Ghosts of Sundance Past #1: Brittany Runs A Marathon (dir by Paul Downs Colaizzo)


As we all know, this year’s Sundance Film Festival started last week on Thursday.

To me, Sundance has always signified the official start of a new cinematic year.  Not only is it the first of the major festivals but it’s also when we first learn about the films that we’ll be looking forward to seeing all year.  It seems like every year, there’s at least one successful (or nearly successful) Oscar campaign that gets it start at Sundance.  This year, for instance, people are already intrigued by Zola, Minari, Shirley, and Ironbark and it’s almost entirely due to how those films have been received at Sundance.

My initial plan for this year was to spend the last few days of January looking at some of the films that have won awards or otherwise created a splash at previous Sundance Film Festivals.  I was planning on starting last Thursday but then I came down with a terrible cold, from which I’m still recovering.

So, instead, I’m starting today.  It happens.  In the past, I would have beaten myself up over not starting on time but, if I’ve learned anything from my 10 years of writing for TSL, it’s that sometimes you just have to accept that life can be unpredictable.  Sometimes, you just have to embrace the mystery.

Anyway, to start things off, I want to take a look at one of my favorite films from last year, Brittany Runs A Marathon.

When we first meet Brittany Forgler (Jillian Bell), she is a 28 year-old New Yorker who works at a theater.  She’s single.  She’s funny.  She’s irresponsible.  She usually either drunk or hungover.  In many ways, she’s the ideal friend.  You wouldn’t necessarily want her to be your best friend, of course.  But she’s still someone who seems like she’d be the perfect member of a group, in that she can make a joke but, at the same time, she doesn’t have much of a life so you don’t have to worry about her attracting attention away from you.  Add to that, Brittany has an Adderall prescription, which she tends to abuse.  (It happens.)  Everyone loves someone who can provide them easy access to prescription medication.

In fact, it’s while she’s trying to get her prescription updated that Brittany is given some very serious news.  Her doctors informs her that she’s not very healthy.  She’s overweight and rarely gets any exercise.  Her doctor tells her that she needs to change that.  And since Brittany can’t afford to be a member of even the cheapest of gyms, it seems like the only option left is to start running.

In public.

In New York City.

Now, you can probably guess from the title that Brittany eventually comes to love running and decides that she wants to run in the New York marathon.  And you can probably guess that, about halfway through the movie, Brittany faces a crisis that causes her to consider just giving up.  As far as the running is concerned, this is a likable but occasionally predictable film.

Fortunately, Brittany Runs A Marathon is about more than just running.  It’s about growing up and taking responsibility for your life but it’s also about loving who you are, regardless of who that might be.  What makes this film so special is that Brittany doesn’t automatically become an Olympic class runner.  Nor does her life magically come together just because she manages to complete a 5k.  Instead, what makes this film so special is that it’s about Brittany finding her own happiness and accepting who she is.  When Brittany struggles, it’s impossible not to feel for her.  When Brittany succeeds, it’s impossible not to cheer.

It helps that this is also a terrifically funny film.  The dialogue is sharp and witty and Jillian Bell is one of those actresses who can make even the simplest of lines hilarious.  (She can also make them heart-breaking when she needs to.)  While Brittany is running, she’s also working as a pet sitter.  When she discovers that another pet sitter, Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), is essentially squatting in their employer’s house while she’s out of town, Brittany ends up moving in with him.  Everyone tells Brittany that she’s eventually going to end up sleeping with Jern.  Brittany says it will never happen.  Jern says it will never happen.  We know it will happen because Bell and Ambudkhar have such a wonderful chemistry.  They’re like a 21st century version of Tracy and Hepburn.

I wasn’t expecting much from Brittany Runs A Marathon but it’s a good film, a funny comedy with a good heart and serious points to make.  Not surprisingly, it was also loved at Sundance, where it won the Audience Award.

Rambo: Last Blood (2019, directed by Adrian Grunberg)


John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone, of course) is back!

He’s in his 70s now.  He talks a little slower.  He moves a little stiffly.  He wakes up every morning and takes a hundred different pills.  He says that he has finally given up his anger but, deep down, he’s still the same Rambo who blew up the town of Hope, Washington before becoming an international problem solver.  He still likes to dig underground tunnels and make weapons.  When he’s not doing that, he and Maria Beltran (Adriana Barraza) run his father’s old horse ranch in Arizona.

When Maria’s granddaughter, Gabriela (Yvette Monreal), sneaks down into Mexico to search for her biological father, Rambo goes after her.  When he discovers that Gabriela has been kidnapped and drugged by a Mexican cartel, Rambo announces that he’s going to rescue her and get revenge, even if it means blowing up the entire southwest to do it.

There’s a scene in Last Blood where Rambo literally rips a man’s heart out of his chest and holds it in front of his face while he dies.  That’s pretty cool and doubly impressive when you consider that Rambo’s not that young anymore.  I’m 40 years younger than Rambo and I can’t do that.  Other than that, though, Last Blood is a disappointment.  The cartel makes for a forgettable group of villains and too much of the plot depends on otherwise intelligent people suddenly doing something stupid.  The Rambo films have never been known for their carefully constructed storylines but, even by the standards of the previous films in the series, Last Blood feels as if it was hastily slapped together.

The main problem, though, is that John Rambo doesn’t feel like Rambo.  There are references to the time that Rambo spent in Vietnam and Rambo does use several VC-style booby traps to take out most of his enemies but otherwise, Sylvester Stallone might as well have just been playing John Smith.  I spent the whole movie waiting for Rambo to at least say something along the lines of, “A friend of mine from Nam — his name was Sam Trautman — taught me this,” but instead, the previous Rambo films go largely unacknowledged until the end credits, during which we see some scenes from our hero’s past adventures.  If you’re going to make a Rambo film, it should feature a story that could only happen to Rambo and a problem that only he can solve.  Last Blood felt like it had more in common with Taken than Rambo.

Rambo’s had a good run but, on the basis of Last Blood, I think it may be time to let the character enjoy his retirement in peace.  He’s earned it.

 

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Diary of Anne Frank (dir by George Stevens)


From 1942 to 1944, a teenage girl named Anne Frank lived in hiding.

She and her family lived in what was sometimes called The Secret Annex, three stories of concealed rooms that were hidden behind a bookcase in an Amsterdam factory.  At first, it was just Anne, her older sister Margot, and their parents.  Eventually, they were joined by another family and eventually a dentist, with whom Anne did not get along.  Life was not easy in the concealed space and tempers often flared.  As the months passed, Anne had a romance-of-sorts with Peter, the teenage son of the other family, but she wondered if she truly felt anything for him or if it was just because they were stuck together.  Anne looked forward to someday returning to school and seeing all of her old friends, again.  However, she knew that she could not leave the Annex until the Nazis had finally been forced out of the Netherlands.  She and the other occupants had to remain in hiding and they had to remain perfectly quiet eight hours a day because they were Jewish.  If they were discovered, they would be sent to the camps.  So, they waited and Anne kept a diary.

Tragically, the Nazis did eventually discover the Secret Annex.  Of the 8 occupants, only Anne Frank’s father, Otto, would survive the war.  The rest died in various concentration camps.  Anne Frank’s mother starved to death in Auschwitz.  Her older sister, Margot, was 19 when she fell from her bunk and, because she was in such a weakened state, was killed by the shock.  Anne Frank, it is believed, died a few days after Margot.  She died at the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, one of the 17,000 prisoners to succumb to Typhus.  Before she died, Anne Frank spoke with two former schoolmates who were also being held at Bergen-Belsen.  She told them that she had believed her entire family was dead and that she no longer had any desire to go on living.

However, Otto Frank did survive and, at the end of the war, he returned to the Secret Annex.  That’s where he discovered Anne’s diary.  After editing it (a process that Anne, who aspired to be a journalist, had already started doing shortly before she was arrested), Otto arranged for the publication of the diary.  The Diary of A Young Girl (or, as it was titled in some countries, The Diary of Anne Frank) was a bestseller and has remained one ever since it was first published.  Along with being recognized as being one of the most important books ever written, it’s also been adapted for both stage and screen.

The first such screen adaptation was in 1959.  It was directed by George Stevens and it starred 20 year-old Millie Perkins as Anne.  (Perkins bore a great resemblance to Audrey Hepburn, who was reportedly Otto Frank’s preferred choice for the role.  Hepburn turned him down, saying she would have been honored to have played the role but believed that she was too old to believable as a 14 year-old.)  Joseph Schildkraut played Otto while Diane Baker played Margot and Gusti Huber played Edith Frank.  The Van Daans were played by Shelley Winters and Lou Jacobi while Richard Beymer played their son (and Anne’s tentative boyfriend), Peter.  Ed Wynn, who was best known as a comedian, played the role of Albert Dussell, the dentist to whom Anne took a dislike.  (The surviving family of Fritz Pfeffer — who was renamed Dussell in Anne’s diary — objected to the way he was portrayed in both the book and the film.)

As a film, it has its flaws.  George Stevens specialized in big productions but that was perhaps not the proper approach to take to an intimate film about a teenage girl coming-of-age under the most difficult circumstances imaginable.  Because this was a 20th Century Fox production from the 50s, The Diary of Anne Frank was filmed in Cinemascope, which made the annex itself look bigger than it should.  Scenes that should feel claustrophobic often merely come across as being cluttered.

But, in the end, the story is so powerful and so important that it doesn’t matter.  Though the Annex was recreated on a Hollywood sound stage, the exteriors were actually filmed in Amsterdam.  When we see the outside of the factory where the Frank family lived, we are seeing the actual factory.  When we see repeated shots of the uniformed Nazi police patrolling the streets at night, we know that we’re seeing the actual view that Anne Frank undoubtedly saw many a night from the Annex.  And because we know the story, we begin the film knowing how it’s going to end and that adds an even greater weight to each and every scene.  It’s impossible not to relate to Anne’s hopes for the future and it’s just as impossible to not mourn that Anne never lived to see that future.

Stevens originally planned for the film to end with a scene of Anne at Bergen-Belsen.  To their discredit, 20th Century Fox removed the scene after preview audiences complained that it was too upsetting.  People should be upset while watching (or, for that matter, reading) The Diary of Anne Frank.  Even today, there are people who still seem to struggle with acknowledging the enormous evil that was perpetrated by the Nazis and their allies.  As a result, it’s not uncommon to find people who, when they don’t outright deny that it happened, try to minimize the Holocaust.  It’s a disgusting thing.  There was recently a viral video, which was released by NowThis that featured a student at George Washington University saying, “What’s going to happen if there’s another Holocaust? Well, we’re seeing what’s happening. We’re seeing people die at the border for lack of medical care. That’s how Anne Frank died. She didn’t die in a concentration camp, she died from typhus.”  NowThis later said that the student meant to say that Anne Frank “didn’t die from a concentration camp, she died from typhus,” and you really have to wonder just how fucking stupid someone has to be to think that 1) that’s somehow an improvement on what was originally said and 2) that typhus and the concentration camp were not essentially the same thing.  Even if one accepts that the student misspoke, it would seem that her main complaint was the the concentration camp didn’t have proper medical care, as opposed to the fact that it was specifically created to imprison and kill Jewish people.  It’s an astounding combination of ignorance and antisemitism.  NowThis later edited her comments out of the video, which again seems to miss the point of why people were upset in the first place.  Instead of just saying, “Hey, this idiot is a Holocaust denier and, regardless of whether she hates Trump as much as we do, we want nothing to do with her,” NowThis instead said, “Well, if that comment offends you, we’ll take it out and you won’t have to hear it.”  To me, that’s why The Diary of Anne Frank is still important and why it should still be read and watched and studied.  There are too many ignorant people and craven, weak-willed organizations out there for us to turn our backs on teaching history.

The Diary Anne Frank was nominated for best picture of the year.  While Shelley Winters won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, the Best Picture Oscar went to Ben-Hur.  Interestingly enough, Ben-Hur’s director, William Wyler, was originally interested in directing The Diary Anne Frank before George Stevens was brought on board.