film review: GET LOW

Edited & Directed by Aaron Schneider
Produced by Dean Zanuck & David Gundlach
Written by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, based on a story by Mr. Provenzano & Scott Seeke
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
USA. 95 min. Not Rated
Cast:  Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, Lucas Black, Gerald McRaney, Bill Cobbs, Scott Cooper & Lorie Beth Edgeman

[Article originally appeared: http://film-forward.com/getlow.html]

Locals have been telling tales about the crazy Felix Bush for years. A recluse, a violent maniac, a killer; Felix has a worse reputation than Big Foot, only in his case there have been fewer sightings. Until now, anyway. As the end encroaches, Felix, as played by the ever ceaseless Robert Duvall, decides to come out of seclusion and conduct his own funeral. As he claims to funeral director Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), he wants to hear what everyone has to say about him. This is, of course, not an uncommon fantasy. To be a fly on the wall at one’s own funeral is any narcissist’s dream, but one gets the feeling while watching director Aaron Schneider’s new Depression-era film “Get Low” that there is more to Felix’s idée fixe than meets the eye.

As Felix comes out of his self-imposed hibernation and begins to reconnect with civilization, what is truth and what is fiction begins to crystallize. In order for Felix to plan the funeral, he must find a preacher to speak for him and fill the room. Quinn looks at the spectacle of Felix’s funeral as a financial windfall, and sends his assistant, Buddy (Lucas Black), to stick with the unpredictable Felix. As Felix shaves his Van Winkle beard and updates his wardrobe for a more genteel appearance, the feral look in his eyes begins to dim. As Buddy gets to know Felix, he sees a man who is truly suffering. We learn through their budding friendship that it was shame and remorse that drove Felix into those woods so many years back, and now he wants to try and make things right.

With the possible exception of Clint Eastwood, there is simply no other actor of his generation who could have pulled off this role like Duvall.  Duvall has that unique way of showing the humanity underneath any of his characters, be it hero or villain.  He’s generally revered as one of America’s top actors, and, other than a few blemishes, his track record is amazing. There are plenty of great screen actors, like the retired Gene Hackman or Sir Michael Caine, but neither has produced a consistent and reliable series of quality films like Duvall has. Since the ’70’s when Duvall had a grand slam with the “Godfather” films and “Apocalypse Now”, he has made these undeniable classics: “The Great Santini”, “Tender Mercies”, and “The Apostle”. While I wouldn’t add “Get Low” to that list, it’s a film with other noteworthy performances, including Sissy Spacek as the woman who holds the key to Felix’s past. Their scenes together are just a few that hold the film together and make it worth seeing. Also noteworthy are Gerald McRaney (TV’s “Deadwood”), who has become a dependable character actor these past years, and the always terrific Bill Cobbs (“Night at the Museum”, “Sunshine State”). Bill Murray gives a seamless performance providing some comic relief, no surprise there, and further proves he has the dramatic gravitas to stand up to Duvall. Read more

film review: LIFE DURING WARTIME

Written & directed by Todd Solondz
Produced by Christine Kunewa Walker & Derrick Tseng
Cinematography by Ed Lachman
Edited by Kevin Messman
Cast:  Shirley Henderson, Ciarán Hinds, Gaby Hoffmann, Allison Janney, Michael Lerner, Chris Marquette, Charlotte Rampling, Rich Pecci, Paul Reubens, Ally Sheedy, Dylan Riley Snyder & Michael Kenneth Williams
Released by IFC Films. USA. 107 min. Not Rated

[Article originally appeared: http://film-forward.com/lifeduring.html]

Like 1998’s Happiness, “Life During Wartime” revolves around those three Jordan sisters. Allison Janney plays Trish Maplewood this time around, replacing Cynthia Stevens. Trish is the sister desperate to have a normal life; or more to the point, desperate that every one believes her life is normal. A gag in Happiness had Trish lording the fact that she “has it all” over the head of her misfit younger sister, Joy. Yes, if by having it all she means a large house, three beautiful children, and a pedophile husband. That husband, Bill, so brilliantly played by Dylan Baker in “Happiness”, was a psychiatrist who swooned over his son’s adolescent school chums. He’s now played by Ciarán Hinds (“There Will Be Blood”).

Trish’s grip on normal could be more convincing. When coming home giddy from a date with a perspective mate, she tells her adolescent son, Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), that she’s wet. Timmy, a serious boy who yearns to understand life’s deeper mysteries, is in the middle of bar mitzvah preparations. He becomes understandably distraught when he later learns that his father is not dead but serving time in prison for statutory rape. This forces Trish to explain some of the family’s darker secrets. Watching Timmy try to make sense of all this is to watch a very convincing young actor at work.

Ally Sheedy as Hellen, Paul Reubens as Andy & Shirley Henderson as Joy in LIFE DURING WARTIME; directed by Todd Solondz; Photo Credit: Francisco Román, An IFC Films release

Joy (Shirley Henderson) meanwhile still writes pathetic songs about loneliness and despair. She spends much of this movie visiting her sisters Trish and then Helen (Ally Sheedy), now a successful Hollywood screenwriter, and their mother. Joy is here married to Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams of The Wire), and an early scene of them in a tacky restaurant is one of the film’s funniest. Allen, who used to be white and so memorably played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, has declared that he has turned over a new leaf—he no longer makes obscene phone calls. This declaration is put to the test moments later when the waitress recognizes his voice and spits in his face. Read more

film review: JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT: THE RADIANT CHILD

Written & directed by Tamra Davis
Produced by Davis, David Koh, Lilly Bright, Stanley Buchtal & Alexis Manya Spraic
Edited by Alexis Spraic
Cinematography by Tamra Davis, Harry Geller & David Koh
Released by Arthouse Films
USA/Germany. 90 min. Not Rated

[Article originally appeared: http://film-forward.com/jeanmichel.html]

“Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” is largely the result of old video tapes sitting in a drawer for over 20 years, says director Tamra Davis. According to Davis, she was friendly with the young artist back in the early ’80s, having first met him in Los Angeles when he was an emerging street artist and she was a gallery assistant and film student. Some time later during one of Jean-Michel’s prolonged stays in Los Angeles, he sat for a number of interviews and also allowed Davis to film him painting in his studio. She hadn’t even decided what to do with the tapes before Basquiat’s untimely death. Not wanting to exploit or profit from her friend, the tapes languished in a desk drawer until a retrospective spurred her to edit a short. The feedback encouraged her to finally dust off the tapes and put together something substantial. According to Davis, “It was important for Jean-Michel’s voice to be heard and for the real story to be told.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat was a true American original. He first emerged on the downtown art scene when he was barely an adult. He grew up in a nice Brooklyn neighborhood, the son of a Haitian born businessman and Puerto Rican mother. Rejecting his middle-class origins, the young Jean-Michel dropped out of high school and fled to the East Village, which back in the late ’70’s was mostly tenements, squats, and drug dens. Along with his friend Al Diaz (interviewed in the movie), Basquiat began spray painting seemingly esoteric and cryptic quotes all around lower Manhattan walls, sidewalks, and subway cars. He would sign off with the moniker “SAMO,” for Same Old Shit. Everyone wondered who SAMO was. Basquiat, through a mix of talent and ambition, took the credit, and the art scene embraced him. His rise was very quick, and he would soon join Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf as downtown royalty. Read more

INTERVIEW with Tim Hetherington

Filmmaker and photo journalist, Tim Hetherington (1970 - 2011)

Tim Hetherington is a photographer and filmmaker who has been reporting on war for over ten years. A regular contributor to Vanity Fair, he is also a four time recipient of the press photo prize awarded by World Press. Along with author and journalist, Sebastian Junger, Hetherington has co-directed the new documentary, “Restrepo”, which premiered at Sundance this past season. I sat with Tim, a British subject who is based in New York City, sipping coffee and enjoying an especially lovely early summer day at a cafe just off West Houston Street.

AS: I know you and Sebastian both come from a war reporting background. How did you two meet and how did you come to the idea of making this documentary?

Tim Hetherington: Sebastian had the idea that he wanted to follow a platoon of soldiers for a year. At the time he had thought of it, no one had done it. It’s kind of surprising since the war on terror had been going on since 2001. He was looking around for a group of soldiers to follow and subsequently met a battle company, the 173rd Airborne in the Zabol Provence in Southern Afghanistan in 2005 and he really liked the guys. He liked those soldiers. So he wondered where they were again and it turns out they were in the Korengal Valley.

AS: They were the 2nd Platoon?

Hetherington: Yes, so they were in the Korengal and he knew he wanted to go out there. Originally, Sebastian had it in mind that he wanted to write a book. He has a relationship with ABC-News. He thought I’ll take a video camera, perhaps shoot some video, maybe make a film. The articles were being supported by Vanity Fair (both Junger and Hetherington are regular contributors to the publication). Vanity Fair teamed us up. So that’s how we ended up going to Afghanistan together. I don’t think either of us thought that this was going to turn into a full on feature length documentary. I mean, sure, make a TV film but a film like it’s turned out? No. When I first went out there I thought it was going to be a pretty quiet assignment. Go out with some guys, meet some village elders. You know, at the time the war was pretty focused on Iraq. Afghanistan seemed pretty quiet in my mind. Nothing prepared me for the level of fighting that went on.

 

RESTREPO co-directors Sebastian Junger & Tim Hetherington

AS: Ironically, you landed in the hot spot.

Hetherington: By the end of the film nearly 1/5 of all the fighting in Afghanistan was in the Korengal Valley. So, yeah, it turned out that way. We arrived at the time where this Valley had just become this epicenter.

AS: Then even though it was a potentially volatile spot, you perhaps unintentionally ended up where the story was.

Hetherington: Well, all journalists search for a story that tells a bigger story. I think if you are trying to make a visceral war film then the Korengal was the right place to be. We were at the heart of the storm , as it were, and it was a great place to make our work.

AS:  So you went in without knowing how the project would end.

Hetherington:  Yes, it was an organic process. Read more

film review: STONEWALL UPRISING

Directed by Kate Davis & David Heilbroner
Cinematography by Buddy Squires
Edited by Kate Davis
Original Music by Gary Lionelli
First Run Features
Currently playing at Cinema Village.
82 minutes

[Article originally appeared: http://www.westviewnews.org/cms/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=890:gay-men-have-their-rosa-parks-moment&catid=43:articles&Itemid=170]

In 1969, homosexual acts were illegal in every state except Illinois. The climate in New York City at the time was not that different from the rest of the country, that of fear and loathing. The mainstream media reported on the subject of homosexuality with an almost zealous sense of ignorance (“Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees are Stinging Mad”), spreading misinformation that would feed into decades of hostility and, at best, indifference. AIDS was really inevitable if you consider how, even well in the 80’s, gay men still had to hide the truth and act out their more fully realized identity in an “alternative life style.” There’s no doubt that a real turning point took place in the summer of 1969 over the course of three days in June. Regular denizens of the West Village gay bar, Stonewall, finally decided to say “Hell No!” to yet again being rounded up and thrown into paddy wagons, paraded in front of onlookers like freaks of nature. Those gay men and women realized that perhaps there was indeed safety in numbers and created their own stone wall and stood up against the police, most of whom were ill-equipped for a riot in this less grid-like part of Manhattan. These queens knew how to bob and weave and were able to outsmart the rank and file.

Little if any archival footage exists from the riot, so the film makers of the new documentary, “Stonewall Uprising”, married co-directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, had to find alternate footage of riots from around that time. Since it was New York City and it was the late 60’s, it turned out not to be that tough. The biggest problem to be said about the documentary is that many of its talking heads don’t even broach the subject of the bar, choosing instead to reflect on what it was like to grow up gay in the U.S. during the 1950’s and 60’s. What the film lacks in coherence, however, it more than makes up for in the colorful anecdotes and memories of those few interviewed who were there in the heat of the storm. Their voices lend the film a much needed emotional urgency and heft. One unlikely participant is the 90-year old retired morals police commander, Seymour Pine, who led the raids. Pine, who would consequently apologize for his involvement, and refers to the riot like being in a war. What is clear is the fear in his officer’s eyes and that his leadership could easily lead to an epic disaster which would soon transpire at Kent State. Less clear are those reflections of two ex-reporters from The Village Voice, Howard Smith and Lucian Truscott IV, who spent the first night of the riot barricaded in the bar along with most of the cops. The Village Voice was just a few store fronts down the block and the riot was happening under their windows. Most moving of all are those reflections from men like Martin Boyce and Danny Garvin who talked about finally realizing they had power to stand up and make a change. Boyce recalls feeling he was having his first gladiatorial moment. “I was a man,” he recalls with pride. Read more

film review: WINNEBAGO MAN

Directed by Ben Steinbauer
Produced by Joel Heller, Malcolm Pullinger & Ben Steinbauer
Written by Malcolm Pullinger & Ben Steinbauer
Edited by Malcolm Pullinger
Released by Kino International
USA. 87 min. Not Rated

[Article originally appeared:  http://film-forward.com/winnebago.html]

How many times have you wondered what has become of that old girlfriend or school chum from way back? With the advent of Facebook, it’s not so hard to quell your curiosity. Just enter a name and bingo, you’ve reconnected. How many times have you tried to remember the capitol of some obscure country or gotten into an argument about the difference between a spider web and a cob web. Just Google it. Getting an answer instantaneously is taken for granted in this day and age. When you do hit some snag, where there is no search result, it’s simply unacceptable. Ben Steinbauer, the director of the very entertaining documentary, “Winnebago Man”, has tapped into that insatiable and ubiquitous need for results.

Jack Rebney; photo courtesy of Kino International

In 2002, Steinbauer was handed a beat-up videotape, a copy of a copy; how many generations along can only be guessed. On that tape was a collection of outtakes of an irascible middle-aged man attempting to make a promotional film in 1988 for Winnebago’s sales department. Every time the spokesperson, Jack Rebney, flubbed a line, he went into a scorching tirade, dropping the F bomb, abusing his young crew members, and raking himself over the coals. The bewildered crew would end up compiling those outtakes, and, thus, a classic viral video was born. Whether or not the young editors’ intent was vindictive, the tape made its way to senior management at the RV company and Rebney was fired. Interviewed in the film these 20-odd years later, they had no idea of the proportion of the tape’s future popularity. Once YouTube debuted, the video became one of the leaders of the pack, watched by tens of thousands, many of which would consider themselves fans of Rebney. Steinbauer, in his journalistic way, wisely saw a story in it. What had become of this guy known as The Angriest Man in the World? Read more