MISUNDERSTOOD

Opens tomorrow at NYFF ’14. Review coming soon.

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ADVANCED STYLE

Opens today in NYC. Review coming soon.

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THE BOX TROLLS

eggsReview of The Boxtrolls by Associate Editor Brigid K. Presecky

The Boxtrolls is the intricately animated adventure of a young boy raised by a group of box-clothed creatures in a dystopian, Gothic, and whimsical world. Although marketed to young children, this animated film is more for the world of Tim Burton lovers than any bubbly, colorful world expected from Pixar.

From the creators behind Coraline and Paranorman, the film is about a boy known for the box he’s always worn, “Eggs” (Isaac Hempstead Wright) who makes joyous music and lives underground in a fantastical world of gadgets and gismos – or so the posters and promotional material lead you to believe. The film is mostly the story of the terrifying, cross-dressing villain “Archibald Snatcher” (Ben Kingsley) whose only mission in life is get into White Hat Club of four, an elite group of men who sit around in a mansion and eat fancy cheese. Pathetically desperate Archibald tells the White Hat Club that Boxtrolls around town have kidnapped and eaten babies and makes a deal that if he (and his posse) kills every Boxtroll in Cheesebridge, he will have earned a white hat. The animation of Archibald himself could be a little upsetting for a teeny child, let alone the metaphors about genocide, government, and the class wars extremely evident to any adult viewer. Archibald and his three minions (anything but the adorable and loveable minions in the Despicable Me franchise) hunt the Boxtrolls for years. After being found, beaten, and kicked, the Boxtrolls are taken to Snatcher’s mysterious work camp where Eggs’ biological father has been hanging upside down for a decade.

Since Eggs was raised in the underground world of the Boxtrolls, he doesn’t realize he’s human until he befriends a snarky, independent redhead named “Winnie,” (Elle Fanning) the ignored daughter of the White Hat Club’s leader. The budding friendship of Eggs and Winnie grants a seldom bit of fun and light in an otherwise dark film. Winnie shows Eggs how humans behave above ground, showing him how to act at a party, shake a hand, and dance in fluid motion. Unfortunately, those adorable, heartwarming moments do not last nearly long enough. From there, the too-long film shows the ultimate rise of Archibald Snatcher as he attempts to kill each and every Boxtroll, eventually dangling scrawny Eggs above blazing fire. All because of what? A white hat? Honestly, I was too lazy to pick out each and every metaphor about our chaotic world, especially when Nightly News anchor Brian Williams informs me of the mess every night before dinner.

The animation was spectacular. The vivid, 3D picture and attention to every detail in the world of Cheesebridge was spectacularly well done. You can see how much work went into making this film and taking everything in was one of the most fun parts. But fun in The Boxtrolls was too rare. In an age when Frozen is played and replayed (and replayed again), I can’t imagine too many kids replaying this one. It was a film made for adults, but so wrongly marketed to children.

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Review © Brigid K. Presecky (9/30/14)

Top Photo: Isaac Hempstead Wright as “Eggs” in his underground Boxtroll world

Bottom Photo: Isaac Hempstead Wright as “Eggs” and Elle Fanning as “Winnie” as they escape the wrath of Archibald Snatcher

Q: Does The Boxtrolls pass the Bechdel Test?

No. But I will say the only female character, Winnie, was the best part of the entire film. She was brass, adventurous, and funny (When Eggs asked her to point in the direction of “Curds Way” she looks up at the street sign and says, “Milk turns into it.”) Her scenes were the only points in the movie where I genuinely laughed out loud. Her royal, picture-perfect mother is shown briefly, but the real hero in The Boxtrolls was pudgy, theatrical Winnie.

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THE LITTLE BEDROOM

Opens today in NYC. Review coming soon.

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THIS AIN’T NO MOUSE MUSIC

ChrisNowFabulous doc about Chris Strachwitz–the founder of Arhoolie Records–and his passionate love for American Roots Music.

Combines classic performance footage with great interviews plus snippets of youngsters bringing these old traditions to new generations.

FYI, co-director Chris Simon is the widow of Les Blank (to whom film is dedicated) & this helps account for the great access Chris & her co-director Maureen Gosling had along the way. (JLH: 4/5)

Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku.

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Joyous documentary celebrates the life of Chris Strachwitz. Strachwitz was born in Silesia in 1931 when it was still part of Germany. At the end of WWII, he emigrated to the USA–something he could do because he had American relatives–thus escaping just before Silesia became part of Iron Curtain Poland. I don’t mean to inject too much psychology into a life well lived, but perhaps his embrace of “Authentic Americana” can be traced in part to his feeling of personal salvation?

Whatever! Strachwitz came of age in Eisenhower America, but without the prejudices of the time. As he tells it, he really didn’t understand why he couldn’t enter a restaurant and eat at the same table with his musicians when they traveled in the Rural South. But his musicians accepted it so he accepted it. His goal was to bring their music to the world and he did. BigMamaLP

Along with Alan Lomax (who died in 2002), Strachwitz is now universally recognized as one of people who preserved “Roots Music.” We all owe them a great debt; without Lomax and Strachwitz, many of our greatest American cultural treasures might well have been lost forever.

To tell their story co-directors Maureen Gosling and Chris Simon meld their interviews with Strachwitz (= first person) with terrific interviews about Strachwitz (= third person) from the likes of well-known “talking heads” including Ry CooderTaj MahalBonnie Raitt, Michael Doucet of BeauSoleil, and Davia Nelson of NPR’s Kitchen Sisters.

Punctuating the chatter–fabulous as it is–are innumerable musical sequences with stars long gone as well as snippets of young performers who are bringing these old traditions to new generations. The on screen musical sequences include Bluegrass/Hillbilly Grooves, Cajun/Zydeco Grooves, Delta Blues/R&B Grooves, and Tex-Mex/Tejano Grooves. In the interview segments, Strachwitz also mentions Klezmer, Greek, and Gypsy music. As the founder of Arhoolie Records, Strachwitz was in a race against time to collect as much as he could. BRAVO!

I was a huge fan of the HBO series Treme and I cried real tears the night I watched HBO’s final episode. This Ain’t No Mouse Music provides some consolation to Treme fans like me. American Roots Music has a life of its own, and because of visionaries like Chris Strachwitz it will live on long after all of us are gone.

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Top Photo: Chris Strachwitz just knows great music when he hears it!

Middle Photo: Big Mama Thornton! Ya gotta love her!

Bottom Photo: Chris started his odyssey by going to Texas in 1964 to search for Mance Lipscomb.

Photo Credits: Sage Blossom Productions

Q: Does This Ain’t No Mouse Music pass the Bechdel Test? DigitalStampA

Often a hard question in the case of documentaries, but in this case I am going to say yes. Me, I don’t think two male directors would have used so many female voices in their final cut.

Just sayin’…

 

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20,000 DAYS ON EARTH

Opens tomorrow in NYC. Review coming soon.

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ART & CRAFT

markstudiesAt a pivotal point in the film Lawrence of Arabia, which even after all these years continues to be my all time favorite film, there’s a conversation between two people. One is Jackson Bentley, a journalist modeled on Lowell Thomas, and the other Mr. Dryden, a diplomat played by Claude Rains. Bentley is trying to find out what’s going on behind closed doors between T.E. Lawrence and General Allenby and Mr. Dryden delivers the fabulously astute line, “Inevitably one of them is half mad and the other holy unscrupulous.” Well, for me, that line seemed to sum up the bizarre film Art and Craft. (JLH: 3/5)

Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku.

The documentary film by Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman centers on two men, unscrupulous Mark Landis and half-mad Matthew Leininger. Landis is a mentally disabled art forger who spent time in The Menninger Clinic and seems to have lived most his life under the wing of a very protective and devoted single-minded mother. Mark has enough money to do what he wants to do – create copies of minor art works and “donate” them as a “philanthropist” to art museums. The bulk of the documentary travels with Mark Landis to all different places, mostly regional art museums in small cities in the South and sometimes as far afield as Cincinnati. The people at the regional museums he attends are neither interested, nor really qualified, in digging into the details of what he’s doing and take his copies on faith.

Mark’s process of copying the paintings begins in his room with the romantic, noir Turner Classic Movies channel playing in the background as he copies paintings stroke for stroke. Using cheap frames from a big box store, he pours coffee over them to make them appear older and finishes them off by creating a faux identification of provenance for the painting. With a forged certificate from Christie’s or Sotheby saying it’s an original work of art, he visits museums claiming a deceased relative has donated the painting to the institution. Almost unbelievably, Mark’s continues his charade for quite sometime. Having seen and read about art forgeries and replications, and it doesn’t seem like it should take fine analysis is necessary to discern that a frame has been artificially aged by coffee. The people at the A chemical analysis should be able to reveal the coffee quickly, so it’s difficult to understand how people were so blindly receptive to his “donations.”

Mark Landis successfully gets away with his forgeries for quite a while when he runs into Matthew Leininger at the Cincinnati Museum of Art. When Matthew is on staff and becomes convinced that a donation is a fake, he starts looking into Mark Landis and the other donations he’s made. Matthew turns up a trail of fakes and the multiple copies of paintings Mark Landis has donated, claiming they are originals.

The documentary cuts back and forth between Mark Landis’ travels and Matthew Leininger’s obsession with tracking him. It was incredibly sad and pathetic thing to watch the true victim, Matthew Leininger, let his obsession with Mark Landis take a hold of him. While Landis is turning into some kind of cult hero, Matthew Leininger is detroying his own career.

Although Landis is not technically committing fraud because money is not exchanged, the queas-inducing film giving me a feeling of vertigo. Mark Landis is making donations and the museums are accepting them, paying insurance on material they don’t really own, and valuing things aren’t valuable. It would be infuriating to be Christie’s, Sotheby, or the other places whose documentation had been fabricated, but instead, Mark Landis is seen as admirable. The person I really felt sorry for was Matthew Leininger, a man trying to do the right thing who got caught up in the bizarre cultural love affair with a crazy little man. Although some see Landis as harmless, he’s not – he’s doing damage. Richard and I both agreed that it wasn’t a very good movie because it was much too in love with the “hero” who should really be institutionalized.

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Review © Jan Lisa Huttner (9/30/14)

Top & Bottom Photos: Mark Landis with his forged paintings

Q#1: Does Art and Craft pass the Bechdel Test?

No, it does not past the Bechdel Test. They are very few women in this film. A couple of people at the museums are women, but they never talk to each other. It’s all conversations. Either 90 percent of the conversations or 90 percent of the dialogue is Mark Landis’ dialogue and another 10 percent of the dialogue is Matthew Leininger dialogue. There’s a very poignant conversation when Leininger and Landis finally meet because this museum actually does an exhibit of the work of Mark Landis. Leininger is invited to come and, strangely, they finally meet. So here’s Mark Landis who’s the star of the day and here’s Matthew Leininger on the sidelines as kind of a hanger on and, to me, he was the hero of the film.

Richard and I were at the Angelika Film Center on Friday night when the film premiered in New York and we saw Jennifer Grausman and Sam Cullman with Mark Landis standing between them. He’s a tiny little man with a very soft voice who was urged to pull the microphone closer to his mouth, but would let it slip down again while talking in bizarre reverie. Nobody could hear him in the back because the screening room at the Angelika is very long, thin, and narrow. I’m sure they couldn’t hear a thing except the people in the front laughing. I kept saying to myself, “What are they laughing about?” Here’s this guy, Mark Landis, who’s obviously ill and unscrupulous and yet he’s now being turned into this little cult figure who’s the subject of this documentary film that did not reveal much of anything.

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BRUSH WITH DANGER

AliceFighterFilled with youthful energy and enthusiasm, Brush with Danger is more enjoyable as a milestone in the development of its creator than for its current reality. A national karate champion, Livi Zheng not only stars, she produced, directed, and co-wrote the screenplay with her brother Ken as her co-star and writing partner. You Go, Girl! (JLH: 3.5/5) Not yet seen by Rich.

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Brush with Danger is the kind of film that starts a war between my head and my heart. My head says Brush with Danger is pretty primitive stuff and most of it is barely watchable. But my heart says Brush with Danger is filled with youthful energy and enthusiasm, and one day Livi Zheng might just be a filmmaker of renown.

(I found my way to Near Dark long after Kathryn Bigelow was already a major director, but signs of her potential were already evident in Near Dark as they are here.)

Livi Zheng created Brush with Danger in collaboration with her younger brother Ken Zheng. Livi produced, directed, and co-wrote the screenplay with Ken as her co-star and writing partner.

Brush with Danger begins with a gorgeously lit scene of a seemingly peaceful Seattle construction site. As soon as it is dark, however, two goons appear to break the locks on a shipping container. Out pour about two dozen Chinese migrants including an old man and several children. How long have they been in there? I shudder to think!

They try to scatter as fast as they can, but human vultures swoop down on the tiny group, attempting to steal some of the few meager possessions they have carried with them. When one young woman is assaulted, “Ken” (Ken Zheng) rushes to the rescue, with his older sister “Alice” (Livi Zheng) right behind him. Ken and Alice are skilled in martial arts, and they chase the perp away. Then Alice hears police whistles…

Dirty and scruffy, with no food or water, Alice and Ken seek refuge on the streets of Seattle. Then a surprising new plot element surfaces: Alice may be able to kick, punch, and fly through the air, but her real love is painting. And she is especially adept at copying Western art works because, she explains, people in China would rather have imitation masterpieces than indigenous originals. And this is how Alice and Ken come to find themselves living in a mansion owned by a prominent art dealer…

OK, the plot is totally preposterous. And yet, Livi and Ken Zheng are both very charismatic on screen. Keep watching, and they come to embody the best of America’s Immigrant ethos. They are hard working, sincere, and obviously very talented. Believe in them half as much as they believe in us, and one day they will both be upstanding, tax-paying contributors to their adopted homeland.

When I went in to see Brush with Danger I knew nothing. When I came out, I did some background research. Turns out Livi Zheng was born in Indonesia and began her career as a stunt woman at age 15. First she moved to Beijing, then she moved to the USA when she was 18 to study at Washington State University. During her college years, Livi became widely known as a national karate champion. At age 19, brother Ken, who followed Livi to the USA, is now an internationally ranked martial artist in his own right.

Remember the name Livi Zheng. She is destined for success and when she becomes a “sudden sensation,” I’ll be here to say I told you so!

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Top Photo: Alice and Ken on the streets of Seattle.

Bottom Photo: Alice at work in the home of her patron.

Photo Credits: Sun and Moon Films

Q: Does Brush with Danger pass the Bechdel Test?

Not really. There is one kindly female character who takes Alice and Ken under her wing after they fight off the guy who tries to snatch per purse…

But except for the private scenes Alice and Ken have with one another when they are alone, “conversations” are rare in Brush with Danger.

 

 

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FORT BLISS

Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 3.12.45 PM(JLH: 3/5) Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku.

Fort Bliss, a new film written and directed by Claudia Myers, tells the typical story of a female soldier returning from Afghanistan. In the very first scene of Fort Bliss, we see “Maggie Swann” (Michelle Monaghan) in a Helmand province, riding down a road with a number of other soldiers and when a there’s a huge explosion right in front of her. In an intense sequence, medic Maggie tends to an injured soldier, using extreme measures under dangerous circumstances with tremendous cool and competence. We don’t know whether the soldier lives or dies because it’s toward the end of her deployment, with the officer in command saluting Maggie saying, “You really did a great job. If he lives, it will be because you saved him.” We’re to gather that Maggie is an incredibly competent person, cool under fire with the ability to focus and do an excellent job.

The next scene shows Maggie back at Fort Bliss in Texas. When she and other soldiers arrive at the El Paso airport, all the wives and the kids are there with balloons and flowers, running up to their husbands, kissing them, and throwing their arms around them. While all the little children jump up into the arms of their daddies, there’s Maggie by herself looking around and not finding anybody there for her. She walks out of the waiting room and sees her ex-husband “Richard” (Ron Livingston) comes up to her without their son. She says, “Where’s the kid?” to which Richard replies, “He didn’t want to come.” When Maggie argues that it shouldn’t have been his choice, Richard tells her that she’s been gone for a third of his life and he doesn’t remember who she is.

They go back to Richard’s house where his new, young and pregnant wife “Alma” (Emmanuelle Chriqui, who was very good in Cadillac Records) is trying to do the right thing. She’s trying to raise Richard’s son without taking on the full role of a mother, leaving space for Maggie to come back and have a relationship with him. From the son’s point of view, he’s lived with his father’s new wife for more than a year. He has been part of this family and does not want to go off with Maggie, but she insists and takes him to her apartment. It starts off with this very rough reentry of Maggie back into her life in Texas, but unlike the Linda Cardellini film Return where she’s coming off the reserves and is supposed to be going back into a civilian life, Maggie is still in the military. She’s still expected to serve as a staff sergeant, training the soldiers in her Fort Bliss unit for the next deployment. Although she’s not supposed to have another deployment for a lengthy period of time, that changes and she finds out midway through that she’s going to be redeployed in 60 days. What does she do about leaving her son who’s finally come around to getting attached to her again?

Oh, what do I say, folks? It’s another situation where I really, really wanted to like this movie. It had all the elements, but somehow when I was watching Return, the combination of the way the story was done and the way Linda Cardellini played the main role, it was from the inside and out and I really believed in her and empathized with her plight and felt her pain. But in Fort Bliss, it seemed to be the opposite way. It seemed to be from the outside in, meaning it was almost as if Claudia Myers had spent a year reading everything she could about soldiers coming back from Iraq/Afghanistan and put together a check list of all the typical things a returning female soldier encounters. Each scene seemed to come off a checklist – we have to have this, we have to have that, we have to have the sexual abuse, the scene father who’s also a vet, and the son acting out.

Michelle Monaghan is very good as Maggie, the center of the film, but every single man in the film was two-dimensional. It seemed like they all came out of boxes, even good actors like Ron Livingston who wasn’t believable or made into a three dimensional character. It’s alluded that he has a drinking problem and a nothing job, so why was she married to him in the first place? You never really believe him or get much sense of him as a character. John Savage plays the father, who of course was in the Deer Hunter, so there’s some Vietnam residence of him having been in that film. The wheelchair-bound father only has one scene on the phone with his daughter and never becomes a real character. Then Maggie has a love object played by Manolo Cardona, falling in love with some guy who she has a meet cute with while getting her car repaired. He’s this perfect guy who just happens be there, ready to repair her car, single, and as handsome as could be. Again, he was again not believable. I mean what’s this gorgeous hunk just sitting waiting in this service station for her to just tootle by some day with her broken car?

I really wanted to like it, but I felt manipulated, like it was a checklist movie that was outside in and not inside out. It had good intentions and good acting; I wanted to be moved and I was by the end. But everything in the middle…

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Review © Jan Lisa Huttner (9/26/14)

Photo: Michelle Monaghan as U.S. soldier “Maggie Swann”

Q: Does Fort Bliss pass the Bechdel Test?

It does not pass the Bechdel Test. She never talks to another women. Of course the ex-husband’s wife is there, but they never have a real conversation. She doesn’t seem to have a girlfriend, mother, or sister – it’s all checklist conversations with her father, ex-husband, boyfriend, son, military buddy, and her comrade with the guy she has the sexual issues with. So it’s one-on-one-on-one-on-one-on-one scenes of Maggie with these different men and there’s not another women in her entire world, which now that I think about it is also completely unbelievable.

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HECTOR & THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS

Opens tomorrow in NYC. Review coming soon.

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