FILM THREAT INTERVIEW: THOMAS BEATTY & REBECCA FISHMAN of “THE BIG ASK”

Premiering at the 2013 Seattle International Film Festival, “Teddy Bears” enjoyed a festival tour before Tribeca Film picked it up for distribution, changing the title to “The Big Ask” in the process. The fickle desert of Joshua Tree serves as the ideal backdrop to the (somewhat) true story of a man (David Krumholtz) who surprises his friends during their vacation with his nervous breakdown in the form of an indecent proposal. I reviewed the film when it played at SIFF and it was one of my top picks from the festival that year. I was pleased to hear that “The Big Ask” would reach a larger audience thanks to its V.O.D. release on June 30th. I recently caught up with co-directors/married couple, Thomas Beatty and Rebecca Fishman, at their home in Los Angeles where they were still adjusting to having a new human baby on top of promoting what they consider their first-born, a feature film.

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2014 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL WRAP-UP

As you may or may not know, the Seattle International Film Festival is the largest film festival in the world. This year, they screened 435 features and short films from around the globe. As you can imagine, it’s impossible to see everything, so I try my best to curate my personal program wisely. Unfortunately, even an awful film can have a great idea at its core so I am sometimes duped by a promising synopsis. Thankfully, my dance card contained way more great films than stinkers this time around. Here are the best and worst of the 20 or so films I squeezed into the festival’s month-long run:

BEST:

“The Babadook” – This Australian export, akin to “Rosemary’s Baby”, is one of the best horror films I’ve seen in years. It tells the story of a widowed mother who questions her own sanity when her behaviorally impaired son becomes obsessed with a morbid children’s book that mysteriously appears on his book shelf. Supernatural though it may be, “The Babadook” also hauntingly examines grief in the face of senseless tragedy. Try not to watch it right before bed.

 

“Happy Christmas” – Joe Swanberg is one of the founders of Mumblecore, and with every new film, he makes a better case for genre MVP. If you liked “Drinking Buddies”, you will certainly love “Happy Christmas”, which stars versatile minx Anna Kendrick as a hot mess who gifts her brother and his burgeoning family with her post-breakup meltdown during the Christmas holiday. Swanberg also stars alongside his real life baby and the long-underutilized Melanie Lynskey (“Heavenly Creatures”, “Foreign Correspondents”) as a writer who has put her career on the back burner in order to stay at home with their son.

 

“In Order of Disappearance” – Comparisons to “Fargo” extend beyond the prevalence of snow, in this Norwegian film from director Hans Petter Moland. Star Stellan Skarsgaard channels Liam Neeson in this humor-speckled revenge drama in which an unassuming snowplow driver systematically hunts down the men responsible for murdering his son.

 

“Mood Indigo” – However you stand on the work of French director Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), you have to admit that he is always innovating. His latest film is his most experimental yet. It’s “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse”-meets-“Synechdoche, NY” aesthetic left the entire theater in a surreal daze, as if they had sprinkled shroom dust on the popcorn. It’s not his masterpiece, but it is required viewing for anyone who is remotely interested in experimental cinema.

“Night Moves” – Kelly Reichardt is a true cinematic auteur and her latest film induces a lingering performance from Jesse Eisenberg as one third of a trio of eco-terrorists (alongside Dakota Fanning and Peter Skarsgaard) who are blindsided when they fail to consider the full implications of their actions.

 

“Skeleton Twins” – Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig are unbelievably brilliant in this black comedy about estranged twins who begrudgingly reunite following simultaneous suicide attempts. It’s entirely possible that this movie would be completely devoid of humor (and sympathetic characters) without the two leads. But because it’s Hader and Wiig (quite possibly the most natural comedic actors on the planet.), you love them and want them to be happy despite their self-destructive idiocy.

 

“Obvious Child” – I saw this at another festival but I really can’t say enough nice things about Jenny Slate’s killer multi-layered performance in the funniest romantic dramedy about abortion in recent memory.

WORST:

 

“Alex of Venice” – I hate to put Chris Messina’s directorial debut in this category, because it’s a masterwork in comparison to my other two Worst of Fest choices, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a very good film. Messina attempts Cassavetes vérité, but the hackneyed dialog betrays him. Performances by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Don Johnson (going for a late-career dramatic turn a la Tony Danza) are as good as they can be under the circumstances.

 

“Another” – A large part of me just wants to forget I ever saw this movie. And in time, I’m sure I will. But I am compelled to put out one more warning to stay the hell away from this amateurish, nonsensical, misogynistic pile of poop. It’s not so bad it’s good. It’s just SO BAD.

“Zombeavers”– The title is absolutely the best thing about this failed attempt at b-movie camp. If you like relentless entendres about hairy vaginas, you still won’t like this movie.

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

 

“An Afternoon with Laura Dern” – I thoroughly enjoyed this professionally moderated Q&A with one of my favorite actresses following her receipt of SIFF’s Outstanding Achievement in Acting Award. In addition to her immense talent, Dern is lighthearted, humble and as savvy about film as she is enthusiastic. A screening of David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” followed the Q&A, featuring one of Dern’s most memorable roles as the sweetly rebellious and philosophical Lula Fortune.

 

“To Be Takei” – From sci-fi cult hero to nerd national treasure, George Takei has reinvented himself numerous times throughout his career. Jennifer Kroot paints a respectful portrait of a relentlessly optimistic and talented man who has used his charm to advance the LGBT equality movement.

“Venus in Fur” – Roman Polanski’s latest is a compelling, if on the nose, portrait of a self-obsessed director and playwright who doesn’t realize he’s met his match in a seemingly naïve actress auditioning for the lead role in his adaptation of the Leopold von Sacher-Masoch novel. Hyper meta though it is, (it’s a play within a play about a novel within a novel), the story still manages to be fairly straightforward and accessibly clever.

 

“Willow Creek” – Accurately described by many (including writer/director Bobcat Goldthwaite) as “The Blair Sasquatch Project”, this found footage horror film surpasses its predecessor with compelling characters and story structure, but falters at the very end.

 

GOLDEN SPACE NEEDLE AWARDS:

Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood”, swept the Golden Space Needle awards, earning accolades for best director, best actress (Patricia Arquette) and best damn film period. Alan Hicks took home Best Documentary with “Keep on Keepin’ on”; an account of jazz legend Clark Terry’s mentoring of blind piano prodigy Justin Kaulflin. Cody Blue Snider’s “Fool’s Day” took home the award for Best Short.

SIFF is a film festival marathon. It’s exhausting and occasionally painful, but ultimately very rewarding. Thank you to SIFF for another great fest. Time to catch up on my DVR and then start training for next year!

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

FILM THREAT REVIEW: LUCKY THEM

2014 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Rated R
97 minutes

***

Megan Griffiths’ most commercial film to date, the acclaimed director departs from the weightiness of her previous work (“Eden,” “The Off Hours”) with “Lucky Them”. Part indie darling, part wacky road trip movie, it’s not nearly as authentic as her earlier films. But it’s at least engaging enough to keep you watching, if only to learn the resolution of the story’s core mystery.

Toni Collette effortlessly slips into the role of Ellie Klug, a mid-forties rock journalist who is experiencing a rut in all aspects of her life. Ellie is short on necessary cash for her potentially career-saving investigation into a 10-year-old cold case: the disappearance of Matthew Smith, an iconic Seattle musician and Kurt Cobain/Elliott Smith hybrid. The story carries extra weight for Ellie because she was in a serious relationship with Smith at the time of his disappearance and she has been unable to fully process the loss.

The film’s other prominent character is Charlie (Thomas Hayden Church), a former boyfriend and eccentric wealthy layabout who attaches himself to Ellie after a chance reunion. Charlie agrees to fund her mission provided she allows him to turn it into a documentary.

Meanwhile, Ellie feebly resists a relationship with a cute, younger street musician on the brink of stardom (Ryan Eggold). It’s his singer-songwriter aesthetic that also makes up the film’s largely ignorable soundtrack.

The story is reportedly semi-autobiographical for co-writer Emily Wachtel. Though, with several implausible plot points, perhaps it’s not autobiographical enough. For starters, do people like Ellie really still exist? She writes for what must be the last independent print music rag in the country. Her editor (Oliver Platt) is so convinced of the story’s revitalizing properties that he threatens to fire her if she refuses to take the assignment. The failing magazine is responsible for Ellie’s sole income, yet she somehow makes enough money to live alone in an apartment in the middle of one of the most expensive cities in the country and seems to enjoy a vibrant night life.

Though Collette and Hayden Church manage to imbue their characters with their natural charisma, on paper, they are tropes. Ellie is the self-destructive control freak that is afraid to open up. Charlie, with his freewheeling attitude and emotional candor, acts as Ellie’s foil. Initially, he is the wisecracking sidekick who eventually reveals a deep soul, thereby teaching Ellie to feel ways about things. It’s a relatively entertaining story, but the character development errs on the side of heavy-handed.

If you can get past these shortcomings, you will likely enjoy the rest of the film. Griffiths is a talented director with a distinctive knack for finding locations with character. She does a terrific job of capturing the true Seattle scenester vibe, avoiding shots of the Space Needle and fish throwing.

The bottom line is that based on her resume, I expected more from Griffiths. I hope that in the future she sticks with the more vérité tone of “The Off Hours” and steers clear of this Cameron Crowe, Hallmark hipster territory.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

FILM THREAT REVIEW: RAZING THE BAR

2014 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
83 minutes

****

Ryan Worsley’s debut documentary lovingly profiles a now defunct Seattle bar and night club called “The Funhouse.” But her film is more than just a scrapbook. It also explores how much a place like that means to the community that embraces it and critiques the morality of gentrification which often means the death of DIY institutions.

As “Razing the Bar” illustrates, the Funhouse was more than just the divey rock and roll bar that dared to stare down Paul Allen’s Experience Music Project in tourist-laden Seattle Center. To the uninitiated, it was “the scary clown bar,” but to a group of entertainment misfits, it was a hangout, a home and an incubator. You didn’t have to be fully formed to play there, and for many young bands, it was the “first show that mattered” thanks to receptive audiences and a talented and fair booker who always made sure his acts ended the night with dollars in their pocket and a place to crash.

That booker, Brian Foss, is also the protagonist of the story. To many, the Funhouse was Foss. Worsley makes this clear through interviews with Funhouse alumni, peppering their anecdotes with photo collages, old show footage and scores it with the music of the bands who played there. One former patron calls it the Punk Rock Cheers, which perfectly sums up how much it meant to so many people.

The story of the Funhouse extends beyond the local scene. Every great city needs a place like the Funhouse, an indispensable part of the underground entertainment scene. Regardless, the building was sold in 2012 and razed to make way for luxury apartments, an all-too-common story in many burgeoning cities. Seattle is one of the fastest growing cities in America, so it makes sense that these new transplants would need somewhere to live. But the tragedy is that it is at the expense of the spirit of the city, which makes it a unique and desirable place to live in the first place.

As one interviewee points out, many of the musicians celebrated in the EMP would have relied on a place like the Funhouse to showcase their early work. Little by little, we lose the small venues where the next Kurt Cobain could play. Many credit the Funhouse to the current Cabaret and Vaudeville revival.

The Funhouse wasn’t just a springboard for acts. One of Foss’ apprentices started there at a very rough time in her life. Today, she holds a prominent position at Austin City Limits, one she never would have been considered for as a drug-addled runaway.

Despite the inevitable destruction, “Razing the Bar” does have a happy ending. The communities that formed at the Funhouse are still as active and close-knit as ever. Foss also continues to book shows for two like-minded clubs around town. He’ll carry the torch as long as he can. The Funhouse may be gone, but the spirit lives on in all those who touched its sticky floors.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

FILM THREAT REVIEW: TIME LAPSE

2014 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
103 minutes

***

The core emotion of every time manipulation story is regret. Knowing and having influence over your future is one of humanity’s greatest unattainable desires which is why time travel movies are generally so compelling. The machine in “Time Lapse” does not allow for travel, but it does provide foresight, taking a photo once per day that depicts a moment 24 hours in the future. Bradley King’s low-budget debut uses a simple set-up and a claustrophobic setting to debate the existence of fate and explore what desperate people would do with this power.

Finn, Jasper and Callie are financially struggling young people who manage a cluster of ground floor apartments. When the owner of the complex asks them to check in on their unusually rent-tardy elderly neighbor (John Rhys-Davies in a voice and photo cameo), they are alarmed to discover a wall full of Polaroids taken through their living room window. Most of them are of past events, but some of them are of things that clearly haven’t happened yet. From his journal, they learn that the machine predicted what the scientist interpreted as his own death, and, in his last entry, he resolved to prevent it. So when they find his burnt-to-a-crisp body in a storage unit, they take it as a sign that they must not deviate from the events in the photos, lest they meet the same fate.

At first, the photos depict life improvements: Future Jasper sends himself dog track results and future Finn, suffering from painter’s block, is able to plagiarize his own work thanks to an easel conveniently set up in front of the prophetic window. But when the images in the photo take a dark turn, the trio believe they are slaves to fate, and their bond is inevitably torn apart by suspicion, jealousy and greed.

While “Time Lapse” is by no means perfect, King and screenwriter B.D. Cooper manage to make an absorbing movie about time manipulation without special effects, a la “Primer” and “Safety Not Guaranteed”. It’s a tad ostentatious at times. Some of the acting falters and I’m not sure the time logic completely scans. But despite the film’s shortcomings, you want to stick around to see it all play out. Besides, I don’t know about you but speaking as someone with a Flux Capacitor tattoo, I am ordained to watch every movie about time travel. It’s inevitable.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com  (now defunct).

FILM THREAT REVIEW: TO BE TAKEI

2014 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
90 minutes

****

We all have our baggage. But that doesn’t mean we have to let it weigh us down. Just ask George Takei. He came to fame via his role as Sulu in the Star Trek franchise but has since reinvented himself several times over, first as an aspiring politician and most recently a gay rights activist and playwright. His activism stems well beyond equality for sexual orientation. He’s also a spokesperson for universal love and acceptance and seeing the humor in everything. He has spread his relentless optimism to over 7 million Facebook followers, not to mention comic con attendees the world over. Jennifer M. Kroot’s documentary profiles the life and achievements of this undeniably charming man and explores just why it’s so awesome “To Be Takei.”

What’s George got to be so happy about? Well, for starters, he’s alive and well. Having spent part of his childhood imprisoned in American internment camps for U.S. citizens of Japanese descent (thanks to a shameful decision by Roosevelt following the bombing of Pearl Harbor) he appreciates the little things. He’s got a loving, supportive husband and partner of 25 years named Brad, who also keeps the show running behind the scenes, handling the dirty work so that Takei can remain upbeat and affable.

Surprisingly, not everyone loves George. Of course, there are all the anti-gay politicians who look terribly foolish whenever they attempt to engage him in an equality debate. More puzzling is the animosity from his former colleague, William Shatner. Shatner waffles between denying a personal relationship with Takei (despite having worked on 6 movies and 3 seasons of television) and acting hurt because he (erroneously) believes he was left off the invite list for George and Brad’s wedding. Another thing Shatner is weirdly sore about: Sulu’s character getting a promotion to Captain in “Star Trek VI.”

Because of his positive attitude, Takei has very few regrets in life, though one of them is listening to his agent early in his career and taking stereotypical Asian roles to “further his career.” He also regrets having blamed his father for extending their stay in the camps by refusing to sign an entrapping “Loyalty Letter” to the U.S.

Though Takei never had the chance to apologize to his father before he died, he was able to exorcise his regret through an original musical about the internment camps called “Allegiance.” He sang to his father every night on stage during its successful run in San Diego and later on Broadway.

Despite a slightly meandering structure, “To Be Takei” is a highly entertaining and moving portrait. Like Takei himself, it doesn’t dwell in the negative. It covers all the trying times in his life. But just when your eyes start to sting, the levity returns. Takei’s philosophy is simple. “It takes an optimistic attitude to get over something like internment and be able to achieve things… you determine your own destiny.” Mission accomplished, Captain.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

 

FILM THREAT REVIEW: ZOMBEAVERS

2014 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
85 minutes

*

Did you guys know that the word “beaver” doesn’t just refer to the forest animal? It can also be a euphemism for female genitalia! It’s true. And Jordan Rubin’s first feature film won’t let you forget it. If you love single entendres, boobs and gore and don’t consider characters or plot important, you are going to love “Zombeavers.”

Just to be clear, as a long-time fan of Troma movies and schlocky horror in general, I am the target audience for this movie. But it fails to live up to its premise, which could have been successfully executed one of two ways: Either the movie is fun because it’s completely earnest, or it works because it’s self-aware enough to be clever. “Zombeavers” is neither clever nor earnest. Rubin wears his influences on his sleeve (“Evil Dead,” “Critters,” “Sharknado”) but it seems like the only thing he took away from those movies were boobs and gore. Those are some of the ingredients that make it work. But he left out the cerebral baking powder. The humor is fratty and juvenile at best, and creepy uncle inappropriate at worst. The beaver jokes vacillate from lame to rapey. In light of recent events, it’s hard to find any humor in that.

But it’s not just the beaver/vagina jokes that fall flat. It’s nearly every joke, save one or two about beaver behavior that weren’t enough to save the movie. The best thing about “Zombeavers,” besides the title, is the hilariously grotesque beaver puppets and the practical effects carnage they inflict. But we spend too much time with the archetypical human characters. You don’t always have to relate to the characters in a horror movie, but they should be endearing in some way. Otherwise, it just feels like torture waiting for them to die.

I suppose the absolute perfection that is Joss Whedon’s “Cabin in the Woods” may have ruined all future cabin-set horror films. But “Zombeavers” didn’t stand a chance. Rubin seems to have assumed that his concept would float the movie so he slacked on the follow-through. He decided he could just fill in the blanks like some kind of b-movie Mad Libs. And you know what? There is a market for that paint-by-numbers crap too. But I expected more from a film festival selection.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).