At the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, INDY Week contributor Ashley Melzer spoke to several filmmakers and one festival-goer about the line between bearing witness and exploitation.
INDY Week contributor Ashley Melzer asked several filmmakers attending the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival what makes documentaries special.
Jurassic Park 3D
Opens Friday (see times below)
If ever there were a film that justified a re-release in 3D format, it's Steven Spielberg's dinosaurs-run-amok blockbuster Jurassic Park. In both its visual style and its pulpy adventure spirit, Jurassic Park was pretty much 3D already when it hit theaters 20 years ago.
The good news is that the 3D effects in the new edition of Jurassic Park, screening locally in select IMAX theaters as well, are used with evident care and restraint. There's none of the goofy zoom-into-your-lap nonsense, and no George-Lucas-style overhauls of classic scenes.
The even better news is that the 3D effects genuinely enhance the thrill-ride storytelling techniques which made the movie so popular in the first place. Watching this movie again after (I don't even want to say it) two decades, I was cheered mightily by the experience. Jurassic Park remains a pretty much bulletproof piece of popular entertainment.
Everyone knows the story, right? An eccentric billionaire uses DNA technology to create a tourist island theme park of actual free-range dinosaurs. They get loose. Sam Neill, Laura Dern and two cute kids run like hell.
Those set-piece spectacles we remember so well are presented once again for our consideration. The T. rex attack on the stranded Jeeps remains the film's most iconic sequence, and the 3D makeover gives the images new texture and thrust. Blown back up to proper big screen proportions, after years of rattling sadly through the television, the scene is restored to its original glory. And the sound! When the T. rex roars, you can feel it in your ribcage and your brainstem. It's like some atavistic predator danger switch gets thrown.
The calmer dialogue scenes are punched up in 3D as well, subtly for the most part. Occasionally you get that strange terrarium effect, where foreground figures pop from the frame, and that can be distracting. But other sequences seem designed from the ground up for 3D. The velociraptor kitchen attack, with those long stainless steel counters, is nicely enhanced by selective 3D flourishes. Jurassic Park 3D does not look, sound or feel like a 20-year-old movie. The original creature designs and special effects, only slightly tweaked for 3D, hold up very well indeed.
For the thrills and the effects to really land, you need a sturdy story and characters to care about. I'd forgotten — or more likely never even registered — just how effortlessly Spielberg doles out the goods. In regard to all the weird science, Jurassic Park simply sets up its premise, then plays fair by its own rules. You get the precise amount of information you need to accept what's happening. The characters are sharply drawn and the relationships are clearly established. Spielberg's ever-present emotional themes are threaded throughout — innocence in peril, wonder and awe, reluctant fathers, abandoned kids.
Here's a testimonial for you: I brought my 9-year-old boy to Jurassic Park 3D and he completely flipped out over it. I know he's seen special effects on par with what's onscreen here, but he's never been put through the old Spielberg sentiment machine at the same time.
Behold the mysterious knuckleball.
Unlike baseball's other pitches — the fastball, the curve, the slider — the knuckleball does not rely on spin and velocity to defeat hitters at the plate. Instead, the knuckleball floats in at a slacker's pace (60-70 mph, usually, as opposed to the fastball's 90 mph range) and ideally doesn't spin at all. That lack of spin causes interesting things to happen to the air currents around the ball as it travels to the plate. It swerves and dips, flutters and dives.
The new documentary Knuckleball, new to DVD and digital this week, is a fascinating film for even casual fans of America's pastime. Veteran documentarians Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work) explore the history of baseball's weirdest pitch by profiling MLB knuckleballers Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey during the 2011 baseball season. They also dig into baseball's past with former knuckleball masters Charlie Hough, Wilbur Wood, Jim Bouton, Tom Candiotti and Hall of Famer Phil Niekro.
Throwing an effective knuckleball in the big leagues is such a hard thing to do that, in the entire history of the game, only a few dozen players have ever made a living at it. With the retirement of Boston's Tim Wakefield after the 2011 season, the lone knuckleballer in baseball is R.A. Dickey, who won last year's Cy Young award with the Mets. Dickey is the first knuckleballer ever to earn that prestigious honor. His reward? Getting traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in the offseason. The guys will tell you, knuckleballers get no respect.
Dickey is the film's strongest and most charismatic presence — an articulate, unassuming guy who has evident respect for history and culture of baseball. His story is especially compelling, as he transforms himself from a washed-up traditional pitcher into the game's last remaining Jedi master of the knuckleball. He's like Yoda now, out there in the Dagobah swamps of Toronto.
The DVD edition of Knuckleball comes with two hours of bonus materials, including additional and extended interviews, plus featurettes on famous knuckleball moments in baseball history. You also get more details on the weird science behind the pitch. If you're interested in mining this extra material, be aware that you may not get all of it, or even any of it, via the usual digital download and video-on-demand systems. Read the fine print.
Also New This Week:
Paul Giamatti headlines the surreal horror-comedy John Dies at the End, from the director of Phantasm, The Beastmaster and the enduring cult classic Bubba Ho-Tep.
Based on the 1970s British TV series, the UK action film The Sweeney stars Ray Winstone and Ben Drew as hardcase London cops squaring of against the usual lot of nefarious Eastern European gangsters.
Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman star in Hemingway & Gellhorn, the HBO original movie about the famous literary couple.
But the series—known as “mommy porn” by some—catapulted to fame thanks to the power of word-of-mouth and the thrill of the transgressive. For many readers, the tale of the sadomasochistic relationship between young Anastasia Steele and sexy millionaire Christian Grey was their first foray into smutty literature.
To date, the Fifty Shades series has sold more than 70 million copies worldwide, setting the record for the fastest-selling paperback of all time. (Yes, outpacing even Harry Potter—sex sells.) As is to be expected for any best-selling cultural phenomenon, there’s already a Fifty Shades of Grey movie in the works.
And now, thanks to efforts by members of Chicago-based improv company Baby Wants Candy, there’s even a musical based on the trilogy. 50 Shades! The Musical made its debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year, continued on to previews in Chicago and New York—and is now playing in Raleigh as the first stop on its national tour.
Johan "JW" Westlund, ace student at the Stockholm School of Economics, likes to take risks. A poor kid from the Swedish equivalent of Iowa, JW hobnobs with the capital city rich kids, pretending to a wealth he doesn't have and lying to everyone he knows. He's the Talented Mr. Ripley of the Stockholm jet set, and he's looking for a fast track to the big money.
Jorge is young Chilean drug-runner on the run from the cops and the Serbian mob. Recently escaped from prison, Jorge has aligned himself with an Arab crime syndicate and hopes to make that One Big Score by facilitating a huge cocaine delivery.
Mrado is an aging enforcer for the Serbian gang, tasked with bringing Jorge back to his ruthless employer. A weary but entirely competent veteran of Stockholm's criminal underworld, Mrado senses it's probably time to retire and is looking for a payout himself.
The fabulous Swedish import Easy Money (Snabba Cash) tells the story of these three men as their fates twist and collide in the brutal underbelly of Stockholm. It's a great movie — one of the best pure crime thrillers in recent years — and features a tense lead performance from Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman, from the AMC crime drama The Killing. That show, in turn, is based on the Danish TV series Forbrydelsen ("The Crime"). Toss in all the Stieg Larrson madness and this Scandanavian-American crime drama exchange is really paying dividends.
On the Road
Opens Friday (see times below)
It's said that God protects drunks, fools and little children. If so, He must have been working overtime during Jack Kerouac's prime rambling days, at least as depicted in On the Road, the new film adaptation of Kerouac's most famous book.
A scattered but earnest transposition of the novel, On the Road stars British actor Sam Riley as Sal Paradise, our hero and Kerouac's literary alter ego. Garrett Hedlund (Tron) plays Sal's best friend Dean Moriarty — Neal Cassady in real life — the alpha libertine who spent his days drunk on life. And liquor. And pot and bennies and whatever else he could get his hands on.
For the first two-thirds of the film, Sal and Dean carom around with a rotating cast of beatnik acquaintances, drinking their way through jazz clubs and speakeasies and some truly alarming road trips. Those drunk driving sequences are particularly harrowing as the boys barrel across America in a two-ton Hudson.
Director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) uses this imagery quite deliberately, I think. It suggests the manner in which our protagonists recklessly endanger themselves and everyone around them in a headlong rush for kicks and glory. As the film proceeds, a growing sense of dread builds. Even Dean pauses at one point to let his gaze linger on an old wino in the train yard. This lifestyle isn't sustainable.
The fellas have some adventures and epiphanies along the way, to be sure. Sal spends a season as a field hand and enjoys a brief love affair with a migrant worker, played by the terrific Brazilian actress Alice Braga. (When is someone going to give her a leading role?) Dean gets married — a couple of times, actually. And their pal Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge, in the role based on Allen Ginsberg) finds time to write era-defining American poetry.
Kristen Stewart plays the fourth key member of the gang as Marylou, Dean's main squeeze. After so many years moping through those vampire movies, Stewart actually shows up for this film and carries many of its most emotionally loaded scenes. You can read in her eyes her hopeless love for Dean, and also the sad resignation that he will never, ever come through for her.
Dean is everyone's biggest problem, it seems — including the film's. The character of Dean Moriarty looms large in annals of American literature. In the book, he is a character of incandescent charisma, a holy maniac mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved and desirous of everything at the same time.
In the film, unfortunately, he is played by Garrett Hedlund, who looks and acts like a Hanes t-shirt model. Hedlund has one effective scene, near the end, when the inevitable downward spiral kicks in. But for the most part, Hedlund fails to provide the raw wattage that the role demands. It's really not his fault — this isn't a performance issue so much as a casting mistake.
Riley is all right as our narrator and protagonist, Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac. But wow, does that guy look like a young Leo DiCaprio. Viggo Mortensen puts in a playful turn as Bull Lee/William Burroughs, and Elisabeth Moss completely steals her scenes as a jilted bride forced to deal with all these beatnik hipster assholes.
All the movie's best scenes, fittingly, are on the road. Salles strings together a melancholy parade of dusty highways and interstate buses and railroad trestles. The interior scenes are all about either sex (everyone here gets naked, a lot) or, heaven help us, literature. I'm sorry, but no matter how august the company, watching drunk 20-somethings reading drunk 20-something poetry is excruciating.
On the Road ends nicely, with a bleary sequence in Mexico and a bitter little coda. It's a satisfying enough film, but there's a lingering feeling that it never quite manages what it's aiming for. As a long-anticipated film adaptation of a very famous book, On the Road could have been a little better. But it could have been a lot worse.
One of the more auspicious debuts in film history, the 1973 drama Badlands was director Terrence Malick's first project after film school. Loosely based on the real-life killing spree of Charles Starkweather in 1958, it stars Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as Kit and Holly, two young lovers on the lam in the badlands of the American West.
The Criterion Collection's reissue of Badlands, new to DVD and Blu-ray this week, packages the digitally restored film with several director-approved extras, including interviews with the editor and producer, and a lengthy new behind-the-scenes documentary with Sheen and Spacek. The infamously private Malick is conspicuously but typically absent.
Badlands is such a scary and beautiful film. There's a kind of deep focus running throughout, both visually and narratively. Malick composes grand images of vast prairies and burning sunsets, the camera absorbing all that physical space with a thousand-mile stare. And the storytelling is deep-focus in a meditative sense. There are but two main characters in this movie, and neither talks much. The young lovers are so disconnected from the waking world, so desensitized, that even Kit's regular spikes of sudden violence barely rouse them. Their heads are somewhere else.
The included documentary provides some interesting insights into Malick's vision. Art director Jack Fisk tells the best stories. For instance, Malick had originally planned to have the runaways hide in the wilderness in a rickety lean-to. But Fisk convinced the director to let him build a three-story treehouse out of branches — which Fisk managed in a single day. This change in production plans turns Kit and Holly's wilderness hideout into a spartan, idyllic retreat. The film's most lyrical passages take place here, with Kit and Holly dancing in the dust to a ghostly AM radio broadcast. Then the bounty hunters show up.
“Times have changed,” croons dazzling nightclub star Reno Sweeney in the title song of Anything Goes. “The world has gone mad today and good’s bad today.”
Maybe so, but the touring production of this Broadway revival shows that some good things have staying power. This comic tale of romance and madcap hijinks aboard a luxury liner originally opened on Broadway in 1934, starring the legendary Ethel Merman as Sweeney. Nearly 80 years later, Cole Porter’s delicious songs set against an updated book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman still add up to an escapist delight.
Do take the term “updated book” with a grain of salt. The show remains old-fashioned, featuring groan-worthy one-liners and a mostly nonsensical plot about Billy Crocker (Josh Franklin), a young financier who sneaks aboard a London-bound cruiser to pursue a lovely but betrothed debutante, Hope Harcourt (Alex Finke).
Also on board are Moonface Martin (Fred Applegate, who played The Producers’ Max Bialystock on Broadway), a charismatic gangster disguised as a priest; his tarty sidekick, Erma (Joyce Chittick); Hope’s very British and very wealthy fiancé, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (a hysterical Edward Staudenmayer); and the brassy, big-voiced evangelist-turned-showgirl Reno (a show-stealing Rachel York).
“I wanted to scream,” Byrne recalls when she received news of the agreement at the end of last week. “[My agent] was excited, everyone was so excited, and so pleased by the deal, which was considerable.”
Crown signed what Byrne characterized as a six-figure deal for the North American publication rights in a pre-emptive contract for the book, buying it before it went to auction with other publishers. As a result, she now joins a group whose roster of writers is capped by the likes of Rachel Maddow, Martha Stewart, George W. Bush and Michelle and Barack Obama.
The Girl in the Road, some 98,000 words long in manuscript form, traces the harrowing twin journeys of two women forced to flee their homes in different times in the near future. The first, Meena, is a Brahmin-caste student whose odyssey takes her from the coastal city of Mumbai toward Djibouti across a futuristic but treacherous bridge that spans the Arabian Sea. The second, Mariama, escapes from slavery as a small child in Mauritania, joining a caravan heading across Saharan Africa toward Ethiopia.
The novel took five years to write, Byrne says, and was completed during a research trip to Belize at the end of last year. Its purchase came three weeks after she acquired representation with the Frances Goldin Literary Agency, a New York firm specializing in literary fiction and politically oriented nonfiction. Its clients include Barbara Kingsolver, Adrienne Rich, Dorothy Allison and Mumia Abu-Jamal.
The development follows Byrne’s successes as a playwright on local stages over the last two years. After she appeared in productions of Fistful of Love and REDGHOST with Durham’s Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, artistic director Jay O’Berski directed Byrne’s dark comedy Nightwork for Manbites Dog Theater in 2011. Last April, Little Green Pig commissioned and produced What Every Girl Should Know, a speculative historical drama inspired by the work of Margaret Sanger. The company has commissioned a new work for their 2013—14 season. A subsequent drama, The Pentaeon, was selected for the 2012 Collider New Play Project, a collaboration between Fermilab and Fox Valley Repertory Theater in Illinois.
Byrne is currently at work on her second novel.