Q & A: Director Kasi Lemmons (Avril ’11 at Paul Robeson Film Festival @ HU)

Director Kasi Lemmons in the SOB Auditorium for student film festival. (Foto Credit: Bree Grant)

If luck comes your way, be prepared.

Luck is the love child of preparedness and opportunity.

– KASI LEMMONS

Acting was director/screenwriter Kasi Lemmons’ first love. Her big break came before she even entered junior high. Lemmons’ membership with the Boston Children’s Theater opened the door to her first appearance in a local television show called “You’ve Got a Right”, a courtroom drama. And when she left the Bay State she headed to New York for film school at the New School for Social Research. While in New York, she also studied at the famous Lee Strasburg acting studio, the home of the Method acting embodied by Marlon Brando.

When Lemmons relocated to California, she began starring in her first major films, including Spike Lee’s “School Daze” and Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of Lambs.”

While acting helped Lemmons pay the bills, her decision to step behind the camera would raise her profile in the movie industry even more. She wrote the screenplay for the sleeper indie, “Eve’s Bayou”, during a break from acting. ”Bayou” won numerous awards for Lemmons, including a an “Outstanding Directorial Debut” from the National Board of Review. “Talk to Me,” a 2007 biopic starring Don Cheadle and Martin Sheen, garnered further accolades for Lemmons and the ensemble cast.

Q1: What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers and students?

Be prepared. Always bring your ‘A’ game. That’s really my motto. If luck comes your way, be prepared. Luck is the love child of preparedness and opportunity. You got to do your part and to be prepared.

Don’t give up. It’s very easy to just say after a couple of rejections: ‘It’s too hard. It’s just too hard.’ And you can’t. You’ve gotta be stronger.

I find that with women of color, they’re already discouraged before they start. You have to ignore conventional wisdom. Even voices that say you can’t have it all. That’s not true. You have to be able to ignore the noise and believe in yourself.

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Movie Review: Margin Call (2011 – J.C. Chandor)

Since the DVD just came out today, I thought I’d post this.

Movie Review: MARGIN CALL

Or, The Thankless Job of Quants a.k.a. Sylar’s Good!

This fictional recreation about the collapse of an unnamed Wall Street firm (maybe a combination of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns) circa 2008 opens with what one “survivor” calls a bloodbath. “It’s gonna to get pretty ugly ‘round here,” he says afterwards, a bit dazed.

The following 90 plus minutes prove this observation to be prescient. Although Chandor’s picture is not a gore-fest of fake blood, “blood-letting” comes in the form of ruthless infighting. The “street fighters” are firm execs and their subordinates trying to shift blame for the firm’s failure to the lowest man (or lone woman played by Demi Moore) in the bureaucratic hierarchy.

Unlike in Heroes, Zachary Quinto isn’t among those getting his handy dirty or turning a blind eye to the risks that “cooked books” could lead to. He solves the puzzle that a predecessor who didn’t survive the pink-slip confetti time was sorting out (reminiscent of what  “Suresh”* used to do before dealing with Covert Affairs).

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Movie Review: Viva Riva! [Pas de “Spoilers”]

Capture d’ecran de film poster. (IMPAwards)

“Où est Riva?” (Where is Riva?)

a.k.a.

An Oil Thief Flames Out in Kinshasa

With comparisons to 2007’s Cidade de Deus and reviews describing the film as a “Congolese noir”, Riva succeeds in making the latter description fitting, while the former hope remains to be seen.

Djo Munga’s film opens at a fast-paced in media res, which is also a favorite first act of American film noir pictures and their overseas cousins (ex. the Jean Gabin-starring Le jour se leve memorably opens with the trapped criminal shoutin’ and rantin’ from his barricaded room). And within the picture’s first 20 minutes, all of the typical film noir signature archetypes stroll onto the screen as this chase story unfolds.

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Movie Review: Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito) [“Spoiler Free” As Usual]

Sleeping With the Enemy

a.k.a

How the Hunter Gets Captured by the Prey

(A Tribute to the Les Marvelettes)

In short, Skin, an adaptation of a French novel, is strictly for the fans, the Almodóvarists, as the five walkouts and three comebacks that I counted at an E Street Cinema showing attested. (I consider myself an Almodóvarist, by the way.)

More than anything else, the picture marks the twenty-two year reunion of the outrageous director with Antonio Banderas, his “acteur fétiche” (roughly translated as “idol actor”). The cinematic synergy that the late French director Claude Chabrol shared with Isabelle Huppert is the same magic that happens when Banderas and Almodóvar work together. (Both Banderas and Huppert made six films with their country’s acclaimed auteurs).

VEINS-GLORIOUS: Banderas hovers over “Vera” (Elena Anaya); capture d’écran de film poster. (IMDB)

Like Banderas’ previous collaborations, he plays his calling card – the “lovestruck madman” – to the tilt. In this case, lines such as “I didn’t know your skin was so soft” sound less like a come-on than a creepy, cannibalistic observation.

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MOVIE REVIEW: Even the Rain (Tambien La Lluvia) (Sin SPOILERS…)

They Can’t Go On, They’ll Go On (Dig the Beckett-esqe Title)

a.k.a The “Happy World Water Day” Post (Beleatedly since WP had a “hack attack”)

A statue immortalizing Frei Montesinos giving his famous speech located in the Dominican Republic. (“bartolomedelascasas”)

La verdad tiene a muchos en su contra… la mentira muchos a favor.

(The truth has many enemies. The lie has many friends.)

–          Frei Antonio de Montesinos/Juan

The movie-within-a-movie (or mise en abyme) is a strange beast dependent on two stories that either complement each other or fail to jibe at all. In the case of Rain, off-set drama propels the story as much as it did in successful predecessors like Almodovar’s Broken Embraces and Minelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful.

Early on, the obsessed screenwriter Sebastiàn (Gael Garcia Bernal) remarks, “I hope I can get through this.”

He does. Yet, he quickly loses the “bleeding heart” façade that’s in full effect at the film’s open.

The first scene is fittingly a casting call for an epic film about the “real” discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus (referred to as Cristóbal Colón in the film and played by legendary yet alcohol-dependent actor Antón).

The open casting call draws people from every small town surrounding Cochabamba, Bolivia. So many people show up that Sebastiàn and company – his foil Costa and documentarian Maria – have to turn away those at the end of line.  But a future cast members, a Quechua man named Daniel, thwarts their plan by stirring up a commotion.

Daniel, who’s casted to play the martyred cacique leader Hatuey, lacks professional acting experience. Yet, we quickly discover that he has one gift that threatens the film: a knack for rallying people against the Bolivian government.

The almost useless Maria follows around Daniel and his fellow “starving Indians” (as Costa offhandedly refers to the Quechua people he casts to play as the Tainos of Hispaniola). Her aim: to make a behind-the-scenes featurette for the main film.

Following the Quechua extras allows Maria to catch more than unguarded moments off-set. She luckily follows them the day workers from the government’s water agency come to harass the villagers. In turn, the villagers chase the agents away with their fists and swing shovels as the truck pulls off.

After “greeting” the two men in the truck, their violent reaction to the mere sight of the government reps becomes clear as they explain to Maria their losing battle against the government. For the last few years, the government has pushed to privatize the wells in Bolivia by taxing villagers’ use of wells that some of them privately purchased.

Daniel and his fellow neighbors refuse to back down.  And when the government agency finally padlocks the last well of freshwater in the village, tensions in Cochabamba reach their breaking point. Fearing that even rainwater collected in a pail will be outlawed next, the villagers begin mobilizing, and agitating officials with traffic-jamming demonstrations and blockades.

Filmmaker Costa (r) and screenwriter Sebastian (l) stumble into a water-fight much more violent than a Supersoaker match. (Vitagraph Films)

“You don’t understand. Water is life,” Daniel says to Costa when he bribes him to stay out of the trouble.

But Costa later sees eye to eye with Daniel and the demonstrators, even risking his life in the process.  Sebastiàn, on the other hand, dismisses the protest as an annoyance (“…our film is going to last forever” while the protests will be forgotten). His modesty should have its own milk carton: it’s missing…or it never existed.

As a “nutcase” for his craft, Sebastiàn believes “the film comes first, always.”  And ‘til the bitter end, he’ll harangue and coerce those who stray from his overriding goal: to see the script that he devoted years of research to brought to life. His selfishness, heightened by his inner “vampire” (i.e. his  talent), allows him to see nothing but his film – making everyone expendable after they’ve done their jobs. But as a bloodied Daniel/Hatuey tells Costa after the latter bails him out, “Some thing’s are more important than your film.”

The film’s political bent does not make it unadulterated Marxist poetry (à la Gilles Pontecrevo’s La Bataille d’Alger).  Furthermore, the dedication to progressive historian Howard Zinn does not make this “fictional” account more biased than most cable news channel (CNN valiantly tries to put the “c” in the centrist political fiction that politicos like to shovel.) In fact, the movie strikes a balance between revisionism versus accuracy (which is sacrificed for “bottom line” costs).  Antón was simply egging on Juan/Frei Antonio Montesinos when he said the film “isn’t art. It’s pure propaganda.”

Before the credits roll, the balance shifts decidedly to the left – in favor of the villagers. The exact moment in which the balance is lost: when the mayor of Cochabamba utters the unforgivable line: “If you give the Indians an inch, they’ll drag us back to the Stone Age.”

In their struggle for yaku (Quechua for “water”) against the government, the villagers have a protest chant to counter the government’s underestimation of them: “Rifle or gun, the people will never run!” The defiance of the chant demonstrates their unbreakable resolve – much like Sebastiàn who refuses to leave Bolivia with an unfinished film.

Classic Rating: 7.5/10 – Potential Cult Classic

Side-note:  In light of the stalled US climate legislation (full overview of the climate bill’s demise) and the delayed resolution of Lago Agrio-Chevron lawsuit, a happy ending for the “Green” crowd is long overdue.  2000’s Erin Brokovich, by modern standards, is ancient.

But besides being a political drama, Rain is a great way to “celebrate” Columbus Day…or “Turkey Day” alongside this musical play from the Addams Family Values:

Movie Review: BLUE VALENTINE [SPOILERS…Juuust Maybe]

Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine (2010): Long Time, No Nice Time (Or To Be or Not Be “Como Nossos Pais”)

Long time, since we had a nice time

Do you, do you, do yah think about that?

–         Phyllis Dillon “Nice Time

(Bob Marley & the original Wailers also cut a much slow version named “Nice Time” that’s worth checking out)

Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) still think about their long-gone good times. Between the two, Dean is the only one fighting to keep their marriage alive. And Cindy has him on the ropes. She dodges all his amorous advances, and crushes all of his efforts to rekindle their former passion that time has snuffed out.

“I don’t want to be like my parents,” Cindy says earnestly during an early tête-à-tête with Dean. He understands her, since his parent’s marriage ended when his mother skipped off, arm-in-arm, with another man.

“No one else talks in my family,” she says matter-of-factly, “And when they talk, they only yell.”

Instead of kicking and screaming, Cindy often uses her words (and disappointed glances) to hurt Dean more than her tiny fists ever could. In the opening scene, when Dean cuts up with their daughter Frankie for fun, her blasé sighs and cutting stare signal how fed up she is with playing mom to two “children.” And a later “promotion” (i.e. proposition) to work at an office far away from Dean actually inspires a rare smile. The “promotion” is her big chance to get away from it all. But luck stopped favoring her a longtime ago.

When the bickering stage of their marriage begins, neither of them knows. And you won’t either since the film’s non-linear narrative never reveals when the rupture exactly begins.

But when a mini-drama of Whose Baby Is It Anyway? (à la Maury Povich) inspires a couple to head to the chapel of love their “I dos” doom their marital bliss before those two words are even exchanged. Continue reading

Movie Reviews : La France & Le Doulos (or “Deux de France”)

Although Camille (Testud) never sees the warfront, she does experience war’s harsh conditions. (Les Films Pelleas)

LA FRANCE ‘07

La France is the first film I’ve watched starring Sylvie Testud – and it won’t be the last.  In Serge Bozon’s “war musical”, she confirms her reputation as the go-to actress for offbeat films in France.

As the lovesick Camille, she passes time waiting for her husband tending to the house and running to the town’s highest hill to spot any combat action. Her husband has left her to serve in the country’s army during World War I (“The Great War”) in 1917. But a letter written by him sends her much closer to the warfront than just a hilltop view.  The letter sparks the old fighter within Camille: She aims to find her husband and drag him back home, since as she says, “The war has come between us.” Continue reading

Movie Review: Winter’s Bone [Spoiler Free…Or Yet Another Vain Attempt]

As a “bred and buttered” Dolly, bail bondsmen are no stranger to Ree (Jennifer Lawrence): In her meth-ravaged community, lab explosions and drug busts are commonplace.

However, the day when Sheriff Baskin (Garett Dillahunt of 4400 fame) darkens her front door, he delivers unexpected news that threatens to tear her family apart. Jessup, her meth-selling father (whose face is never seen except in a childhood picture), is on the lam and he used the family’s house and acres of lumber wood as collateral to post bail. If he isn’t found within a week’s time, the struggling family will be tossed out onto the street.

Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) sets out on a quest to find her father, in order to save her family’s house. (Roadside Attraction)

But Ree refuses to allow her young siblings and her depression-numbed mother to become homeless. So, she sets out on a perilous search to track down her father herself, which provides the back-bone of Debra Granik’ down-home noir.

The coldness among the people of Ree’s small town does not need the film’s ominous score: their menacing faces and volatile behavior – when “cranked out” or not – suffices.  Viewers will have a hard time forgetting Merab (Dale Dickey) the moment the camera zooms onto her face as she warns Ree to stop looking for trouble by asking around town about her father’s whereabouts. Or when Ree seeks help from her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) and the tense family reunion that occurs when she visits him. (In a later scene, Ree tells him, “I was always afraid of you”; His response with a slight grin: “That’s because you’re smart.”)

Despite further warnings and return visits by officers, Ree continues playing the detective while acting as a substitute mother to her vulnerable siblings. Her determination to not give up on both accounts shades light on future plans life has forced her to limit. Plans to join the army for quick money prove fruitless when the recruiter tells her that taking her siblings on the base during the combat would be impossible.

Crushed but not broken, she lets yet another dream die as her search reaches its climatic end – with a handy chainsaw in tow.

Classic Rating Scale: 7/10 – Potential Cult Classic

Movie Review: “Black Swan” [Spoiler Free…Or At Least a Vain Attempt]

Liv Ullmann was a “girl interrupted” onstage in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, but Natalie Portman picks up where Ullmann left off starring in Darren Aronofsky’s modernization of the classic Swan Lake.

Nina Sayers (Portman), however, would have been better off if the curtain call came earlier. Yet, an early curtain call would have robbed audiences of the chance to watch as a nightmare unfolds with a “frigid” perfectionist competing with a rival more cutthroat than the ubiquitous “new girl” – in this case Lily (Mila Kunis, the voice of Family Guy’s Meg Griffin). The real enemy plotting to do her in like Eve Harrington did Margo Channing (from Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve): Nina herself. Continue reading