Thursday, January 31, 2019

Sundance ’19: Miles Davis—Birth of the Cool

There are plenty of good reasons why Miles Davis remains one of the most influential jazz musicians of all time. He led the jazz parade for nearly every new style developed since Bebop, including Cool Jazz, modal Hard Bop, Fusion, and what you might call 1980s commercialism. If he didn’t do it, one of his famous former sidemen probably did. Rather impressively, Stanley Nelson manages to condense his remarkable career into a nearly two-hour documentary without any glaring omissions. The beauty of his music and the irascible nature of his personality come through clear as day in Nelson’s Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, which screens during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Miles Davis never had the pyrotechnic chops of a Dizzy Gillespie or a Clifford Brown, but he made a virtue of his limitations by developing his own muted, lyrical sound earlier in his career. As his reputation grew, he formed one of the most acclaimed ensembles in jazz history, featuring a then-little-known John Coltrane on tenor. Yet, Davis was only getting started.

Together with his friend and soul-mate-arranger Gil Evans (who gets his due credit in the doc), Davis led the Birth of the Cool sessions, which had a formative influence on West Coast Cool Jazz; recorded Kind of Blue, one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time and a trail-blazing example of modal improvisation; formed his even more exploratory “Second Great Quintet;” kick-started the fusion revolution; and disappeared and then re-emerged with some of his most commercial work ever. Nelson covers all these major turning points, getting all the important stuff right.

Nelson interviewed many who knew Davis well, but the most notable by far is the late Frances Taylor Davis, the musician’s first wife, who is widely considered Davis’s great love and most significant muse, based on published comments. She rarely discussed her celebrated husband after their divorce, so her participation is a real coup. Close friend and frequent cover artist Cortez McCoy also contributes highly personal memories of Davis. Plus, we hear from jazz giants Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Jimmy Cobb, Lenny White, Mike Stern, Marcus Miller, and Jimmy “Little Bird” Heath.

It is dashed ironic Nelson’s film took its title from the 1949 and 1950 sessions collected on the Birth of the Cool album, because it represents a rather short-lived period in his career and helped inspire the Cool style, which Davis frequently dismissed with contempt. Of course, the Cool school was largely associated with white musicians, like Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan (who played on all the Birth sessions), whose success rankled Beboppers and Hard Boppers, like Davis. Still, it has the ring of something fresh and grand and historically significant, so here it is.

Regardless, Nelson packs quite a bit into the film. The soundtrack incorporates so many Davis recordings, even hardcore fans will lose track of whether or not their favorites were included. Nelson can’t cram in everything (we have always been partial to his soundtrack and acting work in the film Dingo), but editor Lewis Erskine shoehorns in all the milestones, while maintaining clarity and a brisk pace. Very highly recommended, Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool screens again tomorrow (2/1) in Park City and Saturday (2/2) in Salt Lake, as part of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance ’19: Light from Light

Ordinarily, psychics and “paranormal investigators” are con artists by definition, because obviously. However, Sheila is different. For one thing, she does not accept any fees for her services. Furthermore, she readily admits she is not even sure she has any psychic abilities. Nevertheless, she will try to help a grieving widower find some closure, perhaps by contacting his deceased wife’s ghost in Paul Harrill’s Light from Light, which screens during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Sheila’s real job is working behind the counter of an airport car rental agency. She has some experience investigating hauntings, but all the gear belonged to her very ex-boyfriend. Nevertheless, she agrees to get back into the game when asked by the kindly Father Martin. He heard her on the radio discussing the possibly predictive dreams she had during childhood and concluded she might be able to help the recently widowed Richard.

After begging and borrowing sensors and cameras, Sheila presses her son Owen into duty as her assistant, but she gets his not-quite-girlfriend Lucy as a bonus volunteer. Together they wire up Richard’s converted country house on edge of the Smoky Mountains, where odd things have been afoot, like flickering lights and objects moving of their own accord. The three not-really-Ghostbusters genuinely hope they can help the earnest fishery warden, but the initial findings will be ambiguous—and complicated.

Frankly, Light is not exactly a supernatural genre film, at least not in a conventional sense, but the ghostly plot points ultimately give it a powerful, bittersweet kick. Yet, minute-by-minute and scene-for-scene, Harrill’s main focus are the fleeting connections humans manage to forge. Every flesh-and-blood character in Light is a good person, whom we come to care about quite a bit. That very definitely includes Father Martin, possibly the most sympathetic man of the cloth to appear on-screen in years. Harrill also penned one of the most touching, yet realistic and grounded mother-son relationships you will see on film in many a blood moon.

Marin Ireland invests the working-class Sheila with genuine grace and dignity. She forges ambiguously poignant chemistry with Richard, played by Jim Gaffigan in what might be his career-best work. It is a quiet and restrained performance, but he makes the widower’s pain and confusion immediately palpable. Atheena Frizzell is shockingly touching as lovesick Lucy, while David Cale gives it all a tinge of compassionate gravitas as Father Martin.

Light is a big, muddy river of a film. It is quiet, but it runs deep. It also looks terrific, thanks to Greta Zozula’s striking cinematography, which captures the mysterious lushness of the Smokies. It is sort of like a rural Personal Shopper, but it is subtler and more humanistic. Very highly recommended, Light from Light screens again this afternoon (1/31) and tomorrow (2/1) in Park City and Saturday (2/2) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance ’19: Velvet Buzzsaw

The oeuvre of late, undiscovered outsider artist Ventril Dease could be considered the Necronomicon of oil paintings. They have a rather odd effect on those who view them. It is even worse for those who try to profit from them. The exploitative sharks of the fine art world are in for some EC Comics-style karma in Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Ventril Dease is dead and nobody really noticed, until it was time to clear out the hundreds of tormented paintings he left behind. Then they came to the attention of his neighbor, Josephine, an aspiring gallerist, who immediately recognizes the collection as a potential blockbuster. Around that time, she conveniently starts sleeping with pompous art critic Morf Vandewalt, who is even more struck by Dease’s twisted vision. Soon, the entire art world is desperate to get their hands on Dease’s work, especially Josephine’s former boss (and Vandewalt’s bestie), Rhodora Haze, who once played in a punk band called “Velvet Buzzsaw” during her wild youth, thereby explaining the cryptic title, as well as her fiercest rival, Ricky Blaine.

Of course, the various grasping players start dropping like flies, under decidedly sinister circumstances. Vandewalt, who negotiated himself gigs as Dease’s official biographer and author of the exhibit catalogue, starts having weird visions worthy of a twisted Dease painting. Although his paranoia is definitely galloping unfettered, the critic is not necessarily wrong when he warns the paintings are exerting a malevolent, uncanny influence on their beholders.

Arguably, Buzzsaw is a contemporary cousin to Roger Corman’s classic Bucket of Blood, chronicling the rise and fall of artist Walter Paisley, whose sculptures look so realistic, because he embeds dead people inside them. Surprisingly, Buzzsaw is nearly as campy. It also has a roughly comparable body count.

It is not exactly what we would have expected from the director and two leads of Nightcrawler, but it is still fun the watch the game, scenery-chewing cast preen about the Miami Beach Art Basel. This is a case of beautiful people absolutely skewering beautiful people of an even more rarified strata.

Of course, when it comes to acidic snark, nobody can top Toni Collette as Gretchen, a spectacularly ruthless museum agent. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Vandewalt is an utterly un-self-aware uber-twit who puts Bertie Wooster to shame. He is a self-important dolt, but he has his principles, which makes him strangely interesting. Rene Russo is flamboyantly charismatic as Haze, the cynical game-player. John Malkovich adds his usual sly élan as Piers, a superstar artist, but this time around, he can’t match Collette’s caustic energy.

Buzzsaw is a minor work of cinema, but it is undeniably fun. Let’s be honest, any film that leads us to invoke Corman’s Bucket of Blood cannot be all bad. Recommended as a goofy, slightly horror-ish distraction after a frustrating day at work, Velvet Buzzsaw screens again this Saturday (2/2) in Park City and Sunday (2/3) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Sundance ’19: Wounds

Being a bartender in New Orleans, Will has seen a thing or two in his day, but even by his standards, things are about to get ridiculous. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of Cajun or Creole recipes for cockroach, because his troubles start with an infestation issues and mushroom from there in director-screenwriter Babak Anvari’s Wounds, which screens during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Will enjoys being a perennially-buzzed under-achiever, even though it is starting to lose its charm for his current girlfriend, Carrie, just like it did for Alicia, the one before her, whom he is still hung up on. One rowdy night at the bar, a group of creepy Millennials leaves behind a cell phone that starts displaying some alarming text messages. When Will cracks the code, he finds some disturbingly violent images inside. He tries to shrug it off, but the mysterious black car following him really amps up his paranoia. It also seems to be somehow related to the cockroaches increasingly swarming in the bar or his apartment (or so we assume, Anvari never really closes the narrative loop on the roaches).

In some ways, Wounds would make a fitting companion film with Guadagnino’s reconceived/remade/reconfigured Suspiria, for reasons beyond Dakota Johnson’s appearance in both. Ostensibly, the two films blend body horror with some mysterious form of ancient occult evil, but they are really more interesting in smearing outrageously over-the-top lunacy all over the screen.

You just have to either accept Wounds’ madness or call it a day, but it arguably works on its own level, thanks to the game work of Armie Hammer, Zazie Beetz, and Karl Glusman. They keep it all barreling along with their energy as Will, Alicia, and her new boyfriend, Jeffrey. Plus, Brad William Henke is a spectacular mess playing Eric, Will’s beer-muscled, meathead customer.

Wounds is distinctive in its way, but it is bound to disappoint fans of his first film, Under the Shadow, because it lacks similar depth and emotional complexity. Yet, he still manages to maintain an eerie atmosphere of foreboding, at least for most of the time. To Anvari’s credit, he also conveys a decent sense of the city of New Orleans (at one point, Will buys what we assume is a muffuletta to eat down by the river—and of course, Dixie is his beer of choice).

Wounds is the sort of film you keep watching if only to see if it can keep the nuttiness going, which it does. Nobody can make a steady diet of that flavor of cinema, but if you enjoyed debating Suspiria (and to a lesser extent, Hereditary) than Wounds should be on your dance card. You know who you are. Recommended accordingly, Wounds screens again today (1/30) and Saturday (2/2) in Park City and Friday (2/1) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Sundance ’19: Little Monsters

Miss Caroline makes a compelling case for merit pay for teachers. The beloved Australian grade school Miss Brodie will do whatever it takes to keep her students safe during a zombie apocalypse. She will pretty much have to do it single-handedly too. The aging rocker uncle of one of her kids came along on their field trip as a chaperone, but obviously he will not be much help in Abe Forsythe’s Little Monsters, which screens during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

After a nasty breakup, dumb old Dave is forced to couch surf with his long-suffering sister and Felix, his innocent-as-the-day-is-long nephew. He is a hopeless loser, but he tries to clean up his act a little after meeting Felix’s teacher, Miss Caroline. Suddenly, he volunteers to help escort the children on an excursion to a mini-golf petting zoo. Ordinarily, he would be the worst possible dude for the job, but all bets are off when the zombies attack.

Of course, it is Miss Caroline who is killing zombies like Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil. It will take Dave time to raise to the occasion, but he is still more useful to have around than Teddy McGiggle, a lewd, crude kiddie TV show host. Regardless, Miss Caroline (and eventually Dave) will do their best to convince the kids it is all just a game, sort of like a gory, zombie version of Life is Beautiful.

Little Monsters is far less cloying and manipulative than the Roberto Benigni film, because how could it not be, but it is still surprisingly sweet. Lupita Nyong’o and Alexander England develop an appealing rapport as Miss Caroline and Doofus Dave. Nyong’o is particularly charming as the veritable zombie-killing Mary Poppins-like figure. Josh Gad seemed to challenge himself to see how degenerate and debauched he could make McGiggle—and the results are impressive.

Forsythe also slyly stages a number of adorably loopy songs that will leave jaded genre fans with big goofy smiles, in spite of themselves. The only real annoyance in Little Monsters is the negative portrayal of the U.S. military. Seriously, if a zombie apocalypse ever broke out, Forsythe would be praying for the U.S. Marines to come riding in.

It really is remarkable how bloody and genial Little Monsters is, all at the same time. It turns out, it is quite a nice blend of vibes. Highly recommended for zombie fans, Little Monsters screens again today (1/29), Wednesday (1/30), and Thursday (1/31) in Park City and Saturday (2/2) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Slamdance ’19: Memphis ’69

It was eleven years after the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival immortalized in Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day and ten years after the establishment of the Newport Folk Festival. The blues revival was well underway, but most of the appreciative audiences for the rediscovered blues legends were up north or in college towns. However, some of the greatest real deal blues artists came together in 1969 to play the Memphis Blues Festival (and mark the city’s sesquicentennial). Adelphi Records founder Gene Rosenthal documented the festival but his footage remained unseen for decades. Happily, the Rosenthal footage has been shaped and edited into Joe LaMattina’s concert film, Memphis ’69 (trailer here), which premiered during the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival.

The comparison with Stern’s classic concert film is particularly apt, because they both vividly and slyly capture a sense of the mood of the crowd and the tenor of the time. However, 1969 Memphis was considerably grittier than 1958 Newport. In fact, the festival was held in the Overton Park Band Shell, where the Klan previously held rallies. That is a point that comes through loudly in the press materials, but the film wisely focuses on the music—and what music it is.

The Bar-Kays and Rufus Thomas come out swinging and the film never slows down. Straight-up legends like Bukka White, Nathan Beauregard, Sleepy John Estes with Yank Rachell, Furry Lewis, Son Thomas, Lum Guffin, Piano Red, and Mississippi Fred McDowell get full feature spots. Frankly, Johnny Winter (arguably the biggest star at the time) sounds rather tame in comparison.

Yet, one of the greatest pleasures in Memphis ’69 is rediscovering some of the rediscoverers, like multi-genre singer-songwriter John D. Loudermilk and soulful Sid Selvidge, who both kill their sets. Again, just like Summer’s Day, Memphis ’69 brings it on home with some old time gospel.

The quality, clarity, and historical significance of Rosenthal’s footage is just stunning. Blues fans will be blown away and non-fans will be converted. This film absolutely belongs on the same shelf as Summer’s Day and Monterey Pop. It is that good. Very highly recommended, Memphis ’69 screens again this Thursday (1/31), as part of this year’s Slamdance Film Festival.

Sundance ’19: Merata

She made the Queen’s Honors List for New Zealand, so you can’t say Merata Mita wasn’t part of the establishment. The filmmaker became a mentor for many indigenous filmmakers, including many from well beyond Australia and NZ. She was also no stranger to Sundance, so it is fitting her son Heperi Mita’s documentary profile tribute Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen has its international premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Merata started from humble but politically radicalized roots. In archival footage, she often uses the word “revolution” without irony. Her start in media was modest, hosting a public affairs program and self-producing a short doc, but it was still counted as experience within her community when Mita resolved to tell their stories.

The intimacy of Mita’s film is both its main strength and its greatest weakness. Many of Merata Mita’s films were family projects that H. Mita and his siblings witnessed in production first-hand. However, this also means there is little to no critical distance to be found anywhere in the frequently hagiographic film. Certainly, none of Mita’s 1970s-era politics are ever challenged.

A good number of clips from Mita’s film are incorporated into the doc, but they mostly look very much like time capsules of their era. They might be historically significant films, but the snippets are not so enticing (lots of marching and yelling). Perhaps the best case for Mita is made by the filmmakers she mentored and championed, notably including Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows and the latest Thor). The Sundance connections also continue with Sterlin Harjo. Walking Dead fans might be interested to know Cliff Curtis serves as executive producer, but does not appear on camera (which seems like a lost opportunity).

There is definitely an appealing Horatio Alger-ish up-from-mean-circumstances aspect to Mita’s story. The film is all very nice, but it often feels like a family reunion of sorts, It is definitely a small-scale affair, at times veering perilously close home movies. Heartfelt but not essential, Merata: How Mum Decolonised [Kiwi spelling] the Screen screens again today (1/29) and Friday (2/1) in Park City and Saturday (2/2) in Salt Lake, during this year’s Sundance.

Slamdance ’19: The Drone

This nightmare could have come straight from Amazon. The smart house is definitely a complicating factor, but the drone is the real villain. Somehow, a serial killer has transferred his consciousness into the pesky flying device and he is up to his old nasty habits in Jordan Rubin’s The Drone (trailer here), which premiered during the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival.

Just when the cops have the predator known as “The Violator” cornered, a bolt of lightning and some mumbled binary code zaps him into his peeper drone. Next time we see it, Chris the idiot photographer finds it while he and his wife Rachel are moving into their new suburban smart home. It is like the drone was just waiting for them. Rachel has a bad feeling about it, right from the start, but Chris is like a kid with a new toy.

Of course, the Violator drone quickly learns all their pins and codes and also starts gaslighting the family dog. Rachel immediately suspects it is doing mischievous things on its own, but Chris pooh-poohs her concerns, until the drone frames him for the murder of their cougar neighbor, Corrine.

Frankly, The Drone is even more ridiculous than it sounds, even though Rubin and the cast play it scrupulously straight (in contrast to his absolutely brilliant Zombeavers). Cult genre star Alex Essoe maintains her dignity as Rachel, but John Brotherton’s portrayal of Chris will give viewers a headache from all the forehead slapping and face-palming he causes. However, Anita Briem is an absolute riot as the slightly forward Corrine and Rex Linn (from CSI Miami and dozens of other films and series) adds plenty of sly, down-home color as Baker, the private investigator.

There is a fair amount of humor in The Drone, but nothing like the delightfully over-the-top Zombeavers. It is entirely possible that Rubin and his co-screenwriters, Al & Jon Kaplan might consider this film to be a commentary on the dehumanizing implications of technology, on some deeper level, but it is really just a logic-challenged genre flick.

Rubin keeps the film moving along and the drone’s hacking and slashing should be credible enough for midnight movie fans. However, the third act twists are utterly laughable and Chris’s insensitivity and general dorkiness will alienate just about every woman in the audience and a good portion of the guys. However, if you loved Wes Craven’s Shocker (by far his silliest film) than this should be your cinematic catnip. Recommended for meathead horror fans, The Drone had its world premiere last night at Slamdance.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Sundance ’19: We Are Little Zombies

Technically, they are not zombies in the Walking Dead sense. They are zombies like the “She’s Not There” British invasion rock band. Of course, they are a kiddie band, but they have grown up awfully fast. Death has brought them together and death might just be what breaks them apart in Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies, which screens during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Death will be their constant companion. As fate dictates, the four youngsters meet at the crematorium hosting their parents’ funerals—that’s right, all eight of them. Yet, strangely, they feel little emotion, which even they find somewhat odd. Instead, they band together, trashing their apartments and taking refuge on the streets. They have contempt for the future, living only in the now.

Of course, their stories are uniquely awful. Hikari Takami’s parents died when their tour bus had a fatal collision. They had been hoping to save their marriage by taking a strawberry lovers’ tour (at least they managed to avoid a divorce). Yuki Takemura’s parents committed suicide to escape their creditors. Shinpachi Ishi’s parents were killed in a gas fire at their greasy wok restaurant. Ikuko Ibu’s ‘rents were murdered by her stalker music teacher, because he thought she wanted him to do it—and maybe she did. Ibu is the oldest of the four, so naturally the boys all develop a crush on her.

Yet, it will be Takami who leads their band, “The Little Zombies,” filtering his Gameboy soundtracks through old school synthesizer modulators. Their street performances go viral, launching them to pop idol status, but you can guess the path of their career trajectory.

Little Zombies is not a horror movie, but it is definitely a massive cult film. With its intrusive 8-bit soundtrack and seizure-inducing rapid-editing, it is like an all-out assault on the senses. It is an exhausting film, but you have to respect Nagahisa’s ability to maintain the breakneck lunacy. Even if it makes your eye-sockets bleed, it is a heck of an accomplishment. As an added bonus, Nagahisa’s screenplay is riddled with clever, postmodern breakings of the fourth wall and self-referential wackiness.

Frankly, it is pretty amazing how deadpan Keita Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura, and Sena Nakajima remain, despite the maelstrom of insanity swirling around them. It is a different sort of performance, maintaining stoic discipline rather than emoting, but they fulfill their duties faithfully. Recommended for fans of Sion Sono at his most out-there, We Are Little Zombies screens again tonight (1/28), Thursday (1/31), and Saturday (2/2) in Park City and Friday (2/1) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.

Sundance ’19: One Child Nation

From 1979 to 2015, there was a regime very much like that in The Handmaid’s Tale, but instead of prohibiting abortions, they mandated them—along with involuntary sterilization (of mothers, not fathers). When China’s notorious One Child Policy was in full effect, the Communist government relentlessly intruded into bedrooms and families’ lives. The draconian mandate has been relaxed to a “Two Child Policy,” but the guilt and emotional pain persists for the parents who were forced to comply. Filmmakers Nanfu Wang & Jialing Zhang expose the resulting trauma, both on a national level and within Wang’s own family throughout One Child Nation, which screens during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

As a poor rural family, Wang’s parents were allowed to have a second child, as long as they were at least five years apart, but it was still strenuously discouraged. She quite pointedly remembers the shame she felt in school when it was discovered she had a sibling. However, when Wang had her baby boy, she started to reconsider all the propaganda she had been fed during her youth.

As the New York-based Wang starts to ask questions of her Chinese family, she discovers unknown cousins who were abandoned (ultimately, to their death) and a profound sense of shame amongst nearly all her relatives. Being good documentarians, Wang and Zhang do not stop there. They follow the trail, interviewing the village headmen and family planning apparatchiks who enforced the policy. They also challenge preconceptions of the human traffickers who effectively saved thousands of abandoned infants by “selling” them to orphanages, which supplied the lucrative Western adoption market.

One Child Nation addresses a lot of hot-button issues, including the role of human traffickers in China, the pervasiveness of state propaganda, the overwhelming cultural gender preference for boys (and the inequalities that come with it), and the systematic deception of Chinese orphanages that lied about the background of their charges and often split up twin siblings. Yet, every topic arises organically out of the filmmakers’ investigation. This is a tight, focused film—it just happens to have an awful lot to say.

Wang’s Hooligan Sparrow might just be the gutsiest documentary ever made, so it is a heavy statement to call One Child Nation a worthy follow-up. It might sound like it is old news to the half-informed now that the Communist Party is flogging its Two Child Policy, but she and Zhang make it crystal clear how profoundly the One Child Policy damaged China’s social fabric.

Frankly, this is sometimes a difficult film to watch. The images of cast-aside fetuses and babies will surely break your heart and possibly turn your stomach (wisely, these are incorporated sparingly—just enough to establish the truth). Very highly recommended (especially for Women’s March participants), One Child Nation screens again this afternoon (1/28), Thursday (1/31), and Friday (2/1) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

Slamdance ’19: Dons of Disco

Milli Vanilli got off easy. Sure, they have been mocked and humiliated, but at least they were not pulled into a blood feud with their “ghost-singers.” “Blood feud” might be a slight exaggeration in the case of Tom Hooker and Stefano Zandri, but only slightly so. The face of Den Harrow, the supposedly American Italo-Disco star took umbrage when the voice started taking credit for his vocals. Jonathan Sutak chronicles a very strange and very Italian show business story in Dons of Disco (trailer here), which screens during the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.

Both Hooker and Zandri would probably agree the 1970s were quite a time in Italy. Disco was most definitely the thing and super-producers Miki Chieregato and Roberto Turatti were quite adept at manufacturing hits, but Den Harrow was their greatest invention. According to his legend, Harrow hailed from Chicago, but he was really Zandri, an Italian model and party-boy, who lip-synched the vocals of Hooker, a genuine American. He had a legit Italian chart-topper, but his career suffered when his vocals for Harrow became too value to dilute with releases under his own name.

Hooker had more-or-less accepted his ghost status, successfully forging a new career, until he was outed on social media. He decided to own up and reclaim his voice, which did not sit well with Zandri. Hooker, now known as Thomas Barbey even launched a comeback attempt with the help of Chieregato, whereas as Turatti essentially sided with Zandri.

The Den Harrow story is “stranger than fiction” and Sutak does it justice. However, whether it was his intention or not, Hooker has the clear advantage throughout the doc. In the 70s Zandri might have been the better looking one, but in the 2010s, Hooker/Barbey is much more charismatic on-screen. He has a sense of humor, whereas Zandri acts like a poor man’s Franco Nero. Plus, Hooker can actually sing.

There are a number of genuine surprises in store for viewers at various points during Dons. It will also be wildly nostalgic for the disco generation. Sutak has a solid handle on Harrow and his legion of fans. If viewers are not careful, they could even find themselves infected by Harrow earworms, like the ultra-of-its-era “Don’t Break My Heart.”

The ultimate irony of Dons is just how much superior the current circumstances of Hooker/Barbey are compared to those of Zandri. Apparently, the Face had tax problems—that’ll do it every time. It also explains the vehemence of Zandri’s response—he needs to be Harrow more than Hooker. Regardless, their story is certifiably nutty, but there is a general love of music shared by Sutak, his subjects, and his talking heads that is quite appealing. Recommended for nostalgic fans of disco music and related forms of cheesy music, Dons of Disco screens again on Thursday (1/31), as part of this year’s Slamdance.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Sundance ’19: As Told to G/D Thyself (short)

Some jazz is traditional and old fashioned, but it is also the music of the Space Age. In fact, one of the greatest band leaders ever, Sun Ra, hailed from Saturn (you’d better believe it). The inspiration of the Arkestra and Sun Ra’s classic science fiction blaxploitation film Space is the Place is clearly quite pronounced throughout the Ummah Chroma collective’s short film, As Told to G/D Thyself, which screens as part of the New Frontier shorts program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, in Park City.

As Told has a little bit of everything, but first and foremost it showcases the music of jazz composer and tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington, part of Ummah Chroma, along with Oscar nominated cinematographer Bradford Young (for The Arrival), Terence Nance (director of the collage-like Oversimplification of Her Beauty), Jenn Nkiru, and Marc Thomas. The comparison to Sun Ra is particularly apt, because Washington can play funky inside and explore more freely outside. Not surprisingly for a tenor player, you can also hear a Coltrane influence, manifesting itself in plaintive, spiritually searching tones.

Yet, As Told is no mere music video. It shares a kinship with Space is the Place and Afro-Futurism in general, but you can also see echoes of Nance’s Oversimplification in the cosmic animated segments. Ironically, the music school segments might remind some jazz fans of the cover to Wynton Marsalis’s Black Codes from the Underground, but that was probably unintentional.

So, what is it all about? It is about twenty-four minutes. The narrative is rather loose, but it broadly encompasses man’s search for meaning in the universe and our collective relationship to the sacred. There is also a good deal of wood-shedding.

Regardless, Washington’s passionate music is more than enough reason to seek out Ummah Chroma’s film. There are sizable extracts from ten of his originals (“Journey” also features original lyrics penned by Patrice Quinn), as well as covers of Freddie Hubbard’s “Hub-Tones,” Stan Vincent’s “Ooh Child,” and “Fists of Fury” (from the Bruce Lee soundtrack). Highly recommended, As Told to G/D Thyself screens again tomorrow (1/28) in Salt Lake and Tuesday (1/29) and Friday (2/1) in Park City, as part of the New Frontier shorts program at this year’s Sundance.

Sundance ’19: Obon (short)

Technically, Akiko Takakura and the rest of Hiroshima were warned to leave the city, but they would not have been allowed to act on the leaflets dropped by American planes, even if they believed them. Nevertheless, somehow Takakura survived to this day, despite her close proximity to the blast. Filmmakers Andre Hörmann & Anna Samo give her an opportunity to tell her story in the animated short documentary, Obon (trailer here), which screens as part of the Animation Spotlight shorts program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, in Park City.

Takakura is a survivor in the strictest sense, but it is clear from the nightmare sequence that opens the film just how profoundly she has been affected by the Hiroshima bombing. Yet, her memories of that day, particularly the tragic death of her friend and co-worker Satomi Usami (who is obviously joyously full of life seconds before “Little Boy” was dropped) are even more horrifying. However, Obon is also beautifully life-affirming when it depicts the sudden outpouring of affection from her formerly stern father during the immediate aftermath of the bombing.

Obon is an absolutely beautiful film, both in terms of its visuals and the emotions it stirs up. Inspired by traditional Japanese woodcuts, Samo’s animation perfectly matches the 92-year-old Takakura’s oral history. In fact, Obon would be a fitting short to precede a screening of Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, but despite its elegiac tone, Hörmann & Samo’s film is not a downer—quite the contrary.

This film is welcome proof that even nonfiction documentaries can be a work of art. Both documentarians and animators should watch Obon, because it will encourage them to raise their games. Very highly recommended, Obon screens again tonight (1/27), tomorrow (1/28), and Thursday (1/31) in Park City, as part of the Animation Spotlight short film block at this year’s Sundance.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Sundance ’19: Photograph

If you think Hollywood endings are unrealistic, trying living up to a Bollywood ending. Happily-ever-afters a simply beyond the reach of a poor, marginalized street worker like Rafi. Ostensibly, the educated Miloni has more advantages, but she is also restricted by social norms and her family’s expectations. Yet, maybe, just maybe, they can make some kind of connection in Ritesh Batra’s Photograph, which screens during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Rafi sort of gets by working as a street photographer, selling souvenir photos to tourists at the Gateway of India. One day, he takes Miloni’s picture, but she disappears to avoid her overbearing family before Rafi can complete the transaction. He repurposes her photo, sending it to his grandmother Dadi, hoping to allay her fears he will never marry. When their paths cross again, Miloni agrees to pretend to be his fiancée, for the sake of his Dadi.

As you might expect, Miloni and Rafi start to develop some kind of feelings for each other during the course of their play-acting. Of course, the radical differences in their respective life-experiences lead to complications, but this is not a farce or even a rom-com. Very little is played for laughs. The narrative itself is pretty simple and straightforward. Instead, Batra’s screenplay is all about discrete, fleeting moments of beauty—and the pain that comes later.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra will make you absolutely ache for this almost-couple. They have real, heart-felt chemistry as Rafi and Miloni, but their relationship is so chaste, it hurts. There is so much left unsaid between them, because it can’t be said—and it doesn’t need to be verbalized for us to understand it. They are the film, but Farrukh Jaffar ratchets up the poignancy even further as Rafi’s loving but shrewd Dadi.

Batra also makes canny use of the Mumbai locales. Much like the worlds of its characters, the city sometimes looks grand and stately and other times appears to be grubby and desperate. Batra does not exactly wrap things up in a neat little bow, which seems to have divided those at yesterday’s screening, but that is how life goes. You just have to focus on the good parts while they last.

Honestly, Photograph is about as bittersweet as cinema can possibly get. It is a classy film, with Peter Raeburn’s elegant score heightening the wistful vibe. Very highly recommended for mainstream audiences, Photograph screens tomorrow (1/27) and next Saturday (2/2) in Park City, Tuesday (1/29) in Sundance Mountain Resort, and Friday (2/1) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance ’19: Memory—The Origin of Alien

1979 was a great year for movies, pound for pound. They were not all masterpieces, but in general, the films that year were remarkably re-watchable. We are talking about perennials, like Life of Brian, Rocky II, The Warriors, Love at First Bite, Apocalypse Now, and most of all Alien. Ridley Scott’s science fiction-horror classic still holds up, even when you know what’s coming. To mark its fortieth anniversary, Alexandre O. Philippe takes a deep dive into the mythos and influences of Scott’s most iconic film in Memory: The Origin of Alien, which screens during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Alien took Scott’s career to a new level, but screenwriter Dan O’Bannon is the hero of this origin story. O’Bannon co-wrote and co-starred in Dark Star, but it wasn’t what he had hoped it would be. Having fallen out with John Carpenter, O’Bannon started scripting a much darker alien encounter film, but he was blocked on page thirty-nine. It was a heck of a place to get stuck, because that scene would become the most memorable—some would say notorious sequence in Alien. You know the one. John Hurt is in the center of it.

Memory became Star Beast and finally morphed into Alien. O’Bannon hired his old colleague from Jodorowsky’s aborted Dune movie, H.R. Giger to create character designs (out of his own pocket), but his work freaked out the studio, who fired him. However, when Scott came on board, he got it and hired Giger back.

There is a good deal of this kind of interesting behind-the-scenes stuff in Memory (the doc), but Philippe really digs into Alien’s mythological and cinematic forerunners, likening the aliens to the Furies from Greek mythology and drawing parallels with earlier films such as It! The Terror from Beyond Space and The Thing from Another World (produced by Howard Hawks). The analysis of Philippe’s talking heads takes a decidedly archetypal Joseph Campbell-esque turn, but their contentions are quite grounded and well-reasoned. Some viewers might be disappointed by the absence of many original cast-members, but at least Tom Skerritt and Veronica Cartwright are present and accounted for.

Memory is not at all a case of all Giger, all the time, but there is still plenty of the Swiss artist’s macabre imagery, so his fanatical admirers should not feel cheated. Frankly, even fans who have seen the original Alien dozens of times might be surprised by the depth of Memory. It is definitely Philippe’s best documentary to date. In fact, Memory echoes our sentiments regarding the significance of genre films as a measure of society’s collective neuroses. Enthusiastically recommended, Memory: The Origin of Alien screens again this Tuesday (1/29) and Friday (2/1) in Park City, tomorrow (1/27) in Sundance Resort, and Saturday (2/2) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Slamdance ’19: Dollhouse

Prepare for a lesson in women’s and media studies from a pack of Spitting Image-style puppets. Frankly, the puppet known as Junie Spoons probably has as much personality as the pop starlets she is satirizing. Her dramatic cautionary tale of woe unfolds in a phony Behind the Music-like gossip show that serves as the narrative artifice of Nicole Brending’s Dollhouse: The Eradication of Female Subjectivity from American Culture (clip here), which premiered during the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival.

You more-or-less know her story. Spoons started out as the star of an innocent child’s variety program, but as her star rose, she incorporated increasingly risqué elements into her solo act. She became a major star, but after her somewhat less famous co-star (and love of her life) dumped her, she started abusing drugs, alcohol, and himbos.

The scummy men and substance abuse issues could have been endured by any number of hot mess pop idols. However, Spoons has one legal challenge wholly unique to her, but ironically, it might just cost the support of the hyper-sensitive social justice warriors Brending’s film is probably counting on.

In a rather surreal turn of events, Spoons must lawyer-up and litigate to maintain her identity when a white trash loser decides deep down he really is Junie Spoons and must transition genders in order to become who is really is. Alas, Spoons’ legal battle will cost her greatly.

During the first forty-five minutes or so, Dollhouse charts a safe, feminist tack. However, the third act holds implications that might offend the professionally offended, with respects to it handling of transgender issues—so best of luck to Brending.

For the most part, Dollhouse is mildly amusing, but only an inch deep. Basically, she milks as many chuckles as she can from the spectacle of puppets behaving badly. If the art of cinema peaked for you with the vomiting scene in Team America: World Police than this film is your huckleberry. At least it has the merit of brevity, clocking in under 70 minutes. Just kind of whatever, Dollhouse: The Eradication of Female Subjectivity from American Culture (say that one-time fast) screens again Monday (1/28) during this year’s Slamdance in Park City.

Sundance ’19: Chowboys (short)

That Old West wasn’t going to win itself. It needed an expansionist ideology, cannibalism, and killer Santa Clauses. Granted, this is Astron-6’s beyond revisionist take on the final days of the frontier, but it surely must be valid. A campfire story takes an outrageously macabre turn in Astron-6 (Adam Brooks, Matthew Kennedy, Conor Sweeney, Jeremy Gillespie, & Steven Kostanski)’s short film, Chowboys: An American Folktale, which screens as part of the Midnight shorts program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, in Park City.

It is Christmas Eve during the waning days of the frontier. Three cowpokes are sitting around their meager fire, while their hunger pains lead to hallucinations. The oldest and grizzliest will act as a peace-maker, sort of. He also has presents for his riding mates, as well as a macabre story about St. Nick, sort of like the Louis L’Amour version of Silent Night, Deadly Night. There will also be surprise guests—and not so surprising, gore.

Say it isn’t so. Chowboys is billed on the one-sheet as Astron-6’s final film. That is a shame, because their horror-mash-up-provocations are getting surprisingly smart, as well as gleefully bloody. Their Giallo send-up, The Editor, turned out to be more intense and legit than a lot of the films it was satirizing.

Basically, Chowboys is engaging with the wilderness horror tradition often associated with the Frontier era (think Donner Party here). However, the Astron-6 guys (acting and directing), keep giving it one outrageous twist after another.

Chowboys runs a mere nine-minutes, but in that time, Astron-6 totally runs amok and presumably gets all kinds of genre madness out of their systems. Frankly, it has to be a relatively short short, because it is just impossible to maintain this level of lunacy over an extended period of time. Highly recommended for cult movie fans, Chowboys: An American Folktale screens again tonight (1/26) and this Friday (2/1) in Park City, as well as this Saturday (2/2) in Salt Lake, as part of the Midnight shorts program at this year’s Sundance.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Sundance ’19: Apollo 11

It might be necessary, but it is a shame the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s Apollo to the Moon exhibit is currently closed to the public. These days, we desperately need the kind of idealism and optimism it inspires for the Space Program. Fortunately, an important new documentary will serve a similar role by chronicling the Moon landing step by step through newly rediscovered 65mm films and audio recordings. Forget the recent American flag-averse movie. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins play themselves in Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11, which screens during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

It is amazing how well documented the Apollo 11 mission was—and equally amazing that this footage was essentially forgotten until Miller and a team of researchers recovered it from NASA’s archives and the National Archives. The color video is still so vivid, viewers will feel like bystanders in Mission Control. Visually, the film is crisp and pristine, while reflecting the looks and textures of its era.

Aside from some occasional graphics charting the flight of Apollo 11, Miller’s doc consists entirely of this restored footage. There are no talking heads and no dramatic recreations. Yet, Miller, serving as director, editor, and a co-producer, seamlessly assembles a full and compelling narrative of the triumphant Moon landing. None of the history-making moments are missing, but Miller often shows them from a different perspective.

Along the way, the Apollo documentary also conveys a sense of the three crew members’ personalities and captures the electric mood of the nation. There is even a little sly (albeit dark) humor when developments in Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick misadventure briefly manage to break through the wall-to-wall Apollo coverage.

Frankly, there is no reason to watch First Man, because Miller’s Apollo 11 presents the real events as they really happened, with the real people (SPOILER ALERT: they make it safely to the Moon and back). Idiot conspiracy theory-trafficking basketball players will probably continue to deny the Moon landing happened, but now they have no excuse. Apollo 11 is a super-accessible film that will eventually air on CNN, since it will be co-distributed by CNN Films.

Most importantly, the film recaptures a sense of how the Apollo Program inspired the nation. It was a time when we celebrated risk-taking, rather than demonized it. Sadly, it is doubtful we could successfully undertake a comparable endeavor as a nation today. That is why this film is so refreshing. Patrons in Park City should make it a priority—and check their cynicism at the door. Very highly recommended, Apollo 11 screens again today (1/25), Wednesday (1/30), and Thursday (1/31) in Park City and Saturday (1/26) in Salt Lake.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders (Still, More or Less)

England wasn’t so merry in the 1930s. The economy was depressed, nativism was on the rise, and war was brewing. Worst of all, the world’s most famous detective had lost his mojo. However, a game-playing serial killer just might get Hercule Poirot back in his groove. The Belgian sleuth must solve his most personal case yet in Amazon Prime’s three-part miniseries, The ABC Murders (trailer here), directed by Alex Gabassi, which debuts next week.

Poirot has suffered some bad press and his old comrade at Scotland Yard, Inspector Japp, has retired. Young Inspector Crome resents Poirot for making the Yard look stupid—and he isn’t shy about expressing his feelings. Consequently, Poirot’s reception is decidedly chilly when he tries to report the mocking poison pen letters he has been receiving from a psychopath simply calling himself “ABC.”

It turns out alphabetization is a thing for this killer. He is sequentially working his way through the alphabet, killing a victim whose initials match the first letter of the town or municipality where they reside, leaving behind a copy of the ABC railway guide book. The killer also seems to have a thing for Poirot, because each murder is committed in a town Poirot visited.

Gone are the days of Peter Ustinov jovially munching truffles and escargot as the Belgian detective. John Malkovich’s Poirot is guilt ridden and angsty. He also has a tragic backstory no fan ever cared to ask for. Poirot should glide through life enjoying all the finer things, not waste time wallowing in self-pity.

Malkovich is excellent as the dour, depressed Poirot. This is some of his best work in years, but, ironically, he is much more entertaining preening and chewing the scenery in crummy movies like Unlocked than when offers up a rigorously disciplined performance, like his Poirot. Regardless, it is a pleasant surprise to see Rupert Grint looking and sounding like an adult as the stressed out Crome. Eamon Farren is suitably twitch and clammy as the ominous Cust, but it is just doesn’t feel right to see Tara Fitzgerald (Sirens, Hear My Song) playing her fifty-ish age as ailing matriarch Lady Hermione Clarke, Poirot’s greatest fan.

Gabassi and the design team seamlessly recreate thirties England, but fans do no want a dark and moody Poirot. They want sly elegance and a chance to vicariously enjoy the sleuth’s luxurious lifestyle. Frankly, screenwriter Sarah Phelps vastly overstates the popular following of Oswald Mosley and his fellow black shirted demagogues during the 1930s in the UK, but at least she refrains from rewriting Dame Agatha’s original ending, unlike what she did with Ordeal by Innocence. It is compelling to watch Malkovich wrestle with Poirot’s inner demons, but ABC is just too dark and didactic to satisfy admirers of Agatha Christie. Recommended only as a quick fix for British mystery addicts, The ABC Murders starts streaming next Friday (2/1), on Amazon Prime.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Dead Ant: It Came from the Desert, Again

1980s heavy metal hair bands haven’t died. They are just in denial. Sonic Grave is convinced they will make an inevitable comeback, despite changing tastes and their lack of talent. However, the rampaging giant formicidae might finally force them to face what passes for reality in this goofball stoner movie. They can blame the peyote for unleashing some massively bad mojo, but it is all really their own fault in Ron Carlson’s Dead Ant (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select cities.

Frankly, Sonic Grave does not take itself too seriously, so why should we? Their loudmouth manager with a martyr complex has booked them at No-chella, the down-market alternative to Coachella. Naturally, they stop for some peyote on the way. “Bigfoot,” the native dealer warns them not to harm any element of nature while they are tripping or it will boomerang back on them. Of course, Art the bassist starts tripping early and then “disrespects” some ants. It works out badly for him.

Soon, Sonic Grave have an early Roger Corman movie on their hands, except it isn’t as fun (despite being an intentional comedy). Yes, this might be hard to believe, but it turns out a giant ant movie starring Tom Arnold is kind of lame. Arnold certainly does not help much as the compulsively verbose manager. Dude, shut up. It is also pretty stunning to see Michael Horse, the reliably tough and cool Native American actor, playing the shticky Bigfoot (seriously, he was Deputy Hawk on Twin Peaks).

As Sonic Grave band members, Sean Astin, Jake Bussey, and Rhys Coiro mug and chew the scenery shamelessly. Arguably, Sydney Sweeney gets the biggest laugh of the film old-shaming Coiro’s Pager, but then script has her acting like a super-available groupie minutes later.

Reportedly, Carlson spent a year perfecting the digital effects for the rampaging ants. Some of that time might have been better used punching-up the script. The ants look okay, but the “wow factor” in this film is minimal. Yet, let’s be honest—in a movie like this, we want the ants to look cheesy.

It is not obvious from the final film whether Carlson has nostalgic affection for either old Corman-style monster movies or 80s hair bands, which is a problem. Frankly, it makes It Came from the Desert look like Young Frankenstein. Not to repeat ourselves, but the tragically under-screened Attack of the Bat Monsters is the best film for early 1960s monster nostalgia—and it doesn’t even have any real monsters.

Carlson maintains a well-caffeinated energy level and there is plenty of silliness to keep drunk or stoned fans giggling, but the film does not have any real heart or soul. It is no Ahockalypse, that’s for sure. You are better off watching Them! instead. Not recommended, but whatever, Dead Ant opens this Friday (1/25) in LA, at the Laemmle Music Hall.