RSS

Category Archives: Sidewalk Film Festival

Sidewalk Film Festival Retrospective #5: De Palma (2015)

De Palma

Brian De Palma was one of the pillars of the New Hollywood that flourished in the late 60s and early 70s, the time when the studio system was breaking down along with the production code.  The moviegoing public was getting bored with the dusty old product that the Hollywood elders were pumping out and so new voices like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Cassavetes, Woody Allen, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman – many of whom were just coming out of film school, tapped into what the audience was hungry for.  All of these directors forged great work in their time and have, by now, encompassed a body of work that any filmmaker would envy.  They all had something, however, that De Palma did not.  Consistency.

De Palma’s body of work is probably more interesting than it is fully admirable.  While those other directors sailed into great heights, De Palma seemed to fly under the radar.  While his films always had meat on them, they weren’t always met with great admiration, and if you’ve seen some of them then you know that it wasn’t without good reason.

Watching the documentary De Palma, you can see the work of a man who’s never really found a tone in the way of his contemporaries.  Spielberg grabbed hold of the audience’s sense of wonder.  Scorsese understood the dark side of the New York streets while Woody Allen explored the lighter side.  Cassavetes threw out the conventions of movie structure.  Coppola managed epics that would become American masterworks.  And of course Lucas’ success restructured the entire tapestry of the direction of American cinema as a business.  For a while, De Palma was seen as the successor to Alfred Hitchcock (his inspiration) and earned himself the nicknamed “The Master of The Macabre” but it fell off as his work became less and less consistent.

De Palma is a talking-head documentary but since the only head belongs to De Palma himself, you don’t really mind.  He is the sole focus here; there are no producers, no directors, no actors, no affiliates, and no family members.  It’s just a film artist talking about his passion, his vocation, his avocation, his inspiration and his drive to keep moving despite often mixed reaction to his work.  One film at a time he talks about what inspired him to make Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie, Blow Out, Scarface, Body Double, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way and Mission Impossible.  He never seemed to have made a film that earned universal praise and he was often criticized for his mishandling of female characters.  Looking at clips from films Blow Out, Body Double and Femme Fatale, it is possible to believe that some of the criticism may have partially been valid.

What unspools in De Palma is a man who stuck to his guns despite overwhelming criticism.  Directors Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach are often more admirable of his work than it probably deserves but for the film lover this is a dreamland of film clips and anecdotes.  He remembers De Niro holding out on the role of Al Capone until the very last minute while De Palma had Bob Hoskins waiting in the wings.  He remembers the famous “flying knife” death of Mrs. White in Carrie and being appalled that in the book the character dies of a heart attack (“A heart attack?  Really?  That’s it?”).  He remembers Sean Penn on the set of Casualties of War riling up co-star Michael J. Fox by whispering in his ear “TV actor.”  He remembers fights with the studio over the downbeat ending of Blow Out and the battle with the MPAA over the violence in Scarface.  In those cases, he promised to behave and then went and did what he wanted anyway.

De Palma has the physical presence of a bullish bouncer but he’s not impervious to criticism.  He can wave of any suggestion that it doesn’t bother him but his eyes suggest something different.  When he made the Al Pacino gangster epic Carlito’s Way in 1993, it was met with a volley of mixed reviews.  Looking back he can’t hide his sadness as he confesses “I can’t make a better film than that.”

I think he can.  His best film, in my estimation, is 1981’s Blow Out starring John Travolta as a sound man who accidentally records a car accident that had political connections.  It was inspired partially on Antonioni’s Blow Up but largely on the Chappaquiddick scandal but was a story well told.  On a storytelling level, he got it just right and he mixed it with a great filmmaking style that reminded me a lot of Strangers on a Train.  Of all of the films examined, this one seems to get more of a breakdown especially in light of the fact that it’s failure at the box office was blamed on its sour ending.  For me, it’s the one De Palma film that I am waiting for the public to rediscover in the same way that they have reassessed Scarface.

By the film’s end we’ve seen an artist who has spent a lifetime fighting for his art whether it is from Hollywood executives, feminists, movie critics or the filmgoing public.  He keeps on fighting.  Sometimes he gives into the impulse to give Hollywood what it wants (he agreed to turn Mission Impossible into a Tom Cruise movie by having the rest of the cast killed off early in the picture), but often he breaks away and just does what he wants.  It is at those moments when he is at his best.  De Palma proves that he’s still a great storyteller in front of and behind the camera.

 
 

Sidewalk Film Festival Retrospective #4: Gip (2016)

Gip

It is not exactly news to report that a very large, significant part of Alabama history is written in the African-American experience.  From slavery, through The Civil War, the Jim Crow era, The Civil Rights Years, right up to the current day their often bittersweet history is as much a part of Alabama as the leaves on the Cucumber Trees.  It can be seen in the tapestry of the culture.  It can be heard in the echoes of Alabama’s difficult history over the course of the previous century.  It can be heard in the rhymes of the music.  It can be seen in the deeply-lined face of a 92 year-old juke joint owner named Henry Gipson.

As his generation has passed on, Henry – known simply as “Gip” – is the face of a bygone era.  He’s been running his Juke Joint, Gip’s Place in his home of Bessemer, Alabama since 1952 and we are told that it is the last of its kind.  In the early part of the 20th century – before Martin Luther King – the landscape of Alabama was dotted with these small backwater establishments, places where blacks could congregate and embellish their culture away from the tyranny brought on by a segregated social system that was the law of the land.  As times have changed, Juke Joints have largely disappeared until only Gip’s Place remained.  Inside is life and energy.  The place is crowded every Friday and Saturday night.  The patrons are moved by the music and by community.  We are reminded more than once that Gip’s Place draws diverse cultures where it was once only a cultural haven for blacks.

Peter Sheehan’s extraordinary documentary Gip tells the story of Gip’s experience right up to the current day.  Gip himself is fascinating.  He’s 92 and works two jobs that might be mistaken for being symbolic – he works his Juke Joint by night and works as a gravedigger by day (no backhoe, just a shovel).  There’s a wry smile on his face that almost seems permanent and underneath it there is a fire in his soul which he puts into his music.  When he grabs his guitar, the music that flows from it is the kind of music that dares you to sit still.  Even his music has fire in it.  Gip been a bit of a firebrand his whole life and that may have come from his experience.  Back in ’57 he was nearly beaten nearly to death by a group of white men when he dared to receive food from a young girl – one of segregation’s rules was that blacks did not receive food from whites.  Today there is a spark in him that wills him to keep going.  It is fitting that when we first see him in Gip, he’s using gasoline to light a fire in an old oil drum.

The bulk of the documentary Gip is about his recent struggle with the local government.  Gip’s Place has caused a bit of a stir since the local Bessemer residents (of which there seem to be about six) began to complain that the volume of the music was making too much noise, an action that defied city ordinance.  The city has given warnings that if complaints continue, Gip’s Place will be no more.  Gip, ever the fighter, kept his place going and eventually his place was shut down and his case went before the city council.  That leads to a good old fashioned David and Goliath confrontation between council folks who want to stick to the letter of the law and the regulars of Gip’s Place who remind them that his is the only Juke Joint left in Alabama.  Closing it down would be closing the door on an important chapter of Alabama history.  Where the story ends up, I will not say except that the attending audience at The Sidewalk Film Festival were where the film premiered completely transfixed.

Watching the film I was reminded of another documentary from years back called Brother’s Keeper about an elderly backwoods farmer who was charged with murdering his own brother.  When he was put through the legal system without ever really understanding his rights, the community of locals rose up in his defense not because they knew him but because they felt that his rights were being infringed upon.  Here it’s much the same thing.  Gip is being pressured by a city council that seems indifferent to what his place means in Alabama history.  In his defense they come forward to defend him based on the bedrock American belief in fair play.

The third act of the movie is kind of exhilarating.  We’ve met a fascinating individual and we feel for him and his pride and his heritage and we want him to succeed.  Gip has seen many things in his life, many struggles, and many tragedies.  Here he is in his 90s, still with fire in his soul and music in his heart.  He maintains a piece of history that no one wants to see go away and we want the best for him.  In that way, his story is kind of inspiring.

 
 

Sidewalk Film Festival Retrospective #3: The Lost Arcade (2016)

Lost Arcade

It is sort of amusing when someone becomes poetic about a passion that you yourself do not happen to share.  Their mind goes to a particular place and they try to explain in carefully chosen words just how this particular activity weathers the storms of their very soul.  I know that I am guilty of this when I talk about movies.  In the opening of Kurt Vincent’s documentary The Lost Arcade, a kid tries to explain to us how a particular video arcade has brought joy to his life.  “Last night,” he says, “I dreamt I went to Chinatown Fair again” and we follow him on a dreamlike trek to get to his destination.

The destination is Chinatown Fair, currently purported to be the last video game arcade in Manhattan.  Centered in the heart of Chinatown, for 30 years it was the hub of community of all races, creeds and diverse backgrounds coming together to (the movie says) challenge one another in friendly competition.  Begun in the mid-80s by a Pakistani immigrant named Sam Palmer it achieved a tiny nugget of worldwide fame with its dancing chicken that appeared on Letterman and when it turned up in the 1984 Robert DeNiro/Meryl Streep romance Falling in Love.  In the years before home video game systems dominated the market, video arcades dotted the landscape, particularly in New York – there were at least four in Times Square.  Yet, even with the landscape saturated, Chinatown Fair became maintained a loyal fanbase that came through night after night after night even if the non-Chinese patrons found themselves hassled by the local gangs.

Then it happened, time marched on and the video game market moved into America’s living room thanks to Nintendo.  Video arcades closed down one by one until only Chinatown Fair remained.  Eventually Sam was forced to close his doors when the video game companies announced that they would no longer be making large video game cabinet models.  The closing of Chinatown Fair was bittersweet.

The Lost Arcade isn’t really about video games; it’s about the community that it spawned.  It’s more about the people whose deep love for a place like Chinatown Fair made it the place to be for those who couldn’t really afford to go anywhere else.  The outer framework of the film is the story of what happened to Chinatown Fair but we become more interested in those people.  One homeless guy, Akuma Kokura spent so much time there that Sam eventually gave him a job.  At that moment, he was living off the quarters that he found under the machine.  For him, it was a safe haven, the only place in the world that made sense.

What is interesting about The Lost Arcade is the way in which it evolves.  Sam closes Chinatown Fair and his young employee Henry opens his own business Next Level, that isn’t a carbon copy but a more modern place that resembles a public LAN party.  Then Chinatown Fair is reborn by a proprietor named Lonnie who is well-meaning but turns the old arcade into a low-rent Chuck E. Cheese – the broken look on Akuma’s face when he sees the redesign is both funny and sad.  And from there the story keeps going.  The filmmakers set out to develop a story about the closing of a famous video arcade but they found that the story kept going and keeps going.  At points you think that the story is ending but then a new development pops up.  It’s like a news story with consent updates and that makes it kind of thrilling.

The Lost Arcade is not the most profound or important documentary you’ll ever see.  It perhaps sees Chinatown Fair with rose-colored glasses.  It’s hard to believe that the place was always so friendly and nice especially in New York – after 30 years there wasn’t one fight in the place?  Plus there is a surprisingly lack of female patrons in the old archival footage.  Why did they stay away?  Did they feel threatened?  There’s a brief interview with a young woman after Lonnie takes over but it feels a bit glossed over.  It also avoids the outer world invasion by the technological advancements.  We’re told a bit about how Capcom created problems for the video arcade business by announcing that it’s “Street Fighter IV” would not be released in a cabinet model, but what is the executive decision?  What was going on behind the scenes that made decisions like that?  Were they aware that they were killing a homespun industry?

Even still this is an interesting curio about the ways in which popular culture builds community especially among those who have nowhere else to go.  It seems silly that a kid would wax poetic about a video arcade that made up the better arenas of his dreams, but this is a movie about passion.  It illustrates why a place like Chinatown Fair meant so much to so many people.  It bred a passion for video games but also for community, for being part of something, somewhere that gave their lives meaning, if only for a short time.

 
 

Sidewalk Film Festival Retrospective #2: Other People (2016)

Other People

Other People opens with a scene that I won’t soon forget.  A family, at the worst moment in their lives gathers around the bed of the family matriarch who has just passed on after a long and lingering battle with cancer.  In the midst of their sorrow the dearly departed gets a message on the answering machine from a well-wisher who not only wishes her a speedy recovery but is in the middle of ordering breakfast at McDonald’s.  This is that kind of movie.

There’s a special kind of writer who can mix serious melodrama with comedy like that and here it is an extremely talented first-time writer-director named Chris Kelly.  Watching the film it should surprise no one that he cut his teeth writing for Saturday Night Live.  Yet, what comes from this film is a surprisingly human story that could only have come from experience.

Other People opens with that bittersweet scene but then reverses back a year to tell the story of how the Mulcahy family came to be in that situation.  This is a movie about people at the worst moment in their lives and how they resolve their affairs before the inevitable falls on them.  The central focus is on David (Jesse Plemons) a struggling comedy writer who has just come back home to Sacramento to care for his mother Joanne (Molly Shannon) who is dying of cancer.

This is the worst year of David’s life, not only is he about to lose his mother, but his career is going nowhere and he’s still reeling from the breakup with his boyfriend of five years.  Added to that is the fact that he has to face his father Norman (Bradley Whitford) who has never been able to deal with his son’s sexual orientation in any realistic way.  Returning to his hometown is to return to a gallery of misunderstanding relatives and the reality that his problems still await him when he gets back to New York.  Meanwhile, he takes the reins in trying to deal with a mother whose condition is getting progressively worse.

This sounds like unbearably depressing material and, in some respects it is.  But Other People is not about gloom and doom.  It’s about the funnier side of life that intrudes when the dark clouds threaten to consume what should be a much happier existence.  David is dealing with the inevitability of losing his mother.  Yet, it’s not a one-perspective scenario.  It also deals with what a family who must do in order to make peace with themselves before they lose one of their own.  When someone is dying of an aggressive cancer, what is the agenda?  What do you say?  How do you act?  How does one settle their affairs?

The answers to those questions are put to Joanne, played in a beautiful performance by Molly Shannon who not only plays out the physical torment of someone dying of cancer but also the trials of someone that everyone sees as a victim.  Persistently she is pelted with advice and messages of good feeling that are, more or less, irrelevant.  This is happening, she knows it, but she’s not partial to greeting card advice.  Her face is often a mask of dealing with the inevitable but also quiet pleas that seem to say “get me away from these thoughtless morons.”

The comedy of that opening scene is kind of the tapestry for the rest of the film.  The comedy and the drama are kept in their distinctive places so they don’t step on each other.  Often the comic moments arrive just at the moment when the drama becomes too much to bear.  This is a story about the comedy and tragedy of life and how they are intertwined.  But it is also a very human story.

The performances of not here are the aforementioned Molly Shannon and Jesse Plemons who has made a name for himself in supporting roles.  He has a look that could seed his career with mean tough guy roles, but here he plays a man with a broken heart and a life that is pulling him in all directions.  He has a moment of breakdown in a grocery store that is so well played that you want to applaud it for not going over the top.

Above all this is a bitter sweet comedy, a good one.  It’s the story of dealing with grief and the inevitability of aggressive cancer and the agenda that is due, both mentally and physically, that must be dealt with before it claims its intended.  Yet, around that are the humorous and ironic bits of comedy that keep such a situation from being an overbearing slog.  Comedy is the great boomerang of our lives and Chris Kelly captures that in a sad and funny way that is painfully sad and achingly funny at the same time.

 
 

Sidewalk Film Festival Retrospective #1: Little Men (2016)

LittleMen

Attending The Sidewalk Film Festival this year was not only the chance to attend a spectacular event, but it was also a chance to catch up on great films away from the multiplex tentpole movies that are souring the American market.  For two days I was able to enjoy a great many documentaries and independents of all shapes and sizes.  I saw 8 films over the weekend and over the next couple of days I will be reviewing all of them starting today with Ira Sachs Little Men.
_____________________________________

With is first two films, director Ira Sachs is building a nicely formed tapestry of how real estate can have an impact on personal relationships.  Two years ago he made Love is Strange a beautifully emotional drama about the strains on Ben and George, a couple whose 40 year relationship is strained when George loses his job and they are forced to look for cheaper housing.  Thankfully Sachs follow-up, Little Men, doesn’t feel like a watered-down retread.  He and his co-screenwriter Maurico Zacharias do a beautiful job of sidestepping the trappings of a story in order to simply observe human beings and how they relate to one another in a difficult situation.

Taking place not only in Brooklyn but very much of Brooklyn, Little Men looks into the lives of two families who occupy the same building on the same block.  The Jardine family is headed by Brian (Greg Kinnear) a struggling actor who has just inherited the building from his father.  His career is propped up by a much more stable career held by his wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), a psychotherapist.  In the same building is Lenore (Paulina Garcia) a Chilean dressmaker and longtime friend of Brian’s father who runs a decade’s-old dress shop that was apparently given a discount on the rent by the old man.  Yet, now that the old man is gone a new contract comes up meaning that leniency on the rent is a thing of the past.  Brian tries very hard (in a great scene) to explain this difficult situation to Lenore with a good bit of gentle reality.  Her reaction is not helpful.

This is the template for the story but not the heart.  The center of the film focuses on Brian and Kathy’s teenage son Jake (Theo Taplitz) who is an artist with designs on getting into LaGuardia High School of Music & Art.  Moving into his grandfather’s old building he quickly makes friends with Antonio (Michael Barbieri) an outspoken extrovert who wants to be an actor and also has designs on going to LaGuardia High School.  Their friendship is based on their common aspirations but their personalities.

The boys find themselves and their friendship stuck in the middle of a battle between their mutual parents.  Brian had perhaps assumed that Lenore would understand that she had been given a break in her rent from his old man so many years but finds that she is far more resistance.  Kathy tries too to reason with her but something is keeping her resolute about not changing anything.  It is never spoken aloud but something in the class structure is keeping this situation from finding a resolution.  Lenore seems to resent the Jardines from taking over the building and upending a situation that she has maintained for years.  Brian had assumed that she would understand and Kathy tries to work it out on an emotional ground.  He’s a man who has been privileged all his life but now finds himself in a situation that he can’t work out.  His career is stumbling and he’s embarrassed that his wife is their support.

Stuck in the middle are Jake and Antonio who find that their parents casually limiting their time together because of their situation.  They are the quiet sideline to their parent’s problems and what happens to their friendship is not handled in a big emotional scene, but a quiet life-goes-on scenario that you almost want to applaud.

This movie is special because it deals with characters on a human level.  Everyone is driven by history and by personality.  This is a very dialogue driven film and Sachs avoids the trappings of big dramatic scenes.  Instead the dialogue is woven together by quiet emotions, a lot of scenes of people going about their days lives and often just pondering.  That’s more powerful than a lot of bellowing.

The performances where are allowed to breathe.  There’s time to get to know each individual and so when the big resolutions come it feels more palatable.  I loved all of these people but especially Pauline Garcia as Lenore, who gives one of the best performances of the year.  Lenore is a woman of quiet, stubborn resolve that we sense has been fighting all her life.  She smokes cigarettes constantly with the smoke billowing from her mouth like a dragon and she smashes them out like she’s putting down punctuation.  Her anger at her impending eviction is rational and even reasonable; she’s fighting for her home.  Yet, despite her unyielding nature she’s not a villain.  Watch the film, listen to her talk about her history, listen to her carefully chosen words and ask what you would do in her situation.

Little Men is a beautifully written, beautifully acted film that might be thrown out as a “coming-of-age” movie.  It’s so much more than that.  Yes, the kids are 13, just as the age between childhood wonder and teenage cynicism, but the movie is much smarter about their situation and their friendship.  They are standing over the craggy cliffs of adulthood watching the grow-up pillars of their lives create a rift in their friendship but are unable to do anything about it.  Where Jake and Antonio’s friendship ends up leads to one of the most bittersweet ending that I can remember, an affirmation of the power of childhood friends and the realities of life that threaten to pull it apart.