Books, TV, Movies: Charlotte’s Lists of Top Fives For 2013

Everybody’s doing the obligatory year-end lists so I thought I’d jump on the band wagon with my top five faves for movies, TV and books. I decided to limit myself to five so I wouldn’t spend too much time on the laptop. lol. Everything is listed from 5 to 1, 1 being the favorite.

First of all: movies. I love Independent film and I rarely run out to see a movie when it first comes out in theatres. In fact, I prefer watching on TV in the comfort of my home.  Just released blockbusters? Forget it. The movies I’ve selected are ones I watched this year but none of them were released this year. All of them I discovered on my own through chance and thoroughly enjoyed. Predictably, all but one are dramas as that’s my preferred genre.

TV: Three of my five favorite shows were on Sundance Channel with two being Sundance Original Series. I love Sundance. It was a little hard narrowing my favorite TV down to five since I am a true child of the TV generation. As with movies, I prefer the quirky, original and creative in my TV viewing. See what you think.

Books: I don’t rush out and read the just-released bestsellers, as a rule. However, four of my five were released this year and I’m pretty sure a couple of them are on the Bestsellers list. (Not sure as I don’t consult any of them.) After reading this article and this article, I’ve decided 2014 will be a year of reading only women writers. It’s long overdue and I urge you all to do the same in support of women’s writing.

Movies

Bonus Pic: ( because I realized after publishing that I have 6 movies listed)
You Can Count on Me – Starring Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, Directed by Kenneth Lonergan, 2000
A young mother’s drifter brother shows up back in their hometown after years away and out of touch. The dynamics between the siblings (Linney and Ruffalo), who are complete opposites, makes for a very interesting movie. Not a lot of action here, but a thoughtful unfolding of how differences in perception can create misunderstanding and resentment in relationships. Laura Linney is a nuanced actor and one of my favorites – I’ll watch anything she’s in. Ruffalo plays his well-honed bad beautiful boy that you want to kiss and slap at the same time. Watch this movie if you don’t require car chases and exploding things.

5. The Savages – Starring Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Directed by Tamara Jenkins, 2007
Linney and Hoffman portray two siblings who are juggling caring for their sick father with their own busy lives. Their emotional journey as they watch the deterioration of their father and the subsequent decisions they must make for his care is one many of us in our 40′s and 50′s are familiar with. This movie really touched me in a big way as I’ve recently dealt with this issue myself. Sometimes it’s helpful to see your own struggles played out on screen so you realize it happens to other people too. Linney and Hoffman give skillful, poignant performances and I wouldn’t expect anything less from them.

4. The Darjeeling Limited – Starring Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman, Directed by Wes Anderson, 2007
Hilarious. These are three brothers who travel to India to find themselves and bond after their father’s death. The predicaments they get into will make you giggle, or at least smile. I thoroughly enjoyed this offbeat comedy that also has a few tender moments.

4608-The-Deep-End--2001-

3. The Deep End – Starring Tilda Swinton and Goran Visnjic, Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, 2001
A mother struggles to keep her son from being implicated in a murder. Both Tilda Swinton and Goran Visnjic are great in this movie, their casting was perfect. Tilda gives a convincing, heart-wrenching performance of a mother stoically trying to keep her shit together while slowly unraveling as she tries to keep life normal while dealing with blackmailers (Visnjic) threatening to expose her son as a murderer. This movie held my attention from start to finish with a strong story and compelling acting. Highly recommend.

2. Brothers – Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman and Toby McGuire, Directed by Jim Sheridan, 2009
Just before a young Marine (McGuire) is deployed (again) to Afghanistan, his younger black sheep brother (Gyllenhaal) is released from prison. The story revolves around what happens in Afghanistan and what happens back home. I have to say I was impressed most by McGuire’s performance as he was not an actor I cared much for until this movie. His acting here was pretty incredible in my eyes. Gyllenhaal and Portman (as McGuire’s wife) give solid performances too but McGuire is clearly the star here. This is a tense yet, in some ways, tender movie. Some of it is hard to watch but definitely worth the effort. Highly recommend.

1. Snow Cake – Starring Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman and Carrie-Ann Moss, Directed by Marc Evans, 2006
OK, movies like this are why I love Independent Film. This is a wacky, crazy, insightful, sweet movie that I will definitely watch again. (I don’t often do that.) Rickman and Moss meet up serendipitously on the road, both returning to their homes after prolonged stints away. Weaver plays Moss’s mother who is a highly functional autistic, Rickman ends up staying with her and the story unfolds and keeps you watching and guessing how it will ever end. If you don’t like this movie then I can’t imagine why not. Weaver and Rickman are great and play two of the most memorable characters you’ll ever meet. Highly recommend.

The movie that most disappointed me: Silver Linings Playbook Maybe it was the mood I was in at the time but Jennifer Lawrence’s character kind of drove me crazy and I wanted to smack Bradley Cooper. I kept looking at the clock during the entire movie.

TV

5. Downton AbbeyPBS – What’s better to take you away from reality than a historical family dynasty story set in another country? The acting is fantastic, the sets opulent, the cinematography bucolic, the fashion glittering and, oh yeah, those dreamy English accents. What’s not to like? It’s worth it just to watch magic unfold from Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess Violet. Eight more days to season 4 – I can’t wait! Squee! maggie

4. Rectify – Sundance Channel -  A young man is released from prison after nineteen years on Death Row after DNA evidence exonerates him. This series follows Daniel as he tries to assimilate back into his old life where he encounters prejudice and resistance as well as support and love. This is a well-written series that makes you think about how opinions that seem so solid can be so wrong.

3. The Returned – Sundance Channel – A French (subtitled) zombie series that isn’t your same old hum-drum, flesh dropping zombie series. I am wild for this series. Basically, it takes place in a small, isolated community in France where deceased loved ones, looking as they did at death,  begin appearing, unaware that they’ve been dead. You can not take your eyes off this show and I can’t wait for Season 2. (Here’s a good synopsis on Flavorwire.)

2. Breaking Bad - AMC – If you don’t know about this series then you’ve been living under a rock. I watched the first four seasons on DVD this year, one after the other, then watched season 5 live. I was shocked by how this show pulled me in with season one. Really, I didn’t think I’d like it, thinking it was all about drugs and addicts and all the shit that goes along with that scenario. In reality, it’s one of the most well-written, well-acted and emotionally compelling shows I’ve ever seen. Now I’m watching re-runs on Sundance.

1. Top of the Lake - Sundance Channel – A  detective returns to her hometown to investigate the disappearance and suspected abuse of a pregnant teenager. The detective (Elizabeth Moss) unearths long-held town secrets and faces demons from her past in this dark, suspenseful series. As with Breaking Bad, this is a well-written and acted show that pulls you in and won’t let go. Elizabeth Moss is riveting in this, playing a much more tortured, compelling character than her gullible Peggy on Mad Men. She was nominated for a Golden Globe and  an Emmy for Best Actress in a Mini-series or Movie and should have won. Filmed in New Zealand, the cinematography is uh.may.zing, winning Adam Arkapaw the Emmy for Outstanding Cinematography for a Miniseries or Movie.

The program that most disappointed me: American Horror Story: The Coven. This show is just too corny. I wanted to like it simply because it’s filmed here and set here and stars Jessica Lange and Angela Bassett but those  facts aren’t enough to make me sit through it one more time.

Books

5. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain – The story of the relationship between Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. It was fun reading about Paris in the Jazz Age and the antics of the “Lost Generation”. I have to say, though, that if this is really the way Hemingway treated his women then he’s lost some of my respect. One can be a lauded writer but if you treat people like crap it diminishes the work, for me.

4. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri – Set in India and America, this is the story of two brothers, their family and a country torn apart by revolution. It’s a page-turner, for sure.

3. Tenth of December by George Saunders – A collection of short stories every one of which is a gem. I swept through this book in no time and plan to read it again. Highly recommend. the-year-of-magical-thinking

2. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion – If you’ve lost someone close to you, this is the book to read – grab it now! It gave me some solace in the year after my mother’s death by identifying and explaining patterns, behaviors and thinking that seemed wacked out but, in truth, is part of the grieving process. Skillfully and lovingly written, Didion walks us through the long protracted illness of her daughter, the sudden death of her husband and her life in the year afterward. You will see yourself in her story. Highly recommend.

1. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini – The best book I read this year, hands down. Set in Afghanistan, this is the story of a poor family, their struggle to survive and the ensuing life of a son and daughter. This is a richly detailed and engrossing story, a book I couldn’t put down. Until this, Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns had been my favorite book. Highly, highly recommend.

The book that most disappointed me: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. After a promising start this book quickly became Bor.Ing. That is all.

I hope you enjoyed my list of Top Fives and maybe feel inspired to read or watch some of these recommendations. Do you have any favorite movies, TV shows or books you’d like to share?

Happy #NOLA Friday: Yak Edition

Although this movie wasn’t filmed here or set here, New Orleans is mentioned in Sally Tomato’s weather report which is good enough to qualify it for my loosely based Happy #NOLA Friday feature. This party could most definitely have been in New Orleans just last night – we do love to costume and drink, don’t we? This is  one of my favorite scenes in a movie, ever, and  if it doesn’t make you laugh, well, “I’m gonna march you over to the zoo and feed you to the yak!” (Or did she say “Yat”? hmmmmm)

Happy #NOLA Friday!

Does Louisiana’s “Hollywood South” nickname cost more than we can afford?

During March 2013, the office of the Louisiana Legislative Auditor issued the following  press release about its “Tax Credits and Rebates in Louisiana” report:

BATON ROUGE – Mar 25, 2013 – Louisiana’s tax credit and rebate programs resulted in a tax revenue loss of more than $6.13 billion in revenue in the last seven years, according to a study of the programs released Monday by Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera’s office.

The performance audit looked at 44 of the credits that each resulted in a tax revenue loss of at least $1 million for at least one year between the calendar years 2006 and 2011. Auditors said the credits from those 44 programs – 52 percent of the 85 tax credit programs on the books — totaled a revenue reduction of approximately $5.4 billion, with 2011 tax data still incomplete as of October 2012.

The five most expensive tax credits accounted for almost $3.7 billion of the $5.4 billion total for the period studied, or 67 percent of the total revenue loss. The five are:

·  The inventory/property tax exemption for businesses — $1.5 billion.
·  The insurance company premium tax credit — $1.1 billion.
·  The motion picture investor tax credit — $512 million.
·  The credit granted on net income taxes paid to other states — $402 million.
·  The credit for assessments paid to Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corp. — $212 million.

While media sources are generally focusing on the $512 million figure noted above [emphasis added] regarding the “Motion Picture Investor Tax Credit,” it is actually one of three separate components of the film tax credit program listed among the 44 “loss leaders” noted in Appendix C of this report:

· The Motion Picture Investor Tax Credit: $511,613,716 (ranked #3 of 44)

· The Motion Picture Infrastructure Tax Credit: $29,561,287 (ranked #20 of 44)

· The Louisiana Motion Picture Incentive Program : $10,561,744 (ranked #29 of 44)

That’s a cumulative total of $551,736,747 over a period of 72 months’ time (or an average of $7,663,010 per month) that is reportedly lost through the program as a whole.

This $551,736,747 figure accounts for nine percent (9%) of the reported total lost of $6.13 billion during the six-year time frame examined in the report — or roughly $1 out of every $11 lost.

(Note, too, that those numbers do not include the much-touted year of 2012 with its 61 projects filmed in New Orleans… I predict that those numbers will reflect even greater losses as hundreds of millions more in uncapped credits and rebates are likely to be reflected in the statistics. If the program continues to operate in this unlimited manner, the notion of a “turning point” from subsidizing Hollywood to Louisiana’s realization of a genuine profit becomes increasingly unlikely.)

The three credits/programs noted in the report are described as follows:

Motion Picture Investor Tax Credit: Louisiana taxpayers that invest in state-certified motion-picture productions can earn a tax credit at the time expenditures are made by a motion picture production company. (This credit in particular features a rebate component, which the report defines as “A rebate is money directly reimbursed by the state to an entity or individual, independent of the tax return process or tax liability.”)

Motion Picture Infrastructure Tax Credit: To provide a credit against corporate income tax for an approved state-certified infrastructure project for a film, video, television, or digital production or postproduction facility. This credit applied to infrastructure projects between July 1, 2005 and December 31, 2008. (While this credit appears to time-bounded/no longer be active, it still earned a spot on the loss list.)

Louisiana Motion Picture Incentive Program: To provide a financial incentive to the film industry in order that the state might compete with other states for filming locations.

It seems that the only guaranteed way to make the big money in “Hollywood South” is to be a so-called “motion picture investor,” given that the tax dollar hemorrhage from that program is a staggering 48 times greater than the losses experienced by the so-called “Louisiana Motion Picture Incentive Program” itself.

And, oh, the hand-wringing that occurred when Governor Jindal proposed the implementation of a $1 million limit on the amount that could be claimed for each actor’s salary by production companies as qualifying expenses when applying for Louisiana film tax credits! (Never mind that this precise limitation already applies to “payroll spent on Louisiana residents,” apparently whether or not they’re in front of the camera.) The governor only wanted to trim one specific part of the program… however, with media coverage regarding this report currently on the rise, I suspect that future proposed cuts may go even deeper.

As noted in this WWL TV story originally broadcast on 3/25/13, Mayor Landrieu’s office has been at work, creating the spin:

“We asked Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration whether the film tax credit program is providing a tangible benefit to the New Orleans economy.

“His adviser on the Cultural Economy said in a statement, ‘The state’s tax incentive program for film has helped New Orleans grow a new industry. We estimate that since 2007, New Orleans has seen more than $2 billion in direct spending from tax credit film projects – money that is spent in and remains in the local economy, as the program intended. Our local film industry is now nationally known, and it supports more than 1,000 full-and part-time jobs. Production companies want to film here because of the tax incentives and numerous related businesses have launched or relocated to New Orleans because of the opportunities that have been created.’”

Unlike the numbers noted in the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s report, the figure of “$2 billion in direct spending” (which is not to be confused with $2 billion in tax revenue generated) is unsubstantiated.

The estimated “1,000 full- and part-time jobs” may not be as statistically significant as the Mayor’s adviser’s statement would like to imply if one considers that the city’s current estimated population is ~370,000, nor is it confirmed if all of these jobs in fact consistently pay a year-round living wage.

While the auditor’s report includes fairly “hard” numbers (verifiable, with the exception of the noted not-yet-complete figures for calendar year 2011), the best we see from proponents of the film tax credit program are nothing more than “soft” or estimated figures that are inherently difficult to verify.

As the WWL story notes, “And without a requirement that the tax credit programs track the return on the investments, the legislative auditor said it’s tough to tell if they’re worth it.”

CBS’ “The Talk” is first to apply for LA film tax credits for its Super Bowl broadcasts

Earlier this week, Governor Jindal unveiled his plan for revising Louisiana’s taxes. Included in that plan was the implementation of a $1 million limit on the amount that could be claimed for each actor’s salary by production companies as qualifying expenses when applying for Louisiana film tax credits.

While the on-screen talent could be paid a higher salary than this limit, the production would only be allowed to claim a maximum of $1 million for tax credit reimbursement. This means that Louisiana taxpayers would only be on the hook for 30% of that cap, amounting to $300,000 apiece maximum for out-of-state big name stars like Oprah Winfrey, Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, John Cusack, Nicole Kidman, Tracey Gold, and Edward Furlong (regardless of whatever paycheck they pull down while filming in Louisiana).

Frankly, it makes sense, as this exact limitation already applies to “payroll spent on Louisiana residents (those who maintain a permanent home and spend more than six months each year within the state) working on film sets, as long as the salary does not exceed $1 million.” For our state’s citizens, apparently this cap applies whether or not they’re in front of the camera.

This made me think about the fact that Louisiana was the fifth poorest state in the US in 2012 (falling in after Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, and West Virginia). In that same year, our state spent $231 million from its citizens’ tax dollars to pay for film tax credits. Reining in this unlimited program in any way might honestly be more beneficial than picking up a portion of the paychecks for visiting talent from the “other LA” — especially since this program has reportedly cost our state more than $1 billion since 2002.

Then I wondered, did any of the programs that were broadcast from CBS’ “Super Bowl Park at Jackson Square” during the week leading up to Super Bowl XLVII have the unabashed gall to apply for the Louisiana Film Incentive & Tax Credit Program?

Unfortunately the answer to that question is yes.

The daytime chat show “The Talk” has applied for what amounts to Louisiana taxpayers’ subsidization of its broadcasts from the largest stage occupying Jackson Square during that week-long media frenzy.

Photo by Bernie Murden dated 1/28/13, used with permission.

Today’s email inquiry:

From: Kalen Wright
Date: Wed, Mar 20, 2013 at 12:25 PM
Subject: Question re: Super Bowl filming and the Louisiana Film Tax Credit Program
To: Amanda Hafford

Dear Ms. Hafford:

I have a question regarding the multitude of TV shows and filming projects that occurred in New Orleans during the week of broadcasting occurring as part of the Super Bowl XLVII event.

As you are aware, several TV programs were filmed and broadcast during the week prior to the Super Bowl XLVII game including, but not limited to, the following: the NFL Network, ESPN, the CBS Sports Network, the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, CBS’ “The Talk” TV show, the Super Bowl telecast itself, etc.

Did any of the broadcast/filming productions associated with Super Bowl XLVII apply for and/or receive Louisiana film tax credits? If so, which program(s) and could you please also disclose the amount of the tax credits received?

If possible, I would prefer to receive your reply by email.

Thank you very much for your time, consideration, and assistance.

Respectfully,

Kalen Wright

The following reply was received from Louisiana Film in the office of Louisiana Economic Development:

From: Amanda Hafford
Date: Wed, Mar 20, 2013 at 3:32 PM
Subject: RE: Question re: Super Bowl filming and the Louisiana Film Tax Credit Program
To: Kalen Wright

Hi Kalen,

Of the shows you cite, only “The Talk” has applied to the program. They are in the processing phase of initial certification and have not been issued credits to date.

Best,

Amanda

Amanda L. Hafford
Assistant Director, Louisiana Film
Louisiana Economic Development
http://www.opportunitylouisiana.com

As some might recall, “The Talk” inadvertently offended many New Orleanians during its recent visit to Jackson Square. Now it seems that we’ll all have the honor of picking up a minimum of 30% of the not-yet-disclosed tab for the pleasure of that experience.

Morgus the Magnificent

Anyone who grew up here in New Orleans should remember watching our beloved Morgus the Magnificent. For over half a century, Morgus prefaced the weekend horror movies with his own New Orleans style horror vignettes. Morgus, along with his sidekick Chopsley would entertain us with his weekly scientific experiments gone wrong, dissecting and poking and prodding various New Orleans B-listers, with the week’s story line progressing during the commercial breaks of Godzilla or Mothra, or Godzilla-Mothra-King Kong end of the world movies. I swear, Morgus’ dry, morbid sense of humor has affected generations of New Orleanians, claiming his rightful place alongside the satire of Mardi Gras and the unique New Orleans musical soundtrack of our lives.

Well today, the ever elusive character has proverbially come out from hiding – behold the man behind our Morgus!

Allow me to present Sid Noel Rideau, a.k.a.  Momus Alexander Morgus. Sheila Stroup of the Times Picayune wrote a beautiful article profiling Mr. Rideau with his latest contribution to New Orleans culture, the New Orleans Public Library’s Internet Story Club of America. What an admirable endeavor, and it seals the deal that future generations will have the privilege of being entertained and enlightened by Morgus the Magnificent, now publically known as Mr. Rideau. Thank you sir for all you’ve done, and continue to do for our city.

Two Girls, Two Girls, Escape and Fantasy

I’ve been a bit on the sickly side the last couple of days (who hasn’t?!) and have spent an unusual amount of hours lolling on the sofa in front of the TV. Whatever did sick people do for entertainment before TV? Friday’s viewing was pretty much spent on HGTV (all those industrious people!) but I did get in a third viewing of The Kids Are All Rght. the-kids-are-all-right-originalThis 2010 movie stars Annette Benning and Julianne Moore as a married lesbian couple and Mark Ruffalo who was the donor for one of their children. The movie is about how the kids discover Mark is the dad of one of them and the ensuing struggle to form new relationships with him by the members of this (until now) peacefully co-existing family. This is the third time I’ve watched this movie and that’s unusual for me because I don’t usually watch a movie more than once, twice at the most. It’s the kind of movie I like best which is looking into the lives of regular, normal (and sometimes not so normal) people who live really interesting, great lives without being “Look At Me, I Am Great” types of people. Ya know? Anyway, I recommend this movie if you haven’t already seen it unless you’re anti-gay marriage in which I case I strongly recommend it because it’s obvious you don’t have any gay or lesbian couples as friends and you need a little insight. (Hey! They’re just like us!)

Saturday I watched three movies back to back. I haven’t done that in ages and let me say it reinforced my opinion that the pause button is the best invention ever for TV viewing. You can take bathroom breaks (many,many bathroom breaks) and make fridge raids (running out of Gatorade!) without missing a minute. Best. Thing. Ever.

I’m getting a free preview of the Sundance channel right now and it’s reminding me of how much I loved this channel when I had it. The first movie I watched was Ghost World which came out in 2001 and stars Thora Birch and Scarlett Johannsson. As the Sundance description says, “The lives of best friends (Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson) diverge after high-school graduation and their encounter with a pathetic loner (Steve Buscemi).” ghost_world-2077221 These two girls do a little aimless wandering after high school graduation, sarcastically dissing to each other almost everyone they encounter and trying hard to be impassively cool while trying to convince themselves they hate cool people. Yeah, typical high schoolers. They meet the “pathetic loner” played by Steve Buscemi and one of the girls becomes fascinated by him, befriends him and it changes the nature of the attached-by-the-hip status of the two girls’ relationship. I was a huge Steve Buscemi fan way before he hit it big on Boardwalk Empire and he is great in this movie as the “pathetic loner” without making it an expected parody of that character. This is a quirkey little movie, again of the genre that I like best; light and entertaining and a bit on the daffy side. I recommend it.

rescue_dawn_01
Rescue Dawn with Christian Bale and Steve Zahn was my next selection. This movie just blew me away. It’s the true story of Deter Dengler, a U.S. fighter pilot played by Bale,  who was a prisoner of war in Laos during the Vietnam War and his harrowing escape from the camp. Probably half of the movie is about his life in the camp with five other prisoners, their daily life and how they planned the escape. The rest relates his and Gene Debruin’s (played by Zahn) trek through the mountainous and vegetation-choked jungle during the escape to freedom. It’s an awe-inspiring true tale that will keep you glued to the TV to the end. Great performances throughout, especially by Zahn, in my opinion. I only covered my eyes twice during the movie and it wasn’t because of the relatively little violence, it was food related. I guess we’ll do what we have to do to survive. I found this site, which I’m still reading and watching,while looking for more info about Dengler’s story online and it takes issue with the telling of his story. So there’s that. If you like true life stories or survival stories, you must watch this one.

Finally, I watched Thor. Yep. I am not a fan of the fantasy genre but I kinda got sucked into this one simply by the gorgeous Chris Hemsworth. MV5BMTYxMjA5NDMzNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTk2Mjk3NA@@._V1._SX148_CR0,0,148,200_There were other people in the movie but, frankly, who cares? The story is about how Thor is cast from his home in Asgard, one of the nine realms of the universe, and lands on good old pedestrian Earth and how he saves them all from the wrath of his brother, Loki. It’s pure fantasy escapism and I feel a bit sheepish that I watched and even, to a certain extent, enjoyed it. Look, I read the entire Tolkien series when I was younger and love them all but I’ve only seen bits of the first of the trilogy as a movie. That should tell you how little I like the fantasy genre. If you like fantasy you’ll probably like this but what do I know?

As a side note I’ll say I also watched The Hunger Games a few days ago and, suprisingly, really liked it.

Today is another day and a rainy one, at that. I’m feeling better but I suspect I’ll still get in another movie before day’s end. Have you seen any good ones lately?

(Images via IMDb and Google Images.)

Beasts of the Southern Wild: My Thoughts

Recently, Lunanola and I went to see Beasts of the Southern Wild which, as most of you know, is a locally produced film with local actors. This is not so much a review of the film as just an assortment of my thoughts during the movie and in the days following. Indeed, Beasts is a grand over-the-top gothic fairy tale as told by a child called Hushpuppy whose imagination runs wild with the stories told to her by her alcoholic father, Wink. They live on a mythical swath of land off the Louisiana coast called The Bathtub by its inhabitants, a small community of people living on the edge of civilization.

Beasts reminds me of poetry in that the poet tells her story in such a personal way that the reader may never grasp its deepest meaning. The reader reads the poem, or story, through the lens of their own life experiences, often completely missing the poet’s intent. And that’s ok – it doesn’t negate the meaning of the work but enhances it by expanding and challenging the reader. The same can be said of this film and how I feel about it. I didn’t read any reviews before seeing the film because I didn’t want any other opinions influencing, even subconsciously, what I was going to see on the screen.

Having said that, I found myself wincing through much of the film; reacting to the squalor of Hushpuppy’s existence, the harshness and obvious mental illness of her father and the rampant alcoholism of most of The Bathtub residents we met. I didn’t see this isolated community largely as a celebration of a self-sustaining culture as much as the smaller stories of a few delusional souls, who’ve long since forgotten the real meaning of community, compassion and care, barely hanging on by their fingernails to a dysfunctional life. There was more about Beasts that bothered me than delighted or awed me and maybe that’s the film makers intention. In any case, it gives the viewer much to ponder.

I felt sad for Hushpuppy and the absence of a positive adult figure in her life except for an apparently cursory relationship with Little Jo (played by Pamela Harper), the resident Shaman, who taught the local kids about medicinal herbs, the flora and animal life in The Bathtub and the importance of being good stewards of the land and water. (Thank you for portraying her as a real three-dimensional healer instead of the stereotypical Voodoo queen!) She was the only positive, grounded character in the film and the only adult who attempted to prepare the kids for a real life instead of encouraging a life based on fantasy.

The interaction of people with each other, and the cause and effect of that interaction, has always fascinated me. I suppose that’s why I focused so much more on this aspect of the movie, while I was actually watching it, over the surrealism and symbolism the film was obviously pushing. In retrospect, though, the symbolism and subsequent cautionary tale is a vital part of what makes this movie unique. For instance, although I found the glacier avalanches jarring and somewhat disruptive I can acknowledge the part they played in the tale and beauty of the cinematography.

Generally, I thought the acting by all of the actors to be just about perfect. There’s a lot of Oscar buzz around this film and Quvenzhane’ Wallice, who plays Hushpuppy, and it appears she’s the darling of the Indie film set this year. There’s no disputing the child has a beautiful and expressive face but I always felt like someone was just out of view saying, “Now look fierce; now cry; now act crazy”. For me, Dwight Henry, who played the dad, was pretty incredible. I felt like he WAS the person he portrayed with all the nuances and warts of his character’s personality played completely naturally and believably. Children are so close and open to their emotions that I think most of them can act simply by following directions. But adults have to peel away layers of their own experiences and feelings to find the place where a character can come out. For this reason, I think Dwight was the better actor in this film and it’s a shame his achievement is being overshadowed when it should be equally acclaimed.

The cinematography was magical and pleasured us with torridly beautiful landscapes and seascapes. The manipulation of ordinary pigs into the hulking, mythical aurochs was nothing short of genius.

This movie had parts that I loved (Miss Jo with the kids) and parts that I hated (mamma shooting a gator while naked except for huge white diaper-like panties – WTF?). It made me laugh (the joyous fireworks scene) and cry (the death scene). In the end, I still can’t say if I “liked” it or not; I can only say it was a wild and interesting ride.

However, the most amazing aspect of Beasts is that it was made at all on the hand-to-mouth budget that produced it. The creativity of the film makers and the ingenuity required to make it is impressive and showcases the best this city has to offer artistically. That makes me proud to be a New Orleanian and, ultimately, happy I watched the film.

(And I’m still processing it.)

Femme Fatale Friday: Helen Krieger, Producer of “Flood Streets”

“A nuanced view of the city and its people, Flood Streets shows the changing landscape of New Orleans as it has never been seen before, dispelling the stereotypes about this tragic, defiant, joyful city.”LaFilm.net

“Flood Streets is dotted with incidental wit and wry observations of life in the Big Easy, which isn’t always.”Amy Biancolli/The Houston Chronicle

“A unique story of hope and despair, of determination and crazy-ass creativity, told bravely and told well.”Harry Shearer

Helen Krieger

These are just three of the many positive comments I found while researching Helen Kriegers production of Flood Streets, her first film production.  Helen and her husband Joseph Meissner, who directed and acts in the film, moved to New Orleans in 2001 and quickly fell into the eclectic, artsy community life in Bywater. They evacuated for Hurricane Katrina and were displaced, like so many New Orleanians, for six weeks of an enforced exile. The screenplay for Flood Streets is based on Helen’s book of short stories, In the Land of What Now, a fictionalized account of her experiences in post federal flood New Orleans. 

Flood Streets‘ awards  include:
Best Picture winner at the 2011 Action on Film Festival
Gold Remi winner at the 44th Annual WorldFest-Houston
Best Director, runner-up, at the White Sands Int’l Film Festival
Best Director, nominee, Action on Film Festival

I recently spoke with Helen about Flood Streets, life in New Orleans and the crafts of writing and film-making.

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Helen, I understand Flood Streets is based on your book, In the Land of What Now, and is your first film production. What made you decide to produce a film with no previous film making experience and how do you think that impacted your film? 

Although I had made a couple short films before Flood Streets, they were on a much smaller scale and were done basically as practice for this movie. Flood Streets was my first feature.

When my husband, Joseph, and I were evacuated for the storm, we didn’t know what we could come back to from our former lives. We didn’t know if the city was going to come back, so it was really like an early midlife crisis for both of us. For six weeks we sat at my parent’s house up in Wisconsin and started thinking about our lives and what we most wanted to do.

I realized I’d neglected my writing, and Joseph really wanted to get back into acting. We decided to put the two of these interests together to write a movie Joseph could act in. That’s really how I made the leap from fiction to film – it made so much sense for us to work together like that.

Once I got into script writing, I really enjoyed it, because one of my favorite things to write is dialogue. Also, I enjoyed the increased collaboration and input you get writing a screenplay. Everyone from the actor to the caterer has read your script so you get a wide variety of opinions and input. It’s really exciting. Having said that, I love writing short stories, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop. Short stories are where I really connect with myself creatively and where I feel free to develop ideas.

Producing a movie for my first time could have been a disaster except that I had so much support from the community. I was mentored by two veteran New Orleans filmmakers, Glen Pitre and Michelle Benoit. They’ve been helping me with this project for the past three years. They helped me with the script, with getting everything ready to shoot, with editing, and now with publicity and the festival circuit. They’re really an amazing resource.

I also took a lot of classes at the New Orleans Video Access Center (NOVAC). I joke with people that NOVAC was my film school.

What was the first concrete step for you in learning how to produce a film? 

I read a lot of books and took a lot of classes for the years preceding our shoot. I took a Film Accounting class at NOVAC that helped me put everything into perspective. The accountant is the one responsible for paying everyone else, so you get a good long view on what it takes to make a production happen. That was amazing experience.

I also had many meetings with Glen and Michelle where I just furiously scribbled down notes as they went over my budget and explained what I needed and how it would work. Then we were really fortunate to get an experienced indie line producer to work with us, Miceal Og O’Donnel. Once we had pulled our key team together, he helped us get everyone moving in the right direction.

We didn’t always know what we were doing, but we were fortunate enough to have a lot of people around us who did!

I read that Katrina and life post-K was a big influence on your decision to persue writing and film-making full-time. Do you think your life would have taken this turn if you hadn’t experienced the storm and life after?

That’s a great question. I think about that sometimes, and I just don’t know. I think eventually I would have gotten to this path because it’s something I’m so interested in, and it really suits me. But it may have taken a lot longer for me to get here.

Like I said, Katrina was an early midlife crisis, so without Katrina and that six-week hurrication of stress and soul searching, maybe my midlife crisis would still be some years away.

Oct 16 is the New Orleans premier of Flood Streets. How does it feel to be presenting your film about life in post-K New Orleans in New Orleans?

I’m so excited, because I’ve been working on this film for years, and so many people in the city have helped me and have been waiting to see it. We didn’t have a huge budget, but we wanted to create the best film we could, so we took our time editing, almost 15 months.

This spring we had our world premiere in Houston and that started a tour of film festivals across the country. We’ve had such great response, but audiences don’t get the inside jokes that New Orleanians will get. Also, the film shows a part of the city that often gets lost in post-Katrina films or documentaries – our sense of humor. When I tell people this is a film about Post Katrina New Orleans, I always have to add, “But it’s not a downer.” We wanted to show what there is that still draws us to this city and that draws all the people who have moved here since the storm.

It’s now over six years after the storm and I’m wondering if, when you talk about the subject of your film, you encounter any lingering “Katrina fatigue” or do people now get that it was the levees, not the storm, that really devastated New Orleans.

We get some Katrina fatigue when we first tell people about the movie because they think they’ve seen it before, and that it’s going to be one of those very depressing stories about flood victims. But our story isn’t necessarily about Katrina and none of our characters consider themselves victims.

Flood Streets takes place 15 months after the storm, and we use that surreal backdrop in the movie a lot, but essentially the movie is about the characters and their struggles. These struggles are definitely heightened and changed in unexpected ways because of the storm, but ultimately I wanted to show how life goes on, no matter how surreal the backdrop. By picking up this story well after the initial shock of the storm has passed, we get to show that weird stage after a disaster when you realize you’re still essentially the same person with the same problems to deal with. Only now you can’t get mailed delivered to your house…

In terms of the people being educated about what devastated New Orleans… I don’t think that’s happened yet. There’s still this narrative out there that New Orleans is all below sea level, and it was only a matter of time. Very few people know about the complicated system of human decisions that resulted in the federal flooding of New Orleans. People like Harry Shearer have been doing a great job educating people. His documentary about the levees, “The Big Uneasy,” has been touring the country educating people, so I’m hoping people start to understand.

Do you think locals will be more critical of the film than outsiders?

Definitely, because it’s their story that we’re telling, but I’m pretty confident they’re going to enjoy it. One of the reasons we wanted to do an ensemble storyline with multiple characters is because we wanted to hint at the diversity of stories in the city. There is no one post Katrina story and no one way of reacting to the storm, so I hope locals will see themselves or people they know in the characters we’ve chosen.

I understand you show a diversity of the musical talent we have here in Nola instead of relying only on Jazz or Brass Bands as is seen in many  film and TV productions. Was that a deliberate decision? How did you choose which genres and/or musicians to include?

That was a very deliberate decision. We love traditional New Orleans music, but we’re even more interested in how traditions continue to evolve with each new generation who takes them on. This is what makes New Orleans such an exciting place for musicians and artists to live. We didn’t want to portray a museum to jazz or funk; we wanted to shed light on the contradictions and collaborations at the edge of our ever-evolving culture.

We also wanted to put more of the musical focus on youth culture because this is where changes are often happening. When young musicians couldn’t get into mainline brass bands they formed their own. Influenced by hip hop as well as jazz, a new generation of second-lining was born. When indie rocker Clint Maedgen joined the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, he brought a new voice to the most traditional band in New Orleans. The Zydepunks blend traditional and new to create a heart-pounding new style. The Panorama Jazz Band takes influences from jazz, klezmer and brass bands to pull together their unique sound.

This was the New Orleans music we really wanted to share, and audiences across the country are really excited to hear it. After screenings, people always comment on the music and say how surprised they are by the diversity of music in the city, so I guess we’re doing our job!

All but two of the actors and all of the crew were New Orleanians.  Why do you think that was important for the telling of your story?

It was important to us to use locals on the cast and crew as much as possible. First, it’s just part of our mission as local filmmakers to showcase the talent we have here in the city.

Also, for the kind of story we were telling it was so important to have those authentic voices. This isn’t a crime story or an action adventure with lots of graphic effects. We’re telling a character based story about a very particular time and place, so it was so important for us to make sure we were getting that voice right, and it was nice to know we could rely on our actors.

Almost all our actors had been through the storm or the evacuation, and they felt we were giving an accurate portrayal of the city. Based on the script they trusted us to tell this complicated, nuanced story, and we in turn trusted them to tell us whenever something didn’t ring true. They brought costumes, props, they really went out of their way to help us do this right. And because they were from New Orleans they got that subversive sense of humor we have, even in disasters. They didn’t feel like they had to walk on eggshells about the material, because it was their story too.

I read in the press kit that your neighborhood rallied around you and the film became a real community effort. Tell us a little bit about that.

We filmed most of the movie in Bywater, in about 48 different locations, and almost all of them were donated by neighbors who wanted to see us make this film. Coffee shops, corner stores, shotgun apartments, warehouses, flooded houses in various stages of repair… people opened up all these spaces to us despite our meager budget.

In one case we were shooting a scene where a band places on the street. The band was Debauche, a young, local band that plays very energetic Russian music, and we needed to shoot this in front of a Bywater house. We knocked on doors up and down the street and let people know what was going to be going on, then when we got to the house we were going to be shooting in front of, we knocked and tentatively told the owner, “We’ve got this band, and we wanted to know if it’s okay if they play in front of your house…” It was an older guy, so we didn’t know how it would go over. “Who’s the band?” he said. I told him it was Debauche, and I figured he was too old, but he immediately started clapping his hands. It turned out he was a big fan! He told us to do whatever we needed to, to come into his house if we had to. He ended up dancing in his living room the whole time they were playing!

We also had so much luck getting background people in our film. As soon as a musician would start playing, people would come out of their homes or stop on their bikes and dance. A lot of people made it into the movie that way!

Are you working on any other projects you’d like to share with us?

Why yes, thank you! I’m working on the scripts for two projects right now.

The first is another feature film, this one set in the heart of an impoverished New Orleans neighborhood. A group of punk, DIY activists stage elaborate puppet shows and dangerous tall bike jousts in their communal-living warehouse, but when a pregnant friend arrives with nowhere else to go, it’s their chance to remake their social experiment into a true community. We’re excited to work with some of the amazing artists in New Orleans for this project.

The second is something totally different for me. I’m working on episodic writing, an original musical comedy series I’m creating for web or cable. Molly is a sex-starved, struggling writer who can’t get the attention of her indie rocker boyfriend, so she takes a job exploring New Orleans amorous underbelly. I’ve been describing it as “Sex in the City” meets “Flight of the Conchords”. It deals with journalism, art and sexual politics while featuring original music and a beautifully choreographed tribal bellydance sequence in each episode. I’ve gotten together with a composer, lyricist and choreographer, so I’m really excited to get working on this.

Where do you see yourself as an artist in five years? What are your goals?

 The more I write, the more I realize I love writing, so my future plans all have to do with finding more ways to do that. I’m very interested in writing for TV or cable because story is really king in these mediums, and so the writers get a lot of control over their sets. From casting to choosing props and working with the directors, the writers are typically the head producers in charge of their series. Having had experience producing shorts and now a feature, I feel like this could be a good fit for me.

With episodic writing, you get more time to tell a story than you do in a 90-minute feature film. With shows like “The Wire” and “Mad Men,” TV writing has risen to the next level. By following multiple characters’ storylines throughout the season, episodic writing has become a modern version of a sweeping, 19th century novel. It’s become a place where some of the best writers go to tell their stories, and with original web content starting to get some serious viewership, it’s easier to get into this highly competitive field.

Plus, how fun would it be to put together a writers room where one of the most solitary tasks, coming up with storylines and characters, can become a group effort? I could definitely do that for the rest of my life.

But like I said before, I’ll never stop writing short stories and other kinds of fiction. It’s where I feel free to really play with an idea no matter how ridiculous. Short fiction was my first genre as a writer, and I think I’ll never truly get over my love for it.

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The New Orleans premiere of Flood Streets will be during the New Orleans Film Festival on Sunday, October 16 at 4:45 at  Pyrtania Theatre.  The trailer can be viewed  below and up to the minute information can be found on their FaceBook page.

“The Big Fix” Premieres Friday Hosted by The New Orleans Film Festival

The Big Fix premieres this Friday as part of the New Orleans Film Festival. This documentary film details the massive government cover-up which has taken place in the wake of the BP oil spill.  There will be a press conference at 2 pm at the Contemporary Arts Center before the film is shown. The entire schedule for the festival can be found on their website.

Use the Movie & Book Title Wall Very Thoughtfully *

Titles are really important – especially for people who make snap decisions like me. When I’m cruising for a new book to read or through Netflix for a movie, I’ll often skip over selections that have what I consider lame titles. Or juvenile titles. Or just crazy makes-no-sense titles. (as opposed to crazy-but-it-sounds-intriguing titles)

Last week I accidentally received the indie film The Yellow Handkerchief via my Netflix queue. I say accidentally because, although it was next in line, I usually review my queue when I send back a DVD to make sure the next one is a movie I’m in the mood to see. Anyway, I vaguely remember putting The Yellow Handkerchief in the queue but I don’t remember why. See, this is the kind of title I would  normally pass on because it sounds like a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie – not that there’s anything wrong with that. I grew up watching HHoF and loved them. Of course, I only had a choice of two TV stations way back then in the olden days so a HHoF movie was a real treat. Since I’m in the habit of adding movies to my Netflix when I read about an interesting one I’m sure I read about it on PBS online or on Women’s Voices for Change or the week-end edition of The Wall Street Journal (which surprisingly has great “Review” and “Off Duty” sections in it’s Saturday edition). Regardless, even though I was a bit pissed when I received the DVD, my attitude changed 360 degrees when I started watching it. I could tell in the first 15 minutes from the cinematography, music and just the feel of the movie that it was special.

The movie stars William Hurt, whose movies Body Heat and Kiss of the Spider Woman are in my top movies list, Kristen Stewart who’s acted in The Runaways, Welcome to the Rileys (in my top list) and those vampire movies (not on my list), Maria Bello who I don’t recall ever seeing in a movie although I liked her on ER and I’m really digging her new show Prime Suspect, and Eddie Redmayne who was fun to watch on Pillars of the Earth. (Ah, I see he’s in a 2008 Masterpiece Classic adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles,one of my fave books. I’ll have to check it out.)

So, the main cast is wonderful, all actors I enjoy, and the supporting cast (which is minimal) adds well acted needed nuance to the story. The story is about a man (Hurt) who has just been released from prison and is vacillating between journeying back to find his wife (who he hasn’t seen in 6 years) or just journeying into the sunset. Along the way he meets up with two lost teenagers (lost as in trying to figure out their place in the world, not literally lost) and they embark on a road trip together in an awesome ’70′s era turquoise LTD convertible through the bayou country of Louisiana. Yes, this is filmed right here with scenes from around New Roads, Pierre Part, New Orleans and what I’m guessing is Leeville, or somewhere down there where land is slowly disappearing into the Gulf.

Brett (Hurt) is a man of few words but with eyes that tell you everything you need to know. Over the course of the trip he tells the story of how he came to be imprisoned to the kids. Stewart, who plays Martine, is a phenominal young actress, as we saw in Riley’s, and she subtlety plays the part of a troubled young woman looking for love and acceptance. Redmayne  is perfectly cast as the restless, eccentric Gordie, the kid nobody liked in high school because he marched to his own drummer. His piercing blue eyes and unusual looks lend just the right credibility to his part and I found myself mesmerized by him (as I was with him in Pillars). Maria Bello’s acting matched Hurt’s for nuance, much was intimated from her expressive face, but she displayed her talent for powerful speaking in this movie as she has in her work on TV.

The scenery in this movie veered from beautiful vistas of bayou country with the moss-draped Oaks and fields of sugar cane to the long expanse of hi way lined with chemical plants billowing black smoke and, finally, to the almost bucolic shots of that little piece of land along the gulf lined with fishing boats.

I liked this movie so much I watched it twice in two days, something I never do. It had all the elements I wish for in a film, a engaging and thoughtful storyline, lush and visually interesting cinematography, music that enhanced rather than overwhelmed the film and a cast of accomplished actors. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a Hallmark Hall of Famer or a “chick flick” – it’s far more sophisticated. I give this a 5 out of 5 stars. Watch it.

Here’s a little sneak peak for ya – one of my favorite scenes.


*For those who may be wondering, I’m channeling Tim Gunn on Project Runway with my title.
Post originally published on Traveling Mermaid.