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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Thoughts on Paterson

Paterson is a 2016 film written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, and starring Adam Driver as Paterson, a poet/bus driver who lives in Paterson, New Jersey. The film chronicles one week in the life of Paterson, and combines the routine of Paterson’s working-class life with the thoughtful interactions that he has with everyday people in his town. The film has a mellow pace to it, yet is filled with a lot of richness of characterization of the people of Paterson, NJ, and how Paterson’s poetry is infused by his observance of listening to fragmented conversations on the bus and noticing small details in life.

    Paterson lives with his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and their grumpy bulldog Marvin in a small and modest house. Paterson’s life is organized by his daily routine: he eats Cheerios in a glass, he walks to work with his metal lunchbox containing a sandwich made by Laura; he works on his poetry in his bus driver’s seat at the depot; he drives his route and listens to passengers’ conversations; he adjusts the ever-tilting mailbox at home (a running joke that has a wonderfully funny payoff); he listens to Laura’s stories about her day as an ever-creative artist with new passions (learning guitar to become a country star, making cupcakes for the weekend’s farmer’s market, painting the house interior black-and-white patterns); and he takes Marvin on his nightly walk and has a beer at the local bar, soaking in the conversations of the patrons around him.

    What makes the film special is that Paterson, as a quiet and reserved man, is truly fascinated by people, and the film highlights a lot of funny and touching moments of the Paterson locals, whose human interactions are interesting slices of life. There are the two construction workers on the bus trying to impress each other with stories of pretty girls flirting with them; a spunky little girl waiting for her mom and sharing her poem “Water Falls” with Paterson, written in her pink secret diary; a despondent young man at the bar trying to win back his uninterested ex-girlfriend; Paterson’s boss, an Indian man named Donny resigned to listing the many complaints of his family life and financial stresses (“My kid needs braces on her teeth, my car needs a new transmission job, my wife wants me to take her to Florida, but I’m behind on the mortgage payments . . .”), but waving away any sympathies with “It’s my life and my problems,” and the local bartender Doc, who plays chess against himself and celebrates Paterson’s history through putting up photos and news clippings of local Paterson legends, like Lou Costello and William Carlos Williams.

Paterson prefers having a set routine because it allows his mind to relax and pay attention to local life, and he enjoys predictability. It is a great contrast to Laura, an Iranian woman who makes her life at home as an artist, and is frequently finding new passions to express her creativity through. She is fascinated by patterns of black-and-white colors, and will design those patterns in her dresses, her cupcakes, her guitar, the walls, and the tile. There is a lovely sign of the two of their passions combining through seeing Paterson’s poetry written on the cupboards with her painted patterns on the walls around them. She is an optimistic and shining young woman, and Paterson writes poetry about her, titling one poem “Love Poem,” about their shared interest in Ohio Blue Point matches because of its blue and white design and the durability of the matchbox, with the lettering arranged like a megaphone, announcing its greatness. He later writes another poem, addressing her as “Pumpkin,” and saying that even though he thinks about other girls, that “if you ever left me, I would tear out my heart.” They are different in their approaches to the world, but complement each other through their simple tastes and their shared artistry.

    There is a motif of twins seen throughout the film. Laura expresses to Paterson that she dreamed that they had twins, and Paterson encounters sets of identical twins at the bar, on the bus, and on his way to work. It is an interesting recurring theme, that likely has deeper resonance than I can imagine for now.

    Laura wants to be a country star (Laura: “Nashville, here I come!” Paterson: “Look out, Nashville.”) to realize her dream of being a creative artist, with her own distinct style (“Like Patsy Cline or Tammy Wynette, but my own thing”), and she encourages Paterson to share his poetry with the world, and to realize that he is a poet first, not only known as a bus driver. Paterson is hesitant, because he sees his work as private, and his own personal artistry. He looks up to William Carlos Williams, who lived in Paterson and wrote about it, but doesn’t see himself as following in the same legacy.

    The film is beautifully shot by Frederick Elmes (Wild at Heart, Night on Earth, Coffee and Cigarettes), with a lot of scenes shot in a clear, open simplicity. One overhead shot of a dinner of cheddar and Brussel Sprouts pie is reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s staging of film scenes like picture books, while another shot of Marvin sitting in the doorway of a laundromat listening to a rapper (in a charming cameo by Method Man) working out a verse while doing his laundry has a funny and sweet quality to it. The editing by Affonso Goncalves (True Detective, Only Lovers Left Alive) is crisp, and there are great moments with Paterson listening to passengers’ conversation where he looks amused and interested in people’s stories, and it almost feels like he wants to join in on the conversation, but cannot because of professional boundaries. The editing in those sequences does make it feel more inviting to the viewer, both with the passengers’ talk and Paterson’s reactions.

    Jim Jarmusch’s talent in filmmaking is in letting a scene breathe, and not putting in a lot of jump-edits or forced drama for climatic effect. His films are often quiet and funny, showing interesting aspects in everyday life, as seen in the taxicab encounters in Night on Earth, Bill Murray’s reunions with his ex-girlfriends to find the mother of his son in Broken Flowers, Forest Whitaker’s adherence to the ancient samurai code as an assassin in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, and the short film vignettes of diner scenes in Coffee and Cigarettes. He brought out touching and heartfelt performances from Driver and Farahani, who have great chemistry together as a charming and modest couple living a happy life together in Paterson. As Paterson writes, “Beauty is found in the smallest details.” It is truly a wonderful film, and one I highly recommend seeing.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Thoughts on Only the Young

I went to the Moving Image museum last Sunday to see a 2012 documentary called Only the Young, directed by Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tibbet, about skater teen kids coming of age in a rural California town. It was just 70 minutes long, but felt fuller, about kids who are dealing with on and off romantic feelings, struggling with their family's financial situations, figuring out what to do after high school, and hanging out in abandoned areas around town and skating and playing around.

It was a lovely little movie about endearing and slightly immature kids, and what was interesting to me was that the kids were all devout Christians, despite appearing as punk rock skater kids. They never cursed, smoked, or drank (granted, they just might be smart enough not to do it on camera), and were straight-edge punk skaters while talking about loving Jesus Christ and putting The Lord first. They weren't evangelical or preachy about it, they just were connected to their religious faith while doing skateboarding tricks and wearing Minor Threat and Black Flag t-shirts. It was an unusual but interesting complexity in the kids.

I was also struck by the teen girl Skye, who had a tomboyish charm to her, and was struggling between having romantic feelings for her friend/ex-boyfriend Garrison, having a dad in prison, being raised by her ailing grandparents, and learning the truth about her thought-dead mother. She was a girl who showed an incredible amount of strength and maturity in facing tough issues in life at 17, and I hoped that she would go far in her life.

Also, this documentary was produced by Oscilloscope Laboratories, which Adam Yauch co-founded, and this came out the year he died, so he likely optioned this in part of being supportive of seeing young creative punk kids like he once was.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Thoughts on Christmas, Again

I enjoyed seeing a 2014 indie movie at the Moving Image museum today, called Christmas, Again, written/directed by Charles Poekel. It was a little movie about a quiet guy who works a seasonal job selling Christmas trees on the streets of NYC and living in his trailer. The guy's regular job is doing construction in upstate NY, and he is just this chill, solitary guy who ekes out a living working the night shift, sells his trees, oversees his day shift workers, and then moves on when Christmas Day hits.

There isn't a big plot to it, it is more of a slice of life film about an ordinary guy, and there isn't some big revelation or character change. The audience only gets hints of his backstory (a possible ex-girlfriend who worked with him last year), he deals with random customers who range from nice to picky to curious to skeptical, saying stuff like "Do you have the Obama tree from Ohio?" or "Do women like Douglas fir or Balsam fir better?" It is an interesting perspective to see life from a street tree seller, especially when hanging out all night in the cold waiting for sales to happen.

He helps out a drunk girl who passed out on a park bench by letting her sleep in his trailer, she comes by the next day with a blueberry pie to thank him, and in a romantic comedy, this would turn into a love story, but it isn't. He doesn't try to save her from her problems, and she tries to talk to him but he is nice but emotionally distant. They are just two people who barely know one another's names, only see each other a few times as friendly strangers, spend some time delivering trees on Christmas Eve, and they never see each other again. It isn't a romance, nor does it feel like two lonely people seeking solace in each other, more so just two strangers who crossed paths briefly.

Kentucker Adley, who played the lead Noel (and his name is briefly commented on as a Christmas reference) was really great at playing a quiet guy whose emotions of melancholy and kindness and loneliness played over his face without backstory or much explanation. I thought he resembled Charlie Day a little, and kept imagining Day being able to pull off a sweet blue collar character like this, without the psychotic tendencies of Charlie Kelly's outbursts.

It was a lovely little movie, and I am glad I saw it.

Thoughts on Loving

I enjoyed seeing Loving yesterday. It was a quiet drama, written and directed by Jeff Nichols, about a real-life 1960s interracial couple who were jailed and kept out of their home state of Virginia because they snuck off to get married in D.C. (Interracial marriages were not allowed in Virginia). They still kept sneaking back in, sometimes living pretty openly with their families, and eventually took their case to the Supreme Court and won, making interracial marriages legal nationwide. I thought it was interesting how they were civil rights activists, but did not see themselves as that, as they just wanted a peaceful life together, and let their lawyer handle the case in court.

Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga were both wonderful as the Lovings, a chill rural couple who lived in an integrated town and were sweet with one another. They fit together with his reserved and sort of gruff persona and her kind and introverted personality. I liked their families, and how the two families were so close and like a big blended family.

There were some jokes about Richard Loving "forgetting" that he was white, as he had so many black friends, as well as a serious mention of Mildred's sister blaming him for marrying her out of state and getting her kicked out of state and away from family, a not-subtle hint of the white man ruining their lives.

One criticism that I had was that I occasionally had trouble understanding what Edgerton was saying as Richard Loving, as he spoke with a low mumbling voice a la Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain.

Ruth Negga has these huge eyes that, while her character's story is already sympathetic, makes her even more of a sweet and endearing character, like so much of her story was told through her kind eyes.

But I thought it was interesting that the Lovings did not attend their Supreme Court case, and the film largely showed them at home, and didn't show the court trials aside from a brief snippet, to keep the film in their POV at home, and not turning it into a courtroom drama with lawyer speeches. That was an interesting change of pace in a film that is centered on a groundbreaking legal case.

This was a really good indie drama, and I am glad I saw it.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Martin Scorcese Exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image

There is a great exhibition on Martin Scorcese's life and films that just opened at the Museum of the Moving Image. This is a picture of Scorcese's parents' dining room table and of them being interviewed in a documentary about Italian-American life that he directed in 1974.

I really enjoyed the exhibit. There were a lot of people there, and the first half hour was a breakfast reception of coffee and bagels for members before they opened up the exhibition. I really felt happy looking at an exhibit of film and NYC and Italian-American culture, not even just about Scorcese himself. I wish I could work at the museum, I felt just happy as a cinephile and seeing the props and notes and set photos and stuff.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Thoughts on Die Hard

I saw Die Hard at the Moving Image museum last weekend. It was a lot of fun to watch a masterpiece onscreen, to laugh and clap along with the audience (clapping at Alan Rickman and Reginald VelJohnson's entrances, the yippie ki-yay line), seeing the film as a crackly old print instead of a clean remastered version, noticing smaller details, like foreshadowing moments, the camera doing a slow pan over Holly's family photos to reveal John as her husband, Karl's growing bloodthirs...ty quest for revenge on John killing his brother, Ellis being high on coke during his scenes, the ways in which Gruber stayed cool as the police were outside, and how Rickman couldn't keep his real accent from coming in, he just barely sounded German.

I did wish that they did a little more with Al Leong, as he doesn't do much besides swipe a candy bar and shoot people, and he gets killed very easily. I also thought that Theo was the only surviving thief, as he doesn't kill anyone, he is the computer hacker, and he is alive when Argyle punches him out.

I kept getting psyched during the movie, and had to keep myself from reciting lines out loud (under my breath, I was reciting along with Al Powell's Twinkie scene, until I saw that the guy next to me was looking at me). I love how a lot of the minor characters get a memorable moment, and the movie is insanely quotable. It is just a fantastic movie overall.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Thoughts on Arrival

I really liked Arrival a lot, directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario, Incendies) and based on the short story "Story of Your Life" by Tony Chiang. It was a thoughtful movie about communication, humanity, and language. It had a slow build to it that made it intriguing to watch, and Amy Adams radiated compassion, intelligence, and curiosity in her performance as a linguistics professor trying to communicate with the language of aliens who have arrived on Earth. I really liked a bit when she tells the government people why she can't just straightaway ask the aliens what their purpose is on Earth, because she has to teach them what a question is, what the parts of speech mean, and what purpose means. It is a movie about aliens arriving on Earth, but not like an invasion movie a la Independence Day, more like Contact or Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The last third was a bit of a trip, as I could think of a couple of different interpretations of the ending, and I don't know which one is accurate. Throughout the film, Adams' character is mourning the death of her teen daughter, and flashbacks come back to her, causing her grief and PTSD. There was more significance beyond it, regarding her communication with the aliens, but I didn't fully understand it. It is a film I would definitely watch again.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Thoughts on The Metrograph

I am late to "discovering" it, but I have been reading about The Metrograph arthouse movie theater, and it sounds really great, playing a lot of repertory screenings of quality independent, Hollywood, and foreign films, having big-name film artists like Martin Scorcese and Isabelle Huppert visit, and publishing essays by cinephiles (I really enjoyed one by a guy talking about the cherished tiny movie theater he visited in his 1980s New Jersey childhood). It seems like a new, yet special theater in NYC, a film lover's dream.

I don't go to arthouse theaters as often anymore due to high ticket prices and not liking the film snob environment, and Netflix having a seemingly endless amount of indie films. Of my years in NYC, my fave theater was the Two Boots Pioneer Theatre, a long-defunct theater in the East Village that played cult and underground films, as well as offbeat indie films (not the prestige, Sundance kind, more the oddball niche ones). I go to the Moving Image museum sometimes, I occasionally go to the BAM Rose Cinema, I used to go to the IFC Center a lot when I lived in Manhattan ten years ago, and I liked the vibe of Nitehawk Cinema (mainly the pre-movie video montages of things that influenced the feature film's style), but not the in-theater food service or the last 15 minutes interrupted by wait staff collecting tabs.

So I likely will check out the Metrograph soon

Thoughts on Hell or High Water

I really enjoyed Hell or High Water, I thought it was great. I found it compelling, I liked the slow mood of the Western, I was really into following both of the robber brothers and the cops, and I really enjoyed the side characters, like the waitresses, (especially one in a diner that only serves steak, the character was a craggy but hilarious old woman played by a brilliant actress), the old men diner patrons, the bank employees, etc. I had little hiccups of laughter every and then.

While I didn't think Chris Pine and Ben Foster looked like brothers (nor did I believe Pine as a guy who grew up dirt-poor, as he looked too pretty and well-off to me, whereas Foster definitely looked country poor and a little more rough around the edges), they had a great bond with each other, and complemented each other well, as one smart and quiet brother and the other an impulsive and fearless brother. And while I think Jeff Bridges can do this cowboy/sheriff role in his sleep, he was still pleasant and comforting to watch, and I liked his banter with his Comanche/Mexican partner, where the off-color jokes never really sounded too offensive, more light teasing and done out of love. His partner had a chill vibe to him that I liked, and a low-key sense of humor.

The film looked gorgeous, with huge panoramic shots of deserts and small Texan towns, and I liked that the film was a modern-day Western, with a classic stories of robbers and cops set amidst economically depressed towns and people struggling to get by. I was really into the story, and am glad I saw it.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Tampopo - A Film Review

The Film Forum is screening the 1985 classic Japanese film Tampopo, written and directed by Juzo Itami, beginning on October 21st. Tampopo is a classic "foodie" film, a film that celebrates how a country's culture influences people and their relationships with food and people. The film is a charming delight, and as it unfolds, it feels more like a story of Japan than just about a singular plot thread.

The film begins with a great fourth wall sequence, in which a stylish gangster in a white linen suit and brimmed hat (Koji Yakusho) is at the movies with his mistress, and speaking to the real-life movie theater audience. He professes his love for the movies, but can't stand interruptions during the film, and intimidates a potato chip-eating patron with a crinkling chip bag into silence. It is a wonderful opening, and the gangster returns sporadically throughout the film, in a side plot where he and his mistress stay in a luxury hotel room and engage in erotic food play.

Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) is the titular character, a middle-aged and kind widow of a ramen noodle shop owner who is struggling to keep their hole-in-the-wall place afloat, albeit with limited funds, a deteriorating gray interior, raising her son, and not having a natural talent for cooking. Enter two ramen connoisseurs, two truck drivers who compare the rituals and pleasures of eating different types of ramen, and have stopped for a quick bite on a rainy night while on a schedule. The elder is Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), and his younger sidekick Gun (Ken Watanabe in his breakthrough performance). They are aghast at how decrepit and run-down the shop is, how poorly Tampopo prepares the ramen (lukewarm noodles, soggy vegetables), and that she is in dire need of help in her cooking and hospitality.

Goro ends up getting into a fight with a fellow customer, and wakes up the next day in Tampopo's home. As she gets to know the truckers, she asks for their honest opinion of her noodles. They reply, "They are sincere, but lack character." She asks them to help her turn her shop around and learn the art of noodle-making, so they take her under their wing, teaching her about the personal care and touch that comes to cooking beyond just following recipe directions. They take her to rival restaurants, and sneak around to learn their secrets, and their strengths and weaknesses, such as rifling through their garbage, posing as customers, or, with Tampopo's innocent charm and unassuming ways, drawing out secrets through slyly insulting the cook.  To paraphrase, "These noodles aren't as good as last week's. You must have boiled them wrong." "Nonsense! I boiled them at the right temperature. ' "Maybe the vegetables are old and wilted." "Not at all! I order the best from Kyoto!" "Maybe it's just me." "It probably is." "Thank you."

Tampopo's relationships with the truckers, as well as with other forthcoming noodle experts, is based on mutual appreciation, and their encouragement and guidance helps her to open up more and gain confidence in herself, and to not feel like she is dying along with the noodle shop. Her face opens up more in acceptance of the world, and it is wonderful to see her relax and look less weary. When she celebrates with Goro at a fine restaurant, her red and black ensemble of a dress and hat is reminiscent of Joan Collins in Dynasty, a working-class person's idea of what the pinnacle of 80's glamour would be, and while the outfit isn't really "her" (Goro says that her high fashion appearance makes it harder for him to speak to her, like as an equal), it is a nice way of her trying to grow more and celebrate her higher ambitions of being a master noodle expert.

What is special about this film is that it has a modesty to it that is endearing, that the story is about ordinary people who have a passion for food made with love and care, and they enjoy the small pleasures of life in a delicious meal. The film deters from the story of Tampopo into side stories and vignettes featuring other Japanese characters and their relationships with food. The gangster and his mistress are recurring characters, and there are also stories with an elderly rich man who flagrantly disobeys his adult daughter's rules to avoid rich or spicy foods; a grocery store clerk trying to catch an older woman customer who is fixated on squeezing food; a dying mother who, while just barely conscious, gathers just enough strength to cook a final meal for her family; a subordinate worker who shocks his class-conscious superiors by using his higher culinary knowledge to order his meal at their business dinner at a gourmet French restaurant (while the rest each order the same and unadventurous meal), and other stories.

The film is about human life and food and culture, and stands out as one of the best foreign films to become popular in America. "Foodie" movies are quite common, especially ones that can act as a gateway to audiences who may be turned off by subtitles, but enjoy watching cooking shows and seeing foreign cuisines being prepared, much like in Eat Drink Man Woman and Like Water for Chocolate. Tampopo has been an inspiration for many ramen restaurants around the world, being named after the film, and the Brittany Murphy film The Ramen Girl, about a American woman in Japan learning how to make ramen, greatly references the film, with a cameo by Yamazaki. The film is a lovely movie that encompasses a lot of what makes Japan special and unique in its food and community cultures, and is a true delight to watch.

Queen of Katwe - A Film Review

I liked Queen of Katwe. It is a new movie directed by Mira Nair and written by William Wheeler, and is based on a true story about a Ugandan girl named Phiona Mutesi who was a chess prodigy in 2007 at about 10 years old, and develops her craft with the help of her teacher, but is conflicted between wanting international success and a life out of the slums of Katwe in Kampala, while also respecting her family and not wanting to act better than her surroundings.

Lupita Nyong'o played her mother Nakku Harriet, who is struggling to keep her family together as a widow in poverty. Nyong'o beautifully portrays her as a woman who deeply loves her children, but is stressed by the fears of not having enough food, shelter, or money, or her late husband, and often comes into conflict when her daughter wants more independence or her teacher promises prize winnings for her talent abroad. Her oldest daughter left home for a fast life in the city, and Harriet is determined that her children will not be tempted by vice and will stay true to working honestly for a better life.

It was also personally impressive to see her in this role, having seen her on Broadway this year in Eclipsed, playing a teen sex trafficking victim, and her versatile talent in her thirties allows her to be both convincing as a scared and emotionally traumatized young girl, and a steely mother of four children who is hardened by life and doesn't have patience for foolishness or chasing fruitless dreams.

David Oyelowo played her teacher, Robert Katende, who is kind and sympathetic and wants to use chess as a way to better the lives of his students and their community. He is a quiet man with a loving family, and has this wonderful sense of calm about him amidst economic strife. Whether he has to  play football to raise money for his students' tournament expenses, or continually bother the local head of sports and recreation to consider his students for international opportunities, he stays positive while never giving up on his kids. While he pushes Phiona to succeed and use her chess talents as a higher economic opportunity, he also warns her against losing her focus through greed and neglecting her family responsibilities, reminding her that her chess strategy is a metaphor for navigating life and not being knocked down by hardship.

Madina Nalwanga was wonderful in this role, and I liked how nuanced she could be in her portrayal of Phiona, between being a smart young girl who started out being modest about her talent, as she is illiterate and rarely been to school, yet had a remarkable ability to strategize and predict others' plays in the game through intuition. But when her success takes her abroad and she wins more awards, she starts getting cocky and overconfident, and ignores her teacher's warnings about her greed, repeating to him, "I'm going to win." 

When Phiona is having dinner with her family after winning a tournament in Sudan and soaking up the privileges of a luxury hotel, eating a modest dish after having enjoyed ice cream floats, her perspective looks at the tin roof shack, the clothes hanging from the clothesline, and it suddenly feels too small and limiting for a talent like hers. It is a quiet and poignant scene that speaks a lot about a young girl both experiencing the pleasures of travel as well as coming into adolescence and wanting to grow up faster.

The film also touched on the aftermath of life after the Ugandan civil war, with lost loved ones, poverty, rebuilding societies, and mixed emotions about how far to reach for success while still staying true to their culture and family. And the class differences were stark in a sequence where the kids from the slums play against kids at a private school, showing different aspects of Ugandan life and class and money. The children are dressed in bright hand-me-down clothing in contrast with the private school students' crisp navy blue and white uniforms; they tear into their chicken by hand instead of using utensils; and they ignore their cots for the comfort of sleeping amongst each other on the floor. Katende, to cheer up the kids when they are homesick and suffering anxiety attacks before the tournament, tells them a story about a dog and a cat which is an analogy for their class struggles vs. the rich, and it is a wonderful moment of the film when the children's faces are shining, knowing that they are stronger than the rich because they work harder for what they want, and it brings a greater satisfaction than having unearned privilege handed to them by birth.

The film was made by Disney, but rises above typical feel-good clichés, and has more depth to it due to the excellent talent involved in front and behind the camera. Mira Nair joked that this is the first Disney film set in Africa without any animals in it. Nair has a stunning reputation as a director of art-house films (Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala, The Namesake) and Hollywood films (The Aviator, Vanity Fair), and her talent for highlighting complex stories about women is on point in this film. Queen of Katwe is a great film for children to see because it celebrates a young black African girl from a poor background becoming a world-class chess master at nearly 20 years old today. The world needs more positive on-screen depictions of black people and of Africa as a multicultural continent beyond news media of war and strife, and this is a lovely film that deserves to be recognized.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Thoughts on the 2016 Harlem International Film Festival

This weekend, I attended the Harlem International Film Festival because it is easy to get to from my home of Astoria, the tickets are just $13 (as opposed to other festivals that charge $16 for 90-minute feature films), and I like to support talented POC filmmakers.

I saw an indie film called Good Funk, about interconnected stories in Red Hook with ordinary people facing incoming gentrification and raising rents and displacement. It was good, but not great. I felt like the character development was lacking and I easily forgot people's backstories, names, or motivations, and I really only cared about two characters out of the ensemble cast. The filmmaker was trying to cover too much drama and characters in a 70-minute long movie, and should have cut down the ensemble cast or better fleshed out the characters. I did like the talented cast, though, and the film had beautiful cinematography that made Brooklyn look great.

The film was preceded by an emotionally wrought short film called MBFF, shown from the POV of a abused dog going from dogfighting to a kill shelter to being adopted to protecting his owner. The film was great at putting the audience in the dog's head and seeing life through its eyes, and I felt more sympathetic and affected by this dog's story arc than I did about some of the people in the feature film.

I also saw a selection of sci-fi short films, the program was titled Sunday Shorts - Surreal Sci-Fi. I really enjoyed seeing how the films worked within the science fiction genre and made it thought-provoking and creative. The films varied from being about an abusive relationship with fantasy sequences as a coping method (Shen); technology that allows people to hack each other's brains and take over their bodies from a remote area (Neurophreak); an animated Brazilian film about a werewolf terrorizing lost migrant workers in the jungle (Tussle in the Backwoods); a soldier suffering from PTSD and mental illness (In Vivo); and a woman mentally time travelling to prevent her mother's murder (Ghosts in Time).

The program ended abruptly after 80 minutes, and I saw there were about 3 more films on the bill, but for some reason they weren't shown, maybe due to unavailability or time constraints. Still, I was glad to go and check out the festival this weekend. The last film festival I attended was BAMcinemaFEST from last year when I was a BAM archive intern, and I like checking out indie films on Netflix, especially if they don't have huge names in them and have intriguing storylines.

I like to see movies that have not only more racially diverse casts, but also tell a variety of stories, and don't just portray POC as victims of racism, as the Oscars seem to prefer those movies more over character-driven, complex stories, which the independent film scene more often showcases. Netflix is a great source for those movies, as are VOD, film festivals, and PBS.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Thoughts on Gene Wilder

Gene Wilder died at age 83. He was hilarious, and so good at playing characters that were thisclose to a nervous breakdown, but still having just the tiniest amount of control to keep it together. This was greatly exemplified in The Producers and Young Frankenstein, both great films that still hold up well with its brilliant writing and comic timing.

He was absolutely brilliant as Willy Wonka, as Wonka had this unnerving mystery to him, often guiding the children to temptation and only half-assedly stopping them from hurting themselves, leading to the consequences of their greed. He often insulted the children and their parents to their faces in shady manners, commenting on their ill behavior and their indulgent and naive parents. Wilder as Wonka kept him hard to figure out, and there are interesting interpretations of his character as a serial killer, a mad genius, or a sane man who truly was looking for an heir to his factory.

Wilder and Richard Pryor made for a great duo, especially in Silver Streak, a superb action comedy, where it felt like a precursor to Die Hard at times, and was just so sharply written and funny as hell. They both had this nervous energy that played off of each other well, like two outsiders finding kinship with each other. They also excelled as a blind man and a deaf man working together to solve a mystery in See No Evil, Hear No Evil though the film wasn't very good.

I hope he and Gilda Radner are reunited as souls, they seemed like a very loving and sweet couple, and their little dog too (I know this from reading an excerpt of Radner's autobiography where she talked about her adored little dog). This is just a sad loss, and I hope Wilder went peacefully.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Thoughts on An Unmarried Woman

I watched An Unmarried Woman on Netflix, a classic movie from 1978 directed by Paul Mazursky, and starring Jill Clayburgh as a divorcee learning to navigate life as her own woman. I had seen the film before and liked it, but when I watched it again, I noticed a lot of sexism that was of its time, especially from a male director of a woman's story.

Clayburgh was great in playing a charming and likable upper-class Manhattan woman whose life has been upended by her husband's affair, and she plays the stages of grief over the end of her marriage in a magnificent way, like the emotions of shock, anger, disbelief, sadness, and frustration play out one after another. Though sometimes Clayburgh was acting like Diane Keaton, and I wanted her to be more individual and not adopting Keaton's voice or mannerisms of quirky and hip 70's feminist, especially from Annie Hall.

The sexism was outstanding. Clayburgh's character is sexually harassed at work, as this sleazy guy keeps asking about her sex life and telling her to see a variety of men, and she just laughs it off. There are gratuitous shots of her topless or in her underwear that wasn't necessary, and she gets a boyfriend at the end, undercutting the message that it is ok for her to be single and to be her own woman (even if she does refuse to go with him when he goes away for the summer to Vermont). A woman director would have focused on her more emotionally, more her thought process, and not featuring her in nude shots or sleeping with men consecutively.

I have seen good films about women directed by men (Waiting to Exhale, Mother and Child, Living Out Loud) that excelled at showing a woman's emotional journey, as a multifaceted person outside of love and sex. This film was definitely a product of its time, and while it was good in showing a changing landscape of love, sex, and relationships in the 1970s, and women becoming more feminist, more independent, and more sexually free, especially compared to romantic idealism in the 1960s, it still was stuck in showing a man's view of a divorcee, seen through the lens of her being sexually liberated as her method of feminism and independence. It is a good movie, just flawed by its outdated depictions of feminism, marriage, and sexuality.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Thoughts on Empire Records

I rewatched Empire Records, after not having seen it since I was a teen, and it did not hold up well. I found the plot thin and flimsy (an employee gambles and loses 9 grand of the indie record store's money, and they have a day to save their store from being turned into a chain store and losing its uniqueness), and a lot of the performances were weak and forgettable (the exceptions being Robin Tunney as an angsty shaved-head misanthrope; Maxwell Caulfield as a vain and sleazy has-been pop star; and Ethan Embry as a cheery and goofy dork).

The movie had a decent soundtrack, and some quotable lines that seemed funnier when I saw it at 15. I could see why it bombed, because it didn't have a stronger story than "teens using music to rebel against authority." The director also did Pump Up the Volume, which had similar themes, but was much stronger, with more drama at stake (a teen suicide and a school expelling students deemed as "problems"). This movie got by on a talented cast (though a lot of the performances were weak, they did have future stars like Liv Tyler, Anthony LaPaglia, and Renee Zellweger in the cast) and some sweet pop songs by The Gin Blossoms and The Lemonheads. I think the movie is good for teens and 90's nostalgia, but not much else

Thoughts on So You Want to Be An Actor?

I enjoyed watching this instructional movie from 1993 called "So You Want To Be an Actor?" about navigating New York show business as an actor, like doing auditions, getting an agent, finding the right technique, and being a knowledgeable and well-rounded artist.

I watched it because it was hosted by Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, being a charming elderly couple in various Manhattan locations, like subways and restaurants. I found them to be warm and kind, with cute scripted quips (Stiller: "I love taking the subway. I picked you up on a subway." Meara: "No, I picked you up." Stiller looks at the camera with a "womp womp" expression), and liked their presence. They would have interview segments with famous acting professionals like Uta Hagen, Christopher Walken, and Roscoe Lee Browne, offering show biz advice, as well as with NY casting agents and theatre people.

I also liked seeing how Manhattan looked ca. 1992, and seeing how things were different pre-Internet boom, like people mailing their resumes in and searching the newspaper classifieds for apartments, jobs, and casting calls. They interviewed a lot of NY actors, and one described almost rooming with someone who had a $750/month apartment on Avenue B, but her room would be a closet in the guy's room, and she bailed. I also recognized Jason Woliner, a former child actor, who is now a TV producer and director (The Office, Parks & Recreation), and works a lot with Aziz Ansari (and is the Jason he jokes about in his standup). I just enjoyed the special more as archival footage of early 90's NY, and the cuteness of Stiller and Meara as hosts.

Thoughts on PBS Documentaries on U.S. Presidents

PBS has been playing documentaries on recent US presidents. The documentaries are from the 90's and 2010s, and are pretty interesting, especially on how I can learn more about the country at a particular point in time before I was born or too young to remember.

My thoughts: LBJ wasn't very progressive with civil rights (he continued some of Kennedy's work, but signed a 1965 act banning immigration from Africans and Asians and Eastern Europeans), and made a bad choice in entering the Vietnam War, and was pretty regretful over it. He just seemed lost when anti-war movements started, and said privately that there would be killing no matter what measures he took to continue or end the war.

Nixon was a horrible person, and I am amazed he became president. He was a dirty person who ruined other people's lives for political gain, and was incredibly distrustful.

They didn't air one on Ford.

Carter was better as a peace activist than being the president, and him acting like a sermonizing preacher to the country backfired hard. He worked hard to broker peace between Egypt and Israel, but was in a tough spot with giving asylum to the shah, which led to the Iranian hostage crisis. And the hostages only got released the minute Reagan was sworn in as president, to take away a win from Carter. Carter seems like a nice guy, but shouldn't have been president, he seemed too small-town for it.

Reagan was charismatic and witty, but seemed stuck in his own head a lot, and his Alzheimer's affected his decision-making, leading his staff members to either take over his duties or resign over their disagreement with the Cold War or nuclear threats. His meeting with Gorbachev was groundbreaking in finding peace and understanding with Russia, but he also participated in the Iran Contra situation while feigning ignorance, and didn't publically acknowledge AIDS until 1987, six years after the disease started infecting and killing people. I could see why conservatives liked him, but his economic policies led to two major recessions, and he seemed too elite for the majority of average Americans.

Thoughts on Battle Creek

This weekend, I scrolled through Netflix, and decided to watch something starring Dean Winters, because I think he is hilarious in playing cynical assholes with a straight delivery. So I watched a short-lived TV show he did last year with Josh Duhamel called Battle Creek. I remembered seeing commercials for it last year and psyched at seeing Winters starring in a show, but I forgot about it, and it got cancelled.

I really liked it. Winters played a small-town Michigan detective whose police department was underfunded with outdated technology, so the FBI sets up a satellite office and sends in an agent (Duhamel) to work there and be partners with Winters. There is a lot of conflict between them, as Winters is more of a cynic who has hardly left his hometown, is blue-collar, and feels underappreciated in his work, while Duhamel is charming, handsome, liked by everyone, gets publicity when he solves a case, and drives Winters crazy with his vagueness about his past and his convenient lies about his backstory. Neither trust each other, and I liked watching the evolution as they both learned to work together, trust one another, and have a deeper understanding of one another, it felt really earned and worth it to watch.

It had a good ensemble cast. I liked seeing Janet McTeer as the assertive and caring police chief, Liza Lapira as a perceptive and intelligent cop, and Kal Penn as a mature and down to earth detective. There were some good guest appearances from Candice Bergin as an convicted con artist and Winters' mother; Robert Sean Leonard as a grieving father out for vengeance; Patton Oswalt as a party-boy mayor who gets nearly assassinated; and Bokeem Woodbine as a remorseless killer in a cold case.

The show even had a "will they or won't they" subplot with Winters and the office manager (Aubrey Dollar) being secretly attracted to each other, and denying their real feelings to just be platonic co-workers. Normally I don't like that trope, as it gets tedious (plus I thought the actors had too big of an age difference of 16 years that made it look less equal), but the show handled it well, and it ended up closing in a nice and less predictable way.

The show was a very good mix of comedy and drama, and would get dead serious at times, so much that I would forget about the comedic parts and be into the drama. I would say the humor and pace is like Castle, but it still felt like its own thing. I read an AV Club interview with Winters where he mentioned previous shows of his that got cancelled that he liked making (Life on Mars, Happy Town), and hoped that Battle Creek would last. Unfortunately, I don't think it was promoted much, and was easy to forget to watch.

I heard of Winters through Oz (I didn't see it when it aired, I had just heard of him as one of the breakout stars), and enjoying seeing him pop up in a lot of NYC-based TV shows (Law & Order, Sex & the City, Rescue Me, Brooklyn 99, 30 Rock), even if he almost always was a streetwise cynical asshole. I like his warm, cigarette-touched voice, and how he can be absolutely hilarious in giving straight delivery of self-centered, arrogant jerkoffs. He rarely plays a nice guy (Rescue Me was an exception), yet I found him totally likable anyway. He just seems like an awesome guy, and I like seeing him pop up in stuff as a reliable character actor.

Southside with You - A Film Review

I liked Southside with You. It was a charming, pleasant, and chill movie about Barack and Michelle Obama's first date (albeit with some dramatic license of visiting places and having conversations that likely didn't happen on the date).

Both actors were really great in portraying young versions of the Obamas, and I liked how it portrayed the South Side of Chicago as a warm and close-knit community to grow up in, from Michelle's perspective. I liked how the two found common g...round despite their different upbringings (Barack being biracial and growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia; Michelle being black and growing up in working-class Chicago), because they were both dedicated to advocating on behalf of their people and having close ties to their community.

Sometimes some parts seemed too on-the-nose ("You are great at giving speeches!" "Follow your dreams!" "You can make a difference in the world!"), but that is a minor criticism.

I liked how peaceful the movie was in just following the two on their "not a date" (as Michelle kept re-iterating) through an art museum, a community meeting in a church, parks, a bar, and their reactions to the ending of Do The Right Thing. I especially loved the title sequence, where Barack is driving through Chicago to pick up Michelle as Janet Jackson's "Miss You Much" plays, and it both sets the time period and acts like a complement to the city scenery of black life.

This could be any indie movie about people on a date, and it does earn its comparisons to Before Sunrise, as well as any laid-back dialogue-driven film set in one day. I can't imagine what the Obamas would feel about it, but I felt the film was respectful and not overly worshipful of their characters.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Lobster - A Film Review

I really liked The Lobster a lot. It is a dark satirical movie that pokes fun at the societal obsession with being coupled up in a relationship. Colin Farrell plays a guy who gets dumped by his wife, and because legally he cannot be single in a dystopian society, he has to go to a hotel where he has 45 days to find a mate, or he will turn into an animal (he chooses a lobster because he loves the ocean). Ben Wishaw and John C. Reilly are amongst the awkward singles, and it is both sad and painfully funny.

Farrell looks like Ned Flanders with a paunch, and is a very sympathetic character living in an unfair world obsessed with couples and punishing the single ones, who turn into dogs, camels, flamingos, peacocks, and other animals wandering around.

There is a group of rebels in the forest outside the resort, called The Loners, who live as single people and forbid romance, led by their sadistic and tyrannical leader (Lea Seydoux). Rachel Weisz plays one of the Loners (and narrator of most of the film), and while her and Farrell's characters predictably fall in love, their romance doesn't go as triumphantly as one would expect. Seydoux was great as the leader, someone who took her anger about being forced to couple up out on her pack, and delivered a chilling performance.

I loved how the movie was so matter-of-fact about these rules, how the hotel manager would deliver rules in a crisp and rehearsed voice, saying things like "if you become an animal, you must partner with an animal of the same or similar species. A dog and a penguin could never be together, nor could a camel and a hippo. That would be ridiculous." As opposed to the whole forced transformation idea or punishing people for being single.

I liked the supporting characters at the hotel, like an awkward young woman who gets nosebleeds a lot, a haughty young woman who treasures her long blond hair and ultimately becomes a pony with a blonde mane, and a heartless woman whose sociopathy knows no bounds. And the film was broken into two parts (hotel and the forest), and was well-crafted and had a stellar cast. I highly recommend it.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Thoughts on Call the Midwife

I am really enjoying Call the Midwife. I have been watching the first two seasons this weekend. I like how feminist and progressive it is, while staying accurate to its setting of 1950s London. It is about a house of nuns and midwives who provide maternal health services to poor and struggling women in East London, as well as providing support and care on visits to lonely elderly people and people in poverty.

I like how the nuns balance their beliefs between conservatism and liberalism, that the midwives and nuns are loving and supportive as a sisterhood, and how they truly care for the well being of their neighborhood.

So far, my favorite characters have been Chummy (a sweet woman who grows in confidence in her midwifery skills and socializing), Cynthia (a dorky and mousy midwife with an endearing charm in her innocence); and Sister Monica, a nun who is a little mentally frail and forgettable, but refuses patronizing attitudes from others, and is otherwise quite lucid in her observations. The lead character, Jenny, is a good person, but not interesting, she acts more as the vessel in which the audience enters into this world as a nurse entering the slums to help women have babies. I do like hearing Vanessa Redgrave's voice as the mature Jenny, looking back on her memories as bookends to the episodes.

The show is in its fifth season now, and I likely will catch up with it through Netflix.

Eclipsed - A Theater Review

I really enjoyed seeing Eclipsed, it was an excellent play. The play was about five women surviving during the Liberian civil war under Charles Taylor's dictatorship, and how their lives were affected as victims, whether they were concubines, soldiers, or attempting to save women's lives. The first act had a lot of humorous moments within the "wives" in their home, while the second act got much heavier and tougher to watch.

Lupita Nyong'o was the billed star, and she was excellent, especially in tracking the emotional journey from a naive young girl forced into sex slavery to being manipulated into becoming a soldier to be "free," and facing PTSD and mental conflicts.

I was also amazed by Pascale Armand as Wife #3, as she was both naturally funny as the comic relief (especially in running gags of her wigs scaring the other women), and deeply emotional as a woman forced to carry to birth a child of rape. And Saycon Sengbloh was stunning as Wife #1, the "mother" of the group, maintaining hierarchy, and feeling as if there is no life for her without war, because she has been a sex slave for many years, and she cannot imagine life after it. All of them received Tony nominations, so it will be fun to see if any of them wins (if Nyong'o wins, she will be halfway there to being in EGOT territory).

It was tough in scenes where the women, due to trauma, could not remember their parents or their birth names, just accepting their new roles as methods of survival.

I wasn't as interested in a character who was a former sex slave turned soldier, because the actress's performance didn't show much complexity, even in a scene where she has an emotional breakdown. And I had sympathy for the woman trying to save the other women, though I found her to be preachy and patronizing to women she treated as victims.

Danai Gurira wrote a truly stunning play, and I am glad this made it to Broadway. Plus, since the cheap mezzanine section I was in wasn't very full, I got to move down to the front of the mezzanine and be closer to seeing the show, so that was sweet.

Thoughts on Spaced

I watched Spaced last weekend, a 1999 British TV series created by and starring Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes. and I enjoyed it. There were only two seasons, of 7 episodes each. The show is about two slacker friends who pretend to be a couple so they can live in a great apartment in a house, and their misadventures with romance, seeking employment, befriending their oddball neighbors, and deciding what to do with their lives.

I liked director Edgar Wright's style a lot (quick cuts, flashbacks, imagining of schemes and plans, good punch lines and unexpected answers), and I could see precursors to Shaun of the Dead (Simon Pegg's character Tim is playing a zombie video game and imagines himself the shotgun-wielding hero with pre-kill one-liners) and Hot Fuzz (Nick Frost's character imagines himself as Neo from The Matrix, with long coat, shades, and guns).

I liked that Jessica Hynes as Daisy had a likable everywoman feel to her, as an optimistic woman who wants to be a successful writer, but distracts herself when she doesn't want to do hard work. I looked her up, and most of her stuff is British, I would like to see more of what she has done.
I liked Simon Pegg's energetic performance, though I didn't really like Tim, as he was immature and self-centered. But he and Nick Frost had great chemistry together as best friends. They both have this childlike enthusiasm together that is endearing and sweet to watch.

I also appreciated that the people in the house gained more depth than their initial weirdo exteriors, like a ditzy young woman who was funny and sweet, a seemingly antisocial artist who was sensitive and caring, and an uptight landlord who really wants to be accepted and liked by others.

The second season was stronger than the first, as it had gotten past the initial quirks of the supporting cast, and the characters seemed more grounded and less lost. The cultural references really dated the show (a Spice Girls "girl power" reference, The Matrix parodies, a Fight Club parody), but luckily there weren't too many of them.

So I enjoyed it, mostly laughing at the sight gags and visual humor. It was a pretty short-lived show, but was a huge jump-off for several talented people.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Thoughts on Green Room

I just saw Green Room, written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier. I liked it a lot, it was a very intense movie. I don't want to give much away, because it is much better going in cold, but the basic plot is that a punk rock band touring the country in their van plays a random show for neo-Nazis in a small country town, and something bad happens, and it becomes an intense thriller from then on.

I was creeped out and scared by the neo-Nazis, and Patrick Stewart was very quietly intimidating as a Nazi club owner, he barely raised his voice and was still chilling.

Besides Stewart, Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat appeared as two of the band members, and both gave solid performances, though sometimes I was mistaking Yelchin for Elijah Wood. Imogen Poots and Mark Webber played neo-Nazis.

I was really feeling bad for the band, and I loved how uncomfortable the movie was, it really had a "what would you do in this situation" feel to it.

I also found it interesting that one of the Nazis seemed to straddle both sides, the one who was the righthand man to the club owner. He seemed very sympathetic to the band and being on their side, while appeasing his boss and dealing with his fellow Nazis. He wasn't necessarily likable, but I could symphasize with his position. I liked the actor a lot, and he seemed vaguely familiar to me.

I am glad I saw it. I saw some of the director's first movie, Blue Ruin, on Netflix, but only watched some before deciding I wasn't in the mood for a revenge thriller. But I am glad he got to make this, this was a magnificent film.

Thoughts on Fast Times at Ridgemont High

I am on a kick of watching Jennifer Jason Leigh's movies, so I rented Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I have already seen it, and it still holds up well. It is smart and funny, with a great cast of people who blew up big, and it mixes in raunchy humor with three-dimensional portraits of characters. Even the sleazy jerk is shown to be an insecure coward beyond his initial front, which I thought was nice for showing depth.

I don't like Sean Penn as an actor (prefer him as a director), but he was weirdly brilliant in this, and stole the movie.

I liked the girls' supportive friendship, how neither judged the other for their sexual practices or choices of guys, how abortion wasn't treated too shamefully, and how much of a time capsule it was of the 80's, especially in one scene of homophobia where Spicoli calls some guys fags. Even Judge Reinhold was funny in this, I forgot that his character is a likable dork.

I read Roger Ebert's review of it from 1982, and he hated the film, giving it one star. He thought it was exploitative of Leigh (because her character starts out a virgin and becomes promiscuous fast and shows her breasts twice), that it was dirty humor with no class (he defended Animal House, and I thought that was more sexist than this), that Leigh's character is humiliated in disappointing sexual encounters (I liked the realism that she learns early on that sex is overhyped and gets over her phase and wants a real boyfriend and slows things down with her nerd love interest), that the abortion part was rushed and forgotten quickly (again, I liked that she was supported by her brother; the jerk initially tried to raise his half of the cost before chickening out, and she moved on with her life and wasn't shamed for it), and that he was amazed a woman directed it (a man did write it, but it was clearly a collaborative process). I don't find the movie relatable, but I still think it was better than other teen sex comedies that were more degrading to women or were more gross.

Thoughts on Captain America: Civil War

I enjoyed seeing Captain America: Civil War yesterday, directed by the Russo Brothers.. It was well-written, and I liked how it was mostly dialogue-driven, with the major action fight sequence having a point to it. I was on Captain America's side in their debate, but could see Iron Man's point as well. It was a little overwhelming sometimes with so many characters, but the script and editing managed to keep them in order and not confusing.

I really liked the addition of Black Panther, I appreciated how they set up his character as a dignified and intelligent royal who could switch into being a badass and agile superhero, and his animal character was linked to his culture and family. Chadwick Boseman was awesome in this, and I am excited for his 2018 movie.

I liked how Spider-Man seemed way younger than previous portrayals, which only made him seem like an innocent kid. Sometimes his quips bordered on annoying during the fight, but he was often kept in check by the other characters to stay in his lane and shut up. Also, I was happy to see Marisa Tomei in a cameo as Aunt May, she is always a joy to see.

I didn't like how chopped-up the first two action sequences were, with the jump cuts and sped-up editing. It was annoying to watch, and distracted from the good fight choreography that was on display (especially when watching the stunt double for Black Widow, I was really impressed with her moves and agility). It got better once the civil war started, but it was tough to watch in the beginning.

Of the three CA movies, Winter Soldier is my favorite, because it had a great script, better character writing for Black Widow, a 70's spy thriller vibe, and solid acting, action sequences, and storyline. I did enjoy Civil War for its complexity, the character development, and continuing on a story with deception and intrigue.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Edge of the City - A Film Review

At the Moving Image museum, I watched Edge of the City, a 1957 movie starring John Cassavetes, Sidney Poitier, Jack Warden, and Ruby Dee. It was a gritty movie dealing with issues of race, as Cassavetes plays a dock worker running away from his tortured past, befriending his gregarious boss (Poitier), and dealing with threats of blackmail from his racist other boss (Warden).

The film was really well-acted, and I always like seeing small details in how life was different decades ago (phone operators speak live on collect calls and listen to conversations; the $1.70/hr dockworker wages and a bet where the loser owes 40 cents). I liked that the film felt more like an independent film than a Hollywood movie, though the music score could get way too over dramatic at times (like getting louder during a scene with the villain or during any kind of pathos).

Poitier was very charming and likable in his role, and was a total scene-stealer from Cassavetes. He would be nominated from an Academy Award the next year for The Defiant Ones. He was so compelling to watch that it felt like a shame that more POC actors during that time didn't get as much fame as he and Harry Belafonte did. Rita Moreno is one of likely three Latino actors to win an Academy Award for acting, and I believe there has been only two Asian actors who won Oscars for acting (Ben Kingsley, and a supporting actor from The Killing Fields).

The film's director, Martin Ritt, also directed Hud and Norma Rae, and seemed to excel in making films about working class people fighting for a better life.

I was also really impressed with Ruby Dee, particularly in a heavy dramatic scene that exemplified her pain and the cowardice of Cassavetes' character. She was really excellent. And Jack Warden, though he played an awful racist, excelled in his role, too. I only knew of him as an old man from Problem Child and While You Were Sleeping, so it was nice to see him in a much earlier role.

Obvious Child - A Film Review

I really adored the movie Obvious Child, written and directed by Gillian Robespierre. I saw the original 2009 short film on Vimeo several years ago, and enjoyed seeing a feminist film about a woman who gets an abortion with no regrets. It starred Jenny Slate, and I knew of her from ten years ago from being on VH1 pop culture shows and briefly on SNL. I liked that she was really good in a dramatic role while still being charming and funny and relatable.

The full-length movie came out in 2014, and I love how it is a romantic comedy with a sympathetic heroine (Slate) named Donna, who is funny, vulnerable, and is coming of age at nearly 30, learning to be more confident and less insecure. She still gets an abortion (product of a one-night-stand after getting dumped by her boyfriend for her friend), but it isn't the point of the movie, nor is it her romance with her hookup. It is about her growing up and learning to love and accept herself.

While the movie can feel very insular in its depiction of Brooklyn hipster-ness (it is a very white cast, scenes are set in trendy parts of Williamsburg and Bushwick), I still found the movie touching, and I connected to it emotionally. I really liked the performances of Gaby Hoffmann and Gabe Liedman as Donna's best friends, who represent different aspects of her personality (the serious side and the party side) and while they contrast when giving her advice, Donna needs them both to be whole. Jake Lacy was endearing and boyishly sweet as the hookup, and I liked him in How to Be Single as well.

I hope to see more work from Gillian Robespierre, as she is very smart and talented and clearly feminist. and I like seeing Jenny Slate pop up in web series, TV shows, and voice work in cartoons, she is a gem.

Rush - A Film Review

I have a weird guilty pleasure movie. I really like the 1991 movie Rush, starring Jason Patric and Jennifer Jason Leigh as undercover narcotics cops in 1975 Texas trying to bust drug dealers, mainly a local drug kingpin (Gregg Allman). The cops have to do hard drugs as part of their cover, and they get in too deep in their addictions, as well as falling in love with one another.

It is a really bleak movie about drug addiction and police corruption, yet I find it compelling. The relationship between the cops is intimate and complex, as they form a deep bond and fight through their addictions while trying to get their cases done, as the kingpin is too smart and elusive for them. Leigh's character Kristen starts out as a rookie cop whose only previous drug experience was smoking two joints in college, and she is determined to prove herself worthy of the force (especially in a time when female rookie cops were purposely put in dangerous situations in order to scare them off of the force), and quickly gets into a heroin addiction, getting into way more that she can handle. Patric's character Jim is a more experienced cop who is blunt about liking drugs too much, while thinking he can kick a habit after "a few days of sweaty sheets,' and his addiction becomes much more debilitating, as he falls apart much more than Kristen did.

Patric brought a lot of dark mystery to Jim, as he seemed like someone who was a natural addict and chose being a narcotics officer as a cover for access to drugs, while Leigh delivered a great performance in tracking the journey of Kristen from rookie to addict to survivor.

I also enjoyed the performances of Sam Elliott as a seasoned detective who survived his addictions and is worried about his younger officers; Max Perlich as a frightened young man who is pressured to snitch on his dealer friends for a lighter conviction; and William Sadler as a seedy drug dealer cooking meth in a dirty lab and looking sketchy with homemade tattoos.

Gregg Allman as Gaines has very few lines, but his quiet intensity often makes him intimidating, and he easily looked like his 1970s self in 1991, carrying a rock 'n roll swagger with him. The movie opens with a fantastic one-take panning shot that follows Gaines through his bar as everyone greets him with fear and respect, a la the Goodfellas scene of Henry Hill being greeted by everyone in a Mafia-run club.

Eric Clapton did the original score, and it is so 1970s blues rock that I forget it isn't original music from that era. It sets the tone for the seediness of the drug culture of the Texan town, like its own world in a bubble. But I don't like that "Tears in Heaven" plays in one scene, because even though it is a song about death that plays after a major character's death scene, I found it to be too contemporary, and too much of a reminder of Clapton's son's death in the early 90's, taking me out of the 1975 era.

The film was written by Pete Dexter and directed by Lili Fini Zanuck, and was based on a true story about two 1970s narcotics officers who planted evidence on dealers because they snorted or shot up the original evidence, and were convicted of their police corruption.

The cinematography often has a muted or brownish look to it, and the set designers and costumes paid close detail to the era, likely using a lot of vintage clothes and props. It really looked of the era, and made the story much more believable.

I really like this film, mostly for Leigh's performance, the seedy drug underbelly it depicts, and how the cops aren't any different than the addicts and dealers they are trying to bust. It is a compelling movie, and a personal guilty pleasure of mine despite its dark story.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Thoughts on The Witch

I enjoyed seeing The Witch last month. It is a slow burn of a movie, and is about an isolated 1630s English family falling victim to their own religious hysteria and being tormented by a shape shifting witch. I liked that the movie felt really uncomfortable to watch, with a lot of tension, still moments, growing sense of dread, and horror without jump scares, showing more horror with the family turning on each other than the witch being overexposed.

The acting was fantastic, and I liked seeing a story that combined folklore and witchcraft with a story of a family going insane in a faraway time, it felt like a story that could really happen, of a family destroying themselves due to religious delusions and fear of the supernatural. The witch only made sporadic appearances, in human and animal forms, and was genuinely disturbing.

I was impressed by how well the actors spoke the Old English dialogue, but sometimes I had trouble following what was being said, especially with all the "thou, thee, thy, dost" talk. Some conversations were difficult to understand (as well with the characters' thicker regional accents), and I had to read a plot summary afterwards to catch up on parts I missed or didn't understand.

Also, while I liked the slow pace of the film, the story felt like it was a lot of buildup, as things just kept getting worse for the family. It did have a major climatic moment (which a little boy really acted the hell out of), but it still felt like the story was just adding more creepy moments rather than having a powerful third act. I saw the movie more as telling a folk tale with horror elements rather than being a straight horror film, and liked the feeling of being taken far in time to a story that seemed terrifying in its depiction of religious hysteria and family abuse. I highly recommend the film.

Thoughts on Danny DeVito

I really enjoyed reading this NY Times article about Danny DeVito's Twitter presence. I think he is an underrated dramatic actor, and thought of as too comic because of his shortness, his brash Italian-American Jersey accent, and being widely known as the Penguin or Frank Reynolds or other over-the-top comic characters. I was amazed by how great he was in Living Out Loud, a wonderful movie in which he plays a lonely yet optimistic doorman grieving the death of his daughter and the los...s of his marriage, and trying to find his way in life. I found him extremely endearing and relatable, and it is one of my favorite roles of his.

I also thought he was great in Jack the Bear (another dramatic role in which he played a widower father struggling with grief and keeping his family together), and I like that he has a very dark sense of humor, illustrated by the films he has directed (Matilda, Throw Momma From the Train, The War of the Roses, Death to Smoochy, Duplex). He is just a great actor and personality.

Thoughts on 10 Cloverfield Lane

I really enjoyed seeing 10 Cloverfield Lane, a film directed by Dan Tratchenburg. I found it to be very intense and riveting. I went to see it because I saw that it was about a woman trying to escape from being held captive in a bomb shelter by a conspiracy theorist paranoid about a nuclear or alien attack above, and it starred two actors I really respect: John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

The film was very tight and captivating to watch, as most of it takes place in... the bomb shelter, with three players, and there are a lot of mental gymnastics to play as to whether or not there is an attack, as well as the motivations of Goodman's character Howard. He can be a paranoid control freak with good intentions, trying to protect the younger people from danger. In other scenes, he is a calculating monster, intimidating his captives into showing him "respect" after the "kindness" that he has shown them after saving their lives. Goodman is a well-respected and versatile actor, but sometimes he gets taken for granted as a supporting actor, seen as just consistently good. He hasn't had an Oscar nomination, and though the Oscars don't honor horror films much for acting performances, I think Goodman deserves special recognition for this study in character acting, not just as a villain in a thriller. He was just great in this in a chilling performance.

I don't want to say a lot about it, because I don't want to spoil the film, but I liked how the film kept the audience guessing, and were in the head of Winstead's character Michelle, a woman who wakes up after a car accident chained up in the bomb shelter with an injured leg. She is immediately skeptical about Howard's claims about saving her life before the attack, and keeps trying for a way out, trying to read the scene and play calmly while using her wits and senses to plot an escape. Winstead is someone who is really talented at finding the humanity and realism in a character, and losing herself in a character to find its nuances (much like how Goodman does here to great effect). I liked that she just kept fighting and didn't give up, but one could still see her mental anguish and frustration, she wasn't infallible. I just related to her character a lot, and it was due to Winstead's stellar performance.

John Gallagher, Jr. played Emmet, the other captive in the house, and I liked trying to figure out his background and motivation, like to catch a tell or a twist. Though I ended up being wrong about my predictions, I still liked trying to figure him out, as he seemed too innocent and nice on the outside to be believed at first (not acting-wise, more his motivations).

I liked that the film was uncomfortable to watch. It is more of a thriller and less horror in the boo-scare sense, but I prefer horror movies that are psychological and have monsters that aren't who you expect, it is more interesting.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Thoughts on No Más Bebés

I highly recommend the documentary No Más Bebés, directed by Renee Tajima-Peña. It is streaming on PBS' website, and is about Mexican immigrant mothers in L.A. who were sterilized without their consent or knowledge after their childbirths in the 1960s and 1970s (due to eugenics about controlling the population of poor people) and a young Chicana feminist lawyer in the 1970s, who empowered the women to sue the hospitals & government and gain reproductive rights for all women.

The women, many of whom were Mexican immigrants who understood little English, were manipulated and coerced into signing documents in English (which they couldn't read or write), often times being told they were signing for a C-section or that it was for a critical surgical procedure post-birth that they would die from if they didn't sign the release. The women didn't know about the sterilizations until years later, and it had devastating effects on them and their marriages and families. The feminists who fought for their rights, as well as the women who made their stories public, were really brave and courageous to do this.

It is a really fascinating documentary, and I learned more about Chicana life, reproductive rights, feminism, and human rights.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Thoughts on A Time for Laughter

I enjoyed attending a discussion at the Museum of the Moving Image on Saturday called The Color of Comedy, about black and brown voices in comedy.

The discussion started with a screening of a 1967 TV special called A Time for Laughter, which was produced by Harry Belafonte and hosted by Sidney Poitier. It was an hour of sketches that was a showcase of black humor, satire, and self-parody, and was amazing to watch. The show features a great cast of legendary comedians like Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, Richard Pryor, and Dick Gregory, and other names I didn't know like George Kirby, Pigmeat Markham, and Godfrey Cambridge.

The sketches were really ballsy and risky for their day, featuring a sketch with blackface (a white guy learns song & dance from a black man and performs in blackface); a suburban black couple pretend to be white and piss off their black maid (Mabley), a civil rights marcher (Gregory) cracks jokes about the police and racism while in jail with a lot of his fellow marchers; a nervous undertaker (Pryor) has to deliver the eulogy at a funeral when the priest doesn't show up; and a pool hustler (Foxx) talking about poverty and civil rights. I was amazed at how the show got away with showing blackface in a social commentary way, the n-word being said a lot, and a lot of risk-taking in being very blunt about racism and civil rights, while still presenting black humor not neutered for white folks.

I especially enjoyed Pryor's hilarious performance and his impeccable comic timing and nervous energy in the character; Redd Foxx for playing to the camera like it was someone's POV, being totally at ease as the camera moves with him around the pool table, and being an excellent storyteller; Dick Gregory bringing this down-to-earth realism as he was talking about Black Power; and Moms Mabley's comedic body language as she mocks her wannabe "white" black employers.

The panel discussion was fascinating, with a variety of mostly Black comedians (and one Indian man and one Dominican man) speaking about their history in comedy, facing racial setback, being inspired by their heroes and peers, and using comedy to both bring awareness to social issues as well as celebrating a variety of Black experiences.

I did ask a question, more because one of the sketches in the show seemed like an inspiration to Eddie Murphy (the barbershop scene in Coming to America with Murphy and Arsenio Hall as multiple characters), and they said Murphy was likely more inspired by Pryor from Any Which Way But Loose (Pryor played multiple characters in a scene), but that Pryor likely got his inspiration from George Kirby's barbershop scene, as well as his own storytelling style of talking about people he knew growing up in a brothel.

It was really great to see, and I liked just listening and learning a lot from hearing about their experiences and seeing the TV special of legendary comedians (which also included vintage commercials for Pepto-Bismol, cigarettes, aspirin, and Welch's grape juice).