What is this? What am I doing?
Why it’s a newsletter of course. Finally!
Reviews, news, links, interviews, essays, suggestions - combinations of all coming today and in future editions!
The Monday Reels, plus other weekly posts.
Also: I’m searching for film articles from alternative media writers of Louisiana past, perhaps dating back to the 60s. Any help on this would be wonderful.
Reviews: The Mitchells vs The Machines (5/5), The Outside Story (5/5), Best Summer Ever (4/5?)
Going into The Mitchells vs. The Machines, based solely on a few stills and the Phil Lord and Chris Miller attachment, I assumed it would be a pretty meta and hyper romp. Like The Lego Movie before it, there is indeed a statement or two being made on expression and creativity. At the center is of course a story about a maturing daughter heading to college - film school, actually - and her father who wishes to connect with her like when she was younger. Mixed in are the rest of her family who root them on and, for good measure, a global robot domination plot. My assumptions were mostly correct, though I’d go a side-step further in concluding thought: The Mitchells vs The Machines, packing adorable and dramatic punches throughout, is a film of fireworks and razzle dazzle, that pushes the action of loving support for one another to such great heights. I loved it, absolutely.
When an A.I. assistant is rendered “obsolete” by its manufacturer/creator, pure revenge runs red, and all humans are subsequently collected by robot minions for expulsion into deep space - but at least they have free wifi. It’s up to The Mitchells, the last human holdouts, to save the world, but what will happen after, should they succeed? Does this company get in trouble for its destructive product? We do see some regret from the face of the company, and attempts are made at reconciliation with his now evil program (whom he brushed off rather coldly), but the movie never settles this: The A.I. is now mad, and must be given a kill code.
What I’m getting at is not a negative, but a weird positive. It’s an example of how Mitchells vs Machines circumvents (or “subverts”) what we expect to happen, and replaces that with some beautifully constructed consequence within such fantastical scenarios. The world that our main character Katie, who wishes nothing more than to attend college and get on with “her people,” is heading into is one that doesn’t compute with her excellent understanding of movie tropes and standard character arcs. This is the manifestation of her father’s worry for her, that disappointment and failure might be in store.
Everything here is placed upon the shoulders of their conflict with each other, and the ultimate lesson of moving on without moving away registers well. More than well, even. It’s a stunner of a cartoon, with much heart to be felt, much hilarity to be enjoyed, and much headroom for repeat explorations - which is highly recommended.
Not to be completely outdone in the progressive department is the sweet New York neighborhood trek The Outside Story. Bryan Tyree Henry plays a freelance video editor for Turner Classic Movies, who lives the life of a hermit. Even when he was with his girlfriend, played by the outgoing Sonequa Martin-Green, he preferred just being home in a shell of sorts, surrounded by movies and work and takeout. On this day, when his now ex-girlfriend is coming by to pick up her boxes, he accidentally locks himself out of his safe space. With no shoes, little phone battery, little patience, and an assignment coming due, he’s not exactly up for meet and greets with those he lives around.
But meet and greets are up for him.
This film is a delight. Brian Tyree Henry is the everyman protagonist of anxiety and radiating charm, which grows along with his appreciation for his fellow residents. I’ve been waiting to see some more wonder from Henry ever since his turn in Child’s Play. Yes, the horror remake. There, he was a cop on the trail of gruesome murders. Here, he’s a neurotic film buff, wishing to get back to being alone. The connection between the two is in how those characters treat their neighbors. At the start of Outside Story, while apprehensive, he’s still polite and sweet. He becomes more and more at ease with himself, and assists others in their troubles as they assist him in learning about himself. Child’s Play featured pieces of this kindness, but I’m happy to report that it’s all on full display here.
It’s just an overall dose of vitamin c, this movie is. You feel happier and better than before viewing. The Outside Story is a film of lovely performances and lovelier attitudes. Brian Tyree Henry and every other cast member, including the spark that is Olivia Edward - the little kid he befriends - are so very incredible in what is a dramedy of relationships and community and self. Kind of As Good as it Gets, but dare I say… better?
Then, there’s the spectacular drop of sunshine that is Best Summer Ever, produced by the crew at Zeno Mountain Farm, as featured in the documentary Becoming Bulletproof. In that behind-the-scenes film, Zeno’s philosophy of inclusion and performance in motion pictures for individuals with disabilities was a revelation. It’s a camp, but also a production house. Best Summer Ever is the culmination of all they’ve worked towards, and I love how much attention it and they have been getting.
It’s a musical romantic comedy. Think Grease mixed with familiar high school drama beats, and you’ll have an idea of what to expect. Still, expectations should be left at the box office. Best Summer Ever isn’t just song and dance, but also a comedy - sometimes subversive even - and genuine joy. The cast is mixed with those who are disabled and those who are not, but everyone is treated as equally as can be, by which I mean some are heroes, some are villains, and some are supporting players with their own stories to be told one day. The level playing field here is one of pure representation, showcasing that anyone can be a sweetheart or a jerk, no matter what. I feel that this is one of the central points of the film, on top of making a fun movie of course.
Fun, if not particularly revolutionary. It doesn’t have to be, but other reviews staking this claim are maybe overhyping what is an above and beyond community picture. It’s awesome to watch indeed - especially the two sports commentators, who just laugh and trash talk almost everything - and does have everyone working together in front of and behind the camera (as showcased in the striking end credits), but I’m just a bit uncertain at this time as to its rating. If a four out of five is where I settle, what prevented me from going all the way? I don’t always have an answer to that, just a feeling that points me to a number.
I noted that Best Summer Ever’s greatest achievement is in laying the framework as to what inclusive productions can be like. It’s a go big example for sure, but so what? Get loud, and make demands already. For being so bold alone, the film deserves recognition. For being a blast, it should be watched by as many people as possible, near and far. It could very well make impressions on certain suits and certain hearts.
Movie novelizations were cool, huh?
“In an age of conglomerate-owned indies and A24ification, Kotlyarenko is unabashedly off-leash, not unlike Andy Warhol with his B-movie pulp.”
The tale of Orson Welles’ “frozen peas” commercial outtake.
Film Crit Hulk on Zack Snyder’s superhero films.
“The brilliance in Greene’s documentary, however, is that you have reenactors showing flickers of comprehension over the injustices inflicted upon others.”
Q&A: Director Nicholas Jarecki on his film Crisis
Crisis is a moral thriller set in the opioid era of the war on drugs. What’s the difference, for you, between a movie like Traffic and your latest film?
Traffic was a seminal film that looked at the cocaine problem with an emphasis on the Mexican border. It operates in the tradition of the great multi-narrative pictures like 21 Grams, LA confidential, and more. These movies have their roots perhaps in the work of the director Robert Altman who inspired us all with multi-plot classics like Nashville. As these films have become more rare today through the emphasis on television, I wanted to harken back to this kind of storytelling because it can put a spotlight on social issues seeing how we are all connected and the problems we face together.
I think Crisis has a unique focus on the domestic troubles we have with opioid regulation, and the power of big companies like pharmaceutical manufacturers to have so much impact on the American people. While we deal with cross-border issues in Canada, really we focus on the impact to users and their loved ones, and that’s a worldwide problem.
Stories of this ilk can easily fall into traps of preachiness and redundancy. In your roles as writer and director, what difficulties if any did you come across with conceiving and executing this film without getting caught up in these traps?
I’m never a big fan of villains in films, especially when we deal with issues that confront us as a people. It’s too easy to point the finger and say “those are the bad folks responsible.”
Usually, social problems like drug addiction and opioid promotion are rooted in a cultural issue, how we tend to react as a society to things we want. Is there a magic pill to make life troubles easier?
Given this, I thought it was important to give voice to the position of certain pharmaceutical companies which may be that any progress made is good progress, even if it isn’t perfect. I also wanted to explore the good that law enforcement tries to do even in a failing war on drugs, and I always love the anti-hero films from the 70s and their conflicted characters. I tried to draw my leads including Evangeline Lilly‘s vigilante as complex and not easily defined heroes. Like Gary Oldman’s whistleblower, she considers herself to be doing the wrong things for the right reasons.
All things considered with the genre of this picture and the red flags now associated with star Armie Hammer, has the distribution and release process been different and perhaps more careful this time than with your other films?
As a filmmaker, I really try to focus on the movie! My first job is just to deliver you a good entertainment and an enjoyable experience. That’s where the majority of my energy goes since it’s difficult to achieve even that and the audience is always the judge of whether you serve them properly.
Independent film distribution has been challenging for quite some time. How do you get non-standard films out into the marketplace and get any real attention for things that are not easily understood premises and films that try to ask larger questions? this is something we have been struggling with for a while. The rise of streaming has helped in some ways and hurt and others. For instance, I think it’s more difficult than ever to get an independent film into theaters, and the pandemic certainly didn’t help.
That was the major challenge for us, how to build awareness during the pandemic, and even if audiences would want to watch a story about opioid abuse with so many other troubles in the world going on. But I think they demonstrated a high level of interest in this topic, because everyone knows somebody involved with addiction. That, more than the issues of any cast member or the screening format was what mattered.
We’ve been lucky to have excellent performance with audiences seeking out the film because it speaks to them on some level. They’ve helped the film reach number one on iTunes and earn high grosses in theaters as we continue to open around the world where they are available.
Ultimately, I think the public is a good judge of what moves them, more than any distributor, technology system, or cultural writer. They vote with their dollars and they do what matters to them. I felt the film would have a life because addiction crosses all walks of life. Everyone has a friend or family member that has had trouble at some point. These are real issues we need to face and hopefully the film advances that discussion in some way.
The Crisis cast is filled with pretty high-profile talent. How does a director handle such an ensemble, and how much is creative compromise part of the production process?
I’ve been very lucky throughout my career to work with wonderful actors, from Richard Gere in Arbitrage to Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling, Nate Parker, Tim Roth, and in this film such an incredibly diverse array of talent. I’m a big believer in rehearsal and exploration with the cast. They bring so much to their roles, and I like to work with them during the exploration process in an improvisational fashion, to see what they want to add to the text.
From there we distill it and they bring it to life on set. As a director, you’re lucky because you have the editing room as yet another step in the creation and I even like to bring my actors in there to share their ideas.
As far as compromise, it isn’t with the actors; they are always a joy. The issue is always time because it’s a function of money and you’re working in independent film with a limited budget. So it’s always a race against the clock and what can you get before the sun goes down since you can’t come back tomorrow. That said, these challenges often have a way of forcing you to think more creatively and I believe it’s true that these limitations often result in a stronger picture.
What’s your favorite whistleblower movie, and why?
I really love The China Syndrome with Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon, two of my favorite actors. It also has a strong early performance from its producer Michael Douglas. I like the idea of Lemmon as a man so consumed with blowing the whistle that he’ll actually take the whole place hostage. I think you can see I like extreme characters, who act boldly and decisively and perhaps a little wild. There’s something exciting in watching that in a movie. Some of these problems we face, like the opioid issue, don’t lend themselves to easy solutions. We’ve got to fight to fix them because they’re hurting so many that we love. When I was making this film I heard a phrase in my head sometimes that said: “maybe if you want to change the rules you have to break the rules.” At least in a movie— why not?!
Crisis is now available on VOD and DVD.
After over twelve months of being closed, New Orleans’ Broad Theater has reopened. While audience capacity will be at 50% for the time being, the programming and long wait for neighborhood showtimes to return, ought to bring dedicated moviegoers back. Their outdoor venue The Broadside continues to host musical performances and some film screenings, now with relaxed mask rules due to CDC updates on those who’ve been vaccinated, and the state’s subsequent dropping of its mask mandate.
Meanwhile, former Broad Theater manager Michael Domangue is preparing the launch of his movie club The New Vitascope Film Society. His group will be setting up out of Twelve Mile Limit for the time being, with a film series based on celebrity Kings of Bacchus, from past Mardi Gras celebrations. Support is encouraged on their Patreon page (Full disclosure: I’m a patron).
And Film Prize Jr, “The South’s largest student film festival,” which took place in mid-April, have announced the finalists and winners of their event. Awards were given to filmmakers across Middle Scool and High Scool categories, whose works can still be viewed on the official website.
Prytania - Uptown: Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street
The Broad: About Endlessness
Prytania - Canal Place: Army of the Dead
Zeitgeist: Berlin Alexanderplatz
Mubi: Labyrinth of Cinema
Louisiana Film Channel: New Orleans, Mon Amour
Tubi: American Hero
Means TV: Rukus
Until next time…