A Decade Under the Influence (2003)

Watching the TCM Premiere of the 1973 crime drama The Seven Ups got me all up in my 1970s cinematic feels. During the live tweeting with my fellow TCM viewers (TCMParty represent!) I was reminded of all the awesome films that came out during this decade. This got me reflecting a bit, like why hadn’t I been on this 1970’s cinema train until recently? Maybe since I was born in the mid-late 1970’s, I always dismissed the cinematic achievements of the period. Or maybe, rather age and experience has given me a level of cinematic sophistication to appreciate the 1970s cultural landscape a bit more. Whatever the actual cause, I am all the better for it.

A Decade Under the Influence Still

The 2003 IFC documentary, A Decade Under the Influence, co-directed by Richard LaGravense and Ted Demme (who sadly passed away before production on the film was complete), is a statement of the times and how what the audiences saw on screen was a reflection that heralded a new era in moviemaking and cinematic storytelling.

My immediate reaction after watching this film was wowsa. The 1970’s ran the gambit and offered quite possibly some of the most creative, innovative and liberating films in the history of Hollywood. I will touch on the whys of that statement in a second.

With all of this creative explosion and freedom, there was bound to be a downside. As the decade drew to a close, the engine that drove these films and exposed them to mainstream popularity came up against the business of show’s commercial interests. One result is the introduction of our current risk-averse moviemaking model.

Now back to the whys – the documentary cites several reasons; among them:

  •  As the old guard, i.e., the moguls who founded Hollywood started to die and be replaced by corporate entities, the hold studios had over its stars became more and more tenuous. This decline in the studio system also meant that the ability of movie stars to ensure box office success left the system at a crossroads.
  • As the adage goes “Desperate times call for desperate measures.” The loss of fortune and drive to recoup some of the losses created a ripe environment for young filmmakers to express themselves with limited studio interference.
  • Coming out of the social upheaval (and subsequent ‘social confusion’) of the 1950’s and 1960’s these mavericks put on film what were, as one interviewee in documentary explained was a celebration of the victories gained during this time. And audiences for a time were attracted to this.
  • Borrowing from what came before both in the studio system as well as cinema from around the world, these filmmakers and talent had a worldliness and ‘education’ that stretched their creative boundaries.

Interwoven with interviews with many of the movers and shakers* of the decade are clips from some of the more notable films, which range from the small and personal statement to the crowd-pleasing blockbusters.

Not explored at great length was the Blaxploitation films and the Asian influence, notably Hong Kong martial arts films to the West. Maybe these topics are just too broad for the focus of this documentary; heck, they probably deserve their own space (wink, wink filmmakers).

Another notable omission I observed was the “all-star” disaster movies (The Poseidon Adventure, Airport, The Towering Inferno). One theory: these films do not fit into the social context of many of the films discussed in the documentary. I would further argue that this subgenre could tie into the death throws of the studio system and, as a last ditch effort to bank on star power, led the studios to join forces. The result – the production of mega-watt disaster flicks. Again, maybe this series of films is deserving of its own more detailed retrospective.

Even with these omissions, A Decade Under the Influence wonderfully chronicles the changing landscape of cinema as an art form and as a going concern. It is almost a master class that will add vastly to your list of films to take a look at.

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* It would be remiss of me NOT to mention at least some of the folks interviewed in this documentary, that is chock full of key influencers; here are just a few: Sydney Pollack, Paul Schrader, Francis Ford Coppola, Pam Grier, Jon Voight, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, Roger Corman, Dennis Hopper, Bruce Dern, Polly Platt, Julie Christie, Brian DePalma, Roy Scheider, Paul Mazursky, Milos Forman and Robert Towne.

Video Review: Austenland (2013)

I may not be the most die-hard, but I most certainly consider myself an Austen-ite. I have read and love many of her books, as well as enjoyed many of the film adaptations. I even enjoy those films outside of the Austen cannon – the television programs Lost in Austen and Death Comes to Pemberley immediately come to mind. So you can imagine my excitement when I discovered that there would be a new addition to the Austen-verse coming to a big screen near me late last year. Although I did not see it when released last summer, I recently caught up with the rom-com Austenland on video.

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Co-authored by Jerusha Hess and Shannon Hale, directed by Hess and produced by Stephanie Meyer (yeah, the Twilight vampire lady), Austenland is the tale of 30-something Jane (Kerry Russell), who apparently like more than a few women of her generation, holds up Pride and Prejudice (and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in particular) as ‘the ultimate’ romantic ideal. Her personal life in shambles, she decides to indulge this romantic fantasy of hers by booking a trip to Regency-era England and the pleasures of Austenland – a resort for fans of Ms. Austen where visitors are treated to live out their fantasy of being a heroine in a story of their own making. For some additional fun, a group of actors has been enlisted to interact and engage with the guests; it is cosplay at its most ‘refined.’

As one would expect, there are romantic entanglements, intrigues, twists and turns throughout the remainder of the story.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, full disclosure – I have not read the source material. That said, I would not pass up the opportunity, for the concept of the story sounds like something that would interest me.

However, after seeing the film, I get the sense that something went missing or got lost in translation during the course of adapting the text to the silver screen. Many of the scenes felt empty and disjointed. The acting was not bad, but the characterizations seemed more often than not to fall into caricature, thus leaving me with no one to root (or not) for. But maybe that was the point, especially for the actors within the story that were playing along with the guests. I don’t know really, because frankly, I was not compelled to think too hard on it; I just felt ‘meh’ about the whole experience. Even the ‘outtakes’ credits fell flat for me.

Overall, I think my disappointment in Austenland was compounded by my earlier anticipation. Seriously, I was looking forward to a light, entertaining comedic confection that would provide me with a fresh Austen fix. But as the credits rolled, I went back to thinking of all the Austen-themed films I have enjoyed over the years and soon after, rewatched the 1995 version of Persuasion to remind myself of what I loved (and missed).

Sundance ’14 Dramatic Spotlight: Dear White People

In my final cinematic recap for Sundance 2014, I would like to take a look at the film Dear White People.

Dear White People, Sundance Film Festival 2014

Dear White People is the directorial debut for Justin Simien, uses the setting of a fictional elite university to examine issues of racial identity and conflict in a ‘post-racial’ America.

The film looks at the dynamics of various subgroups on the campus by focusing the dorm life of the predominantly African American Armstrong/Parker house and contrasting it with the “establishment’s” university humor magazine The Pastiche. The interaction within and between these two organizations sets the stage for increasing tension and conflict that culminates into a major incident that touches all of the main characters.

Speaking of characters, instead of looking through the lens of one principal character, Simien wants to challenge our perceptions by creating a multi-protagonist story, meaning that at any given time, the narrative is being controlled by a different character or set of characters. Projecting the narrative from these various points of view is a clever device that takes the edges off of a sensitive topic, allowing the film to accessible to a diverse audience.

For the most part, this tactic works. While I obviously am not able to relate to every single perspective, based on the strength and ability of the performance, I was more or less convinced of where the various characters were coming from. Although the depth of character development for some characters slips at times, I do think there is enough there ‘there’ to show their motivations and actions are not just coming out of thin air but rather are affected by circumstance and experience.

Overall, I liked the film for what it was aiming to do. In many ways, it brought me back to my own college days (way back when) and my observations of the racial politics and how they operated (or not) on a major campus. In relating to the subject matter, I dare hope I was able to find deeper levels to the humor presented in the film.

Clearly the subject matter and content was something that folks at Sundance were clamoring for, as the buzz generated from the film meant I was seated in a packed house for the screening I attended. At the conclusion of the film, we were treated to a few words from the director and members of the cast during a post-screening Q&A.

Kudos to filmmaker Justin Simien for charging out of the gate with a film that tackles a provocative and timely topic while still managing to inform us AND make us laugh.

 

Image courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Sundance ’14: The Trip to Italy

The Trip to Italy, Sundance Film Festival 2014

Two men, six meals in six different places on a road trip around Italy. Liguria, Tuscany, Rome, Amalfi and ending in Capri.

With The Trip to Italy, director Michael Winterbottom brings us back on the road with comedians Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in his follow up to 2010’s The Trip, which saw Coogan and Brydon go on a similar tour of the tastes and sights of northern England.

Without question, this is simply a film you just sit back and go with. I mean it is set in Italy for goodness sake! I really do not think that there is a way to shoot the splendor and beauty of Italy in a bad way. And when you add what can only be described as food porn to the mix, you have my interest AND my attention.

Aesthetics and culinary convention aside, the banter between stars Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan seems almost effortless and will leave you in stitches. In fact during the Q&A that followed the screening I attended, Coogan and Brydon said a lot of what we see on screen was the result of taking the moment and seeing where it led, all while the camera was rolling.

But it is not all laughs and giggles as some of their life’s complications enter the mix. But they are handled quite well and offer a nice balance that contrasts all the laughs that are to be in the movie.

Although this narrative of The Trip to Italy involves a fictionalized version of the actors’ real lives, this parallel live portrayal of theme as public is always something fascinating to watch. I feel that it must be quite fun for a performer to play because it allows you to exaggerate or dampen those parts of yourself that you might want to suppress or express in your actual life.

As a member of the audience The Trip to Italy sure is a fun ride that is guaranteed to entertain, leave you hungry and make you want to go out and purchase Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill.

 

Photo Courtesy of The Sundance Institute

Film Synopsis Courtesy of IFC Films

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.

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.

Don John (2013), Written, Directed and Starring Joseph Gordon Levitt

As far as directorial debuts go, Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Don Jon is quite an auspicious one.

A rather unconventional romantic comedy, Don Jon follows the romantic travails of the eponymous Jon (played by Levitt), I suppose one would classify him as a “stud,” and who balances his structured life with an unhealthy relationship with a very specific form of “online entertainment.”

All of this comes awry when he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) a seductive woman who has her own perspective on love and romance and with all of her best efforts tries to find that ideal in the form of Jon. She wants her ‘happily ever after.’ For the filmgoer, these characters represent dueling sides of expectations for love, sex and relationships. Between the laughs and these somewhat divergent views there is an ambivalence that resides in the middle, replete with life’s ups and downs. This is why the film ends the way it does – “real talk” in the truest cinematic sense.

Film Title: Don Jon

Performance wise, everyone serves his or her roles quite well. JGL seems an unlikely “player,” but he acquits himself well. His leading lady, ScarJo goes back to her “Noo Yawk” roots and plays a manipulative vixen very well. In a small, but key to the plot supporting role, Julianne Moore does what she does best. Other performances of note include Brie Larson as his silent yet observant sister and Tony Danza, as the tree from whence Jon comes. Finally, as an added treat, there are a couple of cameo appearances in the film.

Film Title: Don Jon

All of this aside, are there aspects of the narrative that I wished were more fully formed? Of course – in particular, as an exercise in exploring a very paradoxical cultural fascination with female sexuality (often in its most explicit form), I am not sure the film will resonate with any but the most self-aware of individuals. Still, it is start. I think that this type of artistic refinement is a skill that will come with practice. Hopefully, JGL will continue to hone his craft and become a skillful and effective storyteller.

Film Title: Don Jon

 

 

 

i luv cinema Pick: Blue Caprice (2013)

Blue Caprice is director Alexandre Moors’ debut feature and tells the story of Beltway Sniper, John Allan Muhammed (portrayed by Isaiah Washington) and his protégé/accomplice, teen Lee Boyd Malvo (played by Tequan Richmond).  While the film centers on the events 2002 reign of terror, there is also a strong emphasis on the twisted ‘father/son’ bond that developed between the two men.

BlueCaprice

Moors, through his steady handling of the subject, succeeds in creating and maintaining a high level of dramatic tension while also weaving into the film archival footage from the events that terrorized the metro Washington, D.C. area in October 2002. Although we know WHAT is going to happen, the story captures its audience by telling the HOW and (possibly) WHY.

I for one was watching in anticipation for that flashpoint which could have possibly marked the point of no return for the main characters (on film and in real life, which I am guessing was one of the director’s intentions when pursuing this project).

Obviously for purposes of the narrative, some of the information and details have been slightly altered and/or condensed, but not in any manner, at least by my opinion, that takes the story in any exploitative direction. The film could have gone the route of showing in graphic detail the horrors of the shootings, but instead handles the subject in a tactful manner all without minimizing the sheer terror surrounding the incident

For my part, as the credits drew to a close,  the one thing I think the film does make abundantly clear is Muhammed using Malvo as a pawn and proxy for the murderous rampage – by falsely representing things noticeably absent Malvo’s life: a father figure and stable home life. It was a compelling and ultimately sad thing to watch unfold onscreen.

While Washington and Richmond dominate the action on screen with aplomb, Tim Blake Nelson and Joey Lauren Adams each put in solid performances as Muhammed’s army buddy and wife, with whom Muhammed and Malvo stay as Muhammed grooms Malvo to execute his plan.

Even before seeing this film, it had made my list of films of note from this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Its thoughtful execution reaffirms this.

Blue Caprice is currently in select cinemas and available for rental/streaming through SundanceNow.

‘Touchy Feely’ Left Me Feeling ……

Written and directed by Lynn Shelton (Humpday, Your Sister’s Keeper, Safety Not Guaranteed), Touchy Feely stars Rosemarie DeWitt and Josh Pais as a sibling pair that could not be any more dissimilar.

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Abby (DeWitt) is a Seattle-based masseur renowned for her ability to heal her clientele through her remarkable touch. Her brother Paul (Pais) on the other hand is a dentist with a practice that is fledgling, to say the very least. He is assisted in office by his equally emotionally awkward daughter Jenny (Ellen Page), with whom he has a strange co-dependent relationship.

Everyone’s lives are turned upside down, when almost simultaneously – Abby develops a crippling aversion to human bodily contact, while Paul sees his business thrive with reports of his having the ability to heal all ailments of the mouth. As one can imagine this reversal of fortune on the professional front has reverberations on their emotional and personal lives. Abby’s ‘touch-o-phobia’ hinders her relationship with boyfriend (Scoot McNarry). Contrastly, Paul begins a  journey to discover the source of his newly gained powers, thus bringing him into the sphere of Bronwyn (Allison Janney).

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While it had its funny (and emotionally resonate) moments, I should readily admit that this type of film is not necessarily my cup of tea – too high a ‘quirkiness quotient.’ Don’t get me wrong, the performances are well delivered and evoke a degree of sincerity, but in the end, I felt like in trying to be offbeat, Touchy Feely missed a beat, leaving me exiting the screening with more questions than I was happy with. For example, the B-story of Jenny (Page) seems a bit trivial and inconsequential to the overall plot mechanics in my opinion. In many ways, it feels like it was an add-on to put Page’s acting on display. This quibble also relates to a larger problem I had with the film – the pacing and editing sometimes left me WHERE I was in the story and how one moment connected to another. This did not occur frequently, but the unevenness cropped up enough to give me pause for the duration of the film.

Ultimately, Touchy Feely is a well-intentioned film but its heavy-handedness in the direction of the unconventional, make it a miss for me.