The “spirituality of imperfection” in the imperfect ‘Bill W’

By | June 8th, 2012 | No Comments
Bill W.

Bill W. documents the life of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder William Griffith Wilson, a crusader for sobriety. -- image via

The life of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder William Griffith Wilson gets the Ken Burns treatment in the solemn, dauntingly definitive Bill W. This documentary, which opened Thursday at O Cinema and screens there thru Sunday, depicts the civic pioneer as dogged, visionary, and all too human.

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Macdonald’s ‘Marley’ opens on 4/20, peers past the haze

By | April 18th, 2012 | 3 Comments
Bob Marley

Marley attempts a comprehensive portrait of a complex, often pigeonholed icon. -- photo via

What comes to mind when you hear the name “Bob Marley”? Is it reggae’s mellow, syncopated beats? How about that serene, dreadlocked face that has decorated so many college dorm rooms? Maybe a certain pungent aroma is wafting its way inside your cerebral cortex. The Jamaican singer-songwriter was many things to many people, so wouldn’t it be folly to make a definitive documentary about his life?

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All About The Why: Harry Shearer and ‘The Big Uneasy’

By | July 22nd, 2011 | 3 Comments
Still of Harry Shearer in The Big Uneasy

Better known as a comedian, a somber Shearer reluctantly acts as on-screen narrator in The Big Uneasy.

“This film is not about me,” says the voice on the other end of the line. It belongs to Harry Shearer, the voice of Mr. Burns, Homer Simpson’s boss, as well as Ned Flanders, Homer’s devoutly Christian next-door neighbor, and dozens of other characters in Matt Groening’s iconic animated series. Has the bassist of Spinal Tap actually made a documentary about the flooding of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina? The subject of The Big Uneasy, which screens this weekend at O Cinema, hits close to home for the comedian/radio host, who is a part-time resident of the southern city.

When he decided to tell the story behind the failure of New Orleans’ levees, Shearer was determined to stay out of the way, and initially that meant remaining behind the camera.

“I didn’t want folks to be watching the film and saying, ‘Why is this guy from The Simpsons talking to me about engineering?’” Shearer says from his hotel room in Washington, DC, where he recently met with congressional staffers about his film.

Until very recently, the Los Angeles native, who got his start in show business as a child actor, would have never considered himself a documentarian. The light bulb moment arrived in the form of a town hall meeting that President Obama hosted in the Jazz Capital in October of 2009.

“He told a roomful of people who had, I’m sure, voted for him and were devoted to him that the flooding of New Orleans was a natural disaster, which they all knew was not true,” Shearer says.

In The Big Uneasy, Shearer argues that the catastrophe that befell the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 could have been prevented. When it came time to determine who was to blame, he did not have to look very far.

“This was done by the Army Corps of Engineers,” he says. “We, the federal taxpayers, paid them to almost destroy an American city. Their efforts made things worse.”

The Corps, according to Shearer, “set the stage for this disaster by building a [protection] system that was woefully inadequate, but also … helped destroy the wetlands in the south of Louisiana that historically protected New Orleans from hurricanes and storm surge damage.”

To structure his film, Shearer focuses on three industry experts who were loud dissenting voices against the Corps long before calamity struck. Geotechnical engineer Robert Bea, who has been teaching at the University of California at Berkeley since 1989, called the flood of New Orleans “the greatest man-made engineering catastrophe since Chernobyl.”

South African geologist Ivor van Heerden lost his position as deputy director of Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Center after refusing to heed the university’s requests to refrain from talking to the media about this issue. One of the radio programs in which he appeared was Shearer’s Le Show on NPR.

Most poignantly, Corps engineer and whistleblower Maria Garzino was censored by her superiors after she concluded the city’s hydraulic pumps would not prevent the flooding of New Orleans.

These untold stories beg the question of whether Shearer was disappointed in the mainstream media’s coverage of the flood. He doesn’t mince words.

“There’s no maybe about it,” he says. “It’s reprehensible and lamentable and every other word that rhymes with those.”

A major problem with the news footage that made its way into millions of American homes was that it only told a small part of the story.

“The national media … stayed near Interstate 10, so basically what they saw was the poor African Americans who were afflicted by the flood. They depicted it as this sort of subset of what it really was … but aside from that they did a fine job,” he says, with a healthy measure of sarcasm.

Shearer’s disdain extends to Spike Lee’s four-hour HBO documentary When the Levees Broke, which was missing a key ingredient, he says.

“The basics of journalism, as I remember them being taught, are the five W’s: who, what, when, where and why. Spike’s film, like all of the major media coverage, left out the why. I was determined that [my] film would be all about the why,” Shearer says.

What was paramount throughout The Big Uneasy‘s nearly two-year journey to the screen was to rectify people’s misconceptions.

“I had 98 minutes to undo five years of media misinformation,” he says.

Which brings us back to Shearer’s reluctance to appear in front of the camera. Viewers who saw an early cut of The Big Uneasy wanted to see this man of a hundred voices up front and center, if only for reasons of clarity.

“Originally I wasn’t even in the film, but [preview] audiences said that they needed to somebody to tell them, ‘Here’s what’s coming next,’ so I agreed to do that,” Shearer says.

Despite everything his city has gone through in the past six years, Shearer also wants to assure his viewers that, for the residents of the Big Easy, life does – and will – go on.

“It’s still recognizably New Orleans, with all of its quirks and all of its wonders,” he says. “It doesn’t have all of its people, and it has some new problems while it solves some of its old problems, but it’s still the place that I fell in love with.”

Rubén Rosario is a freelance writer and video store manager living in Miami. He currently writes a film column for SunPost Weekly.

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Love, Loss, and Skinny Jeans in Mike Mills’ ‘Beginners’

By | July 4th, 2011 | No Comments
Still from 'Beginners' movie

Mélanie Laurent and Ewan McGregor star in writer/director Mike Mills'€™ Beginners along with Christopher Plummer (not pictured).

When filmmaker and graphic designer Mike Mills sat down to write the screenplay for his new dramedy, Beginners, he wrote the following note to himself: “This has already happened to everyone already.” Fair enough. There are countless stories, in print and on celluloid, about starting over following the loss of a parent to terminal cancer. But there have been very few in which the parent comes out of the closet at age 75.

That’s not the only aspect that sets Beginners apart from your basic Terms of Endearment wannabe. The film, which opened this past Friday at Regal Cinemas South Beach and the Coral Gables Art Cinema, blends fiction with actual events from Mills’s own life, and it also chronicles the budding romance that develops when Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a brooding graphic artist who, like Mills, designs T-shirts and album cover art, meets a free-spirited French film actress (Inglourious Basterds leading lady Mélanie Laurent) several months after his father’s death.

Mills, who I interviewed at Brickell’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel in May, knew from the start that a conventional narrative would not do his movie justice.

“I feel much freer when the story’s broken apart and I can look at it from different ways and I don’t just have to follow one road,” he said.

Indeed, Beginners’ byzantine structure incorporates scenes of a school-age Oliver and his mother (Mary Page Keller) dealing with an absent father figure. At several points throughout the film, Mills also inserts stills and archival footage that represent a particular time period without going over into full-on docudrama mode.

“I wanted to contextualize my parents’ emotional lives, but I don’t like studying history in the normal way,” Mills said.

These nonfiction interludes function as a way to explore the elusive nature of memories and how reality may differ from our perception of it at the time.

“From my perspective, my dad looked like he was straight for the first 33 years of my life, and it looked like my family was normal, and it looked like he was a tie-wearing straight man,” Mills, who is now 46, said.

The audience only sees that strait-laced patriarch, played by Christopher Plummer in a performance that’s already generating Oscar buzz, during a series of flashback scenes, but his presence, and the gusto that the actor brings to the part, infuses the entire film.

“I think a lot of people who, like Christopher, were born in 1929, have this resilience, and a lot of that comes through a very subversive kind of humor,” Mill said. “My dad had that. The darker it got, the funnier he got, and Christopher understood that intuitively.”

To get McGregor and Plummer prepared for their roles, Mills opted for an unorthodox rehearsal process.

“On the very first day [of rehearsals] I asked Ewan to take Christopher to Barney’s,” he said. “I told Christopher, ‘You’re gay now, you want to look attractive, so go buy clothes.’ I gave him some money and he bought all these skinny jeans. He got obsessed with skinny jeans. It was nice for Ewan to help get him jeans, and that was very much like me and my dad [after he came out], and they started experiencing the story rather than learning it.”

The actors’ shop-therapy exercise brings to mind how a sizable portion of the film’s target audience will react to it, especially since Focus Features, the studio releasing it, has positioned it in the moviegoing calendar as this year’s The Kids Are All Right.

“My only issue with the gay audience is that I hope I don’t disappoint them, because [Beginners] is ultimately filmed from a straight person’s eyes, so I try to be very upfront about that,” Mills said.

That’s not to say gay viewers will be unable to relate to the problematic relationship that develops between the two straight leads, because it comes from a deeply personal place.

“The Oliver and Anna stuff is all made up, but it [involves] things that are important to me, it’s emotional problems that I very much have lived. Anna has at least as much of my stuff as Oliver does,” Mills, who is married to fellow filmmaker Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know), said.

This baggage that threatens the characters’ stability became a stumbling block when Mills was trying to raise money to make Beginners.

“In general, when I was showing the script around and trying to get financing, the couple [Oliver and Anna] was kind of the hardest part [to sell], and I think a lot of that is because their problems aren’t external obstacles,” Mills said. “The film industry loves external obstacles.”

It also loves a Cinderella story, and it’s beginning to look that way for this Berkeley-born Renaissance man and his tale of multi-generational fools in love, one that was inspired by a man who came to embrace life just when it was about to end.

“I feel very indebted to my dad’s gayness,” Mills said. “My gay dad was a lot more interesting than my straight dad, and he taught this straight person way more than my straight dad ever did about love and sex and relationships.

“We were having these amazing conversations about relationships and love, about what we could expect, and that is really what the film is to me, a continuation of those conversations.”

Rubén Rosario is a freelance writer and video store manager living in Miami. He currently writes a film column for SunPost Weekly.

Follow Beached Miami on Twitter (@beachedmiami) and Facebook and email and RSS.