July 31, 2013

Good talk by Variety features editor and senior film critic Peter Debruge on “Inventing Stories in the Reality Era.” I agreed with many things he said but (of course) not all. He said that the recent glut of comic book super hero films are related to technology that makes feats seem not just possible but real instead of our post 9/11 angst of frustrations and fears over the financial collapse. But, I can’t help but wonder…wouldn’t a dose of cultural relevance (implicit not spot on) make those films more successful? It would certainly make them better and more enduring.


Up and Coming

July 30, 2013

I mean this in two ways.

This week I’m at a professional conference — The University Film and Video Association Conference — and I’m thrilled that several of my students and former students will be here presenting their work.  All of them are definitely “up and coming”!

Before I left town, I saw several films that are up and coming in the Triad — BlackfishThe Hunt, and Drinking Buddies.  More on those when they reach local screens, but you might be reading about the documentary Blackfish beforehand.  It is getting a lot of press…


The To Do List

July 28, 2013

Though predisposed to like this film – up for some coming of age nostalgia and eager to support writer-director Maggie Carrey in her feature debut – I left the theater wanting both a little less and a little more.

The storyline is simple:  the valedictorian of her high school class, who is a straight arrow, decides to lose her virginity before going to college.  Aubrey Plaza plays Brandy Klark.

If The To Do List is going to be a period piece (1993) with a contemporary sensibility, then there should be some critique involved and less placing period props and references into a screenplay that seems nothing like the actual time period it purports to represent.

There are some clever and funny moments, but overall the story feels like it needs a bit more fine-tuning to feel less like a series of funny vignettes and more like a well-crafted whole.

I appreciate that the story detours from some of the expected routes, and I have no problem with a frank treatment of sexuality.  Obviously, a percentage of teenagers engage in quite a lot of the sexual behavior on Brandy’s To Do List – and did so in 1993, too – but the “message” of the film seems quite muddled at the end.

The fact that Brandy tries to articulate the point – that we should take sex both more seriously and less seriously and that teenagers should not traffic in regret – is more confusing than helpful or insightful.  It’s not that I don’t believe that message on some level, but I don’t find its articulation here very compelling.

Admittedly, I am a sucker for Say Anything and several of the John Hughes films.  Though The To Do List references these obliquely (and Caddyshack and Beaches directly), there is none of the sweetness here of the other films.

That’s fine.  Clearly, Carrey is engaged in a different type of project, but my less and more comments stand:  the film would benefit from less placement of period pieces without some authenticity or critique and more thematic build and nuance as well as more coherence of character and narrative in the script.

If you are looking for recent films fitting more into the mold of Say Anything and the Hughes films, try Pitch Perfect, which is softer but still a lot of fun.  If you want something a little edgier than that but something that coheres better than The To Do List, check out Easy A.

The To Do List





July 27, 2013

What an astonishing feature debut for 27-year-old writer-director Ryan Coogler.

It is hard for me to believe that there are many, if any, films that will affect me as deeply as Fruitvale Station this year.

After seeing it yesterday afternoon, I am heartbroken, which means the film succeeds on all levels.

This is a pared down, realistic narrative based on the true story of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old man who was murdered by a police officer in the Fuitvale Station of the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) during New Year’s Eve festivities as 2008 transitioned into 2009.  It’s a true story, so this is not a spoiler, and even if it is (for a particular reader), knowing what is coming only intensifies the experience of watching what comes before.

Michael B. Jordan, whom I adored in the wonderful television series Friday Night Nights, is perfectly cast as Oscar.  He brings the range of divergent emotional tones to the character that befit a young man carrying big responsibilities with few resources, a man who has made mistakes but is trying to get his life on track, a man who is not perfect but is a son and a partner and a father and a friend loved by many.

Melonie Diaz is very good in the role of Sophina, Oscar’s girlfriend and the mother of his daughter, and Octavia Spencer is a knockout in a flawless performance as his mother.

And, in the shared bond of motherhood, l unleashed tears even before Wanda (Octavia Spencer) sees her baby’s lifeless body stretched out behind a glass wall where she cannot touch him.

I wonder if Coogler was inspired by photos of Emmett Till when constructing this scene, or is that a coincidence?  No matter, really, but this is an inference that comes naturally to me, one I cannot dismiss a day later while recalling the image with aching clarity.

It is impossible to consider Fruitvale Station right now and not think of Trayvon Martin.  I saw the movie at the earliest matinee on a Friday, so there were few people in the audience, but I heard the whispered words “like Trayvon” and “He’s going to go George Zimmerman on him.”  I heard those words, and I also thought similar phrases on my own.

I did not watch the trial, but this film speaks to a type of human experience that resides outside of the chain of evidence.   It is nuanced and even graceful within its slice of life style that unfolds gently and realistically.

Just thinking of it all, I am again heartbroken.

Don’t miss the opportunity to see Fruitvale Station to put an individual face on what is a much larger cultural problem and to appreciate a powerful film on its own merits.

fruitvale 2



July 24, 2013

Watching Renoir was a remarkable experience for me.  The actors are wonderful, but the real stars of this film are light and color.  A day after seeing it, I’m still intoxicated by the images.  If time permitted, I might try to binge on other films photographed by Ping Bin Lee.

At first, this seems the end of life story of the great Impressionist painter (one whose work I have always favored) Pierre-August Renoir, but eventually it becomes a story of père et fils when middle son Jean returns home to recover from his war injuries.

Two great artists are inspired by the same muse, the lovely Andrée, as the father’s last model moves the son toward filmmaking as a way to realize her own ambitions.  She closes the career of one Renoir and helps launch that of another.  What a lovely but complex figure she is in this narrative.

Some may find the pace too slow and the story too fragmented or too slight, but I think the film evokes the aesthetic that informs the older Renoir’s paintings and some of the themes that inform the younger Renoir’s films.

It is 1915, and the world is at war but the French Riviera is breathtaking.  It is a contrast the father ignores and the son cannot.  The son will take his early interests in painting and in film and marry them to bring us many films including the classics The Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game.

I wonder why it is not called Renoirs.




July 21, 2013

I tried to watch three episodes and made it through two and ten minutes of the third.  Melodramatic soap operas are a tough sell for me.

Marc Cherry (best known for creating Desperate Housewives) created this series for ABC, too, but when the network passed Lifetime picked it up.  Eva Longoria is among the producers, and I suspect that is one reason I gave it a look:  to see how a politically savvy entertainer would influence a show that centers on a group of Latina maids working in Beverly Hills homes of its most elite denizens.

I get that Devious Maids is supposed to be subversive, at least on some levels, with the maids depicted as hardworking, smarter, and fundamentally more decent than their employers, but broad comedy, one-dimensional characters, and melodrama are not the tools needed for a meaningful examination of race, social class, and social justice.

Maybe I should say that those limitations minimize the effectiveness of the show unless the series is enormously entertaining, smart and crafted so that it works on multiple levels, and has a bit of magic.

Even popular show can meet that standard from time-to-time.  Think about how Will & Grace has played a role in preparing mainstream America for gay rights, but that show meets the standard articulated above and is well-written around characters played by actors who have a lot of chemistry.

And, of course, sitcoms have a long history of cultural relevancy, something that is not true of soap operas and true of only select dramas.

Still, some people love their soaps.  With so many of the daytime soap operas off the airwaves now, this may be just the series to fill what fans may feel is a void.

I also tried to watch a primetime series ABC did pick up, Mistresses, and stopped after ten minutes.  When I can’t keep up with the good stuff, I’m not going to waste time on dreck.

Maybe that was harsh.  Let’s call it pabulum instead.



What’s Happening With RELIABLE SOURCES?

July 21, 2013

It’s part of my Sunday morning routine if I’m at home and on my DVR for delayed viewing if I’m not. 

Reliable Sources is a great idea for a show and critically important in its focus: examining the major media stories and news coverage of each week with a series of commentators and journalists lining up on panels to talk about coverage, cultural context, and meaning.

Longtime host Howard Kurtz left CNN two weeks ago for FOX (and I became increasingly dissatisfied with him as a host in recent years), but the show remains on the schedule for now though a permanent host has not been named.

David Folkenflik hosted today’s show, and he’s promising in terms of the panelists he put on the air (higher caliber overall than what Kurtz has assembled in recent years) and his own NPR credentials.

We’ll see how it unfolds. 

With Jeff Zucker at the helm, CNN is making big changes, and you know from previous posts that I suspect this will mean further erosion of journalistic standards in hopes of capturing more eyeballs.

Maybe Reliable Sources will stay on the schedule and even improve to offer me a bright spot among CNN programming – a show what will continue to attract my eyeballs on a weekly basis.