November 18, 2018

Coffee Break

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Ron Livingston in Tully (Jason Reitman - 2018)

November 13, 2018

The Owl's Legacy

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L'heritage de la chouette
Chris Marker - 1989
Icarus Films All Regions DVD two-disc set

Jean-Michel Frodon's booklet notes begin with a quote from the French poet, Henri Michaux: "The Sorbonne should be razed and Chris Marker put in its place." This is the collection of a thirteen episode series made for French television. The overall effect for me is akin to taking a mandatory college course, feeling a bit intimidated by the anticipated intellectual discourse, with the relief that even though moments are dry, Marker brings back the student with often unexpected humor. The one bit of information that is missing in Frodon's notes is in how the episodes were broadcast, whether it was one episode each week, or some other formal arrangement. I bring this point up because due to the release date of this collection, I watched the entire series within two days, one disc each day, with breaks about halfway per disc. There is just so much information to absorb here that watching all the episodes, about half hour each, can be overwhelming.

For someone educated in the U.S. public school system, I was somewhat prepared. My parents encouraged me to read about Greco-Roman mythology when I was younger. In my senior year of high school, my English teacher decided his students needed to know something about Greek theater. This was a very general overview that lasted maybe four weeks, with the class reading Aristophanes' Lysistrata.

Each episode is loosely centered on a Greek word or concept - "Mathematics or The Empire Counts Back" or "Amnesia or History on the March", among the titles. Each episode goes off on its own tangents. Marker cuts between various, informally held symposiums, individual interviews, and excerpts from documentaries and narrative films to make various points. At one point in discussion of Greek theater, Marker cuts to a montage of marquees in London's West End advertising various musical productions. There are also the bitingly humorous comments, written by Marker, read by Bob Peck in the English language version that I viewed. The most familiar names here are Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopooulos and director Elia Kazan. My own favorite of the various philosophers and artists was Cornelius Castoriadis for making the most convincing arguments about how ancient Greek culture should be understood in its original context and within a contemporary framework.

Unexpected was the look, in a couple of episodes, of the connection of Greek and Japanese culture. This is explored both in a discussion of shared mythologies, and also excerpts of a Japanese production of Medea staged in an ancient amphitheater for a Greek audience that included actress Melina Mercouri. Examining the roots of the word "democracy" includes an explanation of what that meant in the city-state at that time, as well as its relationship to contemporary ideas of democracy. That Castoriadis cites democracy as constantly in conflict with oligarchy provides a very timely spin. Angelopoulos talks about how Greeks give their children names associated with classical Greece as a way of connecting to the past. Too bad that Chris Marker, who both likes to have some fun at his own expense, but is also evasive about his own identity, doesn't share that part of his true given name is Hippolyte.

November 11, 2018

Denver Film Festival - Meow Wolf: Origin Story

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Jilann Spitzmiller and Morgan Capps - 2018
Meow Wolf Entertainment

In 1970, when I was a freshman film student at New York University, I joined in group of students in the making of a documentary following some of the events that took place that May, the result of student protests that rocked the U.S. At the time, the plan was to not give anyone individual credits but to credit th film to the group. I left New York City for summer vacation. Editing was being done by older students who lived in the city. When I returned in September, I found out that the documentary we worked on would have individual credits after all. What I didn't understand at the time is that my experience was not something confined to the making of this one film, but could easily be transposed to virtually any group of artists who come together initial out of shared ideals.

This memory haunted me while watching Meow Wolf: Origin Story. Essentially, a group of young artists who did not fit into the existing art scene in Santa Fe, New Mexico got together, several of them living together in the same building, creating large, immersive art pieces - artificial environments out of found junk. They caught attention of the established art world and the media, and began creating new pieces in increasingly larger spaces. In between were clashes of egos, members who came and left and in some cases rejoined Meow Wolf, and primarily the conflict of how to manage what was originally a small collective into a much larger group with a benevolent hierarchy. A financial savior was found in writer George R. R. Martin who funded the purchase of a former bowling alley that allowed for an ambitious, and expensive installation. The group of outsider artists has now become a big business with new Meow Wolf installations in other cities.

The documentary ends with a couple of the Meow Wolf members asking themselves what it means to be an artist and still be part of Meow Wolf. History has its share of artists who became commercial entities, most deliberately in the case of Andy Warhol. Meow Wolf is to my knowledge the first group to go from a group of friends getting by on nickels and dimes to a corporation making and spending millions, with a large paid staff.

George R. R. Martin was one of the executive producers here. This is another way of saying this is primarily the members of Meow Wolf telling their own story. The filmmakers have combined talking heads with video footage of previous events, members traveling around Las Vegas and Denver in search of future sites, and lots of animation. I assume the use of the animation and other frenetic visual gimmickry was done with the goal of giving the viewer a taste of the Meow Wolf experience.

What is missing is any serious discussion about art, as if the Meow Wolf installation exist in a vacuum. There is no mention any influences in the realm of interactive installations or performance art. Nor does anyone talk about any of the individual artists known for making art out of junk. As part of Meow Wolf's success is its appeal to people who may not go to galleries or museums, there may be concern of intimidating viewers by the mention of someone like Marcel Duchamp or Nam June Paik.

Better is the look at one of the past Meow Wolf members, David Loughridge. While his art was photography, Loughridge's other talent was knowing what was physically required of actually building the installations. Part of the film documents his own autobiographical installation, a wall composed of photos and excerpts from his journal while undergoing treatment at a psychiatric institution. Loughridge died prematurely at the age of 33. Loughridge's black and white images and the black and white of his handwritten journal pages provide a contrast, and some relief, within a film overly dependent on visual noise.

November 10, 2018

Denver Film Festival - The Front Runner

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Jason Reitman - 2018
Columbia Pictures

Colorado Senator Gary Hart gets described here as a man with great ideas, but aloof when it comes to his more personal side. And The Front Runner can be described as being like Hart. Reitman's film is very timely regarding the issue of men in power, their relationships with women, and the often flexible relationships politicians have with the media concerning the boundaries, if any, of their personal lives. In this case, good intentions do not make for a good movie.

For those unfamiliar with the events, the Democratic senator appeared to be a shoo-in to run against George Bush in 1988. Taking a breather from campaigning and separated from his wife, Hart spent time in Miami, Florida where he took up an invitation to join a group traveling by yacht to Bimini. Among the other passengers was a blonde young woman, Donna Rice. The yacht was called "Monkey Business". Hart kept in contact with Rice while back on the campaign trail, and they got together at Hart's Washington D.C. townhouse. Rumors led to Miami Herald reporters watching the front door of the townhouse, concluding Hart was having an affair. Both Hart and Rice denied anything improper about their relationship, but the damage had been done. I even remember seeing the photograph published later with Hart and Rice on "Monkey Business". If you think that the name of the yacht is one of life's little jokes, keep in mind that Gary Hart's Colorado home was in a place called Troublesome Gulch.

Reitman begins with a very complicated traveling shot of news reporters gathered outside Hart's hotel room in 1984, when his first attempted run ended with him conceding to Walter Mondale. The camera weaves in, out and around, picking up snippets of conversation. Between that extended shot and the first couple of scenes, Reitman seems to be attempting to mimic Robert Altman. And the problem with The Front Runner is that Reitman isn't Robert Altman in that he is unable to make a film with a large cast of characters. With something like Nashville, Altman was able to introduce an oversized cast of characters, provide enough information to let the viewer know who each of them were, and show how most of them were connected to each other. The Front Runner is filmed in such as way as to assume the viewers know who Gary Hart is debating in an early scene, or know what role Irene Kelly had as part of Hart's campaign team.

What should have been a compelling story gets lost in a morass of dialogue and uninteresting characters. It could be that Reitman is just better at making more intimate stories, usually in conjunction with screenwriter Diablo Cody. I can see why Reitman would be interested here, his films are about people who find themselves in relatable situations that are over their heads. But films like Juno and Tully are confined to a handful of characters, usually a family, and are structured to allow the viewer to know and emphasize with a teen girl who discovers she's pregnant, or an overworked, exhausted mother. With The Front Runner, Alfred Molina plays Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, but unlike Jason Robards in All the President's Men or Tom Hanks as Bradlee in The Post, I can't even remember a single moment of Molina's appearance. It's also telling that the sometimes wry humor of Reitman's past work is missing here - the biggest laughs come from Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" monologue.

Seventy years ago, a much better film came out about a presidential candidate involved in an extramarital affair with a younger woman, and the machinations of political strategists. That film is State of the Union, directed by Frank Capra. Check it out.

November 09, 2018

Denver Film Festival - Rafiki

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Wanuri Kahiu - 2018
Film Movement

Rafiki primarily takes place in a Nairobi neighborhood called the Slopes. Skateboard culture and hip-hop are two contemporary markers that contrast against the more traditional aspects of Kenyan life. Wanuri Kahiu's film was adapted from a short story by Ugandan Monica Arac de Nyeko, but there is also a variation on Romeo and Juliet.

Kena is outwardly boyish with her slender build, baseball cap, tight cornrows on her head with a short queue in the back, first introduced skating through her neighborhood. She spies the more flamboyantly feminine Zika, dancing to hip-hop with two girlfriends. Zika is immediately recognizable with her elaborate, multicolored weave. The two girls have just graduated high school, and want to pursue lives beyond the expect roles of wives and mothers. Kena is more tentative about her attraction to Zika. Adding conflict to the two girls' budding relationship is that their respective fathers are rivals for a local political position.

Aside from being financed primarily by European sources, Rafiki will most certainly be seen by more people outside of Kenya. In addition to homosexuality being punishable by imprisonment in Kenya, the film has essentially been banned in Kenya. Kahui sued to allow her film to get a week long run in Nairobi in order to qualify as Kenya's Oscar entry. Supa Modo, produced by a company founded by Tom Tykwer, was chosen to represent Kenya. There is some similarity here to the treatment of filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul who was considered something of an embarrassment to Thai officials until he won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2010. This also points to the discrepancy in how films are chosen by their respective countries for the Academy Award, with films chosen based more on how a country or culture is represented over cinematic merits.

Kahiu addresses the institutionalized and internalized homophobia as it exists in Kenya. The two girls are attacked by a mob following discovery by the neighborhood busybody. Beaten and bruised, Zika and Kena are the ones arrested. One of the interesting choices Kahiu has made is for most of the conversations between friends and family members to be in Swahili, while Kena and Zika speak to each other in English. In an interview, Kahiu mentions that the songs heard would be those that the characters would listen to. The frequent description of Rafiki as a "lesbian romance" ignores some of the cultural issues that are also part of the film. The title translates as friend, emphasizing the emotional bonding of the two girls. While Rafiki isn't the "fun and frivolous" view of Africa that Kahiu says she aspires to make, it avoids being heavy-handed, and is graced with optimism.

November 08, 2018

Denver Film Festival - Budapest Noir

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Eva Gardos - 2017
Menemsha Films

Don't think for a moment that Hollywood has a monopoly on the concept of cinematic franchises. Budapest Noir is based on the novel by Vilmos Kondor, the first of five books centered on two-fisted crime reporter Zsigmond Gordon. OK, so that doesn't quite have the same punch as Sam Spade or Mike Hammer, but the books have been best sellers in Hungary, and the first one has been translated in several languages, including English. What is also interesting about these novels is that there is also the use of history progressing from the years prior to World War II through the Hungarian revolution of 1956.

I've not read Kondor, but he claims as influences Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford and Dashiell Hammett. Eva Gardos' film has the film noir content, if not the style. While I have no idea how faithful the film is, in relation to the source novel, following the film through to the end reveals that beyond some genre cliches, there is a bit more going on beneath the surface. The ending is especially chilling with the viewers awareness of what is to follow historically, but also serves as reminder for the contemporary audience to not be politically complacent.

The film takes place in 1936, following the death of Prime Minister Gyula Gombos. Hungary has already begun accommodating Hitler in exchange for support of its nationalistic goals, with racial (anti-semitic) laws beginning to take effect. Like almost every crime novel or movie, Budapest Noir begins with an unexpected meeting between Gordon and a mysterious, beautiful woman. Gordon is perpetually unshaven and is usually seen wearing a beat-up fedora. The woman disappears as suddenly as she appeared, only to reappear as a corpse found in the street. The death is dismissed as that of an unknown prostitute, but crime reporter Gordon finds connections leading up to the highest social circles of Budapest. Patience is rewarded after the visual and narrative cliches are established.

It's not a big stretch to reimagine this film with Humphrey Bogart as Gordon, and Ida Lupino as his spunky, photographer girlfriend. One of the strengths of the film is in the evocative faces of the cast, especially the hired thug with the missing upper teeth, revealed to be a luckless street fighter. There are also knowing touches as in a scene at a high class brothel, "Les Fleurs du Mal" (Flowers of evil), where the song, "Falling in Love Again" from The Blue Angel can be heard faintly in the background. That this is very clearly Hollywood style filmmaking is less of surprise in knowing that Eva Gardos own background has been as an editor on films such as Valley Girls, Under the Cherry Moon and even Things to do in Denver when You're Dead.

November 07, 2018

Denver Film Festival - On Her Shoulders

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Alexandria Bombach - 2018
Oscilloscope Films

A little bit of historical background is needed here. The Yazidis are an ethnic group indigenous to a small section in northern Iraq. Their religious practice is a hybrid with parts taken from several monotheistic religions, both Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic. Their history is one of being a persecuted minority, most recently by ISIS which view the Yazidis as devil-worshippers, and have campaigned for their total elimination. (Any of this sound somewhat familiar?) There are currently an estimated one-half million Yazidis worldwide. In August 2014, ISIS took over the town of Sinjar, killing most of the men. Women and girls over the age of nine were raped and enslaved. Nadia Murad was one of those women.

Alexandria Bombach's documentary follows Nadia Murad approximately a year later in her new role as a human rights activist. What is not mentioned is that prior to that time, Murad was able to escape from her ISIS captor around November 2014, and after living in a refugee camp, was able to gain asylum in Germany. Her testimony to a Belgian newspaper in February 2015, while she was still living in a refugee camp led to her assuming the role as spokesperson for the Yazadis.

The film initially follows Murad as she addresses members of Canada's parliament, and the United Nations, as well as television and radio interviews, essentially repeating the same story about herself, but also trying to bring attention to what is happening to the Yazidis in Iraq. What Bombach is able to reveal through observation, as well as some of Murad's own words, is of a young woman who is probably experiencing some form of stress from having to retell her story and indirectly relive that part of her life. Also there seems to be a kind of reluctance in taking on a role that was never sought, from someone who would have been happy simply to have remained in her village, sewing, farming, possibly having her own beauty salon.

Bombach's film was completed before Nadia Murad won the Nobel Prize for her work regarding human trafficking. We do see her named as a Goodwill Ambassador at the United Nations, with Amal Clooney by her side. Bombach also shows Murad away from the spotlight, visiting a Canadian Yazidi community, with several young women maneuvering their way into a group selfie. A shopping visit ends with Murad giving herself a ride on a shopping cart in the parking lot.

Although not all of the issues are stated outright, On Her Shoulders should initiate thought regarding western governments dealings with refugees, as well as the ignorance of the situations of ethnic minorities in Middle Eastern countries. The choice of title is telling, as the viewer gets a sense of the weight carried by being a media celebrity, human rights activist, and virtually a would-be savior by other refugees.