Mudbound

Mudbound

Movie review by Greg Carlson

On her biggest canvas to date, filmmaker Dee Rees paints a vivid picture of two American families in “Mudbound,” a deeply satisfying drama based on Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel. Adapting the screenplay with collaborator Virgil Williams, Rees skillfully weaves a tale that dissects and addresses race, war, poverty, alcoholism, adultery, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other substantive themes. She does this with tremendous confidence and focus, retaining the novel’s multiple narrators and infusing each significant character with the fullness of human contradiction and complexity.

The two principal groups of relatives, one black and one white, are linked together by their commitment to a tough patch of cotton farmland in the Mississippi Delta in the years surrounding World War II. Both clans, the McAllans and the Jacksons, face hardships and humiliations, but the specter of Jim Crow additionally burdens the latter. Sharecroppers always a step or two behind the poor McAllans (for whom they labor), the Jackson family is led by Florence (Mary J. Blige) and Hap (Rob Morgan). The land they work has been purchased by Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), who moves with his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), their two daughters, and his noxiously racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) into a spartan hovel with no running water.

In his review of the film, Justin Chang notes, “The radicalism of ‘Mudbound’ thus lies in its inherently democratic sensibility, its humble, unapologetic insistence on granting its black and white characters the same moral and dramatic weight.” This balance is achieved not only through the physical proximity that binds the Jacksons and McAllans despite the social conventions of systematized segregation that prevent anything approaching open affection or neighborliness, but also through the rich details of the unspoken rules of behavior in the Deep South. Chang also remarks that Florence “commands more authority and respect in her household than Laura does in hers” — another example of the highly detailed way in which Rees explores the intricacies of gender.

The two matriarchs are additionally connected to one another in ways specific to womanhood. Florence is simply not in a position to say no when essentially conscripted to come work for Laura following a whooping cough scare. Outwardly less demanding than either of their husbands, the women find ways to assist one another that carefully exist within strict, unspoken guidelines. But as Emily Yoshida astutely notes, “Without the aid of institutionalized slavery, and seemingly without knowing it, Henry and Laura have completely co-opted their neighbors’ lives,” which in one sense is even more insidious than the visible, open racism spewed by Pappy.

Rees directs all the members of her talented ensemble to uniformly impressive work. Garrett Hedlund as Henry’s brother Jamie and Jason Mitchell as Florence and Hap’s son Ronsel — the two men who see combat — eventually move to the center of the action. Both return to the United States following military service, and their unique and peculiar experience, accompanied by firsthand knowledge of instant, brutal death, allows the pair to form an unlikely friendship. Loyalty to kin brings them home, but in a very real sense made achingly tangible by Rees, it’s too late: the bigotry, ignorance, and narrowness of the community suffocates these two souls, and the longer they remain on the farm, the more the stormclouds of tragedy gather.

Lady Bird

Lady Bird SR

Movie review by Greg Carlson

With the critical phenom “Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig makes good on her stated desire to “offer a female counterpart to tales like ‘The 400 Blows’ and ‘Boyhood.’” A shimmering coming of age chronicle featuring another tremendous performance by Saoirse Ronan, “Lady Bird” is steeped in a kind of nostalgia for the recent past without ever knuckling to the overly familiar. Ronan’s smart, original Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is an heir to Molly Ringwald’s unforgettable 1980s heroines. And like Andie Walsh and Samantha Baker, Ms. Lady Bird projects that exquisite mixture of sharp-tongued wisdom and frustrated naivete.  

You needn’t have been in your teens around the turn of the most recent century to feel the tug of Gerwig’s beautifully realized period piece, but the filmmaker’s visual and audio selections will thrill viewers who acknowledge the lifeforce of the teenage soundtrack. From the drive-in platters of “American Graffiti” to the John Hughes-favored beat of sparkling British pop by OMD, the Psychedelic Furs, and the Smiths, the right song selection can cement the bona fides of a cinematic love letter. In Amanda Petrusich’s “New Yorker” essay “Greta Gerwig Somehow Redeems Dave Matthews Band’s ‘Crash Into Me,’” the author delivers a solid defense of the inclusion — in two key places — of the 1996-1997 song. That track, along with Justin Timberlake and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, walk the tightrope of ironic kitschiness and earnest affection.

Gerwig’s original, whopping 350-page script existed under the working title “Mothers and Daughters,” and the filmmaker gets tremendous mileage from ideal mom Laurie Metcalf as the tough-love matriarch holding everything together while the rest of her family members struggle to chart a positive course. Metcalf’s Marion McPherson applies her skill as a psychiatric nurse to the delicate homefront issues facing laid-off husband Larry (Tracy Letts) as he struggles to find work. The tug-of-war between Marion and Christine/Lady Bird is at the heart of the film, and conveys the depths of resentment and irritation (and love) between parent and child (Marion: “I just want you to be the very best version of yourself.” Lady Bird: “But what if this is the best version?”).  

Reading between the lines of Lady Bird’s anti-Sacramento application essay, the surprisingly forward-thinking Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith) recognizes the student’s potential, and will go easy on her following a Bride of Christ prank that most movie nuns would never tolerate (the gung-ho coach recruited to direct the school play is treated much more broadly). Gerwig mostly downplays the private parochial school angle, shifting focus to Lady Bird’s education in romance. Scenes with hot-list actors Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalamet are highlights, and if Lady Bird wasn’t so utterly and completely captivating in all her other elements, you might wish to see additional interactions with the flawed beaux.

Gerwig launches many of the expected devices of the classic teen film: dual suitors, should-I-stay-or-should-I-go college choices, a mistreated best friend (complete with righteous forgiveness/make-up opportunity totally rocked by the awesome Beanie Feldstein), alcohol-related rites of passage, prom dresses, virginity-loss experience, and so on. The director, however, casts a sympathetic eye on the lot, making “Lady Bird” a sumptuous exercise in personalizing and particularizing the universal.

The Florida Project

Florida Project

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Sean Baker’s gorgeous “The Florida Project” skitters and scampers like the attention span of its tiny protagonist Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a six-year-old wonderer/wanderer who lives with her mom in a sketchy motel imaginatively named the Magic Castle. Situated on the fringes of Disney’s Orlando empire, the Magic Castle houses many souls who may be down but are not entirely out. Resident manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) is the caretaker who takes care — a decent human being often acting as the enterprise’s Saint Christopher, watching out for the itinerant, temporary inhabitants who pay their rent in cash.

Baker expands on the mesmerizing qualities he brought to 2015’s “Tangerine,” his breakout feature that transcended the buzz of being captured entirely on a trio of iPhone 5s smartphones. This time, the eye-popping 35mm motion picture photography by Alexis Zabe heralds the saturated muchness of Moonee’s point of view. Along with the novelty architecture of Orange World, Twistee Treat, and the tourist trap souvenir shop adorned with a massive wizard, the vivid landmarks that populate “The Florida Project” reflect the make-your-own-fun curiosity that is juiced more than a little bit by the lack of adult supervision.  

In an interview with Max Cea for “Salon,” Baker’s longtime collaborator Chris Bergoch explained that he pitched the movie’s premise to Baker after he spotted “kids playing whiffle ball in a motel parking lot, at the edge of the busy highway” while on his way to visit his mother in Kissimmee, Florida. Bergoch, who co-wrote and co-produced “The Florida Project,” recognized the juxtaposition: children unable to afford the Magic Kingdom were experiencing an equal amount of merriment. That spirit translates to the movie: in one hysterical scene, “punished” Moonee and her friends take just as much pleasure cleaning up a vehicle as they did spitting on it.

“The Florida Project” is one of the best films of the year, and in their roundup of top titles for “Vulture,” critics David Edelstein and Emily Yoshida echo the sentiments expressed by Bergoch: an “insistence that joy, no matter how fleeting, be accessible to everyone regardless of socioeconomic status.” Bobby’s unflappable stoicism never veils his genuine concern. In one scene, he chases off an interloper who exhibits a potentially predatory interest in the Magic Castle children, but Bobby is equally committed to the welfare of his guests in the day-to-day grind of broken ice machines, power outages, and police visits.    

Deep into the film, when things are looking particularly bleak for Moonee’s mom Halley (Bria Vinaite), Bobby claims that he doesn’t want to be Halley’s father. As the limits of Bobby’s benevolence are challenged, “The Florida Project” builds to a sensational climax. A brilliant piece of editing and story construction that begins with a simple shot of Moonee in the bath is equaled only by the film’s astonishing final minutes, a guerilla-style, fair use exclamation point that for some viewers will call to mind “Escape from Tomorrow.” Baker’s ends, however, speak to a different agenda, and “The Florida Project” joins the list of great movies in which the innocence of childhood crashes into the hardships of growing up.   

Wonderstruck

Wonderstruck 1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Putting to good use his affinity for period detail, filmmaker Todd Haynes tackles Brian Selznick’s 639-page “Wonderstruck,” with a screenplay adapted by the author. Weaving together a pair of New York stories that take place half a century apart, Haynes exploits the most cinematic possibilities of Selznick’s visually inclined novel. Many movie fans will respond favorably to the movie’s dialogue-free homage to silent-era entertainment, a major component of the film aided by Carter Burwell’s terrific score, Edward Lachman’s stunning photography, and Mark Friedberg’s lovely production design. Others will cozy up to the twinship of the compound narrative — even if the surprise that links 1927 and 1977 is figured early and easily.

In 1977, twelve-year-old Ben (Oakes Fegley) loses his ability to hear when a lightning strike jolts the telephone line. His mom (Michelle Williams) has died in a car accident, and Ben yearns to track down the father he never knew. Fifty years earlier, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) skips out on her guardians and makes her way to the theatre where movie star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore) rehearses a play. The ensuing structure of the film carefully rhymes, echoes, mirrors, and parallels the two strands until they inevitably intersect in the final act. Moore plays more than one role and Haynes marks another rewarding collaboration with his longtime friend. Williams, however, is painfully underutilized; one keeps hoping she will feature in flashbacks that never materialize.

That cross-cut approach works effectively, although a minor pang of disappointment may settle once the action eventually centralizes the 1977 adventure. Both Ben and Rose, for reasons that come to be explicated, are magnetically drawn to the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. The allure of publicly exhibited artifacts and curiosities assumes a position of thematic prominence as the story unfolds, and several characters work in some capacity or other in the realm of institutional curation, collection, and/or design.

The museum as motif works its charms, and echoes of “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” resonate here much as they did in “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Equally as valuable is the manner in which Haynes builds a subjective experience that takes the viewer inside the perspectives of Ben and Rose. The soundscape, the score, and the lengthy stretches in which few words are spoken especially complement the 1927 world inhabited by Rose. Simmonds, like the character she plays, is deaf. “Wonderstruck” is sound-designed for audience members who can hear. But Haynes admirably and capably projects dimensions of Rose’s experience.  

“Wonderstruck” ultimately works better than “Hugo,” Martin Scorsese’s 2011 take on Selznick’s “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” Both films, however, labor overtime to instill a sense of awe that might rely too heavily on plot mechanics and technical showmanship than on richness of character. They are also highly reflexive valentines to cinephilia, and “Daughter of the Storm,” the movie-within-the-movie that features Moore’s Mayhew as a Lillian Gish-like presence dealing with peril ala “Way Down East,” “Orphans of the Storm,” and “The Wind,” flickers to life with such intensity, one longs to join Simmonds in the audience to screen the entire thing.     

The Mission of Herman Stern Director Art Phillips Interview

Stern Herman

Interview by Greg Carlson

On Tuesday, November 14 at 7:00 p.m., the Fargo Theatre will host a screening of “The Mission of Herman Stern,” a documentary chronicling the remarkable humanitarian efforts of the North Dakota businessman and founder, in 1924, of the Greater North Dakota Association.

Beyond his economic entrepreneurship and civic engagement, Herman Stern helped bring 125 German Jews to the United States, and that remarkable story resides at the heart of Art Phillips’s new movie.  

The event is free and the public is invited.

HPR film editor Greg Carlson talked to director Art Phillips about the making of the movie.

 

Greg Carlson: How did “The Mission of Herman Stern” get started as a feature documentary project?

Art Phillips: I first heard about Herman Stern’s rescue of 125 people from Nazi Germany when he received the North Dakota Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider award from Governor Jack Dalrymple in 2014.

I knew some of Herman’s accomplishments as a North Dakota business leader, but I didn’t know that he saved people halfway across the world from the Holocaust.  This was a North Dakota hero story that needed to be told.  

 

GC: Along the way, how many interviews did you conduct for the show?

AP: The documentary contains nine interviews, including three people who were saved when they were children and one interview with a man whose family was saved. He was born after they came to America. The story blends current interviews with archival footage and primary source documentation.

 

GC: How long have you worked with co-producer/writer Carl Oberholtzer?

AP: I first worked with Carl on “The Road to Little Rock” documentary, which was released in 2013. This was the story of how North Dakota Judge Ronald Davies ruling in 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas provided great urgency for the desegregation of public schools and the course of civil rights in America.  

Carl is a former North Dakota high school history teacher and currently an education instructor at MSUM and NDSU. He has numerous awards and honors including the Gilder-Lehrman Preserve America North Dakota Teacher of the Year in 2006 as well as the U.S. Presidential Scholar Awards Program Teacher Recognition in 2003.

We work extremely well together because we both agree that these documentaries teach lifelong lessons to not only students but to also to adults. Carl was involved in the script process and reviewed the rough cuts during the editing process. We worked on the research together for the last two years.   

 

GC: Were the educational lesson plans developed simultaneously with the documentary?

AP: The educational component of the production was there at the very beginning. We wanted this documentary to have an accompanying lesson plan for North Dakota high schools that was similar to “The Road to Little Rock” educational project. Both the documentary and lesson plan were being produced at the same time.

 

GC: You drew on a substantial collection of resources for historical records, both near and far.

AP: We used a number of resources for the documentary from all over the country including photographs and film footage from the Stern family, letters from people in Germany to Herman Stern, which we had to translate, writing about their situation back home and archival footage of Germany during this time.  

We are not only telling Herman Stern’s story of rescuing 125 refugees, but we are also telling the story of what was going on in the world at this time. This was very important because we needed to tell the story of not only how hard it was getting people out of Germany, but also how hard it was to get people into a country at that time.  

 

GC: Have you always been a student of history?

AP: I have always loved history, especially when I was in high school. And I really love historical movies about people that made a difference. That is what drew me to Herman Stern’s story.

Here was a man in Valley City, North Dakota who not only was running a business (Straus Clothing), he helped start organizations in his community and state, including the Greater North Dakota Chamber, United Way, Boy Scouts, and the Valley City Winter Show — and also recused 125 people from Nazi Germany. It is an amazing story that shows character, leadership, empathy, citizenship and selflessness.  

 

GC: Congratulations on the movie and your continued accomplishments.

AP: It was a real honor to work on this project and it has been life-changing for me. Herman Stern shows us that just one person can make a difference in other people’s lives. It was such a privilege to get to know and interview the people that were rescued by Herman Stern. I plan to keep it touch with them for years to come.

North Dakota Human Rights Film and Arts Festival Director Sean Coffman Interview

Awake (1)

Interview by Greg Carlson

An impressive collection of visual art and fiction and nonfiction movies, including “Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock” (pictured above), can be seen by the public during the inaugural North Dakota Human Rights Film and Arts Festival. HPR film editor Greg Carlson talked to organizer Sean Coffman about the events.

 

Greg Carlson: For people who may not know you, can you describe your background and your role as executive director of the Human Family?

Sean Coffman: The Human Family is a new 501(c)(3) in North Dakota, founded in March of 2017.  The mission of the organization is to promote human rights and social justice issues through film and art. Our goal is to educate, engage, and facilitate discussion in our communities around local or worldwide human rights issues.

My role as Executive Director is not unlike the role of Executive Producer or Producer on a film set: I identify the various projects we’ll create or support, establish those project’s budgets, find and establish funding, and assemble the creative team to help bring those projects to life.

 

GBC: This is the inaugural year of the Human Rights Film and Art Festival. How long has the planning taken?

SC: We started planning the festival in November 2016, so a year ago. We made the announcement in December 2016, and started accepting submissions in February of 2017.

The genesis behind the festival was the media documentation taking place during the peaceful resistance at Standing Rock. There was such an influx of still photography, documentary video production, and art creation that we recognized the need to provide a forum for these filmmakers and artists to share these stories so they weren’t lost to time or other distractions.

In this part of the country, there isn’t a regularly held film or arts festival dedicated directly to human rights and social justice. The closest is in Boulder, Colorado or Chicago, Illinois.

 

GBC: The lineup of movies features stories that range from the regional to the international, past and present. How did you and your team go about finding and programming the films?  

SC: I think the need for a forum to share these stories was proven to be true, because the filmmakers found us. We established a submission portal for films on Film Freeway for filmmakers to share their work. Inside of a few days, submissions started to come in from around the world.

In the end, we had 118 submissions from 29 different countries. Over 76 hours of content was shared from narrative, documentary, experimental or student filmmakers working in human rights.

This year, the films selected for the festival include the deconstruction of stereotypes for individuals with mental or physical disabilities, LGBTQ rights and discrimination, women’s rights and cultural discrimination, stories of refugee experiences and discrimination, human and civil rights violations, and discrimination and violence towards Native American culture.

 

GBC: Which movie are you most looking forward to seeing with an audience?

SC: That’s a tough one. My personal favorite is India’s first LGBT silent film and the jury’s choice for Best Narrative Short, “Sisak.” For me, the film embodies the definition of cinema. The writing and storytelling, the cinematography, the score, the acting, the directing, the human rights message; everything about this film is so incredibly well done.

In terms of seeing with an audience, I’d have to say “No Reservations.” Screening Friday evening, the film takes a satirical approach to the issue of corporate oil companies and oil transfer pipelines. The film swaps the narrative, and has an indigenous oil company putting an oil pipeline through a suburban white neighborhood. It’s poignant, relevant and intentionally humorous as the narrative works its way through the important topics specifically impacting North Dakota today.

That same evening is the discussion “Reflections of Standing Rock,” and filmmakers Myron Dewey, Floris White Bull, and Margaret Landin will be part of a panel moderated by NDSU professor Dr. Michael Yellow Bird. As the year anniversary of the the peaceful resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline takes place, this will be the first time filmmakers have been gathered in Fargo to share their experiences from the front lines of the resistance. I think it will be an incredibly powerful and important evening for everyone.

 

GBC: What is the human rights issue you think about the most?

SC: Globally and locally, the issue I think about most is humanity’s inability to learn from its past. We are continually persecuting and subjugating individuals on the basis of their race, creed, culture, religion, sexual identity or political affiliation.

Even in the nearness of some of the most horrific experiences, we continue to make the same decisions, to demonize individuals for the same reasons. We’re talking about genocide. We’re talking about internment camps. We’re talking about breaking agreements with our indigenous brothers and sisters.

 

GBC: What inspires you?

SC: I’m inspired daily by the human rights and social justice activist working to ensure that the protections afforded by the United Declaration of Human Rights are provided.

In North Dakota, I’m working daily with individuals who are giving everything they have — time, resources — to ensure that other people have what they need. In today’s current political climate, that’s a rare thing.

And an unintentional byproduct of the festival is the friendships I’m making with filmmakers from around the world. I’m talking with people from India, China or Iran on the phone, and we’re able to find common ground through art.

United Arab Emirates filmmaker Dia Zaiem, whose work “Forgotten” will screen on Wednesday evening, said to me, “The fact that this film has been accepted in the U.S. shows that politics can’t limit the art.”

There’s a lot of work that takes place to make a festival like this happen, but knowing that we have the power to influence understanding between cultures and nations through the power of art… that’s humbling, and it makes the effort to create something such as this festival totally worth it.

 

The North Dakota Human Rights Film and Arts Festival will be held November 15-17 beginning at 7:00 p.m. each evening at the Fargo Theatre. Single day passes are ten dollars each and all-access and full festival passes are also available.

The complete lineup of movies and events, including film award winners, can be found at human-family.org.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Meyerowitz Stories (1)

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” comforts fans of the filmmaker like a favorite quilt or a pair of old slippers. Sterling production and an all-star cast could attract the uninitiated to the film’s home on Netflix, and longtime appreciators will laugh and wince at many of Baumbach’s favorite observations on family rivalries, aging (un)gracefully, and personal and professional failures. Centered around a meaty performance by Dustin Hoffman that soothes the sting of the majority of the legendary actor’s work over the past decade plus — including multiple Fockers and Kung Fu Panda turns — “The Meyerowitz Stories” smartly balances the universal and the specific.

Hoffman’s Harold Meyerowitz, a cantankerous sculptor who never received the level of fame he thought he deserved, stares down the twilight. An oft-wed professor enthralled by the sound of his own voice and the weight of his opinionated pronouncements, “the Dad” — as he is called by his current wife — withholds affection, plays favorites, and repeats old jokes with the expectation of slavish devotion. Son Danny (Adam Sandler in his most heartfelt and affecting performance since “Punch-Drunk Love” in 2002) and daughter Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), are used to living in Harold’s shadow. Half-sibling Matthew (Ben Stiller) returns to New York after years of self-exile in California.   

Several critics have pointed out the superficial similarities between the “bad dads” patriarchy of Hoffman’s Meyerowitz and Gene Hackman in Baumbach collaborator Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums.” The structural parallels manifest most acutely in the heartache experienced by adult children coming home and still seeking love and approval from their father. The Meyerowitz kids don’t share the stylized expressionism of Anderson’s one-time child geniuses, whose brilliance “had been erased by two decades of betrayal, failure and despair,” but Baumbach has long explored the rough terrain of broken marriages and difficult parenting.  

Despite the dominating presence of the Hoffman, Stiller, Sandler trio, many of the great joys of “The Meyerowitz Stories” are attached to Grace Van Patten as Danny’s daughter Eliza, Marvel’s Jean, and Emma Thompson as Harold’s dipsomaniac spouse Maureen. None of the women are granted the screen time or depth of characterization afforded the central group of men, but each makes the most of what’s on offer. Van Patten, whose impressive work in Adam Leon’s captivating “Tramps” hinted at things to come, radiates an insouciance that secretly masks Eliza’s desire to follow in her grandfather’s artistic footsteps (Anthony Lane calls her “a sort of cool Cordelia” to Harold’s “neighborhood Lear”).

Eliza’s first-year Bard film class assignments, a series of experimental hard-R shorts ripe with tongue-in-cheek pretentiousness and pissed-off critiques of sexual double standards, provide one of the movie’s funniest running gags. As art school parody and source of awkward group viewing, Eliza’s movies — populated with Little Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf, and the hermaphroditic superhero Pagina-Man — comment indirectly on the theme of growing up and moving on. Later, in a fascinating scene that Anne Cohen has incisively deconstructed, Jean reveals a secret from the past that triggers a curious reaction by her brothers. That chapter of the film introduces additional food for thought on issues of gender dynamics, and will bring some viewers back for second and third looks.           

Spielberg

Spielberg HBO Doc (1)

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Veteran “American Masters” producer and series creator Susan Lacy, whose access to subjects and breadth of knowledge is the envy of scores of documentarians, looks at Steven Spielberg in a nearly two-and-a-half hour long portrait for HBO. Simply titled “Spielberg,” the movie is surprisingly safe, conservative, and risk-free. Populated with an endless supply of close-up talking heads and anchored by the famous filmmaker’s own on-camera commentary — with many of the anecdotes offered up for what feels like the umpteenth time — Lacy’s result plays like the television equivalent of the Eagles’ multi-platinum greatest hits collection.

For cinephiles, the make-it-or-die-trying determination of the nerdy kid who sneaked and bluffed his way (“print the legend”) to a Universal gig as the youngest ever contract director at a major Hollywood studio is familiar. Really familiar. Even so, an undeterred Lacy’s first in-depth dive is “Jaws,” and the resulting re-cap sets the tone for the remainder of the show. Sustained Jawsmania has already given birth to Laurent Bouzereau’s 1995 making-of doc, Erik Hollander’s 2007 “The Shark Is Still Working,” and Jamie Benning’s 2013 “Inside Jaws,” but the mogul and the great white shark are like peanut butter and jelly: unthinkable to separate, despite the oceans of existing records.

And so it goes. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” form a one-two punch between a “movie brats” roster breakdown accompanied by home-movie film and a note on Spielberg’s magic touch with child actors. The latter, punctuated by a behind-the-scenes clip of the director’s grimace into the camera while comforting a sobbing Drew Barrymore, recognizes the fraught terrain of emotional manipulation by directors looking to acquire the perfect shot by any means necessary. A thought from Leonardo DiCaprio hints at a more complex exploration of the matter, but Lacy moves on.

More big dogs are lined up for veneration, with “Schindler’s List” and “Jurassic Park” each receiving predictable scrutiny, but to her credit Lacy introduces a few unexpected surprises. A short but refreshing account of “1941” is one early, albeit rare, example that Spielberg could stumble hard. Even more satisfying is the way in which Lacy covers the director’s inability and/or unwillingness to dig more deeply into the relationship between Shug and Celie in “The Color Purple,” as Spielberg blushes at the very notion that his adaptation could have included the mirror scene. Ultimately, any more serious considerations of race and sexuality fail to make the cut.                  

Lacy also skirts most charges of Spielberg’s tendencies toward sentimentality, but a handful of acknowledgements, including one by Tom Stoppard, turn up. A lukewarm appraisal of whether massive commercial success and blockbuster appeal preclude the possibility of artistic merit hovers at the fringes, and J. Hoberman — one of several critics invited to participate in the movie — tantalizingly assesses the value of Spielberg’s apparent humanist neutrality in “Munich,” referring to the filmmaker as “the Hollywood equivalent of a public intellectual.” It is also during the section on “Munich” that Lacy demonstrates Spielberg’s potent sense of spatial orientation. Without specifically invoking Hitchcock or mentioning the privileged viewer, Spielberg argues soundly on behalf of suspense.

Overall, however, Lacy pays very little attention to Spielberg’s directorial technique ala the “pure cinema” discussed by Kevin B. Lee in “The Spielberg Face.” Thematic approaches, especially those concerned with divorce and the dissolution/reunification of the family fare much better, and Lacy makes excellent use of Spielberg’s sisters Nancy, Anne, and Sue, as well as father Arnold (currently 100 years old) and mother Leah Adler (who died in February), to underline the biographical touches to which Martin Scorsese alludes when describing Spielberg’s oeuvre as deeply personal.

Christopher P. Jacobs (1954-2017)

Old Dark House (1)

Reflection by Greg Carlson

Ted Larson introduced me to Chris Jacobs one evening at Weld Hall in the late 1980s. I was in high school then, but Chris recognized fellow film fanatics, and we would chat a little bit each week. I learned quickly that he loved movies as much as anybody, and had a special fondness for the obscure and little-seen “gems” from the silent and early sound eras. Over the next decade, I came to respect Chris’s dedication and devotion; he lived in Grand Forks and yet, every Monday during the Summer Cinema series he made the drive to the campus of Moorhead State University (now MSUM) to see whatever Ted had programmed.

I soon began attending the two annual film festivals recognized by Ted Larson as the Mount Everest and K2 of rare movie thrill-seeking: Cinefest in Syracuse, New York and Cinecon in Los Angeles, California. Upon arrival, I would collect my program, look over the list of films so uncommon that many had not been publicly screened since their original release dates, and head for the auditorium. No matter how early I arrived, Chris was already in his usual spot. After watching features back-to-back-to-back for hours, when my brain pounded against the inside of my skull and my bloodshot eyeballs begged for mercy, I would scan the room on my way out. Sure enough, Chris was still there, drinking in the images on the silver screen.

In 1997, I wrote my first article for the High Plains Reader, and not long after that, editor John Lamb invited me to join Chris as HPR’s other regular contributor on the topic of movies. Chris and I coexisted peacefully in print for — can it be? — the next twenty years. Initially, I somewhat reluctantly deferred to his senior status, coordinating reviews so we could avoid doubling-up. Once in awhile, we did end up covering the same title, but it never bothered us. Eventually, Chris turned his attention to an ongoing series of diary-like chapters on do-it-yourself moviemaking, offering practical advice to aspiring directors.

At the time, I was just happy to have the pick of new releases all to myself, but in hindsight, I gained a new level of respect for Chris. His digital moviemaking columns paralleled the ambitious run of micro-budget features that he wrote, produced, and directed. From noir crime thriller to backstage musical to body-switch comedy to supernatural horror (that allowed him to indulge his longtime affinity for ancient Egypt), Chris satisfied another facet of his all-encompassing passion: learning by doing and gaining a deeper understanding of all things film in the process.

Chris got things done, and the list of his accomplishments has been documented in several other recent tributes. When it came to the content Chris made, you had to expect the unexpected. A music video for local heavy metal heroes Sons of Poseidon? Check. A contemplative, meditative visual essay on loneliness and loss — starring his father — submitted as an entry for the Fargo Film Festival’s 2-Minute Movie Contest? Check.

Chris once gave me a copy of his 1980 graduate thesis, “A Critical Appraisal of James Whale’s ‘The Old Dark House’.” I have spent the last few days rereading it. The essay is a terrific assessment of a great film, vividly rendered through Chris’s skillful pen. And like all good film writing, it makes you want to immediately watch the movie. Tom Brandau recently said that Chris “truly loved the cinematic arts and devoted most of his time and energies spreading the gospel of film.” Those who knew Chris and those who have enjoyed his writing would wholeheartedly agree.  

Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 (1)

Movie review by Greg Carlson

As thrilling and thought-provoking a sequel as one might hope, “Blade Runner 2049” leverages potent nostalgia for one of the most influential science-fiction films in the canon. It’s a tall order to measure up to Ridley Scott’s stunning 1982 accomplishment, and filmmaker Denis Villeneuve — working for the third time with cinematographer Roger Deakins — pays homage without succumbing to pure slavishness. While the new model contains enough echoes, parallels, and callbacks to infuriate some members of the same crowd who carped about structural similarities between “The Force Awakens” and “Star Wars,” the pleasures and charms of metanarrative and intertext can enhance, rather than diminish, one’s enjoyment of the “original,” whatever that is today. There are, after all, some seven versions of the cyberpunk landmark.  

Ryan Gosling, in taciturn “Drive” mode, is Blade Runner KD6.3-7 — K for short — a dutiful civil servant reporting to Robin Wright’s Lt. Joshi in the L.A.P.D. Sent to dispatch a replicant named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) in a scene that pays tribute to the tense interrogation of Brion James’ Leon Kowalski by Morgan Paull’s Dave Holden, K discovers an ossuary that sets into motion a plot that draws on one of the first film’s core questions: how do we define personhood? That mystery, pondered from multiple angles and through the carefully engineered eyes of several supporting characters, is just as loaded in 2017 as it was thirty-five years ago.

While the “more human than human” replicants continue to be produced as specimens of uncanny beauty and unfettered physical strength and stamina, their new “father” is Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace, a Croesus-rich shadow replacing Joe Turkel’s Eldon Tyrell. Leto, whose optical impairment and careful diction veer awfully close to an attempted imitation of the inimitable Turkel, is abetted by deadly femme fatale Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). Hoeks is cool, but she’ll never be as cool as the richly drawn and beautifully written likes of Rutger Hauer’s unforgettable Roy Batty. Who could?

The half-angels/half-devils that filled out Batty’s crew of kick-murderers, basic pleasure models, and cargo loaders gave “Blade Runner” urgency and pulse. They wanted more life, fucker. But accelerated decrepitude and Methuselah Syndrome are absent from “2049.” A different existential theme resides in Joi (Ana de Armas), the artificially intelligent companion of K. The novelty of the relationship between Joi and K, complicated by the presence of Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), calls to mind some aspects of the complex operating system in Spike Jonze’s “Her.”            

Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner” is roughly 45-minutes longer than the first, and the extended running time of the sequel is not necessarily an asset. The much anticipated return of Harrison Ford to one of his signature roles is, along with another jaw-dropping surprise, deliberately postponed until later in the film. Curiously but not unexpectedly, the expository retrofitting that backfills Deckard’s biography doesn’t quite match the man we thought we knew. Even so, Deckard’s monkish existence in a space-age bachelor pad, complete with virtual Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe, sees Villeneuve confidently staking out a different vibe from the densely populated urban chaos of Scott’s Los Angeles.