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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

MFF Review: Contemporary Color

Unless you happened to be on a color guard team in high school or college, it's unlikely that you know a whole lot about it. Given that, it's also pretty unlikely that you're going to get excited to see a movie about a big color guard show. Trust me: I'm right there with you, but there are just a few other things in the documentary Contemporary Color that might start to give you some doubt.

First, consider this: David Byrne (of Talking Heads) likes color guard. Likes it enough that he decided to pick out ten teams from across North America, then had musicians like Nelly Furtado, St. Vincent, Money Mark + Ad-Rock, and others compose songs specifically for these teams to perform to. After nearly a year of preparing, this whole project came to a nearly impossible climax at a gigantic, unwieldy performance at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn. That show is the subject of Contemporary Color, a documentary by Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross.

When I say the show is the subject, I don't mean that this is a concert documentary. It is in some ways, of course–it does showcase the entire performance from the pre-show warming up to the larger-than-life finale–but it also aims to document much, much more. This film is just as interested in the audience, the folks behind the mixing console, the backstage host, the cameramen, and the Barclay janitorial team as it is the actual performers. While it does capture much of the emotion and excited nervousness of the young color guard performers and the cool collectedness of their partnered musical artist, it does so by documenting the event itself, from every possible angle.

The outcome is a film that is exceptional and hard to define. It's like a concert film fused with a feature length blu-ray featurette which itself is the subject of another documentary. It's behind-the-behind-the-scenes.

Even though the subject matter of color guard is a pretty niche one (at least in my circles!), Contemporary Color takes on the nature of a creative performance as its central, secret subject, and the results are fascinating and thrilling. It highlights the sheer amount of manpower, talent, skill, and miraculous luck that it takes to pull of an event of such magnitude, and the way it is portrayed is both invigorating and easy, with each performance sliding into the next and each act taking on a new visually compelling technique.

Which brings me to the editing, which is the real star of this film (Bill Ross IV is also the editor of the film). Given the miles of footage that must have been captured–it seems like the massive team of cameramen was just told to split up and film anything and everything–the editing of Contemporary Color would be a colossal task to edit into something cohesive. Fortunately for us, Ross does that and so much more; with each performance comes a different creative technique, from splicing in an audio montage of the performers' thoughts on their routine to double and triple exposed dreamy layers of slow motion footage of the teams and musicians. Even during the performances, we get in-time cuts to the host preparing for his next interstitial interview, the makeup team prepping an upcoming act, or an empty green room with a TV showing footage of the rainbow-lit White House after the Supreme Court ruling for gay marriage. This all creates a real sense of omnipresence and excitement that is extraordinarily rare in the documentary form.

Contemporary Color is a weird, wonderful, gargantuan film that seems to expand the meaning of the word 'documentary'. It's about creativity; it's about production; it's about teamwork, collaboration, and all the tiny moving parts and factors that come into play when artists of all kinds work together. It's a film that might not sound like your cup of tea on the surface, but is utterly spellbinding in its uniquely creative beauty.

Contemporary Color does not yet have a non-film festival release date, but keep an eye out on contemporarycolor.com for news.
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MFF Review: Jerico

Race is clearly a topic that is on everyone's minds right now, and more than ever are racially charged films making appearances at film festivals. This past weekend I caught a few at the Macon Film Festival, including the excellent documentary Yazoo Revisited: Integration and Segregation in a Deep Southern Town that explored the history of an integrated public school system in a small Mississippi city. Jerico also looks to the past to explore issues of racism and prejudice, but does so in a categorically different way: by using comedy.

Jerico primarily follows two young black men, Jarvis (Anthony Fort) and Jerico (Brandon Lewis, who also wrote the film and plays a few other characters) living in the south around the time that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed by LBJ. They share a tragic history in which Jarvis's father fought to get a well deserved promotion, leading to his kid brother being lynched. The two are celebrating the signing of the Civil Rights Act and rushing to get to work, where their sympathetic boss is ready to interview Jarvis for the promotion his father wanted so dearly. Along the way, they save a young boy from a racist mob and end up on the run from them themselves, resorting to some rather silly tactics to escape the very real and very dangerous group.

The most obvious thing about the film is it's unique tone. It takes what could have been a very serious melodrama and turned it into a screwball comedy, complete with the character Jerico donning whiteface and adopting a kindly hillbilly persona in order to help Jarvis escape. It's quite silly, and at times it is very funny. Jerico's hesitance paired with Jarvis's heroic nature make for a familiar and comedic contrast, and there are at least a handful of laugh out loud moments. Director Seckeita Lewis, who was in attendance at the screening, noted that she thinks most movies about the history of African-Americans are tragic and heartbreaking, so much so that the emotionality of them make it difficult to earnestly discuss afterwards; by utilizing comedy, she hopes to "enable conversations about race."

All in all, I'd say she mostly succeeds. While Jerico is not what you'd call a polished film–it often feels like a student film with a moderate budget, complete with some logical and tonal inconsistencies–it is nothing if not very ambitious, especially for a first time director and writer. I suspect we'll see some very interesting and unique work from this husband and wife team in the future, and I hope they continue to explore this tricky-but-appealing niche.

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Monday, July 25, 2016

MFF Review: Autumn Fall

With the success of Stieg Larsson's book series and subesquent movie adaptations a few years back, Nordic Noir seemed like the only thing coming out of Scandinavia, but if you're lucky you can catch a glimpse of something not quite so action-thriller.

Autumn Fall (Høst in Norwegian) is such a film; it captures a short period of time in a young woman's life as she struggles to forge meaningful relationships. Ingvild (Ingeborg Raustøl) works as a stage manager at the Oslo National Theater, and after a performance is rudely interrupted by the dangerously drunk and washed up old actor Jeppe (Helge Jordal), she finds herself unable to avoid him, and gradually develops a romantic relationship with the much older man.

I'll go ahead and say now that there is a rather large turn of events near the end of the film that changes things quite a bit; I don't wish to spoil it here, but suffice to say it puts their relationship in a totally new light, and actually alters the tone of the film to a point of no return, my main issue with the film. At that point, it becomes tragically dramatic, borderline Shakespearean (which, admittedly, goes with the theater motif), which I don't think works for the film.

Up until that turning point, Autumn Fall is nothing short of lovely. It captures in both visuals and music the feeling of a cool autumn day when there's nothing to do but stroll through the beautiful streets of Oslo, casually talking with a new friend. With its classy jazz score and cozy locations, it expresses the mood of an evolving new relationship perfectly, warming the viewer like a cup of hot chocolate on a cold day.

Of course outside of cinematography and music, this tone could not have been accomplished without the chemistry and impressive performances of the two lead actors, who really sell their newfound romance in a way that is both believable and sweet. They are both not without faults–they are no perfect couple–but they've found something that seems to work, and Raustøl and Jordal seem as though they are genuinely enjoying each other's company.

Because of the twist in the end and some unnecessarily included love scenes, this film to me feels like it would have been a phenomenal short that would stick in the back of your head for months. As a feature, however, it feels a bit overlong, and the shift in tone at the end kind of undoes the lovely atmosphere that it had so carefully crafted up to that point. Although the ending does in some ways tie into the themes of the film, the abruptness of it just didn't do it for me. Despite this, I can't say it isn't recommended; it's an intimate and relaxed film that is rare, and quite enjoyable for the most part.

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Best Covers of the Week, Vol. 136

 Batgirl #1
by Francis Manapul

Manapul has a way of creating covers that engage with the iconic nature of a character while looking utterly modern and exciting, and this one is no different.

 Detective Comics #937
by Rafael Albuquerque

This seems to be Albuquerque actually taking a page out of the Manapul playbook ironically, using bold, simple color backgrounds and integrated text titles. I like the depth and angles created by the two subjects and the titles as well.

 Drifter #13
by Nic Klein

This cover just exudes a fierce anger, from the excellent facial cartooning to the fiery coloring outside of her and the digital color glitches that run on the outer edges.

 Harley Quinn #30
by Amanda Conner

Conner gets Harley Quinn in a way that few artists get characters that they didn't create. This one is destined to be one of the iconic Harley Quinn images that we'll see on posters and stickers for years to come.

ROM #1
by J.H. Williams III

This to me is Williams showing off his range. While the creates in the background (and invading the foreground) have the kind of painterly texture that we're used to seeing in a Williams composition, the central figure is much smoother and almost digitally cleaner, which creates a nice contrast.

That's it for this week. What did I miss? Let me know on Twitter or Facebook!
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MFF Review: My Blind Brother

You know that movie, you know the one, that you found On Demand and just decided to try because you couldn't find anything else, but you ended up having a really good time watching it? For me, that's the kind of movie that Sophie Goodhart's My Blind Brother is the perfect example of.

My Blind Brother follows two brothers, the self-absorbed marathon running blind Robbie (Adam Scott) and the lazy and resentful, but essentially kind Bill (Nick Kroll). As life continues to ignore Bill as he plays second fiddle to the beloved but obnoxious Robbie, Bill meets Rose (Jenny Slate), who is reconsidering her life after she believes her judgmental argument with her boyfriend accidentally got him run over by a bus. Of course, Bill and Robbie both fall for her as she begins dating Robbie out of a sense of guilt, and indie romantic comedy hi-jinks ensue.

While this hits some of the standard romcom beats, it definitely stands out in that it is really, really funny. The concept in itself is pretty clever in the way that it makes the lazy slob the hero and the handicapped inspiration the asshole, but the cast here is what clearly makes the film. It's as if Goodhart had the idea for this movie, then happened to catch an episode of Parks and Recreation featuring all three of these actors and everything just clicked.

Scott is hysterical as the obliviously pretentious Robbie, using the same stupid "You look pretty today" joke on every woman he meets and missing obvious clues to the burgeoning relationship that Bill and Rose are forging when he's not looking (forgive the pun). Kroll and Slate have some real chemistry, and Slate in particular is very humanly funny, and her sweet performance makes it easy to believe that both men would fall for her.

In the end, My Blind Brother could have been either a lifetime movie on one end of the spectrum or a Farrelly Brothers movie on the other, but instead strikes a nice balance somewhere in between the melodramatic love triangle and the goofy physical humor. It's a really fun movie that takes a simple relationship story and turns it into a solid comedy that's hard to turn away from. If you're looking for something light and down to earth as the blockbuster season winds down, I strongly recommend checking out this delightful film.

My Blind Brother is scheduled to have a limited theatrical release on September 23rd, 2016.
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Sunday, July 24, 2016

MFF Review: Harry Benson: Shoot First

Harry Benson might not be a name you're familiar with, but odds are you've seen his photographs. The man is about as prolific as can be imagined; he's taken iconic photos of every pop culture figure from The Beatles to the Clintons, Queen Elizabeth to Muhammad Ali. In the upcoming documentary Harry Benson: Shoot First, directors Justin Bare and Matthew Miele take on the monumental task of showcasing the legendary career of a man who is still actively working today at age 86.

Shoot First takes a clever, roaming approach to what could have been a four hour slog of chronological history, instead moving back and forth through time to take peeks at the backstories and significance of many of Benson's celebrated photographs. It does so with a carefree tone that keeps things moving lightly throughout, but underneath is an masterfully crafted narrative. The film runs the gambit from the utter silliness of The Beatles having a pillow fight in a hotel room to the ethical dilemma of photographing a just-shot Robert F. Kennedy, and it does so with a sort of expertly swung pendulum, always adjusting the tone at just the moment that you feel you've seen the full breadth of Benson's craft.

The film smartly uses a contact sheet (like a test sheet of photos straight from the negatives) as the narrative map that guides the story along, nudged forward by an impressive array of interviews from the likes of James L. Brooks, Dan Rather, Sharon Stone, Alec Baldwin, and even Donald Trump. The admiration that most of these contributors exude for Benson and their appreciation for the details of the photograph being examined create a real sense of awe for the man's incredible talent.

However, Benson's own interviews for the film balance all this praise out with a healthy dose of self-depreciating humor. The key to Shoot First working as well as it does is Benson's personality; he is charming, funny, and humble even as he describes the often crazy lengths he went to to capture the right moment. The stories he and others share about the stories behind iconic photos are often hilarious and quite memorable; for example, how he convinced Roman Polanski to get buried up to his neck in sand, then acted as if he couldn't dig him up as the tide was coming in to overtake him.

Harry Benson: Shoot First is the kind of documentary that you happen to catch a glimpse of and can't bring yourself to flip over to something else. It is eminently compelling, and is exciting to see just what wonderful image that you've seen and had no idea was one of Benson's is up next. It is fantastically edited, and knows exactly how to show a still image and it's tiny details without the film becoming a slideshow, and provides great insights into both the art of photojournalism and the moments into which so many iconic movie and TV personalities, sports figures, musicians, and politicians let Benson into their private worlds. This is a must see!

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MFF Review: Yazoo Revisited: Integration and Segregation in a Deep Southern Town

In light of current events, it is always important to look to the past for answers, and perhaps more questions. Though the history books relegate the civil rights movement to a few chapters covered during Black History Month, it's clear that this is a battle that is unfortunately not yet won. We at GeekRex have talked very positively about films that examine a small event in great detail rather than than trying to somehow portray the entire life of an individual, films like 2014's Selma. This weekend at the 2016 Macon Film Festival, I got the chance to see such a film that looks at an important part of civil rights history, and questions what is to come.

Despite it's lengthy title, Yazoo Revisited: Integration and Segregation in a Deep Southern Town has a pretty narrow focus: it seeks to explore the history of public school integration in the small Mississippi town of Yazoo City. Director David Rae Morris comes to this with a unique perspective, as his father Willie Morris, a former editor for Harper's Magazine, wrote a book about segregation in Yazoo City where he grew up. The film draws on passages from the book as a starting point, but also pulls in dozens of perspectives from local students, community leaders, politicians, and academics from both past and present to provide an in depth historical presentation of the situation as it evolved from the antebellum period to present day.

Yazoo is largely very compelling, and does so by building the story chronologically with first person accounts and news articles and just enough historical background peppered in to make it feel pretty thorough without getting bogged down. Among the most fascinating bits are where we are privy to the facts of the situation that are totally separated from what was reported at the time; Yazoo City was often praised as a model city for integration, but at times this was far from the truth. In a similiar way that Selma examined how Martin Luther King, Jr. used potentially inflammatory tactics in the quest for peaceful resolution, Yazoo questions the ethics of community leaders who fought against direct integration with the reasoning that they wanted to make it gradual to keep the Klan from getting involved. It is these kinds of uncomfortable moments that make the film a unique one.

This film is one that gives a remarkably singular view of a story that most Americans probably think they already know from their high school education. Instead of a simple answer, the film seeks to explore every angle, and really forces the viewer to think about how public opinion changes, the real and practical notions that slowly change over time. Yazoo subtly asks the question: from an outside perspective reading about it in the papers, does it matter how the whole community feels when an outspoken group of politicians and community leaders spout off their opposition? It shows hope in the courage of the black and white families alike that embraced integration despite the very real risks; it also asks whether this problem is really one of the past as it looks at the problems that Yazoo City High School still faces to this day.

Despite a few touches of amateur filmmaking (this is Morris's first film), the captivating and relevant subject matter and the way it is handled are enough to relegate those quibbles to the background. This is one of those films that unfortunately might be difficult to see, but I would encourage any and all to seek it out; Yazoo Revisited is a film that is important right now and deserves some recognition for the timeliness and heart with which it looks at civil rights in America.

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