Thursday, July 26, 2018

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

My instinct is to reply hell yeah, if I thought I could abandon civilization and live in the woods, or up a mountain, or on a desert island, I would. People suck (well, not you) and if I believed I could live completely on my own, away from their cell phones played on buses, their car alarms, their two AM parties, etc., not to mention their racism, greed and stupidity, I'd do it. My instinct is to say that.

The truth, unfortunately, is that I couldn't last one day in the wilderness for soooooo many reasons: I don't know how to hunt for food. I don't know how to start a fire. I couldn't identify edible plants to save my life. I would sooner run like hell from a wild animal than try to kill it. Not to mention I actually have a few good reasons to remain in civilization, such as a woman I've grown to love and would miss dearly. Couldn't say that a year ago.

There's a reality show my mother watches, Zod knows why, in which people are thrown into a forest and are forced to survive for a couple of weeks, I think, eating nuts and berries, making their own shelter, avoiding wild beasts, etc. Did I mention they have to do this completely naked?

There's a similar show she also watches that's set in the wilderness of Alaska. It's less extreme, but it's also about survival without many of the creature comforts of modern life.

Whenever I happen to see it, I'm reminded of my friend Layla, who does live in Alaska, but not in an igloo or anything like that. Still, she'll post pictures of nature on Facebook and joke about how cold it can get up there, even in the summer. Once she posted a video of a moose that crossed the highway in front of her!

Civilization, ultimately, is much more good than bad, but certain kinds of people can do without it, given a choice... and then there are those who don't have a choice.

Leave No Trace is about a father and teenage daughter who live in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. Why? At first, it seems as if it's because the father is just plain fed up with the modern world and the daughter is along for the ride. When they get caught, though, and are forced to return to civilization, it becomes clearer that the reasons are deeper than that.

Co-writer/director Debra Granik caught lightning in a bottle with Best Picture nominee Winter's Bone, and made a superstar out of Jenny Lawrence. At long last, Granik has made a follow-up, and I'd say it was worth the wait.

Like the work of Kelly Reichardt (I was reminded of Wendy and Lucy in particular), Trace is spartan in both pictures and words, relying on the audience to fill in the gaps and draw their own conclusions. Is Ben Foster's character a bad father? He raises his child apart from the modern world, but he does a really good job of it; she's intelligent and is fully schooled in her father's survival skills.

Would she be better off in a normal home with normal caretakers, though? That's part of the movie's dilemma, and Granik, with co-writer Anne Rosellini (adapting a novel), takes her time providing the answer. The issue is never as simple as one might think.

Granik provides lots of nice shots of the forest, and gets solid performances from Foster and newcomer Thomasin McKenzie, who no doubt must be sick to death of the Jenny Lawrence comparisons by now, so I won't make any.

Trace is thoughtful, character-driven and off-beat in a good way. Well worth a look.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Books: Double Indemnity

The 2018 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

Why do I keep coming back to Double Indemnity? I'm not sure. There's no doubt it's one of my favorite films, but in terms of the blog, I've dissected it pretty thoroughly. I've talked about Billy Wilder, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson; later this summer I'll add Fred MacMurray to that list; I've analyzed a scene from the movie, and now I'm gonna discuss the book on which it's based. I don't think I can get much deeper than that.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Three Identical Strangers

Three Identical Strangers
seen @ Angelika Film Center, New York, NY

To know that the current administration is responsible for separating the children of immigrants from their parents, going so far as to cage them in many instances, really makes me ashamed to be an American, yet at the same time it's not too different from a despicable pattern we've followed for as long as there has been an America.

Whether the cause is anti-terrorism, or fighting the Axis, or the right to own other humans as slaves, or simple manifest destiny, there's always been somebody behind it all who will tell you, with a smile and a wink, that an act such as (but certainly not limited to) breaking up a family without their consent was for the greater good. Sometimes there is no reason behind it except meanness.

And sometimes there's a plot at work.

Please don't ask me to identify which is which.

I don't remember the story of the long-lost New York triplets — Bobby Shafran, Eddie Galland and David Kellman — reunited after an entire childhood apart; I might have been a bit too young for it to register. The story of their reunion and everything after, including the mystery of why they were separated to begin with — is what makes up Three Identical Strangers, a heartbreaking, yet warm and often funny documentary.

If this were a Hollywood screenplay written by Aaron Sorkin or somebody like that, no one would buy it because no one would believe in it. The simple coincidence of the triplets living in the same region and suddenly meeting by chance stretches credulity enough... but then again, as you learn to your shock as you watch, it wasn't entirely coincidence.

The Triplets meet Madonna in a cameo in
Desperately Seeking Susan

I think if this were a Hollywood screenplay, there'd be a race-against-time third act where the triplets unite (after a second act in which dissension tears them apart) to unravel the conspiracy against them, Da Vinci Code style. Unfortunately for them, their actual story is nowhere near as melodramatic or cliche.

It's much more about mental illness, and genetics, and above all the age-old question of nature versus nurture. Bobby, Eddie and David grew up independent of each other, yet had so many things in common it was as if they had never been separated.

The Triplets had their own Manhattan
restaurant named, of course, Triplets

Is that genetics at work? One would think so, but if so, what does that say about our ability as self-aware beings to choose? These questions are brought up in the film, and they have a direct bearing on why the triplets were separated; I can't say more without giving it away. Just see it and be amazed.

I would've seen this with Vija and company, but the @#$(+& subway made me late again, and the line for the Angelika was out the door and around the block, which isn't unusual for the Angelika on a Sunday. I hadn't been back there in quite awhile, so I forgot.

David Kellman today

I went back to see it the next day. Meanwhile, I caught up to Vija after the movie; Debbie and Sue came along. We had Japanese for an early dinner and then Sue took Vija and me on a tour of the side streets of the west Village, where she used to live.

The two of them recently spotted none other than Alec Baldwin outside his apartment building in the Village, so we all went back there, thinking we might spot him again. We didn't, of course, but I certainly had no expectations. And it was a beautiful afternoon.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Nanook of the North

The Winter in July Blogathon is an event in which the theme is winter movies watched in the summertime, hosted by Moon in Gemini. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the link at the host site.

Nanook of the North
YouTube viewing

The timing for this blogathon is perfect: the weather here in New York has been in the 80s and 90s and mostly sunny all week long. We're about as far removed from the winter as you can get.

Nanook of the North is one of the first true feature-length documentaries, the brainchild of explorer turned filmmaker Robert Flaherty. His initial job was to research the Hudson Bay of northeastern Canada, beginning in 1910.

In 1913, he took a three-week film course to acquaint himself with filmmaking in an attempt to better document his experience. When the time came to shoot, he chose to focus on the native Inuits of the region, specifically the hunter Allakariallak, also known as Nanook, and his clan.

The long road to a finished product was riddled with obstacles. You can read about them in Flaherty's own words here, but the result was a film, released in 1922, that was a critical and commercial hit.

I was surprised at how engrossing Nanook was. We see him ice fishing, hunting walruses and seal, building igloos, and raising his family the best he can under primitive conditions. The stark terrain doesn't look as intimidating as it probably was, on account of the grainy film quality, but Flaherty and his team get it all, during a time when the boundaries of film were still beginning to be explored.

As I watched, I had wondered about the authenticity of some scenes; call it the consequences of reality television permeating the zeitgeist. Turns out, quite a bit of Nanook was fake and staged.

Should it matter? Patronizing references to the "simple, happy" Inuit aside, I think Flaherty definitely knew his subject matter, if nothing else. It's unlikely anyone else at the time could have made this film. If he was upfront about how he had manufactured drama, well, keep in mind the documentary film as we know it wasn't real in 1922. As is usually the case, Nanook needs to be considered in the context of the time.

I watched Nanook at Virginia's place, on her laptop. She was out of town (still is, as of this writing; she comes back this weekend) and asked me to housesit for her.

I was glad to do it, since it meant living in Manhattan again, but I didn't get around to watching the movie until Friday night, because of a bunch of things that went wrong this week which I won't get into here. Suffice it to say that watching the movie, especially given the fact it was silent, calmed me down at a point where I needed it bad.

Other films set in the winter (a select list):
A Simple Plan
Happy Feet
Murder on the Orient Express
War for the Planet of the Apes
Force Majeure

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Won't You Be My Neighbor?
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

Telling you which children's shows I watched as a youngling will date me, I'm sure, but that ship sailed long ago, so what the heck. Sesame Street and The Electric Company are both given, and you can add Romper Room to that list too. (People from my generation don't believe it when I say the Magic Mirror scared me. I really thought she could see me with that thing!) I even remember Captain Kangaroo.

Here in New York we had a local show called The Magic Garden, with these two hippie chicks with guitars, Paula and Carole, amidst their tricked-out studio set garden full of puppets and other weird critters. They'd sing songs and play games and stuff. I dunno, I just really dug them.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018