Oh la la! New must-see: “Call My Agent!”

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s the best!

You can find three seasons of this terrific French series on Netflix, its original name “Ten Per Cent” — the amount each agent recoups from their clients at the Paris-based ASK talent agency.

 

Formidable!

 

I haven’t laughed so much in a long time.

 

The agency, owned by a man named Samuel who dies unexpectedly while away on holiday, thereby tossing the agency into chaos, infighting and intrigue:

 

Who’s Camille and why does she keep stealing glances at Mathias?

Will Mathias be able to buy out the owners’ widow’s shares?

Will his team agree?

Will shark/agent Andréa ever find true love — and does she even want it?

Will Sofia, the ambitious receptionist, finally launch her acting career?

 

The characters are fantastic — Gabriel, Andréa, Arlette and Mathias as agents, Noémie, Camille and Hervé as their loyal assistants, Sofia the receptionist. And Jean Gabin, a feisty little white terrier who manages to steal many scenes, always with Arlette.

Recurring characters include Mathias’ wife, his former mistress and a parade of gay women whose hearts Andréa keeps so carelessly and selfishly breaking.

And — so cool! — major French actors and actresses who simply play themselves, with a new one in every episode, Nathalie Baye, Isabelle Huppert, Guy Marchand, Jean duJardin and many more.

The drama and laughs are never-ending as the agents try to out-scheme one another, as Mathias is wooed by a competing agency, as Camille, new to Paris at 23, finds her professional footing — and so many screw-ups!

My father made films for a living and I love movies, so I really enjoy this funny/serious inside look at all the many many things that can go wrong trying to find the right actor or script or director, wrangling a set, how to manage a sex scene between two actors who loathe one another…

It’s also a poignant look at actors’ fragile egos and their very real need for steady, career-building projects, even when they actually don’t already know how to ride a horse or speak French Canadian French or swim or dance hip-hop (all of these are real plot-lines!)

You realize how many skills some have to learn, fast, to win a coveted role or work with a great director.

And see the personal heartbreak of an extra whose only two lines of the whole film get cut.

It really shows the work and hustle and negotiation that makes entertainment even possible.

Plus — Paris!

 

Really missing movies!

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THE BREAKFAST CLUB, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, 1985. ©Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I loved and totally identified with this piece by New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis:

For those who came of age with home video it can be hard to grasp why anyone still bothers to go out to see movies. This bafflement has become part of a steady drumbeat of complaints about watching movies in theaters: the pricey tickets, bad projection, overpriced junk food, the creeps, potential maniacs and selfish people texting or talking on their phones. Just stay home, kick back and binge on another suboptimal Netflix show. But moviegoing helped make me who I am, shaped my world and my sense of self, beginning in childhood.

It started with my film-crazed parents, young East Village bohemians who couldn’t afford babysitters and so brought me everywhere, including to the movies. This was in New York in the mid-1960s, a heroic age of cinephilia before home video. When I was 3, they took me to see Vincente Minnelli’s “Lust for Life,” a glorious, overheated drama with Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh.

 

 

The first movie I remember vividly was Dr. Zhivago, directed by legendary director David Lean, starring Omar Sharif as Zhivago and Geraldine Chaplin as Tonya and Julie Christie as Lara. It’s more than three hours, and even has (!) an intermission.

It has everything: great characters, costumes, landscapes, music, history, romance, broken hearts, revolution. Watch the costume colors change as characters change their behaviors, especially young Lara.

 

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I was eight when it was released and have watched it many, many times since, never tiring of it.

My father made films for a living and thought nothing of showing up halfway through any commercially-shown movie. We’d waltz in and just wait in our seats (as you could then) for it to start again.

At 18, I tried, with my late stepmother, to watch The Exorcist, and fled back quickly into afternoon daylight, terrified. I’ve never tried since.

More of Dargis:

So many of my memories are connected with moviegoing; some are of being alone in a theater full of people, which is a metaphor for my life, though also a metaphor for being alive. I love laughing and crying and shrieking with an enthusiastic audience. And while I now go to the movies for work, I also go to the movies for pleasure and for the love of the art. I go because I’m curious, because I like the director or star. I go because I’m happy, anxious or depressed. I go because films have provided comfort throughout my life, offering me an escape from my own reality but also a way of making sense of it, giving me glossy and gritty worlds to discover and reassuringly disappear in.

I spent most of my childhood at boarding school, but Christmas break meant fleeing school to watch multiple movies in a theater with my mother, two or three in a day, popcorn for meals.

She had a firm rule — if we saw a movie that day, no TV. I get it. You really need some time to process and remember what you’ve seen, not chase it all away too quickly with more images and content.

Her favorite, which we saw together, was Gone With the Wind.

With my maternal grandmother, it was the movie musical Paint Your Wagon, whose songs I still remember even though she died in 1975.

One of my favorite things about where we now live is the independent art film house a 15-minute drive north, The Jacob Burns Film Center, housed in a 20’s vaudeville house beautifully restored. I’m a member and sometimes go two or three times a week. Directors visit to discuss their work. Just before the coronavirus sent us all into isolation, I’d taken a terrific three-week class there on documentary films.

 

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A classic!

 

One great movie that really shows how a movie theater, especially in a small town, can create community is 1988’s Cinema Paradiso, which won best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars that year. Plus its gorgeous score by Ennio Morricone; (if you’ve never seen another of my faves, The Mission, you must listen to its haunting soundtrack, also by him.)

Yes, I’m obsessed!

So, while we’re forbidden now to go to the theater, I’ll keep watching movies greedily at home, eagerly awaiting the next time we can all once more sit, mesmerized, in the dark together.

Writing is lonely! Solutions…

 

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There are some great words in there somewhere!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Sure, some people can write well in a noisy and crowded coffee shop.

Not me.

For truly focused, uninterrupted work, I need quiet, either at home alone or at a library.

Writing really means often wondering — does this sentence/paragraph/chapter even make sense?!

So I’m fascinated by two recent reports of writers meeting face to face to help one another thrive, one in Hollywood and many others more private.

The one in Hollywood is called Rideback.

From The New York Times:

Mr. Lin is betting that Rideback will strengthen and accelerate the creative process. It is a Hollywood twist on WeWork, the shared office space company. Mr. Lin said he was also inspired by Pixar’s “brain trust” sessions, in which directors and writers candidly critique one another’s work, and by “The Medici Effect,” Frans Johansson’s 2004 book about the ignition of the Renaissance.

“If you put a bunch of creative people from different backgrounds into one space, something magical will happen,” Mr. Lin said. “Studio lots used to be just that. You would walk around and everyone would be there. But studio lots aren’t as much fun anymore. They can feel corporate.”

Mr. Lin has 15 employees of his own. They work on the Rideback campus, where they are focused on finding a way forward for the “Lego” series, most likely with a new studio partner. (Universal is one option.) Other front-burner projects include an “Aladdin” sequel and a television spinoff; “Lethal Weapon 5,” with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover signed up to return; movies based on Cirque du Soleil shows; and a remake of the TV series “Walker, Texas Ranger.”

 

 

Writers also meet face to face with trusted peers:

 

Writing is often considered a solitary act, but some writers have figured out a way to make the process more collaborative even before editors, agents and other publishing professionals get involved. Zhang’s group, which includes Alice Sola Kim, Karan Mahajan and Tony Tulathimutte, has been meeting about every month since most of them were undergraduate students at Stanford University. Their sessions are highly structured, with deadlines for submitting drafts and detailed manuscript notes, while other groups gather more informally to talk about their careers, commiserate over deadlines or gossip about the publishing industry.

“You will feel like writing is very lonely and very difficult and very frustrating and that you don’t really know what you’re doing,” said the Chicago-based writer Mikki Kendall. But in a writing group, “you can talk to other people in that place and that are feeling their way out.”

 

I don’t belong to any such group, but I do belong to at least six on-line writers’ groups — and have done so online for many years, still close friends with a few people I only initially knew that way. One, a writer now living in California, and I shared a room at a Boston writing conference never having even met in person, launching a long and treasured friendship.

It really cuts the loneliness to be able to talk your ideas and challenges through with people at the same level of skill and experience and, if you’re lucky, those a few steps beyond you, willing to be generous.

One such group (many are private Facebook groups), is small — only 200 — and only those with a decade’s experience can join. I know, even if I don’t like the answers, I’ll get a quick and candid reply from someone else who’s been around the same block a few times.

 

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Writing books makes me really happy — but also very nervous!

 

The challenge of all writers’ groups, in any form, is the classic writers’ combo of insecurity and ego. I’ve seen several such online groups explode in outrage and vicious bullying. It can get weird and ugly quickly.

And to share, let alone publish your work — poetry, fiction, non-fiction, essays, journalism — demands the courage to have a voice, to put it out there for comment, criticism and potential disagreement. That opens you up, de facto, to potential hurt.

So I have what I consider a bit of a brain trust; to gather feedback on a recent story of 5,000 words — my longest and most complex in a decade — I enlisted the fresh eyes and expertise of three people whose judgment I trust. One is a man half my age who’s very good; one is a woman my age whose writing I deeply admire and the third is a professional book editor. These “first readers” are so helpful and so important.

After revising your work over and over and over and over — you’re tired! You have blind spots. The material has become so familiar you’re likely to miss places that it’s still confusing to someone who has never read it at all. So these trusted peers are so valuable.

I’ve done this for others, of course, helping to review their stories and book manuscripts. I’m honored to do it.

If you’re lucky and talented and persistent, you will find a peer group and they will help steer you through.

Movies, movies, movies

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THE BREAKFAST CLUB, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, 1985. ©Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Three in a day.

No big deal!

Yesterday, another gray, rainy day here, meant movie day. We are incredibly lucky to have an art house theater — a former vaudeville theater from the 1920s — renovated and a 15-minute drive north of us, offering an amazing array of documentaries, series, events and features. Annual membership is $85 and tickets are $10 (only $8 two years ago.)

Some weeks I’m there several times.

I also watch on TV and streaming.

I don’t watch horror or kids’ films. Not much into animation — but recently re-watched the 2003 animated stunner Triplets of Belleville — which was nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature (and lost to Finding Nemo.)

I enjoy foreign films — and have raved here before about some of them, like Capernaum.

 

I love movies!

 

My father made documentaries and feature films for a living so this is a world I grew up in and knew and respected. I didn’t want to make them myself, too in awe of the tremendous skills and the huge teams needed: greensman, Foley artist, ADR, grips, gaffers, make-up and hair and costumes.

Not to mention the cinematographers and directors.

 

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LOVE!

 

I find film utterly immersive, a dream state, and when I write, try to use similar ideas — tight close-ups, establishing shots, scenes and dialogue.

I love being in a theater (a quiet one!) with some popcorn, ready to disappear once more.

Here are the three films I saw yesterday:

 

63Up

In 1964, a Canadian film-maker named Paul Almond made a film about 14 British children, meant to show how class affects them. It became a series,with fresh interviews every seven years, and offers a sometimes sad, sometimes moving look at how we age and change — or don’t. The 14, typical of Britain then perhaps, includes only one black boy and all the rest are white.

One man suffers mental illness and homelessness. Several marry and divorce. Almost all have children and grand-children. I hope it continues and is well worth a look.

 

Knives Out

A who-dun-it filmed in an astonishing mansion, with a rapacious family fighting over their inheritance from their mystery-author father, played by Canadian actor Christopher Plummer. Daniel Craig, best known for playing James Bond, here plays a southern detective, with a weird drawl. It’s an amusing film, but too long and not one I would see again.

 

The Favourite

 

This really is one of my favo(u)rite films so I watched it on TV for maybe the third or fourth time.

Set during the reign of Queen Anne, who suffered the unimaginable loss of 17 children, it’s the devilish tale of a scheming fallen aristocrat, Abigail Masham, up against brilliant, witty Sarah, Lady Marlborough. As the Queen, Olivia Colman is stunning — and won the Oscar for Best Actress in 2018 for it.

Set in early 18th-century England, it’s a feast of gorgeous cinematography (with a lot of fish-eye lenses, adding visual distortion to the emotional weirdness), music, costume, sets and make-up. Nicholas Hoult is Lord Harley, and deliciously awful.

It’s a moving, sad, gorgeous tale of power and attraction, of love and flattery, of how easily a weak, ill Queen rejected her best ally and friend for a sneaky underminer.

And based on historical fact!

Your favorite films? Some of mine

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A scene from Kubrick’s film 2001; Inside the spaceship — filmed in a British studio

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s a recent list of the top 100 foreign language films, according to critics, reported by the BBC; I admit to only having seen nine (!) of them. I loved Children of Paradise, and hope you’ve also seen it. Another of my faves is on the list below.

My father made films for a living, mostly documentaries, and won the Palme D’Or at Cannes for one; here’s his Wikipedia entry. So maybe my addiction to film comes honestly! In a typical week, I watch probably two or three films, whether a classic on TCM,  something on HBO or go to a theater to happily sit in the dark.

My tastes don’t include horror or a lot of comedies. For reasons I can’t explain, I love films about spies and spycraft.

 

Syriana (2005)

An amazing cast — George Clooney and Matt Damon, two favorites — and a twisted tale of government malfeasance in the MidEast. Clooney won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Filmed in Iran, Texas, Switzerland, Lebanon, Spain and D.C. (this kind of multi-national location shooting seems to be a theme of my favorites!) They used 200 locations on four continents. It also feels, right now, terribly timely in light of terrible Saudi behavior — and American complicity in it.

 

Michael Clayton (2007)

Clooney again! This time, corporate malfeasance. (Hmm, I see a theme.) Also in the cast is the phenomenal British actor Tom Wilkinson , playing a corporate executive whose conscience over a highly dangerous and profitable agro-chemical lands him in the wrong hands.  The fantastic British actress Tilda Swinton plays the firm’s smarmy lawyer — the final scene, shot in a midtown Manhattan hotel — is one of my favorites. She won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and it’s well deserved. Clooney, badly shaven and hollow-eyed, plays a “fixer”, a lawyer assigned to clean up the firm’s messy cases.  It made many critics’ list of the year’s top ten films.

 

 

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Casablanca (1942)

Of course! If you’ve never seen this classic, a gorgeous black-and-white film with some of the all-time great lines — you must! Ingmar Bergman and Humphrey Bogart star; she as a European refugee fleeing war-torn Europe and he as a tough-talking American bar owner in that Moroccan city.

 

2001 (1968)

I must have watched this Stanley Kubrick film 20 times since I first saw it as a young girl. To my eyes, it hasn’t dated at all — even the subtlest details of what space travel might look and sound like having come to fruition now or some variation of same. The soundtrack, the special effects, the costumes and the ending which still puzzles so many. Its esthetic deeply affected many later films.

 

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Jason Bourne

The Jason Bourne series

OK, OK. Schlocky, I know. But ohhhh, so much action and so many crazy chase and fight scenes from Berlin to Tangier to Paris and such a lonely hero, played in every version but one by Matt Damon (later Jeremy Renner.) I’ve seen every one of these so many times I know them off by heart but still enjoy them. I also love how he never does anything vaguely normal — like laundry or groceries. There are five in the series.

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

If you love magazines and fashion as much as I do — let alone a film (based on a true story about being the assistant to Vogue editor Anna Wintour), about an ambitious New York City female journalist — this is the one for you. I know the dialogue by heart but still enjoy it: the designer clothes, her insanely demanding boss, Miranda Priestly, and a great scene with Stanley Tucci that sums up what it really takes. Made for $35 million, it’s since grossed 10 times that in revenues.

Spotlight (2015)

Another film about journalism,  this one winning the Academy Award for Best Picture. Also based on a true story, this recreates the teamwork it took at the Boston Globe to expose horrific sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic church. I love Rachel McAdams, a fellow Canadian, as reporter Sacha Pfeiffer — it’s one of the few films ever made that really shows what shoe-leather reporting is: all those interviews, all that door-knocking, all those documents to read.

All The President’s Men (1976)

It’s a boys’ club at the Washington Post — but what a club! This re-creation of the reporting on the Watergate scandal that brought down former U.S. President Richard Nixon, stars Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, a dream team in itself. This film, too, shows the persistence and guts it can take to sniff out a major story and get people to share enough to make it publishable.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)

Klaus Kinski as a crazed expedition leader in 16th century Peru. The final scene is extraordinary — a raft floating helplessly downriver, with Aguirre raging, the lone survivor. I love all of Werner Herzog’s films, but this one most of all and it’s considered one of both Herzog’s best films and one of the best films ever made.

The Mission (1986)

An 18th century story about a Jesuit mission deep in the Argentine jungle, starring Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons. The soundtrack is astoundingly beautiful, by the legendary film composer Ennio Morricone. The opening image is unforgettable — it won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography (and was nominated in six other categories.)

Blade Runner (1982)

Few films have had as much an impact on later work as the esthetic of this one, directed by Ridley Scott, later better known for the Alien films. Everything drips with rain, streets are crowded and gleam with neon. Harrison Ford plays the Blade Runner, Rick Deckard, whose job it is to seek out and destroy replicants, robots who appear human. The eerie soundtrack is by Vangelis, best known for his score of the film Chariots of Fire. I also love the 2017 sequel, Bladerunner 2049, again starring Harrison Ford.

The Good Shepherd (2006)

Another (!) film I love starring Matt Damon, and another focused on spycraft, specifically the beginnings of the CIA. Damon stars, as does Angelina Jolie in a film focused on themes of family loyalty versus that to one’s craft. I’m also partial to this movie since a scene was filmed in the town we live in, Tarrytown, New York.

Dr. Zhivago (1965)

To my mind, admittedly as someone who’s loved this one for decades, one of the most visually compelling films I’ve ever seen, directed by the late great David Lean (who also did Lawrence of Arabia.) Julie Christie is Lara, Omar Sharif as Zhivago and Geraldine Chaplin as Tonya, set at the time of the Russian Revolution. It was filmed in Finland, Spain and Canada.

 

What are some of yours?

 

 

What do you love about them?

Do you stick with unlikable characters?

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

Our most precious resource, beyond health, is time.

So…when you’re reading or watching a film or television show filled with unlikable characters, do you stick with it?

I get it — conflict and drama are essential to almost all compelling narratives, in whatever form. Without it, it’s all puppies and rainbows.

Baddies add spice and darkness and intrigue.

But how much of it can you take?

I’m prompted to ask this after watching four recent TV series here in the U.S.:

Succession, Sharp Objects, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Insecure.

The first, on HBO, follows the fortunes and chicanery of the media mogul Roy family (pretty clearly modeled on Rupert Murdoch), with three weird adult sons and a serious bitch of a daughter; when one’s nickname is Con (Conor) and another Shiv (Siobhan), there’s a clue! The plot line focuses on the four adult children and their endless maneuvring for power, attention and approval from their terrifying father, Logan Roy, who manages to spit “Fuck off!” to each of them fairly regularly. And to anyone within range.

These are not people you’d want to have lunch with, that’s for sure. They alternate between spoiled, wealthy, entitled charm and knives-out ambition, manipulating those around them as need be. So, why watch? I stuck it out to the end, and, yes, it’s worth it!

Even as horrible as most of these characters are, you can also gin up some sympathy for them with the brute of a father they’ve all also endured.

Sharp Objects is based on the book by Gillian Flynn, and follows an alcoholic female reporter sent back to her small Missouri  hometown to cover murders of local teen girls. The direction and cinematography and dark and moody, and the characters challenging — the reporter Camille Preaker is a cutter who slurps vodka all day from a water bottle while her mother swans about in pastel nightgowns and her teen half-sister swings between wildness and demure behavior.

I’m glad I read the book because the series’ slow pace is losing me, given the consistent ugliness of the people involved.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel came highly praised and, in some ways,  appears easy to like — a feel-good story about a wealthy 1950s NYC housewife, at 26 mother of two young children, determined to make it as a stand-up comedian after her husband has an affair. It’s fun to guess which New York City locations were used, and all the 50’s fashions and all the old cars, but the very premise seems bizarre to me, and the more I watched it, wanting to like it, the less I enjoyed the characters — whose wealth insulates them from tedious realities (like taking the subway or finding and paying a babysitter. When she loses her enormous apartment, Mrs. Maisel simply moves upstairs into her parents’ enormous apartment.)

Her mother is anxious, her father a semi-tyrant, her husband thoroughly unattractive — and Mrs. Maisel? She’s not that funny and her “journey” through some really bad evenings with audiences who hate her? How could she possibly fail? They all feel too entitled for me at this point.

Insecure, the creation of Issa Rae, is heading into its third season and I’m trying to like it. Rae is charming and funny and totally relatable. And yet, at 30, her character is still making disastrous choices in her life.

Her passivity annoys the hell out of me.

I may just be too old (or too white) to appreciate what a great show this is.

 

Have you seen (and enjoyed) any of these shows? What am I missing?!

 

How do you feel about unlikable characters?

Do you watch the credits?

 

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THE BREAKFAST CLUB, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, 1985. ©Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this piece in The New York Times, an argument in favor of watching the opening credits to TV shows.

I’m also obsessive about watching opening and closing credits, for television and for film.

The opening credits — and carefully chosen music — carefully set a tone for the show that follows. Anyone remember the joyful opening hat-toss of the late Mary Tyler Moore in The Mary Tyler Moore Show?

And its girl-power theme song: “You’re going to make it after all.”

I’ve been watching three dark and powerful TV series this summer — Happy Valley, set in Yorkshire and Succession and Sharp Objects on HBO. In all three, the opening credits, for me, are part of the pleasure, physically and emotionally setting us up for what happens next.

I even got a story out of this obsession once, after watching the final credits for The Namesake, a lovely 2006 film about an East Indian family living in the U.S. The credits revealed that the movie had been shot on location in a town about 10 minutes’ drive from where I live, in a suburban area north of New York City.

I sold a story about the making of the film to The New York Times, and learned all sorts of movie-making arcana, like how difficult it was to find the right hanging dishrack for the kitchen and why so many films and TV shows are made in or close to New York City — thanks to union rules, (and the high cost of paying overtime), if it takes more than an hour to reach a shooting location, door to door (or close to it), it’s deemed too costly.

My father, now retired, is an award-winning documentary film-maker — here’s his Wikipedia entry —  so watching movies and TV shows was a normal part of our lives.

 

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Love this movie!

 

I got another story idea when I noticed how many recent films had long lists of Hungarian (!?) names in the credits — and discovered that one of the newest and largest film studios is just outside of Budapest.

Variety, which covers the business side of Hollywood, wanted me to do some reporting when I was there in July 2017 but the pay was poor for way too much work, so I just had a good time with my friends instead. (If you’ve seen “BladeRunner 2049”, one pivotal scene is shot inside the city’s former stock exchange and many others were shot on their sound stage there, as was “The Martian.”)

I’m mad for movies, and usually see at least one or two every week, sometimes more — old ones, new ones, watching loved ones over and over. (Just re-watched “The Post” last weekend for the third or fourth time. And, every time I do, I pick up a few more details I missed before.)

I watched “It” on TV recently and was hooting with laughter within the first few frames at a quaint street scene set in a fictional American town — which was in fact Port Hope, Ontario, whose landscape I know very well since my father lived there for four years and we had visited often.

But not a word of it was in the credits!

There you’ll find cool movie jargon for some very specific jobs — and here’s an explainer for 12 of them.

 

Are you someone who reads the credits?

Four harrowing tales — but worth it

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

Whew.

I recently saw a feature film — made by British director Andrew Haigh — called “Lean on Pete”, which is the name of the horse who’s central to the story. It was shot in Portland, Oregon and tells the story of Charley, a young man (played by Charlie Plummer) who’s initially stuck with a deadbeat father, absent mother and MIA aunt.

Here’s the Guardian’s review of it.

It’s a powerful and moving story of how a young man somehow manages to walk, drive and run away from a solo life of misery back to a place of safety and comfort.

I won’t give away all the details, but it’s a searing portrait of what it means to be young, broke, desperate and unconnected to anyone who cares for you. It’s also beautifully filmed and Plummer is fantastic.

There are very few films made today about what it’s like to be poor and alone in the United States — the last one I saw (and I admit, I didn’t enjoy it) was The Florida Project, starring Willem Dafoe as the manager of a Florida motel housing a number of women-led families of very young children.

I found it impossible to like or sympathize with its main female character, while Charlie — maybe being a teenager? maybe being someone doing his best? — was someone I could stick with, even as his trajectory becomes so grim.

LOP cost $8 million to make — and has so far only earned back $222,816 — a terrible return.

I’m not surprised. It’s not a funny, cute, perky escape and box-office catnip.

But it’s a great film and I urge you to see it.

I also just saw First Reformed, which is winning rave reviews for its writer/director Paul Schrader and its lead actor, Ethan Hawke, playing a disillusioned, divorced upstate New York Episcopal (i.e. Anglican) minister.

Like LOP, it’s not an easy film, but also deeply moving and raises essential questions of what we’re doing to the environment.

I recently read Born A Crime, the memoir by South African mixed-race comedian Trevor Noah. Not an easy read and you come away awed by what he survived with grace.

Last summer, traveling alone through Europe with multiple 12-hour train journeys, I dove into another harrowing story, A Little Life, written (!) in 18 months on top of the author’s full-time job at The New York Times.

It won five awards, including being short-listed for the 2015 Man Booker prize.

It, too, is an emotionally tough slog and it’s a doorstop of 814 pages.

The central character is Jude, and his friendships with a small circle of equally educated and accomplished New Yorkers. Jude was abused and injured as a child, and this trauma plays out throughout his life and the novel. (If you’re up on your saints, you know that Jude is the patron saint of desperate and lost causes.)

While it’s a story with much pain, it’s also one with deep and abiding love and sustaining friendships — the kind that those whose families are absent or useless must find if they are to survive this world, let alone thrive in it.

As someone who has turned many times to strangers and friends to replace absent family, these narratives hit a chord in me.

I don’t believe that great art has to make us happy or smile or feel better.

If it touches the deepest part of our heart, it’s done its job.

 

Are you a culture vulture too?

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

As someone who grew up with limited access to television, (spending much of my childhood in boarding school and summer camp), my cultural consumption was books, art and music. (Although every dinner at home in my teens began with the theme music to As It Happens, the nightly CBC radio current events show.)

I do enjoy some television, mostly BBC, PBS, Netflix — original series, not the standard stuff of weekly network shows. Favorites include Wallander (Swedish version), Babylon Berlin, Call The Midwife, Victoria.

I confess — I’m also a fan of Lifetime’s Project Runway, now heading into its 17th season.

My favorite media are radio and film.

I listen to radio daily, (NPR, WFUV. WKCR, TSF Jazz from Paris) and typically watch two to three movies a week, either on TV or in the theater. (Not a fan of horror films, which I avoid; writing a book that included gun violence was quite enough!)

Only in later life did I appreciate what beauty I enjoyed in my parents’ homes, filled with Japanese ukiyo-e prints, Inuit sculpture, mirrored Indian textiles and more. That visual feast much shaped my own tastes — whether a Mexican wooden mask or a vintage photograph.

Today, thanks to the Internet, we all have ready and free access to millions of exquisite images, through the British Museum  (37,000 images) and many more. Even if you live very far from a gallery or museum, even just scrolling through Instagram, you can stumble across an incredible array of beauty and history.

I’m not as familiar with, or fond of, contemporary art and design (I try!); I do love the work of Julie Mehretu.

Growing up in Toronto, a large and multi-cultural city with good museums and galleries, also helped me develop my taste. Travel to Paris, Venice, Florence, London, Berlin, Boston, D.C. and San Francisco, (to name a few places),  has showed me more amazing art.

Two of our favorite museums focus on Asian design — the Sackler in Washington, D.C. and the Guimet in Paris.

 

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A very rare event for me — I went to this auction and bought two 1920s French prints (Dufy, Vlaminck)

 

Musically, I feel woefully behind! I haven’t (she says embarassedly) yet tried Spotify, so I need to expand my horizons, although I’m not a fan of rap, hip-hop or country.

Only in the past month have I seen two operas, the first for me in decades, and enjoyed both. I don’t attend as many classical music performances as I could — in New York and environs, there are so many to choose from! — but enjoy it when I do.

As for popular music concerts…sigh. Some of the people I want to see sell out within minutes, generally.

I recently loved Old Stock, a terrific Canadian musical that’s just ended a two-month Manhattan run, and is headed for Bristol, England and Edmonton, Alberta.

I also saw a dark/powerful art show, “Berlin, Before and After”, at New York’s Neue Galerie, one of my favorite (small!) museums.

Living anywhere near New York City costs a fortune: highway and bridge tolls, taxes, commuting costs, crazy-high rent so you have to take advantage of all its various cultural offerings.

A daily list of low to no-cost NYC fun is The Skint; (“skint” is a British word for broke.)

 

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This amazing image was in the hallway across my room in a boutique hotel in Rovinj, Croatia

 

I do read a lot, but mostly non-fiction, magazines and newspapers. I just finished astronaut Scott Kelly’s memoir, “Endurance” and am now reading “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” from 1929.

I write for a living (as some of you know!) so am always hungry for inspiration.

 

How about you?

 

What has shaped your cultural tastes — friends? family? the internet? TV? YouTube? formal education?

 

Any terrific recommendations to share?

 

Last Men in Aleppo

By Caitlin Kelly

If you haven’t yet seen this documentary about the White Helmets — a volunteer group that races to the scene of attacks in Syria — it’s a must.

It won the Sundance World Cinema Grand Jury Prize in 2017; Sundance (for those not into film) is considered the U.S.’s most prestigious annual film festival.

I saw it last night.

But it’s not an easy 104 minutes, and I found myself crying this morning as I thought through all the images and sounds it contains:

— a father weeping as his six-year-old son is pulled, dead, from beneath the rubble

— the terrifying sight and sound of a rainfall of incoming bombs

— a car on fire with two civilians in it

— the hammering of an excavator trying to unearth the latest victims

— the challenge of not having enough body bags for all the corpses and body parts they encounter

— the men trying to decide — by looking at a foot they found — whether it’s one of their friends.

It is a searing and unsparing look at daily life in hell.

You can buy it here for $14.99.

And yet, and yet, the director, Feras Fayyad, was wise to also include much laughter and joy, the men singing and even taking a sunny, if brief, day out in the playground, with a bunch of their delighted little kids, to leaven the brutality.

It’s too easy to think we know this place or to not care about it — but here’s a little girl and her Dad going to six Aleppo pharmacies to try to find vitamins because her hands are now weakened by malnutrition. There are none to be found.

Here’s a couple going to get married, in the middle of death and destruction.

Here’s the men buying a bag full of goldfish, perhaps the most unlikely purchase imaginable in what is basically a war zone, combing the city to find enough water and then filling a fountain with fish and water.

With hope.

That’s reporting.

Here’s a brief video clip of Fayyad — who was twice imprisoned and tortured — discussing why he made the film.

To bear witness.

As a journalist in New York, I get invited daily to events meant to promote new products and services, hotels and restaurants. I ignore 99.9 percent of them.

But I’ve long been deeply intrigued by the White Helmets and their work.

Not even sure how I ended up on this press list — as the room was filled with industry folk being asked to vote as Academy members on its merits — but I’m so glad I had the chance to see it, and a brief Q and A in the room with its director, who is now making a second film about a female doctor working there, and having to sneak back into his own country to do so safely.

My father made documentaries for a living, so I’m fascinated — both as a journalist and a lover of film — by how and when these stories are filmed and told.

I’ve read a lot about the war in Syria, and knew of the White Helmets, but never viscerally understood what they do, why they do it and the tremendous physical and emotional toll if takes.

I urge you to see it!