Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sundance movie eight: A good idea . . . or not.

The filmmakers and star of 52 Tuesdays
Sophie Hyde's film 52 Tuesdays seems like a good idea.  It's definitely a great idea if you want to get into Sundance.  Here's the concept: film your actors every Tuesday for a year.  That's right: You only film on Tuesdays.  And you film for one year.  It's actually an interesting idea. And kind of a theme this year at Sundance what with Richard Linklater's movie Boyhood achieving rave reviews.  That movie was filmed over 12 years.  That's right, I said 12 years. I haven't seen Boyhood but I'd like to.

52 Tuesdays isn't garnering the same critical acclaim. (Alright, I wrote that statement before Sophie Hyde won the world cinematic directing award for this movie.  I told you Sundance would love this idea.) And I'm OK with that. The idea of filming this movie every Tuesday for 52 weeks seems more like a gimmick than a contribution to the story. In fact, I'm still not sure why it even matters. Even if  you chose that as your strategy for creating a movie, I'm not sure I would have made it the title. The process had nothing to do with the story.  In fact, I don't think the movie would have been any different if it had been filmed in a few weeks.

Good news: the story is somewhat interesting. It's a story about a women transitioning to be a man.  Actually it's the story of a child who has a mom who is transitioning to be a man. Strangely, that doesn't seem to be an issue. I just wish the idea of the movie made the movie better. While the film is a modern story told in a modern way, I wouldn't fork over the price of admission to see this film.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Sundance movie seven: The hipsters are gonna love this. Me, not so much.

Maggie Gyllenhaal (who stars int he movie) with Frank
Sometimes, Sundance movies are frustrating. There are lots of ways movies can be frustrating. One of the most common? When the idea behind a movie is inventive, unexpected, and something you've never seen before and yet the final product disappoints. Frank, by director Lenny Abrahamson is just such a movie.

The premise: An indie, avant-garde band hires a nerdy keyboard player.  They head to a mountain cabin to record a new album. All the band members are strange.  But the strangest of all is the band leader, Frank who is never found without his plastic or papier-mache or I'm-not-sure-what-the-material-is head. Frank's weird and friendly head matches his personality perfectly.

I loved the set up for this film.  But the delivery falls flat.  And when we finally learn that Frank is really just a troubled, depressed, possibly crazy character who uses his fake head to hide from his troubled youth, it makes the movie completely predicatable. That takes the movie from a surprising, fresh idea to something expected, even obvious.  Of course, this means that Frank must lose his head, confront his past, and move on.  But I didn't want him to.  I liked the strange, quirky, friendly character that was Frank with his strange, quirky, friendly head.

The disappointing plot turns aren't the only problems with this movie  Many of the performances don't live up to the ambitions of the story.  And the desire to be strange often feels forced. If the movie had relaxed its strangeness just a bit, it would have made for a more whimsical, lyrical film that I think might have been more endearing.  Although, I'm guessing the filmmakers probably weren't going for endearing.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Sundance movie six: It's hell in God's Pocket.

Director John Slattery at the Salt Lake City
screening of God's Pocket.
I'll start with the headline: I didn't like this movie.

God's Pocket is directed by John Slattery who plays Roger Sterling on Mad Men.  As a Mad Men fan, I wanted to like this movie.  But in the end, it's a little much like Roger Sterling; ruthless and uncaring. OK, maybe sometimes there's a little bit of heart.

This is the story of a working class man whose step son is killed in an accident in what I think is 1970s Philadelphia.  His wife thinks something fishy is going on and that it wasn't an accident. She's right but never vindicated.

If you like Quentin Tarantino movies I have a feeling you'll like this. Here's the subhead: I don't like Quentin Tarantino movies.  People like to label films like this "dark comedies."  I find them troubling.  Listening to the audience laugh uproariously at so many disturbing images was frightening, particularly when one character had his eyeball popped, blood squirting everywhere. Hilarious.

But it's not just my aversion to gratuitous violence that makes me not like this movie.  Many of the performances fell short. It felt like Philip Seymour Hoffman phoned in his performance.  He was lethargic, distant, and downright slow. Maybe that was the character he was going for. But if I didn't know better, I would have thought he was drugged up during the making of this film.

Oh, and there was the creepy local newspaper reporter hitting on the character played by Mad Men's Christina Hendricks. He was almost unwatchable. Really? An attractive, troubled woman would have sex with a slimy, old guy just because he took her to the country for a picnic. That's the dream of a lot of straight men I know.  And I can say that as an old guy.

I can't completely blame the filmmakers.  I felt the plot had plenty of problems. Sure, the local mortician was a bad guy.  But I find it completely implausible that any care taker would drag a body outside and leave it in the street without facing criminal charges.  You Tarantino fans will love it!

This movie has plenty of buzz and I'm bound to be wrong, So take my review for what it's worth. But I say God's Pocket is not worth seeing.

Sundance movie five: It's good to be Takei.

Left to right: Brad Takei, George Takei,
and Jennifer Kroot.
George Takei is brilliant! And in her new film, Jennifer Kroot showcases that brilliance with skill and charm.  To Be Takei follows the 75-year-old star/activist and his husband Brad. The movie offers plenty of opportunities to reveal the humor, love, and argumentative moments that make the couple so engaging.  The structure of the film also allows the filmmaker to flash back and reveal how interesting and important Takei's life has been.  The result is a documentary that fires on all cylinders; it's emotional, funny, charming, inspiring, and even educational.

From an emotional standpoint, the story of Takei and his family being sent to Japanese interment camps is powerful.  Kroot uses footage from the time period and snappy animations to accentuate Takei's dramatic telling of the story. This is a great movie if you want to learn and understand a tragic time in our nation's history.

Director, Jennifer Kroot
I can't decide who is funnier, George or husband Brad.  George Takei, fast on his feet and ridiculously optimistic, had the sold-out crowd laughing throughout the screening. Brad, with his wise pessimism and relentless organizational skills, is the perfect straight man to Takei's unbridled fun.  Their 25-year-long relationship provides a solid backdrop against which to tell the story of same-sex marriage. I challenge anyone to watch this movie and not see gay marriage as the right thing to do. OK, it probably wouldn't change the minds of most of my conservative friends. But it might make them at least consider the idea from a new perspective.

The cast and movie team.
Takei is also a fascinating character for his ability to constantly reinvent himself.  He's not just Sulu from Star Trek. He's a politician. A force for American musical theatre. And an amazingly clever social media star.  All of these things combine to make him and Brad people you wish you could hang out with.

A note on the musical theater front.  The movie introduces us to Allegiance, a new musical about Japanese interment camps.  In a strange coincidence, George and Brad find themselves meeting Lorenzo Thione and Jay Kuo.  These two become the creative team who suggest creating a new musical based on some of Takei's experiences.  At the screening, Thione revealed that the musical, which debuted at the Old Globe Theater, is ready to move to Broadway as soon as a theater is available.

Lorenzo Thione
The movie has many cameo appearances. William Shatner comes off as a bit of a jerk. Leonard Nimoy is kind but a little bit out of touch.  And Howard Stern is weird, brilliant, uncomfortable, and a perfect addition to the movie.

The Q&A after the movie with the movie makers, George, and Brad was a delight.  At one moment, an audience member addressed a question to "Mr. Takei." George began his response with the question, "which Mr. Takei?" George Takei may just change the world.

For its wit, power, emotion, and downright goofiness, I give To Be Takei that most elusive of honors: Five Jeffies.  Maybe the  moviemakers  will scrawl that on the movie poster. One can dream.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Sundance movie four: Notorious indeed.

Part of the production team including
Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin
First, this review is compromised.  The screening didn't start until 9:45 and I'd had a long and busy day.  So I'll admit it, I occasionally nodded off during the film.  And when most of the language featured in the film is Russian, nodding off means you're not reading the subtitles. Which means you're missing a lot of what's going on. (By the way, I heard a woman in line the following day who had also been at the screening and complained that she couldn't stop falling asleep. So I wasn't the only one.) The fact that I found it difficult to stay awake doesn't speak well to excitement of The Notorious Mr. Bout from filmmakers Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin.

The movie tells the story of Viktor Bout, a Russian man who is a crafty character that ends up making a lot of money doing everything from dealing arms to transporting all manner of stuff as an airline tycoon.  He goes from rags to riches and then ultimately ends up in a US prison. He documents his own story with video he shot himself. In fact, most of this movie is video shot by Mr. Bout.  That makes the movie both interesting and annoying.  The story is surprisingly real because of the raw nature of the footage.  But that raw footage amounts to a lot of bad home movies, shot on equipment that's old enough it can sometimes be tedious, even uncomfortable to watch.  I don't think the filmmakers helped the situation by adding consistent visual noise to the tapes.  I understand the reasoning behind doing it; to try and bring a level of uniformity to the movie.  But in the end, I think the noise made the movie less watchable.

Viktor Bout is a shady character.  This movie is interesting in that it makes the case that Mr. Bouts decades' long incarceration in the US might be unfair considering most of what he did was perfectly legal.  I think they made the case convincingly. But I don't think they made the case from a literary perspective.  Because while Viktor Bout may have acted legally, is motivations still came across as then than honorable.  But with all the recent about the intense corruption surrounding the upcoming Olympics in Russia, Bout may have just been engaged in business as usual.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sundance movie three: RRAAAAWWWWWWRRRRRRRRR!

The Dinosaur 13 team including Peter Larson,
Kristin Donnan, and Todd Miller.
OK, I wasn’t one of those kids that could tell you everything you wanted to know about every dinosaur that ever inhabited the face of the planet.  But I did grow up in rural Wyoming.  And there were major dinosaur digs near my home.  In particular, the wooly mammoth is a local favorite. And there are some pretty serious dinosaur museums near my home, including a fancy new museum in my hometown.  I guess then, it’s no wonder that I was drawn to a Sundance movie called Dinosaur 13.  The movie by director Todd Miller is definitely a must see for any dinosaur fan.  And for anyone who likes a mystery.  I should note that the movie is based on the book by Peter Larson, Kristin Donnan, and Robert Bakker

The movie tells the story of Peter Larson, a commercial hunter/collector/seller of dinosaur bones.  There’s a chance that you'll have a recollection of the story as it played out quite prominently in the news.  Larson and his team discovered one of the most complete T-rex fossils ever which they nicknamed Sue.  They made a deal with the land owner to purchase the fossil for $5,000, a fairly fancy sum at the time.  The deal was made on a handshake with a kind of landowner named Maurice Williams.

Fast forward a year or two and Larson and team are raided by the FBI who over the course of three days hauls away all the fossils and associated documentation.  This will begin an incredible complex, lengthy series of legal challenges that will result in Peter Larson going to jail (for what seem like ridiculous charges), Sue being auctioned off at Sotheby's for a total of $8.26 million dollars ($7.6 million of which goes to the less than savory character Maurice Williams), and a blockbuster opening at Chicago's Cooper Hewitt museum.  

The best thing about this movie is the insight it provides into the sometimes shady world of the fossil market including the exciting auction scene.  If I have a critique for the movie, it would be that it feels a little one sided.  The filmmakers noted that they couldn't get many of the government officials involved in the situation to go on camera.  But not having more of those voices makes the credibility of the film suspect. But overall, it's a great movie.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Sundance Movie Two: Flipping Mormons!

Director Greg Whitely talking about his movie, Mitt.
It can be expensive and a pain in the neck to deal with all things Sundance.  From the staff to the ticketing to the fact that Salt Lake City audiences are mostly an after thought, Sundance is at times maddening.  And yet, there's a reason to put up with the frustration: brilliant, surprising movies. Movies like Mitt from director Greg Whitely.

Let me start by saying that this movies is just another thing that demonstrates how wrong our political system has gone.  It's a stunning revelation about the falsity of presidential campaigns. And it reminds us that the demands of the media, of special interest groups, of big corporations, and of each and every one of us forces politicians to be flat photocopies of themselves.

I'm a liberal guy.  Actually, I'm a really liberal guy.  And during the presidential campaign I pretty much saw Mitt as an out-of-touch enemy.  But watching this movie, I realized that Mitt and his sons are like my younger brother.  He's super conservative.  And he's a really good guy.  Sure we disagree on a lot of things.  Be we also respond to each other with kindness and respect.  After seeing this moving, I'm a little embarrassed about the way I talked about Mitt Romney. Yes he's super conservative. And we disagree on a lot of things. But he's a really good guy; who spends a surprising amount of time picking up trash.  In fact, in the Q&A after the film, the filmmaker commented that he could make a 90 minute movie of Mitt Romney picking up trash and turning off lights.  I like that.

Speaking of the filmmaker, I have to comment on the way he chose to make this movie.  It's all about the family.  That may not be the filmmaker's doing since he admitted that the campaign staff wanted absolutely nothing to do with this film. But by focusing on the family, he brought a humanity to the story that is wonderful.  Watching Mitt greet his grandchildren in such a sincere, friendly way changes your perception of the presidential hopeful.

I'll end with my favorite "Mittism" from the movie: Flipping Mormon.  Mitt mentions it twice in the film. He references it in terms of his problems with the media, suggesting that they see him in only two ways: As a flip flopper and as a Mormon. But I related to the term on so many other levels.  I'm a very different kind of Flipping Mormon.  And I'll absolutely adopt this term when I need to express my frustration with my Mormon friends and family, as in, "you flipping Mormon!" It just seems so Utahan.  Thanks Mitt.

Everyone should seek out this intimate, surprising portrait of a misunderstood family.  If they did, it would make our political system better.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Sundance Movie One: Canesbians!

Wow, my 2014 Sundance experience is off to a rough start.   I had hoped to see Mitt as my first movie but unfortunately, my locals only pass (which cost me an extra $100 this year) does not get me into any SLC screening as promised. Read the fine print and you can't get into the first screening.  So I had to rush to find another movie.  The only possibility was My Prairie Life directed and written by Chelsea McMullan.  I hate to embrace stereotypes and clich├ęs, but this movie absolutely confirms the idea that Canadians are boring. 

Don’t get me wrong; I love a good movie about troubled gay twenty-somethings.  But I’ve seen this movie tens of times at Sundance.  And I’ve seen it done much better at Sundance.  I’m starting to feel like Sundance needs a reset; a rethinking of the movie themes they should showcase.

But before I get too critical, let me embrace the things I liked about the movie.  The cinematography was spectacular.  There was more than one moment that had me marveling at the beauty of the Canadian plains; the small town weirdness; the epic beauty.  I also liked some of the “music video” sequences performed by the star of the show, Rae Spoon.  In fact, they were the only musical moments in the film that truly spoke to me.  And there were a lot of musical moments that weren't great.

What didn’t work was the direction and the editing.  I frequently found myself embarrassed at the fact that I was giggling out loud at the absurd length of some cuts.  Or the fact that we were forced to endure the monotonous narrations of the central Canadian lesbian character. Actually she'd probably not like me referring to her as a lesbian because I think she considers herself more gender ambiguous. Oh, how can you tell these days. She'd really hate that I'm referring to Canadian lesbians as Canesbians.

All in all, this is a tedious, yawner of a movie.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New York in a nutshell.

I had a lot of fun traveling in 2013.  So much so that my posts about some of the best things I did are behind.  I just recently posted about my visit to the Saatchi Gallery, an event that took place last June.  And I haven't mentioned anything from a September trip to New York City.  Well, that's about to change.  On this first day of 2014, I'm combining my NYC activities in a single post.  Which means, it's likely to be a bit long.

Here is a representation of things I did in NYC:

I visited the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) to see a show called Against the Grain.
MAD has a habit of focusing on a specific material and building a show around that material. The museum has hosted shows featuring art made of paper, glass, and dirt. This year, they set their curatorial eye on wood.  And as usual, the results are surprising, thought-provoking, and just plain fun.  Here are a few of my favorites.

Mark Moskovitz's Facecord (2012, mixed hardwood) is a brilliantly deceptive bit of design. Look closely and you'll notice that this tidy wood pile is actually a domestic chest of drawers.

Mark Moskovitz, Facecord (2012, mixed hardwood)

Ai Weiwei is represented in the show with another of his works that might annoy preservationists. Here, the artist has rendered Qing Dynasty wooden stools useless by clustering them together.

Ai Weiwei, Grapes (2008, Qing Dynasty [1644 - 1911] stools)

Laurel Roth's meticulously carved and finished skulls are at once kitschy and startling for their beauty.  They are more ominous once you realize that the artist chooses to represent skulls of animals that are exploited for scientific knowledge (as in the piece) or as food sources.

Laurel Roth, Hominid: Chimpanzee (2011, vera wood, Swarovski crystal) 
Here's the perfect gift for the art lover/urban farmer in your life.  Hope Sandrow offers Coop LeWitt North (2012, stockade fence pickets, palram plastic sheeting).  Sandrow raises a flock of Padua chickens in Southampton, New York.  Her chicken coop is (re)constructed from a Sol LeWitt drawing from his 1982 series Forms Derived from a Cube.  There were video monitors that provided live feeds from the chicken coop.  For MAD's show, a 3/4 sized version of the coop was on view.

Hope Sandrow, Coop LeWitt North (2012, stockade fence pickets, palram plastic sheeting)
For sheer spectacle it's hard to beat Pablo Reinoso's Two for Tango, Fontainebleau Suite (2012, wood).  This takes the idea of ornate, hand-carved frames designed to embellish great works of art and turns it on its head, making the frame the work of art.

Pablo Reinoso, Two for Tango, Fountainebleau Suite (2012, wood)

Craftsmanship played an impressive role in this show with furniture makers demonstrating some deft skills.  I loved the simple elegance of Joseph Walsh's Enignum Shelf (2011, olive ash, white oil).

Joseph Walsh, Enignum Shelf (2011, olive ash, white oil)

Sarah Oppenheimer used existing architectural elements to great effect.  She cut through the museum walls and lined the holes with beautifully worked plywood.  The result reframed the views of the exhibit.

Sarah Oppenheimer, 615-2356 (2007, plywood, existing architecture)

You can't have a show about wood without showcasing chairs.  But the wooden chairs in this show were far from ordinary.  Two in particular stood our for me.  Christopher Kurtz's A(typical) Windsor Form (2011, steam-bent ash, white oak, pine, milk paint) is a surreal view of chairs that seem to be trying to escape the room.  And I loved Martin Puryear's wooden take on a big, cushy upholstered chair.

Christopher Kurtz, A(typical) Windsor Form (2011, steam-bent ash, white oak, pine, milk paint)

Martin Puryear, A Skeuomorphic Wing Chair (2012, staved and carved pine with maple legs)
The last piece I'll highlight from Against the Grain is Jeroen Verhoeven's Cinderella Table (2005, CNC-cut birch plywood [57 layers]). This work is a clash of technology and artistry.  The table is made with a computer-numbered cutting (CNC) system, the patterns for which were taken from hand crafted furniture pieces.

I saw a lot of Broadway shows.
What's a trip to NYC without a few shows.  Here's what I saw:

Kinky Boots.  This show won the Tony award for best musical.  It had the charm, heart, and edge of the movie it's based on.  And it had music by Cyndi Lauper. The movie is still better.  Bonus: I ran into Harvey Fierstein, one of the creators of the show, on our way into the theater!

First Date. If you get the chance, you should see this show.  It's unlike any Broadway musical I've seen.  The small cast is on stage for almost the entire show.  And the simple set almost never changes.  And yet somehow, it's as engaging as any show I saw this trip.

Spiderman. It's as bad as the reviews suggest.  Don't waste your time and money.  Unless you really want to get your photo taken with Spiderman in the lobby.

Big Fish. This show was good, not great.  Although we saw it in early previews so I'm sure they've fixed some of the problems. I would assume so since it's gotten some good reviews.

Matilda. The themes that run through this show and the astounding talent of the kid performers is enough to make it a must see for any Broadway fan.  I went to a matinee and Matilda's horrible parents and the evil Miss Trunchbull had an entire theatre full of kids laughing enthusiastically. It was fun.

I went to Madison Square Park for the summer installation.
I love the art installations at Madison Square Park.  Past highlights have included installation by Antony Gormley and Jaume Plensa.  This year, I saw Orly Genger's playful Red, Yellow and Blue, a whimsical work created from miles of painted rope.

 I hung out on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Visiting the summer rooftop installations at the Met has become something of a tradition for me. Past favorite visits include installations by Tomas Saraceno and the Starn Brothers. This year's installation was more somber and unsettling.  Imran Qureshi's The Roof Garden Commission is the first installation that is painted directly on the roof.  It is a mashup of traditional Islamic art and more contemporary action-painting techniques.  The work is a response to the violence that plagues the globe.  The splattered red images are both beautiful for their lovely floral motifs and horrific for their blood-like gruesomeness.

I saw James Turrell's amazing installation at the Guggenheim.
I've long had my eye on James Turrell.  As a fan of earth art, I hope to someday see his ambitious Roden Crater Project, a work he started in 1979 and is still working on.  It is being built in an extinct volcano near Flagstaff, Arizona.  His Guggenheim solo show was spectacular.  The early works were surprising for their simplicity and the effects the artist achieves using nothing but light.  However, the star of the show was a site-specific installation called Aten Reign which radically transformed the atrium of the Guggenheim.  This was pure art-world magic with a gently shifting palette of colored light that mesmerized and enchanted museum goers.

I went to Brooklyn. A lot.
I spent more time in Brooklyn than I have during any previous trip to NYC.  And it was all about spending time with friends, many of whom used to live in Salt Lake City, which made me like Brooklyn all the more.

My friends Sean and Katya took us to their super cool Brooklyn art studio.  As a wanna-be artist, it was a super fun visit.  They also took us to Brighton Beach for a delicious lunch at their favorite Ukranian restaurant, Cafe Glechik.  That was followed by a stroll through Coney Island.

I went to the new Barclays Center with my friends Mariela, Selly, and of course Felix to see Depeche Mode.  And all my pictures from the concert were awful.  So you'll have to imagine the fun and excitement.

Finally, my friend Kara took us to the Brooklyn Flea Market.  There were plenty of fun things to see.  I even bought a collection of strange, European advertising pins.

So there you have it: My trip to New York City summed up in a rather lengthy nutshell. Let's hope 2014 brings some equally exciting adventures.