Sundance 2015 Review: I am Michael

To say that I am Michael is entering somewhat controversial and polarizing waters given its subject – the story of Michael Glatze, once an ardent gay rights activist, who shocked all of those around him when he declares himself no longer homosexual and becomes an anti-gay Christian pastor.

The film, based on a New York Times article “My Ex-Gay Friend” by Benoit Denizet Lewis, is the first-time feature of screenwriter/director Justin Kelly.

Spanning over a decade, we first see Michael (James Franco), as an outspoken gay rights activist who uses his voice to reach out to the gay youth.

Actually, this statement above is not wholly true, because when the film starts, we see the Michael of the present. How does that work, you may ask? Well you see, the film is very fluid with the linearity of the narrative. We start in the present, then shift to the past, eventually catching up with the present and moving forward to a very interesting denouement, with, if you can imagine, a bit of a “cliffhanger” – I really cannot think of a better word for it.

But I digress – back to the story …

After a health scare, Michael begins to question the role of faith in his life. He then goes on a spiritual quest, which for him, ends (or begins?) with his renunciation of his homosexuality. The rest of the film deals with the fallout of his declaration has on himself and those around him.

I Am Michael does try in earnest to play the story straight down the middle, leaving its protagonists to present both sides of the argument – fair enough. And I would say that if there is a shortcoming of the film it is just that – the presentation does not feel the most organic. In some ways, while the story is very compelling, the way it is presented here makes it sometimes feel like it would be better served in the documentary format. In fact, in preparation for the film, director Kelly spent time with Glatze. How much that contributed to the final product I am not too sure, but I would be a bit interested to know.

The film holds interest for me because of its handling of the role and influence faith and religion in each of our lives.

For me, the film’s accessibility hangs on James Franco’s performance, which I feel is certainly worthy of your attention here. The supporting cast, notably Zachary Quinto as Michael’s ex-boyfriend Bennett deliver solid performances, when they are given something to do.

I Am Michael is executive produced by Gus Van Sant. In addition to Sundance, the film screened most recently at the Berlin Film Festival.

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Image Credit: JAZO PR

Sundance 2015 Review: Coming of Age Stories

For my last double-bill recap for Sundance 2015 (one more singular review tomorrow), I would like to focus on a couple of dramas about young women, coming of age in two separate time periods: 1950s post-war Brooklyn, New York and 1970’s swinging San Francisco. These also have the honor of being a couple of my favorite films of the festival.

 

Brooklyn

Adapted by author Nick Hornby (based on the novel of the same name by Colm Tóibín), Brooklyn stars Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey, a young woman from Ireland sent across the sea to find a new life in the land of opportunity. Under the patronage of a fellow transplant, a priest played by the always delightful Jim Broadbent she finds work and a place to stay. But is it enough to make a life? We witness Eilis’ struggles to make this new place her home; the residents and matron (the ebullient Julie Waters) of the all-female boarding house where she resides help her along the way. It also doesn’t hurt that she meets a young man (AWWW).

As all of this is going on, we catch glimpses of her family’s (mother and sister) life back in Ireland. And at the point where these two threads converge, like Eilis, we are caught in having to make a very harrowing decision.

If it sounds like I am being a bit vague – well yeah, I am. I don’t want to spoil anything for you because for me it was so lovely to watch the layers fall away on this film.

It has been said before, but I will say it again – Ronan is a talent to be reckoned with. Her face is so expressive, especially in the quieter moments – you feel what she is feeling because she makes it seem so real.

She is supported of course by an awesome cast including the aforementioned Broadbent and Waters, as well as Domhnall Gleeson and Emory Cohen.

Brooklyn is directed by John Crowley (Boy A). Since its debut at Sundance, Fox Searchlight has acquired distribution rights to the film; wide theatrical release dates TBD.

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The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Sourced from the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, The Diary of a Teenage Girl regales us the always-relatable growing pains and misadventures of a teenager – here in the form of aspiring comic book artist Minnie Goetze (played by newcomer Bel Powley). While these aspirations do play a role in our story, the “main event” centers on the relationship she has with her mother (Kristen Wiig – the coolest librarian EVER) and Monroe, her mom’s latest boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård). Christopher Meloni makes an appearance as her professorial ex-stepdad who still serves as a father figure in her life.

When I found out that this was the feature film debut for director/screenwriter Marielle Heller, I was equally surprised and pleased. This was an imaginative, inventive and overall fun journey through Minnie’s world, even as it dealt with some of the darker elements that lie therein. And be warned, her world, especially for that of a young woman, does have decidedly twisted and unfortunate turns. It is again (in my opinion) a marvel that Heller was able to extract from this the lightness that many of the moments deserved.

This of course is bolstered by the strength of the performances of her cast. They all were able to successfully balance the material and modulate between the hilarious moments to the more serious matters when they present themselves.

The film also has a great sense of time and location, and not necessarily in a postcard sense either. The Diary of a Teenage Girl does well in capturing the spirit and vibe of that San Francisco counterculture era.

Not sure about the distribution/release date on this one, but rest assured, it is one to look out for.

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* The Diary of a Teenage Girl was the winner of the US Dramatic Special Jury Award for Excellence in Cinematography.

Images credit: The Sundance Institute

Sundance 2015 Review: Portraits of Artists

Happy Friday all! Thank the cinematic gods, but my Sundance reviews are finally winding down. Today, I am featuring a couple of artist-related biographies I had the pleasure of watching last month. Unlike some of the narrative features I have covered, these docs are soon to be available to a wide audience.

Enjoy and let me know what you think!

 

Introduction

I may have mentioned this before, but big screen or small, I really like biographical documentaries. This year at Sundance provided me with a double bill of portraits of talented, yet enigmatic in many ways, personalities from the world of music and film.

 

Listen to Me Marlon (directed by Stevan Riley)

As much as I like the work of Marlon Brando, the man himself has equally fascinated me. I mean there is so much there to wonder about and discover. And love him or hate him, he left a legacy for fans such as me to chew on.

For me, it all started while I was in the summer of 1996. In school and with limited entertainment options, I was forced to find other means of passing my down time. It is then that I picked up his 1994 autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me (collaborated with Robert Lindsey). I loved this voluminous, VERY descriptive account of the span of his life. That said, one does end up wondering how much of what he is telling us is actual, concrete fact and how much is an invention or embellishment of what was. Either way, it is a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Ever since then, I have been hooked, as evidenced nearly a decade later, when I attended a panel discussion where the likes of Arthur Penn and Eli Wallach discussed Brando’s work and impact on the world. It was certainly a night to remember.

Fast forward to the present day and here we are with a documentary that literally speaks for itself. Hundreds of hours of audio tapes and personal home videos and photographs have been condensed into a 95-minute personal and professional scrapbook of sorts.

Overall, the film works, save for what can only be best described as “Max Headroom” moments – a digitized rendering of Brando’s head narrating. At times, this really took me out of the story.

Listen to Me Marlon will air on the Showtime network (coming soon).

Marlon Brando

 

What Happened, Miss Simone? (directed by Liz Garbus)

A very intimate and informative profile of the iconic singer/pianist, What Happened, Miss Simone? traces Simone’s life from the backwoods of North Carolina to dimming lights of Paris.

What happens in between is a revealing and sometimes shocking play of triumphs, tragedies and controversies. I never considered myself super knowledgeable about the woman, but I am familiar with a fair portion of her musical catalog. So believe me when I tell you that this film was a real revelation for me. The depths of what I did not know about her was astonishing – from her prodigious beginnings through to her successes and her ardent political activism. I think my favorite fun fact is that for several of her halcyon years, she lived in my hometown of Mount Vernon (NY).

While there is a sampling of her music and performances littered throughout the 102-minute film, it is the roller coaster of her life that captures you as a viewer. Through archived audio and video footage, interviews with family and friends and passages taken straight out of her private diary, this is a rare glimpse at the eccentricities and personal demons that would ultimately for a time, consume this one of a kind talent.

Also to the film’s credit, Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly as an Executive Producer. I’ll leave it at that.

What Happened, Miss Simone? is scheduled for release on Netflix this spring.

Nina Simone

 

Image credit: The Sundance Institute

Sundance 2015 Review: A Gerwig 2-fer

Yeah – I am cheating by mashing these two films together. Because quite frankly, they are very different in tone, location and theme. The only thing in common among these pieces is they both feature the talents of one Greta Gerwig.

So, without further ado, here are my thoughts and impressions of the film she has an extended cameo in (Eden) and her latest writer-director collaboration with filmmaker Noah Baumbach, Mistress America.

Eden (2014)
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Eden is filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve’s sprawling look with at the 90’s-00’s underground music scene in Paris, featuring a central performance by Félix de Givry as Paul, based on Hansen-Løve’s brother Sven (he shares screenwriting credit). The film chronicles his life as a garage-music DJ and is the story of a passion that seems to find a purpose and measured level of success until it no longer does.

If you are a fan of the music of the era, you are in for a treat as many of the artists from that era (including some very self-aware scenes involving the award-winning duo Daft Punk, Sven’s musical contemporaries). Another appearance of note is the ever delightful (to me anyways) Greta Gerwig as Paul’s American girlfriend who pops in and out of his life on a couple of occasions.

de Givry really stands out in his performance because, at the ripe old age of 20, he is tasked with portraying Paul at various ages, many that are unfamiliar to him, with him being so young and all.

The film accomplishes something else – while I am not a fan of this particular brand of music, Eden was able to keep my attention over its 131 minute running time – a running time that covers twenty years – seeing Paul go from an eager and ebullient teenager to a burnt out, seemingly lost man trying to find meaning in it all.

After its screening in Sundance (also played in Toronto, AFI and NYFF in 2014), Eden will be released this spring in cinemas.

French/English with subtitles

 

Mistress America (2014)
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In the (very recent) past I have been a little less-than-effusive in my response to Noah Baumbach’s work – but for some reason the combination of Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig is really working for me. Their 2012 effort, Frances Ha was a delight to watch. So I was really looking forward to seeing their latest collaboration Mistress America - and I was not disappointed.

Brooke’s (Gerwig) soon-to-be stepsister Tracy (played by newcomer Lola Kirke), is a Barnard College freshman and aspiring writer looking for a place to connect and belong vastness of the city. Brooke is a constant and determined dreamer who has her hand in a myriad of business schemes and creative pursuits. Almost instantly, she takes Tracy under her wing and welcomes her into her kaleidoscopic world.

What ensues is a somewhat Seinfeld-ian, dare I say surreal journey through New York City, showing them on parallel (and intersecting) journeys as they each seek to capture their own brass ring.

If you will feel a bit “meh” about what I just described – trust me, especially if you are a fan of Gerwig’s previous work, Mistress America is well worth checking out. There is something in Gerwig’s writing that makes the most absurd accessible, relatable and entertaining.

Mistress America will be distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures (actual release date TBD).

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Image Credits: Sundance Institute, Fox Searchlight Pictures

Sundance 2015 Review: Fresh Dressed (2014)

Fresh Dressed (written and directed by Sacha Jenkins) is a documentary about the history and business of hip-hop fashion.

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Checking out the Gazelles frames. Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute

The film starts by tracing African American cultural fashion from the turn of the 19th century (principally post-emancipation) through the 1970s and to the streets of the “Boogie Down Bronx,” during a time where urban blight and gang warfare were at their height.

Out of this bleak landscape was birthed a revolutionary musical format, rap (hip-hop). Along with this new musical format came a fashioning of clothes that for nearly 20 years was ignored by mainstream culture. But at the 20th century was drawing to a close and hip-hop music entered the realms of popular culture, the fashion quickly followed. Before you knew it you had the likes of Tommy Hilfiger, etc. staking their claim and garnering a loyal (and ultimately fleeting) followers.

Also to come out of this movement in fashion was the opportunity for many, mostly African-American designers to burst into the realm of fashion. Some of these pioneers were straight from the music scene itself (see Sean “Diddy” Combs and Damon Dash, to name a couple). This film chronicles the rise (and the many falls) of the labels that emerged during this time. Also examined, is the impact this insurgence has had on the overall modern fashion industry (in fact, look no further than this week’s festivities at New York Fashion Week for confirmation of the continuation of this trend).

One aspect that gets much respect from my vantage point is the highlighting of the primarily African-American influence of hip-hop fashion but also the Latino notes that informed the development of the styles and trends that predominated the culture.

Fresh Dressed focuses on the business aspect. In that respect, I feel like there were a few missed opportunities to really take a deeper dive into some of the cultural movements within the hip-hop community (namely Afro-centrism in the early-mid 1990s) and what that meant for the changing styles. I suspect that there were many roads that the filmmakers could have taken but for the sake of time and narrative cohesion they had to go the particular route they chose.

So in the end while I LOVED the trip down memory lane and listening to the first hand accounts of people – thought leaders/hip hop artists, including the famous, infamous, and markedly un-famous – and the accompanying soundtrack, Fresh Dressed is probably best served as great entrée for a glimpse of the community and the culture and styles it birthed, along with the influence they have on what we wear today.

After a limited theatrical run, Fresh Dressed will appear on CNN sometime later in the year.

The Sundance Baker’s Dozen

Here, in no particular order, are the films I will be discussing over the next couple of weeks in my recap of the 2015 edition of the Sundance Film Festival:

  1. Sleeping With Other People
  2. Fresh Dressed
  3. What Happened, Miss Simone?
  4. Brooklyn
  5. Z for Zachariah *
  6. Slow West *
  7. Listen to Me Marlon
  8. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
  9. Mistress America
  10. Aloft
  11. Eden
  12. Homesick
  13. I Am Michael

The titles marked with an asterisk (*) will be guest posts. Information to follow.

Red Hook Summer Q&A at The Eccles Theatre

 

Image Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Sundance 2015: A Preview

 

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My goodness me. No sooner are we looking back at the year that was Cinema: 2014 Edition, that we are looking ahead with curiosity of what is on offer in this current, but still very young year.

This of course means that it is time to finish packing up my winter gear and heading out west to Park City, Utah for the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

The official activities start tomorrow, so I thought I would spend a moment telling you what I am most looking forward to. That said, I will not pretend to have what should be expert-level knowledge about what’s in store over the next 10 or so days. But in laying out my schedule, here are a few (10) films that have piqued my interest.

 

What Happened, Miss Simone? A Netflix-produced documentary about the legendary singer and performer.

The film premieres tomorrow night and will be accompanied by a musical performance from John Legend.

 

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution: Yup. Another documentary this time about the ‘notorious’ civil rights party and the impact their influence has today.

 

Homesick (World Premiere): a film from Norwegian director Anne Sewitsky. This is the story of a 20-something woman meeting her sibling for the first time and trying to navigate the dynamics of this newly-found relationship.

homesick

 

Fresh Dressed: A documentary about the fashion of hip-hop, from its humble origins to the present day.

 

The Diary of a Teenage Girl: feature film debut of Marielle Heller and based on the acclaimed graphic novel by Phoebe Gloecker. Set in 1970’s San Francisco. That sounds intriguing enough :)

diary

 

I Am Michael: Examines the story of a man (played by James Franco), an outspoken gay-rights advocate who publicly renounces his homosexuality and the complexities and impact his statement has on those around him.

i am michael

 

Most Likely to Succeed: a look at the disconnect between our institutes of higher learning and the demands of the modern workforce. Directed by Greg Whitely (Mitt).

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Mistress America: See the thing is I like Greta Gerwig. And I know in the past I have had my issues (feelings of disconnect) with some of Noah Baumbach’s work (check 2014 NYFF posts), but I think I am going to give this one a chance (fingers crossed).

mistress america

 

Slow West: Very intrigued by Scot John Maclean’s presentation of the American West starring an Irishman (Michael Fassbender).

slow west

 

Listen to Me Marlon: Last but certainly not least on my list of films is a look at the life and times of screen legend Marlon Brando. Features exclusive footage from Brando’s personal archive. This is should be very interesting, to say the very least.

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Follow all of the action taking place in Park City, no matter where you are: http://www.sundance.org/blogs/special-edition/how-to-fest-from-home-live-coverage-social-media-and-more.

 

Photo stills credit: The Sundance Institute.

NYFF 52 in the Rearview: While We’re Young (2014)

while we're young

(Sorry this one has been sitting in the draft folder for a minute …)

For the final recap of my 2014 New York Film Festival experience, I would like to discuss Noah Baumbach’s latest feature, While We’re Young. The ensemble cast is led by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as a middle aged couple, finding themselves at a crossroads.

On this journey to find something new or rewarding in their lives, they take up with a hipster couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), who are not all that they appeared to be, although we know for sure they are hipsters because they 1) live in a loft in Brooklyn, 2) ride bikes, 3) make their own ice cream.  I could go on, but I think you get the point.

That is a very brief description, I realize; hope you got the gist of the spirit of the piece and kinda sorta can determine the direction and shape the narrative will take. There are, of course, additional details which deal with the interpersonal relationships, not just of the principal characters, but also with:

  • the growing estrangement from one’s close friends who are now dealing with their newly-established parenthood (somewhat relateable)
  • the continuing struggle (even in middle age – yes folks it never stops) to find one’s footing in the world (very relateable).

In the case of the latter, it is Ben Stiller’s character, a filmmaker dealing with living in the shadows of his father in law (played by Charles Grodin). There is an ironically meant subplot dealing with the subject of Stiller’s documentary, a professor played by Peter Yarrow or “Peter, Paul and Mary” fame.

Having quite enjoyed Baumbach’s previous outing, Frances Ha, I had a degree of goodwill when this was presented as a “surprise screening” at the festival. And while While We’re Young is clearly a well-made film with some solid performances and a good soundtrack, I found myself sitting through the screening quite disengaged from the action. That is to say this film might not be for everyone.

I am curious though – have any of you seen it? And if so, what were your thoughts? Hit the comments section below and SHARE SHARE SHARE!

NYFF52 in the Rearview: Mr. Turner (2014)

Mike Leigh’s latest feature, Mr. Turner is a wonderfully evocative biopic about the life of English painter J.M.W Turner (1775-1851), played by Timothy Spall (Cannes Film Festival Award winner, Best Actor).

Many art enthusiasts may know the name not only for the work the landscape artist produced but, also for the prestigious prize that bears his name.

As per the director’s statement:

[Mr. Turner] is about the tensions and contrasts between this very mortal man and his timeless work, between his fragility and his strength. It is also an attempt to evoke the dramatic changes in his world over the last quarter century of his life.

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Although we enter his life story past the midway point (punctuated by the death of his father), we see his art transforming before our very eyes. A closer examination of his work (which the film refers to) shows that as the years progressed, his work got more and more abstract, reflecting his own emotional turmoil and internal conflict. And be sure, there was a lot to have caused Turner to look inward and be troubled. Aside from the acute sadness he experiences upon the passing of a most beloved father, there were a host of romantic entanglements:

  • the love of his housemaid, which he did not return, but instead exploited to his own personal satisfaction,
  • the strained relationship between himself and a former partner (and their two illegitimate children),
  • and the secret, common law relationship at the end of his life with a woman with whom he would live out his days in the London district of Chelsea.

Leigh ‘paints’ this phase of Turner’s life by showing the people, places and events that influenced his work. There must be a great freedom in being about to do this when you have a stable of actors with whom one frequently collaborates. For star Spall, this is his fifth Mike Leigh feature. The rest of the principle cast including Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Lesly Manville, have also all worked with him in a variety of productions for television, film and the stage.

So effective was the way this film is constructed and presented, that my screening guest had not realized until our post-screening chat, that the film is based on an actual person. I point this out because I see it as a great credit to the work. Where many biopics are clearly telegraphed as such, in Mr, Turner you still retain some of that linearity, but in addition you are treated to a story that has an artistic and dramatic flare, more often associated with straight narrative features.

NYFF 52 in the Rearview: Life of Riley (2014)

The final film of renowned French filmmaker Alain Resnais (Hiroshima mon amour, Night and Fog), Life of Riley is adapted from the play Alan Ayckbourn’s of the same name. It tells the story of a group of friends coming to terms with the imminent passing of one of their own, the unseen George Riley.

Of course it can’t be THAT straightforward – as there are romantic entanglements and complications which remind the players (and the audience) that even in the midst of death, there is still a lot of life to be enjoyed.

LifeofRiley4

Photo Credit: Kino Lerber, Inc.

Set in the English countryside, Life of Riley comes off as a sort of contemporary comedy of manners. Sure at the center of the action is a morbid cloud of death looms large over the party, this film manages to balance this maudlin sentiment while also delivering some laughs for the audience.

A work of pure imagination – location shots and traditional cinematic production design crafted to replicate the real environs of the world of the rural English middle classes, is replaced with a creative mix of still photography, closeups, ‘pop’-ish renderings and sets that look like they are taken directly from a stage production.

Initially, it was a bit of a jarring experience. But once I settled into the film I was able to go with it and enjoy it.

 

A Kino Lerber release (French with subtitles).