Unknown to each other, a couple of musicologists from Berkley and Cambridge head South in June, 1964 on a search to find two elusive blues singers named Skip James and Son House. At the same time, throngs of other college students travel to Mississippi as part of a Civil Rights/voter registration event labelled “Freedom Summer.” Three of these activists, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney are murdered by the KKK. Documentarian Samuel D. Pollard masterfully weaves these stories together with a voice-over narration read by Common, and punctuated by the blues of Skip James and Son House. Here is how documentaries should be made!
Viceroy’s House takes place in and around the official domicile of England’s last British Viceroy just before India’s borders were shifted to create the Muslim country of Pakistan. Opening as comfortably as an Upstairs/Downstairs reset in India by Merchant/Ivory, it is, instead, a very personal tale of historic (and violent) sea-change written, directed, and produced by Gurinder Chada with input from Prince Charles. (This is because the Viceroy was Lord Louis Mountbatten, AKA Prince Charles’ Great-Uncle, and the Prince wanted things “portrayed completely”). Chada also drew on the stories told to her by her own family about living through this tumultuous time-period. Wisely, she chooses to focus on the lives of individuals to present her movie on an easily assimilated “human scale.”
The “Killer Clown” returns to haunt the nightmares of a new generation. Stephen King’s 1986 novel was made into a 1989 cult-classic miniseries (starring Tim Curry as the sewer-dwelling, shape-shifting, clown). Andre Muschietti's new movie draws heavily on the miniseries—but only the parts featuring the protagonists as kids (their grown-up counterparts will appear in IT Part Two). The director treats the film as a one-trick-pony by setting up and repeating the same child at risk in a dark, creepy place over and over again. He does include the important bits like a boy dying from having his arm torn off, a marauding squad of physically abused at home bullies, a group of victims (aka The Losers Club) and the girl repeatedly raped by her father. In the interest of avoiding an NC-17 rating, despite a sanitized version in the original movie script, the book’s pre-adolescent group sex scene (initiated by the girl) was never filmed.
I am only recommending Lake Bell's "I Do... Until I Don't" for documentary film makers (or wannabe documentary film makers). This is because the unfunny rom-com about the obsolescence of marriage will be quickly forgotten by everyone else. The set up is that a filmmaker wants to record interactions between married couples who validate her theory that monogamy is not a viable situation. The manner in which the woman manipulates the couples from behind the camera is an eye opener for those intrigued by how some docs are made
Set in Paris in the 1870’s, Leap truly begins when Victor and Felice break out of their orphanage with dreams to fulfill. He wants to be an inventor and ends up working for a Monsieur Eiffel during the construction of the famous tower. She wants to be a ballet star and adopts a snobbish accent to wheedle her way into the prestigious Opera Ballet School. Cue the rip-offs from Hugo and Flashdance. Then imagine, just for a moment, if the girl wanted to be an inventor and the boy a dancer. Would we have something new and fresh, or just rip offs from Billy Elliot and Mulan?
Hell or High Water screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s new film, Wind River has a lot in common with the Longmire TV series. Both are set in Wyoming, both feature a lawman (Federal Wildlife Officer and Sheriff) mourning the violent death of a loved one (daughter and wife) in a jurisdiction that is partly an indian reservation. This geographical overlap dictates interaction with the tribal police chiefs and interloping FBI agents. In the movie, the FBI sends a woman—which because she is called in to investigate a violent murder/rape makes both logical and story telling sense. It also sets up the dynamic tension between the “I’m a hunter” male and the “I need to get these Indians to talk to me” female. Both are focused on their job—they just utilize different skill sets to uncover the answers.
Jeannette Walls’ memoir of growing up in her dysfunctional, nomadic family provides the basis of Destin Daniel Cretton’s film The Glass Castle. We first meet Jeannette as a New York Magazine gossip columnist who is the personification of circa 1980‘s success. But her carefully hidden past suddenly intervenes when a shabbily dressed man leaves his wife to continue dumpster diving while he threatens Jeannette’s limo. It turns out these are Jeannette’s parents, and we flash back to the Jeannette’s nomadic childhood when the family lived out of their station wagon. When Jeanette was 10, Dad was a charming man who dreamed of building a house made of glass, and Mom was an artist who paints whenever the mood strikes her. However, Jeannette begins to notice the cracks in her family’s way-of-life, and the increasing conflicts dreamers have with the reality of raising a family. To survive, Jeannette develops a number of coping mechanisms that subtly transform her identity and create the building blocks critical to becoming a “success” in the Big Apple.
I recently checked out the original Planet of the Apes (1968) and was struck by a couple things: First, the rubber masks the apes wore look like they came from Party City; Second, the script (written by Rod Serling and Michael Wilson from Pierre Boule’s novel), was exceptionally good, and The Twilight Zone twist at the end (with Charlton Heston discovering the Stature of Liberty ruin), became iconic. Two things strike me in Matt Reeves newly-released War for the Planet of the Apes as well. Thanks to phenomenal advances in CGI technology, and masterful motion-capture by Andy Serkis and his pseudo simian co-stars, the apes look astonishingly real. Second, the script by Director Matt Reeves and co-writer Mark Bombeck, has taken a Shakespearean approach to the horrors of war—focusing on the intensely personal moments of richly-drawn ape and human characters while battles rage on in the background. Caesar (Andy Serkis), the escaped lab experiment, is at the center of things. Uncommonly intelligent, he has evolved into an empathetic and admirable leader who strives for peaceful co-existence but is willing to have a war-to-end-all-wars between apes and humans. He is confronted by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) an Apocalypse Now-style warrior bent on victory at all costs. The result is that rarest of all Hollywood blockbusters—an almost perfect movie
A movie reworking an ethnic stand-up comic’s routines isn’t new. Neither is a film about an ill girlfriend in a critical care ward. However, in The Big Sick, with a script by Kumail Nanjani and his real-life sick girlfriend, Emily V. Gordon, the onscreen charisma of Nanjani and his “playing Emily” costar Zoe Kazan, and crisp direction by Michael Showalter, everything clicks. The story is about a Pakistani-born comic who meets the aforementioned girlfriend at one of his Chicago gigs, falls for her hook, line and sinker, but can’t muster the courage to tell his traditional matchmaking parents about Emily. She gets mad and leaves, and then ends up hooked to the machines in intensive care that go PING. Both sets of parents have aspirations for their grown-up kids, and Anapum Kher and Zenobia Shroff and Ray Romano and Holly Hunter play these parents to perfection. Laid out in linear fashion, the plot doesn’t seem to have many places for laughs, but in the hands of these masters, it’s a rom-com filled with humor, laughter (and a few tears), and well worth your time and money.
In 1921, the boundaries of the country that became Iraq were drawn by a British explorer, writer, spy and archaeologist named Gertrude Bell. Known to many at the time as “Gertrude of Arabia,” this real-life Wonder Woman was overshadowed by the exploits of a certain T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). In Zeva Oelbaum's and Sabine Kreyenbuhl's documentary, Letters From Baghdad, an historic photo shows Bell perched on a camel with Egypt’s Sphinx and Pyramids in the background. On the camel to her right, is an uncomfortable-looking Winston Churchill. To her left, in business suit and tie, is the unflappable T. E. Lawrence. Bell created over a thousand letters (read aloud by Tilda Swinton) and panoramic photographs that documented her work, and captured the way things really were in the Arabian Peninsula after WWI. These artifacts tell a tantalizingly fantastic tale of real Arabian Nights (and days) and are the best part of this movie. In contrast, the ill-considered, sepia-toned talking-head scenes of actors “recreating” historic figures only detracts from the endeavor and make it like a History Channel show.