Sunday, January 27, 2013

Paul McCartney, Dave Grohl, and Barry Manilow walk into a recording studio.

OK, I'll admit it.  I was never cool enough to "get" Nirvana.  Sure I understand their importance in the history of popular music.  But I always thought they were more of a cultural phenomenon than a group of truly talented musicians.  Dave Grohl, in his new documentary Sound City, shattered that perception.  This is another film that fit into my schedule more that it inspired a desire to see it.  But it's a fantastic film about a recording studio located in a rather grungy industrial neighborhood of Van Nuys, California.

Sound City opened in 1969 and after struggling a bit, began to get some attention.  Part of that attention came from the soundboard which was one of only a few built by Rupert Neve.  Neve is interviewed in the film and is every bit the nerdy British engineer you want him to be. The board and the somewhat trashing studio setting came together to create a unique sound that the rock and roll world came to adore. As the studio had early successful albums from the likes of Fleetwood Mac and Rick Springfield, more and more musicians wanted to record at Sound City.

Artists who released albums recorded at the legendary studio include Foreigner, Nine Inch Nails, Johnny Cash, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Neil Young, REO Speedwagon, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Joe Cocker, and whole bunch of other blockbuster acts.  Many of these acts are interviewed for the film and tell great stories about the time they spent at the studio.  The filmmakers also interviewed Barry Manilow who recorded one album at Sound City.  While he tried to reminisce fondly about the experience, I couldn't help get the feeling that he didn't really like it all that much.

I've largely written off the idea that there's a big difference between analog and digital recording.  Sound City makes a convincing case that there is a difference.  It also makes it clear that there are no digital tricks or shortcuts when you're recording with analog equipment.  And that means, the musicians have to have the necessary musical chops rather than rely on the auto tuning or digital hi jinks.  I might now believe it.

I don't want to give away too much about this film because you should see it and it will be more fun if you don't know all the details.  Suffice it to say that Grohl ultimately gives new life to the legend of Sound City as he creates recordings with many of the studio's original inhabitants.

Grohl wasn't at the screening but Kenny Stoff, the director of photography was.  And while the movie absolutely convinced me that Grohl and his collaborators are supremely talented musicians, Stoff made comments that further elevated my opinion of Grohl. Grohl has refused to sell the movie to a studio.  Instead, he's making the movie available in as many places and ways as possible on Februrary 2.  His goal is to inspire a whole new generation of musicians who rely more on practice and talent than they do on the shortcuts of digital recording studios.  That's not a bad thing to do.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

A perfect Sunromedy.

Lake Bell: Director, writer, and star of In a World . . .
If you love a a charming romantic comedy, but also like the edge of a Sundance film, have I got the movie for you.  In a World . . ., written, directed, and starring the perfectly charming Lake Bell has a wondrous combination of quirky, irreverent humor and pure romantic delight.  It's inspired me to suggest a new movie genre, the "sunromedy;" a Sundance-worthy romantic comedy. I'd like this term to catch on so please feel free to use it liberally.

In a World . . . offers an unconventional story about the stars of the movie-trailer voice over industry. Carol (Bell) is the daughter of Sam (Fred Melaman), one of the greatest voices in all of movie-trailer history. He's set to receive a Golden Trailer for lifetime achievement.  Carol can't seem to break into the voice-over industry but has a knack for accents and dialects so she's struggling to make a career as a vocal coach.  She's currently trying to help Eva Longoria (who is brilliant in this brief cameo appearance) fix a botched accent in her latest film. While helping Eva, Carol is commandeered to record a movie-trailer voice over.  The producers love it and soon she is on her way to becoming the new "it" girl.  She's even being considered as the voice for the upcoming "quadrilogy," Amazon Games.  That trailer will use the storied phrase, "In a world . . .," which hasn't been used in a movie trailer since the death of Don LaFontaine, the legend who first coined the phrase.  While all of the is going on, the awkward Louis (played perfectly by Demetri Martin) is trying to catch Carol's romantic attention.

Wow, as I reread that synopsis, this movie sounds stupid.  But in the hands of Bell In a World . . . is a sparkling gem.  She owes a lot to the great performances in the movie, including her own.  In addition to everyone listed above, I loved Michaela Watkins as Carol's sister Dani.  And Rob Cordry is perfect as Dani's boyfriend.  The cameo by Geena Davis certainly doesn't hurt.

Lake Bell attended the screening.  And at the Q and A afterwards she was just as charming, gracious, and funny as I'd hoped she be.  I really hope that all of her Sundance and Hollywood dreams come true.  And I'm sure she'd really be happy if you went to see this fantastic film.

The unintentional Sundance comedy.

Xavier Samuel and James Frechevile
in Two Mothers
I'm not sure whether to title this post the unintentional comedy or the unintentional tragedy.  Here's why.  What no one wants to have happen at Sundance is for the audience to laugh all the way through your movie when you hadn't intended it to be all that funny.  So while the audience laugghed all the way through Two Mothers from director Anne Fontaine, it was mostly tragic.  Because the movie came across as a bit of a laughing stock.

Two Mothers is the story of a pair of women who have been friends for life.  They've grown up together living near each other in the same Australian town. As they move through life they each have a son at about the same time.  The boys grow up to handsome (oh let's just say it: sexy) young men.  And before you know it, each woman his having a torrid affair with her best friend's son.  I'd argue that the basic premise is flawed from the start, but not an impossible story line.  The problem is the story doesn't stop there.  The women finally come to their senses and stop.  The sons get married and have kids. (Imagine that mother-in-law relationship.) And maybe one of the moms didn't really stop having sex with her best friends married son.

All these plot twists and turns combined with the super-dramatic screenplay result in a movie that's hard to believe.  And it's not because the filmmakers didn't try.  It's easy to understand why the four main characters might end up in a sexual situation.  Naomi Watts and Robin Wright are beautiful as the mothers.  And Xavier Samuel and James Frechevile are just downright hot.  Put them in an awe-inspiring Australian beach setting and there's bound to be some sexual tension. And I actually think there are some interesting ideas to explore in that story.

Two Mothers is beautifully shot and artfully directed.  But as the story becomes evermore dramatic and ridiculous, the film dives further and further into the territory of a bad soap opera.  No one from the film was there for the Q and A.  And that might be for the best.  I'm not sure how the boisterous laughter during the film would have resonated with those involved.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Harry Potter and the Beat Writers Murder.

Kill Your Darlings director John Krokidas.
I've got to give Daniel Radcliffe credit; he's not afraid to take some risks.  And those risks seem to pay off. He got naked on Broadway for Equus, a show I didn't see but which was critically acclaimed. I did see him for his debut in a Broadway musical starring as J. Pierrepont Finch in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Here at Sundance Radcliffe stars as Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings directed by John Krokidas with a screenplay by Krokidas and Austin Bunn.

Strangely, it seems like much of my education about the Beat revolution has occurred through film and particularly Sundance movies.  In 2010 it was Howl (starring James Franco as Ginsberg) about the poem of the same name and the associated obscenity trial.  This year's episode takes us to Columbia University in 1944 where Ginsberg is a student along with Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster). The three troublemakers along with Lucien Call (Dane DeHaan) invade New York City with the energy and intellectualism that will ultimately lead to the Beat revolution.  Their shenanigans ultimately result in the murder of David Kammerer (Michael C.  Hall) at the hands of Carr.  Depending on who you ask, Kammerer either stalked Carr from the time he was 14 years old or the two were involved in a strange friendship that may have included a sexual interest.

Krokidas with some of his creative team including co-writer
Austin Bunn (second from left) and editor Brian Kates.
There is a lot to like about this movie.  The story is strong and not something I think a lot of people know about.  The screenplay brings the story to life in a way the writers admitted is not always based on actual events.  But I think the writers' willingness to imagine what might have happened between the known facts makes the movie better.  The production design gives the film a beautiful, romanticized view of the 1940s and yet offers just enough darkness and chaos to suggest the beginnings of the Beat revolution.

But it's when many talents combine that this movie is at its best.  Take the moment when Carr stabs Kammerer to death.  The editing by Brian Kates is brilliant as we flash from the murder to scenes of Burroughs shooting up and Ginsberg having sex with a stranger who looks suspiciously like Carr. Krokidas's directing is bold and the acting is superb, particularly Radcliffe whose performance is real and raw.  Kill Your Darlings is a movie that unquestionably belongs at Sundance.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Idea for a new internet meme: Porny Sundance movies featuring James Franco.

James Franco as Hugh Hefner in Lovelace.
Let's face it, sex has always been a big part of the Sundance films festival.  There are no ratings requirements at the festival so just about anything goes.  This year has been a banner year for sex.  In fact, I'm starting to wonder about my choices. First there was Interior. Leather Bar. made by and featuring James Franco.  Then there was Kill Your Darlings (review to follow) featuring Daniel Radcliffe as Alan Ginsberg in a surprisingly revealing gay sex scene.  And now comes Lovelace, from directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman and screenwriter Andy Bellin. It's the story of Linda Lovelace and her 70s porn spectacle, Deep Throat.

I, of course, have not watched Deep Throat.  But this movie made me kind of want to.  The reenactments of some of the scenes made me realize that the movie might be about more than just sex.  It might be about humor and camp and cultural phenomena.  Those are all things that I find interesting.

But let's get back to our original premise of this most.  Because this is a movie about porn that features James Franco.  Yes, Sundance darling James Franco makes a somewhat weird appearance as the mostly weird Hugh Hefner.  And since he was so involved in Interior. Leather Bar., I'm hoping we'll see an internet meme featuring real or imagined photos of Porny Sundance movies that feature James Franco.

I suppose I should talk more about the movie.  Lovelace is well acted, well directed, and features all kind of 70s stuff that makes me happy.  But there a lot of better movies at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Wow! I didn't expect to see that at the library.

Actor Christian Patrick
The Salt Lake City library is the most recent venue for Sundance movies in Salt Lake City.  This year it was host to Interior. Leather Bar. from filmmakers Travis Mathews and James Franco.  If you're uncomfortable with the idea of gay sex, this might not be a movie you want to see, particularly at your local library.  Because there are plenty of erect penises in this film.

Here's the concept. In 1980 Al Pacino starred in a movie called Cruising about murder in the New York gay leather bar scene. The movie was highly controversial and ultimately the director had to cut 40 minutes from the movie in order to avoid an X rating.

Interior. Leather Bar. attempts to re-imagine what those 40 minutes (which have never been shown publicly) might have looked like. As the movie begins, we are led to believe that this is documentary about the recreation of those 40 minutes.  But not long into the film, you realize that the filmmakers are messing with the audience and that the entire movie is a fabrication.  That only makes this film more interesting.

James Franco may not really be an actor or filmmaker any more.  I think he's officially made the move to "Artist."  The Art world is enamored with him. He's had numerous gallery shows recently.  And his performance art is getting quite a bit of attention.  This movie adds to the perception that he wants his work to live in a fine-Art setting. Franco and other actors in the movie raise interesting issues about how we express ourselves creatively and how sex factors into that expression.

Only one person was there for the Q and A after the screening.  Christian Patrick, who happily admitted that he's involved in the gay leather scene in his personal life and that he works as a porn star seemed somewhat overwhelmed by the questioning Sundance crowd.  But in the end he offered some interesting musings on the power of creative and sexual freedom.  He also admitted that he enjoyed the attention from the Art crowd who praised him for doing what he pretty much does for the porn crowd; turn people on.  And it's exactly that conundrum that makes Interior. Leather Bar. an interesting Sundance movie.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Maybe Art can change the world.

Sundance has done a great job at celebrating some of the world's most controversial artists. The past couple of years we've seen movies that celebrate artists who are making waves in the world of politics.  Last year it was Never Sorry featuring artist Ai Weiwei who's been tormenting the Chinese government for decades.  This year, it was Pussy Riot - A Punk Prayer from directors Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin.

The film tells the true story of a Russian feminist performance-art collective known as Pussy Riot, a group that protests Vladimir Putin and his government with guerilla, punk-rock performances. In 2012, members of the group performed at Moscow's most prominent cathedral, criticizing not only the government but also its relationship with the Orthodox church.  While Pussy Riot's previous performances had gotten noticed, this performance hit a nerve that ended in the arrest of three young women.

Pussy Riot - A Punk Prayer tells the story of those three women and the show trial that intends to put them in their place.  In their young twenties, it's surprising how strong and committed these three women are. Movies like this make me question my dedication to my principles.  I'm not sure I have the courage to defend my beliefs in the face of such authoritarian power.  The surprising part in all of this is that the performance in the cathedral isn't really that interesting and was probably a stupid thing to do.  Even the women in the film acknowledge they might do things differently if given the chance to do it over. But that fact can't diminish the power of their actions.

My favorite character in the movie is Nadia, a beautiful young woman with a mouth that naturally smiles which can make her look mischievous.  Even before Pussy Riot, Nadia had a career as a performance artist.  She participated in a public orgy at a Russian biology museum.  You can imagine how that fact went over in a Russian court.  Nadia will be one to watch.  I'll bet once she's out of prison, the art world will be falling all over themselves to celebrate her work.

This movie isn't perfect.  It relies too much on television footage to tell its story.  I wish the filmmakers had been involved in the story early on.  Instead, this is a movie crafted after the fact which makes it feel more like an episode of 20/20 than a documentary.  Nonetheless, this is definitely a film worth seeing.  It's a reminder that we can all work harder to make the world a better place.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Are documentaries supposed to be this much fun?

Director Morgan Neville along with backup singers
Tata Vega, Judith Hill, and Lisa Pearson.
It's no surprise that director Morgan Neville introduced his documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom  by noting that it had already been sold to Harvey Weinstein just a couple of days into the festival.  Because unlike a lot of the serious documentaries that show up at Sundance, Twenty Feet from Stardom is a boat load of fun.  That doesn't mean the movie isn't an in depth, smart film. If you, like me, have ever fallen in love with the backup singers at a favorite concert, then you'll want to find your way to the nearest theater showing this movie.  And since it's been sold, there's a good chance you'll get to do just that.

This movie tracks some of the most important, influential backup singers in history.  I say that as if I've always known there were important, influential backup singers.  I didn't know that until I saw this film.

Starting in the fifties and sixties, black women began influencing music in ways that were previously unimagined, frequently from the back of the stage.  They didn't get a lot of credit for their talent.  This movie hopes to change that.  Morgan Neville made a lovely movie.  This is a documentary that's shot more like a feature film.  Neville also pays special attention to the music.  Which means for much of the movie you want to sing along or even get up and dance.  It also helps that Twenty Feet from Stardom features front men and women who sing the praises of the backups.  There are interview with stars like Sting, Bette Midler, Mick Jagger, and Bruce Springsteen talking about some of their favorite backup singers.

But the real stars of the film are the backup singers.  You fall in love with their ability to make songs go from something enjoyable to something amazing. The movie also shows how hard it is for even the best female vocalists to walk the twenty feet from the back of the stage to the front.  That's why I'm so happy this movie does such a great job celebrating the power of the backup singer.

One quick side note: if you want to be a backup singer, I'd suggest finding a father who is a preacher.  Because a whole lot of the world's best backup singers grew up as the daughters of a preacher man singing in gospel choirs.

You'll be able to see this movie in theaters or in your home.  What you won't be able to see is some of the backup singers featured in the movie singing during the Q&A.  That's something you can only see at Sundance!

Love, drama, and an extremely shallow depth of field.

Based on the 2013 Sundance Guide description of Mother of George, I wasn't expecting much from this movie by screenwriter Darci Picoult and director Andrew Sosunmu.  In fact, I only picked up a ticket because I needed to fill out my 20-ticket locals-only package and I didn't see anything that looked any better. But I'm glad I saw this film.

Darci Picoult's story opens with a Nigerian wedding in New York City.  Soon after their wedding, Ayodele and Adenike feel immense family and cultural pressure to have a baby.  But that doesn't seem to be in the cards.  As the pressure builds, Ayodele's mother suggests that her daughter in law go to extreme measures to get pregnant.  Those measures work, but at what cost?

This is a carefully crafted story that offers universal appeal, even as it focuses on a very specific community.  Picoult creates a beautiful story arch about love and the mistakes that are often made in the name of love.  The result is a film with controlled tension and drama that keeps the audience enthralled from the first frame to the last.

Mother of George Director Andrew Sosunmu

Picoult's story is ingenious.  But this movie wins because of Sosunmu and his team.  This is one of the most beautiful Sundance films I've ever seen.  The use of color and pattern is spectacular.  The film is frequently shot through glass or sheer fabrics, giving Mother of George a reflective feel.  And the use of focus and depth of field is stunning. In the Q&A after the film Sosunmu noted that his "day job" is as a commercial photographer.  That made sense as this film has the feel of a perfect photograph.

I can't end this post with out mentioning the ending.  This movie has one of those abrupt, Sundance non-ending endings that usually drive me crazy.  But in the hands Picoult and Sosunmu, an ending that leaves you hanging, becomes a magical contemplation on the future.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

A walk through a Fallen City.

Qi Zhao seemed truly surprised that so many people showed up late on a Friday night to see his solemn documentary Fallen City. That's one of the joys of Sundance; watching filmmakers respond to the enthusiastic crowds in Salt Lake City. His hope is that as many people in China will get to see the film.  He didn't seem particularly confident that would happen.

Fallen City is exactly the type of movie that belongs at Sundance. It tells the story of three families who survived the 2008 earthquake in China.  The film feels almost epic with its meticulous coverage of four years of these family's lives.  The movie also has a lyrical quality that makes the devastation of the earthquake beautiful.  I loved the portraits of the families which were startling for their honesty.

Those accomplishments don't mean the movie is perfect.  There are multiple moments when the stories of the families lose their focus and film stalls.  In those moments, the movie slows to a crawl.

Fallen City is also a story about Chinese politics, both the good and the bad. As an American, this movie is baffling as you try to understand the way the Chinese government works.  There's criticism of China's leadership which is warranted.  But I have to say, the fact that the Chinese government can build an entire city in two years makes our dysfunctional government seem even more ridiculous.  Even so, I'll take American dysfunction over the options offered in this film any day.

Have you ever had this experience? You're watching a Sundance film and you're sure there's a hidden, deeper meaning or cinematic theme, but you can't figure out what it is.  This movie offers that experience.  There are a lot of insects featured prominently in Fallen City.There are praying mantises,   bees, spiders, aphids, even butterflies. There are enough insect so precisely filmed that I'm sure they're supposed represent a metaphor, or some cinematic homage.  But I can't figure out what that might be.  So if any of you movie savants out there have figured it out, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

I'm not sure Fallen City will be seen by many people outside the film-festival circuit. So I applaud Sundance for doing what they do best; giving voice to important stories that otherwise might not see the light of day.

A science fiction writer, a librarian, and Google walk into a bar.

Director Ben Lewis introduced his documentary film Google and the World Brain by warning audiences that if they expected to see a documentary about Google, they might be disappointed  Instead, he suggested, the movie might be more about libraries and science fiction.  I'd say the movie is about Google.  But I was surprised at how much libraries and the ideas of H. G. Wells factored into the film.

This movie tracks Google's monumental efforts to digitize the world's great library collections.  Lewis makes a valiant effort to be fair.  But in the end, the storyline seems to demonize Google. Don't get me wrong, Google should be taken to task for its disregard of copyright laws.  But I'm not sure this story is as scandalous as the filmmakers want it to be.  And maybe I'm just a sensitive American, but this movie was definitely down on the American corporation, although in a surprisingly charming way.  My favorite character? The director of France's national library, whose French, anti-American snobbery was such a delight that I could have watched an entire movie just about him.

Even if I might take some issues with the intent of the movie, I can't complain about Lewis's craftsmanship as a filmmaker.  The library shots in this film are stunning.  And there's a Spanish server room that is so beautiful, it's hard to believe it's real.  As someone who's traveled the world to photograph data centers for Intel, I'd love to take photographs in that place.

That leads me to  my final comment: It's surprising how similar libraries and data centers are. With their rows and rows of stacks/racks that store the world's knowledge, I can't believe I haven't previously noticed the visual and philosophical similarities.  This movie gave me a new found appreciation for the beauty of both.