Always Shine

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Sophia Takal’s sophomore feature “Always Shine” deserves a spot among the best films of 2016. Razor sharp, spellbinding, and intense, the film is too slippery to be pigeonholed in a single genre, and to call it a “psychological thriller” fails to adequately capture the scope of its ambitions. Showcasing superb performances by leads Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin FitzGerald, “Always Shine” teases cinephiles as a boiling, bubbling metafiction: a movie about the movies and the way we watch them. More importantly, it is a document ready to expose the ugliness of misogynist industry practices and the toll exacted by competition among women in a strange and brutal occupation.

Takal works from a script by Lawrence Michael Levine (who also appears as an actor in the film), and the one-two punch of powerfully paired opening scenes alerts the viewer to the filmmaker’s diabolical skill at upending our sense of equilibrium. In the first, FitzGerald’s Beth auditions for what quickly appears to be another thankless role in a torturous slasher flick, concealing any reservations she might have when told the part requires extensive nudity. Then, a tight close-up on the exasperated Anna, as she defends herself against the work of an unscrupulous auto mechanic sticking her with expensive charges, rhymes with Beth’s on-camera job interview. Suddenly, everything is an act.

One of the pleasures of “Always Shine” resides in the carefully calculated manipulation of our sympathies as we try to work out which of the women to cheer and which to judge. Takal leads us in one direction only to apply a swift series of feints abetted by FitzGerald and Davis. There are dozens of stories, and several recent movies — including Alex Ross Perry’s sparkling “Queen of Earth” — that use a rural getaway shared by close friends as a way to excavate jealousies and construct emotionally charged reversals. In “Always Shine,” the Big Sur setting provides Takal and cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard a plum palette to intensify the anxiety as Beth and Anna crank up their animosities.

One of the movie’s choicest scenes shows the friends running lines together, with an increasingly fierce Anna hell-bent on proving her worth as an actor and dispelling any notions that she is somehow not capable of achieving Beth’s ascendant success. The exchange indicates a turning point, and Takal pushes the vibe ever closer to something evocative of horror by way of Hitchcock. The forthcoming ambiguities challenge the viewer to question events as they transpire, a delicious contour that obscures several seemingly critical narrative building blocks that take place in offscreen space.  

Few critics have written about “Always Shine” without mentioning Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” and many others have noted parallels to David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive.” The comparisons are apt, and Takal stages several scenes in which the physical similarities between Beth and Anna echo the serpentine twining that thematically interlaces them in what can only be a mutually parasitic symbiosis. Takal and Levine handily realize the one-on-one resentments arising from insecurity, possessiveness, and the humiliation of perceived injustice. That they manage to do so in the realm of both the outside world where Anna and Beth must interact with men and in the privacy of a space where only the two women exist is noteworthy.  

“Always Shine” is the winner of the 2017 Fargo Film Festival’s award for Best Narrative Feature and will screen on Saturday, March 25 at 1:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the Fargo Theatre box office. 

Brett Haley Interview

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Interview by Greg Carlson

Writer-director Brett Haley spoke with Greg Carlson ahead of the Fargo Film Festival’s screening of “The Hero” at 7:00 p.m. on March 24.

 

Greg Carlson: Congratulations on “The Hero.” I was at the second Sundance screening. The one where you had been up all night and had just sold it.

Brett Haley: That was a great screening.

 

GC: We are so happy to have “The Hero” at the Fargo Film Festival.

BH: I am very excited about the film. It is getting released by The Orchard. They’re a great fit for us, and I’m just excited to be sharing the film at these great festivals around the country, including Fargo.

 

GC: What was the first movie you saw that inspired you to want to make movies?

BH: I think I realized what a director was when I saw “Pulp Fiction.” Something that wild and that singular had to be created by someone. Kids today are really savvy and they know what a director is but back then I didn’t know that directing was a job.

 

GC: Since you worked with Sam Elliott on both “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “The Hero,” what kind of adjustments did you make between the two in terms of directing him?

BH: Sam is a real collaborator. He is an actor that likes to be directed. He doesn’t want to be left alone. He likes to have input and involvement and he likes to know what I think. I saw that on “I’ll See You in My Dreams” but we had also become a lot closer as friends and collaborative artists by the time we made “The Hero.” Since he’s in virtually every frame of the film there had to be a lot of trust.

 

GC: Is your co-screenwriter Marc Basch on the set when you are shooting?

BH: Sometimes. Marc has a full-time job and a family so he can’t always be there. But he would come for some of it. I love having Marc on set. He is my creative collaborator. We’ve created these characters together and written everything together so I like to bounce things off of him. He’s a much different personality type than I am, but he likes being on set and I like having him there.

 

GC: Do you and Marc write in the same room? Who wins the arguments?

BH: We do not write in the same room, ever. We pass pages back and forth and most of our communication is via text. Occasionally we’ll hop on the phone and talk things out, but we don’t argue much. It’s more a discussion about the best way to tell the story. We’re trying to get at the best version of each scene, and making sure that things are happening in a way that we want them to happen.

 

GC: One of the things I love about “The Hero” is the patience of the movie. Nothing is hurried or rushed. Do you edit your own movies?

BH: I do. I edited this one and “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” but I don’t know how much longer I’ll be doing that.

 

GC: Taking on both directing and editing sounds like a lot of gray hairs.

BH: It is. It can be a lot of pressure and a lot of work to do both, but I enjoy editing quite a bit. I am open to changes and to notes. I am not precious about my work. I think on the next one I might hand it off to an editor just simply to ease the workload. I’m glad that I cut “The Hero,” because that is where you discover the movie. You write it again, or rewrite it, in the edit.

 

GC: Do you shoot dialogue as written or do you like to see actors improvise?

BH: Mostly as written. Occasionally we’ll do some improv. Actors always make it known if they don’t believe a line or if a line is not ringing true to them. Once I’ve gotten what I need I let the actors try whatever they want. It’s a balancing act. You want everything to feel real and honest. I am not a writer of the caliber of the Coens or Kenneth Lonergan. Marc and I are more loose with it. I always say the best idea wins.

 

GC: Along with Ozu and Cassavetes and Audiard, who are some of your other filmmaking inspirations?

BH: You just named three of the all-time greats. I think Truffaut is also on the list. The Coens are probably my favorite directors. I wish that I could do what they do. Kenneth Lonergan’s script for “Manchester by the Sea” is just impeccable. Brilliant from start to finish. I was inspired by that film. I am drawn to films where the writing and the performances are front and center.

Audiard was my biggest influence on “The Hero.” But some of the sequences were Leone, classic western films, spaghetti westerns that I love, like “A Fistful of Dollars” and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”

 

GC: I am teaching a class right now on Wes Anderson.

BH: I love Wes Anderson. I go back often to “Rushmore.” I think “Rushmore” is his finest piece in terms of writing. That script is amazing… the way he handles Max Fischer, an incredibly flawed character, and yet you really care for him and you root for him and you see him hit rock bottom and come back. And when you see a Wes Anderson frame, you know it. That’s impressive that he has gotten to that point.

 

GC: What is your style?

BH: If you look at “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and then at “The Hero,” even though it’s the same DP, the same writers, the same production designer, even the same actor to a large degree, and the same director, they are very different movies. “The Hero” required something very different than “I’ll See You in My Dreams.”

 

GC: I love Blythe Danner’s karaoke in “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” Who selected “Cry Me a River” for the scene?

BH: That was a song that Blythe suggested. I think she hadn’t sung publicly in a long time. She was nervous, which was good for the scene, because I wanted her, or her character Carol, to be nervous. The character hasn’t sung in a public setting in a long time either, so it was good that Blythe had a little bit of uneasiness about it. It made it feel very real. She got up there and was incredible, and owned it.

 

GC: Do you get starstruck? I see Katharine Ross in “The Hero” and think, there’s Elaine Robinson from “The Graduate.”

BH: I am very starstruck because I’m such a fan. It’s never easy to meet people that you’ve admired for a long time. I remember talking to Nick Offerman for the first time on the phone and I was very nervous. I have to remember, “Oh yeah, I’m a collaborator! I’m not just a fan anymore.” You have to shake yourself out of it a little bit. And even though that is Katharine Ross right there… I’ve got to do my job. But I’m still a fanboy at heart. There’s no doubt about it.

 

GC: What new things are you seeing in “The Hero” now that you are watching it play with audiences?

BH: I’m genuinely surprised that it is a crowd-pleaser. Because it is such a meditative film, I thought it could be perceived as too slow. There’s a lot more laughs than I thought there would be, which is a wonderful surprise.

This movie is different in a packed theater than it is in your home by yourself. They both have their advantages, but seeing the film in a full auditorium where people are laughing, and you can feel the quiet when it needs to be quiet, and people are engaging with the film is wonderful.

I am always thrilled as a filmmaker when people respond to the work. You do your best and you hope it is good. You put it out into the world and you don’t know what you’re going to get from critics and you don’t know what you’re going to get from audiences. So all of this is a cherry on top.

 

The Hero

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Filmmaker Brett Haley carves out a juicy and glorious victory lap for golden-voiced treasure Sam Elliott in “The Hero,” a thematic companion piece to the warm “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” which gave Blythe Danner a similar showcase. Elliott is Lee Hayden, an imagined version of the actor himself. In his early seventies and paying the bills with commercial voiceover work for Lone Star BBQ sauce (“The perfect partner for your chicken”), Lee spends his considerable downtime getting high with former co-star turned dealer Jeremy (Nick Offerman). An unexpected pancreatic cancer diagnosis pushes Lee to consider his mortality and his legacy, but he cannot bring himself to share his dire news with anyone.

Lee is particularly trepidatious about reaching out to his daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter), who has kept her father at arm’s length following years of distance and absenteeism. Haley and co-scripter Marc Basch imply that, at least in part, Lee’s choice of career took its toll on his closest relationships. In a nice casting touch, Elliott’s spouse of more than three decades, the great Katharine Ross, plays Lucy’s mother/Lee’s ex. “I’ll See You in My Dreams” was fully female-centric, and Haley continues to rely on vivid women in “The Hero.” Lee begins a tentative romance with flinty stand-up comic Charlotte (Laura Prepon), and the movie deals directly with the significant age gap between the two.    

Concerns over the familiarity of that particular device have been voiced. Jon Frosch cited “The Verdict,” “Tender Mercies,” “The Wrestler,” and “Crazy Heart” in his review, and you could add “Lost in Translation” and many more to the list. But Haley and Basch avoid most of the cliches by shifting smoothly between the likely and the unlikely adventures of the pair — “The Hero” is on one level a fantasy of Hollywood, after all. Both a drug-fueled date that leads to an offbeat acceptance speech during a ceremony honoring Lee with a lifetime achievement and the fallout from some of the more pointed jokes performed by Charlotte at Lee’s expense are made fresh by the skillful and genuine verisimilitude of Elliott and Prepon.

Haley’s measured pace contradicts the more commonly utilized haste of dramatic comedies, but “The Hero” unfolds with total confidence in its star. Eric Kohn pointed out that “the [lead] character’s name… is an amalgam of Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden — both of whom epitomize the male swagger of a different era and the dwindling opportunities for such faces as years go by.” Lee’s signature role, which gives the film its title, was performed some four decades past, and the actor suggests it is the only work he is genuinely proud to claim. Lee is also haunted in a series of dream sequences that evoke some old-fashioned cowboy movies, with a dash of Leone mixed in for good measure.

Elliott appears in practically every frame of ‘The Hero,” and he is so good, you’ll make plans to revisit some of his signature turns (not that you need an excuse to dial up “The Big Lebowski” for the umpteenth time). Elliott’s comfort and ease with his own image allows Haley to mine more humor than anticipated in a movie built on the worst possible health news one could receive, but “The Hero” is capable of having it both ways. Elliott is magnificent in a pair of mirrored audition scenes that alternately command laughter and tears. Here’s hoping the man, the myth, and the mustache will be making movies for years to come.  

The Fargo Film Festival will present a special screening of “The Hero” on Friday, March 24 at 7:00 p.m. at the Fargo Theatre. Producers Erik Rommesmo and Jeff Schlossman will participate in a Q & A following the movie. 

I Am Not Your Negro

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

In Raoul Peck’s monumental documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” one of the best moments – and there are several dozen from which to choose – comes courtesy a clip from the 74th episode from the first season of “The Dick Cavett Show.” Originally aired June 13, 1968, the broadcast included an intellectual joust between James Baldwin and the Yale philosopher Paul Weiss. After listening to a ponderous, condescending, and clueless Weiss counter his initial comments, Baldwin takes his knives out and delivers an excoriating rebuttal that, nearly half a century later, inspires applause in a full movie theater.   

It would certainly not be lost on Peck, who earned a degree from the German Film and Television Academy Berlin, that Weiss translates to “white” or “knowing.”

Peck, a filmmaker and political activist who served as Haiti’s Minister of Culture in 1996 and 1997, explained in a “Los Angeles Times” interview with Tre’vell Anderson that, against the odds, he was granted “unprecedented access to the entire [Baldwin] estate.” Baldwin’s sister Gloria Karefa-Smart shared with Peck a 30-page collection of notes for Baldwin’s unfinished “Remember This House,” in which the writer planned to explore race through an examination of his personal relationships with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers.   

Using that triptych structure as the basis for his film, Peck lets Baldwin, and Baldwin alone, take us by the hand. Baldwin’s thoughts are by turns intimate and reflective, urgent and revelatory. A. O. Scott wrote of the film, “It doesn’t just make you aware of Baldwin, or hold him up as a figure to be admired from a distance. You feel entirely in his presence, hanging on his every word, following the implications of his ideas as they travel from his experience to yours.” Read with gravitas by Samuel L. Jackson, Baldwin’s text serves as an auditory accompaniment to the often uplifting, often devastating pictures that Peck has selected. No additional narration, no talking heads, and no explanations are necessary.

As a Virgil-like guide, Baldwin counsels that America is more Inferno than Paradiso, despite the sophistication of the illusions being bought and sold. Peck samples movies familiar (“King Kong”) and less familiar (“They Won’t Forget”). He suggests, via the garish hues of WarnerColor, that a seemingly innocuous fantasy like “The Pajama Game” conceals a wolf in sheep’s sleepwear. And that black and white readings of “The Defiant Ones” don’t reconcile. And that “In the Heat of the Night” could show a kiss even if we don’t see lips touch lips.

Peck’s prodigious gift for juxtaposition is simply astonishing. In addition to the Hollywood films, he remixes a devastating hurricane made up of archival clips and images detailing 20th century American popular culture, social upheaval, civil rights, and history, combining it all with a freshness that has the effect of making you believe you are seeing all these things for the first time. And when the director shifts the viewpoint from Baldwin’s lifetime to more recent scenes from Ferguson, Missouri following the killing of Michael Brown, and also to an infuriating roll call of several others who died at the hands of the police, it is not hard to imagine Baldwin alive, speaking truth to power today and tomorrow.  

 

Dina

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

The U.S. documentary grand jury prize winner at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles’ “Dina” is an empathetic portrait of love and resilience. Following the ups and downs of the wedding preparations undertaken by title subject Dina Buno and her husband-to-be Scott Levin in greater Philadelphia, the film cultivates and carefully manages its precise point of view. Buno and Levin live with a number of recognizable neurodevelopmental disorders, and the latter identifies as a person with Asperger syndrome, but the filmmakers resolutely avoid the clichés of films focused on people with special needs.

Framing close to the au courant Academy ratio, Santini and Sickles employ long, static takes often composed at a physical remove from the primary action. The disarming technique contrasts sharply with the popularity of nonfiction stories shot handheld (fueled by the “necessaity” to capture/cover events that might otherwise be missed). The filmmakers’ careful and deliberate arrangements demonstrate an unhurried patience that pays dividends when surprising moments and revelations unfold before our eyes. The fly-on-the-wall sensation is additionally complemented by the bold absence of voiceover narration and talking head interviews.

The trust extended by Dina to the directors infuses every scene of the movie. As reported by Kate Erbland, Sickles is a lifelong friend of Buno, who was mentored by Sickles’ father in his capacity as a high school teacher and a co-founder of the community service organization that was originally going to be the broader subject of Sickles and Santini’s feature. Dina’s engagement to Levin sharpened the focus, and the result, while still including other members of the Abington Aktion Club, benefits from the microcosmic examination of the changes wrought by a new marriage.

The moviemakers recognize that, along with Dina’s personal history – her first husband died and she was assaulted by a boyfriend – the ongoing physical intimacy issues between Dina and Scott offer both the narrative’s key conflict and an opportunity to connect with viewers not on the autism spectrum. The film resists the simplistic and condescending tendency to “universalize” Dina and Scott in their pre-nuptial negotiations by entirely bypassing any kind of hand-wringing or second-guessing regarding the sexual rights of its principal pair.

Instead, Sickles and Santini are confident enough to showcase plenty of awkward humor that might read as insensitive or exploitative in less skillful and/or educated hands. Scott’s struggle to meet Dina’s outspoken carnal needs builds through a series of exchanges that routinely evoke the wincing self-recognition of nearly any romantic partnership. The earthy, ebulilient Dina cuts loose at her bachelorette party with a stripper while Scott prefers a more sedate trip to a bowling alley. Later, a dip in the giant, martini glass-shaped, honeymoon suite tub filled with bubbles is a sight to behold.

In what is probably the movie’s most discussed moment, Santini and Sickles share the audio recording of the 911 call from the night that Dina was violently attacked. The juxtaposition of this alarmingly raw information (Dina has been stabbed but remains incredibly composed in her converstation with the operator) with a portrait of hope and possibility promised by a new life is a representative example of the position staked out and asserted by Dina and by the directors.

The Lego Batman Movie

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

A virtually critic-proof three ring circus of toy-based programming and winking self-reference guaranteed to give even the most devoted admirer whiplash, “The Lego Batman Movie” duplicates some of the charm of its 2014 Phil Lord and Christopher Miller-directed predecessor. Led by Chris McKay, the “new” adventure is pure postmodern pastiche: a feature-length fantasia of Easter eggs, throwbacks, inside jokes, and mock lessons fully trading on the Dark Knight’s most commonly mined thematic territory. At the center is the age-old question asking whether the Batman is better off as a solo act. The answer, supplied in the wide-eyed minifigure of Michael Cera’s eager Dick Grayson, is an emphatic no.

Last year, Glen Weldon summarized the value of Robin as “half the story,” a presence that “serves to define and delineate Batman.” Weldon argued that “Batman’s status as the ultimate mentor is a base principle, inasmuch as it speaks directly to who he is: he saves others because, on one terrible night long ago, there was no one to save him.” In “The Lego Batman Movie,” the orphan status of both Bruce and Dick is a punchline, as are multiple nods to the unorthodox partnership of a single, adult socialite and a teenage boy. But make no mistake: “The Lego Batman Movie” recognizes that Batman can be so much more engaging with Robin around.

The retirement of reliable police commissioner James Gordon is a nice touch made nicer by the promotion of daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson) to the post. Ms. Gordon’s inaugural address, in which she points out the obvious by reminding the assembled citizens that the decades-long effort of Batman to reduce crime in Gotham City hasn’t moved the needle, is another reminder that the Caped Crusader is nothing without the recidivists who pass through the revolving doors of Arkham Asylum. In one funny exchange, Batman denies nemesis exclusivity to the Joker (Zach Galifianakis), insisting that he likes to “fight around.” Frequent Wayne Manor screenings of “Jerry Maguire” provide another opportunity to skewer the “You complete me” ethos forever coupling the World’s Greatest Detective to the Clown Prince of Crime.

Unfortunately, the capable Batgirl (who wonders aloud whether her own moniker should allow her to rechristen Batman as Batboy) is punished with second-class status. So are the other females. Zoe Kravitz’s nearly mute Catwoman is deprived of her claws and her purr. Harley Quinn, voiced by Jenny Slate, is a non-starter. And notwithstanding the inspired casting of Kate Micucci as Clayface and Riki Lindhome as Poison Ivy, this version of Gotham, like so many others, is a place where the majority of the talking is done by men to other men, and women speak very little with women.

Like “The Lego Movie,” the brick Batman iteration subscribes to more-is-more in the category of franchise crossovers. By the end, the promise of a deep-bench rogues gallery melee featuring classic DC villains has been expanded to a wild tossed salad calling on Gremlins, King Kong, Voldemort, Sauron, and the Wicked Witch of the West and her winged monkeys. The whole shebang works well enough if you don’t think too hard on it, especially since the inherent construction/deconstruction motif in the Lego landscape so perfectly suits the more outre and psychedelic chapters in Batman’s storied chronology. As Grant Morrison put it, “Batman knew what it was like to trip balls without seriously losing his shit,” and McKay slices off a thick slab of nostalgia, including plenty of love for the landmark 1966 series.

Oklahoma City

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Veteran filmmaker Barak Goodman’s “Oklahoma City” is a timely and sobering historical document with unsettling connections to the ugly “alt right” rhetoric touching the increasingly tense national political climate. Following a Sundance Film Festival world premiere, the feature debuts on PBS’ “American Experience” February 7, 2017. In the film, Goodman uses the shocking events of April 19, 1995 as the foundation for a larger discussion about the toxicity of anti-government movements and the realities of homegrown acts of mayhem.

Goodman’s thesis presents two high-profile confrontations between federal authorities and private citizens as critical prelude to Timothy McVeigh’s act of devastating domestic terrorism: first, the 1992 siege of Ruby Ridge near Naples, Idaho between the Randy Weaver family, Kevin Harris, and the United States Marshals Service, and second, the David Koresh-led standoff between Branch Davidians and several groups of law enforcement and military personnel outside Waco, Texas in 1993.

Goodman’s most sobering implication leaves open to question and interpretation the idea that the aggressive, militarized tactics employed at Ruby Ridge and Waco galvanized and recruited a growing legion of believers convinced that continued government overreach would result in the loss of individual freedoms and the confiscation of weapons. Among that number was McVeigh, who visited Waco during the surreal circus preceding the fiery outcome. Eerie footage of the future bomber selling bumper stickers at a safe distance from the Branch Davidian compound plays directly into Goodman’s connect-the-dots suggestion of inciting incidents.

Given the massive amounts of televised media coverage captured and broadcast in the Oklahoma City explosion’s immediate aftermath, as well as the filmmaker’s decision to provide such detailed context prior to addressing the multitude of possible stories connected to the people who worked at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, “Oklahoma City” could have been expanded to a successful multipart series like Ezra Edelman’s five episode “O.J.: Made in America.” Instead, Goodman must make difficult editorial choices that put human faces to the victims and first responders as the film covers the chaotic consequences of McVeigh’s violent act.

The deaths of 168 people included 19 children and babies, many of whom attended the day-care center inside McVeigh’s target. Goodman’s talking head interview subjects include several bereaved parents, but interestingly, “Oklahoma City” omits inclusion and discussion of the iconic, Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of firefighter Chris Fields carrying the dying Baylee Almon. There is no shortage, however, of harrowing narratives. The vivid story of a desperate amputation in the rubble is representative of the rescue efforts and starkly contrasts deep humanity with McVeigh’s unconscionable disregard for the innocent.

As authors and experts share opinions and observations, Goodman also makes room to remind the viewer that early, erroneous reporting on the Oklahoma City bombing pointed to Middle East terrorism. That rush to judgment, which overlooked McVeigh’s brand of twisted white patriotism, may have briefly rewritten the playbook used to share breaking news with the public. The expansion of the internet and the blinding speed that prioritizes being first rather than being right has only complicated the role of news gatherers in the labeling of complicated incidents of senseless murder occurring in the years since Oklahoma City.

Raw

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

A sinewy, blood-drenched feast of old fashioned gore and fresh storytelling, first-time feature writer-director Julia Ducournau’s “Raw” is the cannibal horror comedy you never knew you needed. Made with a level of confidence not seen in filmmakers with half a dozen completed movies, “Raw” builds a wholly engrossing and fully functioning universe in which to contain its walloping frights and freak-outs. Ducournau explores several juicy themes without shortchanging any one of them: sisterhood and sibling rivalry, sexual awakening and female pleasure, parental expectation and influence, peer pressure and conformity, and the moral conundrum of the carnivore.

Justine (Garance Marillier), a whip-smart, head-of-the-class overachiever, enrolls at the veterinary school attended by older sis Alexia (Ella Rumpf). Mom (Joana Preiss) and Dad (Laurent Lucas) are graduates of the same program, and the strict vegetarianism practiced by the family is one of the first obstacles faced by Justine when the incoming students are mercilessly hazed by upperclassmen. Coerced into ingesting uncooked rabbit kidney as part of one initiation, Justine rapidly develops a taste for flesh that won’t be satisfied by hasenpfeffer.

But instead of focusing narrative attention solely on Justine’s insatiable appetite and its inevitable consequences, Ducournau ups the ante by ambitiously dropping the viewer in the heart of the utterly disorienting space occupied by the world’s most hedonistic animal science academy. Drug-fueled, all-night raves are dizzy, sweaty, underwear optional laboratories for the sleep-deprived recruits who somehow stumble to morning classes. Faculty members appear onscreen, but no authority figures seem concerned about the marauding seniors who trash dormitories at will, tossing mattresses, suitcases, and anything else not nailed down out the nearest windows.

While we try to make sense of the incongruity of a presumably accredited institute of higher learning and the decadent behavior of its student body, Ducournau escalates a series of increasingly tense set pieces to an absolutely woozy fever pitch. If the thought of a Brazilian wax gone sideways gives you pause, Ducournau is just getting warmed up. The film’s practical effects are superb in their anatomical verisimilitude, and the director’s sense of tone is as on point as the work of Bob Balaban in “Parents” and Claire Denis in “Trouble Every Day.”

Scheduled for an American theatrical release in March of 2017, “Raw” deserves a rapid ascent to cult status, midnight screenings, and an eventual spot as a must-see that devotees will spring on unsuspecting friends just to gauge reactions. Echoing the hyperbolic stratosphere of William Castle-style showmanship, “Raw” reportedly caused at least two viewers to faint at a Toronto exhibition. I did not witness any passing out at the Sundance Film Festival showing I attended, but Ducournau’s fireworks were met with verbal exclamations, covered or averted eyes, and plenty of squirming.

Metaphorically speaking, “Raw” comfortably operates on several levels. As a feminist bildungsroman, its commentary on the challenges of finding one’s way through the liminal space between adolescence and adulthood is every bit as satisfying as a political reading (in her Sundance introduction, Ducournau had some choice words for the newly elected leader of the United States and his well-publicized attitude regarding sexually desirable young women). “Raw” lives up to the hype, sticking to you like the geysers of crimson plasma that color Justine’s bruised and lacerated world.

Gretchen Kaye Carlson Kost (1974-2017)

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Reflection by Greg Carlson

My little sister, Gretchen Kaye Carlson Kost, died Monday, January 30, 2017. A dearly cherished daughter and sibling, wife and mother, cousin and conspirator, she was a friend first, a friend often, and a friend always.

She was also a displayer of dimples, which as a kid she often labored to hide, scowling in photographs when not in the mood or of the inclination to be told what to do, which was pretty much always. But when the grownups were smart enough not to push, that smile was dazzling, and it was usually accompanied by peals of laughter. Engineered in part by repeated listens to “Free to Be… You and Me,” she established an early, unflagging sense of egalitarianism that extended to our beloved little brother Grady, guaranteeing that any Cracker Jack, Smurfs, or comic books were carefully and equally divided and distributed.

Friday night sleepovers with Grandpa and Grandma Jones were our sweetest reward. Fuzzy red footie pajamas were zipped up sometime between the beginning of “The Dukes of Hazzard” and the end of “Dallas,” and if we could keep our eyes open we were allowed to stay up late for Johnny Carson, joining Grandpa as he chuckled at the master’s perfect timing. The next morning, Grandma would set out the tools to fry up homemade donuts, and Gretchen – nicknamed “Dutch” and “Dutchie” by Grandma, which our mom detested but I secretly loved – would run point until the entire dining room table was covered with cooling rows of delectable golden sinkers.

With two brothers and no sisters, Gretchen forged special bonds with her closest confidante Heather and her cousin Andrea. Over the course of countless slumber parties, Heather and Gretchen developed that shorthand communication that evolves into a private language. At the lake cabin, Gretchen reassured Andrea, who we liked to acknowledge as our “genetic half-sister” because our moms are identical twins, that an inflatable raft ride would be safe by measuring Andrea’s height against the oar to show that she would never be in over her head.

Gretchen knew no equal at Ms. Pac-Man, often drawing a crowd at the Pirate’s Den or Pizza Hut while she effortlessly chomped her way through board after board on a single quarter. Was it her mathematically inclined mind or her thriftiness that drove her coin-op success? I suspect a bit of each.

My sister was a swift assembler of jigsaw puzzles, outpacing anyone at the table with a ratio of four or five pieces to one while filling in colorful montages of songbirds, great apes, or Muppets. One Christmas, our rambunctious dachshund Tandy managed to devour the entire contents of a sizable box of Turtles caramel pecan clusters recently unwrapped by Gretchen. My highly subjective memory of her reaction recalls equal parts fury at the consumption of her gift and genuine concern for the well-being of one rather sick wiener dog.

For the earliest and most formative years of my life, Gretchen was my steady and constant companion. When I was Darth Vader for Halloween, she was Darth Vader for Halloween, and that made me feel good. Of all my life’s decisions, one of which I am very proud is that I never sent her away to go play with someone else. Instead, she tagged along on every neighborhood adventure – matching or besting the older boys who climbed trees, built forts, raced banana-seaters with playing cards in the spokes, inflated thick wads of pink bubblegum, buried and eulogized departed squirrels, and scrambled into the bookmobile for fresh literature.

We compared reading notes often, and Gretchen was lit from within whenever she encountered a female protagonist who modeled grace, compassion, and character in the face of inequitable and unjust patriarchy. We thrilled at the dignity of Hester Prynne and delighted in the violent gesticulations and extravagant contortions of Hester’s little imp Pearl. We discussed the sensational Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, who would later inspire the name of Gretchen’s life-saving beagle, agreeing that the two finest words in American fiction might just be “Hey, Boo.”

Required by our mother to attend water safety lessons, we tuned our ears to the radio pop of the late 1970s and early 1980s that was played by the college-age staff at the Concordia pool, ever after identifying certain singles as “swimming songs.” We rocked down to Electric Avenue with Eddy Grant, we tumbled for Boy George and Culture Club, we burned down the house with Talking Heads, we looked out across the nighttime with Michael Jackson, we got delirious whenever Prince was near, we stood there with our backs against the record machine and jumped with Van Halen, we waited for Hall & Oates when the light was fading fast, and when we heard the angel voices of Mr. Mercury and Mr. Bowie, we turned away from it all like a blind man.

The preceding words came more quickly than I expected, but for Gretchen’s husband Rob and their children Hattie and Beck, I am afraid that none will suffice.

Gretchen, as soon as possible and in your honor, I will eat my fair share of a large pepperoni and mushroom from Duane’s House of Pizza.

See you around.

 

Into the Inferno

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Inspired by the work of volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer and his 2011 book “Eruptions That Shook the World,” Werner Herzog dazzles and mesmerizes viewers of “Into the Inferno,” a nonfiction examination that encapsulates the essence of the legendary filmmaker’s lasting appeal. Narrated by Herzog in the familiar style poetically juxtaposing bleakly comic admonishments about collective human foolishness against sobering facts that can take one’s breath away, “Into the Inferno” balances the scientific and the magical.

Even though Herzog is the director of “Into the Inferno,” a title card shares the authorial credit by identifying “a film by Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer.” Herzog’s generosity could additionally extend to longtime cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger. Zeitlinger’s gorgeous images don’t need much help to appear awe-inspiring – flowing, spouting, arcing, fuming molten rock in impossible shades of red – but his expert contributions are among the film’s chief joys.

In his review, Matt Zoller Seitz asserted that “If you go into a Herzog documentary hoping for a definitive, deep look at a certain subject, you’re bound to come away disappointed.” The comment, part of an argument that claims Herzog has regularly depended on brief episodes favoring obsessives, could apply just as easily to “Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World,” the director’s other 2016 nonfiction feature (last year, the workaholic also polished off the volcanically related but less well-received fiction film “Salt and Fire).

“Into the Inferno” also partially functions – like so many of Herzog’s films – as a diary that traces the philosophical preoccupations of its famous writer over the span of a creative lifetime. The most obvious links in this regard include the acknowledgment of Herzog first crossing paths with Oppenheimer during “Encounters at the End of the World.” A second ligament is 1977’s “La Soufriere,” Herzog’s short documentary about the possibility of an eruption on the island of Guadeloupe. At this point in his storied career, Herzog is completely comfortable (and self-aware) as everyone’s favorite enunciator of doom, darkness, and death, but the way he so often banters and shares screen space with brilliant people like Oppenheimer is also a genuine draw that reveals an optimism missing from the apocalyptic pronouncements.

Herzog has always been an intrepid wanderer, and the geography traversed in “Into the Inferno” is as illuminating as the geology lessons provided by Oppenheimer. From Iceland to Ethiopia to Indonesia, no location seems out of reach to the globetrotting filmmaker. Among the many highlights is a visit to North Korea, and Herzog’s accompanying voiceover suggests incredulousness, curiosity, skepticism, and even something approaching respect at the patriotism on display. In accompanying narration, Herzog comments on the nation’s propaganda apparatus, citing the “monumental unity and fervent emotion” of the subjects.

As demonstrated by the complex North Koreans, belief, in a multiplicity of incarnations, permeates the human side of “Into the Inferno.” Manifested in the ultimate sacrifice of pioneering volcanic documenters Katia and Maurice Krafft, who were instantly incinerated in a pyroclastic flow in Japan in 1991, as well as in the Vanuatuan “cargo cultists” who await the return of the godlike American G.I. John Frum and his “copious consumer goods,” true believers are catnip to Herzog. At 74, the man shows no sign of letting up his furious pace as one of our most reliable chroniclers of humanness, and for that I am thankful.