« October 2018 | Main

November 13, 2018

The Owl's Legacy

THE-OWLS-LEGACY-12_Image-courtesy-Icarus-Films_Chouette-2-720x523.jpg

L'heritage de la chouette
Chris Marker - 1989
Icarus Films All Regions DVD two-disc set

Jean-Michel Frodon's booklet notes begin with a quote from the French poet, Henri Michaux: "The Sorbonne should be razed and Chris Marker put in its place." This is the collection of a thirteen episode series made for French television. The overall effect for me is akin to taking a mandatory college course, feeling a bit intimidated by the anticipated intellectual discourse, with the relief that even though moments are dry, Marker brings back the student with often unexpected humor. The one bit of information that is missing in Frodon's notes is in how the episodes were broadcast, whether it was one episode each week, or some other formal arrangement. I bring this point up because due to the release date of this collection, I watched the entire series within two days, one disc each day, with breaks about halfway per disc. There is just so much information to absorb here that watching all the episodes, about half hour each, can be overwhelming.

For someone educated in the U.S. public school system, I was somewhat prepared. My parents encouraged me to read about Greco-Roman mythology when I was younger. In my senior year of high school, my English teacher decided his students needed to know something about Greek theater. This was a very general overview that lasted maybe four weeks, with the class reading Aristophanes' Lysistrata.

Each episode is loosely centered on a Greek word or concept - "Mathematics or The Empire Counts Back" or "Amnesia or History on the March", among the titles. Each episode goes off on its own tangents. Marker cuts between various, informally held symposiums, individual interviews, and excerpts from documentaries and narrative films to make various points. At one point in discussion of Greek theater, Marker cuts to a montage of marquees in London's West End advertising various musical productions. There are also the bitingly humorous comments, written by Marker, read by Bob Peck in the English language version that I viewed. The most familiar names here are Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopooulos and director Elia Kazan. My own favorite of the various philosophers and artists was Cornelius Castoriadis for making the most convincing arguments about how ancient Greek culture should be understood in its original context and within a contemporary framework.

Unexpected was the look, in a couple of episodes, of the connection of Greek and Japanese culture. This is explored both in a discussion of shared mythologies, and also excerpts of a Japanese production of Medea staged in an ancient amphitheater for a Greek audience that included actress Melina Mercouri. Examining the roots of the word "democracy" includes an explanation of what that meant in the city-state at that time, as well as its relationship to contemporary ideas of democracy. That Castoriadis cites democracy as constantly in conflict with oligarchy provides a very timely spin. Angelopoulos talks about how Greeks give their children names associated with classical Greece as a way of connecting to the past. Too bad that Chris Marker, who both likes to have some fun at his own expense, but is also evasive about his own identity, doesn't share that part of his true given name is Hippolyte.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:02 AM

November 11, 2018

Denver Film Festival - Meow Wolf: Origin Story

meow_wolf_origin_story.jpg

Jilann Spitzmiller and Morgan Capps - 2018
Meow Wolf Entertainment

In 1970, when I was a freshman film student at New York University, I joined in group of students in the making of a documentary following some of the events that took place that May, the result of student protests that rocked the U.S. At the time, the plan was to not give anyone individual credits but to credit th film to the group. I left New York City for summer vacation. Editing was being done by older students who lived in the city. When I returned in September, I found out that the documentary we worked on would have individual credits after all. What I didn't understand at the time is that my experience was not something confined to the making of this one film, but could easily be transposed to virtually any group of artists who come together initial out of shared ideals.

This memory haunted me while watching Meow Wolf: Origin Story. Essentially, a group of young artists who did not fit into the existing art scene in Santa Fe, New Mexico got together, several of them living together in the same building, creating large, immersive art pieces - artificial environments out of found junk. They caught attention of the established art world and the media, and began creating new pieces in increasingly larger spaces. In between were clashes of egos, members who came and left and in some cases rejoined Meow Wolf, and primarily the conflict of how to manage what was originally a small collective into a much larger group with a benevolent hierarchy. A financial savior was found in writer George R. R. Martin who funded the purchase of a former bowling alley that allowed for an ambitious, and expensive installation. The group of outsider artists has now become a big business with new Meow Wolf installations in other cities.

The documentary ends with a couple of the Meow Wolf members asking themselves what it means to be an artist and still be part of Meow Wolf. History has its share of artists who became commercial entities, most deliberately in the case of Andy Warhol. Meow Wolf is to my knowledge the first group to go from a group of friends getting by on nickels and dimes to a corporation making and spending millions, with a large paid staff.

George R. R. Martin was one of the executive producers here. This is another way of saying this is primarily the members of Meow Wolf telling their own story. The filmmakers have combined talking heads with video footage of previous events, members traveling around Las Vegas and Denver in search of future sites, and lots of animation. I assume the use of the animation and other frenetic visual gimmickry was done with the goal of giving the viewer a taste of the Meow Wolf experience.

What is missing is any serious discussion about art, as if the Meow Wolf installation exist in a vacuum. There is no mention any influences in the realm of interactive installations or performance art. Nor does anyone talk about any of the individual artists known for making art out of junk. As part of Meow Wolf's success is its appeal to people who may not go to galleries or museums, there may be concern of intimidating viewers by the mention of someone like Marcel Duchamp or Nam June Paik.

Better is the look at one of the past Meow Wolf members, David Loughridge. While his art was photography, Loughridge's other talent was knowing what was physically required of actually building the installations. Part of the film documents his own autobiographical installation, a wall composed of photos and excerpts from his journal while undergoing treatment at a psychiatric institution. Loughridge died prematurely at the age of 33. Loughridge's black and white images and the black and white of his handwritten journal pages provide a contrast, and some relief, within a film overly dependent on visual noise.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:03 AM

November 10, 2018

Denver Film Festival - The Front Runner

the-front-runner.jpg

Jason Reitman - 2018
Columbia Pictures

Colorado Senator Gary Hart gets described here as a man with great ideas, but aloof when it comes to his more personal side. And The Front Runner can be described as being like Hart. Reitman's film is very timely regarding the issue of men in power, their relationships with women, and the often flexible relationships politicians have with the media concerning the boundaries, if any, of their personal lives. In this case, good intentions do not make for a good movie.

For those unfamiliar with the events, the Democratic senator appeared to be a shoo-in to run against George Bush in 1988. Taking a breather from campaigning and separated from his wife, Hart spent time in Miami, Florida where he took up an invitation to join a group traveling by yacht to Bimini. Among the other passengers was a blonde young woman, Donna Rice. The yacht was called "Monkey Business". Hart kept in contact with Rice while back on the campaign trail, and they got together at Hart's Washington D.C. townhouse. Rumors led to Miami Herald reporters watching the front door of the townhouse, concluding Hart was having an affair. Both Hart and Rice denied anything improper about their relationship, but the damage had been done. I even remember seeing the photograph published later with Hart and Rice on "Monkey Business". If you think that the name of the yacht is one of life's little jokes, keep in mind that Gary Hart's Colorado home was in a place called Troublesome Gulch.

Reitman begins with a very complicated traveling shot of news reporters gathered outside Hart's hotel room in 1984, when his first attempted run ended with him conceding to Walter Mondale. The camera weaves in, out and around, picking up snippets of conversation. Between that extended shot and the first couple of scenes, Reitman seems to be attempting to mimic Robert Altman. And the problem with The Front Runner is that Reitman isn't Robert Altman in that he is unable to make a film with a large cast of characters. With something like Nashville, Altman was able to introduce an oversized cast of characters, provide enough information to let the viewer know who each of them were, and show how most of them were connected to each other. The Front Runner is filmed in such as way as to assume the viewers know who Gary Hart is debating in an early scene, or know what role Irene Kelly had as part of Hart's campaign team.

What should have been a compelling story gets lost in a morass of dialogue and uninteresting characters. It could be that Reitman is just better at making more intimate stories, usually in conjunction with screenwriter Diablo Cody. I can see why Reitman would be interested here, his films are about people who find themselves in relatable situations that are over their heads. But films like Juno and Tully are confined to a handful of characters, usually a family, and are structured to allow the viewer to know and emphasize with a teen girl who discovers she's pregnant, or an overworked, exhausted mother. With The Front Runner, Alfred Molina plays Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, but unlike Jason Robards in All the President's Men or Tom Hanks as Bradlee in The Post, I can't even remember a single moment of Molina's appearance. It's also telling that the sometimes wry humor of Reitman's past work is missing here - the biggest laughs come from Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" monologue.

Seventy years ago, a much better film came out about a presidential candidate involved in an extramarital affair with a younger woman, and the machinations of political strategists. That film is State of the Union, directed by Frank Capra. Check it out.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:30 AM

November 09, 2018

Denver Film Festival - Rafiki

rafiki.jpg

Wanuri Kahiu - 2018
Film Movement

Rafiki primarily takes place in a Nairobi neighborhood called the Slopes. Skateboard culture and hip-hop are two contemporary markers that contrast against the more traditional aspects of Kenyan life. Wanuri Kahiu's film was adapted from a short story by Ugandan Monica Arac de Nyeko, but there is also a variation on Romeo and Juliet.

Kena is outwardly boyish with her slender build, baseball cap, tight cornrows on her head with a short queue in the back, first introduced skating through her neighborhood. She spies the more flamboyantly feminine Zika, dancing to hip-hop with two girlfriends. Zika is immediately recognizable with her elaborate, multicolored weave. The two girls have just graduated high school, and want to pursue lives beyond the expect roles of wives and mothers. Kena is more tentative about her attraction to Zika. Adding conflict to the two girls' budding relationship is that their respective fathers are rivals for a local political position.

Aside from being financed primarily by European sources, Rafiki will most certainly be seen by more people outside of Kenya. In addition to homosexuality being punishable by imprisonment in Kenya, the film has essentially been banned in Kenya. Kahui sued to allow her film to get a week long run in Nairobi in order to qualify as Kenya's Oscar entry. Supa Modo, produced by a company founded by Tom Tykwer, was chosen to represent Kenya. There is some similarity here to the treatment of filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul who was considered something of an embarrassment to Thai officials until he won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2010. This also points to the discrepancy in how films are chosen by their respective countries for the Academy Award, with films chosen based more on how a country or culture is represented over cinematic merits.

Kahiu addresses the institutionalized and internalized homophobia as it exists in Kenya. The two girls are attacked by a mob following discovery by the neighborhood busybody. Beaten and bruised, Zika and Kena are the ones arrested. One of the interesting choices Kahiu has made is for most of the conversations between friends and family members to be in Swahili, while Kena and Zika speak to each other in English. In an interview, Kahiu mentions that the songs heard would be those that the characters would listen to. The frequent description of Rafiki as a "lesbian romance" ignores some of the cultural issues that are also part of the film. The title translates as friend, emphasizing the emotional bonding of the two girls. While Rafiki isn't the "fun and frivolous" view of Africa that Kahiu says she aspires to make, it avoids being heavy-handed, and is graced with optimism.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:29 AM

November 08, 2018

Denver Film Festival - Budapest Noir

budapest noir.jpg

Eva Gardos - 2017
Menemsha Films

Don't think for a moment that Hollywood has a monopoly on the concept of cinematic franchises. Budapest Noir is based on the novel by Vilmos Kondor, the first of five books centered on two-fisted crime reporter Zsigmond Gordon. OK, so that doesn't quite have the same punch as Sam Spade or Mike Hammer, but the books have been best sellers in Hungary, and the first one has been translated in several languages, including English. What is also interesting about these novels is that there is also the use of history progressing from the years prior to World War II through the Hungarian revolution of 1956.

I've not read Kondor, but he claims as influences Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford and Dashiell Hammett. Eva Gardos' film has the film noir content, if not the style. While I have no idea how faithful the film is, in relation to the source novel, following the film through to the end reveals that beyond some genre cliches, there is a bit more going on beneath the surface. The ending is especially chilling with the viewers awareness of what is to follow historically, but also serves as reminder for the contemporary audience to not be politically complacent.

The film takes place in 1936, following the death of Prime Minister Gyula Gombos. Hungary has already begun accommodating Hitler in exchange for support of its nationalistic goals, with racial (anti-semitic) laws beginning to take effect. Like almost every crime novel or movie, Budapest Noir begins with an unexpected meeting between Gordon and a mysterious, beautiful woman. Gordon is perpetually unshaven and is usually seen wearing a beat-up fedora. The woman disappears as suddenly as she appeared, only to reappear as a corpse found in the street. The death is dismissed as that of an unknown prostitute, but crime reporter Gordon finds connections leading up to the highest social circles of Budapest. Patience is rewarded after the visual and narrative cliches are established.

It's not a big stretch to reimagine this film with Humphrey Bogart as Gordon, and Ida Lupino as his spunky, photographer girlfriend. One of the strengths of the film is in the evocative faces of the cast, especially the hired thug with the missing upper teeth, revealed to be a luckless street fighter. There are also knowing touches as in a scene at a high class brothel, "Les Fleurs du Mal" (Flowers of evil), where the song, "Falling in Love Again" from The Blue Angel can be heard faintly in the background. That this is very clearly Hollywood style filmmaking is less of surprise in knowing that Eva Gardos own background has been as an editor on films such as Valley Girls, Under the Cherry Moon and even Things to do in Denver when You're Dead.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:42 AM

November 07, 2018

Denver Film Festival - On Her Shoulders

on-her-shoulders.jpg

Alexandria Bombach - 2018
Oscilloscope Films

A little bit of historical background is needed here. The Yazidis are an ethnic group indigenous to a small section in northern Iraq. Their religious practice is a hybrid with parts taken from several monotheistic religions, both Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic. Their history is one of being a persecuted minority, most recently by ISIS which view the Yazidis as devil-worshippers, and have campaigned for their total elimination. (Any of this sound somewhat familiar?) There are currently an estimated one-half million Yazidis worldwide. In August 2014, ISIS took over the town of Sinjar, killing most of the men. Women and girls over the age of nine were raped and enslaved. Nadia Murad was one of those women.

Alexandria Bombach's documentary follows Nadia Murad approximately a year later in her new role as a human rights activist. What is not mentioned is that prior to that time, Murad was able to escape from her ISIS captor around November 2014, and after living in a refugee camp, was able to gain asylum in Germany. Her testimony to a Belgian newspaper in February 2015, while she was still living in a refugee camp led to her assuming the role as spokesperson for the Yazadis.

The film initially follows Murad as she addresses members of Canada's parliament, and the United Nations, as well as television and radio interviews, essentially repeating the same story about herself, but also trying to bring attention to what is happening to the Yazidis in Iraq. What Bombach is able to reveal through observation, as well as some of Murad's own words, is of a young woman who is probably experiencing some form of stress from having to retell her story and indirectly relive that part of her life. Also there seems to be a kind of reluctance in taking on a role that was never sought, from someone who would have been happy simply to have remained in her village, sewing, farming, possibly having her own beauty salon.

Bombach's film was completed before Nadia Murad won the Nobel Prize for her work regarding human trafficking. We do see her named as a Goodwill Ambassador at the United Nations, with Amal Clooney by her side. Bombach also shows Murad away from the spotlight, visiting a Canadian Yazidi community, with several young women maneuvering their way into a group selfie. A shopping visit ends with Murad giving herself a ride on a shopping cart in the parking lot.

Although not all of the issues are stated outright, On Her Shoulders should initiate thought regarding western governments dealings with refugees, as well as the ignorance of the situations of ethnic minorities in Middle Eastern countries. The choice of title is telling, as the viewer gets a sense of the weight carried by being a media celebrity, human rights activist, and virtually a would-be savior by other refugees.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:47 AM

November 06, 2018

Denver Film Festival - Aurora Borealis

aurora borealis.jpg

Aurora Borealis: Eszaki Fenyl
Marta Meszaros - 2017
Vertigo Media

With all the chatter about female directors, the name of Marta Meszaros should be better known. The Hungarian filmmaker made her first short film in 1954, and her first feature in 1965. Her most recent film demonstrates that at age 86, she could still show the kids a thing or two about how to make a movie. That Meszaros has worked steadily in a country that was under Soviet rule, remained during the attempted revolution of 1956, and continued through various government changes is a testament to her ability to survive professionally. One of screenwriters is Meszaros' son, Zoltan Jansco. I am assuming there may be more than a shared family name with the lead role of Maria played by Mari Toroscik, with the younger version portrayed by Franciska Toroscik. Meszaros' grandson, Jakob Ladanyi, also has a supporting role.

Maria, an elderly Hungarian woman, receives a letter from Russia. The information is enough to cause shock, sending her to be hospitalized. Her daughter, Olga, a Viennese banker, goes to Hungary to look after Maria. The Russian letter brings up questions that Maria initially refuses to answer. The narrative switches between present day Austria and Hungary, and the years of 1953-45, when Soviet troops occupied Hungary and maintained a zone in part of post World War II Vienna. Alternating with Maria's story is Olga's trying to understand more of her mother's unstated past, and the consequences of learning more about her mother and herself.

One of Maria's memories is of being raped by several Soviet soldiers, caught while trying to escape Hungary. Without being glib, the scene serves both a dramatic purpose as well as certainly representing for Meszaros the treatment of Hungary and its citizens during that era. Maria opens up, bit by bit, with repressed memories as well as guilt connected with actions taken in order to survive. The questions regarding memories and guilt would also extend to countries that have been more open about aspects of their history, parts unknown, ignored or forgotten.

Meszaros chooses to be discrete in how she shows the more brutal parts of Maria's life. Flashbacks of Maria and her fiancé, Akos, in a hot spring are lyrical, perhaps more so as part of a romanticized memory. The rural Hungarian town that the present day Maria lives in has a pastoral charm. For most of the film, it is women who offer the most substantial assistance for young Maria in Vienna. Without being directly autobiographical, there are hints of Meszaros own life in Aurora Borealis.

The Calvert Journal offers a good overview of Marta Meszaros' life and career.

Aurora Borealis does not have US distribution at this time. Festival viewing is a must for this moving film.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:33 AM

November 05, 2018

Denver Film Festival - An Evening with Barbara Hammer

barbara hammer now.jpg

As part of my coverage of the Denver Film Festival, I usually make a point of attending the presentation of the Stan Brakhage Vision Award. Part of my own film education was watching what were called "underground films" both on my own and in a formal class at New York University. I also got to know Stan Brakhage a little bit in the mid 1970s, exchanging some correspondence at the time.

My awareness of Barbara Hammer was totally by chance. I had lived in Miami Beach for a couple of years a bit more than a decade ago. I was a regular at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, at that time operating out of a small storefront with folding chairs for seating. The Cinematheque's curator, Dana Keith, presented Ms. Hammer and her film, Lover Other on May 15, 2007. A small birthday celebration followed the screening.

Two films were shown at the Denver Film Festival, Still Point (1989) and Tender Fictions (1996). I don't feel like I have the vocabulary to describe either film with the appropriate words or intelligence required. What I've seen might be compared to abstract collages, fragments of images and recorded words. Tender Fictions has a narrative line, it's autobiographical up to a point, but Hammer also plays with the concept of the "unreliable narrator". This is a combination of home movies, documentaries and outright play, her own little slapstick comedy with the barely disguised, cross-dressed bank robber.

Barbara Hammer almost didn't attend last night's tribute. She's been battling cancer. But she talked a bit about knowing Stan Brakhage, his first wife, Jane, and the influence Brakhage had on her own filmmaking. Following Tender Fictions was her wondering if she was more autobiographical than originally intended.

Festival co-founder, Ron Henderson, who created the award, announced his retirement from the festival that evening. I can't avoid the cliche of calling this "the end of an era".

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:05 AM

November 04, 2018

Denver Film Festival - Euphoria

euphoria.jpg

Euforia
Valeria Golino - 2018
01 Distribution

"I didn't confront this topic with a rational and clear cut point of view about death, it was more of an irrational attitude. Although, on second thought, if I have to portray an existential topic in today's world, in which everything is ephemeral, I search for what has remained untouched, and in this sense death is the absolute protagonist". - Valeria Golino

Euphoria is Valeria Golino's second feature as a director. Like her debut, Honey, death, or more precisely, how it is dealt with is explored. Ettore, a middle-aged school teacher, has what has been described to him as simply a cyst. He lives in the provincial town of Nepi, the family home. He stays with his distinctly younger brother, Matteo, in Rome while getting treatment. Matteo is a successful marketer, who in his own words makes one-hundred times the income of Ettore, who made a point of leaving Nepi. Ettore is more bothered by Matteo being gay than the casual drug use. Matteo keeps secret his knowledge that Ettore's condition is incurable. Honey was about the question of chosen, and assisted, suicide by people who were aware of their condition. Euphoria asks if it is best for the patient to be aware of impending death, and with whom should such knowledge be shared.

This is a bittersweet tale of what brings the brothers together as well as temporary conflicts. As a visual stylist, Golino has a preference for dolly shots moving forward through streets and hallways, and some sets that are not quite monochrome, but are dominated frequently in blue. The combination results in a dream like quality, especially in one scene taking place where Matteo and his nephew, Ettore's son, visit an exhibit with computerized imagery on the wall. The water of an indoor swimming pool is rendered a deep blue, while the surrounding walls are made of small tiles of varying blue shades. The interior settings often emphasize the artificial, while exteriors are in natural light.

The story was inspired by the life of one of Golino's friends. The euphoria of the film is inspired by the self awareness of the brothers, especially following Matteo's binges of drug use and casual sex. The film is leisurely paced. Unlike Hollywood films which often fall into the trap of dictating to the audience how to feel about characters and situations, Golino allow for her characters to behave as they would without comment.

Euphoria was part of "Un Certain Regard" at last May's Cannes Film Festival, and only recently opened in Italy. There is no US distributor for this film noted at this time.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:01 AM

November 03, 2018

Denver Film Festival - Naples in Veils

naples in veils 1.png

Napoli velata
Ferzan Ozpetek - 2017
Warner Brothers (Italy)

The first shot in Naples in Veils is of a spiral staircase. The shape is oblong rather than round, with perspective flattened, the camera itself spinning around. That opening image has suggestions of Vertigo, and there are some similarities to be found without the film being in any direct way an echo of Hitchcock. The staircase leads to an apartment where a man staggers out, shot to death by a woman. The murder is witnessed by a young girl. How this fits in with the main narrative is revealed later.

An attractive woman of what the French call "a certain age" meets a handsome young man at a party. Adriana invites the man, Andrea, to her apartment. The two have a night of steamy, passionate sex. Andrea leaves the next morning with a promise to meet Adriana at a museum. Adriana goes to the museum, thinking about Andrea as she gazes upon the statues and paintings of nude men. Andrea doesn't show up. When Adriana, a medical examiner, is called to do an autopsy the next day, she realizes that the murdered man is Andrea, with his eyes gouged out. The police reveal that Andrea took photos of Adriana nude while she was sleeping.

Naples in Veils flips the genders of Vertigo with an older woman and a younger man. Adriana sees men she mistakes for Andrea. The two films share the idea of a person seeking a twin to replace the deceased loved one. The distorted sense of perspective in that opening shot anticipates Adriana's own distorted views, her increasing paranoia as she learns more about Andrea.

In a museum, the surrounding walls have veils meant to symbolize the lifting of magic and superstition to make way for the knowledge of medical science. For Adriana, events in her life can not be rationally explained. Ozpetek also contrasts the classical art of Naples, and the opulence of an aunt's apartment, "a mausoleum of memories", with Adriana's very modern, sun filled apartment. There are also images of a single eye the recur, with a jewel in an eye-shaped setting adding to the mystery. Parts of the film are deliberately ambiguous, reflecting the way Ozpetek views Naples. In one interview, Ozpetek has also explained: "Of course there is a strong feeling of death in the air, but Neapolitans play with it and make it into something that there is nothing to be afraid of in it."

Naples in Veils received several nominations for the 2018 David di Donatello Awards, Italy's equivalent to the Oscars, winning for cinematography and production design.

At this time, Naples in Veils does not have U.S. distribution. Festival viewing is encouraged.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:20 AM

November 02, 2018

Denver Film Festival - Ben is Back

Ben-Is-Back.jpg

Peter Hedges - 2018
Lionsgate / Roadshow Attractions

Whether strictly as a writer, or also as a director, the families created by Peter Hedges are always atypical. The family in Ben is Back is probably the most normal on the surface, that they are interracial is only mentioned briefly. It is when the eldest son unexpectedly returns home on Christmas Eve that the family unity is challenged. Hedges introduces the title character, a young man constantly vaping. Ben has been given release from a rehab clinic, and is set on proving that he has overcome his drug addiction. He is given a wary welcome by his family.

The film takes place over a twenty-four hour period. It may be considered a thematic revisit by Hedges as his earlier Pieces of April was about a Thanksgiving dinner that goes wrong, and the family in that film is also named Burns. Unlike the older film, Ben is Back is not a comedy. Even though it takes place on Christmas Eve, this is not a film that will be repeated for for holiday viewing. That said, the second half of the film does share some similarity to It's a Wonderful Life.

In Frank Capra's film, George Bailey is running through the streets in the alternate version of his town, learning what life would have been like had he not been born. The more people he has encountered from his life, the more disturbed he gets, with quaint, friendly Bedford Falls replaced by the grim, unwelcoming Pottersville. Hedges' film takes place on location in upstate New York instead of a studio set, but Ben's journey where he is forced to meet with people from his past is a variation on Capra. As the journey continues, the past revealed becomes increasingly darker, moving from upper class suburbia to the furthest edges of town.

Peter Hedges' son, Lucas, plays the title role. As Ben, Lucas Hedges convinces as someone who says everything with conviction, leaving it up to others to determine whether to take what he says at face value. Even though she's now fifty, Julia Roberts doesn't look that much older than she did in Pretty Woman, which is another way of saying that she looks way to youthful to be the mother of a nineteen year old. More convincing within a matter of minutes is Australian actress Alexandra Park as a young addict Ben meets at an A.A. meeting. Maybe it's the make-up that did a chunk of the acting, but the kohl smeared eyes tell us enough about this young woman's past. Onscreen for just a few seconds is an actor named Henry Stram as one of Ben't former teachers. Even without Ben's explanation, there is an immediate sense of creepiness and an unsavory connection. Peter Hedges' main strengths as a filmmaker are in his writing and in the acting. Taking place over Christmas Eve, there is some religious symbolism that is not subtle, but neither is it overly emphasized.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:10 AM

November 01, 2018

Denver Film Festival - United Skates

united skates.jpg

Dyana Winkler & Tina Brown - 2018
HBO

How is it that no one in Hollywood thought there was a movie to be made about African-American skaters? I have to admit that my own viewing has been of films of, or inspired by, Roller Derby. That includes not only recent entries like Whip It, but the 1971 documentary Derby, and Raquel Welch duking it out with Olympia Dukakis in Kansas City Bomber. Maybe the unasked for spate of roller disco movies at the end of the Seventies scared the studio suits.

The focus is on the sub-culture of African-American roller skating, its history, and struggles to continue in the face of closures of rinks, as well as indirect discrimination. The film mostly skips between Los Angeles, Chicago, the New York City metro area, and North Carolina. And those involved show that there's more than just going round and round on a pair of boots with four wheels attached on each foot. Just in terms of the shoes, the Los Angeles skaters often create their own taking fashionable boots, oxfords, or sneakers and fitting on wheels. The wheels are often smaller than on normal skates, and there is no rubber "stop" in the front. The skating often takes its queues for hip-hop as well as creative choreography and some traditional moves. Each region has its own style as well as choices for the kind of music - Chicago's skaters have moves that are timed to mixes of music by James Brown. The Kentucky skaters specialize in doing splits on that hard floor. In all, it is an amazing blend of choreography and athleticism, which is one reason to sit through the entire credit sequence at the end of the film.

This is also a story about civil rights and discrimination. Vintage photos show a handful of people protesting in front of a rink in a southern city. A photo with white segregationists carrying posters with swastikas is a glaring reminder of William Faulkner's saying of the past not being the past. Testimony is provided by octogenarian skaters. In more current times, rinks have closed often due to developers seeking higher priced leases or finding greater profit to be made from commercial development. Some rinks have indirect discrimination based on policies of clothing, type of skates allowed on the floor, or postings regarding the type of music that will not be played at the rink.

Brown and Winkler spend time with a single mother, Phelicia, and her two skating children, living in Compton where skating provides a gang-free environment. Reggie is a DJ in North Carolina who is trying to bring what has been euphemistically called "Adult Night" to a rink closer to home. Buddy "Love" Alexander is an owner of a rink in the Chicago area who struggles with keeping his rink open due to choice of having low admission prices in order to be affordable for the most people. And there are the individual skaters of all ages, with some amazing stunts.

Doing a little bit of internet sleuthing, this guy who can barely get around the rink once without falling has found that there is "Adult Night" skating in our town - here and here. I don't know if any of the skating is on the level seen in United Skates but it may be worth checking out.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:07 AM