut to Mara identifying his body at the hospital. After she places the sheet back over his head and leaves, Affleck sits up and then walks through the building’s halls unseen by anybody because, you know, he’s a ghost now.

He makes the journey back to their house and stands there motionless watching Mara as she mourns. He watches her eat a pie. A whole pie. This scene feels like it goes on forever. Mara eats until she goes to the bathroom to throw up in the background.

Time passes and the ghost stands motionless watching Mara pack up and move away. A new family made up of a single mother and her two kids move in and he watches them. One night in a fit of anger (I guess) he throws and smashes dishes in the kitchen which scares them and they move out shortly after.

Then the house appears to be taken over by hipsters who have impromptu parties with pretentious discussions. Singer/songwriter, and friend of director Lowery, Will Oldham delivers a speech about mortality and the futility of time (I think) that perhaps spells out the movie’s meaning but I dunno.

At some point, the ghost waves to another ghost (identical bed sheet situation) through the window of the house next door and they speak in subtitles with no sound (the ghosts get subtitles but the Spanish-speaking mother and her kids don’t). The other ghost says he’s waiting for someone, but he forgets who. All through this, Affleck’s ghost scratches at one of the walls trying to retrieve a tiny note that Mara’s character wrote and left in a crack.

More time passes, and the house gets demolished by bulldozers, and a shiny, modern building is built in its place where the ghost stalks the glass halls. Then we go back in time two hundred years to when European settlers were taking over the land. He stands and watches as history repeats and ends up watching Affleck and Mara again, then he watches as Affleck becomes a ghost, who he watches from behind.

I wonder how much Affleck actually visited the set because for the bulk of the movie it could’ve been anybody under that sheet. Especially since you can’t see eyes behind the holes – just darkness.

The self conscious artsiness of this film, which is all told in long, stationary shots in a square aspect ratio, makes me think that Lowery is trying to get as far away from the commerciality of his last project, PETE’S DRAGON, as he possibly can. Horror fans will likely be baffled by it because, except for the moment the bulldozer comes crashing through the wall, it’s not a scary experience. Haunting is more what Lowery was going for, but while it does indeed have some effective eeriness, it just goes on and on without a truly meaningful point to be made.

There’s maybe a good 20-minute or so short film that could’ve been made with these elements that would spare us all the existential tedium. The only story here is the passing of time, and that was
nt enough to keep me engaged.

But it is a gutsy move for A24 to release a film such as A GHOST STORY during the overcrowded dog days of summer - I admire that - but I can only recommend this picture to people who like being weirded out – very slowly.

More later...

Thursday, July 13, 2017

THE BIG SICK: A Delight Through And Through

Now playing at many indie art houses, and opens wide Friday at many multiplexes:

THE BIG SICK (Dir. Michael Showalter, 2017)

This is one of the most buzzed about independent movies this summer, and it’s for good reason because it’s a real charmer.

It’s not your typical rom com as it’s a love story with an autobiographical bent, and it mixes in a considerable amount of emotional drama between its abundance of laughs.

The film concerns Pakistani Kumail Nanjiani, best known for his role as acerbic programmer Dinesh on HBO’s Silicon Valley, as a stand-up comedian/Uber driver who falls for Zoe Kazan as a woman based on Nanjiani’s wife, Emily V. Gordon.

Gordon, who hails from Winton Salem in my home state, North Carolina, and Nanjiani co-wrote the screenplay which depicts their early relationship when begins when Kazan’s Emily heckles Kumail during his act at a small Chicago comedy club. Actually she yells “Whoo!” but, as Kumail explains to her at the bar later, “heckling doesn’t have to be a negative.”

The two hit it off and hook up that night while watching THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD back at his place that he shares with fellow comedian Kurt Braunohler. Emily and Kumail, despite that she says she’s too busy studying to be a therapist, begin dating, while his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) try to set him up in an arranged marriage.

Emily discovers this when she comes upon a cigar box of headshots of the many Muslim women that are vying for his hand (“Are you judging Pakistan’s ‘Next Hot Model?
), and after an emotional argument they break up. 

Shorty after, Kumail learns that Emily is in the hospital and has to be put into a medically induced coma, and he waits with her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) who he’s never met before, and who know that the couple is broken up. Awkward!

Gradually Kumail and Emily’s folks bond with them even attending one of his stand-up slots. The scene turns ugly when a frat boy douche yells “go back to Isis” at Kumail, and Hunter’s character Beth goes off on him.

Since we know that in real life Emily came out of the coma, it’s no spoiler to say that that’s what happens here, but I’ll refrain from going further about the plot.

Nanjiani makes for a witty, likable lead who can hold his own in the well executed dramatic moments that dominate the second half of the film. Kazan is equally appealing, quickly quipping through the couple’s courting and effectively exhibiting more layers during her recovery. Although she spends the bulk of the film motionless in a hospital bed, Kazan shows in her awake scenes that she’s no “manic pixie dream girl” (Nathan Rabin™), and the chemistry between her and Nanjiani is palpable.

Hunter and Ramano nail their parts as Emily’s concerned parents, and there are short but sweet turns by the supporting cast including SNL’s Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham, and Braunohler as Kumail’s fellow comedian friends, and Kher (a Bollywood legend who’s been in 500 films) Shroff, and Adeel Akhtar as Kumail’s brother.

THE BIG SICK is a very amusing and heartwarming love story that proves that there’s life left in rom coms. The genre appears to have died out at the multiplexes, but with help from producer Judd Apatow, this indie refreshens the formula. As I’ve written on this blog before, director Michael Showalter in such films as THE BAXTER and THEY CAME TOGETHER, seems to have a thing about deconstructing rom com tropes, but it appears that he’s best here and in his last film, HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS, when he keeps the narrative grounded in relatable reality.

This is Showalter’s best film, the best comedy I’ve seen this year, and a winner all around for Nanjiani and Gordon and everyone involved. It’s a big success at my local indie art house, the Rialto, where I work part time, as I’ve heard a lot of loud laughter from the crowded theater every time it screens. A delight through and through.

More later...

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

SPIDER-MAN Brings It All Back Home

Now playing at a multiplex near us all:


(Jon Watts, 2017)

So I guess we’re supposed to pretend that those two Andrew Garfield AMAZING SPIDER-MAN movies never happened, right? Well, with this shiny new reboot that establishes the character as a player in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) that’s incredibly easy to do.

We were introduced to the new web-slinging kid, Tom Holland, in the superhero-studded CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR last summer, and this film recounts that event from a different perspective via Peter Parker’s video diary of the event.

So we get to see just how Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr. in his eighth appearance as IRON MAN) got Peter to Leipzig/Halle Airport in Germany, outfitted him in a cool new suit, and put him in place to steal Captain America’s shield at just the right moment.

But Tony doesn’t think that Peter is ready to be an Avenger yet, but our boy can’t wait to prove himself. He constantly calls Tony’s driver/bodyguard Happy (Jon Favreau in his fourth film in the part), hoping that he can get in on some world-saving action but to no avail.

Meanwhile, the film’s villain, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) is building weaponary, including a mechanized flight suit that turns him into The Vulture (a character that dates back to 1963), out of the ruins of the alien tech from the attack on New York in the first AVENGERS movie.

Peter/Spidey comes across Toomes’ men robbing an ATM (all wearing Avengers masks) and in a gripping fight scene he is able to take them out, that is, until they start battling him with their alien laser gear. Despite this occurrence, Peter still can’t get Happy to return his calls so he sets off on his own to stop the Vulture’s evil doings.

Now that’s the superhero stuff, but there’s another movie here – a teen coming-of-age high school rom com in which Peter falls for one of his classmates, M.J. (Zendaya), and pals around with his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), who finds out his secret identity early on.

These genres smoothly intertwine with a lot of thrills and laughs throughout, and a some stellar action sequences including a Washington Monument set-piece that’s up there with the best scenes from the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire SPIDER-MAN movies from well over a decade ago. This is indeed the best movie featuring the iconic comic book legend since 2004’s SPIDER-MAN 2, and maybe the funniest MCU movie since ANT-MAN.

Holland makes a likably angsty mark as Peter/Spidey, carrying the movie through both its high octane spectacle and its adolescent hi jinks with relatable charm. Keaton chews through scenery with a fever that will make you forget BATMAN and BIRDMAN (well, actually it’s hard not to think of BIRDMAN as the costume looks like a metal version of his attire in that excellent Oscar-winner).

As much as he brings star power and his patented charm to the project, I’m not sure it was really necessary to have Downey Jr.’s IRON MAN around for this film, but as there’s no Uncle Ben, it seems the kid does need a mentor/father figure around and Tony fulfills that role fine. I was hoping for more of Tony flirting with Peter’s Aunt May (Marissa Tomei), who seems to have been cast to make the character a MILF.

It's also kind of funny to see Donald Glover in a small part as a criminal involved with Toomes as he was once rumored to take on the role of Spidey himself at one point.

Director Watts, whose third film this is after CLOWN and the Kevin Bacon thriller COP CAR keeps the pacing from dragging, working from a screenplay he co-wrote with a veritable committee made up of Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley (Sam from Freaks and Geeks!), Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, and Erik Sommers.

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING won’t win over folks who hate superhero movies (or can't stand tons of CGI, no matter how flawless it is), but fans of the genre will eat it up. It’s a fun, and very funny piece of pure escapism that lovingly re-ignites the exciting spark that was missing from the last few entries, which, I’m sorry, I meant not to mention again.

Now that Sony, Marvel Studios and Disney are in bed together for this new run of Holland-starring SPIDER-MAN movies (including sequels and appearances in the AVENGERS series), it’s great to see that they’ve successfully brought it all back home.

As usual - stay for the after credits stinger (one of the funniest so far), and look out for the Stan Lee cameo - as for the other MCU callbacks, you are on your own.

More later...

Monday, July 03, 2017

BABY DRIVER: The Best Movie Of The Summer Is Here

Now playing at a multiplex near you, the much buzzed about movie that’s #2 at the box office (sadly following DESPICABLE ME 3):

(Dir. Edgar Wright, 2017)

Edgar Wright’s first film since 2013’s hilarious conclusion to the Cornetto trilogy, THE WORLD’S END, is the summer’s best film so far. It’s a wild ride concerning young newcomer Ansel Elgort as Baby, a getaway driver for a series of heists planned by Kevin Spacey as a slick, sinister crime kingpin named Doc. And the icing on the cake is that the nonstop action is fueled by a hip, hot nonstop soundtrack.

We meet Elgort’s Baby, who’s constantly plugged into one of his many iPods (“I’ve got iPods for different days, and moods” he explains), in the middle of a bank robbery with fellow felons played by Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, and Eiza González, synched to “Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. A chaotic car chase through downtown Atlanta follows in which Baby’s extremely fast-minded expert evading of the police makes Ryan Gosling in DRIVE look like an f-in’ amateur.

Baby continuously listens to music to drown out his tinnitus which was the result of a car accident that killed his parents when he was a kid. He lives in a shabby apartment with his foster father (CJ Jones), and makes mixes of sound bites he records daily adding beats and turn table effects.

Spacey’s Doc tells Baby that after one more job his debt will be paid off so he join a different crew made up of Jamie Foxx, Flea, and Lanny Goon for the robbery of an armored car.

The job doesn’t go as smoothly as before (meaning that there are casualties), but Baby is out of the game and goes legit taking a job as pizza delivery man. On a date with a cute waitress named Debora (cue: Beck’s “Debra”) he met earlier in the movie, he runs into Doc, who, of course, wants him to do one last job.

Wright’s film, which he’s had on the back burner since 1994, is full of kinetic energy with quick cuts, jolting thrills, and stunning visuals flashing by in intoxicating sequence after sequence. It recalls the exciting spark of Tarantino’s best work while being very much its own thing. It’s a shame that Wright’s ANT-MAN didn’t come to fruition (he was replaced by Peyton Reed as director due to artistic differences) but if that helped make this happen he still came out on top.

Elgort, best known for the DIVERGENT series and THE FAULT BEHIND THE STARS (though not by me as I haven't seen any of those movies), puts in an incredibly focused star-making turn in the title role. There were times that I wished he were cast as the young Han Solo in the upcoming STAR WARS spin-off. Especially since I hear that an acting coach had to be called in for Alden Ehrenreich.

My only complaint is that much of the cast gets lost in the mix. Although Bernthal makes a gruff, threatening mark in an early scene, he disappears for the rest of the movie (granted he does say “If you don’t see me again, it’s because Im dead but I wanted at least a call back). Hamm and González are very appealing in their sideline roles but don't really get much of a chance to make their characters very memorable.

However, Foxx does, ferociously sinking his teeth into his part as Leon Bats Jefferson III, who is deliciously trigger happy and quick to question Babys meticulous methods. Spacey does good work in his meaty roll as Doc, but its a part he could play in his sleep.

BABY DRIVER is so much fun that I’m really looking forward to seeing it again. Much of its well shot shoot-outs and crazy car stunt action goes by in such an ultra stylish blur (even including a song by the British band Blur) that I’m sure there’s a lot I missed.

And its rewatchability is also heightened by its amazing soundtrack, which will surely become a classic. Unlike, say, the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY series’ musical platters, it’s dominated by largely obscure artists like the Damned, Googie René, Danger Mouse, Big Boi, Carla Thomas, Run The Jewels, and Bob & Earl. Even the songs by the better known artists like Commodores, T. Rex, Simon & Garfunkel, and the Beach Boys are deep cuts that are unfamiliar on film.

So take a break from all the summer superhero sequels and jump aboard the BABY DRIVER bandwagon. I seriously doubt that something better will come along this season.

More later...

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

BEATRIZ AT DINNER: A Meager, Meaningless Meal

Now playing at an arthouse or multiplex that shows a few art films near you:


(Dir. Miguel Arteta, 2016)

I left the theater after this film in a state of bewilderment. For it has such a promising premise involving a working class member of the 99% confronting one of the most corrupt bigwig one percenters at a dinner party, but it doesn't know at all what to do with this narrative, and in the end it just gives up in way that seems designed to rub people wrong, and make them shake their heads.

A stoic Selma Hayak plays Beatriz, a masseuse who finds herself stranded at one of her rich client’s (Connie Britton) house, a McMansion in a gated community because her car won’t start after their session. Britton’s Kathy, an aging trophy wife, invites Beatriz to stay for dinner, despite her husband’s (David Warshofsky) objections.

Beatriz meets the snooty other guests including Jay Duplass and Chloë Sevigny as Warshofsky’s business partner and wife, who are celebrating a big real estate deal with John Lithgow as a wicked Trump-like tycoon, who initially mistakes Beatriz for the help. Beatriz says she recognizes Lithgow’s character, whose name is Doug Strutt (he’s the only one in the film who has a last name) from somewhere, so she keeps trying to place him.

The tension escalates at dinner with Beatriz getting more and more offended at all of the glib, self-congratulatory chit-chat that Strutt and his fawning sycophants are continuously spouting while condescending to her. It comes to a head when Strutt shows off a cellphone picture of a rhinoceros he shot and killed on a hunting expedition in Africa. Beatriz throws his phone at Strutt and calls him “sick!”

There is some juicy material here but screenwriter Mike White’s dialogue just skates across the icy surface of possibilities. I kept preparing myself to enjoyably cringe during several edgy scenes, but kept being let down at how the film doesn’t dig deep into these people’s opposing philosophies. 
All of these characters, even Beatriz, are caricatures so there’s no real meat to the matter. No stirring arguments are presented, no revelations are exposed, nothing really interesting happens. 

And the ending is baffling. No spoilers but it caps off an unpleasant experience in a dreary manner that I bet most people will find to be extremely unsatisfying. BEATRIZ AT DINNER is a wasted opportunity to say something profound about class distinctions, race relations, and human nature. It promises dinner but all it can gather is a meager, meaningless meal.

More later...

Friday, June 09, 2017

The Dark Universe Franchise Kicks Off With THE MUMMY, Which Isn't Even Matinee Worthy

Now playing at a multiplex near everybody:

THE MUMMY (Dir. Alex Kurtzman, 2017)

Until recently, I was unaware that there is a new cinematic franchise in the works involving rebooting the Universal Monsters. A massive interlocking series featuring movies starring Dracula, The Invisible Man, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon is planned under the name “Dark Universe,” as in, ‘look out, Marvel! Dark Universe is coming to overshadow you big-time!’

Not so fast, DU, as your inaugural release, THE MUMMY is a dud on arrival. Without a single scare, it fails at horror; without any genuine thrills or excitement, it fails at suspense; without any charm or depth, it fails at romance and drama; and with very few laughs, it fails at comedy too. There’s no genre it succeeds in! Even its visual imagery, which looks washed out and flat (and I saw it in 3D), is dreary, with no oomph.

I kept wishing that Tom Cruise had just made another MISSION IMPOSSIBLE movie instead, as just about everything he does in this film – death defying airplane acrobatics, outrunning sand storms, dodging gunfire through chaotic chase sequences – he’s done so much better in that series.

So this film, which is so not connected to the Brendan Fraser MUMMY franchise (R.I.P. 1999-2008), concerns an Egyptian goddess named Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella, giving it her all but still not very scary) cursing Cruise as a brash graverobber, who along with his army buddy Jake Johnson, just happened to come across her tomb in modern day Iraq. After his wise-cracking role in JURASSIC WORLD and now this, maybe Johnson’s forte will be to be the comic relief on the sidelines in big ass fantasy action movies.

The cast is rounded out by Annabelle Wallis as an exposition-spouting archeologist, and possible love interest for Cruise, and, more importantly, a low key Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll, who my friend Fonvielle of Filmvielle told me will be like the Nick Fury character in the Marvel movies – the connective tissue between all the projected entries.

Thing is, Marvel built their cinematic universe bit by bit, movie by movie, before branding itself so blatantly. Samuel L. Jackson’s Fury appeared for the first time in an after credits scene (something that Marvel might as well trademark) to hint at a future framework involving the Avengers, etc, but THE MUMMY begins with a “Dark Universe” title that hasn’t been earned. They’re trying too hard to make an all-new Universal Monsters series immediately happen, but it’s way too soon for it to really be “a thing” yet.

Especially as I predict that WONDER WOMAN, in its second week of release, is going to kick its ass. Hell, the much buzzed about horror indie IT COMES AT NIGHT might even trounce it. I bet that one has legitimate scares in it too.

So, in conclusion – Dark Universe, keep your pants on! You’re getting way ahead of yourself says this lowly blogger. And Cruise – make another MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, EDGE OF TOMORROW, or even a JACK REACHER movie instead of getting aboard this silly franchise wannabe. Even the TOP GUN sequel that he’s talked about recently is a more appealing prospect than another entry in this convoluted mess of monster movies that Universal is cooking up (or re-heating).

THE MUMMY isn’t even worth the price of a matinee or the admission for a second run screening. Wait for it to come to Redbox or Netflix, then skip it there too.

More later...

Friday, June 02, 2017

WONDER WOMAN Does The Iconic Superheroine Justice

Now playing at multiplexes everywhere:

WONDER WOMAN (Dir. Patty Jenkins, 2017)

It’s no secret that the implementation of the DC Extended Universe hasn’t been a critical success so far. The first three entries – MAN OF STEEL, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, and SUICIDE SQUAD – have been chaotic fiascos with cluttered storylines, mishandled mythology, and poorly drawn characters that it was near impossible to care about.

But there was the glimmer of light that was the introduction of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in B V S, and that gave hope that her solo movie, opening today, would be the first actually good movie of the DCEU.

Well, that hope has been satisfied as WONDER WOMAN is a wonderful (sorry, couldn’t resist) crowd pleaser that breathes new life into the franchise. A radiant Gadot owns the screen as the iconic superhero, bringing kick-ass charisma, fearless finesse, and a knowing wit to her role. She’s joined by Chris Pine, trading his Starfleet Captain attire for a U.S. Army Air Force Captain uniform, as Steve Trevor, who crashes his plane near the island of Themyscira, the land of the Amazons, while being chased by German soldiers.

Before this, we see little Diana (as played at different ages by Lilly Aspell and Emily Carey) training with her aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright, who’s having a great week with this and season five of House of Cards dropping on Netflix), in secret as her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Neilsen) disapproves.

Fully grown and ready to rumble, Diana rescues Steve from drowning, fights the attacking Germans, then travels with Steve to find Ares the Greek god of War, who she thinks is responsible for World War I.

Diana and Steve travel to London, where he gives the film’s McGuffin – a notebook which he stole from German chemist Dr. Maru aka Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya), which has chemical formulas for gasses powerful enough to destroy gas masks – to Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis) of the Imperial War Cabinet.

After getting outfitted in proper period dress with the help of Steve’s secretary (the British Office’s Lucy Davis making the comic most of her limited screentime) the duo travel to the frontline with a ragtag crew, including Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, and Eugene Brave Rock, that reminded me of the scrappy rebel team that was assembled for the heist in ROGUE ONE.

Diana believes that the sinister General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston) is Ares so she aims to kill him, but she doesn’t realize that this is one of those movies that has a secret bad guy in it to provide a third act twist.

With her 
shield, bullet-proof bracelets, and lasso of truth (not to mention her “God Killer” sword), Wonder Woman fights her way through gunfire, explosions, and all the spectacle that you’d come to expect from a summer blockbuster, but with an energy and gusto that stands up to some of Marvel’s best action sequences. The dark, gritty textures of the film’s look (courtesy of cinematographer Matthew Jensen), also give the proceedings gravitas that compares favorably with their comic book movie competitors.

One of my only complaints is that at two hours and 20 minutes is a bit too long. A few scenes drag and couldve been cut down with no loss of narrative, but as it is an origin story, I bet the filmmakers thought its epic length was justified.

But Gadot and Pine’s palpable chemistry, which has an element of screwball in their between action set-piece banter, keeps the film's formula flowing for the most part. 

Its great that WONDER WOMAN was directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, partly because it would just feel wrong if it wasn’t, but really because judging by her filmography (MONSTER, episodes of Arrested Development, The Killing) she’s much more talented than Zach Snyder, who’s to blame for two of the aforementioned epic fails of the DCEU, but to be fair, Snyder did co-contribute to this films story. 

Wonder Woman will return in the next DC entry, JUSTICE LEAGUE, due out later this year, but since Snyder is helming that, my expectations are very low. I’m betting that Jenkins does the iconic superheroine a lot better 
justice here.

More later...

Friday, May 26, 2017


Now playing at a multiplex near us all:


(Dirs. Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg, 2017)

After a string of major misfires, including ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, THE LONE RANGER, MORTDECAI (forgot about that one!), TRANSCENDENCE, and DARK SHADOWS, Johnny Depp once again dusts off his Keith Richards impression, dons an X-marked pirate hat, do-rag, black eye makeup, earrings, and the rest of his familiar ratty attire (not dissimilar to what Depp wears in real life) to resurrect the character of Jack Sparrow for the fifth film of Disneys highly lucrative PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise.

As his last big hit was the last PIRATES movie, ON STRANGER TIDES, this makes financial sense for the actor, but for folks (like me) who are tired of the increasingly redundant series, it’s not a very appealing prospect.

But, hey, I try to give every movie the benefit of the doubt - even when it comes to the slew of seemingly unnecessary sequels that clog up the multiplexes every summer. So I’ll say this - DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES is better than the previous PIRATES entry, Rob Marshall’s ON STRANGER TIDES (2011), but, and I know you can see this coming, that’s really not saying much.

This time around, the premise concerns Brenton Thwaites as the son of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly’s characters from the first several movies, who seeks out Depp’s Sparrow to help him find the film’s McGuffin - a magical compass thingie called the Trident of Poseidon - so that he can free his father from a curse keeping him forever undersea aboard his sunken ship.

Also wanting to find Sparrow and break their curse, is a group of undead sailors led by the sinister Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem, who's a little scary at first but that dies off rapidly), who were trapped in the Devil’s Triangle by Sparrow (in a flashback where we see a young Depp courtesy of digital trickery). Oh yeah, there’s also actually a female lead along for the ride played by Kaya Scodelario, whose character Carina Smyth is an astronomer, which makes people think she’s a witch.

Add Geoffrey Rush reprising his role as Captain Hector Barbossa for the fifth time to the mix, and we’re off into another amped up series of over-the-top sequences in which our heroes seamlessly dodge digital dangers in battles at sea and on land with all of them blending together into a tedious run through done-to-death plot mechanics.

Even bits that I enjoyed such as an action set piece involving a botched bank robbery in which the actual bank building is pulled around a village by a team of horses, felt like a variation on any number of comical chases in the previous entries, and Depp’s swishy Sparrow schtick, which was past its sell-by date a few films ago is just another predictable, uninspired element on display here.

On the plus side, the visual imagery, aided by tons of CGI, is stunning with oceans that glitter to the horizon dominated by intricately detailed battle ships and cool looking ghost sharks (that’s right). It proves that these days even mediocre movies can look immaculate.

Despite this appraisal, I wouldn’t recommend seeing it in IMAX 3D like I did - the effect wears off pretty quickly.

I predict that PIRATES fans will be pleased by this entry - I say that because my wife likes them and she liked this one - but while I thought there was a reasonable amount of fun onscreen for at least a matinee price, I grow tired at seeing this series endlessly repeat itself. 

This film seems to have two major purposes as a piece of pop culture - keep the franchise afloat for more follow-ups, and end Depp’s career slump. As its biggest competition this Memorial Day weekend is BAYWATCH, I’m betting it will have no trouble reaching those goals.

For those who are curious - yes, there is an after credits stinger to set up a yet another sequel. Like every single thing else here, that’s a given.

More later...

Friday, May 19, 2017

Richard Gere Fakes His Way Through Being A Fixer in NORMAN

Now playing at an indie arthouse near me (the Rialto in Raleigh being the closest):

NORMAN (Dir. Joseph Cedar, 2016)

In Israeli writer/director’s first English language film NORMAN (aka NORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER), Richard Gere schleps around Manhattan stalking powerful people who he promises to introduce to other powerful people.

Gere’s Norman Oppenheimer constantly networks, trying to make political connections, handing out his business card for “Oppenheimer Strategies,” faking his way through being a fixer with most of his prey knowing, or sensing that he’s just a small time operator with no real clout.

That is until one day when he meets Micha Eshel (a smooth, charming Lior Ashkenazi), the deputy Israeli minister of trade and labor, outside a high end clothing store (Norman was staking him, of course), and the two establish a friendship - mostly because Norman buys Micha an outrageously expensive pair of shoes.

Three years later, Eshel is made Prime Minister of Israel, and Norman aims to rekindle their relationship as it appears that he finally has an “in.” Norman is subsequently sought after, while his past is scrutinized, and he finds he’s being followed. Then Eshel gets caught in a scandal involving bribes and corruption, and Norman may be in hot water as the unnamed businessman that Eshel will have to use as a scapegoat in order to escape prosecution.

Gere, while neither Jewish or a schlub (albeit a well dressed one with a cashmere coat and nice suits), is terrific as Norman, who at times appears to stare into the abyss as we see looking through his eyes at unforgiving surroundings.

Utterly believable as this pathetic, delusional loser who believes he’s a winner and fancies himself a macher (Yiddish for an important or influential person), Gere’s interacts with the rest of the cast in sometimes amusing, sometimes cringe-worthy ways.

The rest of the cast includes Michael Sheen as Norman’s skeptical nephew, Steve Buscemi as a Rabbi who stupidly trusts Norman to find an investor so he can save his synagogue, Hank Azaria as the guy following Norman who turns out to be a “Norman” himself with a similar business card for a non-existent company, and pitches that he can connect powerful people with one another; and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a woman who Norman blabs to on a train, who turns out to be an Israeli prosecutor.

It’s billed as a thriller, but Director Cedar, working from his own screenplay, plays a lot of this material in a comedic fashion by populating the film with doublespeak dialogue and a sometimes silly score by Japanese composer Jun Miyake which is dominated by a bouncy brass section.

NORMAN may take a bit to get going, but once it does it’s a wicked delight. It could be seen as a companion piece to Oren Moverman’s TIME OUT OF MIND, which starred Gere as a delusional homeless man wandering the streets of New York, hoping to re-connect with his daughter.

Gere’s Norman may be homeless himself as while a rent-controlled apartment that he inherited is mentioned, we never see it. He also says he has a daughter, but we’re not sure we believe him. The man who once starred in a movie called POWER, and has made a career out of playing slick affluent men, is now excelling at playing scruffy people who have no power.

Gere used to be an actor that didn’t appeal to me back in the day, but now having seen how f-in’ good he is at slumming it, he’s more than earned my respect.

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Friday, May 05, 2017

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2: Overstuffed But Still A Fun Ride

Now playing everywhere:


(Dir. James Gunn, 2017)

With the summer movie season upon us, it’s easy to be cynical about big ass, CGI-saturated superhero movies clogging up the multiplexes, but the Marvel machine has a pretty good track record. A couple of times a year, sometimes three, that ginormous franchise factory consistently cranks out comic book adaptations that are mostly quality entertainment.

So that brings us to the second installment to one of the funniest, most offbeat entries in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.

VOL. 2 re-unites Chris Pratt as Peter Quill aka Star-Lord, Zoe Saldana as the green-skinned Gamora, Dave Bautista as the multicolored Drax the Destroyer, and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel as the CGI-ed characters Rocket the raccoon, and the tiny tree-like Baby Groot.

The film starts by introducing us to Quill’s dad, played by a young Kurt Russell. That’s right, in a scene set in 1980, Russell via camera effects and make-up appears as his 30-year old self, and it’s pretty damn convincing. Russell, whose name is mentioned yet, takes his girlfriend (Laura Haddock), obviously later to be Star-Lord’s mother, to see some sort of alien seedling deal he planted in the woods behind a Dairy Queen somewhere in Missouri.

Flash forward 34 years and we meet up with the Guardians of the Galaxy as they battle a huge inter-dimensional creature with tons of tentacles, and teeth on a platform somewhere in space (they probably had a caption saying where but I don’t remember it). The action takes place largely in the background as the film focuses on Baby Groot cutely dancing up a storm to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” in the foreground.

The gang’s job is to protect some powerful batteries, the movie’s McGuffin, for some gold-skinned people called the Sovereign led by Elizabeth Debicki as the High Priestess. This is in exchange for Gamora’s evil sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) so that the Guardians can take her to Xandar to collect her bounty. But then Rocket steals some of the batteries and a chase ensues with a bunch of remotely controlled drones following our heroes into an asteroid field (it’s not the only time this film apes THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, believe me).

Their ship crash lands on some planet (again, I don’t remember the name if there was one), and soon after another vessel that they had seen during the chase sequence lands. Russell, now identified as Ego, appears to reveal himself as Quill’s father, and asks him to come with him to his planet. Rocket and Groot get captured by Michael Rooker, reprising his role as the blue-skinned Yondu Udonta and his team of Ravagers, but a mutiny gets Yondu imprisoned with Rocket. This leads to another scene, one of the film’s funniest, in which Baby Groot keeps bringing the wrong thing instead of Yondu’s red fin head thingie, which can shoot a laser-like arrow through hundreds of attacking Ravagers.

Meanwhile, Quill is bonding with his dad, Ego (they even play catch together with some kind of light orb), but Gamora isn’t so sure that Ego is to be trusted. He’s not, of course, and his sinister plan, that he calls “The Expansion” involves taking over the galaxy with the seedlings planted on every planet. Ego, a character that dates back to 1966, himself is a living planet, you see.

The freshness of the first has evaporated, but VOL. 2 is a fine follow-up overall, but it
’s a bit overlong and overstuffed with way too much going on - I had trouble following some of the chaotic goings on. Also my wife said she thought the father-son emotional content was heavy handed, and I have to agree. I would’ve liked more misdirection surrounding whether Ego is the film’s villain or not as well, but I guess fans of the comic would know that going in.

A new addition to the Guardians is Mantis played by an attenna-sporting Pom Klementieff, who has some funny moments with Bautista’s Drax, who keeps reminding her how hideous he thinks she is.

It was surprising to see Sylvester Stallone in such a small role - that’s right, this movie has both TANGO & CASH – as a high ranking Ravager named Starhawk (Stakar of the House of Ogord), another character that’s been around for decades but I’m just learning about now.

Russell over-acts a bit, but Ego's persona does call for it. The rest of the Pratt-led cast carries out their duties with humorous aplomb, and, like I said on the first one, Rocket may be Coopers best work.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL.2 is action and comedy packed enough to be the crowd pleaser its director/screenwriter Gunn wants it to be, and the soundtrack - the Awesome Mix Vol. 2 that Pratt’s Quill got at the end of the first one - lives up to its name with a bunch of toe-tapping tunes by the likes of George Harrison, Cheap Trick, Sweet, Jay and the Americans, and Cat Stevens (“Father and Son,” of course). I also enjoyed the David Hasselhoff jokes and cameo – he’s Quill’s father figure idol, you see).

The film’s bloat extends to five, count ‘em, five post credits scenes, so don’t get up when the movie looks like it’s over. I hate seeing those movie-goers that start to walk out and then have to race back or stop in their tracks to watch the stingers. Jeez, everyone should know by now that at a Marvel movie they should stay in their seats until the real finish and the actual studio logo hits the screen. It
’s as expected as the obligatory Stan Lee cameo! We’re 15 movies into the MCU, people - get it together!

More later...

Monday, April 10, 2017

Full Frame 2017: Days Three & Four

This was my ninth year covering the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival for Film Babble Blog. I had attended various films before at the event, but my four day coverage became a thing in 2009. Now, I only saw a smidgen of the 90 films shown from last Thursday morning to Sunday night's last screening, mine is, of course, a pretty limited perspective. There were a number of films I missed that I heard great buzz about, like the Frank Stiefels short HEAVEN IS A TRAFFIC JAM ON THE 405, which won a few Full Frame Awards, but I’ll catch up with those later. Here’s what I saw on Saturday and Saunday:


(Dir. Sławomir Batyra, 2016)

This 30-minute short joins STILL TOMORROW and LONG STRANGE TRIP in having an excellent sound design. Whether it’s the echoes through the rafters, or the clamor of the orchestra practicing, or the bustle of assemblers, upholsterers, and prop masters getting the sets for in place, everything audibly pops in Sławomir Batyra’s backstage breakdown of the rehearsals for Mariusz Trelinski’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at The Grand Theater (Polish name: Wielki Teatr) in Warsaw. 

There is no voice-over narrator, no interview sound bites, just a series of shots of people doing their jobs in seemingly every nook and cranny of the largest opera theatre in the world with only random voices giving instructions like “Fishermen, to the boats please.” Made up of a number of visually pleasurable shots that match its immersive sound, Batyra film is a wonderfully artful tour of a magnificent venue. 

Post note: THE GREAT THEATER got an honorable mention in the Full Frame Jury Award for Best Short category.

ONE OCTOBER (Dir. Rachel Shuman, 2017) “New York is never the same city for more than a dozen years altogether,” a quote credited to Harper’s Monthly from 1856 starts off this film shot in New York City during October 2008, in the weeks leading up to the historic election of Barack Obama. The film follows WFMU radio host Clay Pigeon around as he interviews random people on the streets, capturing the flavor of that memorable season when the world economy faced its most dangerous crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Cinematographer David Sampliner’s camera also captures the Big Apple beautifully in vivid shots, whether of protesters, parades, street musicians, or bird watchers in Central Park, that are interspersed throughout the film. This is enhanced by Paul Brill’s lively score performed by cellist Dave Eggar.

But it’s the people that Pigeon (real name Kacy Ross) talks to that will be the film’s biggest takeaway, like the old coot who says, “listen, the white guys have been in charge for so long, give the black guys a chance, they can’t do worse than we did,” or the young mother who complains about the gentrification of Harlem, “five more years I won’t even be living here, this won’t look like this no more.” The one hour and seven minute ONE OCTOBER is a fine time capsule as is, but I could’ve gone for some more New Yorker straight talk. 

BRONX GOTHIC (Dir. Andrew Rossi, 2017) I had never heard of dancer, writer, and choreographer Okwui Okpokwasili before, but I know I’ll never forget her after this powerful doc about the performance artist’s acclaimed solo show “Bronx Gothic.” 

Rossi (PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES) films Okpokwasili as she takes her show on tour to small theaters in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Atlanta. Alongside the ample samplings from the show, which depicts the dialogue between two 11-year-old black girls growing up in the Bronx, we also get a glimpse of her life offstage, and with her family. The audience reaction shots are priceless as the performer’s material, demeanor, and especially her chaotic, seizure-like dancing obviously pushes many buttons. 

Okpokwasili, who calls her work 
memories from a rupture that's never been sutured, is an engaging presence so there’s a lot of entertainment value in watching her talk with students, discuss the recent remake of “Roots” with her white husband (Peter Born), and play with her daughter, all elements that give the intense performance art segments a great grounding. I’d be remiss if not to mention how well-timed and funny the woman’s work can be as well. Though what we see of Okpokwasili’s show leans towards darkness, there are cracks where the light gets in. I’d like to see the entire performance some day.

MAY IT LAST: A PORTRAIT OF THE AVETT BROTHERS (Dirs. Judd Apatow & Michael Bonfiglio, 2017) I was a bit distracted as this film began, as the legendary D.A. Pennebaker (DONT LOOK BACK, MONTEREY POP, ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS, THE WAR ROOM, do I need to go on?) sat down next to me in Fletcher Hall ten minutes before the film began. Pennebaker, and his wife and film-making partner Chris Hegedus are regulars at Full Frame who helped get the festival started so it’s not the first time I’ve been in their presence, but the idea of watching a rock doc sitting next to the guy who invented rock docs was hard to shake.

When the doc, which is about the popular North Carolina folk rock band, the Avett Brothers, began and there was footage of the group walking through the hallways of a venue before a show, I couldn’t help but think about how the well worn tropes of following around and filming artists backstage, hanging with them in hotel rooms, and capturing them interacting with fans are all things that the guy to my right did first. But soon into Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio’s film, I was able to focus on the story of a band I basically knew nothing about. 

Hailing from Mount Pleasant, N.C., Scott and Seth Avett are depicted as two simple farm boys who get along great together unlike other famous musician brothers like Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks, or those damn Gallaghers in Oasis. They start off rebelling against the country music of their father’s generation and take to wanting to be Nirvana, but they returned to their roots after a revelatory encounter with bluegrass icon Doc Watson at Merlefest, the musician’s annual traditional-music festival in Wilkesboro, N.C.

The doc takes us through the Avett Brothers’ career, but largely focuses on the making of their 2016 album, “True Sadness.” One of the film’s highlights is a stirring studio take of “No Hard Feelings,” which emotionally drains the brothers. They ask producer Rick Rubin if they can take a break and Scott and Seth walk outside to regain their composure as various folks congratulate them on the performance. Alone, they discuss how weird it feels to get complimented for work that calls upon very personal, naked feelings (particularly about Seth’s 2013 divorce). The scene reminded me of something Bob Dylan said when complimented on his classic 1975 album “Blood on the Tracks,” which many felt dealt with his divorce, “It's hard for me to relate to people enjoying that kind of pain.”

Speaking of Dylan, the guy who shot famous footage of his legendary 1965 and 1966 tours was right next to me! Sorry, back to the Avett Brothers. 

Despite having seen them at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro back in 2005, I’m not really familiar with much of their music but I enjoyed the concert sequences, and may give them more of a listen as a result of this fine summation of the Avett ethos. The screening was well received by the audience, but the panel Q & A afterwards in which guests Scott Avett, the band’s cellist Joe Kwon, and codirector Michael Bonfiglio came onstage to great applause, was a lovefest with questioners who the band often recognized from their gigs taking them for their music more than asking them questions.

The last film I saw at the fest was Yance Ford’s STRONG ISLAND, which was an encore on Sunday afternoon because it won two awards at Full Frame’s Awards Barbeque at noon: the Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award and the Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award.

The awards are well deserved as Ford’s film is an impassioned exploration of his brother’s murder by a mechanic in Long Island, New York in 1992. William Ford Jr., 24-year-old black teacher, was going to confront the people at an auto repair shop who weren’t fixing his family’s car after an accident that was actually caused by the same people. William was unarmed, but was shot and killed by .22 caliber rifle fired by Mark Reilly, a white 19-year-old mechanic. Reilly was not indicted by a white judge and an all-white jury for the crime and went free, while the Ford family sat in mourning helplessly by.

In extreme close-ups, Ford, pours his heart out about the grief over his brother’s senseless killing, the racist system, and his transgender coming out, while his mother, Barbara, and sister, Lauren, give us their takes on this angering, all too common tragedy.

A well made, straight forward, and up close and personal film that wrestles with the wounds from injustice that can never be healed. STRONG ISLAND is one of the strongest documentary debuts I’ve ever seen.

I probably could’ve come up with a better last line for that review, but I’m tired after four days of docs in Durham so it
ll have to do. 

So that’s Full Frame 2017! It was one of my favorites of all the years I’ve attended.

If you haven’t already, please check out my coverage of Days One, and Two.

More later...

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Full Frame 2017: Day Two

Day two of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival held at the Carolina Theatre and the Marriot Convention Center in Durham, N.C., was a lot livelier than the first day as the weekend crowds starting pouring in. This was also due to the capper of the second day of the fest - the North Carolina premiere of Amir Bar-Levs epic four hour Grateful Dead band biodoc, LONG STRANGE TRIP. But first let me get to some other worthy docs I saw on Friday.

(Dir. Olympia Stone, 2016)

This fascinating 20 minute film, part of the New Docs Program, concerns outsider artist Richard McMahan, who makes miniature versions of some of the world’s great paintings. Hailing from Jacksonville, Florida, McMahan is the creator and curator of the Mini-Museum, a traveling and online exhibit of thousands of his hand made replicas including intricate recreations of Egyptian tombs, 20 years in the making. McMahan’s work is incredibly impressive, and he's a likable, if extremely eccentric character (he wears period costumes at his installations) so the doc is a short but sweet treat.

Next up, I saw another film in the New Docs Program, Garret Atlakson’s MOMMY’S LAND, which was making its World Premiere at this year’s Full Frame.

The film tackles the protest that was formed by a group of women who were dislocated when the corrupt government of Cambodia forcibly evicted them from their homes in 2006 and 2007 to make way for new developments funded by World Bank.

The former residents, mostly young mothers, of the Boeung Kak Lake (BKL) area in Phnom, Penh, whose houses were flooded and destroyed by property developers filling the lake with sand, rally behind a fellow resident, an elderly grandmother they call “Mommy,” in often violent demonstrations. Watching this unfold in brutal confrontations with Military Police, while uncaring ruling party members stand uncaringly on the sidelines, is heart breaking. Mommy’s perserverance is inspiring, and filmmaker Atlakson’s eye never shies away from the excruciatingly uncomfortable imagery of bloody assaults that were made on these women fighting for the land titles owed to them. It can be a bit grueling, but the timeliness of Mommy and her people’s struggle makes for a powerfully emotional 68 minute viewing. 

(Dir. Nicole Triche, 2016)

Miss Doris, a woman in her late 70s who runs a 50-year-old roller skating rink above a post office in Topsail Island, N.C., is the subject of this charming 20-minute short. Miss Doris takes us through her operation, her family’s history, and displays her own skating skills for us as well. Another inspirational tale of an old unstoppable lady, albeit under severely different circumstances than MOMMY'S LAND, Triche’s film celebrates Miss Doris and her beloved community venue, which looks like, with no plans for retirement, she will keep rolling as long as she can.

BALLOONFEST (Dir. Nathan Truesdell, 2017) This is a six minute curiousity, mostly made up of archival TV news reports, about the United Way of Cleveland, Ohio, attempt in 1986 to break a world record by releasing over a million balloons in the air. However, a high pressure system approached, causing many of the balloons to end up in Lake Erie making a search for two missing fishermen difficult. Despite the event not being recognized by the Guiness Book of World Records, the initial release of the balloons, with swirling clouds of color engulfing the skyline is quite a site to be seen. 

LONG STRANGE TRIP (Dir. Amir Bar-Lev, 2017) Ive had my ups and downs with the Grateful Dead. I loved them in the late 80s to mid 90s, seeing them close to a dozen times, but came to loathe them later in that decade. Ive come back around these days, but still wouldnt consider myself a Deadhead. Ive loved the work of Amir Bar-Lev (MY KID COULD PAINT THAT, THE TILLMAN STORY), so I was pysched to see his take on the iconic San Francisco bands legacy (Martin Scorsese being one of the film's executive producers added to that as well).

This new four hour, career-spanning documentary (thankfully containing an intermission), features a wealth of archival footage, both vintage and current interviews from band members, and a intoxicating exploration into the Deads philosophy and vision. That philosophy can simply be stilled down into having fun as the late lead guitarist/singer Jerry Garcia puts it, and that vision can be seen as to just keep on truckin,' but there's a lot of ins and outs and what haves you involved, as the Dude would say.

From the 1965 Acid Tests, to a hilarious late ‘60s appearance on the Playboy After Dark TV show where they dosed the coffee pot, to their famous 1972 European tour to their performance in Egypt in 1978 to their surprise success in the ‘80s with their first top 40 single (“Touch of Grey”) and beyond, Bar-Lev’s pacing never falters, and the music never stops. Bar-Lev, in attendence at the fest, boasted before the screening that he and his crew utilized the original individual instrumental tracks of many of the band's studio recordings to provide a musical bed for the film, and it sounded great through the Carolina Theatre’s Cinema One speaker system.

A must see for Deadheads and those curious about the band, but maybe not recommended for haters as such a lengthy breakdown of the ethos of Garcia and company is doubtful to win them over. For the folks in the audience I saw it with on Friday night, some of whom shouted their appreciation for individual gigs being mentioned, it was a delight from beginning to end.

Coming soon: Coverage of Days Three & Four. And be sure to check out coverage of Day One, if you haven’t already.

More later...