Archives for January 2014

Sundance ’14: Documentary Rundown

The following are a collection of some of the documentaries I saw during my stay at the Sundance Film Festival and my ‘take’ on them …

Freedom Summer

Freedom Summer will premiere on PBS’ The American Experience later this year, but I was fortunate to catch a glimpse of the finished doc at Sundance.

In the hot and deadly summer of 1964, the nation could not turn away from Mississippi. Over ten memorable weeks known as Freedom Summer, more than 700 student volunteers joined with organizers and local African Americans in an historic effort to shatter the foundations of white supremacy in one of the nation’s most segregated states. The summer was marked by sustained and deadly violence, including the notorious murders of three civil rights workers, countless beatings, the burning of thirty-five churches, and the bombing of seventy homes and community centers.

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Freedom Summer highlights an overlooked but essential element of the Civil Rights Movement: the patient and long-term efforts by both outside activists and local citizens in Mississippi to organize communities and register black voters — even in the face of intimidation, physical violence and death. The Freedom Summer story reminds us that the movement that ended segregation was far more complex than most of us know.

ILC’s take:  as a child of the post-Civil Rights era, I was fully aware of the Freedom Summer, I was not aware of the level organization and pre-thought that went into busing and embedding of the resources throughout Mississippi. While the first three-quarters dealt specifically with the social movement aspects of the summer, towards the end, Freedom Summer took a decidedly political tone, focusing on the efforts to democratize the state of Mississippi’s Democratic party to be more inclusive. In doing so, their efforts garnered national attention and became a bit of a thorn in the side of then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, who many may be surprised by his actions and reactions to what was going around him.

Private Violence

One in four American women experience domestic violence in their homes. Have you ever asked, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” Private Violence challenges the stigma surrounding this presumptive notion as it intimately follows the stories of two women: Deanna Walters, who transforms from victim to survivor, and Kit Gruelle, also a survivor, who advocates for justice on behalf of Deanna and others.

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ILC’s take: the screening was proceeded by a short, One Billion Rising, which captured moments from around the world in celebration of V-Day, the annual event that raises awareness to the global scourge of violence against women and girls. I like to think of it as more of a call to action that anything else. But onto Private Violence. This is a very intimate look at the world of women living in a very private hell made all the more impactful for that reason. The film does an effective job of going broad where it needs it but then pulling you immediately back in the here and now of Deanna’s ordeal. Inevitably a lot of issues surrounding how we, as a society, react and respond to cases of domestic violence. And while there are no easy solutions, this film (to air on HBO) gets the message out there and will hopefully be a clarion call to action.

No No: A Dockumentary

On June 12, 1970, Dock Ellis threw a no-hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 136 years of baseball history, only 276 no-hitters have been recorded. Dock is the only pitcher to ever claim he accomplished his while high on LSD.

Dock was often at the forefront of controversy and has been called the “Muhammad Ali of Baseball.” He was an outspoken leader of a new wave of civil rights in sports, when black athletes were no longer content to accept second-class treatment or keep their mouths shut about indignities. The press labeled him a militant.After Dock retired from baseball, he was as outspoken about his addictions to alcohol and amphetamines (aka “greenies”) as he had been about racial prejudice during his career.

No No A Dockumentary, Sundance Film Festival 2014

ILC’s take: Baseball stories always seem to work well on film, at least for me. The Dock Ellis story is a welcome addition to this subgenre. No No is a cautionary tale about the pitfalls that can overtake an otherwise promising professional career. But it is also a story of redemption and second chances that shows its audience that no matter the circumstances, one can take their experiences and have the lessons learned from said experience benefit others. Blended with a mix of humor and social commentary, I think No No will appeal to sports fans and those who appreciate documentary films alike.

Images and synopses provided by the Sundance Institute.

Let’s Do the “American Hustle” (2013)

For some reason my review of this film has been sitting in my inbox for longer than should have. But never you mind, I am on it now so without further ado …

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Image: Sony Pictures

To quickly recap, American Hustle is the latest outing for director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) and is based in part the actual FBI ABSCAM operation (look it up for the deets) that took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The films stars Christian Bale and Amy Adams as New York City con artists ‘strongly encouraged’ to work with agent Bradley Cooper or face the full wrath of the feds. Their job? To take part in a multi-layered sting operation to catch corrupt politicians in the act. One target is the popular mayor of Camden, New Jersey (played by Jeremy Renner). Rounding out the cast is Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence as Bale’s neurotic wife, who among many of her idiosyncrasies, really loves the smell of a particular brand of nail polish. (Source: Wikipedia)

There are several things to like about the film, including:

  • The performances: all the actors acquit themselves quite well., which should come as no surprise given the talent Russell has assembled.
  • Authenticity: a problem with a film like this is that it can fall prey to is creating a lack of  ‘trueness’ to the time and place presented in the story. From the costuming, hair, makeup, music, EVERYTHING frankly, American Hustle nailed the era down to a tee.
  • Equilibrium: American Hustle balanced the comedic and dramatic elements of the narrative very well. I know that it is a dramatization of actual events, but if there was an inkling of these happenings in the true account of the operation, I can easily see how the dramatic tension of the situation can be balanced with some levity. After all, truth is often stranger than fiction.
  • Things are not always as they appear. There are some very pleasant (and unexpected) twists and revelations to the plot that will keep you engaged in where the story is going.

Now onto the bad(ish) news. Oddly enough, my reservations almost have nothing to do with the film itself as much as to my response to the praise and accolades thrust upon it subsequent to its release. I admit my bias but when I compare it to the other noteworthy films (that I have seen) of 2013, American Hustle lacks the gravitas of these films it is competing for several awards with. Is it entirely fair for me to base my reservations solely on this? As I stated, probably not, but it is a feeling that I had when leaving the cinema and has stuck with me ever since.

I hope in reading this assessment, your want to see this picture is not diminished, because, again, it is a really entertaining cinematic excursion. I only lead with this bit of advice: sit back and take it for what it is …

How do you feel about American Hustle? Hit the comments section to share your thoughts and views.

Sundance ’14: Life Itself (2014)

Life Itself is a documentary based on the late writer and film critic Roger Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name. This Sundance Documentary Premier was directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and executive produced by Ebert friend Martin Scorsese.

The film takes passages from Ebert’s memoirs and weaves them with interviews and footage from Ebert’s battle with the cancer that would ultimately claim his life. In a way, Life Itself is part biography/ part tribute, examining a man who lived life to its fullest and left an indelible mark on the cultural landscape by making the art of film criticism available and palatable to the masses.

Roger Ebert & Gene Siskel

To distill the documentary to its most resonant moments, presents quite a challenge for me. I never claimed or even thought I knew much about the man, beyond what I saw on TV or read on his website, but the level of depth and insight I gained, from his early rearing to his professional and personal triumphs and setbacks was very engrossing and well executed.

And as we the audience move through these various stages of his life, we get to a point where we see how he ultimately impacted and influenced others. An especially poignant moment that speaks directly to this is the story shared by filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who recounts in the film her first meeting Ebert as a girl outside the Academy Awards and her remembrance of the kindness bestowed upon her then and years later as she emerged as an up and coming filmmaker.

Another part of the film that I liked was how to delved into the impact of Ebert’s popularization (commercialization) of film reviews and presented the critique many of his contemporaries had with how his success (re)defined the trade, which up until then, enjoyed a solidly didactic and academic reputation.

Particularly in the latter stages of his life, Ebert really embraced the populism that the ‘interwebs’ and social media provided in terms of everyone getting their message and opinions out there. I can only speak for myself when I say if not for this, I am sure I would not have 1) the agency or 2) the desire to express myself on this or any platform.

At the time of this writing, Life Itself does not have a theatrical distributor but the cable network CNN has television distribution rights and will air on their network following its theatrical release.

Check out the film’s official website for special screening events.

Sundance 2014 Report (1): Women Talk Docs

Forgive me in advance. Over the next few days, I hope to churn out a whole bunch of wonderful detail from my Sundance 2014 excursion. This collection of recaps will include reviews, photos and a summary personal narrative of my experiences over my 4 days in Park City, Utah.

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Monday, January 20. Touchdown, Salt Lake City, 10:30AM. I have finally arrived! A dream of mine has come true. Almost as soon as I touched the ground, I dropped my bags off at the hotel and headed straight for downtown/Main Street.

I usually use my first day in any new city, big or small, as my “Get Lost” day. This included working my way through the FREE public transportation system to find the best (and worst) ways to get around in timely and efficient manner. I did all of this to end up at the Sundance Channel HQ just in time to be in the audience of SundanceNOW Doc Club’s “Spotlight on Women Directors” Panel featuring filmmakers Rory Kennedy, Lucy Walker, Shola Lynch and Judith Helfand. Although the discussion was focused on documentary films, the panel did start the dialogue by discussing the current status of women filmmakers overall in the industry (documentary, narrative, short and feature-length). After running off of the frankly abysmal stats, the topics in the packed house shifted to:

  • overcoming misconceptions about one’s ability as a filmmaker,
  • navigating the waters of Hollywood politics,
  • inserting and asserting yourself in a culture of confidence,
  • building a network of allies,
  • finding your own unique voice in telling story,
  • using social media to get your “brand” out there, and
  • using obstacles to your advantage and turning them into assets.

As someone who is on the verge of creating material for mass consumption, I left this event inspired to forge ahead in spite of what can be best described as my own ‘self-imposed’ reservations.

But don’t my word for it; see (and hear) for yourself ….

Tune in tomorrow to this space for my thoughts about the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself.

Oscar® Noms Announced! (My Reaction)

Here are a couple of observation about the Oscar® nominations, which were announced earlier this morning:

  1. Regarding ‘Snubs.’ I think contrary to what I might have initially felt about the year overall, this was a very strong year in terms of quality motion pictures produced. In other words, I do not think that any of the nominations are necessarily undeserving but rather there are so many people and films that could have received a nod. Some that come immediately to mind are Her (Joaquin Phoenix’s performance), The Butler, Inside Llewellyn Davis, Fruitvale Station, Saving Mr. Banks – the list can go on, thus proving my point.
  2. One Snub That Stands Out for Me. Pacific Rim Sound / Visual Effects. Maybe they will get a few Sci/Tech Awards.
  3. Favorite Nominations? It’s a tie: Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa for Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling (just because) and Before Midnight for Best Adapted Screenplay.
  4. I Feel Kinda Bad … I have not seen ANY of the Best Films not in the English Language. Must be rectified in future.
  5. Who Do I Think Will Win? I never predict these types of things. I usually get it wrong. I just sit back and watch all of the events unfold.
  6. Lastly … I have a lot of ‘homework’ to do before Sunday, March 2nd.

Share your thoughts below …

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iluvcinema in Park City, UT!

Hey Guys,

The past couple of weeks have been rather busy. In addition to coming up with interesting content for you all to read, I have been trying to make plans for my forthcoming trip to the 2014 Sundance Film Festival!

In the lead up to my arrival in Park City, I hope to write a couple of posts regarding some of what I am looking most forward to seeing in the days I will be there (a previous family engagement means I will not get there until the fest is in full swing).

While I am there, I hope to post a few photos, tweet a little and keep you all updated as to all of my activity!

Be sure to stay tuned to this space.

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Golden Globes 2014 Redux

Image © HFPA

Image © HFPA

Every year I say the same thing – I will NOT be tuning in to see celebs get stuffed on fine food and bevvies. And still, like clockwork, I find myself, hours later, bleary eyed and staring at my computer screen foraging for whatever after-party pics and BTS intel I could procure from sites I would never normally publicly declare visiting.

With that boisterous introduction, I must admit that for the most part, I quite enjoyed this year’s Golden Globes ceremony, like the actual show itself.

If there is any reason for me to tune in next, it is a credit to hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. These ladies are on it. Their jokes were simultaneously laugh out loud funny and also had a biting yet subtle undercurrent that may have washed over quite a number of people. But I am here for it. All of it.

Admittedly, I had the television intermittently on mute and would glance up when I saw someone I was interested in hearing from. Once such person was Emma Thompson, who simply stated, is a goddess who walks among us. From running across the red carpet (shoeless), the routine continued on the stage of the Beverly Hilton, courtesy of a pair of Louboutins in one hand and martini in another. Priceless.

But hey I decided to write this post, so I guess I must touch upon the awards, particularly in the film categories:

  • The highlight for me was 12 Years a Slave winning Best Motion Picture: Drama, after getting shut out in the acting and directing categories,
  • Speaking of which, the most disappointing loss for me was being Lupita Nyong’o not winning for her moving portrayal as Patsy. Not to cast aspersions on dear JLaw, her performance in American Hustle is fine (more on the movie tomorrow), but I did not think it was the equal of Lupita’s.
  • Nice to see Leo winning. Is this possibly his year to take home the bald, golden dude?
  • Leo’s The Wolf of Wall Street co-star, Matthew McConaughey’s acceptance speech was my favorite. He is that dude.
  • Like Cate Blanchett, still have yet to see Blue Jasmine. #YeahIAdmitIt
  • Don’t know how, but I wish that Her could of received some more recognition; but the honor IS in the nomination, right?

I have obviously left a lot of bits out, but these are the things that stick out most in my memory (credit to the aforementioned Golden Globes hangover).

Now onto you. What were your favorite moments? What (if anything) does this mean for next month’s Academy Awards ceremony?

Exactly was the Comments section is for, folks! Have at it!

Television Post Script: Tatiana Maslany needs some award for playing a whole bunch of people in Orphan Black. #JustSayin

Her (2013)

I honestly have so many places I can go with this review post, so pardon me in advance if it comes off as a shambolic rambling …

Simply stated, I LOVED this movie. Her is proof positive that at their best, trailers do not a movie make …

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While I was intrigued by the premise based on the trailer, it did not do the film justice in presenting the amount of humor and levity that this interesting story – that of the romantic relationship between a milquetoast (Joaquin Phoenix) and his software operating system (voiced perfectly by Scarlett Johansson).

Our Mitty-esque hero, Theodore Twombly (Phoenix, in an understated, moving performance) lives in a near futuristic Los Angeles, where he works at a company that writes custom letters for its clientele. After enduring a recent breakup with wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), he goes about his days in a very non-descript manner, that is until he purchases and installs his new, highly advanced and adaptable operating system, in the voice of Samantha (Johannson).

What starts off as give and take, with Samantha’s main directive being the managing of life, develops into something more intense and seemingly more enduring.

In the process, the film attempts to challenge our very deeply held perceptions of love and what it means to love and be loved. The emotional consequences (as many are well aware) can be euphoric and devastating, regardless of with whom (or in this case) what we form that unrelenting attachment to. It is a wonderful thought-provoking presentation that stays with you long after the credits roll and you leave the theater.

While Phoenix and Johannson are the heart of Her, there are appearances by the likes of Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde (among others).

I would never consider myself either an aficionado or follower of the films of Spike Jonze (having only seen Being John Malkovich), but this is clearly the work of a really good director. This definitely merits a revisit of his oeuvre.

Ironically as I worked on the initial draft for this piece, I was reminded of the Twilight Zone episode Lonely featuring Jack Warden. In this, Warden’s character is placed on a prison desert planet, his only companion that of a female robot companion. Over time he comes to form an unbreakable attachment with the artificially intelligent being. While the robot in this case is believable, in so much as it is a physical manifestation, the idea of love and what it means is a subject of debate here as well.

There are moments you actually forget that Samantha is not a sentient being, but a machine programmed to be as close to human as possible. The film is a perfect balance of dramatic tension and levity.

I would say this was quite possibly the best film I saw last year.

Oscar Micheaux

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Today is the 130th anniversary of pioneering writer/filmmaker Oscar Michaeux’s birth. In recent years, he is a figure whose profile has emerged from the annuls of cinematic obscurity, and is currently enjoying a renewed academic and ‘cinephilic’ (yeah I made up a word) interest.

Way back in 2009, I had the pleasure of attending the Film Society of Lincoln Center, where I participated in a day-long discussion and retrospective of his life and work.

As one can imagine, in spite of restricted access to resources (money, distribution channels, etc.) that were afforded to his contemporaries, Micheaux was able to forge ahead on his own steam and tell the stories of his time that appealed to a post-slavery, post-Reconstruction African American audience (classified as “race” films).

In fact one of his silent features, Within Our Gates (1920), was made in response to his anger at the racism displayed in D.W. Griffith’s blockbuster Birth of a Nation.

Other films of note, that I have seen include Body and Soul (1925), starring Paul Robeson in a dual role (also marking his film debut), and The Girl From Chicago. Most of his films are available in the public domain, with many residing on YouTube.

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Paul Robeson in “Body and Soul”

 

One posthumous honor: a commemorative postage stamp.

One posthumous honor: a commemorative postage stamp.

To find out more about Micheaux and early African American cinema in general, check out these resources:

 

 

 

 

 

In With the New (2014 Preview)

A couple of days ago I reflected on the year that passed in the world of cinema. As we usher in the new year, I wanted to take a moment to look ahead and see what lies out there on the horizon for cinephiles in 2014.

After scouring numerous of resources for Coming Attractions: 2014 Edition, I have come up with three films that I am really looking forward to seeing. As the year wears on and I attend festivals, etc., I am certain I will get a better sense of the buzz circulating around certain “must see” motion pictures. But until then, here are my early picks.

Interstellar It’s Christopher Nolan and science fiction. So yeah I will be seeing it on the big screen. Absolutely for certain.

 

X-MEN: Days of the Future Past It’s all about seeing what they are doing with this trippy, ‘timey-whimey’ business. Again HERE FOR IT

 

Muppets Most Wanted Just to change it up a little; besides I saw Hiddleston in the trailer. That’s good.

 

What am I missing? Comments. Below. And have a wonderful 2014 (at the movies), folks!!!