"Julie & Julia" **1/2 (Chick Flick rating: ***) (123 minutes)

Thursday July 9, 2009

(Blogger Note: There's a first for everything. I feel it is my humble critic's duty to give a separate "Chick Flick" rating since I have to recommend this more to my female readers.)

Nora Ephron has had a hit or miss career as screenwriter and director. Her hits have been home runs (writing "When Harry Met Sally", writing & directing "Sleepless in Seattle") while her misses have been swinging strikeouts (director of "Mixed Nuts", and writer & director of "Bewitched"). Here, she has another mixed bag writing and directing this tale of 2 cooks using Julie Powell's book, "Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen", as the basis of the film.

Julie, a bored office worker, and a frustrated writer, needs a challenge. So she takes up cooking by trying to replicate Julia Child's 524 French recipes over the course of one year while charting her progress in a BLOG. To further extend this simplistic plot, Nora in essence, creates 2 films in one by flipping back and forth between Julie's quest while chronicling how Julia Child became the person known worldwide as "The French Chef".

To portray these 2 characters Nora has, somewhat, reunited Amy Adams & Meryl Streep who were playing opposite each other in last year's "Doubt". Somewhat, because, unlike last year's film, here they have no scenes together. Julia refused to meet Julie as she was somehow offended by Julie's personal challenge. Then, Ms. Child died in 2004, a year before Julia's book was published.

Amy, who is building quite an impressive resume, is certainly capable as the affable Julie, but it is Streep's remarkable impersonation that makes it all worthwhile. And what an impersonation it is with Ephron accurately creating the incredible illusion of having a diminutive 5'8'' actress portray a 6'2" behemoth of a woman. You could close your eyes and, hearing Streep's voice, picture the woman who took French cooking to global heights.

Although the husbands (Chris Messina as Mr. Julie, and Stanley Tucci as Mr. Julia) generally take a back seat to the proceedings, Julia's hubby makes the most of it. The always dependable actor Stanley Tucci, gives a nice supporting role as the U.S. diplomat whose job causes him & Julia to relocate to Paris, and who reacts to his wife's new cooking obsessions with mixed patience & wit.

Curiously, for a movie geared to the preparation of food, I didn't leave the screening with a craving desire to head straight for the nearest gourmet restaurant-unlike other food films that come to mind like "Big Night" or "Babette's Feast", where your mouth was incessantly watering like a fountain! And you knew that somehow someway, Ephron was going to include the classic SNL bit with Dan Ackroyd trying to "cut the chic-kun" but slicing everything but! But overall, the film left me flat and its appeal will undoubtedly be more appreciated by a select segment of the audience (hence the added 1/2 star).

"My Sister's Keeper" **1/2 (108 minutes)

Tuesday June 23, 2009

Director Nick Cassavetes has teamed once again with co-screen writer Jeremy Levens (2004's "The Notebook"), and has assembled an impressive cast to produce one of this summer's bigger disappointments. The concept, put forth by Jodi Picoult's best-seller, is intriguing and thought-provoking: a daughter ("Little Miss Sunshine's"s Abigail Breslin) is created via invitro fertilization to be a perfect organ match to her dying sister (effectively played by Sofia Vassilieva). Unfortunately, Cassavetes execution is painfully maudlin.

The acting, as expected, is not the problem. Everyone gives a capable and believable performance, especially Cameron Diaz who finally is given a script to showoff some valid acting chops. She's the mom who is desperately trying to keep her eldest daughter alive-despite the fact that the youngest has finally cried "foul" when asked to donate a kidney after repeatedly donating throughout her young life. She's decided to take her case to a local hotshot lawyer (Alec Baldwin giving another nice supporting job) in order to make her own life-changing/life-giving decisions. And a sequence involving Sofia becoming romantically involved with another cancer patient (well played by Evan Ellingson) she meets in the hospital is sweet and affecting. Only Jason Patric (as the girls' father) is given little to do but appear sympathetic to the younger daughter's situation.

The main problem I had is that you can see pretty much where the plot is going and the obvious manipulation to pull those tears from your eyes had my eyes rolling more often than not. And those music-video like sequences just feel silly and awkward compared to the overall heavy seriousness of the film.

I like a good tear-jerker every now and then (in fact, I'm a fan of "The Notebook"). It just seemed a shame that this controversial topic wasn't handled in a more intelligent way that just dissolving into a corny mess. I suppose the book is a lot better.

"Crystal Fog" *** (98 minutes)

June 17, 2009

I took a brief time-off during SILVERDOCS this day to attend a special cast and crew screening of the latest narrative film by award winning Baltimore-based educator, actor, & director Steve Yeager. Steve took home the 1998 Sundance Filmmaker's Trophy for Best Documentary Award for his outstanding documentary on the early John Waters era "Divine Trash" which documented the filming of the cult classic "Pink Flamingos". He followed that up with a continuation doc on Water's early career entitled "In Bad Taste" (2000), which is still being run continuously on Bravo and The Independent Film Channel.

He's directed a number of films and theater productions but until now has never written a screen play. With this film Steve wears 4 hats: writer, director, actor, & co-producer (along with his wife Patty Barzyk). His script is loosely based on an episode of his late brother's life, who before his death in 1996, was a drag performer.

"Crystal Fog" chronicles a somewhat bazaar love triangle: middle aged Warren (FrankMoorman) meets and falls in love with the young Darren (Steve Polites) while each are attending an acting class (Yeager plays the instructor). Darren is having his ups and downs with his girlfriend when he unexpectedly meets and, even more unexpectedly, falls in love with Tommi (wonderfully played by Jordan Siebert) who performs as Crystal Fog in a local club. Needing a place to live, Darren rents a room in Warren's pad not initially aware of Warren's hidden desires and at the same time Darren is pursing the charismatic Tommi.

Yeager's smartly scripted tale focuses more on human drama and interaction than on Tommi's flamboyant world. And as Tommi, Jordan Siebert has created an intriguing character that is totally believable and tragic (he also performs & contributed the lyrics to several songs on the soundtrack). The other roles are not as successful especially Frank Moorman (who is a trained Shakespearean actor) who plays it a little over the top more often than not for my taste. However, overall kudos to the entire production which includes a fabulous soundtrack full of original songs-including a wonderful creation by singer/songwriter Viki Nova over the end credits.

Shot and filmed over 2 years in Baltimore, Yeager hopes to hit the festival circuit with "Crystal Fog" in the near future. He is currently working to complete a documentary on his late friend and Academy Award nominee Howard Rollins who tragically died of AIDS in 1996.

Post film discussion with (from l to r):
actors Steve Polites & Jordan Siebert, dir. Steve Yeager,
actor Frank B. Moorman, and publicist & broadcaster
Gayle Economos who moderated the discussion

7th SILVERDOCS-Day 8 & Final Thoughts

Monday June 22, 2009

The last day is reserved mainly for screenings of the award winners and those films that were well received by previous audiences over the week. I began the day with The Sterling World Award Winner "Mugabe and the White African" (****-90 minutes). There have been numerous films over the years dealing with genocide and dictatorships in Africa, both fiction and nonfiction, and viewed from many different perspectives. This one deals with the efforts of the rightful owner of a Zimbabwe farm to, not only retain his property, but also, fight for his life in one of the most politically volatile countries in Africa. Mugabe is Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and the white African is 75-year grandfather and landowner, Michael Campbell. In 2000, the dictator put his land reform program in motion which gave him carte blanche to seize white owned farms under the guise as belonging to the people of Zimbabwe-people who, in many instances, have no knowledge or interest in farming. As a result, the country descended into economic disarray with its citizens suffering from famine, illness, and an inability to produce enough food. Despite employing and caring for hundreds of black workers and their families, Mike has endured years of intimidation from the numerous attempts of the government to gain control of his property. In an effort to retain it, with the aid of his son-in-law, Ben Freeth, he attempts to fight for retention by taking his case to the South African Development Community, an impartial International court which is part of the regional African cooperation of countries. Over the course of a year, the family sees repeated postponements and rescheduling and, in between dates, the family is subjected to even more intimidation & violence in an attempt by the government to discourage them from staying and to vacate their rightfully owned land. The drama doles out suspense by the bucket loads as each court delay brings increasing tension to the family who are attempting to fight for their rights under a dictator who is determined to destroy them. Directors Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson, as did Jon Blair, the director of “Dancing With the Devil”, have put themselves in direct danger while secretly filming the action (the press is banned in Zimbabwe), making the filmic achievement all the most remarkable. The film plays out like a carefully scripted mystery and Andrew’s cinematography is superb making this film well deserving of its award. A truly unforgettable David vs. Goliath story that has worldwide human rights significance involving a fight for justice against one of the most ruthless dictators on the planet.

I slipped into the “October Country” repeat screening to catch the Sterling Short Winner, the Danish “12 Notes Down” (*** ½-27 minutes). Director Andreas Koefoed has made an emotional short that concentrates on Jorgis, an accomplished 14 year-old performer in the Copenhagen Royal Chapel Choir, who learns how to deal with a life changing event. You see, his voice is changing and, despite a storied career traveling all over Europe with the choir, he must now come face-to-face with the reality that, by continuing in the choir, he risks permanent damage to his angelic voice. The final moments of him singing in his last performance is heartbreaking and moving as he realizes that it is time to move on from something that has totally defined him in his short existence. As wonderful as this short is, my pick would have been the stunning Special Jury Mention, “Salt”, (see review on SILVERDOCS-Day 4 Below).

Time to take in the Cinematic Vision Award Winner, “Old Partner” (** ½-77 minutes). This small quiet Korean film by first time director Lee Chung-ryoul refers to the old partner of an elderly S. Korean rice Farmer, Mr. Lee. And, no, it isn’t Mrs. Lee, his incessantly nagging spouse. The old partner is Mr. Lee’s true companion: his ox. The doc takes us to a remote South Korean village where, using old-fashioned tools to farm their trade, the Lees have managed to raise 9 children. Instead of retiring into the sunset, we see Mr. & Mrs. Lee as they continue to toil on their farm with the aid of the old ox that has been with them for over 30 years. Mr. Lee has refused to use modern pesticides for fear it will harm the ox and even works to feed it natural grass instead of man-made feed. He is determined to see him die so that he can bury the animal himself. Mr. Lee has taken such a liking to his 40 year-old “pet” (they usually don’t last past age 15) that he refuses to sell the animal to the utter dismay of Mrs. Lee who is constantly bemoaning her fate as a workhorse at this elderly age. In fact, it is her incessant rant over and over that makes the 77 minutes seem a lot longer. You figure out quickly why Mr. Lee is more taken to the ox than to his human partner. However, the doc does take you to a place on earth and a way of life that one would probably never encounter (and for that reason, “Old Partner” gains a half star in my overall rating) while operating at a pace that moves as slowly as that ox-if not slower.

I follow the weakest film I screened this week with one of the strongest. Director Peter Esmonde’s fascinating portrait of a sonic inventor and artist extraordinaire: “Trimpin: The Sound of Invention” (****-77 minutes). Trimpin (he doesn’t go by any other name), born in 1951, grew up in Germany’s Black Forest where he was exposed to sounds of his region’s cuckoo clocks and coin-operated musical instruments found in numerous establishments around town. His interest in playing brass instruments as a youth was sabotaged by an allergy condition, but his creative expression was boosted when he immersed himself in “The Harpers Electricity Book for Boys” which introduced him to analog electronics that taught him how to create electronic gadgets from scratch. He has now become a renowned 21st century artist with his installations appearing in museums around the world. And what are these installations? Why, some of the most magical and fun sound works comprising everyday objects-a lot of which were retrieved from junk yards. Trimpin the man is almost as intriguing as his creations. Here is a guy who refuses to have a cell phone, website, or manager, and he's shunned gallery representation while abhorring recorded music and loud speakers! His sounds of preference are all acoustical. And the visuals are as stimulating as the varied sounds he produces. Take the electric guitar installation in Seattle's (his home base) Experience Music Project, a 60-foot tower sculpture of automated self-playing guitars; or a machine that uses tiny hammers to beat inside wooden clogs-which he set up and displayed in The Silver's lobby during the festival (see photos below). Everything he creates starts with an idea and then he goes for it, not knowing if it will work in the end-which for the most part always does. After the requisite background on this multimedia artist, the remainder of the film focused on his experimental project involving the talented string group Kronos Quartet (who did the score for "Requiem for a Dream"). Known for their experimental interpretations of all musical styles from classical to rock (their take on Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" is a perfect example of their talent and reach), it seems the corroboration with Trimpin would be a perfect marriage. We see bits and pieces of their ever changing practice sessions which, in no way, prepare you for the actual performance. In fact, no one could predict the success or failure of the performance, part of which involves the use of toy instruments! The build-up is suspenseful and the actual concert is, well, as successful as the artist of the title. By the end, you will have a smile on your face that you'll swear you could hear. At the Q & A, Peter mentioned that the film will be reshown in the Washington Area at The National Gallery of Art as it makes its way on the festival circuit. A fabulous expose on an amazing artistic genius of our time.

SILVERDOCS is also known for its free outdoor screenings held in the Silver Plaza around the corner from the theater and part of the outstanding retail complex created in downtown Silver Spring. This year's entry was the outstanding 1989 Academy Award winning film about the Apollo program and its astronauts, "For All Mankind", which was presented outside last Friday. Tonight, they showed it inside and followed it with an amazing panel discussion moderated by Washington Post columnist, Joel Achenbach which included the command module pilot of the last Apollo mission (Apollo 16), Ken Mattingly, as well as two Shuttle pilots, Tom Jones and Frank Culbertson. Add in director Al Reinert and you had a session-to-be-remembered by the audience lucky enough to be there. Among the interesting information imparted, Ken mentioned that for all the technology it took to get to the moon, there was more computer power is his watch than on the Apollo and that everyone involved took incredible risks to pull it off. In referring to what he saw outside the command module as it circled the moon, he said that despite the incredible look of the film, nothing could compare or capture what it really looked like. When Joel asked Al to talk about the music in the film, the director said he was surprised to find out that most of the astronauts in the Apollo program brought their own music on cassettes and that portions of the film utilized the actual music they chose to accompany them on their journey. The most compelling part of the discussion was when Frank described what happen on 9/11. He was on the ISS about a month into the mission when he was told by mission control that "they weren't having a very good day down here on earth". As they approached and traveled over Maine that could see smoke 400 miles south over Manhattan. He then mentioned seeing a billowing black column of smoke and realized that it was the collapse of the 2nd tower. On the 2nd pass, which took about 90 minutes, they were closer to D.C. and could see emergency vehicles and a hole in the Pentagon. What was amazing to him was that he happened to be reading Tom Clancy's "The Sum of All Fears" on board at the time and was quite struck by the irony of it all. As for whether or not they should be trying to send man to Mars, Tom stated it was certainly doable in about 25 years because the NASA budget this year is about 18.7 billion dollars-which is only one fortieth of this year's stimulus bill. With small yearly increases in the budget, it could be quite feasible to accomplish this feat down the road.

What better way to wrap up a week’s worth of wonderful documentaries then with “Best Worst Movie” (*** ½-93 minutes). And what best worst movie is the title referring to? A wonderful piece of incredibly awful filmmaking from 1992 entitled “Troll 2” (which the festival actually screened as a double bill earlier in the week with some of the original cast members present for the Q& A). From the writing to the production to the acting to the . . . well, you name it, it’s awful. What makes this documentary worth seeing is the focus it puts, not so much on the film, but what it has become: a cult phenomenon that is starting to rival the cult status reserved for such “masterpieces” as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” or “Pink Flamingos”. Most people would probably think that most sequels suck. So what’s new? As it turns out, “Troll 2” has nothing at all to do with the original forgettable 1986 “Troll” starring Michael Moriarty. This one is about a family who happens upon vegetarian goblins in the town of Nilbog (hey folks: that’s GOBLIN spelled backwards) who turn humans into edible vegetables. And there’s that witch who uses an ear of corn to seduce her prey. What’s even more amusing is that there isn’t even a troll in sight in “Troll 2”! That should set everyone up for a film that has been labeled the “Citizen Kane” of bad movies and has been voted the worst movie ever made by IMDB users. Seventeen years later, we see that this extremely low budgeted film with no name actors from Utah (one serious actress has refused to include T2 in her resume or participate in the documentary) has gained such notoriety that there are now parties and sold-out screenings in major markets around the country. BWM rookie director Michael Paul Stephenson played the family’s 10-year-old son in T2 and his documentary examines the film’s growing popularity as well as his quest to locate the original leads. George Hardy, who plays the father of the family, has thankfully given up his desire to make it in Hollywood to get a day job that pays: he’s now a dentist in Alabama, who is tickled pink that he’s becoming famous-although not in the way he originally intended. A totally charming dude (one of his fans is his ex-wife!), the good doctor is now traveling around the country to screenings where fans treat him like a rock star. And then you meet the incredibly naïve Italian director, Claudio Fragrasso, and his wife (who wrote the T2 screenplay), who actually believes its new found popularity is due to the fact that people are finally recognizing its true artistic brilliance. We see Claudio attending a screening infuriated that the audience is laughing when it shouldn’t and not laughing when they should. He clearly just doesn’t get it. And we get to meet several of the cast members, including a now homeless dude who confesses, not surprisingly, that he was stoned during the entire production. The film loses some of its steam about ¾’s of the way through, but overall, this is a compelling look at how an obscure terribly made film can somehow find an appreciative audience-for all the wrong reasons; or maybe for all the right ones-depending on your perspective. Hollywood has yet to figure out the sure-fire formula for success. Sometimes top stars and top money equal disaster (can you say “Ishtar”?). And sometimes a disaster can become a cult hit. This film documents that process and it is quite a hoot to behold!

Final Thoughts

For me, this was clearly one of the strongest SILVERDOCS yet and for those of you who scoff when the word "documentary" is mentioned, take my word that you are missing out on one of the best genres the cinema has to offer! Anyone who reads my takes below on the 21 feature films and 16 shorts I screened and reviewed in this BLOG, not to mention the yearly Guggenheim Symposium that honors a leading documentary filmmaker complete with retrospectives, conferences, special events, and a free outdoor screening, has got to conclude that what this leading festival offers year and year is truly remarkable and totally entertaining and thought provoking. Consider the fact I traveled the world in 8 days visiting such locales as Russia, New York, France, California, England, Florida, Massachusetts, Poland, Cuba, Australia, Mongolia, Oklahoma (o.k., it was at a prison), Louisiana, Japan, D.C., Brazil, New Orleans, Zimbabwe, Denmark, Korea, and even outer space: without ever leaving my seat! And I explored a vast array of human interest topics including prize fighting, family dysfunction and diversity, corporate history, Russian psychiatry, the arts, Hollywood legends, fashion industry, prison rodeos, autism, Hurricane Katrina, Japanese murderous assault on dolphins, D.C. politics, figure skating, drug wars in Rio, plastic surgery, human rights in Zimbabwe, quiet living in the hills of South Korean-just to name a few. And each are covered with story telling and professionalism that are equal to the best mainstream narratives that Hollywood has to offer. Not to mention the fascinating Q & A's with the filmmakers and, in some instances, the subjects of the documentaries. Mucho kudos to Skye Sitney who did a phenomenal job in her first year as Artistic Director (after 3 years as Programming Director) and her staff for screening and bringing such outstanding docs to Silver Spring for the past 8 days. Where else can you be in the presence of filmmaking legends, astronauts, columnists, & even a world class professional athlete all in one location? So if this sounds appealing to you in any way, be certain to circle the 2nd week of June on next year's calendar and regularly visit http://www.siverdocs.com/ to get the latest news and info on what has become one of the leading documentary film festivals on the planet!

Michael Campbell, the white African in "Mugabe and the White African"

Jorgis, subject of the winning short "12 Notes Down"

Mr. Lee and his "Old Partner"

Peter Esmonde, director of "Trimpin: The Sound of Invention"

Trimpin working on his musical clog installation in his lab

Trimpin's installation in the AFI Silver lobby

"For All Mankind" after film panel discussion (from l to r): director Al Reinert, shuttle astronauts Tom Jones & Frank Culbertson, Apollo 16 command modulepilot Ken Mattingly, and panel moderator Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach