An ILC Look at: Palo Alto (2014)

Based on a collection of short stories written by James Franco (themselves influenced by his own upbringing in Palo Alto, California), Palo Alto is a tale of disaffected youth, ‘love’ and teen angst in suburbia.

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Sure, this is not an entirely new ground in the canon of teen cinema, but I feel like filmmaker (Gia Coppola in her feature directorial film debut) is trying to bring something a little fresher to the often-told story.

The plot circles around a group of high school students – April (Emma Roberts), the class virgin, Teddy (Jack Kilmer) the introspective artist whose best friend Fred (Nat Wolff) is a bit of a rebel (probably did not get adequately disciplined as a young child).

All of these relationships are challenged and pushed to their limits by romantic complications. April babysits for her single dad soccer coach (James Franco), who seems to have taken an all to keen interest in her, while Teddy pines for April in anguished silence. Not to be left out of the love maze, Fred drifts around in a romantic minefield of his own involving his dealings with Emily (Zoe Levin), a promiscuous loner, who uses her sexuality to form bonds with people.

Palo Alto can be easily dismissed as yet another navel gazing examination of lives that are more or else taken for granted. But maybe that is the point – maybe, just maybe the goal is to show the audience a detached and cynical peek into their lives.

Among the things the film has in its favor – some sincere performances from its cast and a visual style that keeps you watching. For me, this balances itself out with those moments in the film where the plot seemed to amble on a tangent and feel a bit disjointed. I attributed this to the challenges faced when trying to create a consistent, balanced narrative from a collection of stories. Also with an intentionally ambiguous ending, the audience will leave the cinema with a few questions unanswered. But for me, as time passed, the answers to those questions became less and less important to solve – the experience of the film was satisfying enough.

Photo Credit: Tribeca Film Institute/Tribeca Film Festival

Video Review: What’s Your Number? (2011)

The genesis for this write up is simple. Girlfriends talking about Chris Evans. Trust, the discussion was innocent enough and concluded with my friend recommending that I catch the 2011  film What’s Your Number? So I did and here is what I thought about it.

Obviously if I cared enough to write about it, I feel some kind of way … granted, the end result is a rather lukewarm.

A rom-com based on the book by Karyn Bosnak (“20 Times a Lady”) What’s Your Number? stars Anna Faris as Ally, who, after reading a magazine article in a ladies’ mag, concludes she is going to be forever alone. Thus begins her rather interesting trip down memory lane.  As she goes on this quest, she is tormented (and helped) by her “free-loving” neighbor, played by Chris Evans. I do not have to go into too much detail, I suppose, as the plot does move along quite as one would expect with such a central premise.

An often over-used trope in many a film, one of my favorite parts of the movie were the numerous exes that were cameos. If any of you are so inclined to catch this flick, I will do you a solid and not spill who pop up on screen.

Anna Faris (who also received producer credits on the film), has some chuckle-worthy moments to be sure. But like in so many of her other performances, I feel her comedic talent is not fully exploited. And well, Chris Evans is Chris Evans and does his thing as the sexy neighbor who the audience will have no problem rooting for. Besides, I think he is just happy to be shooting a film in his hometown of Boston.

Where the film most notably lets down the side is that it does not go far enough in its critique of the women’s magazines and the ‘advice’ and ‘expert tips’ they dispense at the expense of readers’ sanity and exercise of free will and common sense. There is definitely enough ‘there’ there to poke fun at and turn the published words on themselves for a good laugh.

So the final verdict: It’s on video, so on a quiet weekend evening in, it will pass as entertaining enough, thanks to Anna Faris.

What's your number

Keep On Keepin’ On (TFF 2014)

My final individual entry for my recap of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival is the documentary Keep On Keepin’ the awesome documentary about the life and times of jazz pioneer and nonogenarian, Clark Terry.

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A gifted trumpeter in his own right, he took his greatest pride in mentoring young artists in the way of jazz. His first and probably most famous protege is his first – one Quincy Jones, who actually features at moments in the documentary.

Spanning over four years, filmmaker Alan Hicks’ directorial debut takes a look back at Terry’s life and times while also paralleling his story with that of his most recent student, Justin Kauflin, a 20-something piano prodigy. On the surface, you would think these two people could probably not form a lasting bond beyond their musical tastes. However, they do in large part, as a result of enduring personal physical setbacks. In the case of Kauflin, it is a congenital eye disease that has left him completely blind by the time he reached adolescence. For Terry, his blindness was brought upon by a long battle with diabetes.

In spite of these crippling ailments, each artist, together and in their own right, finds a way to do as the title suggests – keep on keepin’ on.

This is an excellent story for anyone who loves jazz (of course), witnessing a living testimony to music and its history of over half of the twentieth century and a tale of rather unexpected friendship.

 

Photo Credit: Tribeca Film Festival

Love and Engineering (TFF 2014)

The title (Love & Engineering) and the premise (Is there an algorithm for love?) sounded so enticing, I knew this would be on my must-see list at Tribeca this year.

In brief, Bulgarian engineering student Atanas  lives in Finland and has decided that he has  found the “solution” to finding love and marriage in this crazy crazy world. He decides to share his “algorithm” with a group of test subjects – fellow male engineering students. This film is a document of that experiment.

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At times the film is whimsical and noteworthy – from some statements made about women’s mating proclivities to some of the devices or “hacks” they use when going out on dates – makes it a fun watch. In viewing, one must be willing to admit that part of the laughs come at the expense of the young men, who find themselves in some rather awkward situations and respond in very unconventional ways. I direct you to the scenes with the blind dates …

At one point, however, the film veered into some unexpected drama that finds a couple of the subjects in conflict with one another. It felt a little uncomfortable to watch at times, but that is just me.

The film wraps up in a rather philosophical spirit with the one of the engineers coming to his own conclusions about unlocking the “love code.” I will leave it to you to guess this endpoint.

Photo Credit: Tribeca Film Festival

The Battered Bastards of Baseball (TFF 2014)

The Battered Bastards of Baseball (Chapman and Maclain Way, directors) is a documentary of a time and place in baseball’s history which is long, long forgotten. It is the world of the independent farm team and focuses on the appropriately named Portland Mavericks, a team founded and run by Bing Russell (1926-2003; aka Clem Foster of Bonanza fame), character actor and father of Hollywood star Kurt Russell.

battered bastards of baseball

The brief life of the team (1973-77) is chronicled in wonderful detail. Part historical account, part biography, we see that although he had a successful career acting in a steady stream of movies and television programs, Bing Russell’s lifelong passion for the American pastime never left him. His being involved in organized baseball against many odds is a moving testament to the power never letting go of your dreams.

As for the Mavericks’ own story, in it we have a David/Goliath tale which found Russell constantly butting up against Major League Baseball, who was at this time was near completion of the systematic dismantling of the independent minor league franchises and enveloping them into the MLB farm network.

With all of this happening, the Portland Mavericks never lost their spirit or love for the game. Archived footage and a few present day interviews with players, family members and team supporters, showed a motley crew of fun and unique personalities. I liken it to a Bad News Bears: The Adult Years.

(Fun fact: the Mavericks ball boy was none other than award-winning actor/director Todd Field).

I have always felt that baseball, while being possibly not the most exciting event to watch live, makes for great storytelling and The Battered Bastards of Baseball is no exception. The story with all of its moving parts will leave you engaged and entertained until the very end and maybe even afterwards …

Photo Credit: Tribeca Film Institute

When the Garden Was Eden (TFF 2014)

Another documentary from actor and filmmaker Michael Rapaport (Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest), Tribeca Film Festival opener When the Garden Was Eden is a must see film for any sports fan, especially the species known as the ever-suffering New York Knickerbocker Fandom. I mean it has been really, really hard for us (20 years since a NBA finals appearance, really?).

In a story that seems tailor-made for New York City (it’s also based on Harvey Araton’s best-selling book of the same name), When the Garden Was Eden blends archival footage with first-hand accounts of players and observers alike of that magical time – all set against the tumult of a city weakened and made even more cynical by the social unrest and urban blight of the time.

Growing up I was regaled (via family and the local sports networks) with stories of this team, punctuated, by the image of a broken-limbed Willis Reed hobbling onto the court of Madison Square Garden during Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. Watching this film shed a whole new perspective for me and really drove home just how legendary this squad individually and collectively was and continues to be to this very day. I mean seriously. Recently as I was walking down Fifth Avenue and passed by Bill Bradley. Giddy with excitement, I immediately texted my brothers. It was that exciting …

Lastly, hindsight is always 20/20, but I really felt like this film also calls to the audience’s attention the harbinger of what would start to happen in the late 70’s and 80’s in terms of making the NBA true sports entertainment commodity.

Well, I guess it could have only have started in New York!

New York Knicks

When the Garden Was Eden will air as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series (actual airdates TBD).

Photo Credit: Tribeca Film Festival

Art and Craft (TFF 2014)

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Part caper, psycho-medical study and poses some questions about what defines art, the documentary Art and Craft (which started out life as a Kickstarter project) held my attention from beginning to end. The film delivers the story by framing the it with the classic cat and mouse between forger Mark Landis and one of his victims, Matthew Leininger, who until recently was an art registrar based in Cincinnati. Leininger has made it his life’s mission to bring Landis to justice for his grand deceptions.

While the true motives of Landis, however explained in the film, remain a bit of a mystery, no one can dismiss the fact that he is very talented. As someone who herself has tried (and failed on more than one occasion) to replicate various pieces of art *, I can attest to the difficulties in accomplishing this feat. And he undoubtedly does it. But I guess that is the point – how else would he have been able to fool all of these institutes over the past 30 years? And be sure, he was conned a lot of folks, as the film so helpfully and directly illustrates for the audience.

There are a couple of interesting plot details that I do not want to give away, but let me just say that this is a story that anyone who loves art and the art of the chase (with just the right amount of humor) should seek out.

Currently the film is making the rounds at film festivals all over the country, so stay tuned to the official website for more general release information.

 

*Note: often when taking an art class, you are asked to replicate a piece of art or at least, use a piece as a source of ‘inspiration’ for an assignment.

Photo Credit: Tribeca Institute

Beneath The Harvest Sky (TFF 2014)

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In Beneath the Harvest Sky you have a poignant and evocative coming-of-age story. Set in a small town on the Maine/Canadian border, the movie tells the tale of two friends – the rebellious Casper (Emory Cohen) and the promising Dominic (Callan McAuliffe) – who long for a life far, far away from where they are now. Their plan is simple – save enough money, head to Boston and start afresh in the big city. Adding tension and complication to this scheme is Capser’s involvement in the illegal activities of his estranged father (Aiden Gillen).

In short, I really enjoyed this film. Through the writing, direction and performances, this film offers up a genuine, raw portrayal of rural American life and the people who often feel trapped by it. This is a promising and commendable narrative directorial debut by co-directors Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly.

Beneath the Harvest Sky is currently enjoying a limited, staggered release in select cities and is also available OnDemand and in other digital platforms.

Belle (2014)

One of my anticipated films of the year, Belle was released yesterday in NYC and LA. So let’s talk about it.

Gugu Mbatha Raw

A while back, I wrote a somewhat lengthy piece expressing my anticipation about seeing this film, so I will not go into extensive detail recapping the who’s what’s, where’s and why’s of this true story.

I know a lot of promotional pieces are pitching it as a “true-life” Jane Austen story that has a relevant and important social/political/historical seam running through it. I suppose that is pretty accurate; as a point of comparison, when I heard this, my mind went to the 1999 Austen adaptation of Mansfield Park, a film that for its own purposes took liberties with the mention of slavery in the source material and made it a central theme in the movie. The result (and response by many) was mixed at best. At least here with Belle, we have something that is close to the ground since you are dealing with the lives of real people.

And while there is certainly the overarching theme of slavery and Britain’s role in it, the film is also have a very personal story in which the players are burdened by issues of identity, perpetuated by race, gender and class.

Of course the matters of race predominate the story as we are seeing the film principally through the eyes of the titular character (called Dido in the film), played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Her mother dead and her Naval officer father unable to care for her, she is brought up alongside her cousin Elizabeth on a great English country estate under the watchful eye of her uncle (Tom Wilkinson), aunts (Emily Watson and Penelope Wilton). Dido and Elizabeth basically grow up as sisters, but as they reach adulthood, the circumstances of their lives means they are set on divergent paths, as the aforementioned matters of race, economic and gender dynamics affect them in different way.

gugu mbatha-raw, belle

One of the more welcoming elements of the film that resonated for me were the moments realness and honesty. I affectionately recall (and can somewhat relate to) one scene when Dido is combing her hair with some difficulty. It was just one of many flashes of levity that breathed fresh air into the film. Kudos to director Amma Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay; it is a credit to them that their collective vision elicits this response from their audience. It is also important to note that they are both woman of African descent (black British), which from my POV explains why many elements of film work so well especially as the discussion of the role Africa slaves and women play in this society.  This project is a great example of the importance of why diversity in the stories that are told in cinema matters.

As I am writing this, I am realizing just how taken by the film I am – the set pieces, the performances all around (I could write a paragraph on Miranda Richardson alone – but this shout out will have to suffice); nearly everything regarding this film made it an enjoyable watch for me. Why should I be so surprised? you might ask. Well, I guess I am slightly bemused because when I looked at my notes for Belle immediately following the screening last week, there were comments about how I thought the dialogue in places was a bit too predictable, which, in hindsight still remains a valid point in my  opinion. But with a little distance from the film, I find this a somewhat forgivable offense, given it is probably down to my (over)familiarity with Regency/19th century/Austen romantic dramas and their associated tropes. But let this serve as a warning to you, especially if you find yourself ‘calling the lines’ before they are delivered on screen.

Belle 2014

So all in all, yeah, you should still definitely seek this out, because there is enough “there” there to keep you engaged and entertained.

 

Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Caotain America The Winter Soldier

Well I am going to make this one short and sweet since this film has been out for a minute. Not that it will matter in the grand scheme of things, because I am assuming by now anyone who wants to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier will already have done so. But heck,

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… so I will talk about it, especially for that one person out there who cares what my thoughts concerning are.

For me, this second entry into the Captain America oeuvre was probably the most cinematic of any comic book adaptation. I know that is a large statement but let me list why I feel this way:

  • Great character development: I really felt connected to the stories that people that told them. I especially liked the touch of Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) being “reunited” with the love he lost to time. Even though there was one scene, this plot point reverberated throughout most of the film.
  • Properly executed dramatic tension: Of course I felt like I knew where the story was going and that certain “developments” were not as they appeared, but still, as everything unfolded I felt vested in the outcome.
  • Cast: Everyone did an admirable job in the performance area, with a special shout out to Robert Redford, was effective as someone playing against type. The one disappointment: not enough Anthony Mackie.
  • Speaking of Redford…: I do not think it is an accident that Redford chose this project to affiliate himself with, given the major theme involved (questions of surveillance and national security). Captain America: The Winter Soldier is in some way a throwback to that Watergate-era level of heightened paranoia.
  • The sense of time/place/nostalgia: It was really cool to see Rogers readjust to life in a modern America. His notepad charting all the seminal political, social, and cultural events that took place during the mid-late 20th century was a nice contemporary history lesson.
  • The now over-discussed movie references: I caught some of them while screening and had to look up a couple of others post.
  • Jenny Agutter kicking butt and taking names: Sure there is a twist to this scene, but it was cool to see a recipient of an OBE (look it up) in fine, fighting form.
  • Nice setup …: … for what I am assuming is the concluding chapter of Captain America (as embodied in the form of Steve Rogers, perhaps?), the setup is quite nice. The ending (not the post credits one) clearly shows that this is but an intermission to a play that has not yet concluded. It will be interesting to see how this story is possibly woven into the next installment of Avengers.

Well that is me done. How about you? Did you like Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Share your comments below.