The Boss Inspiring Lives Across the Pond

The effects of music on our lives is hard to put into words but Sarfraz Manzoor, who was born in Pakistan and raised in Thatcher-era England, did just that. He can tell you exactly what kind of impact one musician — Bruce Sprinsteen — had on his once wayward life.

Do you love films inspired by true stories? Do you fancy a sweet teen romance with great production values and an inspirational plot? Blinded by the Light, is set in a small British town in 1987. Rebellious teens are shown sporting crazy hairstyles and listening to New Wave music. One young Pakistani teen is struggling with his identity under a strict Muslim father in a neighborhood vandalized by white nationalists.

Enter The Boss. When a high school friend gives our young hero two tapes of Bruce Springsteen music for his Walkman, the lyrics become the anthem that changes his life. Viveik Kalra stars as Javed; lip-syncing lyrics and shifting between rage and the joy of young love — smiling from ear to ear. He’s been writing poetry to express himself but is navigating two worlds. How to honor his father, face up to the racist bullies and pursue his dream of being a writer? Inspired by Springsteen’s lyrics about working class heroes, he begins to understand that the class warfare and racial intolerance are something worth fighting for. Gurinder Chadha, who also directed Bend it like Beckham, is a great fit for this material.

Based on the book, Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll; by Sarfraz Manzoor, the film uses Springsteen’s lyrics in a wonderful way. They become alive when the words are superimposed on the neighborhood buildings as Javed listens to them. The lyrics even swirl about his head as he absorbs them. By showcasing the lyrics this way, the meaning of the words and how they resonate for this conflicted young man are made real for the audience as well.

Many scenes are set inside Javed’s room as he writes away his frustrations or tries to style himself in The Boss’s image. Keeping the focus of the film on his home life and his interactions with his family gives this film an intimate feel — you are brought into the family dynamic. There’s a fun scene where the boys sneak a Bruce Springsteen record unto the turntable at the high school music station and that soundtrack follows the friends as they travel through town. As they travel past striking Union workers, a dance crew in the town square and their fellow students, everyone starts to dance to the music. This is a sweet teen film that tells the hero’s journey in a unique way. Blinded by the Light celebrates family and hard work and though it’s set in 1987 England, it’s sadly relevant for today’s America with our class division and intolerance.

Viveik Kalra, Nell Williams and Aaron Phagura appear in Blinded by the Light by Gurinder Chadha, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Nick Wall.

Drinks with Films Rating: 3 cups of Marsala Chai (out of 5)

One of my favorite films from 2016 is a messier version of this film — set in Ireland and also featuring a protagonist inspired by music and bullied by white nationalists — Sing Street was nominated for a Golden Globe but not seen by many people. If Blinded by the Light makes you smile but you’re more of an 80’s New Wave music fan…check out Sing Street. Not as much smiling, lower production values and more eye make-up — but also a lot of heart.

“Good Boys” — but who’s it “good” for?

A selling point…but would you take your preteen to this movie?

There must have been an untapped market for a raunchy sex comedy about 12-year old boys that I didn’t know about because Good Boys has made a ton of money at the box office. It’s odd to see a film that the young stars wouldn’t get to see, though I think it might be a film that parents would take their preteens to…but should they? I don’t generally think of myself as a prude and watching the trailer for this film, it’s easy to see that the filmmakers: writers and producers Seth RogenEvan Goldberg, and director Gene Stupnitsky felt it was comedy gold to show kids discussing drugs and sex. The film has just hit 72.5 million dollars in box office revenue so they must’ve been right.

Yes, there were moments I laughed out loud and the young actors Jacob Tremblay (so amazing in The Room), Keith L. WilliamsBrady Noon have a great chemistry together. The three young men, playing 12-yr-olds who’ve been friends since kindergarten, are talented. There are lots of scenes of them trying to navigate the middle school social structure of “cool kids” and nerds that are touching and ring true. It’s genuinely funny to hear Max (Jacob Tremblay) know just enough about a few things to be so completely wrong in his understanding of them – like the word nymphomaniac.

I applaud the originality of the film and the sweet heart at the center of the film; the boy’s friendship. Each boy has a distinct personality — from a talent for singing, a love of gaming, to our young lothario’s blossoming libido. Now if only the filmmakers had toned down a few of the overtly sexual references. The sequence showcasing Max’s string of crushes is cute. But is there anyone who believes that a boy would give the girl of his dreams a “necklace” of anal beads that stills smells like it’s been used for the intended purpose? Or that kids savvy enough to Google porn would not know what a dildo is?

Young dudes with a drone

It’s a movie and all of this is played for laughs. As with many films, it doesn’t bear thinking too hard about it. Spoiler alert: that the boys could be responsible for a car crash on the highway, suffer a dislocated shoulder, give a container of Molly to a cop, breakup a frat house hazing, and the only thing they get in trouble for is accidentally smashing some knickknacks with a drone. Really?! All of that I can let go, but the many instance of fake crying and wielding sex toys as weapons (or gifts); now that took me right out of the film. I’m all for being sex positive and kids know a lot more than adults give them credit for, but I’m not sure we needed a Super Bad with kids.

Drinks with Films rating: 2 sips of beer (out of five)

Telluride Film Festival — ranking the festival films I was able to catch

Every festival is a crap shoot. Even with an All Access Pass, you’re never going to see or hear everything you want to attend…unless the festival runs for weeks and you don’t eat or sleep. This year’s 46th Telluride Film Festival featured numerous programs that ran over 2 hours, Tributes that ran 3 hours and a 5-hour screening of 2 parts of Mark Cousin’s epic 14-hour documentary Women Make Film. With just four days to squeeze in 33 films plus shorts programs, filmmaker talks and outdoor screenings, there’s no way you could see it all.

I love the way the film program is kept secret till the day before the Festival and the unusual screening lottery that allows popular films to fill the TBA slots on the final days. However, the program isn’t staggered in a way that allows festival goers to see a different film if they’re shut out of their first selection. If say, you’d been waiting to get into the 9am screening of Ford v Ferrari at The Palm Theater (at the far end of town), you’d have been in line by 8am to collect your “Q” card. If you didn’t make it in, there’d be no way you could make it to any other first screening at any other theater and your next chance to see a film isn’t till 1pm.

Another programming glitch was to have one of the bigger films playing simultaneously in more than one theater. If you didn’t make it to the Adam Driver Tribute, you only had two other chances to see A Marriage Story because the other screenings were happening at the same time; 5 screenings in 3 days. As opposed to Judy, starring Renée Zellweger, which played 5 different times in 4 days. Similarly, The Assistant only screened in the smaller theaters and one screening was packed with crew, publicists and filmmakers.

It’s part of the fun of the festival to try to strategize which film to see where and to discuss with other film fans what they’ve seen and loved (or hated) and talk film, see film, listen to filmmakers talk. If only I could enjoy the festival without working it one year!

TFF 2019 Films ranked (1 being lowest, 5 being highest)

  • Portrait of a Lady on Fire (5) — I was spellbound by the beauty, the acting, the soundtrack, and it was such an unusual story
  • Varda by Agnès (5) — more on this wonderful film and her tribute here
  • The Two Popes (5) — what a fascinating film with great performances by Anthony Hopkins and Jonathon Pyrce, I would not have suspected I would love it so much!
  • Lyrebird (3 1/2) — I loved Guy Pearce in this film and it was a fun who-done-it based on a true story
  • Parasite (3 1/2) — an amazing story, a dark fantasy about social strata, but I’m not a fan of gore and though the violence was played for laughs, it made me super uncomfortable
  • Waves (4) — didn’t like it for a full 30 minutes, warmed to the filmmaker’s unusual techniques and ultimately was won over, needed a good 10-15 minute trim
  • The Aeronauts (3) — an adventure film that’s both breathtaking and lacking much character development, Felicity Jones is great in it
  • Pain and Glory (Dolor y Gloria) (3) — I’m a huge Almodovar fan, great acting if the story is a little slow; a muted retrospective film
  • Unbearable Lightness of Being (2 1/2) — I remember loving this film, I liked seeing the restored version but found it left me a little cold
  • The Kingmaker (2) — Lauren Greenfield is a good documentarian, this one about Imelda Marcos seemed to ramble on and on
  • Uncut Gems (1/2) — would have walked out if I could’ve (stuck in the center of the theater), I applaud the audacity, hated the soundtrack and the stereotypes, never want to see a film that takes me inside Adam Sandler’s colon…or blood. Thanks, but no thanks to the Safdie brothers

Films I was sad to miss–I hope to catch these at other festivals or next year when they finally screen in theaters:

Judy, Marriage Story, The Climb, Tell Me Who I Am, A Hidden Life, First Cow, Family Romance LLC, Motherless Brooklyn, Ford v Ferrari, The Assistant and the whole 14 hours of Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema

“VARDA BY AGNÈS”

Nothing is trite if you look at it with empathy and love. — Agnès Varda, from her last film, Varda by Agnès

a darling illustration of Varda from a bag I was lucky enough to score from the film’s publicist
Tom Luddy, Rosalie Vatda, Martin Scorsese, Mathieu Demy, moderator Annette Insdorf

Agnès Varda, the Belgian-born French filmmaker died in March and the Telluride Film Festival dedicated this year’s festival to her and celebrated her life and work with special guests. Bringing in her friend Martin Scorsese and her two children, Rosalie Varda and Mathieu Demy and the founder of the festival, Tom Luddy to discuss her ground-breaking work and then screening Varda’s last film, Varda by Agnès. An instant film-studies classic, her film is a beautiful overview of her work and collaborations with actors and cinematographers. Varda is shown giving talks to students in both France and the US with clips of her work, then the film jumps to new footage of Varda speaking with her actors in the same locations where she filmed.

Martin Scorsese spoke about having Agnès Varda visit him on the set of The Irishman (Opening at the NY Film Festival where Varda’s film will also screen). She chided him on his politics and he soothed her with saying the film was about unions since she’s was all about the working man. It was touching to hear how he sought her approval and valued her opinion. Rosalie and Mathieu spoke about their unusual upbringing when famous directors and stars were guests at their home and they traveled to LA with their father, Jacque Demy and their mother. She was always busy making films. Indiewire has a lovely interview with Rosalie in Agnès Varda’s Daughter On Her Mother’s Death and the Future of Her Archive.

from the 46th Telluride Film Festival Program

I was so glad I got to be at the Tribute screening of this film because Tom Luddy spoke of his relationship with Varda from his years in San Francisco. He introduced her to Jean Varda, who turned out to be a relative of hers and she immediately decided to make a film about their reunion. Luddy is in the film as she recreated her introduction by him in the short Uncle Yanco…and it’s featured in Varda by Agnès. The short also screened at the festival with Black Panthers, another film that Tom Luddy assembled the crew for and encouraged Varda to make so she could document an important movement in US history. It was great to her about her filmmaking process and how her creative energies; her joie de vivre made her someone that no one wanted to say no to.

Agnès Varda was a true genius, working right till the end of her life and it’s so inspiring to see her work and celebrate her life. Faces Places (Visages Villages) brought her a resurgence of popularity and the film was nominated for an Oscar and won many International awards. I hope this film will also get the acclaim it deserves.

46th Telluride Film Festival — Racing thru Four Days of Films

A gathering of the luminaries at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival

Film Festivals have their own zeitgeist. Cannes has glamour, Sundance has snow and celebrities, and Telluride has a mountain top cathedral for film aficionados. Programmers fight to have films premiere at their festival and attracting celebrities is very important. Film guests sell tickets but also create a buzz at the event. Some festivals like the Mill Valley Film Festival and the Telluride Film Festival have less work to do to attract the big names — both events are in beautiful places and more importantly, attract fans that will allow filmmakers and stars to walk the streets sans bodyguards and publicists.

This year’s Telluride Film Festival was graced with the presence of such luminaries as Martin Scorsese, Adam Driver, Philip Kaufman, Bong Joon-ho, Edward Norton, and Renee Zellweger. Long-time Festival favorites, Werner Herzog and Ken Burns brought new works to the Festival and first-time festival attendees like Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory) professed their love for the magic of Telluride. Programming was strong. There weren’t as many thought-provoking or life-affirming features as in years past but there was certainly a breadth of subjects covered. From Imelda Marcos (The Kingmaker) to Oliver Sacks (Oliver Sacks: His Own Life) to sports (cycling, soccer, Australian football, race cars) and hot air balloons (The Aeronauts); from portrait painting (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) to art forgery (Lyrebird).

What was interesting was to hear how many film lovers either LOVED or HATED some of the films. Everyone was excited to see the Hollywood films: Ford v Ferrari, Judy, Marriage Story and Motherless Brooklyn but the more offbeat Uncut Gems? Even with the selling point of having Adam Sandler there for a lively Q & A, Uncut Gems warranted a lot of walk outs. Directors Josh and Bennie Safdie tapped Oneohtrix Point Never who also scored their 2017 film Good Time; both films feature a frenetic soundtrack. Sound and scores were an important part of the the film experience this year and Uncut Gems soundtrack was a cacophany that may have reflected the character’s state of mind — but it was difficult to endure.

There were 30 main film programs, three tributes, shorts programs, retrospectives and outdoor screenings. Guest Director Pico Iyer selected five International film highlighting women in film. With this year’s focus on sound, there was a tribute to Dolby Laboratories, two silent films and many films about musicians. Ken Burns unveiled his series on Country Music, documentaries included Billie (Billie Holiday), Amazing Grace (Aretha Franklin), Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, Tex Mex music (Chulas Fronteras) and The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash. Two themes were evident in the 2019 program — music, there were some unusual scores this year — and long screening times. Of the 30 main film programs, 20 were at or over 2 hours.

Waves, 2019 — A24

One of the longer films that was also divisive is Waves. I spoke to people who walked out, a few people who ranked it as a favorite, and others who felt it was trite and the soundtrack annoying. Trey Edward Shultz (It Comes at Night, Krisha) uses a few unusual filmmaking techniques to put the audience in the mindset of the characters. Not everyone was a fan of the spinning Go Pro shots in the car (used repeatedly) or the full-screen color waves to represent emotions. The soundtrack also acts like a character in the film. It’s a hard-driving mix of hip hop and rap by Trent Reznor‎ and ‎Atticus Ross and while the characters are listening and singing to music, the soundtrack is playing something different for us. It was jarring at first and like the color blocks on the screen, took some adjusting to.

Taylor Russell plays the daughter in Waves

A tragedy told from two focal points, the acting is strong particularly from the two young actors Kelvin Harrison Jr. and especially Taylor Russell as the young woman who transforms from a background player who’s withdrawn, to the focus of the narrative. Waves is getting a lot of critical acclaim and though I felt it had some beautiful moments, a little judicial trimming would’ve gone a long way to transforming the film.

Working the festival as a Volunteer (love the Sheridan Opera House crew!), there were many films I didn’t get the opportunity to see. So I’m thankful for the After Festival screenings and happy that I had to opportunity to catch Parasite and The Two Popes. Thank you Telluride Film Festival. What a gem of a festival!