2017's Critics Award at the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival i s bookended by the universal theme of music as a catalyst for cultural revival, Tommie Dell Smith captures the irrepressible fiddler Alasdair Fraser’s global odyssey from his native Scotland to California and on to Spain, by honoring the transformational power of both music and film in her toe-tappingly beautiful, The Groove Is Not Trivial.
Larry Wilcox “disavows any knowledge “ of the actions in this film. Wilcox starred as Jon Baker, the blonde, motorcycle-riding, California Highway Patrolman in the kid-friendly, ’77-’83 TV show of the same name. His partner, Ponch Poncherello was played by Erik Estrada—the same guy in the TV infomercials who tried to sell us “affordable” 1-acre lots in “incredible” California Pines. In this new, so-called comedy version of CHIPS, Groundlings and Punk’d alumni Dax Shepard directs and plays Jon, while Michael Pena is Ponch. Despite Shepard’s wife, Kristen Bell, playing the female lead, this movie is miles away from being family-friendly. Ponch is an undercover FBI agent investigating dirty cops, and with every woman being disrespected by the foul-mouthed, chauvanist pigs onscreen, there’s lots of sexist, scatological dirtiness going around.
If you wonder why Disney made a live-action version of their animated classic, the simple answer is “money.” Not content with the largesse collected from hastily-made direct to video sequels, a Broadway musical, and live-actor productions at their theme parks and even ice shows, we have this overly-hyped live-action version. Ignoring the mores and conventions of 18th Century France or 1991 America, this “updated” story must have a girl-power heroine that will resonate with today’s kids. The clunkiest transition from the original is the Beast himself. Provided with a new song and flashback illustrating his childhood love for his dying mom, he still comes across as an abusive bully. Bottom line? This overly-long, live-action Beauty and the Beast provides nostalgic fascination for people who cherish the 1991 classic, and may appeal to youngsters who don’t pay too much attention. For the rest of us, the new songs detract from the story and the whole thing has an “attach that idea with a Post-It note” feel.
Mixing iconic images from both Jurassic Park and Apocalypse Now, in Kong: Skull Island, helicopters with teams of soldiers, scientists and journalists onboard fly towards a lush jungle island. Suddenly, an immense ape reaches up and swats the whirlybirds out of the sky and we are thrust into King Kong. The filmmakers and FX artists dutifully provide all of the giant ape tropes from Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 original: blond beauty bonds with hairy beast; cold-blooded dinosaurs battle warm-blooded primate; scientists and photographers continue recording facts and data in the face of certain death; etc. etc.. And then there are the homages to Francis Ford Coppola’s take on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with the aforementioned helicopter arrival, soldiers silhouetted against a bright orange sunset, and a shell-shocked Army Colonel who goes ape himself when confronted with an unbeatable enemy. Despite the fact that there are enough characters to sink this tiny little island, this is an impressive piece of popcorn entertainment—made even better if you recognize the dozens of film references scattered throughout.
In a refreshing change of pace, boyfriends aren’t the focus of Ry Russo-Young’s movie of Lauren Oliver’s popular novel. Like the classic movie Groundhog Day, the protagonist is forced to relive the same event over and over. Only this time, the stakes are much higher, for the Friday redux always ends in a catastrophic crash. Zoey Deutch is excellent as Samantha, the high school girl trapped in the continuous time loop in which both she and the audience focus on different details each time—looking for the one little thing that might alter the outcome. Hats off to Russo-Young and her editor Joe Landauer for the nuanced changes each time the events are re-lived.
Michael Dudok de Wit's The Red Turtle opens with a roiling, angry sea spits a battered man onto the shore. Exploring this place of refuge, the man discovers that it is an island inhabited only by birds, crabs, sea lions, and the occasional turtle. After filling his basic needs for water, food and shelter, the man constructs a bamboo raft to sail away to the safety. However the gods (in the form of an immense sea turtle) have a different plan. His escape crafts are repeatedly destroyed and the man remains a castaway. Presented without dialogue, this French-Belgian film was animated by Japan’s Ghibli Studios, and the audience soon learns that the world of this particular Robinson Crusoe isn’t quite like our own. The magical realism is emphasized by the the style of animation often adopting omniscient, omnipotent point-of-view shots from high above and far-far away. Nominated for an Oscar, this dreamlike, very original fable is quite different from others in this category.
In I Am Not Your Negro, Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck has created a timely and powerful film using novelist James Baldwin’s own words. In addition to archival clips that reveal Baldwin’s intelligence, perceptiveness and wit, actor Samuel L. Jackson reads from the writer’s unpublished book about his relationship with Civil Rights leaders like Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. Doubly “branded” because he was gay and Black, Baldwin left the United States when he turned 24, and eventually settled in the French Riviera. Houseguests included actors Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, and Yves Montand, and musicians Josephine Baker, Nina Simone, Miles Davis and Ray Charles. Visiting the United States in support of the Civil Rights Movement, Time magazine put Baldwin on its cover with the comment: “There is not another writer who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realties of the racial ferment in North and South.” Peck isn’t content to package Baldwin in a time capsule. Modern day scenes from Ferguson. Missouri and the Black Lives Matter movement emphasize what Baldwin said in a 1979 speech at U.C. Berkeley, that the ongoing quest for racial equality is “the latest slave rebellion.”
Imagine Batman (voiced by Will Arnett), as a self-absorbed, plastic-block, megalomaniac prone to temper tantrums when he doesn’t get his way and you immediately understand the brilliant concept underlying Chris McKay’s clever and very funny film entitled The Lego Batman Movie. We first met this particular incarnation of the Caped Crusader as one of the “cast of thousands” in The Lego Movie (2014). This time a Lego Robin (voiced by Michael Cera) is by his side as the pair race from the Lego Wayne Manor in a Lego Batmobile to do battle against a tear-streaked, whiny, “nobody loves me” Lego Joker (voiced by Zach Galafanakis). In the first film, the snap-together (and apart) figures knew they were toys. This time, everyone acts like they are flesh and blood instead of ABS plastic, and this minor shift makes some scenes even funnier. NOTE: Be sure to pay attention to the “home movie” the Lego butler, Alfred (voiced by Ralph Fiennes), uses to show how his boss used to enjoy life and was more fun to work with.
Before the blogosphere, the “buzz” in 1991 was about how men were shown kissing each other in the documentary Madonna: Truth or Dare. That film took audiences behind the scenes of the singer’s cross country tour, and introduced us to the seven male dancers who performed with her onstage. Strike a Pose candidly revisits these men 25 years later. We discover that Madonna recruited her dancers with specific styles in mind. For example, the Voguing scene with its stylized moves derived from poses struck by high fashion models, and hip-hop with improvisations first done on street corners. They traveled as a family—vowing to stay friends forever. But we learn that one dancer sued Madonna for invasion of privacy and others sued for a share of the huge profits from the original documentary. I was surprised to hear the only heterosexual dancer in the group admit that before he went on the tour, “If someone was gay, I would punch them out.” One interesting footnote—Madonna was not interviewed for Strike a Pose, and it makes us wonder how she would react after a quarter century.
In Stephen Gaghan's Gold, a team of prospectors announces they discovered a “mountain of gold” in the Indonesian jungle. Needing money to finance excavation, they statr selling “penny” stocks, but when carefully leaked information gets out, these stocks soar above $200 a share. Based on a true story, the company in question has been relocated from Calgary, Alberta Canada to Reno, NV in the good old US of A. This was done not only to provide the rationale for McConaughy’s distinctive Texas drawl, but also to categorize this film as a satire of American greed. Based on the previews, audiences could expect a rough-and-tumble backwoods tale set in a steamy jungle, but instead, the film quickly becomes an expose’ on the shenanigans of a con man. Too bad the screenplay and direction never make the “truth” rise above a lackluster presentation.