Sunday, January 23, 2011

Film Review | A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Mind over Matter

By Thomas Delapa

A Beautiful Mind is a beautifully shot drama about the mental workings of a schizophrenic. Amazingly, the mind in question belonged to John Forbes Nash, the 1994 winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics.

The tricky biopic that emerges from director Ron Howard and writer Akiva Goldsman is one that chillingly goes inside the head of its subject. Not literally, of course. Your own head may be spinning while you're watching the bizarre events unfold. Was Nash was really a paranoid schizophrenic, or was Cold War America of the 1950s slightly crazy? "Yes" may be the answer to both questions.

Oscar winner Russell Crowe stars as Nash, who in 1947 entered Princeton University with a bright future. Withdrawn and arrogant, Nash was obsessed to formulate an original math theory as a way to distinguish himself from his preppy colleagues. Nash was also brilliant at deciphering codes, a talent that is quickly put to use by the Pentagon.

Your opinion of A Beautiful Mind will rest on whether you mind being manipulated, perhaps even deceived, by the filmmakers. As the 1950s pass, Nash is drawn further and further into the top-secret Cold War assignments given to him by a sinister G-man (Ed Harris). However hush-hush, Nash's government work seems believable given the exploding Cold War tensions of the times.

Howard and Goldsman aren't especially forthcoming with the facts, sacrificing "reality" in order to increase the mystery and suspense. But the suspense they create has all the logic and internal perfection of a Newtonian formula.
I found Crowe's performance, while painstaking, to be mannered and overly technical. More naturalistic is his striking co-star Jennifer Connelly, playing the M.I.T. student who becomes his steadfast wife.

In the equation that adds up to A Beautiful Mind, two shining parts are the art design (by Wynn Thomas) and the cinematography (by Roger Deakins). In an amusing demonstration of Nash's "game theory," we scientifically witness how single males compete for an attractive female in a bar. Later, the sight of Nash's office and garage plastered with magazines—part of his decoding work—is creepy.

I wish Howard and Goldsman would have devoted more time to Nash's important mathematical work. After all, were it not for his published theories, he would have probably been just another anonymous academic afflicted with mental disease.

A schizophrenic, says Nash, is someone who "doesn't know what's true." Given the subterfuge, delusions and paranoia of the Cold War era, that diagnosis could have easily been applied to millions of normal Americans.


[A Beautiful Mind was winner of the 2001 Academy Award for Best Picture.]

Originally published in Boulder Weekly, 12/27/01

Monday, January 17, 2011

Film Review | Somewhere

Nowhere Man

by Thomas Delapa

Somewhere inside Somewhere there might be a good movie trying to break out, but I doubt it. Director Sofia Coppola’s painfully understated meditation on Hollywood celebrity is nearly as shallow as its subject.

Decadently ensconced at L.A.’s ritzy Chateau Marmont hotel is Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), an A-list, bad-boy movie star who’s tres bored and between pictures. Johnny is so jaded that he falls asleep while twin blond pole dancers writhe at his feet in his room. By day he buzzes around town in his sleek black Ferrari, trolling for women. By night, he gets them. To a succession of loose, luscious females, all he has to say is, “Hi, I’m Johnny,” and he’s off for a tumble.

Have we not had our fill of stories about debauched and narcissistic American screen idols? Coppola has no reservations about yet another sequel, and proceeds to unreel a bite-sized, saccharine version of La Dolce Vita. You have to wonder why the producers would give the green light to this project, considering that Dorff gives the impression of black hole rather than big star. If we want to believe that Johnny is the “biggest U.S. star”—a la Leonardo DiCaprio or a Brad Pitt—we at least need to know what makes him shine.

But the Lost in Translation director is less interested in Johnny as in his flickering relationship with his estranged 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning). With his ex-wife out of town, Johnny gets to play father for a few weeks. You don’t need to read People magazine to get the feeling that Coppola is rummaging somewhere in the autobiographical basement, furnished with memories of her relationship with her own famous ex-Hollywood father, director Francis Ford Coppola.

The meandering, impressionistic (or lazy) plot perks up when Fanning’s sunny Cleo rises in Johnny’s deadened life. While he’s lost in a haze of casual sex and breezy, air-kiss encounters, Cleo is all that is pure, true and good in the female world. Not only does she ice skate with ethereal grace, but she cooks up a happy meal, too.

All this might be palatable had not Coppola served it up as something fresh and revelatory, instead of the rehash that it is. Father and daughter even voyage to Italy, land of the original La Dolce Vita, and embark on a garish publicity tour that might have come out of 1960s Fellini outtakes. It’s never a good sign when a film’s best scenes don’t include its lead actor—as when Cleo and Johnny’s slacker friend (Chris Pontius) hang out and riff some small talk while they play Guitar Hero.

With Coppola and similar indie directors today, there’s a new vogue for episodic movie minimalism. On the surface, that’s all well and good, but preciously self-conscious long takes are only window dressing if there’s nothing to watch behind the curtain. While Johnny’s extended stay takes place in the chic environs of the Chateau Marmont, the low-rent plot feels like it was picked up somewhere near Motel 6.



Tuesday, January 11, 2011

At Indiana University, Kinsey Film Collection Still a Touchy Subject

Indiana University Cinema was created in part as a showcase for its film holdings, but since they include Alfred Kinsey's sexually explicit films and videos, it's a complex issue.

By Steven Rosen, Special to the Los Angeles Times

December 30, 2010

When Jon Vickers was interviewing for his job as the first director of the new Indiana University Cinema, he was told there might be a tricky problem if he was hired.

"The comment I heard frequently was, 'You'll have to figure out what to do with the Kinsey Collection, because it's different than all the others,' " Vickers says. "There was an assumption the programmer would work with the collection, but how to do that was a question for everybody."

And, as he prepares to open the college cinematheque on Jan. 13, it still is.

The "Kinsey Collection" refers to the roughly 14,000 films and videos belonging to the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, which has offices on the school's Bloomington campus in southern Indiana. Biologist Alfred Kinsey, who started the institute in 1947 and died in 1956, and his researchers collected the films as part of his world-famous (and the institute's ongoing) research into human sexuality.

There are all sorts of films, including sex-education titles, racy vintage Hollywood fare and the erotic Brazilian art-house classic "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands." But the largest grouping, and perhaps the most historically valuable, consists of the one-reel historic stag films made independently from the 1920s through the 1960s. The Kinsey Collection has about 2,000 of these, slightly more than its Swedish erotica and art movies.

In an age before readily available adult-movie theaters, X-rated DVDs and online porn sites, these films were shown surreptitiously at stag parties and other typically male gatherings. They had suggestive but only rarely explicit titles, such as "Silk Stocking Sirens in High Heels" and "The Nympho Nurses."

Because of their nature, the institute had been storing them in what Rachael Stoeltje, IU film archivist, calls "the Kinsey cage." It is a locked section of a film storage area — a converted bowling alley — near the central campus. (The school has recently completed moving them, however, to an updated facility.)

"Kinsey had relations with police departments all over the country," Stoeltje explains. "They would send him copies whenever they confiscated [such films]. They're all amateur, all illegally made, all with bad lighting, but real gems. They're unique because this doesn't exist anymore."

Liana Zhou, Kinsey's director of library and archives, knows of no other public collection of stag films like it. But that doesn't mean the new cinema will soon be promoting to its students that "Saturday night is Kinsey night," she says, laughing.

"We are very excited to have the venue," she says. "If I have a preference, in the beginning I would definitely be working with conferences and events, and not really [offering] regular programming."

In 2007, IU's president, Michael McRobbie, announced plans for renovation of a vacant 1941 centrally located theater, once used for stage productions, into a state-of-the-art 260-seat cinema and other performance spaces. The total estimated cost is $15 million, to be raised from university funds and gifts.

The state university created IU Cinema in part as a showcase for its own film holdings. IU's Black Film Center Archive, for example, owns 18 special collections and has a strong grouping of independently made African American films from the late 1970s and early 1980s. The large David S. Bradley Collection contains about 3,900 16-millimeter feature films spanning cinema history, including Bradley's own 1941 adaptation of "Peer Gynt" that featured a teenage Charlton Heston.

The Kinsey Collection presents a challenge to film programming that Vickers didn't face in his previous job, as managing director of the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at the University of Notre Dame. So far he has decided it's permissible to show some non-controversial titles, especially avant-garde films by Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Jean Genet and others. To that end, Anger is coming to the cinema Feb. 11-12 for a presentation of his films.

Indiana University in general is both proud of and touchy about Kinsey's legacy. A 2004 movie about Kinsey's life — "Kinsey," starring Liam Neeson — received an Oscar nomination; the institute's offices in an older campus building have a gift area selling mugs and T-shirts and an art gallery that stages exhibitions.

On the other hand, Kinsey Institute employees make it emphatically clear that all materials are owned separately from the school and are acquired without tax dollars. Until now, the institute has been very careful to only let scholars and researchers see films privately. One rare exception — a public screening of stag films — occurred in 2003, during the 50th anniversary of the publication of Kinsey's "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female." UC Berkeley film and media professor Linda Williams presented four movies as part of a program called "Between 'White Slavery' and the 'Ethnography of Sex Workers': Women in Stag Films at the Kinsey Institute."

But Zhou does want to see a more public profile for Kinsey's stag films, partly in order to spur preservation efforts. "We will look forward to creative, tasteful programming so more students, more interested public and more faculty and scholars would know the treasures we have," Zhou says. "Then we can look for ways to preserve them — that has been a major concern."

Meanwhile, there are those on campus who think IU Cinema should go ahead and plunge into the stag films without too much fretting. Gregory Waller, chairman of the school's department of communication and culture, believes the collection is a viable part of film history.

"That there's arguably pornographic stuff being shot as soon as people pick up cameras, it's a tradition as long as the history of the cinema," he says about the collection. "It's basically been unacknowledged and unwritten, so making that visible seems to be important."

(The photo is from the poster of a film in the Kinsey Collection.)

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Film Review | The King's Speech

The Mouth that Roared

by Thomas Delapa

Despite the upper-crust, high-flown tone, The King’s Speech may stick in your throat, especially those not amused by the all-too-common History Lite style of filmmaking. This made-for-export British import says too much, emphatically, yet ends up saying precious little.

The king in question is England’s future George VI (Colin Firth), son of the aging King George V (Michael Gambon). As the duke of York in the prewar 1930s, “Bertie” can hardly utter a word without stammering, let alone annunciate the king’s English. And in the new 20th-century era of radio and microphones, Bertie’s humiliating impediment echoes through every ear in the U.K. The failure of conventional speech therapists leads Bertie and his pert wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) to Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a saucy, unorthodox Aussie who’s never at a loss for words.

Tom Hooper, the award-winning British TV director, gives his royal subjects exactly the opposite treatment that won him kudos in HBO’s John Adams and Elisabeth I miniseries. He trades in-depth complexity for glossy simplicity, downsizes wit into glibness. In 100-odd minutes, Bertie battles his stutter, silences his insecurities and majestically finds his inner monarch, all crowned by his ascent to the throne. While this biopic is delivered as King George’s story, the filmmakers take revisionist liberties, putting words in Firth’s mouth which practically shout out: “My kingdom for an Oscar!”

A regal actor, Firth deserves better. When Logue first meets Bertie, pain and shame are written all over his face as he struggles to spit out his words. When he can speak, he’s alternately self-deprecating (“Timing isn’t my strong suit”) and angry, fuming with rage against Logue’s insolent quips. But after an auspicious prologue, screenwriter David Seidler recites rote formula, regurgitating the uplifting teacher-student lessons from the My Fair Lady/Educating Rita school of dramatics. The pronounced twist here is that it’s the Aussie commoner who’s Henry Higgins, while Bertie is the linguistically challenged timid prince with a frog in his throat.

In a movie calculated to serve up a checklist of pop talking points, Logue also pulls up a comfy Freudian couch in his ruddy, womb-like office. Lurking unspoken behind Bertie’s stutter are deep but not-too-dark childhood insecurities. He only has to face up to his bullying father and older brother (Guy Pearce) and tell them off, at least symbolically. When Bertie finally works up the courage to shout out “I have a voice!” all the audience can say, in unison, is “By George, I think he’s got it.”

While quite a few modern accounts address Bertie’s brother, the infamous and ill-fated King Edward VIII, as a man who romantically, even heroically, chose love over the throne, Hooper dismisses him in few words as a weak and frivolous playboy. The less said the better about another saggy caricature, Timothy Spall’s bulldog-jowly Winston Churchill.

Little is left unsaid in The King’s Speech, especially not the barrage of four-letter words that Bertie blurts out as damn-breaking shock therapy. Not only is the king a man of the people, but this blue-blood bloody well knows how to curse.


Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Looking Back: A 1998 Interview with "Blue Valentine's" Derek Cianfrance

(In 1998, 23-year-old Derek Cianfrance's movie "Brother Tied" was accepted into Sundance Film Festival's American Spectrum series -- his first breakthrough, even if the film subsequently was little seen. At the time, Steven Rosen interviewed him for the Denver Post. Cianfrance's critically heralded "Blue Valentine," featuring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, has just been released.)

Taking Their Chances at Sundance: Coloradan's "Brother Tied' given Park City exposure

By Steven Rosen
The Denver Post

Beginning Thursday and continuing for the next 10 days, the
center of the motion-picture world will be Park City, Utah.
That's where the Sundance Film Festival - which determines
the independent- and small-film hits for the rest of the year -
will be held. It began in 1978 and has been operated by the
nonprofit Sundance Institute since 1985. And a separate festival
called Slamdance, now in its fourth year and specializing in the
work of first-time filmmakers, takes place at the same time.

So all eyes will be on Park City. And this year, Park City's
eyes will be on Colorado - certainly not exclusively, but
definitely to a noticeable extent.

That's because a 23-year-old local filmmaker, Derek M.
Cianfrance, has a movie called "Brother Tied'' in Sundance's
American Spectrum program. It combines a traditional narrative
with a daringly advanced approach to sound use, editing,
shadow-and-light interplay, and photomontage techniques.

The feature, mostly in black-and-white, is a sobering look at
two troubled brothers and the young man - a barber - who comes
between them. As a character study, it pays as close attention
to the men's faces and their very skin as to their words. Yet
there also is high drama. When one of the brothers sets fire to
the barbershop, the victim seeks violent revenge. Since the
events occur during Christmas, the overall effect is very

Keith Zimmerman and Jason Hauser play brothers Cal and Aaron;
Carey Westbrook is the outsider, Cassius, who becomes Cal's
close friend. Since Cassius is African-American and the two
brothers white, the story has an uncommented-upon racial
element. There also are erotic undercurrents in the relationship
between Cal and Cassius.

It was filmed in Longmont and Denver, especially at
Longmont's Elite Barber Shop, during portions of the past three
years. Cianfrance made the film on a small, privately raised
budget, collaborating with friends from his film classes at the
University of Colorado-Boulder. He hopes to sell distribution
rights during the Sundance festival.

While American Spectrum films are not in competition for
major Sundance awards, there is fierce competition for the
program's 18 slots. This year, Sundance received 869
feature-film submissions and chose 16 dramatic films and 16
documentaries for its juried-competition programs. They all are
having U.S. premieres at Sundance. Another 18 were selected for
the relatively new American Spectrum series. They need not be
having U.S. premieres at Sundance, although "Brother Tied'' is.

Overall, Sundance is presenting 103 features and 68 shorts in
a variety of programs. Of those, 16 are high-profile but
out-of-competition "premieres'' of invited films that bypassed
the submission process.

"... Cianfrance has a feel for his medium that extends well
beyond his years,'' wrote Geoffrey Gilmore, director of
programming for the Sundance Film Festival, in the festival's
1998 guide. "Elliptical, sometimes a bit ambivalent, and
beautifully filmed with great montages, music and editing,
"Brother Tied' is a filmic realization made by a director who
understands the power of his craft.''

This year's Sundance certainly is extremely important to Cianfrance and the
young men who went without salaries - and often sleep - to help
him make "Brother Tied.'' Those include screenwriters Mike
Tillman and Joey Curtis and sound designer Jimmy Helton, as well
as the cast.

They all are very excited about its screening, at 11:30 p.m.
Friday. The film also has been invited to next month's Berlin
Film Festival and will be screened in March at New York's
Lincoln Center.

"Once we got into Sundance, my phone started ringing off the
hook,'' Cianfrance said. "I started getting calls from people
who had the tape on their desk but never watched it. Sundance is
the validation in the eyes of people.''

Cianfrance had submitted the movie to Sundance last year. It
was praised but turned down because of its 140-minute length.
The Berlin Film Festival also passed. After refashioning a
109-minute version, the director tried the Edinburgh Film
Festival in Scotland. It was accepted and had its world premiere
there in August.

All this has tended to support Cianfrance's decision to drop
out of CU to work full time on the film. Raised in Lakewood, he
first starting making videos while at Green Mountain High
School. "What I was doing was learning the craft of filmmaking
by doing it,'' Cianfrance explained.

Zimmerman, 23, who plays Cal in "Brother Tied,'' first
started acting in Cianfrance's high-school video projects.
"When you see Derek's work, right off the bat you know he has a
gift for the visual storytelling medium,'' he said.

"I started realizing the films I wanted to make were going
to take advantage of all the different aspects of the cinematic
medium,'' Cianfrance explained. "I don't necessarily like a
film like "The Brothers McMullen.' That could as easily be a
stage play. What I always wanted to do was make things that
could only exist as a film.''

At CU, he learned about the work of American and European
avant-gardists, especially early Russian filmmakers. His
16-millimeter silent film won awards and was shown on
television's Independent Film Channel.

When he realized he wanted to make a feature-length 16mm
sound film, he drew inspiration from an unusual source - a moody
Elvis Presley Christmas album. That made him want to devise a
downbeat, ruminative story set during the Christmas season.

For a theme, he drew upon the advice of his late grandfather
- "never take anyone's side against the family.'' "That's the
way I grew up,'' he said. "If your family kills somebody,
you're on their side - not that my family are killers or
anything.'' (His mother taught school; his father was a district
manager for a shoe retailer.)

"So I wanted to address that in a film - someone brought up
in a family like that who has to struggle with that. Someone who
has a family member who is no good. Do you still stand by their

"Brother Tied'' could be a breakthrough for its actors as
well as director. After the Edinburgh screening, The Guardian
newspaper praised "a strong cast, especially the charismatic
Carey Westbrook as Cassius.''

Westbrook, 27, moved to Colorado from Chicago to study
writing and poetics at Boulder's Naropa Institute. He has acted
in training videos and commercials, and has had small parts in
several movies. He replied to a newspaper notice seeking actors
for "Brother Tied.''

"I didn't expect it would be that big a deal,'' he said. "I
didn't know it had the potential to be as great as it turned out
to be. I knew it was for free, and I'm not used to doing free
gigs. But I just said "to hell with it' and tried it out. "What struck me was the integrity of the character - a man
struggling with his own soul. It was a universal human character.

"I try to keep a clear head and stay practical about this,''
he said. "The fact of the matter is I'm a room-service waiter
right now, and I will be one until we go to Sundance. I'm hoping
I don't have to be one when I come back.''

(photo at top of Derek Cianfrance)

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Film Review | The Fighter

He Ain't Heavy, He's My Half-Brother

by Thomas Delapa

Some labors of love are just labors.

It took actor/producer Mark Wahlberg five long years to wrestle The Fighter to the screen. In the story of welterweight boxer “Irish” Micky Ward and his drug-addict half-brother Dicky, Wahlberg sparred with a tag-team of directors (like Darren Aronofsky) and co-stars (including Brad Pitt), before settling on David O. Russell and Christian Bale. To his credit, Wahlberg never did throw in the towel, though that doesn’t mean dazed audiences won’t want to.

Any boxing movie made since champs like Rocky and Raging Bull faces long odds. On one hand (or fist), there’s Rocky’s ethnic blue-collar, underdog formula to contend with. On the other is Raging Bull’s brutal naturalism and superbly choreographed fight scenes. While The Fighter battles to be its own movie, it ends up on the ropes, done in by a lightweight plot and a flabby midsection.

In this 1990s biopic of Boston-area blood brothers and foul-mouthed family feuding, Wahlberg’s Micky should be the main event. Instead, The Departed star steps aside for Bale's Dicky, Micky’s crack-addicted, sometime-trainer brother. Gaunt, wired and wild-eyed, Bale is a moving target, rarely standing still long enough to connect with the audience. An ex-boxer himself who once fought the legendary Sugar Ray Leonard, Dicky now takes his blows at the local crack house, giving new meaning to the phrase “rope-a-dope.”

While Bale answers every bell with madly Methodical intensity, the soft-spoken, near-ascetic Wahlberg always seems to be shadow-boxing with the gloves on. Russell and Wahlberg so knock themselves out building this movie from the outside with streetwise cred, they give Micky a pedestrian treatment. Yo Adrian, this Fighter is short on fight.

Outside of the ring, Russell takes some amusing jabs at Micky’s crass, loud-mouthed mother (Melissa Leo) and her entourage of seven shrewish daughters. But even these big-haired harpies are too grotesque to be funny, except as lumpy punching bags. The catalyst for Micky’s break from his family is Charlene (Amy Adams), a tough, straight-shooting bartender whom he slowly wins over to his corner. Beside the flurry of family squabbles, Bale and Leo do score a few points for a running gag that shows Dicky defenestrating himself out of the crack house to escape his mother’s wrath.

Though The Fighter wears its blue-collar squalor around its neck like a medal, there’s nothing fancy about its footwork, least of all in the obligatory rock-music montages celebrating Micky’s boyhood roots in the ‘hood. Round 1 of his rise to the top kicks off with the ubiquitous (and misdated) “How You Like Me Now?” by the Heavy. Answer: Not so much.

Even more routine is Micky’s Rocky road to triumph once he beats down his Freudian baggage and pounces back into the ring with the eye of the tiger. With a leaner, punchier script, maybe The Fighter could have been a contender. However you score it, it’s no heavyweight.