This week in Drink — A Brief History of Brettanomyces

What the heck is Brett and why is everybody talkin’ about it?  Well, for starters, it’s delicious. For more, just click here.

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This week in Drink — Romero’s K9 Club & Tap House

For those of you who just can’t stand to leave the dog at home, but simply must knock back a few, Romero’s K9 Club & Tap House in Lafayette has brought the chaos of a dog park and the ambiance of a Biergarten together.  Read all about it over at Boulder Weekly.

What they serve, how to register your floof, and hours all right here.

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This week in Film — Brakhage Center Symposium

The Brakhage Center Symposium returns this Saturday and Sunday for a fourteenth go-round at CU-Boulder. The full line-up includes works by Karen Yasinsky, Christopher Harris, and Jean-Paul Kelly; a program of Brazilian documentary and experimental film curated by Chris Stults; and Celebrating Stan (Brakhage, that is).

You can see the weekend schedule here and read my write-up of the festivities here.

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ANNIHILATION

If Annihilation could be distilled into a single image, it would be that of a hand seen through a glass of water. Crystal clear, the water reflects precisely what is set in front of it and, in this case, it’s a human hand. But, it’s a glass of water, circular in nature, and so the reflection is bisected — fractured if you will — and though you can see what is being reflected in the water, you can also see what is not being reflected. At first glance, your mind fills in the gaps of the image, but if you stare long enough, the more alien it all feels.

So it is with Annihilation, the latest from of writer/director Alex Garland. Based on the book by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation follows five female soldier/scientists as they enter “The Shimmer” an alien force slowly growing organically along the U.S. eastern seaboard.

Some backstory: “The Shimmer” — so called because it makes everything around it glisten with multiple colors and textures — came from outer space, crash landing in a lighthouse. A team of soldiers — we later learn many teams have entered The Shimmer — are sent in to explore. All but one dies, and the survivor, Kane (Oscar Isaac), returns home to his wife, Lena (Natalie Portman), less than whole and suffering severe internal hemorrhaging.

While en route to the hospital, government black ops sequester the ambulance transporting Kane and Lena. The next day, Lena wakes in a government facility, Area X, and is briefed by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) about The Shimmer, Kane’s mission, and a new mission headed into The Shimmer. Lena, a cellular biologist who also served in the army, joins the all-female mission to explore The Shimmer, desperate to know the cause of her husband’s effect.

But all of this is in the past tense and comes via interrogation by a HAZMAT-suited Benedict Wong. Whatever is in The Shimmer, or whatever The Shimmer is, spared Lena and only Lena. This is not a spoiler, what happens in The Shimmer is; so, to that point, we’ll disperse with description and move to impressions.

The key to Annihilation, if there is such a thing, lies in attraction all five explorers (played by Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Leigh, and Portman) have toward The Shimmer. Like moths to a flame, each enters The Shimmer knowing it will likely ensure their destruction. Yet, they enter and enter they must. Plot-wise, they enter because The Shimmer is becoming harder and harder to be covered up by the government, but these women enter not to maintain a lie, but to understand a truth.

In this regard, Annihilation succeeds. Though there is something that fails to click for this viewer — which may easily be discovered in subsequent viewings — Annihilation rings truest in scenes depicting humanity. As Dr. Ventress explains, everyone seeks annihilation: some with addiction, some whittle away ideal marriages through infidelity, some abuse perfectly good jobs until they are terminated, others simply refuse to get out of their own way. Why? Because from annihilation comes absolution. You can hardly have one without the other.

Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny in Annihilation from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

Written and directed by Alex Garland
Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer
Produced by Eli Bush, Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, Scott Rudin
Starring: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, David Gyasi, Benedict Wong
Paramount Pictures, Rated R, Running time 120 minutes, Opens February 23, 2018
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PLEASE STAND BY

For Wendy (Dakota Fanning), the world is as big as it is confusing. Autistic and living in a San Francisco group home under the tutelage of Scottie (Toni Collette), Wendy has learned what to do and how to do — from which color sweater to wear on Tuesdays to saying the right thing to customers while handing out samples at Cinnabon — it’s just the why that trips her up.

And while her day job at Cinnabon and her living space bring comfort and routine, Wendy’s life lacks purpose and adventure. She finds it in a Star Trek spec script contest. Focusing on Spock’s struggle between his logical Vulcan side and his emotional human side, Wendy finds her perfect cipher.

The writing comes easily to Wendy — her script runs 500 pages — but getting it to Paramount Pictures before the deadline is what stands in her way. Her solution: Cross Market Street for the very first time and make the 382-mile journey from San Fran to L.A.

Written by Michael Golamco and directed by Ben Lewin, Please Stand By is a lukewarm movie with its heart in the right place. Fanning gives a performance that colors neatly in the lines but fails to address the messier aspects of this character, much in the same way Golamco and Lewin fail to address the nastiness of the world around her.

The result is a movie of best intentions, one trying to ignore the obvious fact that it’s mining its lead character’s social shortcomings for dramatic purposes. Once it does, it rounds the edges, buffs out the scratches, and plays it safe.

Please Stand By is in limited release.

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FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL

Film stars never die; they simply fade away. Like moths to the flame, they become one with the light, always there to be called once more with a flip of the switch.

One of the silver screen’s most enchanting sirens, Gloria Grahame, is still with us. We need only slid our copy of The Big Heat or In a Lonely Place once more into the DVD player, and presto, the vixen with the pout lives between the flicker of shadow and light.

But in reality, Gloria Graham did die, in New York City on October 5, 1981, from breast cancer. She was 57. Her death and the events leading up to it form the basis of Peter Turner’s biographically inspired novel, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which has now been adapted into the movie of the same name with Annette Bening as the 54-year-old Grahame and Jamie Bell as the 26-year-old Turner.

Like an old movie trope, Film Stars starts with Grahame on her way down — the majority of her work comes as a stage actress in England — and Turner on his way up. The two meet in the middle and begin a three-year romance; from London to New York with a stopover in Los Angeles — filmed to look like a classic movie set — and back to Liverpool where Grahame spends her penultimate days in Turner’s flat.

Adapted for the screen by Matt Greenhalgh and directed by Paul McGuigan, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a beautiful film about a heartbreaking romance, one that never quite establishes the trust necessary for true love to blossom. McGuigan visualizes this magnificently through a series of scenes, first from Turner’s point and view and then from Grahame’s, establishing that there’s more than just an age gap standing in their way. If their love were a song, it would be “My Foolish Heart” from Oscar Peterson: soft and sweet with a dollop of melancholy.

This makes the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ complete lack of recognition for Film Stars even more frustrating, particularly in regards to Bening’s performance. Bening — who played the Gloria Grahame type to perfection early in her career with The Grifters — brings the perfect amount of pathos and performance to Grahame herself. This is an older Grahame, one who has no interest in letting go of the persona that made her famous. Watch the way Grahame looks at Turner in their first meeting. It is not of a 54-year-old woman trying to seduce a 26-year-old, it is the look of a woman who still thinks of herself as a 26-year-old vixen. What man could resist?

English critic Judith Williamson described Grahame’s performance in the 1954 film noir Human Desire as “unfathomable and ungraspable. She slips through the film like a drop of loose mercury. Neither we nor the other characters know whether to believe what she says.” The fact that Grahame could pull that off is why we’re still talking about her today. The fact that Bening pulls the same trick, inside a cinematic hall of mirrors, is why we’ll be talking about her for years to come.

Jamie Bell and Annette Bening in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Directed by Paul McGuigan
Written by Matt Greenhalgh
Based on Peter Turner’s memoir
Produced by Barbara Broccoli, Colin Vaines
Starring: Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Stephen Graham, Vanessa Redgrave
Sony Pictures Classics, Rated R, Running time 105 minutes, Opens January 26, 2018
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Three from Karlson

Phil Karlson (right) directs Dean Martin in The Wrecking Crew (1968)

Director Phil Karlson — born Philip N. Karlstein in Chicago, 1908 — could do just about anything. Starting as a gagman for Buster Keaton, Karlson found work as propman, studio manager, editor, and assistant before stepping behind the camera and calling the shots. His first, A Wave, a WAC, and a Marine (1944) was a comedy/musical but if anyone is going to pick a Karlson film out a line-up, it would be for his tough and gritty 1950s B-pictures.

But even these films didn’t cement Karlson’s legacy in Hollywood history. David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film calls Karlson’s career “modest” and devotes only one column to the director. And despite 99 River Street, Kansas City Confidential, and Scandal Sheet, Alain Silver and James Ursini left Karlson out of their survey of twenty-eight filmmakers, Film Noir — The Directors, altogether.

And while the Karlson appreciation society has yet to be formed, the work endures; evident in three of Karlsons finest: Scandal Sheet, Kansas City Confidential (both 1952), and The Phenix City Story (1955).

 

“Things happened and then there’s no end.”

As the saying goes: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In Scandal Sheet, that aphorism butts up against another warning baked into every film noir worth its salt: “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.”

Ace reporter Steve McCleary (John Derek) wishes for a story, the most sensational story out there, and he gets it dropped right into his lap; the story of Chapman (Broderick Crawford), a newspaper editor, McCleary’s in fact, who murdered his way to the top.

Based on the novel The Dark Page by Samuel Fuller and directed by Karlson, Scandal Sheet bleeds noir thanks to surprising, but not entirely unfeasible, twists and turns of choice and chance. Fuller, himself a newspaper reporter, injects a love for the trade while also finding much to loathe. Had Fuller directed Scandal Sheet, the movie may have revolved more around that dynamic — Fuller devotes one sentence on Scandal Sheet in his autobiography, misspelling “Carlson” for good measure. But what Karlson brings to Scandal Sheet is the perfect amount of dread. As the bodies pile up and the noose around Chapman’s neck tightens, we wonder why he doesn’t cut and run. Surely that would make more sense than offering himself up to McCleary on a platter? But as Chapman tells the young reporter: “I gambled. When the stakes are big enough, you don’t run unless there’s nothing else left to do.”

Scandal Sheet is a solid movie with a socko premise that carries the action swiftly for 80 minutes, but what gives the movie that extra oomph is Karlson’s inclusion of social realism. In one standout scene, McCleary and his photographer, Biddie (Harry Morgan of M*A*S*H fame), shake down a bar full of drunks looking for information. The camera captures their faces in harrowing close-ups fitting of a Life magazine spread. Much like the peasants in Akira Kurosawa’s No Regrets For My Youth (1946) and the films of Federico Fellini to come, the camera slowly tracks past these faces with humanity and pity.

No honor among thieves

Starting out like a tightly scripted heist picture, Kansas City Confidential immediately launches into the heist, $1.2 million, before pinning the whole thing on a man who was at the wrong place at the wrong time. He is a floral delivery driver, Joe (John Payne), who also happens to be an ex-con trying to rehab his image. Like many ex-convicts, then and now, one false accusation robs him of everything and Joe needs to find a new way to survive.

He does, by tracking the robbers down to their Mexican hideout where they wait for the money to cool. Because of how the heist was arranged — everyone wore masks at all times so no one could snitch — Joe easily poses as one of the robbers while working his way to the money.

Neither a heist nor a noir picture, Kansas City Confidential is an ace B-picture, the kind filmmakers have mined for a variety of inspirations. In an interview with Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn in 1975, Karlson broke down his approach simply: “I think a B-movie [as] an action movie, and an A-movie [as] a characterization of people. That’s about the biggest difference we have. You never get to know anybody in a B-movie.”

“This’ll happen to your kid too.”

So says a note pinned to the body of a dead black girl. Murdered in cold blood, her body tossed out a moving car and onto the Patterson’s lawn to send a message. Who could do such a thing?

The men behind the corruption and vice of Phenix City, Alabama, that’s who. Ripped from the headlines, The Phenix City Story is far and away Karlson’s masterpiece. And though the events of Phenix City take place in the 1950s, there is an overwhelming sense it wouldn’t take much for these conditions to rise again.

Based on the real-life assassination of Albert Patterson, a man who was elected Alabama Attorney General on the platform of cleaning up Phenix City, Karlson opens the film with real-life reporter Clete Roberts interviewing townsfolk about the rampant corruption that rules the city. Corruption so ingrained in the town, one character sums it up with a shrug: “It’s been like this since we’ve been tall enough to stand on the apple box and pull the slot machine lever.”

The man running that vice is Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews), a smooth-talkin’ southern gentleman who wouldn’t think twice before squeezing the trigger in the face of his problems.

Standing in his way, Albert Patterson (John McIntire), a lawyer who could topple the system if only someone could convince him to put it all on the line. His son (Richard Kiley) does, and Phenix City becomes divided by those who want to clean the town up and those want to keep it dirty. And the innocent bystanders caught in between.

Shot on location and filmed in documentary-like monochromatic black and white by Harry Neumann, The Phenix Story functions as depiction of what is happening in America — and could continue to happen should good men and women refuse to stand up. More than one character draws the parallels between modern-day Phenix City and pre-World War II Germany. In that regard, The Phenix City Story will always have a sadly prescient edge to it. The corrupt we will always have, no matter how hard the just try to beat it back.

Scandal Sheet
Directed by Phil Karlson
Written by Ted Sherdeman, Eugene Ling, James Poe
Based on the novel The Dark Page by Samuel Fuller
Produced by Edward Small
Starring: Broderick Crawford, Donna Reed, John Derek, Henry O’Neill
Columbia Pictures, Not rated, Running time 82 minutes, Opened January 16, 1952
Kansas City Confidential
Directed by Phil Karlson
Written by George Bruce and Harry Essex
Story by Harold Greene and Roland Brown
Produced by Edward Small
Starring: John Payne, Coleen Gray, Preston Foster, Neville Brand, Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam
United Artist, Not rated, Running time 99 minutes, Opened November 11, 1952
The Phenix City Story
Directed by Phil Karlson
Written by Crane Wilbur & Dan Mainwaring
Produced by Samuel Bischoff, David Diamond
Starring: John McIntire, Richard Kiley, Kathryn Grant, Edward Andrews, Lenka Peterson
Allied Artists Pictures, Not rated, Running time 100 minutes, Opened August 14, 1955
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