Thursday, December 8, 2011

Movie Review - Take Shelter

“Take Shelter” offers, metaphorically and literally, an expansive view of mental illness. The viewer, and the characters, have space to explore the concepts behind what is, and what is not, mental illness. The film takes its time, slowly but surely building terrifying tension, and is supremely acted, in the end forcing you to question … everything. It’s really good.

The people in this film are people you know. The film finds its tension by following good people in trying circumstances. It would have been easy to take the concept of mental illness and turn this film into an Ohio version of “The Shining.” To my great delight, the film didn’t resort to stereotypes to create conflict. There are no manufactured villains or an idealized story to highlight a battle between good and evil — just good folks in bad times. Appropriately, the film allows these nuanced and real people time to agonize over their choices, and the time to figure out if their choices were wise.

There is not a wasted detail. Every shot, particularly when outside, seems an homage to Millet’s “The Gleaners.” I’m not trying to sound erudite here, just pointing out that director Jeff Nichols, and cinematographer Adam Stone, painted this movie. (And “The Gleaners” is one of few works I remember from a trip to Paris’ Orsay Museum many long years ago.) Wes Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbaums”) would be the closest example of a director I can think of who exerts such exacting composition. Every story element somehow echoes a theme in the film. Even the characters’ jobs inform their stories. Curtis determines the type and depth of soils at worksites. He drills through layers. Samantha sells her sewing, such as shades and sheets. You know, she keeps things together.

Perhaps you’re getting the idea this film is slow. “Bourne Identity” this film is not. If you thought Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” was a meditative masterpiece as I did, you will appreciate “Take Shelter.” If you fell asleep before “it’s a hell of a thing to kill a man,” then try to avoid sedatives before seeing this one. Still, even if you prefer your movies incomprehensibly edited, I challenge you to see “Take Shelter” and allow it’s slow but strong current to float you along under a wide open Ohioan sky.

Like Robert Duvall in “Tender Mercies,” the performance by Michael Shannon as Curtis is one for the ages. Who is Michael Shannon? I’ve got no clue either, but he’s on the radar now and I expect will be on the short list for an Oscar.

Jessica Chastain as Samantha would be just as impressive had the film been hers. She is amazing. 2011 has been a good year for Chastain’s resume: In addition to “Take Shelter”, she was in the much lauded Terrence Malick film, “Tree of Life.” I hope she gets a well written, well directed movie to carry some day. That would be a film to see.

I suppose one of the biggest compliments I can give a film is — I could not form an immediate opinion when I exited the theater. I honestly did not know if I would like it in the morning. The ending is challenging and my creaky Rolodex of a brain needed to process its many layers. The film didn’t leave me alone. Those well composed images kept coming back when I tried to sleep, and the next morning over Cheerios; oily rain, a backhoe cutting into a green lawn (severing the last semblance of order), and swirling starlings evoking a grand thunderstorm’s super cell. So yeah, I guess I liked it. A lot. And I think you will too.

“Take Shelter” is currently playing at the Goldtown Nickelodeon Theater.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Alaska Robotics releases new DVD of shorts

FOR THE JUNEAU EMPIRE

There are no titles at Alaska Robotics. There are no CEOs or CFOs, but maybe a few UFOs.

“There are specialties,” Lou Logan clarifies.

The Alaska Robotics crew — Logan, Sarah Asper-Smith (Alaska Robotics Emeriti), Aaron Suring and Pat Race — recently joined me at the newly renovated Rookery for an interview. I never did get around to asking what those “specialties” are -- but I can guess. I’m guessing Logan, whose quick eyes screen a crash derby of madly original ideas, is the energy. Suring, serene like a Scottish ninja, is probably wisdom. Asper-Smith, the recipient of such touching deference from her Alaska Robotics brothers, must be the compass. And Race? Race is William Shatner.

Yes, William Shatner. From “Star Trek” to “T.J. Hooker,” from covering Elton John to jazzy stage readings of “Going Rogue: An American Life,” Shatner is very self aware. An artist who does whatever the hell he wants and trusts his nuttiness will find an audience. A trust that’s made him a household name and millionaire. That’s Shatner, and it so happens, Pat Race, minus the millions (for now).

Alaska Robotics Volume 2: highlights and challenges

In late 2006 or early 2007 (there was some debate) the Alaska Robotics crew released a first DVD collection of 15 short films. The plan was to release a DVD of shorts every year.

Five years later, the second DVD is ready. The new DVD has 47 tracks which is, Race says, enough for three DVDs. The new DVD does not include films from the first collection; most of the Volume 2 shorts have been made in the last five years. The new DVD is $10 and available for purchase at the upcoming show, online at www.akrobotics.com, or at Alaska Robotics’ store-front (also known as Lucid Reverie, or the Ruby Room) in the Emporium Mall.

Are there favorites?

Logan went with the time-lapse shots of Juneau scenery such as “Time Lapse, Southeast Alaska – August 2007.” This short is a gorgeous look at the areas in and around Juneau as the tides recede and clouds race overhead. It’s the kind of short you share on Facebook for your family in Atlanta.

Suring chose “Nipple Fire.” This short has f-bombs, shirtless men and a cringe-causing close-up of, well, you can probably guess. It is catnip for the ladies.

Race figures his favorite is “Frank Murkowksi – A Tribute.” The Murkowski short is one of Alaska Robotics’ forays into political satire. Alaska Robotics deftly, and with great wit, summarize the recent tumult in Alaska politics from the end of former Gov. Murkowski’s administration to now with their series of “We’re Alaskans!” shorts.

My favorite is “Sarah Palin (relatively) Awesome.” Alaska Robotics made the film soon after she was chosen by Senator McCain and was at the height of her Alaskan popularity. Their point, that her popularity was only relative to an unpopular previous governor and an indicted house, proves prescient. A popularity that relies on the unpopularity of everyone else can’t be sustainable. And wasn’t.

Race also likes “Die Rebel Scum,” a poem written from the point of view of a bedraggled soldier for the Empire in Star Wars. It’s clever, funny, well acted, and is a good look into a second type of film Alaska Robotics has on their DVD, sketch comedy.

Mini-documentaries are the third type. In this vein, the Alaska Robotics crew explores some Juneau history with the amazing “Chuck Keen,” one of their most polished and informative works. The documentaries also include their beard based adventures around the world.

As for the most challenging short, Suring and Race both agreed on “Fruitcake of Joy,” one long take where a camera follows a precious fruitcake as it is walked through the twisty innards of a local business. One long shot is tough. The filmmakers have to practice the shot, figure out where everyone is supposed to be, and ensure everyone gets their lines right the first time.

Logan offered “Alaska Whaler,” a short that documents Alaska Robotics’ first foray into the high pressured world of beard competitions. Foremost, Logan had to hump a bunch of equipment to Anchorage. Food and birds nested in Suring’s beard. And they lost critical footage. “Critical” means the actual moment when Suring wins a top three spot in the “Alaskan Whaler” category. So, like the way Spielberg had to re-envision “Jaws” as a psychological thriller when Bruce the mechanical shark kept malfunctioning, Alaska Robotics had to re-envision “Alaska Whaler.” Losing the footage lent a poignancy to the short. After the funny bearded men and their fans, and all the build up, the moment of triumph faded to black. We had to imagine Suring standing proud with his red beard, curvy pipe, Asper-Smith designed outfit and whaling spear. And we did.

There are also “multiple unfinished products that are kind of neat,” Race said. These bits — which include animation scraps, behind-the-scenes footage, and alternate film versions — allow for insight into the Alaska Robotic creative process. (For oddballs, like me, who think the “mistakes” are just as interesting as the final product.) There are “Easter eggs” too; bits of fun hidden in the shorts to reward obsessive viewing.

The Alaska Robotics crew is long on talent, but short on ego. For their upcoming screening, they’re uncomfortable with the idea of showing just their works to an audience.

“It’s weird,” Race said, “we just contributed to collective screenings.” That would be the Juneau Underground Motion Picture (JUMP) Society screenings that Alaska Robotics hosts twice a year to showcase locally made film shorts. But Friday night’s screening will be just their stuff.

“We’re going to dig out things we haven’t screened in a while. There will be stuff people haven’t seen,” Race said.

Classics from their first DVD will also be screened, including “Downtown vs. The Valley” and “Buy Back Alaska”.

The screening will occur at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Juneau Douglas High School auditorium. Tickets to the screening are $10, or $25 for a combo deal including the screening and a DVD. Also offered is a $50 super pack which includes a ticket, a limited edition print, a super strong robot magnet and both Alaska Robotic DVDs.

With help from the good folks at KXLL, an after party will be held immediately following the screening down the street at Mandy’s at the Breakwater. Present your screening ticket at the door to be eligible for a prize or discount. Adding to the general merriment, George Kuhar and Bridgett Cross will play as “Playboy Spaceman.”

The business of films

Working film-makers in Alaska encounter a number of unique obstacles. The weather can be an issue of course. (Though in the summer, the extra light can be good for filming). The lack of a real film industry in the state also poses unexpected challenges.

“You start making films as a young adult and soon find yourself being the ‘experts’,” Race said. And he is the first to admit, they’re not experts.

“There is a lack of experience to draw from. You’re forced to make it up as they go along… it would be nice if there was more structure, to be able to go to a class on the weekends.”

And, finally, there is finding an audience. Alaska Robotics relies on the same people to support them, again and again. To find a new audience outside the state isn’t practical; it “costs 5 billion dollars” to go anywhere.

Why Juneau, then?

“This is where we live,” Suring said.

Good point.

Obviously, Alaskans are their audience today. There are the political junkies who dig their satire. The Anchorage Daily News has posted a few of their political shorts. There’s another audience for the sketch comedy, and another for the documentaries.

So have they chosen location over career?

Again, common sense reigns.

“I don’t want to live in L.A.,” Logan said.

To find new audiences, they’ve gone Outside. In the past few years they’ve travelled to Seattle’s Comic Convention and Comic Con in San Diego. Although they’ve had success in selling their art, t-shirts and comics, DVD sales are generally low.

“People are less likely to buy (the DVDs) because people don’t have any concept what’s on it,” Suring said.

Films are not their sole source of income, however. Race considers the group “invested enthusiasts” when it comes to film.

“We’re semi-pro,” Suring said.

Under the title of Lucid Reverie, the crew of Alaska Robotics provides commercial services for Juneau such as video production and website work. Some of this work is posted at the Alaska history website (www.akhistorycourse.org/) and the Taylor White documentary project (www.taylorwhite.org/projects/documentary).

The future of Alaska Robotics

“This (The DVD release) is kind of a punctuation for us,” Race said. “We’re kind of at a place … where we determine where to go. We know we want to continue making movies. Maybe someday we’ll build up an audience and fined the right niche.”

However, finding a niche can also be a source of worry — that servicing the niche, the “cultural meme” as Pat puts it, becomes priority over potential changes in their own interests.

“I don’t want to just do Stars Wars parodies,” Race said, referencing “Die Rebel Scum.” “It’s like singing Christmas music every day.”

Thus they plan to release Volume 3 “in 2017” Lou joked. Suring figures they’ll do volume 4 before volume 3. Race intends to try combine his comic work and film work more. (In fact, his comic characters are on the Volume 2 DVD menu pages).

In other ventures, Asper-Smith’s book “A Smack of Jellyfish” came out last year (see more at smackofjellyfish.com/), and she’s got another book in the works, a collaboration with her husband. Logan makes wine out of huckleberries, and last year made some beer out of local hops, evidence of his dedication to the idea of turning local produce into something tasty. Race and Suring are quick to point out Logan’s natural resource background; he’s always telling them on hikes what they can and cannot eat.

In the immediate future, Alaska Robotics will be at Public Market. They’re tending their store-front; trying to sell graphic novels, art, and other stuff that fits in with their interests. Travel to Anchorage is booked. They’re working on Fairbanks. They’re looking to visit other states. They may hit the ferries and enjoy “those weird looking caribou with the human eyes” as Logan says. They’re trying to find an audience.

There’s a line of thought, due to cave paintings and what not, that creating art is as innate a drive as sex and sleep. What about buying art? The crew is an example of how most artists make a living today. They seek to eke out an entrepreneurial existence, picking up the detritus a flailing economy might toss their way. They trust us to prioritize art.

If it’s going to work anywhere, it’ll be Juneau. Against long odds, Alaska Robotics seems to be making a go of creating and selling on their own terms. How bold. How William Shatner.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Movie Review - Tucker and Dale vs. Evil

The South has a self confidence problem. I suspect the South suspects the North suspects the people of the South are… just not right. They’re right of course — the South I mean. The rest of the country doesn’t take the South seriously. Perhaps it’s the accent, the clothes or a perceived ignorance, the South is up for ridicule — ridicule that’s been ongoing since the War of Northern Aggression.

It’s only to the North’s detriment, surprise, and continued frustration to have low expectations of the South. The South has risen: Southerners have won three of the last five presidential elections, they have CNN, FedEx, Coca Cola, and let us never forget, Jeff Foxworthy. Let’s boil this down to a hypothetical competition. I love Anthony Bourdain and “No Reservations” (the best show on television), but if you put Paula Deen and Bourdain into a cage match, Deen would snap that scrawny Yank in half.

Which at last brings us to this week’s Gold Town Nickelodeon movie. “Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil” explores the gruesomely fatal results of assuming all Southerners are vicious hillbilly rednecks. Near the shore of a wooded West Virginian lake, a group of college kids encounter Tucker and Dale. Are Tucker and Dale just a couple of good ol’ boys who are decent, caring, and more or less just want to get along? Or are Tucker and Dale violent redneck bigots like the murderous hillbillies of B-movies? This meeting and friction between cultural archetypes is explored with great sophistication and nuance. Sure it is.

Tucker and Dale are indeed good ol’ boys. Dale in particular, due perhaps to the societal issues above, is haunted by low self confidence. He’s a mess under stress, including just talking to a pretty woman. How Dale faces his friends, his foes, his love, and his own misgivings under the duress of combating “Evil” provides the film’s central conflict. The film creatively depicts society’s negative Southern stereotypes through the eyes of the college kids and drives home the point this bigotry is probably based on our own petty fears and small hearts. A fear that we may be just like them. That we may be them.

The movie tries to be the backwood slasher equivalent of “Shaun of the Dead.” Take thematic elements from a tired genre, like attractive college students making bad choices in the forest … while nude, then both poke fun at the clich├ęs and also deliver authentic thrills promised by the genre. If successful, it’s a masterpiece meta-film like “Shaun of the Dead”. “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil” just about succeeds. This film is good. More importantly, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil is fun. I laughed out loud. Tucker in particular has the best lines, ruefully commenting on the increasingly absurd and bloody situation.

But be warned friends, bloody is an understatement.

If you’re wondering why this film is playing at the august cinema showcase that is the Nickelodeon, it is because all the stuff above about the South and low societal expectations and assumptions holds. That’s fine. On whatever level you choose to watch Tucker Dale vs. Evil, for the social commentary, or for the impalements, most of you will enjoy it. This is B-grade looniness that displays much more intelligence than necessary and ultimately works because it has a heart. It’s not heavy, it’s not stupid. It’s a film primarily for film lovers, especially those who like their art house films a little more Craven.