“Swan Song” Screening

The KCFCC is co-sponsoring a screening of director John D. Hancock’s work-in-progress, Swan Song, on January 30th at the Screenland Crown Center. Hancock has had a long career in film and television, but I just plan to talk to him about Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, one of my all-time favorite Friday Fright Night discoveries.

Anyway, go here for the full press release.

Rome: Day 4 – A Great Place to Wander Aimlessly…..Especially When You Lose Your Map

We covered a lot of ground on Saturday, including some we hadn’t planned on. Previously, Mom & I had gone to specific sites that were close together, so everything was easy to navigate. On this day, we visited several locations within walking distance of each other – but only via the twisting, poorly marked, random street layout of Rome.

It started off easy, with a visit to the crypts of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. From the outside, the church is pretty nondescript, but once you get inside, it’s among the strangest “tourist attractions” in the city. At some point in its history, the church’s Capuchin friars decided to start arranging the bones of their dead brethren into elaborate works of art. We weren’t allowed to take photos, but there are some online here, here & here.

Being our morbid selves, we assumed this would be dark and creepy, but it wasn’t. It was beautiful. There was something so peaceful and spiritual about it, we were both taken off guard. That was one of the more pleasant surprises of our trip.

From there, we got sidetracked by the shops as we headed toward Trevi Fountain. You have to go to Venice to see Murano glass items being made, but you can buy them cheap all over Rome (and we did). We also found lots of cool souvenirs and a woodcarver’s shop where you could watch a guy make little Pinocchio dolls. We bought one for my nephew, straight off the workbench.

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The fountain was just around the corner, and it’s another one of those remarkable, giant structures that just appears out of nowhere as you walk through Rome. It was crowded with tourists, but we were able to get near the water pretty quickly. We threw our coins in to guarantee a return visit, per tradition, then got out of the way so someone else could do the same. Then we just stared at it for a while.

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Who wouldn’t?

We walked down the very ritzy Via Veneto, with its expensive designer stores, to the Spanish Steps. Sitting on the steps is another odd little Italian tradition, and one of those things you just have to do (despite no one seeming to know why). As we headed away from the piazza, we stopped to listen to a street performer playing what appeared to be a modified steel drum. It definitely added to the ambiance of the place.

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Pictured: Everybody in Rome that weekend

 

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From there, we headed to the Piazza del Popolo, a crowded plaza with the usual bustle of activity.  Our real destination was the nearby Villa Borghese, home of the Villa Giulia, home of the National Etruscan Museum. We didn’t have time to take day trips to the Etruscan archeological sites north of the city, so this was the next best thing.

You have to be a huge history nerd to walk through an entire building full of Greek and Etruscan art, so…..hi, nice to meet you! Mom was interested, but I think she was also humoring me. We didn’t take photos, but the museum link above has some nice ones.

My favorite piece from the collection is this:

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It’s a scene from the “Seven Against Thebes” myth, and yes, that guy at the bottom is trying to eat the other guy’s brains. The figure on the far left, with the WTF?! expression, is Athena. Even the goddess of war thought this was a bit much, and she withdrew a previous offer of immortality from the cranium-muncher. Of all the crazy stuff depicted in Greco-Etruscan art, this may well be the most awesome.

By the time we left the museum, it was dark, and we realized we no longer had our street map. No telling where it ended up, but thankfully, there was a big “you are here” map nearby. Thanks to Mom’s human-compass sense of direction and my photographic memory, we were able to get to the right cross street.

We were also hungry, so we stopped at a little neighborhood pizza place, where the phrasebook Italian came in handy. In the touristy areas, most people speak at least a little English, but once you get into the “real” Rome, the locals’ English is about as good as my Italian. We managed to order, eat, and pay successfully, and I got (and understood!) directions to the nearby subway station.  I even got a “Brava!” from the lady at the counter when I understood her instructions for finding the restroom. That felt good.

So did finally getting home that night. And buying a new map.

Rome: Day 3 – A Short Trip to Another Country (Technically)

Friday was our day to visit the Vatican Museums, which entailed riding the subway. I’ve ridden the New York subway, and I can’t find my way around without the help of a local. Rome, on the other hand, has an incredibly easy system to navigate.  Its builders have had to dodge 3000 years’ worth of historical artifacts, yet still created something efficient and practical. What the hell is Kansas City’s excuse?

Anyway, the Vatican is in an actual, medieval walled city-state (although they don’t stamp your passport, darn it). Just sitting on a bench outside those walls was pretty remarkable for an American. It was also a fun opportunity for people-watching, especially when the illegal street vendors scramble for cover upon sighting a police car. Those guys can fold up their stuff and run fast – they’ll hide behind cars or dumpsters while the officers of the Guardia di Finanza park, look around, and drive away. Within a few minutes, the vendors have set back up, like nothing happened.  Considering how obnoxious those guys are – they practically shove their souvenirs into your hands, no matter how many times you say “NO” – I was unsympathetic, I’ll admit. At least the street beggars stay out of your face.

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Giant naked Greeks fighting serpents!

Once inside the museums, you quickly realize that maps and directions are useless. The place is a huge, crowded maze, and only about half the signs have English translations. The only thing you can’t miss is the Sistine Chapel, as signs pointing to La Cappella Sistina are all over the place (it’s basically the last stop). Until then, the best option is to just wander around, taking in as much of this breathtaking collection as possible.  We looked at enough ancient statues to 056make me happy, and seemed to find another beautiful painting or tapestry every time we turned a corner. They even let you take photos, which is unusual in museums (and churches), given the damage flash photography can do. It’s well-lit enough here that no one needed their flash, so that may explain why it was OK.

The Sistine Chapel is smaller and darker than I imagined, but once you 078adjust and look up, it hits you that Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” is right above your head. Then you notice how much detail covers every inch of the place, how some of the figures are so brilliantly designed, they seem to be climbing out of the walls and ceiling. Suddenly, size doesn’t matter.

We ventured out to a courtyard to rest, then realized we had no idea how to get out. Granted, there are worse places to be trapped, but we were tired and wanted to see St. Peter’s Square before we headed home. A nice security guard pointed us in the right direction, and we walked down the neat spiral staircase, out the main exit, and around the wall (past the Swiss Guards). We stood in the huge expanse of the Square, gazing at St. Peter’s Basilica……and at the ridiculous line to get in.  This may be one of the world’s great structures, full of art and history, but there was no way we were standing in that line. So we admired the outside, which was impressive in itself (did you know there’s a 4000-year-old Egyptian obelisk in the middle of the Square? You do now!).084

We hit up a couple of souvenir shops, knowing this would be the ultimate place to buy Christmas gifts for our Catholic friends. Pope Francis is really popular – there is “I ♥ Papa Francesco” stuff all over the place. We like him too, and there does seem to be a fairly upbeat spirit around the Vatican now. I don’t know what it was like before, but it’s hard to imagine this many smiling faces during Emperor Palpatine Pope Benedict’s rule.

Another train ride, another gelato stop, another noisy night in the neighborhood, and we were ready to tackle Day 4.

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Wheeee!

More photos if you click

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I’m Even More Quotable!

My colleague Michael D. Smith has an article at KC Metropolis about film criticism in our fair city.  I’m in it.  Here’s the link: http://kcmetropolis.org/issue/january-15-2014/article/film-criticism-alive-and-well-in-kc

The Critical List – 3 Movies that Got Shafted by the Academy (and 2 1/2 That Should Have)

I don’t generally get too upset about the Oscar nominations. It’s an industry award, so it’s more about film people recognizing their peers than it is about the absolute best of the year. There are also a limited number of slots in each category (something I wish they’d change for everything, like they did for Best Picture). It’s inevitable that some of the best films and performances will get left out, and 2013 is no exception. So, let’s just say I’m annoyed on behalf of these movies.

What Got Robbed:

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At least give the cat some love…

1. Inside Llewyn Davis – This is the most egregious omission, since it was considered a contender by many observers. The Coen Brothers’ portrait of a folk musician navigating the early ’60s New York scene wasn’t exactly a crowd-pleaser. In fact, it turned off some viewers, mainly because it’s a comedy that doesn’t always seem like one, and its lead character (Oscar Isaac) is kind of a dick. But Isaac is terrific in the role, the music (including a few original songs) is great, and the script is witty and complex. But all it got were nods for cinematography and sound mixing. WTF, Academy?

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Could you do this at 77? I couldn’t do it NOW.

2. All Is Lost – In any other year, Robert Redford would have a Best Actor nod locked up. His performance as a sailor stranded alone in the Indian Ocean is the very definition of “tour de force” – especially since he’s 77 years old and hasn’t been in front of the camera in years. It’s also a one-man show with very little dialogue, and a masterpiece of directing (by J.C. Chandor) and editing (by Pete Beaudreau).  All it got from the Oscars was a sound editing nom.

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Look at how cute they are!

3. Enough Said – Nicole Holofcener’s sweet, funny romance may have descended into sitcom tropes, but it still delighted me (and many others).  Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini are a surprisingly, genuinely adorable couple, and Holofcener’s script is full of smart observations about the challenges of love, especially after a certain age.  And what did it get for being this awesome?  Zippo, that’s what.

What Robbed Them:

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One of the quieter moments

 

1. August: Osage County – This adaptation of Tracy Letts’ play is shrill, oppressive, and melodramatic – and that’s in its better moments. The fact that Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts got acting nominations just proves that Streep will get nominated for everything she does (it’s the law), and Roberts can always count on accolades for playing against type. Those slots should have gone to actresses who weren’t directed to swallow the scenery whole.

EXCLUSIVE: Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto film scenes together for The Dallas Buyers Club in New Orleans.

Both reasons to watch this movie

2. Dallas Buyers Club – In this case the acting nods are justified, although Matthew McConaughey is still playing a variation on his usual persona (just a very effective one). But the movie itself is muddled and heavy-handed, and would not have been on anyone’s radar without McConaughey and Jared Leto.

 

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Only if they give awards for bad hair

 

1/2. American Hustle – I really liked David O. Russell’s fictionalization of the ABSCAM scandal.  It’s a fun movie with first-rate performances by the appropriately-recognized Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. It’s hardly Russell’s best work, however, and Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper aren’t in top form either. It deserves nominations, just not so many of them.

Rome: Day 2 – Lots of Angels, No Demons, One Irritating Restaurateur

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This qualifies as “new”

Thursday was orientation day, which involved a fairly quick bus trip. It was crowded, but efficient, which turned out to be true of the Rome’s entire public transportation system.

Our stop was in front of Santa Maria in Vallicella, also known as the Chiesa Nuova, or “New Church.” It dates from the late 1500s, but it was built on the site of an earlier church, hence the nickname. In Europe, time is measured in centuries, not years.

We walked through some of those famously narrow, angled streets until our destination, the Chiostro del Bramante, was in sight. We had 45 minutes to kill, so we accepted the offer of a table at a nice little pizzeria. Every sidewalk in Rome has these small restaurants, where employees stand outside and try (usually in several languages) to get you to eat at their establishments. This particular one was run by an older man whose family had owned the place for ages. We thought, “Real Italian pizza, why not?” and took a seat. We ordered and gladly accepted the free wine. Then we waited…..and waited.  Half an hour.

Meanwhile, our Untours liaison, Mary, happened to walk by on her way to the Chiostro. She informed the proprietor that we had a meeting to get to, which he seemed to take as an offense. It did finally light a fire under the staff, who brought us our food with barely five minutes to spare. The owner tried to make it seem like slow service was a typical Italian thing, but our experience at every other restaurant on our trip proved otherwise.017

There were four other people in this Untours group – a couple in their 60s who are longtime world travelers, and a pair of older women from California.  And by “older,” I mean one of them was 91, and the other wasn’t much younger.  They travel together a lot, and every time Mom and I started to complain about being tired after a day of sightseeing, we reminded ourselves of our extreme relative youth and shut up.IMAG0694

Next came a short walk to the Castel Sant’Angelo. A pedestrian bridge across the Tiber, lined with angel statues, leads to a building that epitomizes Rome’s “layer cake” history. It was built as a tomb for the Emperor Hadrian, and years of looting have exposed the detailed brick work and other engineering feats. Over the centuries, it also served as a fortress, a prison, and a hideout for the Pope during attacks on the city.

That last use led to some spectacular artwork, especially on the ceilings. I don026‘t know what it was about Renaissance artists and ceilings, but if you ever go into a building in Rome, look up.  040It’s totally worth the neck strain.

 

We wound down with some free food and wine (everyone has a glass of wine handy in this country). When we emerged from the cafeteria, we saw the the sunset from the Castel’s balcony. It had been overcast and 034drizzly all day, so this vision was a lovely way to cap off our first real sojourn into la Città Eterna.

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More pics after the jump (click any photo to see the large version)

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“August: Osage County” – Review

august-osage-county-posterDirector: John Wells
Writer: Tracy Letts; based on his play
Cast: Meryl Streep as Violet Weston, Julia Roberts as Barbara Weston, Julianne Nicholson as Ivy Weston, Juliette Lewis as Karen Weston, Ewan McGregor as Bill, Chris Cooper as Charles, Margo Martindale as Mattie Fae, Benedict Cumberbatch as “Little Charles”, Dermot Mulroney as Steve, Abigail Breslin as Jean, Misty Upham as Johnna, Sam Shepard as Beverly Weston
Rated R
Running time: 2 hours
IMDB page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1322269

Plot: When writer Beverly Weston disappears, his family gathers at the home he shared with his volatile wife, Violet, in rural Oklahoma.

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I haven’t seen Tracy Letts’ play of August: Osage County, but the fact that it won a Pulitzer indicates that it’s probably pretty good. Given the source material, the skills of director John Wells, and the ridiculously awesome cast, it’s hard to figure out why this film adaptation is so godawful.

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Rome: Day 1 – OHMYGODWEACTUALLYDIDIT!

I know this is a movie blog, but there was no other good place to post this, so enjoy! (We did make a stop at CineCittá on Day 5, so it counts. Sort of.)

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Read the Movie – “Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter (2012)

In 1962, a lovely, mysterious actress appears in the tiny Italian seaside town of Porto ruinsVergogna, and the young proprietor of the local inn, Pasquale Tursi, immediately falls in love. He can’t begin to imagine the tangle of Hollywood gossip and glamour that’s about to surround his dreary world. All he knows is that this woman, Dee Moray, needs him, and he needs her.

What follows is a gorgeous romance that follows its characters through decades of good times, bad decisions, and the constant, wistful sense of “what might have been.” Besides Dee and Pasquale, Jess Walter follows studio executives, an aspiring screenwriter, and a young man who may be the offspring of a famous (and famously debauched) movie star.

Walter has a writing style that could be described as very literary, full of dense sentences and observations, not to mention constant jumps in time and place. Beautiful Ruins is the kind of book you read carefully, not casually, because you will miss something important if you’re too distracted. Those important things aren’t always plot points, either – sometimes, Walter’s insights are so piercing, they overwhelm any concerns about narrative. This is one of the best books I’ve read in years, and it left me emotionally satisfied in a way that few works of fiction can.

Read It If You Like: Old-school Hollywood scandal; studio machinations; melancholy romance; Italy.

Would It Make a Good Movie?: Only if someone could untangle the complicated storyline and multiple character arcs. It’s almost unfilmable, which may not be a bad thing. Some books just don’t lend themselves.

“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” – Review

Originally published in The Kansas City Star
December 24th, 2013

Mandela-Long-Walk-to-Freedom-2013-Movie-Poster-2CHARISMATIC STARS MAKE MANDELA MEMORABLE

  • 3 out of 4 stars

Like many biographical films, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom plays like a “greatest hits” package of its subject’s life events. Starting with the tribal ritual that ushers Nelson Mandela into manhood and ending with his late-in-life emergence as a world leader, director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn GirlThe First Grader) condenses a lot of material into 2 hours and 20 minutes. Some of the film is shallow and rushed, but when it stops to take a breath, it offers a context for the news stories that have come in the wake of Mandela’s recent death.

Idris Elba is appropriately charismatic in the lead role, especially in early scenes showing his rise within the African National Congress. Chadwick and screenwriter William Nicholson (Les Miserables) don’t offer much explanation for Mandela’s political evolution — he starts out as a hotshot lawyer, then rather abruptly realizes that working within the apartheid system is ineffective.

The film is equally cursory when dealing with Mandela’s personal life, skimming over a failed first marriage and introducing his famous second wife, Winnie (Naomie Harris), so quickly, it seems as if they meet and marry in just a few days.

Once Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom arrives in the early 1960s, Chadwick finally taps the brakes, if only out of necessity. When the ANC begins a violent fight against the South African government, Mandela and several associates are sentenced to life imprisonment
on the brutal Robben Island. There’s no way to rush through events when your protagonist is marking time in a cell, so the film takes a more thoughtful and deliberate approach from this point.

It matches Mandela’s own transformation, as he becomes less confrontational yet, ironically, more powerful. Chadwick cuts away from the prison to show the dissolution of South Africa during this time, as the conflict between whites and blacks — and among blacks themselves — tips the country toward civil war. Winnie takes on a much greater role, as she is continually abused by the authorities and tries to become a leader in her own right.

The roots of the Mandelas’ eventual separation are explored sensitively, illustrating how her immersion in the hate-filled outside world sends Winnie on a radically different ideological path from the one her husband is traveling. Elba and Harris both give fierce, energetic
performances, garnering audience sympathy without watering down the human foibles of the icons they’re playing. Elba has to act underneath some bad makeup as Mandela ages, and Harris bears little resemblance to Winnie, but they still command every scene, even when they’re off screen (which isn’t often).

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom would have been a brilliant miniseries. As a feature film, it simply can’t have the depth that such an important story deserves. It is, however, a worthy and inspiring addition to the long list of Mandela tributes. Rated PG-13Loey Lockerby

KCFCC Award Winners

The Kansas City Film Critics Circle gave out its 47th Annual Loutzenhiser Awards on Sunday, December 15th.  Go here for the full list of winners.

DVD Reviews – “Planes” & “The Wolverine”

At KC Active this month:

www.kcactive.com/aande/videodvd/1213_dvd/index.html

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” – Review

Me = One Happy Geek!

http://www.kansascity.com/2013/12/12/4686696/desolation-of-smaug-bigger-thrills.html

Hey, Look! I’m Quotable!

I did an interview with Jen Chaney for The Dissolve, about critics’ awards. I just got one quote, but it’s good publicity for the KC critics.

http://thedissolve.com/features/exposition/307-how-much-impact-do-critics-awards-have/

“Philomena” – Review

My latest in The Star

http://www.kansascity.com/2013/11/26/4649523/philomena-a-story-of-desperation.html

New Feature – Read the Movie

Occasionally, I read books that deal with movies or movie-related themes, and I think “Gee, other people might want to know about these!” So, this page will feature information and brief reviews of books of special interest to aficionados of cinema.

First up, Marisha Pessl’s Night Film.

Read the Movie – “Night Film” by Marisha Pessl (2013)

nightfilm1When the daughter of cult filmmaker Stanislas Cordova commits suicide, journalist Scott McGrath is certain there’s more to the story. Disgraced after making unproven accusations against Cordova years ago, Scott is determined to uncover the “truth” about this mysterious character, whose films are so disturbing, they literally change the lives of those who view them.

Cordova is sort of a cross between David Lynch, Lars Von Trier and Michael Haneke, and his fans give new meaning to the word “fanatic.” As he investigates, Scott is pulled deeper and deeper into a world that messes with his sanity, and Pessl uses faux newsclippings and film stills to provide a spooky backdrop throughout (get the print version, not the e-book).

Night Film isn’t give-you-nightmares scary, but it is plenty creepy, a neo-Gothic mystery that may or may not have supernatural elements. Pessl is cagey about that last point, dragging the story out to a vague conclusion that I’m still not entirely sold on. Up until that point, reading Night Film is a harrowing, ultimately cathartic, experience, not unlike Cordova’s movies are reputed to be.

Read It If You Like: Freaky cult filmmakers, freaky cult fans, heavy atmosphere, partial resolutions.

Would It Make a Good Movie?: Absolutely. Some Cordova-like director should get on that.

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” – Review

http://www.kansascity.com/2013/11/21/4637059/the-hunger-games-catching-fire.html

Central Standard Friday – 10/11/13

I review Gravity, Prisoners, Enough Said, Don Jon & Inequality for All

http://kcur.org/post/movie-critics-changing-fall-movie-season

DVD Reviews – “World War Z” & “The East”

http://kcactive.com/aande/videodvd/1013dvd/index.html