Signe Baumane is a significant animator, right up there with Bill Plympton. I’m so happy to see her film at Seattle International Film Festival this year. And, if you are in Seattle, you must go! Details on this funny and frank flick follow including how to seek it out in Seattle:
My Love Affair With Marriage uses music and science to examine the biological chemistry of love and gender, as well as the societal pressures on an individual to conform to social mores.
An honest portrayal of youth can make for a revelatory and refreshing movie, which is exactly what Eighth Grade is. Written and directed by Bo Burnham, it follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher) during her last five days in middle school. It is easily the highlight to this year’s Seattle International Film Festival.
You have to let kids be kids, and then maybe some magic can happen. That is the approach Burnham takes while still being able to craft a finely-structured script beforehand. At the start, there is this jittery and spontaneous vibe as we see raw and pixelated footage of Kayla talking about herself and kids in general on her YouTube channel. She stammers, she seems to just speak in circles. But it’s all actually in the script, word for word–and wonderfully performed by Elsie Fisher. And then, as it was later revealed to the audience at SIFF, it was Fisher’s idea to add in her own trademark sign-off. She makes an O-kay sign and says, “Gucci.” 27-year-old Burnham claimed to not know the popular meme reference prior to 15-year-old Fischer offering it up.
To tap into vulnerable and awkward youth is one of those mighty artistic quests. As a celebrated multi-talent in his own right, Burnham is certainly up to that ambitious goal. For filmmakers and writers, it is a right of passage to answer the call to addressing the whole issue of coming of age. That has resulted in everything from George Lucas’s American Graffiti to Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Of course, the list goes on. Too often, such a teen flick is cast with older characters. You raise the bar higher when you have actors that are also actual teenagers, like in John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club.
Elsie Fisher and Josh Hamilton in Eighth Grade
You feel like you want to protect Kayla as she ventures out, looking for love, friends, and a purpose in life. At first, I was sort of waiting for the other shoe to drop and we find that Kayla is going to be setup and hurt along the lines of Stephen King and Brian De Palma’s Carrie. Well, for one thing, this movie definitely does not fall within the horror genre. Still, there’s that fear for Kayla along the lines of Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West, with a wickedly unstable Ingrid played by Aubrey Plaza. What will help Kayla stay safe? Part of the answer is her father, Mark, played by Josh Hamilton. He ends up getting a healthy amount of screen time which is greatly deserved. By providing this warm and sensitive parent as a counterbalance, there are clear signs of hope beyond the rabbit hole of social media.
After that first flickering image of young and desperate Kayla attempting to engage with the internet, there are various scenes that drive home the point that Kayla’s life is severely isolated. This begs the question of whether Kayla is closer to being an at-risk misfit or being a typical teen. What we come to find is that Kayla is indeed far more closer to what we are all like than we may care to admit. Kayla struggles to fit in with the “cool kids,” battles her painful shyness, and is mortified time and again on her journey of self-discovery. The coming-of-age theme is not the great Moby Dick prize for ambitious talent to harpoon for nothing. It IS the prize that can blind lesser aspirants. Burnham does well to let his young cast help him keep his clarity while he’s at the helm. In the end, we can all enjoy an authentic experience and give it an O-Kay sign and say, “Gucci.”
Eighth Grade goes into wide release in the U.S. on July 13, 2018.
We’ve heard plenty about how the media helped to construct Donald Trump. We see how another White House and the media interacted in, “The Reagan Show,” a new documentary by filmmakers Pacho Velez (Manakamana) and Sierra Pettengill (Town Hall). Pacho Velez was on hand this weekend for a Q&A after the film’s showing at the Seattle International Film Festival.
Ronald Reagan is as much icon as enigma. He managed a life and career treading upon the surface. In their documentary, Velez and Pettengill work mostly from archival footage, made up of official White House video and network news segments, to revisit a man who was at his best as a flickering image just beyond reach. The Reagan administration made the big switch from documenting the president in video instead of the traditional, costly, and confining 16mm film. Video allowed for continuous unencumbered recording. It became known as White House TV, perfect for a former Hollywood actor. The documentary perfectly mines all the irony attached to our first reality TV president. What we get is not so much bloopers, or even anything substantial behind the scenes, but a better sense of a president who was painfully too old and woefully disengaged.
Growing up in the ’80s, I don’t recall that era as particularly quaint but the footage in this doc proves otherwise. One such moment could have come right out of the Eisenhower White House. To illustrate how in command the president was, Chief of Staff Howard Baker recites what is supposed to be a decisive moment between Reagan and his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev. Just prior to a tough round of negotiation, Reagan asked Gorbachev if he would autograph his World Series baseball. This gesture supposedly disarmed Gorbachev and left Reagan with the advantage. It’s a nonsensical anecdote but it apparently disarmed the media just enough to look away and move on.
Pres. Ronald Reagan and Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev
There is plenty of obliging on the part of the media to be found here. Some hard-hitting questioning too, especially by ABC News White House correspondent Sam Donaldson. But the president’s charm is ever present. The only tarnish comes with the complex Iran Contra scandal. It is complex enough to allow Reagan something of a pass. For the most part, this doc focuses on the work between Reagan and Gorbachev. As Velez pointed out during the Q&A, Reagan is credited with ending the Cold War, whether or not that’s true. Overall, he achieved the status of an icon. In reality, as this doc makes clear, the Reagan administration did a lot of stumbling and had the unbelievably good luck of having Mikhail Gorbachev running the Kremlin.
Under certain circumstances, the press, and various other power brokers, will always look away. There will always be exceptional circumstances (FDR, for example, was never photographed in a wheelchair). But when a president so flagrantly abuses his power, then that gentleman’s agreement is forced off the table. Ronald Reagan remained a gentleman. And, for that, he was saved by the establishment. The media asked tough questions but they were always open to being charmed. And Ronald Reagan could be relied upon to charm with the best of them.
While this documentary has its share of irony and self-awareness (Reagan’s plea to “Make America Great Again” is included), it cannot help but get caught up in the murk of Reagan “charm.” As Velez stated in the Q&A, he aimed for this documentary to follow a narrative of success with a happy ending. Sure, Velez did not want to demonize Reagan. Fair enough. But to allow Reagan off the hook with a story that closes with him achieving a nuclear arms treaty with the Soviets is pretty generous. You may as well end a story about Nixon with him opening relations between the US and China. To Reagan’s credit, Velez pointed out in the Q&A, he always seemed sincere. In comparison to today, that does count for a lot.
You can follow “The Reagan Show” on its Facebook page right here. The documentary will air this Labor Day on CNN. You can still catch it at SIFF this Wednesday, June 7th. Go to SIFF for details right here.
“The Fabulous Allan Carr,” directed by Jeffrey Schwarz
Warren Beatty announcing the wrong winner at this year’s Oscars was a disaster but the all-time biggest disaster is so bad that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would rather not discuss it and there is nothing on Youtube to document it, except for a verbal description by comedy writer Bruce Vilanch. The story is about how legendary Hollywood producer Allan Carr ended up creating the strangest opening number ever for the Oscars. That infamous moment, truly mind-bending surreal camp, is the linchpin to a new documentary on a fascinating life and career, “The Fabulous Allan Carr,” directed by Jeffrey Schwarz.
If you were a kid growing up in the ’70s, as one snarky person interviewed in the doc says, there were two big movie events: for straights it was “Star Wars” and, for gays, it was “Grease.” Be that as it may, “Grease,” back in 1978, was a very big deal at my high school, whatever your sexual orientation. I was in the marching band and, as a last-minute prank, many of the boys decided to drop their pants and moon the crowds in the stadium. This was directly inspired by “Grease,” which was as far away from an Oscar opening number flop as you could get. “Grease” was a bonafide hit and it put the movie’s producer, Allan Carr, on the map.
Steve Rubell losing patience escorting Olivia Newton-John and Producer Alan Carr into the “Grease” Party at Studio 54.
How Allan Carr gained the confidence and sense of purpose to become a Hollywood legend is thoroughly explored here. We follow Carr from insecure boy to insecure man, finally losing his virginity in his 30s. Where he was on firm ground was his steadfast desire to put on a show. If you loved “La La Land,” you will relate to Carr’s great love for the grandeur of Old Hollywood, particularly the heyday of movie musicals. After Carr’s success with “Grease,” there would be various ups and downs. One undisputed high point was his producing the Oscar-winning “The Deer Hunter.” And Carr reached his greatest heights producing “La Cage aux Folles” on Broadway.
And then came that incredibly over-the-top opener for the 1989 Oscars. The clip below is not from the documentary but gives you an understanding of what all the fuss was about. This is Bruce Vilanch who, by the way, does provide some wonderful segments exclusively made for the documentary:
EDITOR’S UPDATE: Okay, it turns out that the “infamous” 1989 Oscars opening segment is currently available on YouTube. And, like many a legend, there is more to this story. Basically, it helps to view the above segment with Bruce Vilanch along with seeing the actual footage. Vilanch makes a big mistake by adding to the legend with his hyperbolic description of the show. Despite that, he provides the necessary context. Most importantly, Vilanch explains that this was a case of “manufactured outrage” by Disney president Frank Wells, who lodged a complaint against the Academy even though Snow White is in the public domain. The truth is, Disney was hypersensitive about advertising concerns. Here is the clip. You will likely find this to be charming, entertaining, and heartfelt:
After “Grease” would come Carr’s first big misstep: 1980’s “Can’t Stop the Music,” the musical showcasing The Village People. Carr had hoped to bring abroad Olivia Newton-John for a lead role but, after reading the script, she rejected it. So did Cher and Raquel Welch. However, Carr was able to secure Valerie Perrine. Carr also enlisted a rising star, Steve Guttenberg. The whole affair was directed by veteran funny lady Nancy Walker who was not much of a director. In the end, this was a classic Carr flop: over-sexed camp too far out on a limb. And so he moved on to the next project, and the next.
In time, Carr would find himself. One key personal moment was when he discovered caftans. The spacious velvety robe allowed Carr’s undisciplined body to run free. With a caftan, he could relax and be more open about himself and his sexuality. The ups and downs of his projects would settle into perspective. There would be the undisputed triumphs. And, in the end, he could say he lived his life to the fullest.
“The Fabulous Allan Carr,” directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, was a standout at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival. The documentary is based upon the book, “Party Animals: A Hollywood Tale of Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Starring the Fabulous Allan Carr” by Robert Hofler. As the story about a gay chubby insecure boy who grows up to live out his wildest dreams, it provides another compelling view of the hopes and dreams of La La Land.
Brian De Palma is a wonderful conversationalist. In this new documentary, “De Palma,” which appears to have taken place in one sit-down interview, De Palma shares with you everything about his career and, by extension, his life. You feel a great director is passing his hand over it all, setting the record straight. This is Brian De Palma, after all, and he has had to endure a formidable amount of attack on his work. Either he was ridiculed for daring to reference Alfred Hitchcock, or his films were deemed to have too much sex, too much violence, and too much blood. The key to what makes this documentary truly worthwhile is that De Palma is a great storyteller and he sure wasn’t going to hold back on his own life’s story. He doesn’t control as much as he reveals.
What you learn about Brian De Palma in this documentary will undoubtedly enrich your viewing of his work. Let the master confess to you. As it turns out, the much discussed voyeurism in De Palma’s films is quite personal. There is certainly the Hitchcock influence, which De Palma addresses early on. How often does “Vertigo” alone get referenced in his work? Well, a lot. That is involved with a fascination in what the viewer gets to see. Later, we find out a deeper motivation. De Palma, as a young boy, was outraged to discover his father’s infidelity. He took it upon himself to follow his father and document on film his activities. De Palma, detective, gathering evidence. Finally, he confronts his father and flushes out his mistress who was attempting to hide in a closet. De Palma furiously chastises his father. De Palma, avenger, administering punishment.
At age 75, Brian De Palma has earned many times over a re-evaluation. This is a guy who definitely knows how to push buttons. Arguably, he has painted himself into something of a corner smeared in blood, mostly women’s blood. His level of suspense can be said to be over the top. However, it is something else when you have him there on the screen thoughtfully articulating his work alternating with various compelling clips and footage from a lifetime in cinema. He’s not there to persuade you. He’s there to let you in on things. You end up feeling that, yes, it is really in your best interest to put away any past preconceived ideas and listen. As for the relaxed candor running throughout, we can also give a lot of credit to the film’s directors, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow.
SIFF Cinema Uptown in Seattle showing “De Palma”
Ultimately, this is a master class in filmmaking. De Palma does not say anything without it having a reason, followed by other reasons. At one point, he claims to not care for car chases. He says that “The French Connection” put that to rest with the greatest car chase ever. Besides, he’s not a car guy. Later, he admits he really prefers walking scenes as they lend themselves to great nuance and mystery. He loves the way a woman moves. And, more to the point, constructing a walking scene plays into his need for pictorial structure. And don’t get him started on his split-screen technique. Well, actually, do and you get some fascinating observations. For one thing, yes, it can be overdone and it won’t work for an action sequence. But allow someone with vision to modulate it, and it works. Brian De Palma was part of a golden age and contributed too much to ever be dismissed. This documentary proves to be a great companion to his work.
“De Palma” is currently enjoying a limited run. Catch it in theaters while you can. I had the pleasure of viewing it at one of our Seattle International Film Festival theaters that provide SIFF members and the general public with quality content year-round. “De Palma” is showing at SIFF Cinema Uptown along with a selection of De Palma films. Find out more about SIFF right here.