Sunday, January 31, 2010

Is it just me. Or were the 80s really hard on artists.

It was tough being an artist in the 80s and early 90s.  AIDS was killing off artists left and right from Keith Haring to Felix Gonzales-Torres. Andy Warhol died unexpectedly. And a lot of artists were dieing from drug overdoses.  One such artist is Jean-Michel Basquiat, the subject of a new documentary by Tamra Davis. 

The filmmaker knew Basquiat and interviewed him on video in Los Angeles.  When the artist died shortly thereafter, the filmmaker put the video interview away and did nothing with it.  Some 20 years later, the video interview is the basis for this Sundance documentary.

Even though it's a little long, I like this movie for its insight into Basquiat's life.  The interviews with those who knew Basquiat including art luminaries like Julian Schnabel are fascinating.  And the way the film ties Basquiat's life to the reality of the time (Madonna and Deborah Harry show up several times) makes the story more engaging.

I also liked seeing footage of the original Basquiat gallery shows.  I've always thought Basquiat's work was interesting but much of it seemed trivial.  Seeing the work in their original exhibitions gave me a new appreciation for the raw power of Basquiat's style.

The best moments of this film are from the filmmaker's original interviews, even though the quality is awful.  Every time Jean-Michel Basquiat looks directly at the camera, you see a sparkle of genius in his eye. You witness his devious smile. And you understand why we as humans are somehow drawn to the mystery that of the artist.

Friday, January 29, 2010

To ladies who lunch at Sundance.

As an honorary old lady, I think I've earned the right to offer some advice to my fellow (at least in spirit) senior women.  I'm talking to you, ladies who lunch and you know who you are.  You love botanical conservatories, museums filled with flowers, exhibits that celebrate powerful women of a "certain" age. And once a year, when you want to feel hip and in the know you head to the Sundance Film Festival where you just can resist raising your hands during the Q and A.  It is this last point to which I offer some friendly advice.

I begin by noting that these are Q and A (question and answer) sessions, not C and A (comment and analysis) sessions.  Therefore, I'd like to propose that you always phrase your comments in the form of a question. Think Jeopardy.

Also, we don't need to know as much about your lives as you might think we do. For example, we don't need to know that as a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for many decades you've traveled the world to places like [insert long list of countries]. Nor do we need to hear about the many under-served peoples you've met and uplifted spiritually through the power of music. 

I'm not sure the directors and casts of movies need to know the many wonderful films you've seen over the years, the interesting past directors you've befriended, and the talented actors you've chatted up in your ten-plus years as a Sundance Locals Only Pass holder, which means you only see movies in Salt Lake City where the audiences are just more real.

And while I understand the pride you must feel for your children and grandchildren and their many exceptional accomplishments, their histories are seldom relevant to the discussions at hand.

Finally, as brilliant as many Sundance movies are, not every film can be the absolute very best movie you've ever, ever seen. . . in more than ten years of attending Sundance. . . and that you'll remember for the rest of your lives . . .or at least until next year when you'll be back (I hope) to celebrate the absolute very best movie you've ever, ever seen.

By following these few simple guidelines, you'll save the rest of us from the cringe-inducing embarrassment we experience on your behalves.  The kind of embarrassment that makes us want to change the channel.  Only we can't. Because it's live. And you won't stop talking.


An introduction to Lesbionics.

I had the recent good fortune of hosting a couple of lesbian friends as holiday house guests.  It was the perfect opportunity to experience first hand what my friend Felix and I have come to call Lesbionics. What is Lesbionics?  Well, it's the unique way in which lesbians communicate and react to the world.  The speech.  The academic ideals. The whip-smart humor.  The body language. The drama.

If you don't have lesbian friends to introduce you to the joys of Lesbionics, then I highly recommend The Kids Are All Right from director Lisa Cholodenko.  There's all the humor, intellect, and drama you expect from lesbians.  And you get a great love story to boot.

First, let's get this out of the way.  Annettte Bening and Juliane Moore are really good in this movie with performances that approach perfection.  And Mark Rufallo is fantastic as the young sperm donor turned middle-aged bachelor/organic gardener/restauranteur.  Even Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson who play the teenage children of Bening and Moore turn in some pretty impressive performances. 

This movie does something that not many movies are even willing to consider.  Instead of focusing on the wonder of new love, this film explores the demands of maintaining a relationship over decades.  And it does it in a way that suggests a non-traditional family can be surprisingly average which turns out to be a reassuring sentiment.

I enjoyed the way The Kids Are All Right takes a non-traditional relationship and blankets it in the trappings of the everyday. The normalness of family dinners.  The kids leaving for college. The nighttime chats in the bedroom.  The obligatory on-the-town dinners with friends.  It all points to the boredom that can set in when couples spend a lifetime together. And boredom can lead to some heartbreaking situations.

My 2010 Sundance experience just keeps getting better.  It started off a little lame but it has  redeemed itself. This is the best movie I've seen so far. The scene near the end, with Annette Bening on the couch surrounded by her kids, and Julianne Moore apologizing for her mistakes is just plain wonderful.

I'm not going to finish this post in celebration of Lesbionics. Instead, I'm going to celebrate all those couples, gay or straight, who live normal, everyday, try-and-raise-the-kids-right lives.  I'm a little bit jealous.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

This movie brought to you by the letter E . . . oh and Jews.

Sundance delivers again with another story you just won't find anywhere else.  Holy Rollers is based on actual events about Hasidic Jews who smuggle Ecstasy from Amsterdam to New York City.  This is a movie loaded with questions about faith and tradition.  And as someone who's not only questioned my religious upbringing, but also denied my spiritual heritage, I could relate to Sam, the young Hasidic Jew who cautiously embraces a job that forces him to consider life in a very different world.

The young actors in this movie are spectacular, with performances that are not only believable but lovable, even when they're breaking the law.  Sure, I knew something bad would eventually happen and that the smugglers would have to get caught.  But I found myself cheering for the drug dealers, I wanted them to get away with it.  Ultimately, they all went to jail.

This is a classic Sundance film; it presents a wild ride of emotions from hilarity to immense sadness. And as is frequently the case at Sundance, this is a movie without distribution.  So there's a good chance that if you didn't see it here you won't see it.  And that's too bad.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Dang homosexuals; they're all a bunch of troublemakers.

If you were looking to get your gay cinema on at Sundance, Wednesday night in Salt Lake City was your moment, with two films involving same-sex rabble rousers screening simultaneously.  You could go historical with Howl, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's bio pic about Allen Ginsberg's poem and the obscenity trial it spawned.  Or you could choose a more current option with former-Mormon Reed Cowen's film about how the LDS church influenced the vote on Prop 8 in California (8: The Mormon Proposition).  I chose Howl, largely because I've grown tired of listening to the gays and the Mormons pick on each other. I think I made the right choice.

Before I comment on the film, I offer this observation.  If you want to clear a theater, don't yell fire.  Just show a sexually charged, gay-themed film.  There was a steady stream of people leaving the theater. And they all seemed a little miffed that they'd just lost $15.

I like this film.  Because it's the kind of film you hope to see at Sundance.  Surprising actors, in surprising roles, telling unexpected stories in fresh, independent ways.   James Franco is intoxicating as Allen Ginsberg. And Mary-Louise Parker's cameo as an uptight English professor is delightful.  Jon Hamm made me nearly shed tears (and I'm not kidding) with his portrayal of the lawyer defending Ginsberg's poem.

This is less a bio pic than it is a film poem, with a wide range of cinematic devices used to tell a gorgeous love story.  The film moves from black and white to color to psychedelic animations and the result is stunning. But what matters most are the words. Whether it's the poetry, the Ginsberg interviews, or the gripping courtroom dialogue, the words in this movie deliver real impact.

There was a lot I needed to hear in this film. Maybe I need to be more open to the ideas of others.  And maybe I need to be more open about who I am.

Mall art takes a turn for the better.

Every year Sundance takes over the lower level of the Main Street Mall in Park City for New Frontiers on Main.  Usually it's just a collection of vendors showing off the latest in film-making gadgetry, or a place to check your e-mail. This year, Sundance stepped it up a notch with an intriguing array of installations by some respected names in the art world.  This is art worth the trip to Park City and stuff you'll have a hard time finding again in Utah anytime soon.  Let me mention a few of my favorites.

At the top of my list is a video installation by Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist called Lobe of Lung (The Saliva Ooze Away to the Underground), 2009-2010.  Rist recently had a critically acclaimed installation at MoMA. This work of precisely projected videos surrounds viewers with trippy, trance-inducing images of flowery fields and watery worlds.  And the body-length floor cushions are the perfect way to take a plush break from the craziness of Sundance.  Here are a few photos of people enjoying the show.

The End (2008) from Iceland's Ragnar Kjartansson is a folksy concert shot in five locations in the Canadian Rockies.  All five "tracks" are shown simultaneously on five large screens, creating a wondrous musical/visual experience.  And it felt perfectly at home in Park City, Utah.

Tracey Snelling's Bordertown (2006-2009) is a Mexican/American tale writ small.  Miniature scenes created in three dimensions feature video windows that tell stories and remind us of our intertwined lives. Here's a photo of one of the miniatures.

Cloud Mirror (2009) by Eric Gradman is a social media experiment that puts the viewer in the art.  Viewers wear special badges and when they step in front of large screens, their images appear with witty captions.  The system also connects to participants' Facebook pages, borrowing and returning information and images.  Here I am in the Cloud Mirror.  It appears something has gone horribly wrong.

Petko Dourmana's Post Global Warming Survivat Kit (2008) is like nothing I've ever experienced.  When you step into the work it is completely, blindingly cark.  You can't see a damn thing.  Until you lift the night-vision devices to your eyes.  Suddenly there's a new world including a tent with post global-warming remnants inside.  And there's also an amazing video installation that you just can't believe completely disappears when you stop looking through the binoculars.  It's disturbing the way art should be.  But it's also just a whole lotta fun.

Thanks Sundance for bringing great movies, and great art to Utah.

Twilight without the vampires. Oh, and a better story.

Kristen Stewart (yes that Kristen Stewart, star of the Twilight movies) makes her Sundance debut with James Gondolfini in Jake Scott's Welcome to the Rileys.  This is the story of a suburban couple struggling to maintain their marriage years after their teenage daughter is killed in a car accident. While at a plumbing convention in New Orleans, the husband (Gandolfini) innocently meets an underage prostitute (Stewart) and develops an unusual friendship. This forces all the characters to step out of their comfort zones and into surprising new realities.

The first half of the movie crept slowly across the screen. But once the action moves to New Orleans, the film gets a lot more interesting.  And Stewart, just ho hum as a brooding teenage in love with a vampire, is pretty dang good as a brooding teenage stripper.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A fresh crop of docs.

Documentaries are always big at Sundance. Except when they're small.  This year's selection of documentary shorts was one of the best programs I've seen so far.  They were all good but here are a few of the highlights:

Quadrangle by director Amy Grappell. This movie is the result of a daughter interviewing her estranged parents; parents who befriended another couple in the 70s and soon found themselves swapping partners.  The split-screen dialogue was strange and a little shocking.  I expected that.  I didn't expect it to be so warm and funny.

Drunk History: Tesla and Edison by directory Jeremy Kramer. Speaking of funny, this is the most hysterical short doc I've ever seen. Here's the idea. Take a guy, have him drink a six pack of beer and a half a bottle of absinthe, and then film him as he recounts history.  That alone was funny enough.  But the Kramer took it a step further, with bad history-channel-like reenactments featuring John C. Riley as Tesla and Crispin Glover as Edison.  Brilliant!  I've heard there are other Drunk History lessons on YouTube.  I can hardly wait to investigate.

Notes on the Other by directory Sergio Oksman. This beautiful film brings together a host of stories with surprising lyricism.  It begins with Ernest Hemingway's first encounter at the running of the bulls where he watches from a hotel window as a man is gored.  We meet the descendant of that very man who now barricades himself in the family business near the very location where his great grandfather was gored.  From this vantage point the shopkeeper takes dramatic pictures that look back towards Hemingway's historical view.  Throw in a gaggle of Hemingway look alikes and you have a movie that weaves a wondrous thread of human life.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Shorts weather arrives early.

Today, while riding the Sundance shuttles in a cold and snowy Park City, not one, not two, but three people got on the bus wearing shorts. What's the reason for their attire confusion? Maybe they were confounded by the rash of shorts programming at the film festival.

I went to the Shorts Program V and it was pure Sundance fun.  These movies are indie in the extreme.  And it always amazes me that strange themes seem to emerge from the group of films.  This group's themes? Unexpected pregnancies and women peeing.  Even one of the directors commented in the Q&A that he didn't know how his film made it into Sundance since no one was peeing. I'll admit it, watching all those women dropping their pants and squatting made me a little squeamish.

Here are a few of the highlights from the program:

Shimasani by director Blackhorse Lowe.  This story about a Navajo mother and her two daughters in the 1930s is lyrical and immensely melancholy.  It also features some of the most beautiful black and white cinematography I've every seen.

Tub by director Bobby Miller.  A tale of absurd horror.  When asked about his inspiration for the film, the direct blamed a friend who said he masturbated so much in the shower that there were babies in the sewer.  And yes, this is the story about a horny guy rebuffed by his girlfriend.  So, he masturbates in the shower.  And later that day, clears the plugged drain by pulling out a horrific baby creature.  Wow, this film is a lot better than it sounds.

Charlie and the Rabbit by directors Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck and Robert Machoian. A young boy watches Elmer Fudd hunting rabbits.  And then grabs his BB gun and heads out on his own hunting adventure.  A great story. The scenes of the kid on his bike are magical.  And putting a gun to a rabbit's head was never so shocking.  At least it all ends well.

These were some of my favorites but all the movies in this group were rewarding.  I liked the Swedish lesbian drama of Birthday.  The blue collar reality of Little Accidents. And the story of taboo love in Rob and Valentyna in Scotland.

Movies like this make me want to go out a tell great stories in ingenious ways.  Thanks Sundance.

They say that if you meet your double, you should kill him.

It's just not Sundance if you don't experience at least one weird art film.  One of this year's entry in the weird-art-film genre comes from German director Johan Grimonprez.  Double Take starts with Alfred Hitchcock (and a Hitchcock look alike).  Film of the famous director and clips from his films are woven together with television footage from the cold war and of politicians from the 1960s like Richard Nixon, Nikita Khruschev, and John F. Kennedy. My favorite moments were the clips of Folgers Coffee TV ads from the 60s.  Seriously, I could watch two full hours of these commercials.  Oh, for the good old days, when wives were judged on quality of their coffee.

I don't claim to know what this movie was about. But in the end, I liked the strange mashup of pop culture and politics.  Double Take is like mid-century modern for the film fans.

The good. The bad. And the animated.

If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.  It is in this spirit that I'm writing this very short review of the Animated Showcase at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

Let's start with the good.  The hands-down star of the collection was Runaway, a Canadian film by Cordell Barker about a runaway train.  A clever, simple story that's animated with crazy antics that would be at home in a Road Runner cartoon.

Little Dragon by director Bruno Collet was also of note. It's the story of a Bruce Lee action figure come to life.  But even here the story left me wanting an ending.

Beyond that, I didn't like anything. I realize Sundance is about experimentation, but many of these films were so experimental that they just looked like really bad computer graphics. And no one likes bad computer graphics.

Book three: Bad Things Happen.

A quick break from Sundance to continue by 2010 book journal.

Lately, I've been reading books that don't fall within my usual chosen genres. Why? Because they're recommended by people I trust, like that librarian that recommends books on NPR.  Bad Things Happen by Harry Dolan is one such book.  I would never have chosen this book on my own.  But it turns out, this was one fun read.

I guess I'd call this a mystery novel. But in reality it's more like a mystery/crime/film noir/romance/action adventure novel. I loved the writing style with its short, crisp sentences that crackled with action. I also loved the characters. David Loogan, the main character is full of secrets that mean you should hate him. But you just can't.

Bad Things Happen is filled with fictional authors who've written fictional novels, with ingenious mystery titles.  I also liked the way Dolan writes mystery-novel cliches and then admits it by having his fictional authors call them out.

There's a lot of good in this book, but there's also some bad.  I regularly rolled my eyes at the ridiculous plot twists and turns.  For that reason, I'm not giving this book a Read It rating (although it was close).  Instead, it gets Nothing Better to Read.  A rating that's perfect particularly if you have nothing better to read on a sunny beach vacation or on a rainy weekend when you want to snuggle up under a blanket with fun book.

I want to be . . . an aborigine.

My favorite Sundance genre? The musical. Yes, they're few and far between.  But I go out of my way to support anyone who tries to tackle a musical on an indie scale. That's why I made sure to see Bran Nue Dae.  This Australian import is based on a stage musical created in the early 1990s.

While many Sundance musicals dazzled (remember Camp?), Bran Nue Dae was just OK.  Frequently the acting fell flat. And the story didn't hold together very well.  I wish I could see the original stage version to see if the story was more cohesive.

Bran Nue Dae is at its best (as are most musicals) when it's singing and dancing. The sequences in the roadhouse bar steam up the screen with sensuality and fun.  And Willie (Rocky McKenzie), the young lead, is completely awkward in his musical performances, yet somewhow it works perfectly.

I also have to say a note about the animated opening credits which are billiant.

I'll be surprised if Bran Nue Dae makes it theaters in the U.S. And if it does, I'm not sure I'd make the effort to see it in a theater.  But it would be worth adding it to your Netflix list.

Welcome to the magic of Sundance.

The Sundance Film Festival has returned to Utah.  It opened in Park City last Thursday.  But the official Salt Lake City opening was Friday, with a gala premiere of Get Low, directed by Aaron Schneider and starring Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Bill Murray.  I also have to add to that list, Lucas Black who was just as good as the big name names. 

This is a magical movie. Maybe I just relate to a crazy old man who's never been married, never had children or grand children, and doesn't even know how to "hold a baby."  (OK, I know how to hold baby.)  Or maybe I relate to the idea of throwing a party instead of a funeral.  I've always said my funeral should feature a DJ and a mirror ball instead of flowers and a casket.  But I don't think I'm the only one who loved this movie.

Robert Duvall is brilliant as the crazy old hermit.  And he's matched beautifully by Sissy Spacek's charming widow.  Bill Murray is perfect as the greedy funeral director who turns out to have a heart.  The surprise performance is Lucas Black, who infuses the film with a great big wonderful heart.

But it's not just the acting.  This movie is gorgeous.  The sets are unbelievable.  How did they just find these places? And I still want to how they lit this film.  It's amazing.

The director and three of the key actors showed up for the Q&A after the movie.  Bill Murray stole the show.  He's even better in person that he is on screen.  And Duvall's quiet comments made me respect him even more.

I'm sure this movie will make to theaters.  If you get the chance, see it.

Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, and director Aaron Schneider after the premiere of Get Low at the Rose Wagner Theater in Salt Lake City.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Book two: Tinkers.

Do you ever wonder what books are being written today that will be literary classics tomorrow? What books will bored high school students of the future be forced to read? I'm certainly not qualified to say which books fall into that category. But it won't surprise me if Tinkers by Paul Harding makes it into a lot of future English classes.

The book's opening line reads, "George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died." That begins the clock-like countdown to the end of his life. During those eight days, we experience foggy, elusive memories from his long life. And we learn the story of George's father, Howard.

You have to pay attention reading this book or you can quickly get lost. There are flashbacks and voice changes. There are excerpts from old books. (Is there really an 18th Century book called The Reasonable Orologist? Because if there is I really want to read it.) And then there is something about how to build bird nests with little pieces of metal tied to your fingers, the instructions taken from a "lost pamphlet."

There is so much going on in this book that it begs to be read a second time. It's written with some of the most beautiful language I've ever read. Small moments like the descriptions of Howard's epileptic seizures or the joys of starting life over as a grocery bag boy are stunning. The book speaks so eloquently about death that you start to wonder if the author has experienced it. And the characters are written so well that you feel like you've lived a lifetime together.

This is Paul Harding's first novel so maybe it can't be a literary classic (although I'll bet there are a few first novels that fall into the classics category). I'll likely reread this book and I'll definitely read anything Harding writes in the future.

Tinkers gets a great big Read It! rating.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Do you know the way to Art Lobster.

My good friend Kara rightly informed me that in my recent post about the move to Art Lobster, I didn't inform people where to find the Art Lobster. The official URL is I'm still working on all the graphics and layout. But the brilliant content is all there. And isn't that what matters.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Book one: Justice.

Recently over at a writer suggested starting the new year by keeping a book journal, a place to write a paragraph or two about every book you read. It sounded like a good idea to me so I'm starting my 2010 book journal. And why not share my journal here on the Art Lobster.

The first book I finished in 2010 is Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? by Michael J. Sandel. It's a great book to learn more about the ideas set forth by some of history's greatest philosophers, from Aristotle to Kant.

It's written by a Harvard professor so it sometimes reads like a lecture. But the book accomplished something that's hard to do in our polarized society: It forced me to seriously reconsider some of my core philosophies and beliefs. Like the role of religion in public discourse and even the role of morals in discussions about issues like abortion. I've seriously changed my attitudes because of this book.

I'm adopting a three tier rating system for my mini book reviews. Read it is an enthusiastic endorsement which means I recommend the book. Nothing better to do means it's a worthwhile book but only if you have nothing better to do. And burn it (no I don't condone the burning of books but it makes for a great rating system) means I wouldn't suggest wasting your time.

The rating for Justice: Read it!

New Year. New home.

Not only is it a new year, it's a new decade. What better time to move my blog to a new home? So with apologies to Mr. Laupin, the former Mrs. Laupin, and Johnny Blue Jeans (I still love and miss you), I'm changing the name of my blog toArt Lobster. Regular readers of Viva Variety will understand why.

I'm also setting a blog goal. The first year of Viva Variety, I wrote 34 posts. The second year, I wrote 37 posts. Last year, I took the whole thing a little more seriously and wrote 92 posts. This year, I plan to post an average of three posts per week for a total of 156 posts. And since I'm already behind, I'd better get busy.

So to all you regular readers (and you're few and far between), change your bookmarks, your Bloglines settings, your RSS feeds to keep track of Art Lobster.