Elizabeth Stoddard's blog
If last summer's pre-code Barbara Stanwyck quartet of films left you hungry for more, you will be glad to know that additional Stanwyck movies are on the way! August's Essential Cinema series from Austin Film Society will showcase films from the prime of Stanwyck's career. AFS Programmer Lars Nilsen has included a couple of well-known favorites with two titles that may be less familiar.
I asked Nilsen why he chose to show more of this amazing actress's movies, and here's his answer:
Last year we showed the early Stanwyck. She had all the fire and personality and talent but you couldn't really call her a mature screen artist yet. The period covered here is Stanwyck as an experienced performer, fully aware of her craft and able to deploy great reserves of feeling and audience sympathy. I feel like if we had only shown the pre-Code films we would be short changing Stanwyck, who is even better in this selection of films.
The names Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and Andrew Fastow are not as prevalent in the media as they were in the last decade. These men, behind the success (such as it was) and severe failure of Enron, were eventually found guilty of fraud and other charges.
The 2005 documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is based on the book of the same name. Director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, The Armstrong Lie) interviews the book's authors, journalist Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, along with journalists, political figures and former Enron employees. Peter Coyote (E.T., Erin Brockovich), who could narrate practically anything and lend it a certain credence, talks of the bravado and bluff in the history of the energy-trading company based in Houston.
These interviews and Coyote's narration speak to the shenanigans going down at the once-praised company. The "macho culture" at the business is described, corraborated by video clips from an extreme motocross trip and discussion of one executive's love for strippers (with requisite strip club footage). Audio of male traders making rude and conspiratorial remarks is played over scenes from the 2000-2001 California electricity crisis. In such a case, it's not shocking that a woman, Sherron Watkins, turned whistleblower against Enron.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room depicts the real-life events as a sort of morality tale, with many of the interviewees speaking about the lousy ethics of the company's business and their "synergistic corruption." The director includes C_SPAN video of Skilling before a Senate committee, lying about his part in the faulty financing Enron was using. Because the company appeared to be doing so well -- they were making loads of money, anyway -- any outside person who tried to ask important questions about the business or look closer at their dealings faced repurcussions.
Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas owns an archive of 1930s and 1940s-era films -- shorts, newsreels and features -- made specifically for black audiences of the time. These historic reels were found in a Tyler, Texas warehouse in 1983, and the team at SMU's G. William Jones Video and Collection has restored and digitized the movies.
You can view the films online, or if you're in Austin, watch a selection that Lars Nilsen, Austin Film Society Programmer, has compiled from the collection. "The Sepia Screen" program will play at the Marchesa on Sunday, July 27 at 2 pm [tickets info].
I talked (via email) to Nilsen about this upcoming program.
Slackerwood: How did you learn about this specific archive at SMU?
Lars Nilsen: I'm a big fan of these films and I was researching them when I ran across the archive and naturally the wheels turned in my head. I contacted them last year and they told me the films were on tour in South America, but I made plans to eventually bring them here to Austin.
What are your thoughts on the cultural relevance of these forgotten works?
Nilsen: First off, they are not "art films" by and large. They are very low-budget commercial films and plot-wise, they are very similar to their mainstream B-movie counterparts. The interest and value of these films comes from the fact that they are made for black audiences. While the humor is typically quite broad, it's instantly more sophisticated because it need not be slanted to fit a white audience's preconceptions. It can be very "inside" subversive humor.
Sex Tape, a goofy new movie from director Jake Kasdan (Bad Teacher), teams Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel up again. This time, they're married parents longing for the actively passionate days of their nascent romance. The film opens with narration from mommy-blogger Annie (Diaz), who laments the loss of time and energy for sex with her husband Jay (Segel).
Hoping to shake things up, Annie suggests they make a sex tape for themselves using Jay's new iPad. And thus the trouble begins. Jay uses an app called Frankensync that syncs media on any iPad/laptop he's owned (if you're wondering, GQ checked with AppleCare and nope, it's not possible). The whole plot hinging on this fictional tech is laugh-out-loud preposterous, so Segel and Diaz deserve some credit for making it seem even slightly plausible.
The couple tries to delete the video from any iPads they've passed on to others. Their ridiculous romp leads them to the home of their best friends (Rob Corddry and Ellie Kemper) and to the mansion of the prospective buyer of Annie's blog (Rob Lowe, whose character is like Chris Traeger from Parks and Recreation, if he did coke and loved Eazy-E).
Diaz and Segel are game for whatever the script throws them, be it equal-opportunity nudity, physical comedy or acting frazzled on cocaine. There are a few sappy minutes involving a Jack Black cameo, but until that point, Sex Tape is continuously hilarious.
2014 marks 20 years since the Rwandan genocide. The months-long attack led by Hutus in 1994 resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis, almost 20 percent of the country's population. The 2012 documentary Sweet Dreams, screening next week for Austin Film Society's Doc Nights series, depicts a community-building program that is helping female Rwandans recover from those horrific events.
Ingoma Nshya is the first all-female drumming troupe in Rwanda, formed of Hutus and Tutsis. Some members lost family in the genocide, and some have family in jail for their participation in the mass killings. Troupe leader Kiki Katese meets some ice-cream makers from Brooklyn and is inspired to have the Rwandan women start their own shop, Inzozi Nziza (which means "sweet dreams").
Sweet Dreams has many interviews with women from the group. There's Clementine, a young woman who walks 1.5 hours to town for rehearsals. Another woman, whose parents are currently jailed, says, "If ever there's a place you can find peace, that place is Ingoma Nshya. That's where I was reborn." Co-directors Lisa and Rob Fruchtman follow the ladies through the formation of their co-op and past the troubled days leading up to the store's opening.
One of the films I regret missing at SXSW is Obvious Child, which opens in Austin on Friday. Jenny Slate (Saturday Night Live, Parks and Recreation) stars as Donna, a raunchy stand-up comedian. A one-night stand with cute yuppie Max (Jake Lacy, The Office) leads to Donna's accidental pregnancy, and she schedules an appointment to have an abortion. Unlike many other movies or TV shows (Juno, Sex and the City) where a character wants an abortion and then changes her mind, Donna is resolute in her decision.
What she is uncertain about is pretty much everything else. Her boyfriend just broke up with her in a gross bar restroom (props to the set designers for creating a truly dingy-looking bathroom). The bookstore where she works is closing, and her career in stand-up is far from explosive. Her mother (Polly Draper, thirtysomething) encourages her to make real plans for the future. Max seems too straight-laced to be her type, but Donna really likes him. She's just not sure what his response to her news will be.
Director Gillian Robespierre based her first feature on her 2009 short of the same name, which also starred Slate. There's a raw feeling to the humor and to Slate's portrayal of Debbie. Her post-breakup, wasted stand-up set is terrifically awkward for all involved. A small complaint would be that this set seems to last longer than it should, but it truly showcases Debbie's feeling of humiliation.
Two women are on a journey in Ida, by director Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love, The Woman in the Fifth), opening Friday in Austin at Regal Arbor. Orphaned Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska making her film debut), a novice nun, has just found out she is Jewish and her birth name is Ida. Her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza, Suicide Room, Rose), a listless alcoholic judge, is taking her to find her lost family.
One can assume that since it's the late Fifties or early Sixties in the People's Republic of Poland, and Anna is Jewish and in her twenties, the story of what happened to her family is likely tied to the previous Nazi occupation.
Pawlikowski chose to shoot his film in black and white, which adds to the historical aspect of the narrative, but used a squishy 1.37:1 aspect ratio which almost negates any cinematic feeling Ida might have. Within these limits, the director still captures some beautifully framed shots. The stairs in the hotel lobby, the placement of Anna's head in the frame -- there are artistic touches here. The cinematography -- boxy as it may feel -- reflects how Anna keeps herself apart.
Perhaps, as I was, you are unfamiliar with the name Tanaquil Le Clercq. This skilled dancer, a principal with the New York City Ballet struck with polio at the age of 27, is the focus of Afternoon of a Faun. The documentary about the ballerina's life comes from Nancy Buirski (The Loving Story), and is the Austin Film Society Doc Nights selection for June.
Tanaquil, known to her friends as "Tanny," started dancing at a young age and impressed choreographers such as George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. A friend says, "Her body created inspiration for choreographers." She would form strong relationships with those two -- going on to marry Balanchine in 1952 and having a decades-long intense friendship with Robbins. Correspondence between Tanny and Robbins is read during Afternoon of a Faun, showing her dark humor and glimpses of her character, as well as the deep affection felt between them.
Along with these letters, director Buirski compiles interviews with friends and fellow dancers, vintage video, old photos, and audio clips from a past interview with Le Clercq to give the viewer a sense of the ballerina's story. Even in the sometimes scratchy video clips included in the movie, Le Clercq's magnificent talent is obvious. Her performance of Balanchine's La Valse is especially haunting. Portions of Robbins' Afternoon of a Faun start and close the film.
Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq will screen on Wednesday, June 11 at AFS at the Marchesa. Ticket information is on the AFS site.
Watching Belle, the refreshingly atypical costume drama released nationwide this weekend, I was reminded of a quote from a book I finished recently. In Jill Lepore's biography of Jane Franklin (Ben's sister), she writes: "History is what is written and can be found; what isn't saved is lost, sunken and rotted, eaten by the earth." [Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin]
If Misan Sagay hadn't seen this portrait in a Scottish castle, we may never have learned about the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle. Based on the limited facts the screenwriter was able to find in her research -- given that Dido was a female in the 18th Century, there's unfortunately not a large amount known about her -- Sagay crafted a tale about this real woman, illegitimately born of a black woman and a white admiral, who was raised by the Murray family.
Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Touch) is left as a child with her great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) after her mother's death. Her father (Matthew Goode, The Good Wife) assures her of his affection. "Know in your heart you are loved, just as I loved your mother," he tells her... then sails off to India. Lord Mansfield, his wife (Emily Watson, Hilary and Jackie) and sister Lady Mary Murray (Penelope Wilton, Downton Abbey, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) rear the child alongside her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon, Cosmopolis, A Dangerous Method).
One of the best antidotes to a cruelly hot Austin summer is to partake of a show at the Paramount (or adjacent Stateside) Theatre. The air is cool, the Milk Duds are never melted and the movies are always great. The schedule for the Paramount Summer Classic Film Series has been released, and we are practically giddy with excitement over a number of the titles screening from late May through September.
The Paramount will be showing movies from various decades in 35mm, and Stateside will offer HD digitally projected titles. If you plan to see more than a couple of these, it's worth it to buy Flix-Tix (10 tickets for $50). Austin Film Society members get $5 off the ticket booklet if you buy at the box office. Becoming a Film Fan is also a great option for repeat customers, as it takes $5 off the GA ticket price -- a silver membership even gets you free garage parking during screenings.