Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Wim Wenders, Family Therapist: Talking to the co-directors of Salt of the Earth

Salt of the Earth, a tour de force documentary about photographer Sebastião Salgado, is a trip around the world, including some of its least-visited corners, led by a mesmerizing tour guide. I interviewed the film’s co-directors, Wim Wenders and Salgado’s son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, for the L Magazine shortly before the film's March 27 opening.

[To Salgado] Why did you feel the need for someone else to direct this film with you, and why Wim in particular?

Salgado: Actually, my relationship with Sebastião when we started the film was dreadful. I mean it was a complicated father and son relationship, and it didn’t give room for interviewing Sebastião, having free chat with him.

Wim appeared in our life in 2009, and they wanted to do something together, him and Sebastião. And when it started to be possible for me to make a film about my father, it was natural that the first person I think about to help would be Wim, because he wanted to do a film about Sebastião.

Wenders: I didn’t really want to make a film about Sebastião to begin with. I just wanted to get to know the man. For years, in any interview when I was asked “Who is your favorite contemporary photographer?” I always said “Sebastião Salgado.” And eventually I thought, wow, I don’t even know him, and he’s still working. I should try to meet him. But even when I met father and son, there was no thought of a film yet.

[to Salgado] And, you know, I talked your dad out of thinking of a film when at some point he asked me: ”Do you think, Wim, there is any other way for me to deal with my photographs of [his latest photo project] Genesis than in a book and an exhibition? I’ve been doing this for a long time: I photograph for years, and then I make a book, and then I make an exhibition that travels. Do you think I could somehow put them on a screen, maybe with music or something?” I said, “Don’t! It will end up a slide show and that is not good for you.”

Sunday, March 22, 2015

SXSW 2015: Manson Family Vacation, The Goob, and Results

Manson Family Vacation is a disarmingly unpredictable tale of reconciliation between two brothers. When Conrad (Linas Phillips) shows up to visit his estranged brother, Nick (Jay Duplass), the two are revealed to be such polar opposites that it's no surprise to learn that Conrad was adopted: Big, blond, shaggy, unemployed Conrad is laidback but radiates an air of outlaw unpredictability, while dark, slight Nick, a successful lawyer, is buttoned down from his shirt to his emotions. The shock is in learning that Conrad's adoptive father and brother were relentlessly critical of him, denying him the love they shared with each other.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

SXSW 2015: Twinsters and Moonwalkers

Like a mirror reflecting the effervescence and empathy of its young subjects, Samantha Futerman and Anaïs Bordier (they're 25 as the story unfolds), Twinsters is a charming, energizing, and sometimes moving meditation on what it means to be a family. Both born in Korea and adopted by families in the West (Samantha by Americans in New Jersey and Anaïs by a French couple in Paris), the two learn of each other's existence after a friend of Anaïs's alerts her to a YouTube video starring an actress who looks eerily like her. The two start texting each other, forging an instant connection that grows exponentially as they move on to Skype, then in-person visits. Getting genetically tested to find out if they're identical twins and comparing notes on everything from the very different ways they experienced getting adopted into a foreign culture to whether or not they like cooked carrots, these two openhearted young women form an insoluble bond.

As soon as Samantha realized the significance of what appeared to be happening, she enlisted some filmmaker friends—including Twinsters co-director Ryan Miyamoto—to help her document it. The small crew blended easily into the scenes they were filming, their embedded, fly-on-the-wall style giving an emotional transparency to the footage they shot of Samantha at home, and of milestones like her first trip to visit Anaïs in Paris, Anaïs's first trip to L.A., and the two young women's joint journey to a conference for Korean adoptees in Seoul, where Anaïs found a loving antidote to the sorrow of believing she had been an unloved and unwanted infant. Editor Jeff Consiglio had hours of video footage as well as mountains of text messages and other online exchanges to sift through, and he chose well: Twinsters won the SXSW 2015 Special Jury Recognition for Editing.

By telling the story largely through excerpts of their Skype sessions and snippets of Samantha and Anaïs's WhatsApp text messages, which are presented on screen inside the same kind of bubbles and with the same distinctive “pop” with which they originally showed up on cellphone or laptop screens, Twinsters captures the emotions the two felt as they got to know each other, a giddy intensity that feels almost like falling in love. It also “gave [the film] a drive, because their messages to each other are so urgent,” as Consiglio put it in the Q&A after one SXSW screening. When more insight is needed into their feelings, one of the two often addresses the camera, discussing how she feels about a particularly joyful or difficult situation.

The unusual facts of Samantha and Anaïs's infancy—having first been separated, then internationally adopted—gives each a rare perspective on what family is and why it matters. They share those perspectives with generosity and honesty as we watch their families expand, eventually including not just both sets of adoptive parents and Samantha's brothers (Anaïs grew up without siblings), but their Korean foster mothers. It's a testament to human adaptability and the power of our need to, as EM Foster put it, “only connect.”

Inherent Vice lite, Antoine Bardou-Jacquet's Moonwalkers is a loose-limbed tour of the '70s that plays with facts like a kid playing with a helium balloon, but nails the look and feel of the era, its shaggy-dog plot making room for some plangently quirky characters and relationships. Johnny (Rupert Grint), a hapless would-be entrepreneur who's failing miserably as the manager of a rock band, is the McGuffin who gets the story going, but the standouts here are Tom Kidman (Ron Perlman), an aging Vietnam vet turned CIA agent plagued by flashbacks and PTSD, and Johnny's sweet roommate Leon (Robert Sheehan), a long-lashed innocent who floats through the film, too stoned to have any agenda of his own and fitting amiably into whatever outrageous scenarios the people around him may cook up. The three wind up in cahoots with a filmmaker whose lack of talent is matched only by his boundless self-confidence and a studio full of artsy misfits, on a mission to make a movie of a moon landing that NASA can show if the real mission fails.

The tone of the movie is generally comic, but a dark thread of violence and official corruption runs through it. The movie studio, which is located in a grand old mansion that's been decorated and lit like a psychedelic opium den, is a hippie nirvana, a place where people get high, hang out, hook up, and indulge their creative fantasies, dressing up or undressing to perform without a hint of self-consciousness. But reality has a way of intruding, whether in the form of the armed gangsters and CIA agents who wind up in a shootout or the charred corpses of soldiers and Vietnamese civilians that Kidman's tormented brain keeps conjuring up to stand quietly in the background as worms wiggle in their half-open skulls. As a result, what starts out feeling like a mere frolic winds up more like a picnic in the dark woods of the American subconscious.

Written for The House Next Door

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

SXSW 2015: Spy

The inclusivity of this Melissa McCarthy showcase leaves plenty of room for the rest of the cast to stretch their comedic legs. And judging by the results, Hollywood has been doing to Miranda Hart, Jason Statham, and Jude Law pretty much what the CIA is doing to McCarthy's Agent Susan Cooper when Spy begins: typecasting them and seriously underutilizing their talents. Law is gleefully narcissistic as the slick, self-loving Bradley Fine, a cool guy prone to Bond-like moves like leaping into view onscreen from the branches of a tree. Statham subverts his own image, turning up his usual scowling intensity just enough to tip over into comic petulance as a macho agent with a dangerously short fuse who tells increasingly impossible tales about the hardships he's endured on the job, like claiming that one of his arms was ripped off and he sewed it back on with the other. And as Susan's loyal friend and fellow agent, Linda, Hart radiates a slightly goofy sincerity and unstinting enthusiasm that makes her character laughable yet enormously likable.

Monday, March 16, 2015

SXSW 2015: Frame by Frame

It's so easy to take images for granted in our media-saturated, selfie-happy culture, but that's a luxury the subjects of Frame by Frame can't indulge in. This documentary explores what it means to the people of Afghanistan to have been forbidden by the Taliban to take or own photographs by following four documentary photographers who live and work in Kabul. Though there's been, as one of the photographers says, a "photography revolution" in Afghanistan since the Taliban were driven from power, it's still a new and fragile art form with very few professional practitioners. As a result, these photogs—Massoud Hossaini, Farzana Wahidy, Najibullah Musafer, and Wakil Kohsar—know each other well; in fact, Moussad and Farzana are married. They're united by their sense of mission—convinced that, as Najibullah puts it, a nation without images of itself "does not have an identity at all," and that it's their responsibility to help create an accurate visual record of their beloved, beleaguered country.

Dog Lady

We don't learn a thing about the title character of Dog Lady—not even her name—except what we can glean by watching her move silently through her world. But that tells us a lot, revealing a resourceful, unflappable and observant woman who's the undisputed alpha of the pack of dogs she lives with.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

SXSW 2015: Manglehorn and Fresno

In David Gordon Green's Manglehorn, Al Pacino turns in his third performance of the last year as a man in the grips of a post-midlife crisis. This time he's Angelo Manglehorn, a locksmith whose obsession with a lost love is preventing him from fully inhabiting his own life. Dreamily kind for the most part, but given to fits of furniture-hurling rage and truth-telling so blunt it borders on sadism, Manglehorn drifts through his own life, observing the often quirky people around him as if from a great, sad distance. In one emblematic scene, he happens upon a multiple-car pileup and strides down the line of automobiles as the slow-motion, blurred sound, and the bright red watermelon guts strewn over the cars (one of the vehicles was carrying a load of melons) give the whole thing a surrealistic vibe. His house looks depressed too: dimly lit and all dark, metallic colors, even the wood paneling tinted a faint, sickly green. His only hope of connection with another living being, aside from his beloved cat, appears to be Dawn (Holly Hunter), a demure bank teller with whom he plays out a painfully awkward, lurching courtship.

Danny Collins

We meet Al Pacino's Danny Collins after a tantalizing glimpse of the promising but petrified young singer as played by Eric Michael Roy, looking and sounding uncannily like the young Pacino, whose tortured-soul realism was Method acting at its most electric. Cut to the older Collins, a perpetually smashed, paunchy sellout dabbing on the spray tan before heading on stage to deliver yet another canned concert. It's a jarring juxtaposition, since Danny's expertly faked enthusiasm and outsized gestures evoke Pacino's jarringly jazzed-up speeches in big-budget hokum like Gigli, S1m0ne, Devil's Advocate, and Scent of a Woman. But the show Danny puts on for his geriatric fans is only one small piece of a beautifully modulated, gently bemused performance by the actor, who just might be identifying with his character's thirst to regain the artistic purity and passion of his youth.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

True to its title, Marielle Heller's adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner's semi-autobiographical novel has the loosely structured, unfiltered feel of a young person's diary. The film cleaves to 15-year-old Minnie (Bel Powley) in mid-'70s San Francisco as she lurches toward self-knowledge, careening from tearful insecurity to defiant self-assertion to ecstatic experimentation. Her voiceover narration and Powley's impassioned, emotionally naked performance capture the way things can feel simultaneously terrifying and thrilling at that age, as well as the way new experiences can make someone—especially someone young—feel like a whole new person.

Friday, March 13, 2015

100 Words On ... Listen to Me Marlon

This absorbing documentary about a massively talented and tormented artist is based on private audio recordings Brando made for himself, publicly released here for the first time. It illuminates Brando’s complicated relationship to his chosen career—his initial delight in acting, the contempt he developed for showbiz that curdled that joy, and his hard-won respect for his craft—as well as his passion for civil rights, hatred of American imperialism, powerful charisma, playful sexuality, and wretched parenting skills. The bulk of the footage is unfamiliar, like the scenes of Brando at home on Tahiti or rehearsing with Bertolucci for Last Tango in Paris. Marvelous excerpts from the lectures of his teacher Stella Adler present acting as a way to develop self-awareness, self-control, and, perhaps most importantly, self-acceptance.

Written for The L Magazine

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Accidental Love

When Alice (Jessica Biel), a naïve young waitress in a small town in Indiana, is shot in the head by a nail gun, her life is upended. Her personality changes in ways that—typical of this tone-deaf film—are supposed to be funny but aren’t, at least not as they’re played out here. Uninsured and unable to afford surgery, she spots a young Congressman, Howard Birdwell (Jake Gyllenhaal) on TV and decides he can provide her and her friends with healthcare coverage. In a trek that’s part Wizard of Oz, part Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, she heads to DC with an unlikely posse: Tracy Morgan, as a man with a prolapsed anus, and Kurt Fuller, as a reverend with a boner pill-induced erection that just won’t quit. Har har.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Like its predecessor, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a charming example of what great actors can do with mediocre material. The film unfolds, like a landlocked episode of The Love Boat, by cutting between parallel storylines. Most of these involve sex—never shown, but clearly implied—or romance between two elegantly dressed, immaculately coiffed seniors. The audience also follows wide-eyed young Sonny (Dev Patel) and wise-owl Muriel (Maggie Smith), the co-owners of the Indian hotel turned active adult-retirement community of the title, as they work to line up a loan to expand into a second hotel. Meanwhile, Sonny prepares to marry his improbably hot fiancée, Suneina (Tena Desae), nearly blowing the whole thing by paying too little attention to her and too much to his hotel.

Merchants of Doubt

An issues documentary that scores its points through a seductive combination of clearly stated arguments and pithy humor, Merchants of Doubt diagrams the methods corporations use to stop or stall political action on things that would be good for public health, but bad for their bottom lines. Most of the film's running time is devoted to the decades-long campaign, funded by big oil companies, to stall political action on climate change by casting doubt on the scientific consensus that it's a serious problem caused mainly by human actions. But some of its most fascinating detective work is devoted to piecing together the playbook used by climate-change denialists and other disinformation campaigns that was developed by big tobacco companies to bury or discredit scientific evidence that smoking is unhealthy.