So you want to be a Festival Gypsy?

As staff and volunteers arrive in the soon-to-be-bustling mountain town of Telluride in advance of the 46th Telluride Film Festival, there’s an excitement in the air. What films will screen? Who will the guests be? Will we get to see all the films we want to get into? For many of us, this is a chance to see friends we see only once a year at this Festival. And for others…this is another festival to work on the festival circuit.

I’ve been working film festivals for over 30 years. I didn’t plan to be a Festival Gypsy. It’s like potato chips, you have one and suddenly you’re looking sadly at an empty salty bag. What starts as a passion for films and one festival job that allows you access to films and behind-the-scene comradery, becomes a few festivals that you travel to to work with your friends…to what can become a full slate of festivals and suddenly, you find that it’s your life. I’ve had the opportunity to produce my own film festivals, curate film programs for festivals and have worn many hats for over 20 festivals here and abroad.

Not to be confused with attending a few festivals when you have the means for Passes and accommodations…a true Festival Gypsy may not even have a home base. There are a few I know that stay with family or friends but all of their belongings either fit in a few suitcases or live in perpetual storage. Every gypsy has different story. Some started like myself, in the SF Bay Area, where there’s a film festival every month. Or they found a particular niche in the festival business: Events, Guest Relations, Transpo or Theater Ops and realized that if they knew others in the biz, they could work at other festivals doing the same job. Some festivals even provide lodging and transportation.

The short-term contracts mean that you may have to pay quarterly taxes, have great budgeting skills and be able to make dinner out of cheese cubes and bread sticks from the guest lounge. You meet so many interesting people and each festival has it’s own perks and pitfalls but if you have a certain skill set and can adapt easily to new environments, it can be a wonderful experience. As with any job, it’s your team that makes all the difference. Everyone who works a festival will have a different experience.

If you live in the town of Telluride (lucky you), you can work the plethora of festivals that happen here almost every weekend of the summer. However, most of the jobs are only volunteer, so you’d be hard pressed to make a living and you’d be traveling out of town come the end of September after The Telluride Festival of Cars and Colors. Very few people have the wherewithal to travel the festival circuit as a Volunteer. A Festival Gypsy is likely working multiple jobs for the privilege of traveling to do what they love; become part of the crew that bands together to bring amazing, potentially life-changing films to the masses. So if you see someone carrying a festival sign, toting a bin of passes/waters/ballots, wearing a headset or badge…give them a smile and acknowledge their hard work. They may be sleeping on a couch, subsisting on bagels and coffee, and far from home.

Say Hello to “The Farewell”

Director and Writer, Lulu Wang has been winning accolades for her touching, personal film. The Farewell was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and won Audience Favorite. The emotional story follows a Chinese American family traveling from America for a fake wedding. The immediate family have decided to hide the truth about the family matriarch’s diagnosis and the wedding is an excuse for everyone to say goodbye. Awkwafina is perfectly cast as the American daughter straddling two cultures; she plays a stand-in for the director. The Farewell is based on a true story about Wang’s family which the director first shared as a story in a 2016 episode of This American Life. The film poster reads “Based on an actual lie.”

The film explores the daughter’s feeling of conflict. Should the grandmother be told the truth so she can say proper goodbyes and get her affairs in order? The Chinese family knows that this is not the case and that this is a “good lie” and one that lets the matriarch, Nai Nai (grandmother in Mandarin) retain her dignity and possibly prolong her life by not focusing on the illness. It’s unusual to see so many older actors be the focus of a story and it’s a view of China and Chinese culture that’s likely new to most people. Instead of a sad movie focusing on death, the story has funny moments and focuses instead on the resilience of family bonds.  Awkwafina’s expressive face showcases a wide-range of emotions: fear, anguish, joy and finally, acceptance. After her hilarious turn in Crazy Rich Asians, it’s interesting to see her playing it straight in a drama.

You’ll enjoy the ending with the “real” Nai Nai. The Farewell will warm your heart, but do yourself a favor and book dinner (or lunch) at a really good Chinese restaurant for after the movie…because The Farewell will also leave you hungry!

Awkwafina, center, surrounded by her movie family in China

Drinks With Films Rating

The Farewell – 4 shots of Baijiu (Chinese liquor) out of 5 — to celebrate family

Once Upon a Time in…Tarantino-land

Quentin Tarantino has a recognizable filmmaking style. A Tarantino film is sure to feature certain actors that he works with regularly like Kirk Douglas or Michael Madsen, quirky conversations in cars, a cool retro setting and violence…lots of graphic violence. Once Upon A Time in…Hollywood has all of that and a talented cast. The story centers around a well-known television actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who’s career in Westerns is coming to an end and his sidekick and stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The setting is 1969 Hollywood in the months leading up to the Manson Family Murders and the scenario is the interactions the two have with each other and with the people they come in contact with — day-to-day life for a television actor and his aide-de-camp.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt have a wonderful chemistry. Watching DiCaprio struggling to give an honest performance that impresses his young co-star walks the line between exaggerated and comical to genuinely moving. Brad Pitt is the straight man to DiCaprio’s emotional artist. This is the first film that I’ve seen that lets the actor look his age with close-ups of the lines on his face. He still looks fantastic with his shirt off and Pitt exudes an easy charm and warmth that’s sexy.

In his ninth film, Tarantino has finally let his foot fetish out to dance. Each character is introduced through their footwear. Rick Dalton confident in cowboy boots, Cliff Booth in moccasins, our young starlet Sharon Tate skips into the scene in white gogo boots and there are lots of bare feet for our hippy girls. It’s a quick way to establish the characters. Of course the actress would wear fashionable footwear and Pitt’s stunt double, who’s so chill and secure in his masculinity, can rock moccasins…but it seems out of character for Margot Robbie’s character to take off her boots and have bare feet in a movie theater. And maybe the young hippy chick, played by the luminous Margaret Qualley, would remove her sandals and prop her feet up on the dashboard of the car but it looks awkward and lasts too long in the shot.

There is a tension to the story as the characters go about their lives when the audience anticipates the horrific murders that will shatter their world. Tarantino plays with this tension having Kirk Douglas narrate the timeline on the night of the killings. But first there’s a lots of conversations and driving in cars and a trip to Italy and a new wife…some of it interesting, much of it feels like an excuse for Tarantino to get to create fake movie posters. Having established Sharon Tate as this lovely young woman, now pregnant, and her hip friends hanging out at their home, the tragedy of lost lives will be even greater. Tarantino plays with expectations and then delivers on the graphic violence he’s known for.

You can almost feel Tarantino’s glee at shooting an extended scene of young people being killed in such gruesome manner: close-ups of a dog crunching down on an arm, the dog dragging a body across the floor, a young woman getting her face smashed repeatedly into multiple surfaces and the grand finale of the flame thrower used to torch a still twitching murderous woman. For Tarantino fans, I think the violence is so over-the-top and gratuitous that it becomes comical. As someone who finds violence, especially against women and children, very upsetting — this was torture for me to watch.

If you’re a Tarantino fan, the two-hour running time will be just perfect. You can enjoy his imaginative camera moves and recreation of that time period with cameos by some talented actors. There are brilliant bits of dialogue and lots of cool cars to enjoy. If you’re squeamish over the violence, may I suggest you leave in the long set-up for the killers to make it up the driveway? You’ll have plenty of time to wander the lobby and return for a brief touching moment between Pitt and DiCaprio…and you won’t have to endure the brain scar from the violence.

Drinks with Films Rating: 2 blended margaritas served in retro margarita glasses (out of 5)

And Now For Something Completely…similar to the previous remake…

Did we need a remake of Aladdin?

I get it. You have little ones at home. Summer Camp is out. You’ve made so many trips to the ice cream place that you’re hoping you don’t have to put on a swimsuit again till next year. There are many families that will look forward to going to see the NEW Aladdin; a family film that can be enjoyed together. This might replace the worn out DVD at home and give someone in the family ideas for a Halloween costume. Dad and Mom might appreciate that the casting is more ethnically-appropriate and the animation is lovely. Everyone can enjoy the songs that are now so well-known. Directed by Guy Ritchie, I expected a more updated version of this tale from 1001 Arabian Nights. The story sticks pretty close to the 1992 version featuring Robin William’s Genie. Will Smith is a good replacement, there’s a Bollywood number and beautiful sets and Aladdin is a good end of summer film to enjoy.

If however, you’re itchin’ for Fall Films and something that’s a little more challenging or unique than this summer’s spat of sequels, superhero films and remakes…there’s hope for you. Director and Writer, Lulu Wang has already been winning accolades for her touching, personal film. The Farewell was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the film won Audience Favorite. This delightful film, based on a true story, presents a Chinese family hiding the truth about the grandmother’s diagnosis. One of the most popular Indie Films of the summer and I’ll review it next week.

There are lots of great films released this summer that fit the bill as entertaining but also breaking the mold of the typical summer fare.  For a twist on the high school party film, see the female-centric comedy, Booksmart. The young stars are self-assured in their nerdiness and it’s a great portrait of true friendship even if it’s for mature teens with fumbling teen sex and crass language. If you’re an action film lover, I’d suggest Stuber, the fight scenes are funny, the actors, Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista have great chemistry and though the plot is ludicrous the concept of an Uber driver fighting crime is original.

Looking for an unusual and lyrical take on San Francisco’s gentrification? A great cast was assembled to tell this tale of two men trying to find home and family. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is artfully-shot and directed. Local childhood friends, Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails wrote this paean to SF and to male friendship. It’s a quiet film with an insider’s look at some thorny issues and I’m betting that it’ll win some awards. The NY Times published a “The Best Movies of 2019 So Far” list as have many other publications. Look for lists that don’t consist of blockbusters and Disney films and you’ll find many great films you may have missed. Many of these films are now available to stream and there are some new films and series for Fall Season on television now.

I’m looking forward to the Telluride Film Festival over the Labor Day Weekend. I often see some of my new favorite films of the year…that likely won’t be released till NEXT year. Oh Hollywood…

Music: On the Stage and On the Screen

Summer in Telluride means music festivals. From Bluegrass to Blues and Brews, from RIDE to Jazz Festival — our little town is invaded by music fans. This summer, music lovers with a taste for nostalgia can also get their music fix on the big screen. Rocketman, with it’s amazing musical and acting tour de force — Taron Egerton channeling Elton John — seems to have started a rock music biopic craze. It’s still playing in some theaters. Perhaps it was actually Bohemian Rhapsody, directed by the same director as Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher, that started this music film craze. This summer there are many films featuring musicians or their music in biopics, documentaries and romantic comedies.

There’s a great documentary that celebrates the music that came out of LA’s Laurel Canyon, Echo in the Canyon and a look back at David Crosby’s career; the story of how he survived four decades having dealt with addiction, prison and heartbreak called Remember My Name. August brings Blinded by the Light, a coming-of-age film set in India. It’s inspired by the true tale of a Muslim teenager who finds himself through the music of Bruce Springsteen. There’s even a trailer for a behind-the-scenes look at the K-Pop band BTS on tour (Bring The Soul).

Yesterday has a simple premise: what if there was a world-wide power outage and when the lights came up, only one man remembered The Beatles and their music? Director Danny Boyle spins this charming tale of struggling singer-songwriter Jack Malick and what he does with this gift. Jack is played with warmth and a great deal of befuddlement by Himesh Patel, the British actor and writer best-known for his role on the EastEnders films. When his unexpected good fortune makes him a superstar, he must learn to navigate fame, a greedy manager (a brittle Kate McKinnon) and receiving advice from Ed Sheeran.

There’s a joy in watching people “discover” The Beatles songs and the snippets of the songs are played with great gusto. It’s interesting to think about how these songs were received back when they were hits and if modern audiences would be as enamored of them. Jack’s close friends are shown supporting him even in his failing sets at the local pub and his parents have the realistic hope that his songwriting and performing career will end. When his career takes off, it’s sweet to see their whole-hearted support.

The key relationship with his biggest supporter and first manager, played with sweetness by Lily James, is where the film loses it’s footing. Instead of weak excuses to keep them apart, a stronger storyline would’ve let Jack tire of his small-town love or stray into temptation’s path…but this sweet fairly tale, story by Richard Curtis of Love Actually fame, doesn’t dig deep. It’s nice that the action moves at a good pace, but there’s not enough time spent on conflict or introspection.

If you’re a Beatle’s fan or a British Rom Com fan, you’ll find this a fun diverting film. Himesh Patel transitions from a woebegone lad playing for a few friends in a chips shop to an International superstar without sacrificing his innate niceness. The relationships ring true, the songs are performed with real heart and there are some laughs along the way.

Drinks with Films Review: Two pints of British lager (out of five)

And Then the Credits Roll…

Do you sit through all the credits? Most fans of Fantasy/SciFi films do. This is particularly true of the films in the Marvel Comic Universe (MCU). Most of the films have a teaser, a cliffhanger, or introduce a character that will star in the next film. I like a little heads up from reviewers and friends if there’s a good reason to sit through a credit sequence. My particular favorite was a quick flash of the Avengers hanging out eating sandwiches; not a plot twist, just a fun moment of the Super Heroes relaxing. I have friends who won’t go see Spiderman: Far From Home because they haven’t seen Avengers Endgame. This newest, Jon Watts-directed Spiderman film happens AFTER the sequence of events in the Endgame film. So can you see this film if you missed the other film and should you wait for the last credit to roll?

First, you CAN see Spiderman: Far From Home if you haven’t seen Avengers Endgame but only if you at least know the general plot line of that film. If you’ve stayed away from reviews, don’t ever listen to teenagers talking and/or you live remotely with no WiFi–okay, maybe wait to see the re-release of that last film. It’s just eclipsed Avatar in dollars made at the box office (not counting Gone With The Wind). So you have your chance…

Second, stay for the mid-credit sequence if you’re a big fan of Spiderman films and for the second reveal at the very end if you like plot-twists and surprises. If you’re like me, wondering why the studio needs to keep reinventing this character…you can skip the wait. I enjoyed this version and find Tom Holland charming and Zendaya’s sarcastic take on Mary Jane refreshing. I’m also a fan of Jake Gyllenhaal, Jon Favreau, and Marisa Tomei, so I enjoyed seeing them on screen. The young actors who play the sweethearts of the film are a delight. And any film that wants to portray the Dutch as lovely people is A-OK in my book.

Was the plot silly? The action sequences too long? Did the characters act in ways that made little sense save to advance the plot? Well, of course! It’s a 2-hour film crammed with visits to other countries so that the “heroes” can wreak havoc to some recognizable landmarks. The excuses for there being no other Avengers available to help this teenage boy fight an International-World-Threatening-Villain are as lame as the chaperones sent on this high school trip. Yet if you endured the 3-hour Avengers Endgame and the dark, dark plots of that film and the one before it…this will be a relief. A light comic romp with some well-drawn characters. Not as enjoyable as the animated Into the Spiderverse, or half as clever…but a good bet that the MCU is back to having a little fun.

Drinks with Films Review: 3 cups of tea (out of 5), a tip of the hat to the London Bridge

Summer is for Sequels

MIB 4 to Toy Story 4…summer sequels abound at the movie theaters right now. If it’s not a sequel; it’s a remake. Was anyone dying to see a new Aladdin? Or breathlessly awaiting the live action remake of The Lion King? Yes, perhaps there are families that are glad to have new versions of these films so they can stop watching the originals play non-stop at home…or any age-appropriate film to take the little ones to on a hot summer day.

Reviews of such films are not really necessary. If your family loved the first one, they’ll likely all go see the next three or four with diminishing interest and often, with lackluster stories. The joy of the Toy Story films was that Pixar Studios seemed to invest more time and care with each sequel to make it fresh and awarded the audience films that contained some of the wonder of the first film and new characters that everyone loved. So it is with sad heart that I report that this final of the series, Toy Story 4, bucks that narrative.

In trying to reinvent the story to provide us with new dimensions to a few of the characters, the animators send the toys on a road trip. If you’re going to create a film that features a spork, we needed an empowering story or ground-breaking animation…something riveting to justify this journey of an eating utensil and the girl who loves him. Most of the film centers on the interactions between Forky and Woody…and later, Woody and Bo Peep. While I applaud the feminist take on Bo Peep’s character, it also crossed my mind that she’s not really a “toy”. She’s part of a lamp. How did she become the love interest? But my mind wandered. I blame the lackluster writing in the film.

The animation to show Bo Peep’s shiny porcelain surface and the well-drawn interior of the Thrift Shop with it’s antique toys show the Pixar attention to detail. There’s a wonderful villain in the lovely damaged Gabby Gabby doll with her army of mechanical Dummies that move in a herky-jerky motion to make them more scary. It was fun to have Keanu Reeves show up as the Canadian Daredevil, Duke Caboom, but why have an actor who grew up in Canada not give the toy a Canadian accent? Odd choice.

As the action sequences roll along creating little tension, there’s less time for character development and the toys become less interesting. The story grows more preposterous as the Dad is forced to drive the RV back to the rescue at the small town carnival. In this Pixar film, the “real characters” are the ones with the blandest personalities. The only human with any dimension is the carny that has a few funny scenes with the toys.

When Woody makes a choice for love over becoming a forgotten toy, the other toys seem to easily accept the change. There’s little fanfare and off the other toys ride into the night. No tears, no tug at the heartstrings…just a sigh that that the studio let these beloved characters have a swan song that wasn’t deserving of them.

Stay for the credit sequence if you want more of the same poor writing and character development…or flee the theater and find some ice cream to comfort your inner child.

Drinks with Films Rating: 1 old fashioned phosphate drink (out of 5) and I’m sorely disappointed in the lack of an animated Short to go with the film. Often one of the best animated Shorts of the year, this lackluster production didn’t include one.