Friday, September 29, 2017

'California Typewriter' Is A Love Letter To The Outdated



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

The documentary California Typewriter is a love letter to the outdated — be it typewriters, thank you notes, mom and pop repair shops, or creativity that doesn't start with turning on a computer first.

Director Doug Nichol centers the film on an African-American owned shop in Berkeley called California Typewriter. Owner Herbert L. Permillion III, who worked for IBM for 20 years, opened the store in 1981 and has kept it running, with the help of his two daughters and repairman Ken Alexander, through the rise of home computers, smart phones, and tablets. After all, if turntables and vinyl can make a comeback, why not typewriters?

Several typewriter enthusiasts are also interviewed, though (maddeningly) none of them are identified in any way until the end credits. You'll likely recognize Tom Hanks, a collector with about 250 typewriters, who espouses the virtue of a typewritten "Thank You" note versus an email, something he'll routinely delete as quickly as the "seven seconds" it took to write and send. "Take 70 seconds to type me out something on a piece of paper and send it to me, well, I'll keep that forever," he says.

John Mayer, who never had to make the transition from typewriter to computer as he's not even 40, makes salient points about the built-in obsolescence of computers, and how all the material housed on all of our old hard drives is basically sitting in glorified garbage cans. Unless you printed that stuff out, it's as good as gone forever. So he bought probably one of the last new electric typewriters, and has taken to writing song lyrics with it, noting that there's nothing impeding his creative process — no spellcheck or blinking icon of distraction.

Writers Sam Shepard and David McCullough, neither of whom ever made the transition to tech, also talk about the typewriter's contribution to the writing process, with McCullough noting that without the visual proof of revisions, corrections, and changes, we're losing a valuable look into the thought processes of our creative thinkers and politicians. Shepard notes the tactile satisfaction of feeding paper into the typewriter and hearing and feeling those words slap onto the page.

We also meet a collector from Toronto who travels to San Francisco in hopes of purchasing one of the first typewriters made, based on original inventor Christopher Latham Sholes's design, and Oakland sculptor Jeremy Mayer, who uses typewriter parts — and ONLY typewriter parts — to craft figurative sculptures that include animal and human forms. To some, his work may seem blasphemous, but it's nice to see the symbiotic relationship he has with the California Typewriter shop. They give him the typewriters that are beyond redemption, and Mayer often ends up having a rare part the shop might need for a repair.

It's the scenes in that shop that are the film's most enjoyable. I wanted more of them. A tighter film could have been made with fewer segments on the enthusiasts and users (the Boston Typewriter Orchestra and Poetry Store poet Silvi Alcivar also make appearances) and more scenes showing the genuine love Permillion and Alexander have for their shop and their typewriters. It's infectious, and even a little thrilling watching their ingenious solutions to repairing items that have no replacement parts because, well, there are no replacement parts to be found.

When I was a kid, I had an old Smith Corona typewriter that weighed about 20 pounds, had an old ribbon that had been reused so many times it no longer typed in black but in muted grey, and whose keys had a tendency to stick together in certain combinations. But I loved typing on that thing. Sometimes I would type my own stuff, and sometimes I would just copy passages out of books, just because I liked typing; it made me feel smart.

Eventually I got an electric typewriter (a Panasonic) and I clung to that way into college. My friends had moved on to word processors and laptops (that also seemed to weigh about 20 pounds) by then, but I was convinced I wouldn't be able to write anything if the process didn't involve a first draft that was pen on paper, and a final draft that was typewritten. I'm not certain, but I think it was seeing how easy it was to edit something — removing and rearranging paragraphs and thoughts on the page — that eventually pushed me over to the dark side, and eventually I became convinced I couldn't write anything unless it was via computer.

But whenever I see a typewriter out in the wild — at a friend's, or a flea market — I can't resist going over and typing "the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy hound dog" on it. I just love to hear the clack of the keys, and feel the reverberation of those letters hitting that paper. California Typewriter understands that love.

Friday, September 22, 2017

'Battle Of The Sexes' Depicts The Triumph Against Misogyny We Need Today



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

In any other year — or perhaps in an alternative timeline — Battle of the Sexes might have come off as a bit of feel good retrospection. Look how far we've come, baby! Thank god we've gotten past those days when men could loudly voice their misogyny and not only suffer no consequences, but actually gain fans from it! But post-2016, it almost feels like allegorical wish fulfillment. If only...if only.

The film compresses several years of tennis legend Billie Jean King's (Emma Stone) life into one, starting out with her parting ways in 1972 with U.S. Open director Jack Turner (Bill Pullman, putting his patented Pullman smirk to good use) after he refuses to offer female U.S. Open winners a payout equal to the men's. Turner is convinced audiences aren't as interested in women's tennis as they are in men's saying, "Men are just more exciting to watch. It's not your fault; it's just biology."

So King partners with World Tennis magazine founder Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) to start the Women's Tennis Association, pulling in the sport's top female players, along with an eventual sponsorship from Virginia Slims. These early scenes are among the film's most fun, filled with tacky 1970's hotel rooms, polyester tennis dresses designed by Ted Tinling (Alan Cummings), and a cast of sassy supporting players including Natalie Morales as Rosie Casals and Martha MacIsaac as Peaches Bartkowicz.

Stone, who spends the majority of the movie with minimal makeup and behind unflattering glasses (but thankfully, a more flattering haircut than the real King sported) doesn't exactly look like Billie Jean King, but she's convincing where it counts, with a straightforward, no bs demeanor and a convincing tennis serve.

But for a movie centered on tennis, there's surprisingly little of the sport featured. Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton instead focus more on King's off-court life, as she grapples with her closeted sexuality after sparking with her hairdresser, Marilyn Burnett (Andrea Riseborough). King, who was married to Larry "Not That One" King (Austin Stowell) at the time, rightfully fears the impact her coming out might have on him, her career, and her conservative parents. But she also can't deny the attraction, and the two start an affair. (Where that relationship went isn't covered by the film, and you'd never guess from the movie how it would end up.)

Meanwhile, the once legendary tennis champ Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is 55 years old, and is bored by the corporate job provided to him by the father of his rich wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue, who perfects resting fed-up-but-still-bemused face). The only fun he has involves gambling with his fellow over-the-hill buddies, in between visits to his shrink and Gamblers Anonymous.

Carell sports some distracting buck teeth, but his casting is otherwise spot on. Riggs, above all else, is a showman and a buffoon, and Carell's comedic timing serves the character well as he spouts off lines like "Sure women have a place on the court; who else would pick up the balls?" Is Riggs really a male chauvinist pig? Well, if there's money to be had in it, then yes.

King doesn't take Riggs's proposed "battle of the sexes" match seriously, despite the potential payout, knowing it really doesn't have anything to do with the sport but with ego and spectacle. But eventually, after Riggs plays a match against Margaret Court (a prickly Jessica McNamee), King begins to see that beating Riggs would be a symbolic victory too big to pass up.

And symbolic is all it really was. King beating Riggs didn't really prove anything. As Billie Jean voices in the film, "women's lib" wasn't (and isn't) about trying to prove women are better than men. It is about challenging assumptions that men are better than women simply because they're men.

It's an assumption women are still having to challenge, 44 years later. Symbolic though it was, Billie Jean King's win was a crowd-pleasing victory that helped bring women's liberation into the living rooms of millions of people, and as a result, some progress was made. If only there was some kind of symbolic victory an accomplished modern day woman could wield, further leading the charge of progress. If only...if only

Friday, September 15, 2017

'The Force' Lays One Of America's Most Troubled Police Departments Bare



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

Peter Nicks's The Force is a cinema verit—-style documentary focused on the Oakland Police Department as things stood shortly after the arrival of then-police chief Sean Whent in 2014. At that point, the Oakland PD had been under federal oversight for a little over 10 years, following a scandal centered on police misconduct, and Whent's mandate was to whip the department into shape, once and for all. Anyone who has lived in the Bay Area for the past three years knows that didn't happen.

But knowing how the story ends doesn't make The Force a bore. Watching almost feels like being embedded in the department. The film observes, but doesn't comment. There's no narration and it mostly stays away from talking-head interviews as it loosely follows a couple of new officers through their training, induction, and eventual patrolling. And while we don't learn too much about them, it still comes as a shock when it's revealed that one of them was involved with one of the department's (woefully abundant) controversial shootings.

Some scenes play out like a less sensationalized episode of Cops, as we're placed smack dab in to the middle of some police calls. These moments help illustrate how even something as seemingly straightforward as a call to help an injured pedestrian can evolve into a potentially deadly incident.

But understanding how an incident might turn deadly doesn't equal justification, and screen time is also given to the growing Black Lives Matter movement, its associated protests (including the one that shut down the Bay Bridge in 2016), and community gatherings where citizens are so fed up with the police violence that they even begin to volley ideas about how they might organize their own police force, as they've completely lost trust in the one that's been provided to them.

Peter Nicks, a longtime resident of Oakland, also directed the documentary The Waiting Room, about Oakland's Highland Hospital. He will reportedly follow up The Force with a doc centered on Oakland's education system. It's unlikely Nicks could have foreseen how much worse the Oakland PD would actually get when he started filming, and that becomes more evident when the now well-known underage sexual exploitation scandal hits the department. The film almost seems unprepared for it, with much of the exposition surrounding that story coming from local news clips and newspaper headlines.

Nicks doesn't vilify the police — they're more than able to do that themselves — and he doesn't pretend the city's protests were without their own violence. The film is about as bipartisan as you can get when it comes to the topic of the police and the growing civil unrest surrounding many of the nation's departments. Of course, that won't stop some from seeing an anti-police bias simply because the choice was made to focus a film on a police department with long-standing and very infamous problems. No, the Oakland Police Department is not every PD in America. But every PD in America would do well to learn from their mistakes.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Great Performances Help 'It' Float



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

When I was 16, I read Stephen King's brick of a novel It in one weekend. This is both a testament to King's readability and to my dorkitude. I think I had read just about everything he had written up to that point, but for whatever reason — my being the same age as its young protagonists, the usual teenage angst centered on feeling like an outcast — It sucked me in. Four years later, in 1990, I watched the television miniseries. I was unsurprised that it wasn't very good; it was network television, after all.

The miniseries still worked its way into the public unconscious because of one thing, and one thing only: Tim Curry's performance as Pennywise the Clown, in which he somehow manages to twist the campiness of his immortal Frank-N-Furter into something both terrifying and (perhaps unintentionally) hilarious.

Needless to say, Bill SkarsgÄrd has some big clown shoes to fill in the new big screen adaptation of It, and from the unsettling scene that opens the film, he most definitely does. He is creepy, but not so creepy that a little kid playing with a paper boat in a rain storm would run away screaming the moment his white face pokes out of a sidewalk gutter. Little Georgie is intrigued, amused, and eventually scared, but by then it's too late. What happens to Georgie is the most effective scare in the movie, because it is shocking in its brutality. But by the end of It, brutality becomes the film's driving force, and it gets a tad redundant.

While the book took place in the past and the present, the film sticks firmly in the past, this time not the 1950's of the novel but in Derry, Maine in 1989, at the beginning of summer break. Friends in their mid-teens who are most definitely not the most popular kids in school, the self-proclaimed Loser's Club is headed by Georgie's big brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), who has a pronounced stutter and is still living with the guilt of not being there to save his little brother, whose disappearance a few months prior remains an unsolved mystery. Richie (Finn Wolfhard, from Stranger Things) is the smartass loudmouth of the group, forever making jokes that refer to his own dick; Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) is worried about his upcoming bar mitzvah; and Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) is a hypochondriac and germaphobe.

Eventually the Loser's Club gets three more members: African-American orphan Mike (Chosen Jacobs); overweight new kid in town Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor); and Beverly (Sophia Lillis), a girl with an unearned "bad" reputation.

There aren't a lot of adults in the film, and the ones who do show up are uniformly awful, from the parents to the teachers to the local police. The Losers are also hounded by a gang of bullies led by the psychotic Henry (Nicholas Hamilton) who very clearly isn't all talk when he tells them he wants them dead. The icing on the crapcake that is life in Derry is the growing list of unexplained disappearances in town, mainly of kids close to the age of the Losers.

Director Andy Muschietti makes it clear that the only happiness the Losers are going to get is from each other, and the film's Stand By Me moments of summertime bonding, with swims in the quarry and bike rides through town are some of its best, allowing the group of young actors to shine (they are all outstanding) and their characters to develop personalities bigger than their assigned stereotypes.

But the rest of the film is relentless, as each Loser is introduced to the horror that is "It." Most of these scenes have the same kind of buildup and payoff, as the kids are confronted with supernatural manifestations of their worst fears, with an appearance by Pennywise at the end.

This is a bit of a problem. Pennywise shows up so often, usually running at the camera while baring his mouthful of teeth, that the monster begins to lose its shock value. And it doesn't help that all these scares (remember, there are seven kids, and they each get their own Pennywise moment) are crammed into a movie that's just over two hours long.

It's also hard not to think of Stranger Things when watching It, not just because they share some actors, but because Stranger Things wouldn't exist if Stephen King and It didn't exist. That inevitable comparison also shines a spotlight on the film's limitations.

With its limited running time and so many characters to follow, there's no room for the film to build up any real tension. True, the length afforded a TV series or miniseries can lead to indulgences that may become tedious (::cough Twin Peaks the Return ::cough), but when used well it can also allow a story to breathe, real suspense to build, and viewers to become attached to its characters, so that losses and consequences have more weight. The 1990 miniseries wasn't good, but at least it had a format more suited to this kind of story.

It ends with the title Chapter One. It's supposedly the first part in a proposed two-part series, with the second film to focus on the "now" parts of the book. And perhaps a real assessment of the movie's success or failure can't really be made until the series is viewed as a whole. As it stands, It (Chapter One) is worth watching for its crackerjack opening and the strength of its young cast, but mainly because of its inherent promise of (possibly) better things to come.

Friday, September 1, 2017

'I Do...Until I Don't' Is Disappointingly Conventional




This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

Lake Bell wrote, directed, and starred in 2013's In a World... a charming comedy about the life of a struggling voiceover actress, a world she's very familiar with, as she has a number of voice acting credits under her belt. I was pleasantly surprised by the film's unconventionality, as it felt like a romantic comedy, but didn't actually devote that much time to the love story, focusing instead on her character and her family. Lake's follow-up, I Do...Until I Don't (I think...she likes ellipses) also plays with romantic comedy conventions, but this time the result, while occasionally funny, is not nearly as charming.

The story follows three couples who are suckered into participating in a documentary by the recently dumped and resultantly bitter British filmmaker Vivian (Dolly Wells). She's positing that marriage as a construct would work better if it was a seven year contract with an option to renew, and is hoping to prove her thesis by examining the lives of happy and unhappy couples in the town of Vero Beach, Florida.

Lake Bell and Ed Helms are Alice and Noah, a married couple creeping up on their tenth anniversary. They run a shades and blinds business together, and Alice has some deep-seated dissatisfaction with the marriage she isn't completely able to understand or explain. Noah's preoccupation with their failing business and their failed attempts to conceive a child mean he's pretty oblivious to anything else going on in their lives.

Alice is convinced Ed is attracted to her hippie sister Fanny (Amber Heard) who has recently moved to town with her boyfriend Zander (Wyatt Cenac) and their son Zenith, who, thanks to granola parenting, has yet to discover that television is a thing. The couple run an art collective, ascribe to polyamory, and look like they disavowed showering some time ago.

And then there's Harvey and Cybil (Mary Steenburgen and Paul Reiser), a couple reaching retirement age. Cybil is filled with a strong bitterness towards Harvey and their marriage that is never entirely explained. Part of it may be a result of estrangement from her adult daughter, Milly (Hannah Friedman), and part may just be the unavoidable contempt that kicks in after decades of marriage. Either way, Cybil is such a haranguing pill that it's hard not to root for Harvey to get on his late-life-crisis motorcycle and get the hell away from her.

All of the couples get suckered into Vivian's documentary, eventually discovering what is obvious from the beginning: that Vivian is a hack who will eagerly manipulate her subjects to get the result she wants. At first, the set-up reminded me a bit of Albert Brooks's 1979 comedy Real Life, a movie about an unscrupulous documentary filmmaker following around an all-American family. But Bell is too busy giving equal time the film's many characters to allow any real commentary on marriage or filmmaking to take shape before the hopelessly conventional ending hits.

Bell's script does have its moments, with some clever lines surrounding the awkwardness of sex and cohabitation ("Is this foreplay? Because I feel like I may have missed something crucial"), and she gifts her own character with an endearing awkwardness, cleverly masking her own beauty (Alice is convinced her sister is hotter) not with glasses and bad hair, but instead with a muted color scheme — blond hair, bland clothes — that turns her into a walking epitome of the color beige. But that kind of detail is missing from too much of I Do...Until I Don't, resulting in a film that feels as halfhearted as its title.