Tower

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Now on Netflix instant watch and not to be missed is director Keith Maitland’s “Tower,” one of the most memorable and gripping films of 2016. Carefully, even meticulously, constructing a moment-by-moment chronological account of the 1966 University of Texas at Austin murders committed by Charles Whitman from the observation deck of the Main Building, Maitland’s film relies on the use of interpretive performance and rotoscope animation — two fairly unorthodox stylistic choices in nonfiction. The approach, however, is a spellbinding display of fully human reactions to what was at the time a virtually unthinkable, unfathomable action.

Maitland focuses on those directly involved in Whitman’s crime, developing for the viewer a sense of deep identification with lawmen, casualties, and first responders. The director also deliberately avoids any psychological profiling of Whitman as deranged and monstrous antagonist, positioning the sniper behind the distant reports from his rifle that registered to witnesses as puffs of smoke along the tower’s ledge. That decision both honors the innocent people caught in the assassin’s crosshairs and heightens the sense of urgency and immediacy of the date by sharing with the audience a sense of the confusion, panic, and uncertainty that gripped the campus.   

Although she was not Whitman’s initial victim, 18-year-old Claire Wilson was the first person shot from the tower. Wilson, who lost both her unborn son and her boyfriend Thomas Eckman to the killer’s bullets, could not move from the hot sidewalk where she fell, and Maitland uses her story as a key to understanding the astonishingly selfless displays of courage shown by strangers during the terrifying ordeal. Rita Starpattern, who happened upon the scene and stayed on the ground next to Wilson, held her hand and shared encouragement until John “Artly” Fox and James Love put themselves in harm’s way to move Wilson to safety.

Maitland eventually reveals, in direct, close-up portraits, the subjects previously portrayed by actors in the animated reconstructions. These moments — effectively withheld for maximum impact — are startlingly concrete. Bridging past and present, the revelations and reunions cathartically pulsate as we watch the older versions of the fated cohort traverse time itself. Wilson and Fox, Aleck Hernandez Jr., officers Ramiro “Ray” Martinez and Houston McCoy, along with several others, are given the opportunity to share with us, and in some cases, each other, thoughts that might otherwise have gone unexpressed.   

“Tower” is based partly on executive producer Pamela Colloff’s 2006 “Texas Monthly” oral history “96 Minutes,” and if there is anything missing from the film experience, it is the necessary omission of comprehensive coverage of all the day’s details (more than a dozen were killed and more than 30 were injured). But Maitland, like Ari Folman in “Waltz with Bashir” and others, has explored the ways in which we might arrive at truth. “Tower” expands the vocabulary we can use when thinking about the presentation of fact-based content in the movies.

In a valuable essay, Nea Ehrlich wrote about animation and the nonfiction film, saying of “Waltz with Bashir,” “Despite its stylized imagery, the film clearly signifies recognizable references that could not be documented otherwise. By referring to personal views of reality and memories, the non-mimetic imagery does not diminish the truth value of the film’s documentation because it refers to aspects of reality that cannot be directly indexed as they do not physically exist.” Ehrlich could just as easily have been writing about “Tower.”

T2 Trainspotting

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

The seemingly ill-advised sequel to Danny Boyle’s 1996 pop culture tidal wave “Trainspotting” arrives with a definitely ill-advised title in “T2 Trainspotting.” Shouldn’t it be “T2: Trainspotting” or just “Trainspotting 2” or even “Porno,” after Irvine Welsh’s literary follow-up? If the T stands for “Trainspotting,” the movie is “Trainspotting 2 Trainspotting,” which I suppose could function as a kind of grammatical bridging of the old to the new, but the whole thing ends up pointing squarely at the already taken “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” In any case, the movie is a surprise: a melancholy, middle-aged nostalgia trip that reunites four of our favorite Edinburgh addicts/fuck-ups as they come to terms with the disappearance of their youth.

That intersection of past and present has already divided viewers into the group let down by the new round’s lack of interest in pursuing/revisiting the cosmic rush of addiction and those resigned to the reality that two decades of punishment can really take something out of you. Renton’s “choose life” speech that so brilliantly detonated Welsh’s critique of consumption via its simple explanation of heroin has been updated to include social networks, reality TV, slut shaming, and revenge porn. The heart of the monologue remains: it is difficult to escape the system, and like so many (from William James to Rush) have told us, when you decide not to choose you have still made a choice.

The success of “T2” depends almost entirely on viewer familiarity with the original, and Boyle, working now with the kinetic fireball of a cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle instead of Brian Tufano, crams in as many visual and auditory allusions to “Trainspotting” as possible, scaffolding another layer of freshly designed movie references on top of the callbacks to the first film. The links are not there merely to, as Mike Laws laments, “ape, echo, or literally splice in twenty-year-old footage from its formidable forerunner.” Instead, they function as painful reminders that the clock can’t run in reverse. Mark lifting the needle of his turntable after a split second of “Lust for Life” registers a shudder we’ve all experienced, a signifier of the irrecoverable inherent in our yearning for what was but can no longer be.

Not all of the sequel’s ties to its prototype deliver. Even though the story is principally masculinist, “Trainspotting” included scenes that examined gender through maternity, sexual desire, and monogamy, commenting also on generational differences and similarities between heterosexual men and women in partnerships and relationships — even if filtered through a patriarchal point of view. Kelly Macdonald’s Diane Coulston, the only woman featured in the “Trainspotting” one-sheet and promotional campaign (#2 of five on the famous quad poster!), is now relegated to a disappointing cameo. Female invisibility or diminishment extends to Renton’s mother and to Shirley Henderson’s Gail Houston.

Many admirers of “Trainspotting” swooned over Boyle’s marriage of style to subject, and in that sense, as well as through the director’s homages to Scorsese and Kubrick, among others, the movie operated on a plane of metafiction. “T2” also traffics in metanarrative, evolving through Spud’s handwritten chronicles into the very stories it once told and is now still telling. Incidentally, Ewen Bremner continues to get payback for losing the role he played on stage to Ewan McGregor. Daniel “Spud” Murphy is the glue that bonds together the lives of Rents, Sick Boy, and Franco, and Bremner capably transcends the outwardly comic inclinations of the character’s clownish position to locate some dignity and grace.    

Five Came Back

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Veteran “making of” producer/director Laurent Bouzereau adds another Hollywood-centric chronicle to his filmography with the three-episode series “Five Came Back.” Adapted for the screen by author Mark Harris from his book of the same title, the story of the motion picture industry’s curious relationship with the United States government during World War II makes for a riveting history lesson. The incorporation of extensive clips from movies directed by the title quintet is the film’s principal advantage over the original text, but Bouzereau and Harris omit much of the subtlety, nuance, and depth that informed the reader about the egos, personalities, and priorities of Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler.

Each of the classic directors is paired with a current moviemaker, and the tactic provides a keen sense of symmetry. Guillermo del Toro speaks about Capra. Paul Greengrass tackles Ford. Francis Ford Coppola examines Huston. Lawrence Kasdan explains Stevens. Steven Spielberg, also serving as an executive producer on the project, covers Wyler. Additionally, Meryl Streep narrates. Cinephiles will visit “Five Came Back” with favorites from that wartime group already in place, but Bouzereau labors to balance the set. Not everyone ends up with equal time, but the director carves out at least one shining moment per creator.

Some of those moments reside within the cohort’s fiction features completed prior to entering military service, but Bouzereau really capitalizes on how their postwar output was so powerfully informed by what each of the filmmakers personally experienced when serving. The somber introspection of sacrifice in “They Were Expendable” (Ford, 1945), the monumental humanity of “The Best Years of Our Lives” (Wyler, 1946), and the startling use of shadow and light in “The Diary of Anne Frank” (Stevens, 1959) are just a handful of examples.

In all three installments, “Five Came Back” highlights key productions crafted by the Hollywood storytellers. The coverage of the notable works is intriguing enough to whet the appetite of viewers who may not have seen them, and a select few of the films could certainly sustain entire episodes. Among the most tantalizing are Huston’s “The Battle of San Pietro,” which combined a display of previously unimagined realism with staged reenactments of combat, and Wyler’s “The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress,” one of the war effort’s finest mergers of documentary artistry and “embedded” reporting (long before the term was popularized).  

In the final chapter, the carnage witnessed during the June 6, 1944 D-Day landing of Allied forces on the Normandy coast — chronicled by both Ford and Stevens — led the former to a blinding alcoholic binge and the latter to a determined march forward into Europe. Stevens, of course, would in essence stumble into Dachau. His commitment to capturing the unimaginable horrors marks some of the most memorable content of both the book and the documentary. As Harris wrote, “Stevens kept filming, his camera pushing into corners and shadows, his movements steady as he recorded the carnage that surrounded him. His eye was unwavering and unsentimental.”  

One wishes there was more room to unpack the complexities of films like “The Negro Soldier” (Stuart Heisler, 1944) and the long suppressed “Let There Be Light” (Huston, 1946; not widely seen until the early 1980s). Not surprisingly, Bouzereau, Spielberg, and the others maintain a reverential tone of deep respect for the Greatest Generation that undercuts opportunities to critique the limitations of propaganda in the broadest sense of the concept. The time crunch of the series accounts for some of that superficiality, and to Bouzereau’s credit, “Five Came Back” acknowledges the grim racism that reductively dehumanized certain enemies more than others, contributing to a xenophobic climate that shamefully facilitated the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans.

78/52

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

An entertaining close reading and consideration of the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” Alexandre O. Philippe’s “78/52” can expect a lengthy post-theatrical existence in college film courses and in the movie collections of cinephiles. Despite some publicity claims that the documentary focuses exclusively on the Bates Motel bathroom fate of Marion Crane, Philippe shares additional context, expanding the scope of the narrative to encompass details that inform our understanding and fascination with what could certainly be considered a sui generis milestone in both the career of the Master of Suspense and the history of American film.

Approaching his topic with a palpable enthusiasm, Philippe begins the journey with Janet Leigh body double Marli Renfro, whose contributions to “Psycho” were obscured for a significant time. The candid and forthcoming Renfro surprised Sundance audience members with premiere screening appearances; the ensuing post-film discussion of her career and the publication of Robert Graysmith’s “The Girl in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shower,” which cleared up confusion over the murder of Leigh stand-in Myra Davis, argue that Renfro could easily be the subject of her own documentary.

Philippe may be a better researcher and assembler than he is a visual stylist. Heavy on talking heads, and even heavier on a repetitious score that wears out its welcome by running underneath the majority of the interviews, “78/52” piles up the observations of more than 40 commentators, ranging from fanboys like Elijah Wood to filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro. Writer Stephen Rebello, whose indispensable 1990 book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho” remains one of the finest accounts of the film, provides Philippe with some scholarly bona fides.

Along with Renfro, a few other women appear, including Leigh’s daughter Jamie Lee Curtis (who mostly discusses her shower homage on “Scream Queens”) and “The Invitation” director Karyn Kusama, who offers one of the most thought-provoking assessments of the movie’s gender complexities, saying that Marion’s shocking death was “the first expression of the female body under assault.” Certainly, Philippe could have done even more to unpack the intricacies of normative and nonnormative sexualities, voyeurism, deviance, and matriarchy/patriarchy — especially through lenses of feminist critique.  

Film nerds will thrill to several of the movie’s juicy sidebars. An exploration of the specific interpretation of “Susannah and the Elders” that conceals the spyhole through which Norman peeps at Marion undressing is pure catnip, as is the comic audition of melon varieties that ultimately led the fussy Hitchcock to determine the casaba best conjured the sound of knife penetrating human flesh. The power of Herrmann’s score and the inspiration of Clouzot’s fantastic “Diabolique” are dutifully, rightfully acknowledged. The cloud of authorship claims mounted by Saul Bass supporters is rehashed. Also noted is the eternal mystery questioning Marion’s choice to get in the shower and then turn on the water as opposed to regulating temperature first. Hardcore minutiae like these are the raison d’etre for “78/52,” and when the movie gets to the technical details of those title set-ups and cuts, Philippe and his subjects hit stride, sharing hard evidence that makes an airtight case.

Raymond Durgnat died in 2002 or he might have made an appearance in “78/52.” In “A Long Hard Look at Psycho,” Durgnat says, “‘Psycho’ occupies a sort of ‘inter-cultural’ space, linking the formal aesthetic refinement of traditional ‘high culture’ with middlebrow socio-moral thoughtfulness… some modernist characteristics, an emotionality (melodrama) verging on ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ and libidinal material which some modernists like to think is ‘pulp’.”

That recipe sounds awfully good to me.

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.