You know how sometimes you’ll see a film at a big fest, and really like it and hope it does well, and then it just seems to disappear off the radar for a while before it magically reappears? That’s the case with Bryan Wizemann’s excellent indie feature Think of Me, which I saw at Toronto waaaaaay back in 2011 and included in my 2011 wrap-up as a notable indie film of that year.
So now Think of Me finally has a VOD release, under a brand-new title, About Sunny. When I saw the film at TIFF, I wrote, in part:
As for Wizemann, he’s written a story that’s both broadly empathetic to the plight of the many, many people struggling on the brink of financial disaster to hold their lives and their families together, to take care of their kids and give them the best shot they can, and socially relevant to the moment in which we’re living. In Angela, he’s created a complex character, a mother who loves her daughter deeply and wants very much to be a good mom taking good care of her daughter, but who also makes some pretty terrible choices along the way. Yet Wizemann, with his own choices as a writer-director, refrains from judging Angela and women like her, instead choosing to simply observe her struggles and see where she goes. Smart film, smart filmmaking.
You can read my full write-up from 2011 right here. Suffice it to say, About Sunny is still a relevant film addressing one of the most pressing social issues (well, after Congressional budgetary nonsense, social security, mental health and our health care system) we’re dealing with today: How can a single parent struggling with her issues of addiction, depression and general inability to care for herself and her child make the right choices, when it’s unclear what choices there are and what the implications of each of those choices could be.
Here’s the film’s trailer:
This is the kind of smart, intimate storytelling that delves beyond so much of the same-old, same-old, “woe is me, my 20-something friends and I just can’t move past our ennui to get our shit together” indie films that we see over and over again at fests large and small. Wizemann’s film is beautifully shot, tells a complex story in a way that’s not contrived or overly complicated, and it’s anchored by a performance out of Lauren Ambrose that should have been the the one to shoot her to the top of the indie actress lists (she was nominated for the lead actress award at the Indie Spirits for her turn here). I’d love to see Ambrose get the kind of opportunities that Jennifer Lawrence saw post-Winter’s Bone … she’s really a terrific talent and I’d like to see much more from her.
Meanwhile, though, please check out Ambrose in the excellent, underseen About Sunny on VOD. You can find it on Oscilloscope On Demand or iTunes. Give it your support, y’all.
David Gordon Green is back in arthouse form with the lovely and effervescent Prince Avalanche, a methodically paced, gorgeously shot buddy/road trip/ghost story loosely adapted from the Icelandic film Either Way. Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch) are stuck out in the middle of nowhere, living out of their tent and highway maintenance truck as they wend their way slowly down an endless ribbon of stagnant highway, methodically painting yellow line after yellow line in a hypnotic rhythm, interspersed with a staccato bang, bang, bang as they hammer metal poles with reflectors alongside the highway, marking their path as they go.
They make an odd couple. Alvin, who fancies himself to be smarter and therefore better than the rather dense Lance, studies German on audiotapes, blaring his lessons from an giant boombox as they work, while Lance complains that it’s putting him to sleep. Alvin’s self-righteously set on self-improvement and study; he’s a bookish, reclusive sort of guy, and he’s using this job at least in part, it seems, as a justified way of having space and solitude from his stagnant relationship with his girlfriend, Lance’s sister. Lance, on the other hand, aspires to neither big thoughts nor big dreams, and finds the endless stretches of quiet and loneliness, with no one but Alvin for company, to be excruciatingly dull. Lance’s tastes are simple: he likes beer, comic books, loud music, hot chicks, and “getting the little man squeezed.” He only has this job because Alvin is doing his girlfriend a favor – and perhaps because it makes Alvin feel important to be able to impart his own brand of knowledge and wisdom onto this guy he perceives to be beneath himself. With Lance, Alvin can play the role of mentor — a role, one suspects, that he otherwise has few opportunities to play.
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I’m not always a big fan self-exploratory, therapeutic docs in which the filmmaker explores some aspect of their lives through cinema, but When I Walk, director Jason DaSilva’s wrenchingly autobiographic journey through the hell of his rapid physical deterioration after a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis is an exception to that rule.
DaSilva was filming a vacation trip with his family in 2006 when he collapsed to the ground and found himself unable to get up again; from that moment on his previous life of traveling the world to make documentary films would never be the same. As part of coming to terms with the new and ever-shifting “normal” that would be the rest of his life, DaSilva followed his instinct, picked up his camera, and turned it on himself. This project could have devolved into the maudlin and self-absorbed; instead DaSilva’s strength and resilience, his determination to stay positive – bolstered in part by his relentlessly positive mother, who’s prone to calling him out on any over-privileged American kid whining and reminding him constantly that we only have one life to live, and have to make the most of it – is what shines through every frame of his story.
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Voted. Dropped off our ballots. Finding it hard to concentrate on anything else today. This is it. Months of supporting Obama, carving money out of our limited budget every month to give to his campaign. Months of talking to friends inclined to support Romney, trying to (hopefully gently) persuade them to change their minds. Months of waiting, watching polls, watching debates. Hoping. It all comes down to today. Has it all been enough?
What values will our country uphold today? Will we support women’s rights, universal health care, education, immigrants, the right of two people to marry the person they love, the idea that the rich should not benefit on the backs of the poor and the struggling middle class? I wish I didn’t care so much. I cannot help but care so much. Now, I’d like to drink a Xanax smoothie and crawl under a quilt under it’s over, please.
Our president looked powerful and presidential last night at his last campaign speech. Never have I put so much faith in one man to fight these battles on our behalf. May the odds be ever in our favor.
Last week I went to Shreveport to judge at the inaugural Louisiana Film Prize. Incepted by Gregory Kallenberg as a way to both support budding filmmakers and bring them to Shreveport to shoot films, the event required aspiring entrants to come to Shreveport to shoot a short film, which they then submitted to the competition; the Top 20 films chosen were invited to compete against each other for a $50,000 grand prize. Kallenberg said he’d anticipated they’d get maybe 30 films to shoot in Shreveport with this contest. They got nearly 80. The shoots for the films entering the contest, according to the press release, used over 650 local cast and crew and spent over $2 million in the Shreveport-Bossier area in payments for cast and crew, food, equipment and lodging.
I liked a number of things about this fest/contest. First and foremost, one of the issues short filmmakers have is trying to figure out what purpose their film serves. Is there a way to make money back on a short? Are they used only as calling cards to show potential future investors that you have what it takes to pull off a feature? By giving the filmmakers a chance to compete for real prize money, this contest motivated them not only to figure out how to shoot in what was for some of them unfamiliar turf, but to have a shot at winning enough money to actually shoot a low-budget feature with their winnings. Additionally, three films would receive $3,000 “Founders Grants,” money they can get reimbursed to them off their production costs next year if they return to Shreveport to enter the contest again.
I keep shifting back and forth between calling this a contest and a fest, with good reason. Although it was technically a contest, it was also a festival, screening the 20 short films in the contest in two 10-film slates multiple times over the course of the weekend. Kallenberg hoped they would sell 500 tickets to the good people of Shreveport, but the locals really came out to support this budding fest, with over 1600 tickets sold by Friday when I landed (I believe the final count was closer to 2,000). They had an interesting system of determining a winner, also: 50% of the vote came from the ballots of the judges, and 50% from the votes of audience members. Everyone had to get their badge punched after viewing each slate, and you had to have seen both slates in order to cast a ballot. The fest encouraged the filmmakers to come to the fest and promote their films in interesting ways, which many of them did by throwing parties, putting on a haunted house and street performances, creating window displays, or walking around in costumes that evoked their film. It also encouraged the filmmakers to get out and talk to the people attending the fest, which is terrific because it makes filmmaking and the filmmakers feel accessible to the audience and gives folks a sense of investment in the films for which they’re voting.
Having that much money on the line made, overall, for a much stronger competition that what I generally see of shorts even at the bigger fests. Having seen and judged an awful lot of shorts at fests, I estimated that if 10% of the films I saw didn’t suck, it would be a good run. Instead, I ended up with five films out of 20 that I thought were very strong contenders, and many more that I liked quite a bit, which isn’t a bad percentage out of 20 films in a competition like this.
The grand prize-winning film, The Legend of Luther Anderson, was a comedic Westernish short about a young dude who seeks to exact revenge on the bad guy who shot and killed his father, and finds the courage to go after him after he finds the pair of magic cowboy boots his father died to protect. Luther Anderson was a fun little film, hitting many comedic elements right. Luther Anderson was written and directed by Chris Armand, Noah Scruggs and Thomas Woodruff, who also starred in their own film – a pretty ambitious sort of undertaking. If the filmmakers wanted to expand their idea into a feature, they’d have some work to do in better fleshing out character development and theme, but they made a very solid and entertaining entry with their film, which was very well received by the fest attendees and many of the judges, and they were over-the-moon ecstatic to win. Luther Anderson also won one of the Founders Grants, so hopefully their team will return next year to make another entry. Also winning the Founders Grant prizes were Sock Monkey, a puppetry-based film about what happens to all the socks that go missing from the drier, and This is a Microphone, a well-crafted and timely drama about an ex-loan officer who confronts the bank that employed him about their practices after he’s fired and has his home foreclosed on.
Speaking of Sock Monkey, this was one of my favorite films from the weekend. Directed by Robert Montgomery, and told entirely without words (although the sock monkeys in the imaginary world the filmmakers created “spoke” in their own language of grunts and hoots), this short had some spectacular production value in the way in which the filmmakers created the sock monkey fantasy world, using inventive puppetry to tell a very visual and visceral story. Loved this film a lot, and I hope to see it make a mark on the fest circuit.
One of my other fave films from the fest was an equally inventive black-and-white film called A Most Complex Form of Ventriloquism, written and directed by a young female filmmaker, Ashley Brett Chipman. Evoking the style and sensibility of both Guy Maddin and Georges Méliès, this film was ambitious in design and scope and is one of the most creative shorts I’ve seen. I’ll be looking forward to seeing what Ms. Chipman does with this film on the fest circuit, and with her future endeavors. There are few things I enjoy more than discovering a new voice through a film at a fest, and A Most Complex Form of Ventriloquism definitely fit that bill; it was worth the weekend trip just for the pleasure of seeing this film.
I also want to mention a couple of solid family-friendly shorts in the competition (for any of you fest programmers out there struggling to find family-friendly fare to round out your own fests): Biggo, written and directed by Josh Smith, is about a boy with unusually large hands who’s bullied or ignored by his classmates; and The Adventures of Captain Oliver, written and directed by Bryan and Claire McManus, follows the unlikely adventures of a stuffed pentapus who gets separated from his human sidekick and must find his way back home. Both were delightful.
Saturday of the fest, there was a series of three panels (called the Judges’ Roundtable) at which those of us there judging the fest were invited to discuss storytelling and screenwriting, film production, and distribution and criticism. There were some very smart people on these panels with me, and we spoke before a packed house of attending filmmakers and one very smart 12-year-old boy who aspires to become one. We had some lively discussion, and a lot of great questions from a pack of very enthusiastic and passionate filmmakers.
Overall, I thought Kallenberg and his staff (Festival Director Chris Lyon, Festival Coordinator Kathy Melancon, Festival Producer Sabrina Adsit, and Festival “Badass” Ian Summers — lovely and amazing people, all of them) did a terrific job of organizing the first year of their event. I came to Shreveport fully anticipating there would be the usual first-time hurdles and missteps, but I found the team running this fest to be incredibly organized and thoughtful in their planning. The screenings seemed to run smoothly, and hospitality was fabulous; the VIP lounge had a splendid buffet of Louisiana cuisine and open bar every night, there was always a staffer on-hand offering to give rides or just have a friendly chat, and the Shreveport residents who came out in abundance for the fest were warm and smiling and eager to talk to filmmakers and judges alike. The audiences with whom I saw both slates were also very open to the films they were seeing, and responded positively to even the more challenging films.
If you’ve ever made a short film and submitted it to fests, you know that shorts filmmakers generally don’t get a whole lot in the way of attention once they get into a fest, unless it’s a fest that focuses only on shorts; it’s just kind of the way it goes in the world of short filmmaking. The Louisiana Film Prize, though, went way above and beyond what I generally see for shorts filmmakers. The fest put up the filmmakers at the Shreveport Hilton (one of the fest’s sponsors, where the judges also stayed) and gave each team $500 to use for either post-production costs or toward the marketing of their film during the fest. The filmmakers also got VIP badges, which gave them access to the VIP lounge.
Now personally, I would suggest that next year it might be better to consider dividing the prize money up into two awards, a popular audience award and a judges award; in part, this would ensure that filmmakers journeying from outside Shreveport, who don’t have the benefit of inviting tons of friends and family out to see their film and vote for it, wouldn’t be penalized for not being locals (which, in turn, encourages filmmakers from outside Shreveport to enter the competition because they won’t feel it’s weighted in favor of locals). This is one change I do hope the fest makes for next year. I’d also love to see this fest bring on an education and outreach coordinator and engage both Millenium Studios and Moonbot Studios (which produced the Oscar-winning animated short, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore) in Shreveport to maybe run a couple of filmmaking camps for young people in Shreveport and add a student competition to their fest. If they were able to focus on outreach to ensure that kids from less wealthy families could participate as well, they could really do something amazing in nurturing the next generation of filmmakers out of Shreveport.
Look for the Louisiana Film Prize to become increasingly popular once word gets out more about it; filmmakers take note: Kallenberg plans to bring the fest and contest back for its second year bigger and better, with even more prize money at stake for the winners. This is one film contest worth taking the time to enter, even if you don’t live near Shreveport. With that kind of prize money up for grabs, it just might be worth your interest.
Note: The title of one of the films listed as winning a Founders Prize had a typo and has been corrected. The correct title is This is a Microphone. Apologies to the filmmakers. – KV
The Master, auteur Paul Thomas Anderson’s minimalist drama about a cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his troubled and troubling acolyte (Joaquin Phoenix), is Anderson’s first film since 2007′s There Will Be Blood, and it’s easy to see the stylistic similarities between the two films humming underneath the surface: Two strong-willed male characters, as alike internally as they are disparate on the surface, set on course to collide with each other. Keep the conflict close and very personal, but paint it on a huge, sprawling canvas. Don’t be afraid of unlikable, complicated protagonists.
Simple stories. Complex, textured characters. Superlative actors. Anderson excels at working in this space.
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I’ve never seen anything quite like The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s outrageous, defiantly different documentary about gangsters in Indonesia who killed millions of people around the time of the overthrow of the Indonesian government in 1965, making a movie touting their “heroic” exploits. Really, you need to see this movie. You just do. It’s one of the most compelling, riveting docs I’ve ever seen; I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and I’ll bet you haven’t either.
Oppenheimer started out to make a movie about the survivors of the massacres, filming for three years and even living in a village of survivors for over a year, according to press notes. But the filmmakers found that they faced constant dangers while trying to film the story of the survivors, and they feared compromising the survivors’ safety in the current political climate, which is controlled, essentially, by the same people who perpetrated the killings. Oppenheimer decided the answers he sought lay in trying to understand the perspective not of the victims themselves, but of the people who openly boasted of slaughtering countless people in the name of “cleansing” the country of “Communists” — which appears, in the context of Indonesia, to roughly mean “anyone who fights for the rights of workers to not be brutalized and exploited.” And interestingly, he found that once they shifted focus to the gangsters — who in their country, perhaps through intimidation as much as anything, are lauded as heroes, not killers — suddenly officials were more than accommodating. Thus was born the beginnings of the film that would become The Act of Killing.
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Elle Fanning delivers an astonishing performance as Ginger, one-half of the titular characters in Ginger & Rosa, Sally Potter’s gorgeously shot and thoughtfully executed story of a young girl growing up in early-’60s London, raised to be a free-thinking activist, who’s growing up in the shadow of the Cold War. Ginger and Rosa (Alice Englert), born on the same day, if not quite under the same star, are the best of friends, inseparable in all they do. Rosa’s father took off when she was small, leaving Rosa’s mother to raise her alone; both Ginger and Rosa chafe against the banal domestic imprisonment in which they feel their mothers are trapped.
Ginger’s father, Roland (Alessandro Nivola) is present, but offers little in the way of moral guidance or structure, being himself wrapped up in preaching anti-establishment morals and nudging his daughter toward the same rebellion that drives him, while positioning himself on a higher-than-though intellectual and moral perch to justify his abhorrent choices in his personal life. Ginger’s mother, Natalie (Christina Hendricks) tries to offer her intelligent, recalcitrant daughter guidance and discipline, a task rendered nearly impossible by Ginger’s hero-worship of her more lenient father, which forever puts Natalie in the position of playing the bad cop parent.
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By far the most difficult narrative film I saw this year at TIFF was Pieta, a dark, relentlessly brutal film about the mother-love and sacrifice, by South Korean master filmmaker Kim Ki-Duk. The film won the Golden Lion in Venice, much to the chagrin of many critics and, presumably, the jury, which reportedly wanted to award the fest’s top prize to The Master, which won awards for best director and best actor (shared by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix) but was prohibited from doing so by an archaic rule that prohibits the film lauded with the Golden Lion from receiving any other awards.
Much of the first half of the film is so disturbing as to be almost unwatchable, at least by Western audiences – even those who love arthouse cinema and therefore have a higher tolerance than your average film-goer for brutality taken to its most absurd extremes. But if you can tough it out past the pinnacle of debasement and suffering at the midpoint or so of the film, where it’s at its absolute worst, the film gradually heads from that point to a payoff that does make it worthwhile to stick around for. Redemption? Not necessarily that, exactly, but something, at least, approaching understanding and acceptance of all that you’ve just seen.
The story is set in a gloomy industrial South Korean slum, where cramped machinist shops perch amid filth, poverty, and utmost despair, and if it didn’t have some ultimate redeeming value and an actual point to its plot structure that takes us through all its blood and muck and mire with deliberate intent, this could almost be considered poverty porn, so thoroughly does it glory in the miserable lives of its subjects, poor machinists so desperate to survive that they take out loans from a loan shark to keep their heads above water.
The loan shark’s enforcer, Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), has blankness to him, an emptiness of light and life – a lack of soul, if you will – that’s mesmerizing to watch even as it disturbs and repulses. Kang-do’s method of enforcing the payback of loans is simple: He forces these desperate wretches to sign insurance policies payable to his boss, and when they are unable to pay debts that multiply tenfold with exorbitant interest, he coldly destroys an arm, or a leg, or casually tosses the debtor off a building, crippling him forever. In what there is of his personal life, Kang-do is hardly any better. As he walks into his small, dingy apartment, he stabs his knife into a picture of a woman hanging on the wall; the bloody entrails of the animals he consumes to feed his body strewn and smeared all over the tile floor, evoking his butchering of human beings in his work. In every respect, the filmmaker establishes that this is a man who has lost all sense of decency and humanity, if he ever had them to begin with.
And then a woman (Cho Min-soo, in a riveting, astonishing performance) shows up on his doorstep, claiming to be his long lost mother, and thus we get the first piece in the puzzle that is Kang-do: abandoned, alone, perhaps brutalized himself in ways we are not given to know, whatever humanity he was born into this world with, life has long since drained almost every drop of it from his soul. Kang-do at first rejects the sudden appearance of his mother, brutalizing and debasing her over and over again, in ways that will make you shudder and turn from the screen, but no matter what he does to her, she takes it with a calm and patient suffering, a sense of being given a just punishment for whatever her imagined sins may be. Slowly, he comes to accept her, and then to love and become dependent upon her – and that is when the film takes a sharp turn to its unexpected and riveting concluding act.
The film’s title, evoking the patient suffering of the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of her son, reveals what Pieta is on one level; but the anti-capitalist thematic element threading through the film, with money frequently referred to as the work of the Devil, and Kang-do as the devil’s tempter, allows it to function also as allegory for a system in which how much money you have controls how you live, your place within the social strata, and what the life of a mother’s son is worth within that corrupt and dehumanizing system.
As such, Pieta makes a bold and worthy, if challenging statement about our capacity for cruelty and greed. From the comfort and safety of our complacent lives where such things happen only in movies, we can only sit, mouths agape, unable to accept that such terrible things actually happen, probably every day. How do people live like that? And yet, they surely do, in countless numbers, sacrificing their limbs, their organs, their children, their very humanity, in order to survive the most brutal and inhumane definitions of existence. It’s terrible to watch, honestly, and makes you question who and what we humans are, exactly, that there exist people who can coldly execute orders that destroy lives in the name of transactions that are, at their basest level, an invention of man to define an artificial structure of power in which humanity is hardly in the equation.
The violence in this film is just brutal, even though the worst of it happens off-frame, but it’s not gratuitous; within the structure and context of the film, everything that happens is absolutely relevant both in building the thematic elements of the film as a whole, and in establishing a frame of reference for all that happens. This isn’t a pretty film to watch in the aesthetic sense of the word, either. It’s shot to evoke the dismal, gray despair of the lives of its players, and in that its very ugliness becomes a character as well. A hopeful and uplifting cinematic experience this certainly is not, but as a dual exploration of the both the inhumanity of human beings, and the deeper humanity that allows for terrible sacrifice in the name of love and loss, Pieta is undeniably effective.
Middle of Nowhere, Ava DuVernay’s quiet, reflective film, starts out with an interesting premise and builds from there with some strong performances and thoughtful cinematography that effectively evokes the desperation and sorrow of its protagonist, a young woman with a promising future who puts her life on hold when her husband is sent to prison. Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi), drops out of medical school to work as an nurse for the duration of husband Derek’s (Omar Hardwick) prison sentence, which she convinces herself will be reduced to four years for good behavior, if only he can stay out of trouble. In a sense, Ruby is imprisoned too, though she puts herself into a prison of her own making by her choice to stand by the man she loves, and as the likelihood of Derek’s early release looks bleaker and bleaker, Ruby finds herself questioning the path she’s taken.
Derek wants to stay out of trouble, no doubt, and get the hell of there, but he’s also caught in the reality of being in prison, which is that it’s just not always possible to go about your business and keep your head down without putting your own safety in danger. He also knows that Ruby needs to follow her dream and stay in med school – it’s established early on that Ruby is by far the smartest one in the room — and that if she could just stay in school she’d achieve her goal of becoming a doctor. But Ruby, for reasons that, frankly, rather baffled me as much as they do those close to her, decides she has to continue working in nursing while Derek’s away. After all, she has to keep a roof over her head, and pay off the hefty fees for Derek’s attorney.
Ruby’s sister Rosie (Edwina Findley), a struggling single mom, supports Ruby emotionally while being jealous that Ruby has someone who loves her, even if he is in prison; their tough-love mom, Ruth (Lorraine Toussant) loves her daughters, but can barely contain her disappointment and anger over Rosie’s single mom status and Ruby’s choice to drop out of med school. Still, Ruby toils along, day by day, until the day she meets Brian (David Oyelowo), a kind-hearted bus driver who wants to take Derek’s place in Ruby’s tumultuous life. Ultimately, Ruby has to make a choice: Be true to her marriage, in spite of everything? Take a chance on a new life with Brian? Or find her own path?
DuVernay’s become something of an icon among the African-American filmmaking community over the past several years. She won the Best Director laurels at Sundance this year, making her the first African-American woman to do so, and is the organizer of the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement film collective, which organizes efforts for festival submissions and coordinates theatrical releases for films made by African-American filmmakers. She’s becoming quite the powerhouse, known for her passion in articulating her ideas around distribution and minority filmmaking. She’s also, it turns out, a fine writer and director, displaying an able, controlled hand in directing her cast and weaving a story about a strong female protagonist who just needs to find her way. Keep an eye out for DuVernay, this woman is on the move … and she’s not waiting for Hollywood to give her permission to do exactly what she wants to do.
Susanne Bier’s latest film, Love is All You Need, takes an accessible, easy-to-digest premise – at their children’s wedding, a man who’s closed himself off to love meets a sympathetic woman whose marriage is falling apart – and makes of it a much better film than it sounds on paper, thanks in no small part to a smart screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen, who’s just good enough at storytelling to pull it all off. I enjoyed this film quite a lot, although I went into it fully prepared for it to be overly saccharine, based on the catalog description. It’s not. Bier and Jensen have crafted an entertaining little slip of a story here, quite Danish in style and with bit of a humorous bent, and if it’s not taking itself too seriously, well, it is at least entertaining to sit with for a couple hours.
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You don’t have to be a foodie to appreciate Step Up to the Plate (Entre les Bras), Paul Lacoste’s terrific documentary chronicling the decision of celebrated chef Michel Bras to hand over the reins of his renowned restaurant, located in Laguiole in the heart of southern France’s agricultural region, to his son Sebastien (Seba to his father). If you are a foodie, though, and you’ve ever dreamed of attaining the holy grail of actually dining at Bras, you’ll revel in the opportunity to see these master chefs at work, creating edible, exquisite art plated with every bit the care and precision a master painter considers brushstroke, color and composition. But this documentary tells a story about more than the art of haute cuisine.
Filmed over the course of a year and structured in four chapters that express the seasonal use of local products, Step Up to the Plate is as much about the relationship between a father and a son, and, in particular, the emotional and intellectual challenge of being the offspring of a person much renowned in their field of endeavor, who seeks to follow in that parent’s footsteps, as it is about the food this famous father and son create. You might say Sebastien Bras chose being a chef, but then again you might say being a chef chose him.
From the time he was dressed in miniature chef’s whites, learning to use a knife and to select produce and herbs at his father’s knee, this was his path and his destiny. But his mother, who has always been the hostess of her husband’s restaurants, expresses her concern that her son be able to find himself, to make his own place in the food world, and fears that the pressure of potential failure is too great. After all, she notes, Michel had it easier, he started at the bottom and worked his way up to the top; his son has the unenviable position of being already at the top, and having to stay there while stepping out of his father’s shadow and truly into his own place in the world.
The film is sumptuously — one might even say rapturously — shot, capturing the stunning beauty of the region, the carefully minimalist architecture of the restaurant, perched high above the fields, and most of all, the careful, meticulous work that these chefs put into their creations. The opening sequence, in which Michel Bras plates his famous gargouillou, a deconstructed salad composed of over 60 ingredients — fresh spring vegetables, herbs, bulbs, flower petals, fruits, seed pods and more, is mesmerizing. This mirrors nicely with the ongoing, integrated chronicle of Sebastien’s painstaking, agonizing work over the course of the year to create on his own a new dish that will serve, if he can only get it right, as a symbolic passing of the mantle from father to son. Meanwhile, fellow chefs and locals speculate at a grape festival that Sebastien will never be able to fully come into his own until his father steps down.
Lacoste merges beautiful, quietly meditative scenes of Sebastien gazing upon the countryside in which he grew up, while pondering the future that lies before him; tense moments of Sebastien struggling to find the right combination of ingredients for his new signature dish (appropriately enough, translated when he presents it at the end of the film as “The Pathway”); and both father and son critiquing each others creations, even as they clearly share a love of the French countryside, their restaurant, their cuisine, and each other. And fittingly, Lacoste brings his theme of fathers and sons to its own natural pathway, with Sebastien teaching his own young son — now wearing the miniature chef’s whites given him by his father — to follow in his own footsteps some day.
Step Up to the Plate (Entre le Bras) opens today in New York, with a national release to follow. Highly recommended.
Terrence Malick’s style of visual poetry, particularly as expressed in last year’s Tree of Life and now in the equally enigmatic and abstract To the Wonder, isn’t for everyone. And that’s fine. Part of the beauty of film is that not everything has to work for every person, and this is in part because what we get out of a film is refracted to a large degree by what we’re bringing into it. In that sense, there’s not really any such thing as objectivity when it comes to cinema, not even the objectivity of the movie a filmmaker thinks he made; until that end result is viewed by an audience, what a film “is” exists only within the context of the filmmaker’s intent, and what it becomes to each person watching it as individual as the pattern of a fingerprint or snowflake. For me, at least, To the Wonder was lovely and challenging, difficult and beautiful in the same way that life itself is difficult and beautiful.
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I’ve been following the evolution of Ramin Bahrani’s career since his first film, Man Push Cart, debuted at Sundance in 2005, so it was with great interest that I settled in to check out his latest work, At Any Price, a drama built around the inter-generational conflict of a farm family in Iowa. Dean (Zac Efron) dreams of being a Nascar driver and desperately wants to do something with his life other than follow in his father’s footsteps and grow corn. Dean’s dad, Henry (Dennis Quaid), whose grandfather bought and built up the family farm from nothing, carries on his shoulders the heavy weight of trying to please his endlessly disappointed father (Red West, previously seen in Bahrani’s last film, Goodbye Solo) by sustaining a family farm business in an age when farming has become less about good hard work and crops and earth, and more about the big business of corporations and deals with seed companies to sell GMO corn seed to other farmers.
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Five years ago, Tamara Podemski got heaps of notice and won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for her terrific performance in Sterlin Harjo’s Four Sheets to the Wind. A graduate of Toronto’s prestigious and highly competitive Claude Watson School for the Performing Arts (Sarah Polley was a classmate), Pademski’s strikingly lovely and multi-talented; with her Sundance breakthrough, she seemed on the verge of the sort of breakthrough that can happen for a young actress when she gets noticed at Sundance. Poised for a career launch, she relocated to LA; she was getting Oscar buzz, she got an Independent Spirit Award nomination. By all rights her trajectory should have been straight up from there. But instead … not much happened for her after that, at least in Hollywood.
A multidisciplinary artist, Podemski kept her head focused on other things, primarily her music (she led the Los Angeles band Spirit Nation, and has released solo work as well) and theater ( Maureen in the Broadway cast of Rent, Hippolyta and Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Toronto’s Shakespeare in High Park, among other things). But thus far, success in Hollywood has eluded her, much as it long has another Native American actress, Misty Upham, whose turn in the Oscar-winning Frozen River popped at Sundance a year later, garnering her plenty of adulation and a Spirit nod, but a strikingly similar lack of offers (though it should be noted that things are maybe finally looking better for Upham, who’s lately having a significant career revival, having recently been cast in a flurry of roles in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy Picard, and August: Osage County).
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