Friday, March 28, 2014

Review: LIMO RIDE (2014 Atlanta Film Festival)

We all have stories from our youth--wild stories of fun-havin', trouble-makin', sex-rompin' near-death experiences that inspire ranting and raving sessions of storytelling for years afterwards. And, inevitably, when telling these tales of our lives, we think "You know, this would make a great movie."  Yet, often, these films never get beyond the storytelling phase.  But filmmakers Gideon C. Kennedy and Marcus Rosentrater have given energetic and unnerving vision to a hilariously stressful tale from ten Alabama friends, all of whom excitedly recount their most raucous night in the new documentary Limo Ride.

After a stunning credits sequence (seriously, one of the best I've ever seen for an indie film), Kennedy and Rosentrater throw us head first into this ridonkulously entertaining tour of debauchery. Throughout, the film's soundtrack is commandeered by the real life participants, all of whom vie for mic time while telling their side of the story, which begins with them all "recovering" from your typically over-the-top, liquor-fueled New Year's Eve. The filmmakers rely almost solely on recreations to provide the images for the movie (making it seem sort of like a southern-fried Errol Morris epic, though there are no soul-searching talking heads here--the participants only make appearances on-screen at the very end). This nutty and frankly sort of scary band of friends--ready to fight with each other and anyone else at a moment's notice--decide to ignore their need for sleep and instead contract a stretch limo to take them around Mobile, Alabama, while they snort, drink and smoke up everything they can get their hands on. First stop is a beach-side event called Flora-Bama, where legions of crazy people brave the freezing gulf waters in a polar-bear-like show of cheek (and I mean "cheek" literally, since two of our participants here end up completely nude, leading to some big laughs with a curious photographer who's a little too enthusiastic about taking candid snaps of these guys).

From here, it's on to some contentious karaoke and a violent run-in with some skeevy jerks at The Keg, a top Mobile dive bar. Thus truly begins the most amazing downward spiral ever, a drunken descent into a freezing hell of a night, with a sketchy limo driver and his possibly crack-addled cohort leading these ten friends (and one girlfriend) into a no-man's-land where they each start to wonder whether they're gonna survive all this so-called fun. Limo Ride is vibrantly shot by Jeanne Tyson and edited with tremendous care by Rosentrater (I tell ya, this movie speeds right by, so much so that it leaves you wanting so much more time with these dudes). An experimental documentary if there ever was one, Limo Ride is a real hoot, and one of the best movies I've seen at this year's Atlanta Film Festival.  LIMO RIDE has its world premiere at the Atlanta Film Festival on Sunday, March 30 at 6:30 pm at the 7 Stages Theater in Little Five Points. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

2014 Atlanta Film Festival: Capsule Reviews

As I am flooded with screeners for the upcoming Atlanta Film Festival (March 28-April 6), I'm trying to evaluate as many titles as possible. Unfortunately, this means I'm unable to go into as much depth as I normally do for each, whether I like the film or not. So I'm posting this first salvo of mini-reviews in order to give some attention to as many films accepted into this year's event. I'm starting out with coverage of 12 narrative and documentary features, arranged here in order from the ones about which I'm most enthusiastic to the ones from which I'd advise everyone to stay far, far away.  Here we go:

FOREV           Of course, the truly romantic and funny rom-com is a rare alloy these days, especially in the indie world where genuine sweetness is in short supply. But writer/directors Molly Green and James Leffler have crafted a real treat in FOREV. I knew the film was going to be clever very early on when we see Sophie (Noel Wells) on an audition for a hot dog commercial and then, after her disastrous screen test, being told she can now spit out the hot dog bun. The camera peers into the trash can, catching the pile of half-masticated buns chucked out by the previous, weight-obsessed actresses. Sophie plods out to her car and promptly gets in the trunk. And I was sold. Matt Mider plays Pete, the low-key neighbor she’s brushed into a few times; both are extremely appealing, but not in that too-polished actory way. They’re messy and neurotic, but they’re also quick-witted and energetic, both as actors and as characters. After the audition, Sophie runs into Pete again, and they launch into a jokey routine about getting married. Then they both begin to take to the idea, even though they’ve never dated. In true indie mettle, this leads to a road trip to meet up with Pete’s sister, Jess (Amanda Bauer, in another super performance, bouncing effortlessly from wryly seething rage to joyful openness). Along the way, Pete and Sophie explore the not-yet-real possibility that they are “engaged,” both with rompy humor and believable insecurity. FOREV is refreshing because, without getting preachy or overly goopy, it explores what it means to have a truly valuable give-and-take with someone. It also happens to be consistently hilarious and beautiful to look at--the Arizona locations pop with bright yellows and blues in cinematographer Robert Edgecomb’s lens, and the well-chosen song score is its perfect aural accompaniment. Reminiscent of  BOTTLE ROCKET-era Wes Anderson, FOREV is a filmmaking debut that impresses us with its big heart, fun dialogue, and smart construction.  FOREV plays at the Atlanta Film Festival on Sunday, March 30th at 1:30 pm at the 7 Stages Theater in Little Five Points.

METALHEAD          From Iceland comes Ragnar Bragasson’s superlative tale of grief and shredding, with Thora Bjorg Helga commanding as Hera, a rebellious twentysomething still reeling from the long-ago death of her metalhead brother (in a harrowing opening scene). Returning to her family’s rural dairy farm after being away for years, she attempts to blend in with this religious community, even though she doesn’t hide her contempt for a God she feels betrayed by, nor her love for a music she admires for its refusal to sugarcoat life’s harshness. Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson and Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir are exceptional as Hera’s parents, also still haunted by their son’s death and struggling to accept their daughter’s increasingly erratic behavior. August Jakobsson’s widescreen cinematography is gorgeously bleak--unforgettably so--and Bragasson’s accomplished writing and direction keeps everything feeling true, right up to the film’s quite memorable final shot. With music by Megadeth, Riot, Judas Priest, Lizzy Borden, Teaze, Savatage, and a host of Icelandic metal bands. METALHEAD plays at the Atlanta Film Festival on Friday, April 4th at 9:30 pm in the Plaza Theater's main auditorium.

15 TO LIFE: KENNETH'S STORY          Kenneth Young is 26 now and in the Florida state penal system where he was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences for a hotel robbery. At the time of the offense he was 14 years old and Nadine Pequeneza’s thorny documentary uses his appeal process (in the light of a recent Supreme Court decision banning life imprisonment for child defendants) as a way to illuminate the rash of juvenile American prisoners whose terms behind bars are cappers to childhoods filled with neglect and violence. 15 TO LIFE is not gentle on its subjects--both Young and his mother (a recovering crack addict) admit to their faults and culpability, but also revel in their hard-won rehabilitation. Pequeneza smartly keeps the pace of the documentary up, revealing more and more information about the original crime, only to eventually--and stunningly--hit that wall we call the Florida court system, which is not known for its mercy. This accomplished film makes us question and re-question our sense of what constitutes justice.  15 TO LIFE: KENNETH'S STORY plays at the Atlanta Film Festival on Tuesday, April 1st at 9:45 pm in the Plaza Theater's upstairs auditorium.

120 DAYS          Miguel and Maria Luisa Cortes are parents of two teenage girls and have been living in America for over a decade, having long ago made the arduous trip across the border from Mexico. In their new hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, Miguel is stopped for a routine traffic violation and is immediately stamped for deportation, even though his family has done everything right (even to the point of being commended for community service by the mayor of their adopted city). Ted Roach’s compelling if slightly overlong documentary records the 120 days leading up to Miguel’s departure, and though nothing of particular dramatic import happens in those days (a lot of the footage is of birthdays and pool parties and such), the time does give Roach an opportunity to put a different face on those who have been labelled “illegals” despite having built happy and productive lives stateside. 120 DAYS is slightly marred by the director’s unnecessary narration, but its difficult not to be moved by its sobering and humanistic depiction of US immigration policies’ unfair intractability and the heartbreaking choices it forces one family to make. It's quite a good film about a subject that isn't going away anytime soon. 120 DAYS plays at the Atlanta Film Festival on Wednesday, April 2nd at 9:15 pm in the Plaza Theater's upstairs auditorium. 

A IS FOR ALEX          One’s enjoyment of A IS FOR ALEX will largely depend on their ability to stomach unsuccessful absurdist humor clunkily mixed with some often amusing domestic comedy. Orr stars as a version of himself--a nebbish filmmaker and idea man experiencing anxiety over the impending birth of his baby. Katie Orr (who co-wrote the film with her husband and Adam Pinney) earns points as the only grounded person in this mix (she's quite terrific here). But even with her ever-growing tummy, she gets somewhat lost in the mix, particularly when the movie focuses in on Orr’s questionable filmmaking skills (it breaks the fourth wall in a not-very-funny fashion, though I do love Daniel A. Kelley as Alex's straight-talking assistant) and especially when it belabors its favorite joke, Alex’s flower-pollinating contraptions--giant robot bees, actually--in a overly-cute metaphor for stunted fatherhood.  Of course, the metallic bees go predictably awry. I like most of the scenes of married conversation, particularly one in which the couple discuss Alex's goofy (but probably widely-held) fears of pregnancy sex. Still, the film’s ultimately a slight and flimsily constructed clump of blackout sketches, some of which fall flatter than one of them robot bees. A IS FOR ALEX plays at the Atlanta Film Festival on Saturday, March 29th at 1:30 pm in the Plaza Theater's main auditorium.

CYBER-SENIORS          A feather-light documentary about a Canadian youth program aimed at helping seniors navigate the web. Eh, what can ya say? The oldsters are charming in their baby-steps with the technology, and the kids are respectful and not nearly as frustrated as one might expect. This is not earth-shaking viewing, but pleasant enough, though I continue to marvel at how documentary filmmakers insist on making their films--whatever subject they may be taking on--about their own lives, no matter how snugly they have to shoehorn the material in (for some reason, the director here continually disrupts the piece with status updates on her sister’s cancer battle, under the guise that it’s the internet that helps their grandparents keep in touch with the girls). This is all the insidious effect of the Michael Moore/Morgan Spurlock revolution in doc filmmaking--if you're a documentary filmmaker now, you have to get your body seen or voice heard, no matter what. CYBER-SENIORS plays at the Atlanta Film Festival on Thursday, April 3rd at 6:45 pm in the Plaza Theater's main auditorium.

1982       Tommy Oliver’s film, which he wrote and directed, has its heart in the right place telling of a Philadelphia father (Hill Harper) dealing with his wife’s addiction to crack as they're trying to raise their precocious daughter. It’s somehow simultaneously refreshing to see this sort of story being told--you don't get to see many black family dramas these days--and yet it's disappointing that the movie ultimately treads into too-familiar territory, hitting all the beats you think it might. Harper, who’s in almost every scene, is often good but can show a frustrating tendency to speak in an inaudible whisper in order to portray a rage that rarely bubbles up, and so he increasingly seems to be “acting” as the story moves along. Sharon Leal is better as the mother; by nature of the role alone, her scenes have a lively, particularly dangerous vibrancy to them (there’s one tense moment where she’s seen only through a barely opened door, and she nevertheless controls the sequence quite assuredly). Bokeem Woodbine and Ruby Dee are in the cast, though they’re basically contributing undemanding cameos to a director who--with his excellent editing and certain measure of restraint--has promise, but who needs more practice.  1982 plays at the Atlanta Film Festival on Saturday, April 5th at 4:30 pm in the Plaza Theater's main auditorium.

THE RIGHT JUICE          Unassuming and big-hearted, this trifle from Portugal follows a British man (Mark Kileen) who’s abandoned his post as a UK banker and decamps for the Portuguese countryside, where he labors to start an orange grove. Only problem is, there’s another landowner (a slimy Beau McClellan) who’s commandeered all the water in the valley, and so it’s up to our hero (and his new compatriots) to find alternative sources. Kristjan Knigge’s movie is rather laconic in its pacing, relying heavily on the rural setting's beauty to provide much of the film’s entertainment value. I didn’t find THE RIGHT JUICE particularly amusing, but it gave me a few smiles (I did fall for many of the characters, and got some laughs out of a team of dolphins that pop in midway through). Knigge's film might be just the sort of trip overseas for an audience just dipping their toes into foreign territory, but for other, more demanding moviegoers, this one will likely cause them some half-bemused dozing. THE RIGHT JUICE plays at the Atlanta Film Festival on Sunday, March 30th at 1:45 pm in the Plaza Theater's upstairs auditorium.

BOB BIRDNOW'S REMARKABLE TALE OF HUMAN SURVIVAL AND THE TRANSCENDENCE OF SELF          An endurance test of extreme proportions, much like its mouthful of a title, Eric Steele’s 75-minute movie--if you can call it that--takes place at a sales motivation seminar where the keynote speaker is the doddering survivor of a Iowa plane crash. Most of the film is taken up with his stammering speech, which feels like the most ill-advised motivational booking ever conceived. In the title role, Barry Nash has flashes of weight--he’s doing his best spouting pure gibberish, and seems to gain more confidence when the talk actually takes menacing shape--but rarely does Steele’s writing rise above the level of a dull, dodgy one-man show (it’s like something Dan Aykroyd's Leonard Pinth Garnell would’ve featured on SNL’s “Bad Theater”). Steele strenuously tries to stretch his one darkened set, with its phalanx of silently stoic audience members (who look bored as all get out), into something visually arresting. Yet, as much as his photography and lighting team goose things, they can’t overcome a stinging sense of wasted time and faux-creepiness. BOB BIRDNOW plays at the Atlanta Film Festival on Saturday, March 29th at 8:30 pm in Plaza Theater's upstairs auditorium.  

THE UNWANTED         An intense, red-headed woman (Christen Orr) blows into a small Southern town looking for clues about her mother's mysterious death. She follows the only lead she has to an isolated house where the sheltered, big-eyed Laura (Hannah Fierman) answers the door, followed by her looming father (William Katt, the movie's main asset). Instantly, we know there are some secrets here (just because it's THAT type of picture). Actually, if you're familiar with writer/director Bret Wood's previous work, you know we're gonna be getting into some kinky stuff before long (this is the filmmaker that adapted Kraft-Ebing's PSYCHOPATHIA SEXUALIS--a much better film than this--back in 2006). And, true to form, Wood doesn't disappoint. Soon we're into hot girl-on-girl action and a little bloodletting--um...make that a LOT of bloodletting. Orr and Fierman (whom I liked in her short role in V/H/S) are attractive, but their acting could use some improvement, as their delivery is at turns adequate and painfully stiff. But they do make Katt, with his once blonde tresses now a malevolently flowing white mane, look like an Olivier-level thespian in comparison. By the time we reach the ending, we TOTALLY know what's gonna happen, and all that's left is to watch the gleam of the knives and the tying of the ropes. The thing is, I know there's an audience out there for this stuff...I mean, tits? Blood? Tits covered in blood? Geez, start counting the cash, I guess. But I'm definitely not part of this cabal, and I kind of feel sorry for anyone who is (of course, that describes my gentle contempt for about 95% of horror movie fans, who are an undemanding lot). Well-photographed, and with an undeniably memorable climax, at least Wood bills THE UNWANTED as "based on Sheridan Le Fanu's vampire story CARMILLA" so we all can feel a little smarter afterwards.  THE UNWANTED plays at the Atlanta Film Festival on Monday, March 29th at 9:30 pm in Plaza Theater's main auditorium. 

BESIDE STILL WATERS          Extremely annoying BIG CHILL rip-off (sans Motown soundtrack, of course), with a group of high school friends getting together in a lakeside cabin after the funeral of a member’s parents.  It’s hard to believe people are still riffing on Kasdan’s movie over 30 years after it hit, but apparently they are--you can correlate every one of the characters in Chris Lowell’s feature to the ones in its progenitor (there’s even a guy that stars in a hit TV series, just like Tom Berenger did in CHILL---I mean, arrgggh, it's so obvious). Completely stilted performances, lots of binge drinking (which, seriously, is not in the least bit fascinating--just a little note to ALL indie filmmakers), and puffed-up dramady that thinks it‘s oh-so-clever but is instead palpably painful to sit through. I hope this is the worst film I see at the festival.  BESIDE STILL WATERS plays at the Atlanta Film Festival on Saturday, March 29th at 7 pm in the Plaza Theater's main auditorium.

SPEAK NOW          I spoke too soon. THIS is the worst film I've seen so far: a deadly-dull wedding comedy (like we need another one of those...geez, I wonder if anything is gonna go wrong for the bride and groom in this one). Naming names here just seems cruel, this film is so awful (the director, though, is Noah Harald and the "writer," so to speak, is Erin Cardillo). Absolutely nothing funny, truthful, moving or surprising ever happens here. Reading about the production, I found out that the entire thing was improvised by the cast and filmed in three days (with a irritating, gauzy shaky-cam), which is hands down the laziest way to make a movie unless your cast happens to be SPINAL TAP-level brilliant--you know, actors who are actually WITTY and well-studied in human moves, and have interesting things to say, and are not just making endless small talk and screeching at the top of their lungs and looking pretty and all the time telling each other to calm down and breathe? Ugh. SPEAK NOW plays at the Atlanta Film Festival on Saturday, March 29th at 9 pm at the 7 Stages Theater in Little Five Points.  

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Review: THE FOXY MERKINS (2014 Atlanta Film Festival)

The 2014 Atlanta Film Festival begins on March 28th and goes to April 6th this year, so the lines at the Plaza Theater--its main hub of activity these days--haven't begun forming. But I've been getting screeners for many of its features the past few days, and I'm happy to report I've found a few real gems amongst them, chiefly Madeleine Olnek's fantastically entertaining comedy The Foxy Merkins. If you happen to know what a merkin is (and you can be forgiven if you don't), then I'm certain you're already intrigued.

When we first see Margaret (Lisa Haas) hooking on a New York City street corner, somehow shambling while standing still in her standard t-shirt/jeans combo, we can immediately feel her frustration and discomfort. She doesn't want to do this sort of demeaning work. A tightly-wound businesswoman (Jennifer Prediger) stops awkwardly in front of her, fiddles with her phone for too long a time, and barely even recognizes Margaret's humanity when asking how much her services will cost. "I'd like to pay more for it, 'cause it turns me on to pay more for it," she says. Margaret says she's going for $250; the trick's counteroffer is $5. Haas, a dumpling-shaped woman with moppy hair and a gentle voice, plays this moment with a taken-aback desperation, yet she also plays it funny, her eyes popping slightly behind her thin-rimmed glasses. It's pretty clear from the outset that she's going to be delightful to watch.

You can always see Haas thinking and listening, and that's a habit that distinguishes great actors from adequate or bad ones. Her eyes dart around, searching for the correct thing to say, unsure in her own damaged fashion. She really give a tremendous performance here, instantly winning our support with her intelligence and fumbling openness. The Foxy Merkins occasionally tips its hat to another NYC prostitution buddy movie, Midnight Cowboy, and Haas is our Joe Buck, but without the fringe jacket and soon-to-be-crushed bravado. Margaret doesn't revel in a lot of self-pity, but it's clear she was crushed a while ago, and this is the just the last rung lingering over rock bottom. Nevertheless, she seems game for just about anything, and though this often leads to very compromising situations, Haas never allows her character to be a mere punching bag. She retains her dignity, no matter what. 

Margaret's Ratso Rizzo counterpart is played with gusto by Jackie Monahan. Her character, Jo, isn't quite as sceevy as Hoffman's creation but, despite her thrown-together haute couture, she's still a double-dealer who both exploits Margaret and takes her under her tutelage. Jo's the kind of person who walks down the street and points to literally everyone she sees and proudly claims she slept with them ("This lady with the peach outfit and the boots...I slept with her, too"). When they first meet outside a sandwich shop, her faux-delicate way of asking Margaret if she's a lesbian is to instead ask if she's a woman studies major (a hilarious line). Twins in dejection, they quickly bond and begin "rooming" together in a Port Authority bathroom, their days spent trolling for usually older clients, up for some frottage or motorboating (two of the funnier kinky sexual practices). Director Olnek--who co-wrote the film with Haas and Monahan--deftly finds the humor in perversions, just like John Waters once did in his heyday (Waters is a big though subtle influence here). The Foxy Merkins, though, sports a prominent sweetness and humanity that Waters' earlier films often joyfully lacked and that's a facet that really distinguishes this very raucous comedy.

The episodic nature of the film's script always keeps things moving quickly, and the film is never repetitive or claustrophobic like so many indies can be. Olnek's camera, surely guided by cinematographer Anna Stypko, is rigidly controlled, with very few handheld shots (thankfully). The production team does a superb job of catching the things people love about New York City--the Cinema Village theater, Coney Island, Park Avenue, and Little Italy all make appearances here. Though the two lead performances are always front and center, the film also smartly includes lots of bits for other actors to run with.

Of course, there are the clients, mostly well-off elites searching for a little time with the dregs (the film makes delicate points about the 1% and their throwaway use of the 99%). There's a suburban lady with a love of Lemon Pledge (which sets off Margaret's asthma); a Republican woman with a premature ejaculation problem ("You can always tell if a person's a Republican if they premature ejaculate," Jo says); a muttering salesman in a raincoat trolling a cemetery, looking for buyers of his erotic accessories (he's played by Alex Karpovsky, who's given two of the film's funniest scenes); a team of reluctant lesbians billed as "Accounts Payable" and "Accounts Receivable;" a wealthy repeat client with a taste for dangerous situations (leading to more hilarious farce, including its one solitary nude scene that's guaranteed to shake theater rafters with the audience's howling laughter); and a terrific one-scene performance from Diane Ciesla as Jo's well-to-do mother, who shows up in the Port Authority bathroom to sternly urge her daughter to give up this business. Olnek even finds time to insert a documentary element to this narrative, talking with other lesbian prostitutes in a diner setting (it's excitingly impossible to tell if these are actresses or if they're real former sex workers).

Yet, with all its notable assets (I love the score, too, which manages to reference The Pixies, Burt Bacharach and Nino Rota in surprising ways), chief among them are the fearless lead performances from Haas and Monahan. Whenever they're on screen together, we're completely engaged by their rapport. I particularly loved those scenes where they flirt with becoming romantically involved, first with Jo drunkenly caressing Margaret's face in a toilet stall ("If you were a guy, or if I were a lesbian, or if we were both lesbians, or even if we were both gay guys, I would totally fuck the shit out of you," she confesses), and then, later, with Margaret nervously asking for a kiss from Jo as they roast weenies over a Sterno can (a funny but heartbreaking moment). The Foxy Merkins pulls us in with its raw whimsy but it manages to ensnare our affections as well. A hit at the Sundance fest (which led to Olnek being nominated for an Independent Spirit "Someone to Watch" award), it's absolutely one of the best films I've seen so far this year. 

The Foxy Merkins plays at the 2014 Atlanta Film Festival on Thursday, April 3rd, at 9 pm in the Plaza Theater's main auditorium. Don't miss it! 

"THE FOXY MERKINS" comes to the Atlanta Film Festival! Thursday April 3, 9pm- Plaza Theater!
from Codependent Lesbian Space Alien on Vimeo.

Friday, March 14, 2014

1930 - The Year in Review

The first year in which the true Best Picture actually won the award. Watching Lewis Milestone's unflinching depiction of World War I today, one can still feel the impact it must have had on 1930 audiences (and many of its techniques are still being used in war films; you can see a lot of Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket and Saving Private Ryan in it). I still have strong emotions for Wladyslaw and Irene Starewicz's animated feature, though, and feel it's had a tremendous influence on the industry, even if many people these days don't know of its existence. The Starewiczs worked with full-sized puppets, and that made their films so much more expressive than almost any other stop-motion work out there (you can instantly see their effect on directors like Ray Harryhausen and Wes Anderson). That unique decision of theirs, alone, made my choice for director so much easier. With the addition of sound in the mix, the range of acting now is wider, so finally Supporting Actor and Actress categories can be added. It's still a little too early to add scoring awards though, since much music for these movies comes from previously existing sources (otherwise, "Hooray for Captain Spalding" from Animal Crackers would definitely win best song, with "Makin' Whoopie" from Whoopie coming in second, and "Falling in Love Again" from The Blue Angel coming in third). The Bat Whispers, I should note, is a marvel from that time period--the first film ever shown in 70 mm, and an early superhero entry; Just Imagine, too, is an groundbreaking sci-fi marvel for its set design. As for the short films, I had to go for Mickey Mouse again, and for Laurel and Hardy, finally. NOTE: These are MY choices for each category, and are in no way reflective of the choices made by the Oscars.

PICTURE: ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (Lewis Milestone, US), followed by: The Tale of the Fox (Wladyslaw and Irene Starewicz, France); Earth (Alexander Dovzhenko, USSR), Morocco (Josef Von Sternberg, US), Murder (Alfred Hitchcock, UK), The Blue Angel (Josef Von Sternberg, Germany), L’Age d’Or (Luis Buñuel, France/Spain), Animal Crackers (Victor Heerman, US), The Dawn Patrol (Howard Hawks, US), Anna Christie (Clarence Brown, US), The Bat Whispers (Roland West, US)

DIRECTOR: Wladyslaw and Irene Starewicz, THE TALE OF THE FOX (2nd: Lewis Milestone, All Quiet on the Western Front, followed by: Alexander Dovzhenko, Earth; Josef Von Sternberg, The Blue Angel; Alfred Hitchcock, Murder; Luis Buñuel, L’Age d’Or

ACTOR: Emil Jannings, THE BLUE ANGEL (2nd: Lew Ayres, All Quiet on the Western Front, followed by: Walter Huston, Abraham Lincoln; Herbert Marshall, Murder; Lon Chaney, The Unholy Three; Gary Cooper, Morocco) 

ACTRESS: Marlene Dietrich, THE BLUE ANGEL (2nd: Greta Garbo, Anna Christie, followed by: Marie Dressler, Min and Bill; Marlene Dietrich, Morocco; Norma Shearer, The Divorcee)

SUPPORTING ACTOR: Louis Wolheim, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (2nd: Adolphe Menjou, Morocco, followed by: Douglas Fairbanks Jr., The Dawn Patrol; James Finlayson The Dawn Patrol; Edward Everett Horton, Holiday)

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Beryl Mercer, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (2nd: Una Merkel, Abraham Lincoln, followed by: Jean Harlow, Hell’s Angels; Marie Dressler, Anna Christie)

SHORT FILM (ANIMATED): THE BARNYARD CONCERT (Walt Disney, US) (2nd: Barnacle Bill (Dave Fleischer, US), followed by: The Fire Fighters (Walt Disney, US))

SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION): ANOTHER FINE MESS (James Parrott, US) (2nd: The Golf Specialist (Monte Brice, US), followed by: School's Out (Robert F. McGowan, US))

SCREENPLAY: George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson and Del Andrews, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (2nd: John Monk Saunders, The Dawn Patrol, followed by: Morrie Ryskind, Animal Crackers; Horace Jackson, Holiday)

CINEMATOGRAPHY: Ray June and Robert H. Plank, THE BAT WHISPERS (2nd: Lee Garmes, Morocco, followed by: Wladyslaw Starewicz, The Tale of the Fox; Arthur Edeson, All Quiet on the Western Front; Ernest Palmer, Just Imagine)

ART DIRECTION: JUST IMAGINE, The Tale of the Fox, Morocco

COSTUME DESIGN: MORACCO, The Tale of the Fox, Just Imagine 


SOUND: ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, The Bat Whispers, Hell's Angels

ANIMATED FEATURE: THE TALE OF THE FOX (Wladyslaw and Irene Starewicz, France)

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Visit with Francis Ford Coppola

The notice landed in my e-mail inbox a month or so ago. "Francis Ford Coppola," it read, "invites you to join him for an evening celebration of wine, friends and family as he offers a glimpse into the great passions of his life." The event was to be held on March 3rd, the day after the 2014 Oscars, at the Egyptian Ballroom, an impossibly elegant space connected to the regal Fox Theater in Atlanta. This was the same venue in which I saw Abel Gance's Napoleon for the first time back in 1981, with Francis' father Carmine conducting the orchestra, so I saw this opportunity to explore a warm, intimate side of the Coppola family as a completion of an improvised circle. It's one that's not entirely adrift from Mr. Coppola's film accomplishments (which are, as we all later learned, inextricably linked to his vino endeavors), but one that's instead interwoven with the very bloodline of his accomplished family.

And with the addition of cigars, pasta, and numerous resorts (in California, Belize, Italy, Guatemala, and Argentina) to his product line, one could surely say that these once side-glance concerns have supplanted filmmaking as the primary artistic endeavor in Coppola's life. Now, for this great writer and director, it is moviemaking that has become the hobby, and now I realize he's deeply involved in the process of enjoying life, and hoping we can share that with him through wine, food, movies, and music. This refocus--decades in the making--has turned into the softest of mattresses. You sense he's been very happy for a long, long time now. Is this where he was meant to be? Maybe so. Most surely, though, he is first a family man; it's obvious his connection to his forebears and progeny are at his core. We can hear it in his his tenor, in his decisiveness and reverence. It's all quite clear. All of this drama--all of the movies and the debt, the squabbles and fooferall, the art and the commerce--it's all always been about the love for his family. Actually, he may have said it all in his most famous movie...

I arrived at the ballroom along with my friend, journalist and wine expert Jane Garvey, only ten minutes before Mr. Coppola was set to speak. That left me just enough time to nab a glass of his Cabernet Savignon (which was delicious), and grab a seat on the second row. The lights went down soon enough, and on screen came the helicopters whirring past those reddened palm trees in Apocalypse Now's opening shot. Then a thoughtful selection of clips from The Rain People, Tetro, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, One From the Heart, Rumblefish, The Outsiders, Youth Without Youth (which is, I realized, along with Finian's Rainbow, The Bellboy and the Playgirls, and the most recent Twixt, amongst the few Coppola's films I've yet to see).

The clip reel finally moved into The Conversation, and then, of course, to The Godfather. It was with Nino Rota's iconic theme music that Mr. Coppola delicately approached the stage with a jovial wave to the audience. Handsome and nattily dressed, with a plaid tie, he took a seat at a microphone equipped with a tiny monitor with which, in sure directorial fashion, he deftly kept up with the video presentation he was narrating (though he didn't mind sifting through the index cards in his hands for reference).

"Wine is an ancient food," he began. "For Italian families, and for many European families, it's considered an essential part of a meal." As burnished photos of his ancestors hit the screen, Coppola began by talking about his grandfather, Augustino, and his experiences with his seven sons during the days of Prohibition. "At that time, the government allowed European families, or families who'd customarily included wine with their meals, to make one barrel of wine right in their homes. So there was a collection of people who participated in buying a boxcar of grapes, sent all the way from California to 110th Street and Lexington." The supplier of those grapes, Coppola theorized, was Cesare Mondavi, the father of Robert Mondavi, the pioneering winemaker who popularized California's Napa Valley region as a hub of the vineyard community. Though he has deep respect for Mondavi, he amusingly admitted he'd heard this crude home brew was "terrible wine."

It was in 1975, right before the production of Apocalypse Now was to overtake his family's life, that Coppola first visited a property in the Napa Valley. Intended as a summer home, this plot included a late-19th Century structure known as the Niebaum Mansion, after its former owner, Finnish-born shipping magnate Gustave Niebaum. The Coppola family fell in love with the estate, which included 1400 acres of prime vineyards--ground zero for America's greatest contribution to winemaking. At this point, the screen behind Coppola featured a drive-up to the mansion's inviting facade, and a panoramic view from the steps leading up to it (including a 380-year-old tree looming over the front yard, its branches idyllically adorned with a shabby, single-person swing that's been dangling there for a century or so, and which Coppola has watched his children, grandchildren, and will watch his great-grandchildren play on, "I hope").

After much haggling, and being faced with the prospect of the countryside being spoiled by real estate developers bent on dotting the surrounding mountains with mansions, the Coppolas dug into their pockets and purchased the property. Soon after, Robert Mondavi visited and joyously confirmed that this was the prime piece of land for the growing of those essential grapes. Deemed Inglenook (which was Gustave Niebaum's tribute to the property's former owner, a Scottish businessman named William Watson), the land enabled the production of the famed Inglenook label (which Coppola now owns and says it cost more to buy that label than it did to buy the original property).

In fact, upon Robert Mondavi's arrival to the mansion, Coppola's wife Eleanor reminded her husband there were still dusty, aged bottles of Inglenook wine in the cellar. "We found one bottle, from 1890, and we opened it up and as we did that, the perfume of it started to pervade the room. Mr. Mondavi got all excited and started jumping up and down, and said 'See, I'm right. Napa Valley wine, if it's aged correctly, can be as good as any wine in the world.'" Coppola was still elated by this memory. But he also remembered the gathering storm clouds.

"Apocalypse Now was a very troubled production and, in fact, in order to do it, I had to finance it myself because no one else was interested. I had made The Godfather, The Conversation, Godfather Part II. I had won Oscars and had success. But Hollywood, then as with now, was not interested in something that was...interesting. [a big laugh from the audience here] To do something about the Vietnamese War was somehow taboo. But I was able to sell it to a distributor as something like A Bridge Too Far, as an action war picture. So I got a distributor to give me money, but indeed I was taking on a lot of debt myself. In those days, interest was 17%, in the era of Carter and the gasoline shortages and so forth. But we had this house in the Napa Valley and it was sort of like a dream to me, having dinners there and meeting the neighbors. Eventually, though, I worried so much because, as the project went on, we were getting deeper and deeper in debt, and the outcome became very uncertain. I remember when the film was done, I showed it to the distributor and they said 'It isn't like A Bridge Too Far at all.'" Coppola then recalled summoning his editors for an emergency cutting session, and rallying them with a song, which he then performed for us, on stage:

A director, we haven't got
A good movie, we haven't got
A good screenplay, we haven't got
Whadda we got?
We've got heart! 
Miles and miles and miles of heart...
(referencing Adler and Ross' song "Heart" from DAMN YANKEES)

"It did okay at the box office," Coppola continued, "and it was nominated for a few Academy Awards--it was Kramer Vs. Kramer that won Best Picture that year. But the funny thing about Apocalypse Now is that it wouldn't go away. People kept going to see it, and it's still like that to this day. So I was able to go back to my beautiful Napa Valley home." Around that time, Coppola explains, numerous wineries began approaching him, vying for a contract to use the fruit from his vineyard. While the reps from these labels toured the acres of trellised growth, Coppola had a thought. "Eventually, I said to my wife, 'Gee, if our grapes are so good, why don't we just make wine?' And she said 'What? You don't know anything about making wine,' and I answered 'Hey, I don't know anything about making movies, but that's never stopped me.'" The absurdity, and the truth, of this statement got an enveloping laugh from the audience (as screenwriter William Goldman once said, "Nobody in Hollywood knows anything").

With Mondavi's enthusiasm as a major encouragement, Coppola said that he was "sold" on the idea of creating the brand. He borrowed $30,000 from his family for winemaking equipment, and then had to navigate the requirements of California law in regards to what constitutes "California wine." Based on the ruby red color of his first batches of the stuff, made in 1977 with grapes stomped by he and his children, he renamed the Niebaum property "Rubicon Estate" and, over the course of the 1990s and 2000s, has grown the brand into a vast number of varieties. We're all familiar with the Coppola-stamped bottles that we've seen in our grocery stores and such. But I was surprised to discover there's a great deal more to this winery than I was aware, all of which have unusual labels designed by the Coppola family and art director Dean Tavoularis.

Tavoularis (pictured at left, with Coppola) has been involved with Coppola productions since 1972's The Godfather. He won an Oscar for designing its sequel, and has been nominated for Apocalypse Now, Tucker, Godfather III, and William Friedkin's The Brink's Job. His work with the director goes way beyond that, though, with the spare look of The Conversation; the astounding Vegas dream world of One From The Heart; the beautifully retro feel--each of them completely unique--of Hammett, The Escape Artist (which is not a movie that takes place in past decades, but sure feels like it is), Peggy Sue Got Married, The Outsiders, and Rumblefish; the realistic 60s visage of Gardens of Stone; and the comedy stylings of Jack. Tavoularis' work with Coppola's wine making has not been limited to just their labels, either. When Francis opened a winery and vacation spot near Geyserville, CA in the early 2000s, he had his art director design the entire layout, complete with bocce ball courts, performance spaces, cabins, sections devoted to Coppola's film work, and a movie theater.

"I’ve always been influenced," Coppola writes on the website, "by the idea of Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, which was the inspiration for ultimately all modern amusements parks. I remember the beautiful theater pavilions with the curtains painted with peacock feathers that had little ballet performances. At Tivoli, there were rides, but more important than the rides were the cafes and the refreshments, and just the sense of being in a children’s garden, a ‘pleasure garden’ for all people to enjoy – which perhaps is the best phrase to describe what we’re creating here. This vision was replicated at places on Coney Island, like Luna Park, and George C. Tilyou’s Steeplechase Park, or Palisades Park.

"These were basically wonderlands, and I thought Francis Ford Coppola Winery could become such a park for the family to go and enjoy, where there are things for kids to do, so they can be close to their parents who are sampling wines and foods.  I’ve often felt that modern life tends to separate all the ages too much. In the old days, the children lived with the parents and the grandparents, and the family unit each gave one another something very valuable. So when we began to develop the idea for this winery, we thought it should be like a resort, basically a wine wonderland, a park of pleasure where people of all ages can enjoy the best things in life – food, wine, music, dancing, games, swimming and performances of all types."

Now looking at images of the locale, and of its more movie-centric features, it seems like the perfect spot for a film geek's--or a wine enthusiast's--dream vacation:

Coppola's voluminous awards collection is on display, including five Oscars, two DGA awards, five Golden Globes, the Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival, and one of his two Palme D'ors from the Cannes Film Festival (photo: Chad Keig)

I'm by no means a wine expert, but Coppola's output, stewarded by Director of Winemaking & General Manager Corey Beck, is extremely impressive. There a higher end product, sold at first only to restaurants, called Directors Cut (the complex wraparound label demanded a change, and afterwards it was available to stores). Then there's a champagne designed and inspired by his daughter Sofia (with her high-end tastes, she insisted on the pink cellophane wrapping, Coppola says), another designed by his wife Eleanor (which Coppola says might be his favorite of the entire line), and another by his granddaughter Gia (she's the daughter of the late Gian Carlo Coppola, who died at the young age of 22 in a boating accident, and who has just recently entered into the filmmaking frey with Palo Alto, based on the short stories of James Franco). The vast number of choices the Coppolas and Mr. Beck have come up with are kind of mindboggling. 

Hearing the man talk about all of these varieties, which are so intimately connected with his family, was just astounding. After experiencing this, I had to conclude--even more strongly than I had before--that the Coppola clan is simply one of the greatest American success stories out there. His immigrant grandfather Augustino was involved in the creation of Vitaphone, the first sound system for movies; his father Carmine was a member of Arturo Toscanini's NBC Orchestra and went on to compose score for The Godfather Part II (for which he won an Oscar), The Black Stallion (my favorite of his scores), Abel Gance's Napoleon, Apocalypse Now, The Outsiders, and The Godfather Part III; his wife Eleanor made one of the great filmmaking documentaries with Hearts of Darkness; his daughter Sofia (Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, Somewhere, The Virgin Suicides, The Bling Ring) and son Roman (CQ and the screenplay to Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom) continue to create notable films; and now his granddaughter Gia is in the mix. Add to that his sister Talia Shire, his nephews Jason Schwartzman and Nicolas Cage, his cinematographer brother-in-law John Schwartzman, and you're left admiring a remarkable family tree--five generations--of filmic ability. Only the Huston family, with Walter, John, Anjelica, Danny and Jack, can come close to rivaling it in longevity and cultural impact.

When it came time for the Q&A section of the program, Mr. Coppola was extremely giving in both his reception of the questions, and in his answers. There was reluctance in the audience--which I understand. How does one address a legend such as this, even one who's obviously so social and hearty? I had a few questions of my own, though I held back and waited for others to break the ice. "You can ask me anything," he eventually asked the audience (though there were really no shortage of questions at the event). Right now, I kind of wish I had asked him some different questions.

I wish I would have asked him something fun. Something like "I know that Marlon Brando had some unusual acting methods. First, is it true that Brando used to stick his lines on tiny sheets of paper everywhere? Second, where was the most unusual place he ever hid these bits of paper? Third, do any of these still survive in you archives?" Or I could have asked him something deeper, like "What is it that you've gotten out of the other ventures you've delved in that you haven't gotten out of filmmaking?"  As much as I respected his delving into the wine industry, I felt I had to go up and ask some film geeky inquiries, though. Luckily, after a few wine-centric inquests, an Italian journalist piped up with five challenges of his own.

On the first, Coppola revealed that he's working on a screenplay that might be expanded into four separate movies, though he was not forthcoming on what those pieces were about. On another, he revealed his feelings about the previous night's Oscar ceremonies (pleased with the winners, he added "I think they should go back to five Best Picture nominees," he said. "I believe that's the influence of the Golden Globes, which have two Best Picture categories, but I think the Oscars should be more exclusive than that. But then, I think there are too many awards ceremonies, just like I believe there are too many film festivals"). Someone asked him his feelings on Spike Jonze's win for his Her screenplay, and Coppola was magnanimous there, reminding us Jonze is his former son-in-law (he was married to Sofia from 1999 to 2002), and that "even though he's no longer part of the family, that doesn't mean I don't like him anymore. He's extremely gifted and kind, and I'm happy for his success." 

My friend Jane Garvey got up to the microphone and, having just completed an excellent cover story for Georgia Magazine on the booming film industry in this state, encouraged him to consider Georgia for any future filmmaking (he directed her to give a copy of the magazine to his assistant). And finally, I got up to the microphone. Emboldened by that journalist who asked five questions, I decided to simply look towards the future. I wanted to know what was happening next for him, moviewise.  But first, strangely, I wanted to look to the past--not only to the cinema's past, but to his family's past. I have to admit, up at that microphone, my voice cracked for a second, overwhelmed as I was with emotion at talking to one of my moviemaking heroes. I first let him know that, back in 1982, I attended the Fox Theater--the theater we were in--to see his father conduct his orchestrations for Abel Gance's Napoleon. 

"Oh, Napoleon played here? Wow..." I told him it was an event that changed my life and, pleased to hear this, he probably anticipated my question. Gance's film has long been unavailable for viewing, and has yet to be released on digital because of disagreements between the head of the film's reconstruction, Kevin Brownlow, and Coppola (both of whom, ironically, won special Academy Awards in the same year, 2011). Coppola said that 40 additional minutes of Gance's film have been uncovered, and that his team was deep in the process of further reconstructing Napoleon, and digging deep into Carmine Coppola's archives for pieces of music that could be blended with his father's 1981 score to make a "final cut" of the film, which he said has been contracted for release by The Criterion Collection. He characterized Brownlow's cut as a "competing version," and left it at that. I thought "Anything that leads to Napoleon being seen again, that's great news in my book."

I then asked him about the screenplays he's working on, and I wondered if they had anything to do with his long-gestating project Megalopolis, which was scuttled not long after the 9/11 incident, reportedly because it involved a similar catastrophic NYC event. Coppola answered "No, that's a project that I just cannot get financing for." I then asked, given that his current project seems to be headed for a cumulative 8-hour running time (over four separate films), if he would consider approaching a TV network for financing and distribution. "That's an intriguing possibility," he said. "Our idea of what cinema is is undergoing a radical change these days--and I'm including television in this as well--so I'm not ruling that out."

Later, another audience member asked if he'd been watching any of the TV productions that have captured the public imagination. "You know, a few months ago, I finally sat down to watch The Sopranos. It took a week--binge-watching, y'know. But I went through all 90-some hours of it, and I liked it very much. It wasn't all great, but there was greatness throughout. And then I took another week and went through Breaking Bad, and I felt very much the same way about that." He seemed encouraged about the detailed storytelling potential with which television work is now finding success, and this impressed the audience as a whole. (Incidentally, they cooed when he mentioned  Breaking Bad; not so incidentally, is Breaking Bad the new Godfather?).

It was also fascinating to learn of Coppola's 80s and 90s work as being something that he was contractually bound to do given that, in order to keep the winery going, he had signed for a bank loan that required him to make one movie a year until the money was paid back. Coppola said, on some of these projects, he found it difficult to find his way into the heart of the story. Peggy Sue Got Married, he said, was a particularly tough nut to crack, but he found a pathway into engagement when he considered the reaction he might have if he had the opportunity to revisit his own lost family members, just as Kathleen Turner's character does in the film. He also admitted that 1990's The Godfather Part III was a picture he would have never made if the requirements of running the winery had not necessitated it. "I always looked at the first two Godfather movies as a stand-alone tale, like Hamlet. And there was no Hamlet Part II..."

One of the highlights, in a night full of them, was the revelation of Coppola's musical abilities. He, of course, come from a musical family (on Inside the Actor's Studio in 2003, he told James Lipton his favorite sound was the flute, which was the instrument that his father played). He admitted to having no real musical teachings himself (though he did take co-writing credit with his father for the Apocalypse Now score). Yet he played for us a song that he'd written for his grandchild Romy Croquet (Sofia's first daughter). Lush, like a Nelson Riddle piece by way of Michel Legrand, with a full orchestra and with Coppola singing quite surely of his love for her, it was a brilliant bit of bravery for Coppola to feature this as part of his presentation (though he has nothing to be ashamed of; that song was gorgeous, and his singing was pitch perfect and, dare I say, rather Sinatra-like). "I knew I had let myself in for it, because I knew the other grandchildren would want their own song, too," he said, and so he dutifully played another he had written for Sofia's second child Cosima (another beautiful piece), and finally one he'd written for Gia when she was in her 20s (this one was different--a raucous tarantella bemused by Gia's honesty and talent for making Francis laugh).

My final comment to him--this man that had moved me to such intensity with his films--was to compliment him on his singing, and to thank him for taking the time to visit Atlanta, which we found was the first stop on a multi-city tour promoting his winery and its yield. His spry talk with us was wonderfully cozy, enlightening, and even gave us a glimpse into his firm but affable directing style, since it was obvious every move in the presentation was by his design. It was easy for all in the room to see how any collaborator, whether a family member or a fellow artist, or even a fan, would go to the earth's edge to garner his favor. Francis Ford Coppola is the kind of person you would just naturally want to please, because he's so pleasant, and so demanding of himself.

Francis Ford Coppola in Atlanta, February 2014. (photo: Atlanta Event Photography)