‘Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe’ review: Documentary proves the art form is more than skin deep

Image of a scene from the documentary Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe.

Performer Angelique DeVil in a scene from the documentary “Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe.” PHOTO CREDIT: XLrator Media

When many people think of the term burlesque, they might picture the 2010 film starring Cher and Christina Aguilera. Or perhaps Dita von Teese, the model who re-popularized burlesque and is often dubbed the ‘Queen of Burlesque.’ But there is far more to the performance art than just those mainstream examples. Fortunately, a new documentary explores some of the people behind the clever stage names(even if their real names aren’t actually revealed). Just don’ expect it to offer any sort of history lessons about this particular style of exotic dance.

“Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe” follows a select group of burlesque performers, most of whom live and work in Portland, OR. They seem to be big names in the world of burlesque; many have earned titles at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend in Las Vegas. One of the dancers featured actually performed on the NBC competition series America’s Got Talent, in addition to working as a choreographer and dance instructor.

The doc also introduces the Stage Door Johnnies, the world’s only all-male burlesque group. The trio is based out of Chicago, but have headlined festivals across the world. At first glance it seems like the Stage Door Johnnies are part of the same Portland-based group; the quick jumps from performer to performer lead the viewer to assume they are from the same place.

The film opens with a sultry rendition of Hozier’s “Take Me To Church”; perhaps this is fitting since one of the performers occasionally incorporates a ventriloquist dummy modeled after Jesus into her act. But stepping into the world of burlesque certainly provides a good dose of enlightenment. These dancers seem to live their craft. From one dancer who develops all of the choreography for the stage shows to another who spends all her free time(and money) creating her elaborate costumes, “Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe” certainly found the embodiment of living for one’s art.

As much as a positive light is shone on the dancers in this particular group, many of them have had personal struggles. There is a runaway, a former drug addict; one who was sexually abused in his childhood years. While overcoming their struggles and finding an outlet through burlesque is ultimately a positive outcome, the stories only seem to give weight to the stigma already surrounding exotic dancing. This seems especially prevalent when there are a few among the rather small group of performers profiled in the film. Fortunately the Stage Door Johnnies seem to have a more lighthearted and humorous take on their profession, so any face time spent with the trio provides a little emotional equalizer to the film.

“Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe” can’t speak for the art form entirely, nor does it try to. It also doesn’t commentate on its history, nor offer up any anecdotes about its origins. It is content with focusing on this one particular group of performers. While doing so, it manages to capture the passion that these performers have for the American style of burlesque, which happens to feature far more nudity(and exotic undertones) than its Victorian roots.  But the film doesn’t offer that little tidbit of knowledge.  This documentary is a character portrait above all else. Those looking for a little more exposition won’t find it here. Those who like an extra dose of emotion with their documentary will find plenty to like in “Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe.”

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SXSW Film Festival indies already proving to be big business

An image of a scene from the movie The Transfiguration.

Eric Ruffin in a scene from “The Transfiguration”, one of the Official Selections of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival. PHOTO CREDIT: Sung Rae Cho

The South by Southwest(SXSW) Film Festival(March 10-18) has featured big studio motion pictures for years, drawing buzz, attention and A-list stars to Austin, TX during the early days of March. This year is no exception, what with the recent announcement of Sony Pictures’ upcoming movie “Life” closing out the Film Festival on March 18. Stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, and Rebecca Ferguson are scheduled to attend the closing night presentation.  This creates a nice bookend to compliment the opening night selection of Terrence Malick’s “Song to Song”, which will bring stars Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, and Rooney Mara to the Festival March 10.

It is not surprising that these films are already destined for a theatrical release; many were given a release date even before production began, based on a perceived promise of box-office returns from big-name involvement. However, plenty of smaller independent films are coming to this year’s SXSW Film Festival already destined for distribution. While many premiere festival films are searching for both a buyer and a larger audience, these films are just looking to make a splash with viewers.  There are sure to be numerous acquisitions throughout the Festival, so this list is just a sampling and by no means all-inclusive.

Long Strange Trip

The first full-length documentary about the famous jam band Grateful Dead, “Long Strange Trip” premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. Martin Scorsese executive-produced the project, which was acquired by Amazon shortly after it screened at the Salt Lake City festival. It is set to hit the Amazon Prime Video platform on May 26.

Trophy

“Trophy” explores the hot-button issue of endangered species, but analyzes it from all different perspectives. Putting an economic spin on the topic, the film profiles hunters, breeders, and conservationists, offering unique viewpoints from all sides. The Orchard acquired “Trophy” after it screened at the Sundance Film Festival. According to Deadline, it will release the documentary on a minimum of 150 movie theater screens this summer.

The Transfiguration

An official selection of last year’s Cannes Film Festival, “The Transfiguration” tells the story of a troubled teen named Milo, who happens to be obsessed with vampire culture. This New York City-set thriller explores the clash between the real world and Milo’s fantasies when he meets a counterpart in Sophie. “The Transfiguration” opens at New York’s Angelika Film Center on April 7, and Los Angeles’ The Nuart Theatre on April 21. Strand Releasing is handling distribution for the film.

A scene from the movie Win It All.

Jake Johnson stars in Joe Swanberg’s latest feature “Win It All.” PHOTO CREDIT: Mitch Buss

Win It All

Festival and indie darling Joe Swanberg’s latest largely-improvised project has already found a home on Netflix, available for streaming on April 7. The film has the director re-uniting with “Drinking Buddies” collaborator Jake Johnson. Johnson plays a gambler who agrees to hold on to a duffel bag for a friend. When he realizes the bag is full of money, he can’t help himself. This presents a problem when he winds up losing it all.

Small Crimes

“Small Crimes” focuses on Joe Denton, an ex-cop who went to prison for attempting to murder the District Attorney. In the midst of trying to put his life back together upon release, Joe is forced to face the D.A., a crooked sheriff, and even a mafia boss. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau(Game of Thrones), Gary Cole, Jacki Weaver, Robert Forster, and Molly Parker star in the new film from E.L. Katz(“Cheap Thrills”). Katz wrote the screenplay with Macon Blair, the star of cult indie hit “Blue Ruin” and director of this year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore.” “Small Crimes” was acquired by Netflix, the premiere date not yet announced.

Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo

This documentary shines a light on the Apollo’s Mission Control team. While astronauts were hurtling through space or walking on the moon, the team provided a beacon back to earth from their command center in Houston. The film explores the stories behind those men who sat in front of the control panels. Gravitas Ventures acquired the film last month, and will release the film theatrically on April 14.

The Most Hated Woman in America

The Madalyn Murray O’Hair biopic hits Netflix on March 24, mere weeks after its screening bows at the SXSW Film Festival. Melissa Leo stars as the activist O’Hair, a self-proclaimed feminist and pivotal role player in removing prayer from public schools. She also founded the American Atheist organization in Austin, TX in 1963. Tommy O’Haver(“Ella Enchanted”) directed the film. He also co-wrote the screenplay with Irene Turner.

SXSW runs March 10-19.  Film Festival screening information is available on the Festival website.

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Influential guitarist Bill Frisell to attend SXSW Film Festival in support of new film doc

Image of musician Bill Frisell in a scene from the documentary Bill Frisell: A Portrait.

Bill Frisell in a scene from the documentary “Bill Frisell: A Portrait”, screening as part of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival. PHOTO CREDIT: Emma Franz

Bill Frisell is coming to Austin.

The musician will attend the 2017 SXSW Film Festival March 13, and participate in a Q&A after the screening of the new documentary “Bill Frisell: A Portrait.” The Festival marks the World Premiere of the film.

Australian and SXSW alum Emma Franz(“Intangible Asset Number 82”) directed the documentary, which features interviews with Frisell himself, as well as other notable musicians including Paul Simon and Bonnie Raitt. Franz will also be present for the Q&A after the screening.

Shot over a five year period, “Bill Frisell: A Portrait” also features some unique performance footage, including Frisell’s time at London’s Maida Vale Studios with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and jazz maestro Michael Gibbs.  Franz, who also edited, produced and shot the film, came up with the documentary concept on her first trip to the SXSW Film Festival.  During her stay in Austin, she attended one of Frisell’s performances.

“I am certainly not alone in having had the sensation that Bill’s music seemed to be inexplicably speaking directly to me, in a way that few artists can achieve – particularly across so many styles and genres and to such a diverse range of audiences,” said Franz.  “And there in Austin, in a moment like the proverbial bolt of lightning, I challenged myself to try to identify, through cinema, some of the essence of what made that possible.”

While originally classified as a jazz guitarist, Frisell’s unique technique and exploration ultimately influenced country and folk music as well.  His signature style was soon sought after, leading to collaborations with the likes of Elvis Costello, Loudon Wainwright III, and Suzanne Vega, among numerous others.  He also became an accomplished composer, creating pieces for both feature films and television series. He has performed or written for projects such as the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line”(which starred Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon), “Finding Forrester”, and the Jim Jarmusch film “The Limits of Control.”

Frisell’s latest album When You Wish Upon a Star received a 2016 Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album.  The guitarist has started 2017 with a tour: he has dates listed through the end of April on his website.

The 2017 South by Southwest Festival is March 10-19, while the Film Festival runs through March 18.  All the screening information for “Bill Frisell: A Portrait” can be found here.

Click below to watch the trailer for “Bill Frisell: A Portrait”:

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‘Drifter’ review: Flashes of style can’t save stymied slasher

Image of a scene from the 2017 movie Drifter

Two brothers find themselves the prey of the sadistic lone residents of an isolated town in “Drifter.” PHOTO CREDIT: XLRator Media

“Drifter” packs some style and flash in its cinematography, and it also borrows heavily from other genre films. At a first glimpse of the trailer, the familiar world of “The Rover” comes to mind. Guy Pearce chases down a gaggle of punks who managed to snag his car with the help of the injured guy(Robert Pattinson) they left behind. That film played in a world that appeared to be post-extinction level event; a desolate Down Under wasteland. Cars and fuel were a scarce, hot commodity. That film was released in 2014.

Now, director Chris von Hoffman paints a similar setting in his new film “Drifter.” Two brothers must ward off would-be carjackers while riding cross-country. The view through the windshield is mostly desert.  Their journey is not without purpose: they seek vengeance for what happened to their father. While that is not really elaborated on(it is assumed he was murdered), the film is more about the detours than the destination. And the ultimate detour finds the characters in a situation not unlike “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

Brothers Dominic(Drew Harwood) and Miles(Aria Emory, who co-wrote the screenplay with von Hoffman) are on a hell-bent road trip, but things take an unexpected turn in the opening scene. While trying to hold up a man for supplies, Miles gets shot through his hand. In need of medical attention and rest, the two seek refuge in a small town that appears to be abandoned.  Once again, this setting points to some kind of apocalyptic event in the past.

The brothers first meet Vijah(Monique Rosario), who seems sincere and willing to help. However, she mentions that Doyle wouldn’t like her to help them. Soon, everyone they come across is mentioning Doyle, who happens to be the self-appointed man-in-charge. After hearing about the character for so long, the viewer is finally introduced to the man, in a dinner table scene very much reminiscent of the original “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” However, the feeling of absolute, no-way-to-reason-with insanity that permeated over the entire scene in Tobe Hooper’s original 1974 horror classic is very much absent from the emulation.

Aside from Miles’ constant one-eyed gaze through his long, unwashed stringy hair hanging in his face(a look which quickly gets old), the character displays very little personality. He is constantly berated and put down by his older brother Dominic, whose only traits seem to be a penchant for profanity and an unexplained ease for exacting violence. And while the hyperactive performances of two of the cannibal townspeople are so over the top they are laughable, James McCabe’s Doyle is more subdued. He seems more rational and intelligent, which makes the character slightly more menacing. McCabe’s and Rosario’s work keep the acting from becoming a complete distraction. Director von Hoffman has worked with many of these actors in the past(a few of them starred in his short “Fuel Junkie”), but his choice to work with those he knows comes with a performance cost.

“Drifter” stands as Chris von Hoffman’s feature-length debut, and like the “Stray Bullets” which also released this month(and had a first-time feature-length writer/director), there is a lack of development polish in the script. Here, the screenplay doesn’t run out of gas, but a little more background on the two brothers would have gone a long way. There really isn’t much of reason to take a liking to Miles or (especially)Dominic. A lot of foul language and violence can make for an edgy, cool slasher pic, but they don’t hold a candle to building a sense of dread or the ability to crawl underneath a viewer’s skin. “Drifter” doesn’t even come close to hitting those latter points. This film focuses on style while leaving many of the other required boxes unchecked.

 

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‘The Girl With All the Gifts’ review: Indie zombie feature leans on the familiar

Image of a scene from the movie The Girl With All the Gifts.

Melanie(center) is “The Girl With All the Gifts” in the new thriller from Saban Films. PHOTO CREDIT: Aimee Spinks

“The Girl With All the Gifts” is a new sci-fi/horror film that should have stayed in school. Literally. The first scene sparks plenty of curiosity. For reasons initially unknown, children are wearing orange jumpsuits and are kept in cells like a prison. Meanwhile, all the walls seem to have a bunker kind of vibe to them. Each day, the children are strapped to a wheelchair(one that is even fitted with a head restraint) and brought into a classroom to learn. But once the story abandons the classroom and takes the show on the road, much of the stroke of originality fades away.

See, “The Girl With All the Gifts” is a zombie story at heart(based on a novel with the same name), and the kids in the classroom are special. They have the zombie virus running through their blood, and while they still have the urge and need to feed, their brain functionality has not seemed to take a hit. They are kept in a locked-down facility in England, but what is the number one rule of any zombie film?

That’s right! Soon, the facility is crawling with zombies, forcing a handful of survivors to make a getaway. This includes Melanie, one of these special children. Also in the mix are her teacher(Gemma Arterton), some of the soldiers who guarded the compound, and the resident research doctor(Glenn Close). And this is where the film falls right into the routine of many a previous horror effort(“Dawn of the Dead”, The Walking Dead, etc, etc). Yes, it is always entertaining to see a small group fight through a horde of zombies(video games have been developed around the concept, for crying out loud!), but it has certainly been done before. Perhaps in this case, it is a bigger letdown than usual because the initial concept was so fresh.

Why isn’t Glenn Close doing more film projects these days? Close absolutely nails it as the highly ambitious doctor willing to do anything to find a cure for the virus. Her character is darn near an archetype in this kind of film, but she brings seasoned toughness to the role. It also matures as the film progresses, giving Close plenty of opportunity to chew the scenery.

“The Girl With All the Gifts” toes the line when it comes to a strong recommendation since it chooses not to entirely capitalize on its unique premise. There was so much more potential in the classroom, and the resulting film is a little less intelligent because of it. The screenplay takes the easier route, and as a result, the rewards aren’t as great as they could have been. There is also at least one other major plot point in need of an explanation(why do they bother instructing these unique children in a classroom setting day in and day out?).

Didn’t the filmmakers know that the first outing needs to establish the world and do its best to explain it? That way, they earn the right to focus entirely on the action in the sequel. Novelist Mike Carey wrote the screenplay from his own source material, so anyone not familiar with the book could assume that it too falls back on some of the zombie genre’s most well-worn paths.  “The Girl With All the Gifts” winds up being modestly entertaining, but it definitely had the potential to be so much more.

 

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‘Bitter Harvest(2017)’ review: Ukrainian tragedy and romance suffers sloppy execution

Image of a scene from the movie Bitter Harvest

Yuri(Max Irons) and Natalka(Samantha Barks) fall in love in the midst of the turmoil of 1930’s Ukraine in ‘Bitter Harvest.’ PHOTO CREDIT: Mark Tillie

“Bitter Harvest” takes place during the Holodomor, the Soviet’s attacks on the Ukraine-centric areas of the Union during the early 1930s. The Soviets attempted to starve out the Ukrainian population under the orders of Joseph Stalin, and millions were killed in the process. It is another dark chapter in European history, and one that isn’t often discussed.  This genocidal era has never been explored through the medium of narrative film…until now.

Unfortunately, “Bitter Harvest” doesn’t do the tragedy justice. Its primary focus is its love story, one so rudimentary that the lead character tells the viewer during the opening sequence that he fell in love with the girl when they were both children. He lived in a small village; perhaps she was the only girl he’d ever seen.  Love blossoms merely because the script needs it to; the emotional void in the love story definitely transfers to the backdrop of the Holodomor.

Yuri(Max Irons) and Natalka(Samantha Barks) get married, but this isn’t the start of happily ever after.  Yuri decides to move to the city of Kiev to study art and support his brother, a promising up-and-comer in the Communist Party.  While Yuri is gone, Soviet soldiers occupy his village, and Natalka is forced to bend to the commanding officer’s will to keep her family fed.

When the story does want to focus on the Holodomor, it is often fodder for an action sequence. An early scene shows a bit of promise in that department, even if it is more concerned with genre convention than historical accuracy. Watching an old man(Terence Stamp’s age) do a sort-of karate kick on a horse was, simultaneously, cool and ridiculously silly. Remarkably, the movie has two scenes which prominently feature a machine gun.  With a tragedy that saw so many Ukrainians die of starvation, it was an interesting choice to include two scenes of them getting mowed down by the weapon.  For a mainstream movie to have the first opportunity to portray a piece of history is rare, and the filmmakers have certainly squandered it here.  The weight of the tragedy isn’t felt at all.

Richard Bachynsky Hoover adapted his own source story for the screenplay.  An actor by trade, Hoover wrote the story after becoming highly interested in the Holodomor.  Perhaps there was more meat to it in its original form. Lines of dialogue exist merely because they must, and characters behave out of utility more so than any developed personality. After some early features in the ’80s, director George Mendeluk has worked primarily in television and TV movies, so perhaps that explains the rapid editing through some of the more violent moments. The film earns its ‘R’ rating(mostly for shootings aplenty), so why fast forward through a death that should be pivotal and emotional for the other characters?

Samantha Barks shared the screen with Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway when she portrayed Eponine in the latest big screen vision of “Les Miserables(2012)”, and she had more to do(and more reason to emote) in her limited screen time in that film. Here she is relegated to pining after her husband, and catering to the needs of Soviet commander Sergei(Tamer Hassan).  Max Irons still has yet to prove himself as a leading man, as his last high-profile role was in the comically disastrous adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s “The Host.” Unfortunately, this film is no help in moving that needle.

A love story doesn’t have to be complicated or complex to translate successfully to the big screen.  It doesn’t even have to be original.  The one at the center of “Bitter Harvest” certainly isn’t, but it isn’t handled with care either. Even additional script contributions from director Mendeluk couldn’t elevate the material.  Every character interaction has but a single beat, like when the curmudgeonly former-warrior grandfather delivers a one-line apology to the grandson(Yuri) he underestimated when he’s rescued. The moment is fleeting; there is nothing further communicated between the two. “Bitter Harvest” is a disposable historical romance, but it isn’t bad enough to be ironically entertaining.

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‘XX’ review: New horror anthology plays fast but does the genre proud

Image of a scene from the horror anthology film XX.

A scene from “The Box”, the first short in the new horror anthology “XX.” PHOTO CREDIT: Magnet Releasing

“XX” not only features women behind the cameras(and keyboards, pens, or whatever other writing tool), but each of the four short films that comprises the anthology features a strong female presence in the lead role. Scanning through the credits, it becomes evident that there were several female crew members involved in at least a few of the films as well. And to tie it all together, Sofia Carrillo created animated sequences for the anthology opening and interludes between the different shorts. Each of the films goes down its own uniquely macabre route, making “XX” a lighting-fast, but satisfying, watch.

“The Box” uses a child’s precociousness during the holiday season as a catalyst for it cerebral madness. With Christmas gifts on the brain, a boy asks a man on the subway about a fancy gift box he’s holding.  His mother urges him towards decorum, but the man happily plays along.  After peering inside, the boy’s demeanor slowly transitions from happiness to fear, and then to stoic indifference. The effect of the package contents slowly starts affecting his daily routine, and after he shares the secret of what he saw with his sister and his father, they start exhibiting the same symptoms.  This leaves his mother desperate to unravel the mystery. Writer-director Jovanka Vuckovic’s film is based on a story by Jack Ketchum.

“The Birthday Party” is as much a dark comedy as it is a horror short, a fitting description since the director and co-writer, Annie Clark, admits that horror films scare her. Best known for her music(she records under the name St. Vincent), the short film marks her directorial debut. Melanie Lynskey(“Up in the Air”) plays a woman starting her day on the eve of her daughter’s party. She brings coffee to her husband, only to find him unresponsive at the desk in his study. Well, he’s more than unresponsive – he’s dead. Determined not to let this particular predicament ruin the birthday party, she goes to lengths to cover up the proverbial elephant in the room.

“Don’t Fall” features a quartet of twenty-somethings camping out in the desert. When they discover pictographs from Native American settlers while hiking, they realize they might be trespassing on sacred ground. The uneasy feelings soon prove warranted when one of the women wakes up in the middle of the night, feeling not quite herself. Writer-director Roxanne Benjamin(who also co-wrote “The Birthday Party”) draws inspiration from the creature feature, using shadows to effectively tease looks at who – or what – is haunting these campers.  These glances are just enough to induce chills, making “Don’t Fall” one of the stronger efforts in this collection.

“Her Only Living Son” revolves around another age-related milestone. A woman is both reluctant and eager to celebrate her son’s eighteenth birthday. But when he starts to exhibit strange and violent behavior, warnings from the past come back to haunt her. Written and directed by Karyn Kusama(“Jennifer’s Body”, “The Invitation”), “Her Only Living Son” explores themes similar to “Rosemary’s Baby” – if Rosemary’s baby was coming-of-age.

In a time of digestible streaming media, “XX” easily finds its place on the menu. Even with the brief interludes between the shorts, the runtime is only about 75 minutes once the credits start to roll. It also blends horror tones and themes quite well; there is a little something for everyone here, including a splash of blood and gore. Carrillo’s stop-motion animation between films is a welcome treat also – it lives in a world of a child’s nightmare, where the dollhouse furniture comes to life and possesses the dolls(and whatever else it desires). “XX” proves that the best genre film isn’t always going to be found at the local multiplex. For the best horror release out right now, one just has to look towards their local independent movie theater, or their On Demand platform of choice.

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‘The Salesman(2016)’ review: Asghar Farhadi crafts another complex character drama

Image of a scene from the movie The Salesman

Emad(Shahab Hosseini) looks on in a scene from “The Salesman.” PHOTO CREDIT: Amazon Studios/Cohen Media Group

Writer/director Asghar Farhadi uses his characters like no one else. His screenplays are often constructed on one mere occurrence, one action that could be considered almost seemingly random. He then relies on his characters to take the story the rest of the way, letting their reactive emotions run their course and drive them to action.  This one seemingly inconsequential moment quickly becomes a catalyst for the entire rest of the film.

This structure brought him Oscar gold in 2012(for “A Separation”).  His intermediate film, 2013’s “The Past”, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes.  Now, he is once again nominated for an Academy Award for his latest film, “The Salesman.”  And when it comes to his unique brand of character focus, his latest project is no exception.  It also feels reminiscent of the work of Michael Haneke: a thinking man’s(or woman’s) picture, but perhaps with less bursts of violence.

“The Salesman” focuses on Emad(Shahab Hosseini) and Rana(Taraneh Alidoosti), a couple who share stage time as the husband and wife in a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. However, the film’s first scene is at their home.  Shouts punctuate the opening, as they are forced to abandon their apartment building. It seems the structure might collapse, and the camera focuses on a pair of windows right before they start to crackle, the glass splintering away. Needing a place to stay, a fellow cast member offers them a space in the building he manages. He lets them occupy the apartment for free until they can find a permanent residence.

There is only one potential hiccup: the former tenant has left a whole room of belongings behind, and keeps making excuses as to why she’s delaying retrieving her stuff. Fed up, the manager unlocks the bedroom door, and Rana and Emad move most of the furniture out of the room, but leave her clothes and some of her other personal effects as they are. The couple also meet some of their new neighbors, and seem to be settling in quite nicely, but the peace does not last.

The brief synopsis of “The Salesman” on IMDB does not do the film justice, as it merely states the couple’s relationship starts to turn sour during their time performing the play. That isn’t quite the whole story, but this is one setup that deserves to be kept under wraps before seeing the film. Since Rana and Emad are suddenly occupying this apartment, a case of mistaken identity befalls them, and their relationship starts to strain in the aftermath of that event.  Just check out the symbolic imagery in the film still above:  the crack in the window representative of the cracks in their foundation as a couple.  The former tenant’s personal effects also become a symbol, as her stuff lingering behind represents the presence that won’t leave, and ultimately had a part in the mistaken identity.

The film’s use of the ongoing Death of a Salesman is apt, as Rana and Emad start to embody the tired weariness and poor communication of their stage roles in their real lives.  By the time the credits start to role, the couple barely know themselves any longer.  The final shots of “The Salesman” require a little bit of interpretation, but the viewer eventually realizes they fit the theme perfectly.  The two see more recognition in their on-stage roles than they do in their real lives when all is said and done.

If there is a single word to best describe “The Salesman”, it would probably be ‘cerebral.’  Human change doesn’t happen overnight, and Farhadi doesn’t rush things, letting the characters set the slow-burn pace of their own dysfunction.  This requires patience on behalf of the viewer, and even the payoff isn’t instant gratification.  The viewer is going to have to mull this one over for awhile, letting their interpretations and opinion develop organically.  Anyone willing to trust Farhadi and follow him down the rabbit hole will be rewarded with a thought-provoking and discussion worthy experience.  There’s no reason why anyone shouldn’t dive right in.

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‘Stray Bullets’ review: Indie crime thriller winds up firing blindly

Image of a scene from the Screen Media Films release Stray Bullets.

Three criminals on the run get more than they bargained for in the new film “Stray Bullets.” PHOTO CREDIT: Glass Eye Pix

“Stray Bullets” is pure indie filmmaking. The finished work is a testament to multi-hyphenate Jack Fessenden’s keen eye and technique. Fessenden not only wrote, directed and edited the film, but he also stars as Connor, classmate and confidant to Ash. It is also worth noting that he is only sixteen years old, or was at the time he made “Stray Bullets.” But while many an independent feature is built on the solid foundation of a would-be coveted screenplay, it is the writing that ultimately proves to be this project’s Achilles heel.  Fessenden’s first attempt at writing to feature length has to hobble its way across the finish line.

Ash and Connor seem to be sneaking around someone’s property in the opening scene.  Slipping inside somebody’s house, they start going through some packages. They check the contents, grab the boxes, and manage to sneak away without leaving a single packing peanut behind. The bounty? A paintball gun and a ton of ammunition.

There is a reason behind all of this secrecy, and it isn’t nearly as devious at it seems, but elaborating more would spoil the fun…and a future plot development. This stop is merely a detour as the two teenagers are on their way to clean out Ash’s father’s trailer so it could ‘possibly’ be sold. The paintball gun would merely provide some entertainment value during their walk, when they aren’t chatting up their local classmates and Connor isn’t quoting iconic 70’s films.

Meanwhile, three criminals are coping with the spoils of a deal gone wrong. The one silver lining: they make off with a briefcase, presumably full of cash.  With one nursing a bullet wound and fading fast, the trio aren’t entirely sure where they are going and what their next move might be.  To make matters worse, their getaway vehicle starts acting up.  They find a quiet place in the woods to lay low and figure out a game plan. Unfortunately, it just so happens that the place they found is the same trailer that Ash and Connor are supposed to clean.

With a classic setup of impending confrontation in place, “Stray Bullets” inexplicably stalls once the boys happen upon the criminals in the trailer. Their friend and cohort is bleeding out, but the supposed brains of this crime mini-empire spends a lot of time sitting around not doing anything. This is only amplified by a sequence that aims to do little more than highlight a piece of the musical score. Shots cut to each of the criminals as they sit in the trailer, doing absolutely nothing.  The film is quite short as is, so this reflective time-out seems ill-advised, and sort of like writer’s block manifesting itself onscreen.

The screenplay had a great premise locked and loaded, but much like its characters, it spins in circles for a spell, unsure of what to do next. From there, it retreats to an awkward foot chase that ends up traversing through a public park(of all places). This is clearly not Fessenden’s first filmmaking rodeo, but it is his first feature-length project. The screenplay betrays him of this fact as it simply appears to run out of gas, and it hobbles along to an 80-minute finish with barely the slightest climactic tremor.

“Stray Bullets” has some of the stunted acting seen in many an amateur film, and the scene where Ash and Connor run into a couple of their female classmates feels awkward from more than just the teenage angst. But this brief moment doesn’t derail the film, and the impressive cinematography(the film was shot by Jack’s father Larry, who also stars) and composition indicate that Fessenden clearly has talent. But “Stray Bullets” starts firing blindly once all the pawns arrive on the chess board that is the mobile home in the middle of the woods.  Fessenden said he drew inspiration from Jeff Nichols’ “Mud(2010)”, but that thriller took its time to develop its characters; it could because the screenplay knew its destination.  “Stray Bullets” has a similar aesthetic, but couldn’t emulate the well-rounded screenplay.

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‘Toni Erdmann’ remake news highlights bizarre remake culture, art clashing with business

An image of a scene from the movie Toni Erdmann.

A scene from “Toni Erdmann.” Photo courtesy of Image.net

“Toni Erdmann” is a nominee in the Best Foreign Language Film category at this year’s Academy Awards, so naturally, it is a newer film. In many markets, it probably has yet to project a single shot on any theater screen, and may never. The film just recently landed in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre, and this city is the third largest(populous-wise) in the country. It was supposed to open in the UK market early this year as well.  I have yet to see it, and aside from some film stills and seeing the theatrical one-sheet(in layman’s terms, movie poster), I have avoided the trailer and any discussion regarding the film. I would like to be surprised when I first sit down to watch it.

The simple synopsis: a man tries to reconnect with his adult daughter through his practical jokes and pranks.  Hence, the image accompanying this post.

One of the big stories to hit the entertainment media in the last few days has been Jack Nicholson’s return to acting. It would be his first film role in about seven years. But there is another story here: the role would be in the already-in-planning-stage U.S. Remake of “Toni Erdmann.”  The rights to the remake are currently being negotiated.

This remake is just another in a long line of ones stemming from the era of ‘Instant Remake, or How Hollywood Has Run Out of Ideas and Learned ToSnags Remake Rights to Interesting Concepts Almost Immediately.” But this is ridiculously quick. The projector bulb hasn’t even cooled off yet on the theatrical run of Maren Ade’s original feature, and U.S. Production companies are already chomping at the bit to redo it. It opened in a limited US market on Christmas Day(read: probably a couple theaters in New York and L.A., especially to qualify for awards season), and originally hit theaters in Germany last July.

Now comes a statement from writer-director Ade herself, and the production company of Komplizen Film. They confirm that rights to the remake of their film are currently being negotiated, but neither the filmmaker nor the production company will have any sort of involvement in the remake. They also ensure that they state they are happy with their film the way it is. This definitely feels a little bit like biting of the tongue and taking the high road, doesn’t it?

It is always frustrating to have one’s moment of glory cut short when others try to mimic your work or take your idea and pass it off as their own. It certainly has happened to all of us in the working world. But in the corporate world, it is not uncommon for a business to claim ownership of everything done within working hours on the business’ equipment(a fancy little term called intellectual property). It is expected, so it is a little easier to brush off when it happens.

Now imagine having a passion project, and spending years of blood, sweat and tears to finally see that project become a reality. And all with the flick of a pen and an electronic funds transfer, another writer, director, and studio will be paid to take your vision and do with it what they will. “Toni Erdmann” is still in the running for an Academy Award, so Ade could very well have an Oscar-winning film on her hands. But before that happens, someone could already be at work remaking her idea in their image.

Unfortunately, this is the nature of the movie business. Whether it is a big-budget blockbuster or small independent film, it is usually the desire of the filmmakers to get their projects in front of the eyeballs of as many people as possible. And for that to happen, you usually need a distributor who can put up the cash to get the movie shipped out to theaters, not to mention marketing the project as well. If you want your film to open in international markets, that usually requires a separate distributor. You could pay to book a theater and screen your film yourself, but that certainly wouldn’t be as effective of an outreach.  And as a filmmaker, you lost your rights to your own film a long time ago, once the production company, distributor or whoever else put up the money to even make the thing a reality.

From the perspective of a film studio, it is certainly a better bet to front your money on a proven concept as opposed to something entirely original, which is what makes remakes(and reboots are really just a fancy way of saying remakes) and sequels so enticing. Even streaming services like Amazon and Netflix are finding it much easier to roll up to a big film festival and drop cash on a word-of-mouth hit as opposed to financing a new production. But in the meantime, it is the movie-loving public that has to suffer the lack of originality. And the original filmmakers have to suffer the spoils of dealing with the devil(or in this case, the distributor. Until studios start prioritizing original concepts, and once again are willing to roll the dice on a fresh script or rookie director, things are going to remain the same. From this side of the multiplex screen, it’s a fun business. But at the end of the day, it is still a business, and the art side of it will sometimes have to ride in the back seat.

And when it comes to buying and hawking remake rights, can we at least be less uncouth about it?  At the minimum, let’s wait until the season is finished before we start seeing how much we money we can squeeze out of a buzz-worthy awards favorite.

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