Monday, April 30, 2018

Filmbound - Episode 13: Unsane

With end of the semester projects, Ebertfest, another trip out of town, and various other things devouring my time, I've slipped behind in posting these entries about new podcast episodes.  That the thirteenth episode of FILMBOUND was published twelve days ago, while feeling like it was months ago, is indicative of how my recent experience of time has felt particularly unmoored.  Never fear, I'm not suggesting I'm having any uncertainties about what's real and what isn't, unlike Claire Foy's protagonist in UNSANE.  For me it's a situation more along the lines of everything moving so quickly that the past feels farther away than it really is.

Regardless of the degree to which I like director Steven Soderbergh's films, the product-minded side of me appreciates that he turns out new work with an often-startling frequency compared to other major filmmakers.  His willingness to experiment--or mess around with methods more visibly than his peers--appeals to my process-minded side.  The equipment, techniques, and format Soderbergh used for UNSANE seem crucial in developing how he tells this story, so in opening the podcast discussion about this, I didn't expect to encounter my co-host's objections to the director's choice to shoot the film with an iPhone.

I won't try to characterize Paul's stance but rather leave the podcast discussion to convey what he thinks and where our conversation led.  Still, I did want to say a little more about an aspect of one of his criticisms.  Whether Soderbergh was using an iPhone for the sake of using one or, as I believe, he employed it for qualities particularly suited to the material, should the intent ultimately matter?  If he was doing it just to prove he could, why should the audience hold that against him and the film except in determining if it was successful?  I've heard or read this criticism that artists are showing off, particularly when pushing techniques and style to the limit, but rather than leveling accusations of creator arrogance, such a charge really seems to mean that complainants didn't like the outcome.

Upcoming episodes

-April 25: READY PLAYER ONE and a discussion about the benefits and detriments of Rotten Tomatoes
-May 2: A QUIET PLACE and our recommendations segment
-May 9: ISLE OF DOGS and the creation of the FILMBOUND canon
-May 16: I FEEL PRETTY and our recommendations segment

Friday, April 20, 2018

2018 Roger Ebert's Film Festival: Day 2

If the first day of the 20th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival inspired looking at the past, the second day pointed thoughts about the past and present toward the future.  Whether this emerging structure was intended or it's simply what stood out because of where my head is at currently, I like the balance of noticing what used to be and not allowing it to dictate how things should remain.  One can appreciate and respect the past without believing that today and tomorrow must be defined on yesterday's terms.  Don't misunderstand me, I'm not suggesting throwing out everything that has preceded.  That knowledge should be built upon, not permanently fixed.

The present in INTERSTELLAR looks bleak as blight is bringing the last harvests of specific crops, which will inevitably lead to the planet being incapable of growing food at some date.  Dust storms seem likely to bring about all sorts of respiratory issues for the population, especially in the youngest generation.  In Christopher Nolan's 2014 film, the world is no longer at war, perhaps the lone positive byproduct of the perilous environmental situation, but fear of what is ahead has made thinking regressive, something manifested in educators now teaching that space exploration was all a massive constructed lie to gain an edge in the Cold War.

Matthew McConaughey's Cooper understands the practical need to be a farmer, yet he's frustrated how society is essentially barricading itself in its home and embraced denial of reality instead of believing in and working toward a future that could be better.  He becomes involved with a secret outpost of NASA that seeks a new home for humankind in a different galaxy.  While participating means a tremendous personal sacrifice--if he ever returns, he will have missed decades with his children--the alternative is waiting for doomsday to come.  Cooper chooses the more hopeful option, even though it means making the tough choice to leave behind the son and daughter he loves dearly.

INTERSTELLAR is a film of staggering visual wonder that serves as a kind of amusement park ride through a wormhole and into a black hole, yet the father-daughter connection bridging space and time make the greatest impact. Although Nolan can be characterized as a cold, logical filmmaker, here he searches for the unquantifiable in love of family and awe at the universe. The mission into the stars becomes a journey into the heart.

Although the film is just four years old, in the current political atmosphere it plays much differently.  The retrograde developments and fatalistic thinking seem all the more plausible in this pessimistic time.  If only we can have faith that a small, renegade group is still striving to stave off the worst possible outcome for everyone, although the film mitigates the investment we should put into some secret resistance delivering salvation.  Some people may be more qualified to make things better, but in the end everyone needs to pitch in.  It all comes back to the idea that parents make preparations to assist their children even if the full realization of those actions don't arrive until after they are gone.  The past should set the table for the future, not marginalize it.

Ebertfest showed INTERSTELLAR in a 70mm print, which made this one of the potential high points of the festival for me.  I'd seen it in 70mm before but was underwhelmed by the visual result in a better source.  Splashed across the huge screen at the Virginia Theatre, I expected this presentation to deliver what I hoped to see that first time.  While this print was pristine, my experience was the same.  INTERSTELLAR in 70mm lacks the sharpness and clarity that I expect.  Some of the farm scenes, especially in the house, seem dark and lower in detail.  This is not the case with 70mm prints of DUNKIRK, so I'm not sure what the difference is.

Monica Castillo, Selena director Gregory Nava, and Claudia Puig
Gregory Nava's SELENA, a biopic about the Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla-Perez, is the only film to play here in the first two days that I hadn't already seen.  While the film's arc is more about the rise and tragic end of the pop star's life, one of the tensions extends from her father Abraham (Edward James Olmos) resisting the desire of his children, particularly Selena (Rebecca Lee Meza as a child, Jennifer Lopez as a teen and adult), to do things according to their tastes, not his.  As a frustrated former musician, Abraham has certain ideas of how things should be done based on when he was growing up.  While some of his objections, such as his dislike for Selena's more revealing fashions, emanates from a paternal impulse, many of them are rooted in believing that all the answers exist in the past.

SELENA gave a big boost to Lopez's career, and her strong technical performance makes it easy to understand why, although she's limited by a screenplay that doesn't give the character much of an interior life.  My primary criticism of the film is that the writing leaves a lot to be desired, whether it's the information dumps of dialogue or the progression of events that don't fully convey how much Selena's professional status is changing.  As biopics tend to do, SELENA features a greatest hits of anecdotes on her rise to fame, but these scenes feel strangely disconnected until someone unloads some clunky talk to fill in some of the gaps.

I appreciate, though, that Nava doesn't define Selena through her death.  When the film opened, for much of the American public their greatest awareness of her would have been about her murder.  I suspect most filmmakers would have opened SELENA with the tragedy and flashed back to tell the story, but doing so would implicitly say that being killed is why she should be of interest to people, not her talent or accomplishments.  Nava doesn't foreshadow the murder unless you recall who was responsible, which has the weird effect of Selena's fate hanging over the film like the sword of Damocles for those who know it or seeming like a shocking turn virtually out of nowhere for those who are unfamiliar with the outcome.

Nava also does a nice job of depicting the struggle in being Mexican-American, which complicates Selena's professional life by being perceived as not fully either nationality.  There can be a tendency to assume that those with hyphenated identities favor the part that is not American, yet here we see that doing so is often not fair.  Selena's native tongue is English, and she wants to sing in that language.  The system, however, pushes her toward where it thinks she best fits, which mirrors her father's experience of wanting to sing with a doo wop group but facing opposition by the majority culture and his own because of his heritage.

Rebecca Theodore-Vachon, Belle director Amma Asante, and Chaz Ebert
Heritage is also the prism through which Gugu Mbatha-Raw is viewed and treated as Dido Elizabeth Belle in Amma Asante's BELLE.  Based on a true story, Dido has a British father and a slave mother, and her father wishes to have his parents care for her according to the status he gives her while he is away in the Royal Navy.  Her great-uncle and great-aunt, Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson), raise Dido much the same way they do her cousin Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), yet there remain some customs that have her occupy in which her place is above the servants but below the rest of the family.

Dido's young adulthood coincides with an important case regarding the crew of a slave ship disposing of its human cargo and seeking recompense from the insurer.  Lord Mansfield is adjudicating it, and Dido's awareness of the matter shapes her understanding of who she is and how society observes her.

Asante excels at bringing out the economic, social, and political questions in a costume drama and tying their relevance to today.  Race is certainly an important component of what BELLE is examining, but the film also explores the worth and expectations of women in a culture that does not fully value them and actively seeks to bind them to a way of moving through society that limits their potential.  The phrase judicial activism gets lobbed as an accusation nowadays, yet is a strict adherence to the past beneficial?  Lord Mansfield's decision in the Zong case could be interpreted as activism--I suspect any verdict departing from the observer's opinion qualifies as such--even though it seems like the evolution of thought in applying the law.  Again, blanket denial of the past is not the goal, but making the future beholden to what preceded should not be either.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

2018 Roger Ebert's Film Festival: Opening Night

The Fugitive director Andrew Davis introduces his film
Without going into details, it's been a trying year--and one that I anticipate will continue to test me, even if there's nothing life-threatening--so I arrived in Champaign, Illinois for the 20th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival with the hope of taking a breather, if just for a few days.  Granted, simply by being here I'm potentially stressing myself out more as there's work to be done for final projects due in my MBA classes next week.  That's what mornings are for, or so I'm telling myself, and I did work ahead a fair bit to feel as though I could attend this festival yet again and not feel like I'm being irresponsible.  Yes, the brand bible and diagnostic and my portions of a group research project about introducing a mid-size electric vehicle to the Chinese market are not one hundred percent finished, but if I'm being fair with myself, I've made enough progress that I this trip should be guilt-free.

This is my eighteenth consecutive Ebertfest, although it's the first since 2015 that I will be here for every day.  (Those pesky graduate school courses kept me from the first two days in 2016 and opening night last year, sacrifices that I knew were sensible but gnawed at me nevertheless as I sat in those classrooms.)  Truth be told, other festivals that I attend have surpassed this one on the list of my favorites, but it's still near and dear to me because it was the first festival I attended and one that does a lot very well--and differently--to make it worthwhile.

When I reflect on the fact that this is my eighteenth year here, the reality of it is almost impossible to believe.  It doesn't seem that long ago that I first stepped into the Virginia Theatre to see a 70mm print of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY smelling like barbecue because I sat downwind from the local vendor grilling outside the theater for hungry festivalgoers.  The hotel where I stayed during my first time here was torn down many years ago, the Virginia has undergone many renovations to restore its beauty and enhance its comfort, and the Neil Street corridor and downtown Champaign has transformed through a lot of development.  Of course, the festival itself has witnessed dramatic changes, especially as its namesake is no longer here in physical form, although his spirit remains evident in the tone the event sets.

I imagine that if you go to one place or one event year after year after year, it takes on some greater significance because you gradually observe the changes and come to realize that the same things are happening to you.  Blink and there's a corner teeming with restaurants when last you looked there were none.  Wait a minute, I've owned how many cars in that time?  (The answer is four, although one never had the chance to make the trip because it was prematurely terminated by a driver who rear-ended me without braking when I was stopped on the highway.)

I think Ebertfest invites reminiscing, in part because it's not built around new films and also because it possesses a strong nostalgic or sentimental quality.  Moviegoing as a communal experience gets derided for how often it fails us now--or how the rude fail the respectful majority--and it may be diminishing as consumer tastes change, be it because of price, convenience, or whatever factor you wish to blame.  Ebertfest occurs in a single theater and doesn't require pass holders to select between screening options unless there are films they don't want to see.  In that regard it is one big shared experience.  In the early days "overlooked" was in the festival's name.  Oddly enough, the act of seeing a film with a crowd is the sort of thing that may now be overlooked, or undervalued, that it could have a rightful place in the fest's name again.

Richard Roeper, Matt Zoller Seitz, director Andrew Davis, and Scott Mantz
THE FUGITIVE, director Andrew Davis's 1993 thriller based on an old TV show, kicked off the 20th edition of Ebertfest with enough affection for and exploration of Chicago to win over what seems to be an audience dominated by Illinoisans.  (At the fest's attendance peak, people from the Land of Lincoln probably still made up more than half of the crowd, but my impression is that Ebertfest has slowly become more of a local festival in terms of who comes.)  I don't know that I'd seen THE FUGITIVE since its original theatrical run, and aside from a couple of Tommy Lee Jones's highly quoted lines on pre-screening trivia slides in the 1990s, I didn't remember much about it.  If that seems damning, those lines are more than I recall about the sequel U.S. MARSHALS.

While the opening packs a lot of information about the murder of Dr. Richard Kimble's wife and the aftermath into a relatively short period of time, I felt restless waiting for THE FUGITIVE to finish the wind-up and get to the chase.  The practical effects of the train crash that frees Harrison Ford's wrongly accused character impresses and earned appreciative applause from the festival audience.  What sort of shocked me in revisiting the film is how much of it is a process movie, with the character elements kept to a minimum.  I doubt that what thrilled me about THE FUGITIVE in 1993 was how it functions as a tour of various parts of the city and the diverse people encountered along the way, but its time capsule quality, especially if the Chicago accent is disappearing, and the shoe leather beats with the hunter and the hunted are what pulled me in the most now.  Maybe that's also why long stretches of the film play to me as TV, although that may be more reflective of TV now than then.

One of the pleasures of rewatching older films for the first time in a long time is discovering people in bit parts who wouldn't have stood out then but have been there all along. THE FUGITIVE is populated with plenty of faces you'll likely recognize today even if you can't put a name to them.  Just as visiting places once a year over many years facilitates a form of time travel, so too do the movies provide a temporal transport, and a more accessible one at that.  I don't know what journeys await over the next four days at Ebertfest, but I eagerly look forward to taking them.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Filmbound - Episode 12: Minority Report

In the later years of NOW PLAYING Paul Markoff and I adapted the show so that the fifth film reviewed on an episode might be non-current.  We would use that portion of the show to evaluate something one or both of us had never seen but were interested in catching up with, such as Barry Jenkins' debut MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY or THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER.  We would also revisit films, like PULP FICTION, which I hadn't watched in years and my co-host was not won over by when he initially saw it.

With FILMBOUND we want the freedom to take the occasional break from contemporary films, so episode 12 brings us back to MINORITY REPORT.  I realize that a film that came out just sixteen years ago may not seem "old" to many of you reading this, but working with college students, like I do, can disabuse one of the notion that something released a couple years after the turn of the century is relatively recent.  I also thought that it could be fun to compare and contrast daily life today and MINORITY REPORT's speculations of 2054 technology.  Good news for the print industry, home newspaper delivery is still going strong thirty-six years from now!

In the recommendations segment, I go long on extolling the virtues of the True/False Film Festival.  I've attended True/False since 2015 and consider it one of the highlights of my moviegoing year.  I posted grades in my March 2018 Film Log, but for those who want a definitive ranking, here is how I'd group and order every film I saw at the festival:

Best of True/False 2018
1. BISBEE '17

Very Good to Good
7. Secret Screening Gale
8. Secret Screening Mistral
9. GRAVEN IMAGE (short)
15. BABY BROTHER (short)
16. Secret Screening Zephyr


Difficult to Evaluate - No Grade

In last month's film log post I explained why I didn't grade these last two films, and on this podcast I say a little more about wrestling with FLIGHT OF A BULLET.

Upcoming episodes:

-April 18: UNSANE and our recommendations segment
-April 25: READY PLAYER ONE and a discussion about Rotten Tomatoes
-May 2: A QUIET PLACE and our recommendations segment
-May 9: ISLE OF DOGS and the creation of the FILMBOUND canon

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Filmbound - Episode 11: A Wrinkle in Time

Assuming good faith on behalf of the person expressing an opinion ranks near the top of qualities I would like to see change in the internet discourse about films.  A WRINKLE IN TIME reviews elicited a lot of bad faith assumptions about those who didn't like the film and those who did, although my general impression is that those who disliked director Ava DuVernay's fantasy adventure were more likely to assign ulterior motives to the writers of positive reviews.  From samples of what I read, I'm inclined to agree that some, not all, of the favorable reviews seemed willing to give A WRINKLE IN TIME a pass in a manner that I didn't consider particularly persuasive, yet I also need to recognize that I am surely guilty of doing the same thing in some of my assessments. 

Chances are that everyone writing about art does this from time to time.  It's natural to be more generous or protective of those things we have a history of enjoying.  Am I more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to a veteran filmmaker whose prior work I've frequently praised than a new director?  Probably.  The goal is to account for our subjective tendencies and support our opinions so that when our reflexive perspectives emerge in the writing, there is still a solid foundation for the argument.  Obviously that can be easier said than done, so while we all try to be better, let's grant the leeway that people are being genuine with what they put in their reviews, even if we're not always convinced by what they say.

The second part of episode 11 features a discussion about films from about the last fifteen years that were commercial and/or critical flops that Paul and I think may be considered classics in the long run.  I've been reviewing films since 1997, so it's interesting to look back at what dominated conversations and observe which ones have demonstrated more staying power.  Pick a year at random, and then look up the Academy Awards and critics groups' nominees or a critic's best of the year list.  You'll find a number of films or performers that were considered essential to give validity to those lists at the time but have mostly faded from memory while hindsight now reveals what has endured.  (Naturally, this isn't a perfect system, so some things that have fallen off the radar may not deserve it.)  Of course, there's nothing guaranteeing that the films we name in this segment will last, but as we recorded this show a couple weeks after the most recent awards season wrapped, I found it instructive to note that victory in the short run didn't necessarily translate to the long term and vice versa.

Upcoming episodes:

-April 11: MINORITY REPORT and our recommendations segment
-April 18: UNSANE and our recommendations segment
-April 25: READY PLAYER ONE and a to-be-determined topic
-May 2: A QUIET PLACE and our recommendations segment
-May 9: ISLE OF DOGS and a to-be-determined topic

Sunday, April 01, 2018

March 2018 Film Log

My moviegoing March kicked off in a big way with the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri.  It's why I came close to doubling my year's total of films seen in this month alone.  I'll have more to say about it when episode 12 of FILMBOUND is released, but suffice it to say that True/False is one of the highlights of my film year.  (I talk extensively about the festival in the that episode's recommendations segment.)

 I want to point out that I didn't give a grade to HANDSWORTH SONGS from the fest's Neither/Nor section and FLIGHT OF A BULLET because I simply didn't feel equipped to do so.  HANDSWORTH SONGS is very particular to its time and place, and I didn't think I had any handle on the subject to be able to grasp what was being presented.  FLIGHT OF A BULLET is a stickier matter in that the 81-minute, single-take documentary--the duration of an SD card, I'm guessing--lacks context.  Without a frame it can be equal parts intriguing and maddening, especially when the tense first half or so gives way to more banal scenes.  The director was not present at my screening, but an interview with her raises some ethical questions about what is in the film.  The filmmaker was with a Ukrainian militia and shooting footage of a bombed bridge when a bystander questions her right to film the people on the road.  The argument leads to him being threatened and detained for questioning.  The man's identity is not obscured.  Where he lives was identified in the version of the film shown at screenings before it played at True/False, and there's some question as to whether he was killed, perhaps from being in the film.  So that's why I'm dodging the application of a grade for FLIGHT OF A BULLET, a film that can be fascinating, dull, and (potentially) thoroughly problematic in the most serious sense of the word.

I'll also mention that I didn't see three films with secret screening in their official titles.  These films are unknown by festival attendees prior to seeing them, and True/False asks that the title not be publicly revealed.  It's probably not much use to you, but they are listed for my record keeping and for those who know what they are.

-7 Days in Entebbe (José Padilha, 2018): C+

-Adriana's Pact (El Pacto de Adriana) (Lissette Orozco, 2017): C

-América (Erick Stoll and Chase Whiteside, 2018): A

-American Animals (Bart Layton, 2018): B

-Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018): A -- first and second viewings

-Bisbee '17 (Robert Greene, 2018): A

-The China Hustle (Jed Rothstein, 2017): B-

-Crime + Punishment (Stephen Maing, 2018): B

-A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica) (Sebastián Lelio, 2017): B

-Flight of a Bullet (Polet Puli) (Beata Bubenec, 2017): (no grade)

-Hale County This Morning, This Evening (RaMell Ross, 2018): B+

-Handsworth Songs (John Akomfrah, 1987): (no grade)

-Lovers of the Night (Anna Frances Ewert, 2017): B-

-Love, Simon (Greg Berlanti, 2018): B+

-Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002): A -- Blu-ray; repeat viewing

-Of Fathers and Sons (Talal Derki, 2017): B

-Our New President (Maxim Pozdorovkin, 2018): C+

-Pacific Rim: Uprising (Steven S. DeKnight, 2018): C-

-The Party (Sally Potter, 2017): C-

-Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg, 2018): C -- 70mm print

-Red Sparrow (Francis Lawrence, 2018): B

-The Rider (Chloé Zhao, 2017): B+

-Secret Screening Gale: B+

-Secret Screening Mistral: B+

-Secret Screening Zephyr: B-

-Shirkers (Sandi Tan, 2018): B+

-Taming the Horse (Tao Gu, 2017): C

-Thoroughbreds (Cory Finley, 2017): B+

-Three Identical Strangers (Tim Wardle, 2018): B

-Tomb Raider (Roar Uthaug, 2018): C

-Unsane (Steven Soderbergh, 2018): B

-Won't You Be My Neighbor? (Morgan Neville, 2018): B+

-A Wrinkle in Time (Ava DuVernay, 2018): C-


-Baby Brother (Kamau Bilal, 2018): B-
-Graven Image (Sierra Pettengill, 2017): B+

The top films new to me (current releases):

-Bisbee '17
-The Rider
-Love, Simon

The top films new to me (repertory):

-None this month

Viewing locations & formats:

-Theatrical viewings: 33 (DCP: 32, 70mm: 1)
-Home viewings: 1 (Blu-ray: 1)

March Totals:

-# of screenings: 34
-# of unique films seen: 33 features and 2 shorts
-# of feature films new to me: 32

Year-to-date Totals:

-Theatrical viewings: 64 (DCP: 62, 70mm: 1, 35mm: 1) (includes one live performance)
-Home viewings: 8 (HD streams: 4, HD recordings: 2, Blu-ray: 1, DVD: 1)
-Live performances: 1

-# of screenings: 72
-Unique # of films seen: 67 features, 2 shorts compilation programs, and 3 shorts
-Unique # of feature films new to me: 64