by Greg Wright

Amazing Spider-Man 2 was released to home video last week.

Because I am, without a doubt, not in the target demographic for the Spider-Man franchise, I can’t tell you a thing about it.

The wild appeal of its relatively young stars eludes me (though Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are without a doubt an upgrade from Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst). In-jokey star cameos evoke no response from me whatsoever. Unexplained plot devices bother me immensely. Further, I don’t care to have the disbelief which I have willingly suspended “hanged, drawn, and quartered,” as J. R. R. Tolkien put it. I couldn’t even have been bothered to see the first two entries in the cinematic series, and as a kid, I rarely shelled out my own money on a Spidey comic.

s3insetI know that puts me in the overwhelming minority—and that doesn’t make me feel smug or superior in the least. I know some kind of flaw in my character is causing me to miss out on a unique experience, one obviously similar to that which I manage to enjoy with other popcorn fare such as The Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean. Even mediocre movies don’t reap the kind of boxoffice that Spider-Man and its sequels and reboot have.

So try to take all that under advisement as I attempt an objective review of Spider-Man 3, the lone title in the series that I have seen. Show my review as much mercy as I expect to show to the movie.

Following a credit sequence that recaps the series thus far (bringing clods like me up to speed), the third installment of the series finds Peter Parker, the alter ego of the eponymous superhero, still employed as a freelance photographer at The Daily Bugle. His girlfriend, Mary Jane, is on the verge of stardom, featured in a major role in a just-opening Broadway production.

The campy tone of the movie is set as Parker self-absorbedly makes his way to the front row seat MJ has reserved for him; his glee is so childish we expect his delight to turn to disappointment any number of times during the evening. But it is not to be. Parker is indeed a minor celebrity in his own right, for one night at least—and is enjoying it. MJ is dazzling on stage in the musical’s opening number.

Parker’s old rival, Harry, is also on hand and can afford a much more lavish bouquet—but MJ still has eyes only for Peter. After the show, the couple shares a magical evening in Central Park, lounging in a great web, watching shooting stars and dreaming of the future.

And then all hell breaks loose.

Just before MJ and Peter leave the park, a diabolus-ex-machina appears in the form of strange black goo which hitchhikes to Earth on the back of one of those falling stars. It picks up a ride home on the back of Parker’s scooter, and we soon come to the crux of the film’s central conflict: as MJ’s fantasy crumbles around her, as Parker’s job is in danger of being usurped by an unprincipled paparazzo, and as not one, but three, villains rise to challenge the Spider-Man, this strange black goo latches onto, and amplifies, Spider-Man’s dark side.

The All-American hero, it turns out, is corruptible—and fully capable of being a far worse danger to himself than any external enemy. Spidey’s bright red and blue are exchanged for a much more stylish, if sinister, shade of very dark gray.

As our hero comes to grips with his own evil nature, he battles a jealous and vengeful New Goblin, the son and heir of his former nemesis, the Green Goblin. In the process, he also becomes jealous and vengeful.

Spidey also comes to blows with the Sandman, a well-meaning but misguided escaped felon who strays into an open-air particle physics experiment. In the process, Spidey’s intentions also go somewhat astray, and his own behavior becomes increasingly, well, stinky, if not felonious. Fans of the series will especially enjoy the sequences in which Parker’s personality disintegrates; will he permanently alienate MJ?

But the real climax comes as Parker’s efforts at self-reform contribute to the rise of the film’s third villain, Venom—who conspires with Sandman to bring about Spidey’s ultimate demise.

Besides excellent CGI, creatively-staged action sequences (the armored-car heist in Manhattan is particularly effective), and (I’m assuming) the usual effectively nerdy performances from Kirsten Dunst and Tobey Maguire as MJ and Peter, Spider-Man 3 offers a boatload of mercy, redemption, and even forgiveness—qualities we seem to have forgotten these days in our global quest to become superheroes. When Spider-Man frees himself from his diabolus and dashingly returns with Old Glory waving behind him, the film even becomes a national call to shed our morally murky skin.

Spider-Man 3 not only delivers more of what the series has brought in the past, it appears to have done so in a manner that should please both audiences and bean-counters.

As a film, it reaches too far—four villains (including Spidey himself) are about two too many, and Topher Grace, among others, is wildly miscast. The diabolus plot-device never rises above that lame and paltry level. And I’m sorry, but Dunst and Maguire—while competent enough—are being wildly overpaid, regardless of the odd chemistry that they obviously produce.

But as high-priced entertainment, Spider-Man 3 might serve to close off your summer video-viewing with a solid bang.

You can stream all the entries in the Spider-Man franchise tonight without even leaving home! They’re all available for download from Amazon and Google Play. Grab something to eat from your favorite local joint… and enjoy yourself.

by Greg Wright

“I believe television will change more in the next five years than in the last fifty,” Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said in a recent Business Week interview. So far, so good.

“This will be really great for consumers,” he continued. “We are going to have a suite of products that you subscribe to—television, high-speed Internet, phone, home security, energy management, maybe even health care—and we are going to have many customers that are going to buy those products directly from us.”

What?!??!

That doesn’t sound like progress. That sounds like more of the same… with cable health care. Whatever.

maury-island-incident-insetFor something completely different, why not try Indieflix, an online subscription service that offers unique programming you’ll never find through combastic heavyweights who want to control the media you have access to?

And why not try a free two-week trial of Indieflix tonight, for the debut of its first original webseries The Maury Island Incident, adapted from the 2014 short film directed and produced by local filmmakers Scott Schaefer and Steve Edmiston?

Incident was produced locally and tells the story of the original UFO scenario when mysterious aircraft flew over Puget Sound:

On June 21, 1947, Harold Dahl claimed he saw six flying discs off Maury Island, Washington. One was failing. Hot molten “slag” fell out of it, hit his boat, killed his dog and injured his son. The next day, the first “Man In Black” intimidated Dahl to not speak about the encounter.

Edmiston wrote the script for a short film that he and Schaefer hope to eventually turn into a feature film. The short was shot on location around Des Moines, Burien, and Maury Island, and has played locally at Burien’s Tin Room. It is now touring the festival circuit.

Earlier this summer, Schaefer cut a deal to adapt the short into a webseries for Indieflix.

And tonight is the night it debuts.

Support independent film, and support local filmmakers!

Give Indieflix a free trial spin, and watch The Maury Island Incident tonight.

by Greg Wright

Does Walden Media have a hit on its hands again with The Giver? If it does, it’s been a long time coming.

Up until the time that Walden punted away the Narnia franchise after the “disappointment” of Dawn Treader (which itself came the heels of the meltdown of Walden’s distribution deal with Disney), Walden Media’s release schedule has been in steady decline.

But there was  a time when the production company was churning out hit after hit: Nim’s Island (2008), Bridge to Terabithia (2007), Charlotte’s Web (2006), Amazing Grace (2006), Because of Winn-Dixie (2005), Holes (2003).

cflahertyinsetWalden Media is hoping for a return to form with The Giver, released today:

In an insular society known as The Community, a culture of “sameness” is embraced. Pain and suffering have been eradicated from daily life, along with any notion of individuality or choice. Members of the Community lead a seemingly perfect existence, unburdened by the harsh realities of the “real” world. A lone man among them has been designated to retain all memories of the way life once was. Now the time has come for that man to pass his knowledge to another.

The film is coming out with pretty good word of mouth, with a 69% positive audience rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

Critics aren’t very happy with this novel adaptation, though, with the critical consensus that “Phillip Noyce directs The Giver with visual grace, but the movie doesn’t dig deep enough into the classic source material’s thought-provoking ideas.”

Walden’s focus has never been on pleasing critics, though. Part of the brilliance of Walden Media’s success is that they have been very incisive about figuring out what the central message is of any given film, and then connecting that message with the appropriate audience.

A few years ago, I had a chat with Walden co-founder Chip Flaherty and talked with him him about the complexities of film production vs. distribution. He replied with the following, which sheds some insight into what Walden is trying to do:

Even when it’s within the same company, you’ve got two very distinct phases of filmmaking. In the first phase, it’s just that: production, making the product—in this case, a film. In the second, distribution, it’s marketing—making the audience aware of the fact that this film is coming to the marketplace; and it’s also making the prints, getting them to the movie theaters, and having relationships with the exhibitors. So you’re exactly right. Whether it’s two different companies or the same company, it really doesn’t matter. There are always different people associated with both pursuits.

One of the reasons, I think, that Walden Media has been successful is that we’ve tried to break down that distinction, and seen it as all part of an integrated process of storytelling. We always go back to the fact that we’re storytellers. In each step of the way, we are attempting to tell a story. So it always starts with the story, and we’ve had a lot of success with going to best-selling books, books that have already connected with audiences across generations—Because of Winn-Dixie, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Charlotte’s Web, Bridge to Terabithia. You say, okay, we’ve got a great story; now let’s make a faithful adaptation—and that means hiring the right scriptwriter with the right sensibility. And then we shoot the film. But in order to market it—moving into distribution—we stick with the Walden Media brand. People will think, “We know it will be faithful to the book,” and that will help us from an educational standpoint. If we’re educators, we can always drive kids back to the book in an attempt to get them to appreciate the written word and literature, and hopefully make them into life-long readers.

But the second thing is that when you’ve got a book that’s connected with an audience and with families, it’s almost like a focus group. You know that there might be challenging material in there, but you know that there’s nothing offensive, that’s it’s something the whole family can kind of rally around. So part of our marketing, and it’s becoming easier as we’re building hard-earned credibility with our audiences, is we say, “Look. This is another film by Walden Media, and in some ways you should know what that means—that we see ourselves as storytellers, and if the film is based on a book it will be a faithful adaptation.” So we try to get that story out.

We’re building awareness in channels where we have relationships, but we’re also doing something that’s good both as a goal and as an end in and of itself. It builds awareness, and if they see the movie, that’s fantastic. But at the end of the day, there are a lot of books in a library that wouldn’t otherwise have them; and we’re real proud of that.

If that kind of goal sounds appealing to you, you might consider going to see The Giver… and never mind the critics!

The Giver opens today at the AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again?

Find Theater Showtimes

 

by Greg Wright

Three weeks ago, I ran as my first “Waterland Home Video Feature” a review of Dead Poets Society, one of Robin Williams’ more memorable performances. Others include The World According to Garp, Good Will Hunting, The Fisher King, and Good Morning, Vietnam.

WhatDreamsMayCome-insetGiven Williams’ unfortunate passing this week, however, the Williams film that comes most to my mind is the supernatural meditation What Dreams May Come, in which Williams plays a man who dies in a car crash and journeys through the afterlife in search of his one true love.

I rather sappily like to believe that Williams is right now on a similar journey toward love. But at heart, I’m a romantic.

Dreams is not the greatest film in the world, but if you’re looking for a way to get weepy over the loss of Williams (or any of the other thousands who’ve died tragic deaths around the globe the last few days) you might check it out. It’s available online at Amazon Instant.

Also, if you’re interested, below is an excerpt from an interview I did a few years ago with the producer of What Dreams May Come, Stephen Simon, and his producing partner Neale Donald Walsch. Simon touches only briefly on Dreams itself (the subject of the interview was Conversations with God), but the things which concern Simon imbue Dreams… and, I imagine, are subjects which Robin Williams is exploring first-hand right now.

GW: In terms of thematic development, one of the things that comes across very strong is the difference between living out of love and living out of fear.

Simon: Thank you for getting that message.

GW: Now, I have not read your books, so I don’t know how in depth your books discuss your conception of love. But as played out in the film, love is a selfless thing: living for others. In terms of the biblical description of love, in I Corinthians 13, is your understanding of love, as your “conversations with God” have revealed it to you, consistent with that? Is it a Christian love?

Walsch: I think so for sure. I think that the reason that passage from the Bible has become memorialized and embraced by almost all of humanity, regardless of the theological point of view, is because it’s universally true. It’s understood to be a universal truth. And that’s why you can read that passage to a Jew, to a Hindu, and it doesn’t matter. People totally get it. It’s not a Christian passage. It’s ancient wisdom.

GW: And then you get to idea that you were talking about on the radio with Dave Ross this morning, the institutionalization of religion—taking something as beautiful as that, and then corrupting that in favor of perpetuating an institution or organization, as opposed to the practice of “pure religion,” as James calls it, the care of widows and orphans.

Walsch:
Thank you, yes. But by and large, I don’t see religion as corrupting anything. I think understanding is just incomplete. They’re sitting there like a third-grade boy who has addition and subtraction down perfectly and assumes he has all the answers to all the mathematical questions in the universe. And he’s not corrupting anything. He just doesn’t understand. And when he gets to geometry and trigonometry, he’s going to go, “Wow!” That’s all I think it is. So I’m very careful, because I frankly don’t feel that religion is corrupting anything—not in the larger sense. There’s a faction here and there, but not mainstream religion. Yet they certainly are limited and incomplete in their understanding of things. And I hope that the message of the movie, among other things, is that we just need to take another look at this. Maybe there’s something we don’t fully understand here, about God—the understanding of which means everything.

GW: I understand that you’re a believer in some form of reincarnation, that having died, moved on to the afterlife, one goes through a “life review,” as you’ve described it. And having learned some lessons, comes back for another go at things. If that’s really the case, why don’t the vast majority of living beings seem to have learned much? We are we still as spiritually backward as we were two thousand years ago?

Walsch: Well, in fact we aren’t. It’s attractive to say that, but we aren’t. Civilization has advanced; now, why it hasn’t advanced more rapidly is a fair question. Surely we’ve made progress from the cave man days, and we’re not walking around dragging people by the hair. So we have made some advances. The sad part of this is that the advances are not coming fast enough, in my view, and right now the difficulty in the human encounter is that we’re making advances in our exterior world much more rapidly than we are in our interior world. That is, technology, and science, and medical science, are moving so fast that, unless our theology and our morality does double-time to keep up, we’re going to be confronting some enormous philosophical, theological, and sociological questions—ones that we’ll have no basis, no foundation, from which to answer. Cloning? Forget cloning. That seems pretty obvious. But what about genetic engineering?

I often tell the story of a lady who’d been in the hospital, and the doctor says, “Your baby has a cellular predisposition to muscular dystrophy. We can do some genetic engineering right here and change the genetic construction, change that predilection.” And the mother says, “What?” And the doctor says, “If it’s okay with you.” She says, “Well, I need to talk to my pastor.” And the pastor has absolutely no foundational basis from which to make a judgment. Except what he thinks he knows about addition and subtraction. It’s against the laws of God. So she goes back and says, “Well, the baby has to born with MD because it’s against the laws of God and nature, I guess, to get in there and do in-utero alterations.” And the doctor is just mystified. “Well, if the baby was born, could I do it one minute after the birth?” And she says, “Absolutely. Thirty seconds after, do absolutely everything that medical science can possibly do.” He says, “But one minute before the birth…” She says, “You absolutely cannot.” So it’s a question of time, and not the procedure. We have no theological basis.

So our understanding of life, and God, and what’s true about all of that is so limited that we are racing forward into a place and time where we will have no foundational basis from which to make the most sacred of moral decisions facing humanity. That is true right now, in fact.

GW: Are you familiar with Fritjof Capra’s The Turning Point, the book that was made into the movie Mindwalk?

Simon: Oh, sure. We know Mindwalk. We saw Mindwalk.

GW: That’s a beautiful articulation of the idea that the contemporary practice of religion is wholly tied up with the Cartesian model of the Universe and mechanistic understanding. It proposes that Systems Theory is a way of looking at interconnectedness—which I think is very compatible with your movie and what it seems to be saying. You could play them back to back and have a very nice synergy. If the spiritual systems of thought don’t catch up and keep up with the technological pace, that will create a spiritual dissonance.

Walsch: And the problem here is one simple sentence. There’s a huge reluctance on the part of organized religion to question the prior assumption. And that’s the one thing that medical science and technology have not been reluctant to do. We’ve made advances because we’ve been willing to go into the laboratory and say, “I know we think it’s like this; but what if it weren’t? And it probably is like this, in fact, but what if it weren’t?” And they’re willing to question the prior assumption, which has allowed us to make miraculous forward movement. Only, in the area of theology, not only are you not allowed to question the prior assumption, in fact if you do, you could be killed in certain places.

GW: It’s interesting that the philosophical license to do that was there, but then theology became divorced from philosophy.

Walsch: So the reason I’m really happy about this motion picture is not that it talks about these topics in particular, but it shows you a person—James Thurber’s Everyman—taking a look at “What is this about? What am I doing here? Who and what is God?” And all that. If we can manage to re-open that question, to re-engage the discussion… Our attempt here is put those questions back across the coffee-table—just like you and I are talking about them right here. And that’s one of the hopes of the movie—to bring that opportunity back to people.

GW: That’s very worthwhile. And it’s nice to see the movie do that effectively.

Walsch: But I want to share something with you that I think Stephen wouldn’t say—the artistic and financial courage that it takes to do that is larger than meets the eye. Because it’s totally outside the norm—forget about religion—even in the entertainment business. They don’t want to hear it. It’s a huge gamble. It’s a huge risk. It’s going to lose a lot of money. So for Stephen to put his financial and his artistic neck on the line, to say we’re going to make this movie anyway—to me, it’s that kind of cultural courage that’s going to be required to change the culture itself.

GW: And from my perspective, as a critic—and as a viewer—I would just as soon see a hundred movies that might not agree with my particular philosophy or theology and yet do what this film does as opposed to sit down and see a single Superman Returns.

Simon: I must tell you that I’m very gratified by that. I’ll tell you that when What Dreams May Come was released, I was shocked and thrilled by how well it was received by several Christian publications. Because the theology of the film is not Christian. But because it is a film about faith, and it’s a film about love. And because the faith is so strong in it, that was embraced. And I say this a lot, and I feel this deeply from the pit of my soul, people who are religious and people who are spiritual (but not religious) have a lot more in common than we do in difference—the way we feel we should be treated, the way we should treat other people, the way we look at love and forgiveness. It’s a different mechanism. And that’s the underpinning of what I think is going to help us get the movie business change the world—breaking down the barriers of people dying over exclusive franchises on faith.

GW: Jesus said a couple of things, and people tend to remember the one over the other. One of the things he said was “He who is not with me is against me.” That one tends to get quoted an awful lot. But he also said, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” That’s the one that people tend to forget. And it means quite a different thing.

Walsch: Yes it does.

GW: It means there are a lot more people on your side than you think there are. But in our world, we tend to break it down the other way, and say that if we can’t align ourselves very neatly and easily with somebody’s ideology, then they must be against us.

Walsch: That was the teaching of Mohammed, as well.

GW: Was it?

Walsch: Absolutley. Mohammed called Christians and Jews “people of the book.” And they are to be respected and honored, and not warred against, ever. Because they are people of the book, and those who are not against us are for us. The teachings of all the great spiritual masters have been corrupted through the years, to use your previous word, by those who would have a different agenda.

GW: And that’s where the fear comes in, right? Now the scene in the film where you get out of the limo and essentially confront yourself—or meet yourself, rather—has to it imagery that summons up popular depictions of Jesus. Was that intentional, or accidental?

Simon: Really? Tell me how you experienced that.

GW: Well, when the “other self” turns with the hood partially obscuring the face, it looks like a lot of the 1950s paintings of Jesus with the head covering.

Simon: The only way I can answer that is to be as transparent as I can be about it. The ending of this film has been interpreted about five or six different ways—that I’ve heard so far. And I think that, as more people see it, they’re going to interpret it in different ways. I will tell you that the film that got me to be a filmmaker—the film that got me fascinated with spirituality and metaphysics—was Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Because what Kubrick did with the last fifteen minutes of that film, I just thought was brilliant. And he never, ever talked about what he thought it meant. And if you’ll forgive me, I’m not going to either. Because I know what I meant. Those were the first images that came to me when we began developing this film. I said, “I don’t know what’s going to be in the middle, but I know how I want to begin it and I know how I want to end it.”

GW: That comes through very strongly.

Simon: Those were the first images that came to me. So I know what it means to me, but with all due respect, I want to let others decide what it means to them.

GW: That’s fine. From my perspective, I think you can probably expect some of the more conservative Christian commentators to object to it on the grounds that it seems to suggest that Neale and Jesus are one and the same—which, from a theological—

Simon: You’ve spent thirty minutes with him. Could you argue that point?

GW: Well, nothing against Neale, but that’s wholly dependent on one’s conception of Jesus.

Walsch: I really hope that a Christian commentator asks me that question, or confronts me with that theological challenge. Because I would say to that person, when you see Jesus in everyone, and when you even, for that matter, dare to see a bit of Jesus in yourself, that’s when you’ve understood the message of Jesus himself. And when you fail to see Jesus in everyone else and fail to see Jesus in yourself, that’s when you’ve missed the whole point of his message and ministry.

GW: “As much as you have done or not done for the least of these, you have done or not done for me.”

Walsch: Hello.

Mr. Williams, I found a little bit of Jesus in you… a little piece of love that shone in your darkness. Thank you for nurturing it as best you could. Go with God.

by Greg Wright

Not even controversy could keep Noah, released on home video last week, from sinking at the box office. Still, the buzz is now mounting about Ridley Scott’s Exodus:Gods and Kings, due this December and starring Batman… uh, Christian Bale… as Moses.

Kinda makes you nostalgic for the “golden age” of Hollywood biblical epics, doesn’t it?

Cecil B. DeMille was disappointed that The Ten Commandments—a monumentally personal work of passion, even hubris—only won one Oscar, for special effects.  In restrospect, this is one of those Academy decisions that seems justified.  Though well-received critically and popularly at the time of its release in 1956, this is not one of those films whose reputations build over time.

A four-hour-plus extravagaten-commandments-insetnza, once you include the overture, intermission, and exit theme, the movie is essentially two separate films with very distinct flavors appended to one another by the intermission.  This is not surprising, I suppose, given that DeMille’s 1923 version of The Ten Commandments also employed a two-picture structure; but it’s also not overly satisfying.

The “first” film tells the story of Moses’ ascendancy to power, from a refugee Hebrew child to favored “son” of Pharaoh, through his discovery of his Hebrew heritage, and into his exile in Midian—culminating with his encounter with God in the burning bush on Mount Sinai.  As DeMille explains the film’s prologue, this portion of the film includes a great deal of non-biblical historical research and pure narrative speculation, given that the Bible is pretty silent on what happened during the first thirty or so years of Moses’ life.  This half is also the most interesting and creative, frankly, given that it actually tells a “story.”

The “second” film, following the intermission, is a Reader’s Digest account of Moses’ return to Egypt, the plagues, the Exodus, the giving of the law (and rebellion) at Mount Sinai, the 40-year sojourn in the wilderness, the Israelites’ arriving at the Promised Land, and Moses’ “death.”  It contains the bulk of the film’s special effects, including the summarized and abbreviated plagues, the pillar of fire, the crossing of the Red Sea and destruction of Pharaoh’s army, the writing of the tablets of the law by the finger of God, and the Earth’s swallowing of Korah, Dathan, and their followers after the forging of the Golden Calf.  This is the showy stuff, and also the stuff that stands up the least to the test of time, despite the tremendous job Paramount has done is restoring the film for High Def re-release.  In many ways, the effects look poorer the clearer they are.

But the second half struggles most because it doesn’t tell a proper story—despite DeMille’s assertions, right enough, that you don’t have to look far in the Bible for drama.  Instead, the second half of The Ten Commandments is overly reliant on narration voiceover and cinematic time-compression, rather than structuring the tale in such a way that audiences can follow things on their own.  It doesn’t help that, once Moses becomes a prophet, he also loses a big chunk of his humanity.  When his wife, Sephora, remarks that she lost a husband when God gained a prophet, we know all too well what she means.  Moses becomes so heavenly minded and so imperious that he’s just not much fun to be around any more, in spite of’s broad-shouldered efforts.

And it’s too bad the second half of the film plays out this way, too, because it’s still plenty compelling; it just could have been so much better.

For my money, though, the spectacle of the first half of the film more than makes up for whatever shortcomings its screenplay and execution might have.  DeMille’s vision of a nation-building Egypt is hard to beat, even by Avatar, and the stars all deliver the goods in the rather campy, stage-bound fashion of many films of the period.  Heston would get better in Ben-Hur, of course, and Yul Brynner, fine as is he is here as Rameses, would never top The King and I.  Opposite the leading men, Anne Baxter hams it up as the “throne princess” Nefretiri—angling for Moses as Pharaoh, but doomed to wed Rameses—and Yvonne De Carlo (yes, Lily Munster) gives maybe the most realistic performance in the film as Sephora.  Megawatt stars like Edward G. Robinson, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Dame Judith Anderson, John Carradine, and Vincent Price all get plenty to do, while John Derek (later Bo’s husband) delivers a career-defining take on Joshua.  DeMille cast well, and directed well.  Even H.B. Warner makes a brief memorable appearance, as he was himself near death, quoting Psalm 22 instead of the scripted lines he couldn’t remember.

When it’s all said and done, though (and there’s a lot of saying and doing), the most remarkable thing about The Ten Commandments today is its unabashed embrace of the Bible.  Everything about the picture reminds us that we live in a very different country than we did fifty-odd years ago.  Even if a James Cameron (or a Mel Gibson?) wanted to make a staunchly biblical movie like this today, on a Titanic or Avatar-sized budget, it’s hard to conceive any studio giving such a project a greenlight.

This is sad, of course.  There should be no reason films reflecting a devout view of sacred scriptures—whether Christian, Muslim, Mormon, or otherwise—shouldn’t get greenlit, providing they are entertaining enough and are likely to reach a wide enough audience.

I fear we have entered not an age of tolerance, but an age of radical intolerance.  It’s tragic, too, because The Ten Commandments might be the most educational film I’ve seen when it comes to depicting honest and loving relations between Jews and Muslims—the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael.  Seriously.

The Ten Commandments is rated G.  What?!?!?!  Can that possibly be?  With whippings, murder, all manner of lascivious behavior, slaughter of thousands, and Bible-quoting galore?  Yes, it can possibly be.  And should be.  We’ve gotten to be so overly sensitive about ratings these days, and so permissive at the same time.  This would likely get a PG-13 today, at a minimum, for violence and thematic material… the same rating as Norbit.  Go figure.

You can watch The Ten Commandments tonight without even leaving home! It’s available for download purchase from Amazon and Google Play.

by Greg Wright

Dolphin Tale is polished, inspiring, and moving.  It seems there’s almost always room in our world for cynicism, but this film just about squeezes it all out.

That’s the post-screening blurb I fed the publicists who shepherded me and a dozen or so other journalists through the press junket for Dolphin Tale in Clearwater Florida, the home of Winter—the disabled dolphin who is the subject of the film.

dolphin-tale-inset2Now… rewind to about 24 hours before that.  Almost to a man and a woman (if critics can be so classed as such), the troupe of which I was a part was not expecting much out of Dolphin Tale, positioned as it is in the late-summer back-to-school dumping ground that historically features cinematic also-rans and never-will-bes.  And when Hollywood gets its hands on such “true story” topics as this, well, the odds of hitting a home run are pretty slim.

But here are some things going for Dolphin Tale that Those of Us Who Should Know Better would have done well to take into account.

  • The film is produced by much of the same team that made The Blind Side—another fall feature that surprised the hell out of an entire industry.  Dolphin Tale even features some of the same character actors in minor roles.
  • Director Charles Martin Smith, while neither a household name nor a cineaste’s pick for Auteur of the Year, has over the years been a student and chosen instrument of bona fide auteurs like George Lucas, Brian de Palma, and Carroll Ballard.  And like the animal film master that Ballard is, Smith has himself chalked up one other animal genre classic: Air Bud.  So while you might not peg Smith as the likeliest guy to direct what may be the best feel-good movie of the year, he’s at least got the pedigree for it.
  • Kris Kristofferson as a grandpa + kids + animal star = Dreamer… or Dolphin Tale.  Get it?

Still, nothing is ever a given in this industry—because so many things can go wrong between pitch and premiere—and lightning rarely strikes twice. Dolphin Tale nonetheless shook our whole jaded crew out of its stupor and left us enthralled.

For those of you who haven’t heard yet, the film tells the gussied-up story of Winter, who lost her tail in a tangle with crab pots, and was rescued by a Clearwater aquarium.  When she was fitted with a prosthetic tail to save her life, she became an international celebrity.  The film invents subplots about Sawyer, a shy pre-teen with a deadbeat dad, and his cousin Kyle, a local swimming champion who goes off to war and comes back disabled… like Winter.  And when the story also introduces another subplot about a widower marine biologist and his chirpy home-schooled (also pre-teen) daughter, well… you can just imagine the saccharine waters this film might drift off into.

But it doesn’t.

And I can tell you precisely the moment it won me over, completely.  But I won’t, as it might spoil that magical sequence for you.  But go see the film, and I bet you a fin you can pick out that scene in a heartbeat.  It’s an inspired, thrilling bit of filmmaking that invokes Ballard’s The Black Stallion.

I was also not only right but almost prescient about asserting that “there’s always room in our world for cynicism, but this film just about squeezes it all out.”  Says Entertainment Weekly: “It’s a cute story if you don’t mind temporarily trading in your cynicism for a bag of popcorn.” MSN Movies: “If it doesn’t bring a tear or two to your eye, you might need a visit to the cardiologist to see what you’ve got in there in place of a heart.” The Arizona Republic: “Attacking a film like this for being a tad cloying seems to be missing the point. … It’s like getting mad at a dog for barking.”  Rex Reed: “I dare even the most jaded cynic not to shed a tear of admiration and joy.”  And these are not marketing quotes, but excerpts posted at RottenTomatoes.com, which earlier this year hung Soul Surfer out to dry.

Need we say more?  Well, we could.  That’s pretty much the critical consensus rolling in, and glowing blurbs abound.  But we’ll (almost) stop here.

While I agree with other critics that the Motion Picture Academy will probably not be thinking of Dolphin Tale come time for acting nominations, performances are really quite excellent across the board.  Young Nathan Gamble, who’s had some pretty high-profile minor roles to date in his young career, reminds me an awful lot of Josh Hutcherson (Bridge to Terebithia) and was a brilliant find to cast as Sawyer.  The supporting roles are so understated that Gamble (and Winter, playing herself) have no choice but to carry the film.  And carry it they do.

On the thematic front, Dolphin Tale fares well, too.  One thread focuses on the willpower that is within all of us to persevere.  That’s exemplified by Winter—who also, in real life, proves a daily inspiration for kids and adults alike—and amplified by the fictional characters of Sawyer and Kyle.  “Just because you’re hurt doesn’t mean you’re broken,” Morgan Freeman’s doctor reminds Kyle.

The other thread carries a decidedly spiritual bent: the idea that we’re not alone in our struggles.  As Dr. Haskett (the marine biologist, played by Harry Connick Jr.) contemplates the demise of his aquarium, his pop (Kristofferson) offers some marine insight, reminding his son of one of his favorite poems, “Sea Fever”: “‘All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.’ … Just because we haven’t got to where the star is pointing doesn’t mean it’s the wrong star.”  And that kind of leads into the sequel, too…

I’ll just close with the best note I jotted during the screening: “You invest in the things you want to invest in.”

I said that.  And I’ll say again:  I’ve invested in Dolphin Tale.  I think you’ll be happy you did, too.

Dolphin Tale is is available online via Redbox. and Amazon Instant Video.

by Greg Wright

On September 12 Warner Bros. will release the sequel to the phenomenally popular Dolphin Tale, the beautiful, inspiring, and fanciful tale built around the real-life story of Winter, an injured dolphin fitted with a prosthetic tail. Like the original film, the sequel is built around the Winter’s saga… and, this time out, that of her young friend Hope.

During press events in 2011, I was fortunate enough to score a one-on-one sitdown with the film’s director, Charles Martin Smith—who, in 1983, starred in and wrote the narration for one of my top five films of all time, Carroll Ballard’s Never Cry Wolf.  You may also remember Smith as Terry the Toad in American Graffiti or Agent Wallace in The Untouchables—or as the director of the original Air Bud, among a number of other films and TV programs.

Sdolphin-tale-insetmith and the entire cast, including Morgan Freeman, are back for Dolphin Tale 2… which I fully imagine will be playing at a theater near you. (Dolphin Tale, if you haven’t seen it already, is available online via Redbox.)

The following is a transcript of my interview with Smith.

When I was preparing to come down to Florida for this interview, I was thinking of a line of questioning about life-affirming films that you’ve worked on—and knew, of course, that Never Cry Wolf would be part of that discussion.  But because I’m a critic, and something of a cynic, I thought we’d just be using Dolphin Tale as sort of a jumping off point for that. Because I’m jaded, I just wasn’t expecting that much out of this movie.  But after seeing it last night, I’d have to guess that, for you in your career, it has to rank right up there as one of those films that your Producer Broderick Johnson talks about in the press notes as “stories that lift people up.”  What is it in you that draws you to those kinds of stories, and want to tell them? Because, obviously, not everyone is trying to tell them.

CMS: Not everybody is telling them.  And I think you’ve got to hand it to Broderick and Andrew [Kosove] for really being the ones—and Richard Ingber, also, the guy at Alcon who found the story and wanted to make it—the ones that brought me into the process.  It wasn’t my idea to make this movie.  They found Winter and started trying to develop the story, and then they invited me in.  And I of course was thrilled.  I don’t know.  It’s so hard to make a movie; and I want to make films that put something positive out into the world.  It’s too hard to make a movie to just have it be an empty film that you forget about five minutes after you leave the theater, you know?

Yes.

CMS: I mean, I was raised in a very artistic family; my dad was an artist, and my mother was a writer.  And I am a musician.  And I really did grow up feeling like that was the purpose of any art or creative endeavor: to illuminate something about the human spirit.

That’s what Faulkner said in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature.  He talked about the role of art in lifting the human spirit and reminding us of what has built us up, rather than tearing us down.

CMS: Absolutely right.  Good man, Faulkner!

I was actually just trying to find a snippet of that quote the other day and came across the text of the entire speech on the Nobel Prize website. 

CMS: I’ll have to read that.

1939, I think it was. Very inspiring.  [1949, actually.]

CMS: That’s very well put.  And you know, you don’t get to talk about that stuff all that much in Hollywood.  It all feels artsy-fartsy fancy.  But I do believe that.  I do want to put something positive out into the world.  I want to make a film that entertains, too, but uplifts somehow, so that people walk out of the theater with something to think about, to talk about.  Even if it’s—  The last movie I made was about a crime: The Stone of Destiny, a good Scottish film about a kid who broke into Westminster Abbey and took the back the Stone of Scone… which technically was a crime, but they argued that it was also a crime when the thing was taken away from Scotland in 1296, and they wanted it back.  And people had different opinions about the morality of what those kids did; but to me it was a very uplifting story, and at least it could get people thinking about that stuff.

So going backward now to Never Cry Wolf.  At the time you called it a life-changing experience.  Can you look back now, to 1983, and still think of it those terms? 

CMS: 1980 for me, actually—I started on it in 1980.  So absolutely—yes.  It was an amazing experience.  I knew it when we were doing it.  I remember sitting there freezing in the Arctic after filming there for something like seven months, and thinking, “You know, this is absolutely wearing me down; but it’s wonderful.  I’m never going to have another chance like this.  I’m never going to have another chance to work on such a piece of art.”  Carroll Ballard is such an absolute artist.

Did it surprise you to find out that one of the screenwriters who worked on Dolphin Tale had also worked with Ballard on Duma?

CMS: No—I’d heard about that.

So it must have been pleasant, at least, to hear about that—that there would be a common connection there.

CMS: Yeah.  But I never really talked to Karen Janszen while working on this film.  So I never had a chance to—  Still haven’t!

She’s probably here in the building.

CMS: Yeah.  I saw her out there!  But I’m not sure what level of her involvement was with Duma, either.  Carroll writes his own films, pretty much.  Although he’s not credited as a writer on Never Cry Wolf.  He’s the absolute storyteller/guiding-hand behind everything. And I love that way of making films.  It was an amazing experience, the way he did that. His background was documentaries, largely; and that’s why his films have this sort of wonderful quality to them.

Well, I think of them as kind of—and this is going to sound terrible, but—Terrence Malick films with a heart. 

CMS: Yeah, that does sound kind of terrible, but I know what you mean.

Malick makes beautiful films, but he doesn’t move me.  It’s a very cold, sterile beauty much like a lot of David Lean’s films.  But with Ballard’s films, it’s beauty that’s connected—

CMS: Beauty connected to something.

To people. 

CMS: That’s the absolute thing.  And you have to.  Ultimately what moves us is people. I’ve always been—  Wow, this is a conversation that is going where no other one has gone today.  But having grown up with an artist as a father, I was always fascinated by the Impressionists and the post-Impressionists—and the difference between the ones who concentrated on landscapes, and the ones who felt like there was nothing worth painting except humans.  You know, the people who did portraits: Toulouse Lautrec’s studies, and Degas: how they would study people, and what they were like, as opposed to the others who were doing landscapes, largely.  Which is more valid?  I don’t know; they’re both valid, I suppose.  But it’s the connection between the two that I find the most interesting.

Well, the sequence in this film that really moved me—the one that got me to wake up, critically, and say, “Okay—I’m invested in this film; I’m going to drop whatever critical cynicism I might have because this has just got it”—was the scene where the boy swims with Winter.

CMS: Oh, good.

Which to me was so much like your scene with the caribou in Never Cry Wolf

CMS: Absolutely.

—or Alec’s sequence on the beach with the Black Stallion. Where there’s no words.

CMS: You can feel it in your heart.  Absolutely.

So were you thinking of that scene in those terms when you directed it?

CMS: I pretty much emulated it.  I don’t know—I know I never will, but I don’t know if anyone will ever make a better scene than the one with the boy and the horse on the island.  It’s fantastic.  Actually, before we started shooting, I got Karl Walter Lindenlaub, the cinematographer, and we sat in my room at the hotel and watched it.  And we just talked about it—how this was done, and how he captured it—how Carroll tells a story with images, and the drama: he’s a real dramatist.  And we talked about the Night Ballet, which is what I call that sequence in our film, and we talked about wanting to capture that there. And in the other scene—well, I would have loved to capture that in the whole movie—but the other scene on the beach when Sawyer’s rescuing Winter on the beach: when she’s wrapped up in the ropes, and he comes and sits with her, and gradually throws the trap away.  And we actually shot that the way Carroll shot a lot of things on Never Cry Wolf—which was difficult with these giant 3-D cameras!  We didn’t have the small, mobile camera, which is the way Carroll shoots.  But I wanted to capture that feeling of the boy and the dolphin on the beach.

Well, it really struck me, as you were talking about during the roundtable interview this morning, how that scene, without dialog, presented—you could see—  This just made me think of a contrast with Empire of the Sun

CMS: Oh, yeah.

—when Christian Bale, early in the film, is fleeing Hong Kong as it’s disintegrating and falling, and you can see in his eyes what he’s reacting to outside the car; but you never get to see what he’s seeing!  But here, you’re not only seeing the boy’s reaction but what he’s reacting to, as well: which is that sense of family in the animal rescue team—so you really know what he’s responding to.  “Here are these people acting as unit, like I’ve never seen before.  I don’t know what I’m watching, exactly, but it’s powerful: and I want to be a part of it.”

CMS: Yeah.

And it really worked.

CMS: I’m glad. Going back to the kid on the beach… I had a point there.

Oh, no!  I made you lose one.

CMS: No—that was the other thing.  There were a number of things I did in the movie that are drawn from The Black Stallion.  And one of them is the story of the Indian tribe and their legend of how dolphins came to be.

Okay.

CMS: You remember the wonderful scene at the beginning of The Black Stallion when the boy’s father, before the story, tells him the legend about Bucephalus? And he gives him the little horse figurine?

That hadn’t occurred to me—and the same thing in Never Cry Wolf with the story of—

CMS: How Wolf was created, to cut the weakness from the herd.  Yes.  And then I put in this, too, actually.  [Smith draws from within his shirt a pendant of a tailless dolphin, carved from ivory.]  I had Harry give this to the boy—which is very much like the Bucephalus scene.

Very much like—

CMS: Yeah, I walk through life wondering, “How can I make movies like The Black Stallion?”

Well, now, there a couple of story elements here, too, that were in Karen’s script, that scream “Ballard.”  The boy and his mother are so much like Alec and his mother in The Black Stallion

CMS: Yeah!

—and the girl and her father are like the girl and her widowed father in Fly Away Home.  And wounded animals, and everything.

CMS: That’s true.  Yeah.

And yet those were there in the original script, when you got to it, right?

CMS: Yes, they were.  Those relationships, between Sawyer and Lorraine, were largely there, yeah.  Although, before I came on, in the script the character of Kyle, Sawyer’s cousin, the injured veteran, was his big brother.  So she was actually mother to both of them.  And she actually spent more time mothering the soldier.  And I didn’t want that.  So I moved the soldier—

Across the street.

CMS: —to be his cousin, across the street, still having a big-brother influence; but I didn’t want anything getting in the way of the relationship between Lorraine and the kid.

Now, one element of the script that Karen said came specifically from you—so I want to follow up on that—is the quote from John Masefield’s poem “Sea Fever.”

CMS: Oh!  Yes.  Really!

About the “tall ship and a star to steer her by.”  What’s your connection to that poem, and why did you want that in there?

CMS: I don’t know.  I wanted to find—  I just have always loved the poem, and I wanted to find some way to get into that conversation between the grandfather and Clay.  And I just thought—  Well, it’s an old trick: quote from somebody who writes better than you!  I’ve used that a number of times in my scripts!

Oh, yeah!  Critics do it all the time, too.

CMS: Exactly.  I tell you: nothing elevates your script more than quoting from somebody who writes better than you do.  Gosh!  I did that in Stone of Destiny.  I’m sure I did.  I’ve done that in everything.  In Snow Walker I had James Cromwell quote, “I’ve slipped the surly bonds of Earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings,” that ode to the pilots written by McGee, who was killed in the war.  And even in Air Bud, I had a Christmas scene in the middle and I had the mom read, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”  You know that?  It was an answer written in response to a letter in the paper.

Yes.

CMS: It’s beautifully written.  So I quoted that in that one.  So here I was thinking, “Well, this would be a good place for a poem—and what about this?”  A star to steer her by: and Winter is our star.  So…

And now, five years later, Hope comes along, too, right?

CMS: Yeah!  Isn’t that weird?  Five years and a day.  Rescued almost exactly on the same spot, and on our very last day of filming.

So what is that, in your conception of the film?  What is the star to steer by?  Is it hope, or something more concrete?

CMS: It’s hope.  It’s the hope, and the inspiration and belief that you can do it.  The refusal to give up is that star.  And that’s what Winter really has, and it affects everybody.  And the other thing that I wrote in there—  It’s interesting, I really don’t know Karen, and she wasn’t really involved during the shooting of the film—she wrote the early drafts that I based my scripts on—but I put in the hurricane sequence, because I wanted some drama there, and then to bring it back down again.  And then the Board of Directors, which I put in there so there was some tension about closing down the place.  I wanted there to be an opportunity for something like a little angel coming down from heaven, in just this one car. And I shot it from this angle—

The God shot.

CMS: The God shot, yes.  I wanted to film that whole sequence as if you weren’t sure it really happened.  Did this really happen, or is this some kind of wonderful dream?  This is part of that star to follow, that kicks off Act III.

by Greg Wright

What new insight could I possibly add to your experience of Dead Poets Society?  Very little, I imagine.  My own history with this classic film is long and deep, having been a fan of both star Robin Williams and director Peter Weir long before they collaborated on this tale of an inspirational (if incautious) new professor and alum of a historically stuffy and conformist Ivy League prep school.

dead-poets-society-insetMost adults, of course, seem to have very little memory of what being a teenager is like; the normal result is a lack of sensitivity and understanding, much as we see with the parents of Neil and Todd in Dead Poets (played brilliantly by Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke).  However, in his passion for flipping that insensitivity the opposite direction, John Keating (Williams) equally forgets the impressionability of youth—and with tragic unintended consequences.  Keating is not the catalyst for the tragedy, of course; but he’s not entirely unaccountable, either.

Here’s a smattering of the historical critical consensus on Poets:

Williams, who has comparatively little screen time, has come to act, not to cut comic riffs, and he does so with forceful, ultimately compelling, simplicity. (Richard Schickel, Time)

Hurrah! Poetry and passion, comedy and tragedy are fused into one absolutely marvelous affirmation of independent spirit in Dead Poets Society. (Judy Stone, San Francisco Chronicle)

The picture draws out the obvious and turns itself into a classic. (Pauline Kael, The New Yorker)

Nothing about this film sounds, as described, novel. Yet it grips, because it has been made with plentiful feeling and vigor.  (Stanley Kauffman, The New Republic)

Williams is impressively restrained as well as funny, so fans need not fret. It only means that instead of Good Morning, Preppies, we’re given a bittersweet, even eerie Goodbye, Mr. Hip. (Mike Clark, USA Today)

Now, this is not a perfect film.  It’s not even Weir’s or Williams’ best (those honors would probably go to (Gallipoli and The World According to Garp, respectively).  But both are at the top of their game here, easily overcoming the more maudlin and contrived aspects of the script.

The greatest legacy of Dead Poets, of course, is that it is the contemporary standard by which all ensemble-cast prep/high school films are judged.  Weir’s casting and direction of the Welton Academy kids was uncanny, and beyond Leonard’s and Hawke’s stunning turns, characters like Knox Overstreet and Charlie Dalton are forever etched in a generations’ memory.

“Gotta do more.  Gotta be… more!”

Watch it tonight! Dead Poets Society is available on Amazon Instant Video.

by Jeff Walls

Based on the novel by French writer Pierre Boulle, the original Planet of the Apes film inspired a franchise that included five movies between 1968 and 1973.  After a forgettable Tim Burton remake in 2001, the franchise was rebooted in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  While it is often referred to as a reboot, that movie stayed true enough to the original franchise that it could also be considered a prequel.  The franchise now continues with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which logically advances the progression from the events of the 2011 movie towards the events depicted in the 1968 original.

dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-insetAfter a credit sequence that creatively explains how most of the human population on Earth was destroyed by either a virus or war, the film picks up ten years after the events of the 2011 movie.  After disappearing into the woods above San Francisco at the end of that movie, the apes have continued to evolve.  They walk upright, ride horses, and even wear homemade surgical masks.  They have managed to stay out of the human wars and created a thriving community for themselves where they continue to evolve as a species.  The leader is Caesar, who has not seen a human in two years and wonders if they have all been wiped out.

He gets his answer when a small group of human survivors stumble into their territory.  The humans are part of a survivor camp located in San Francisco that is hoping to use the nearby dam to generate power.  One of the leaders of this group, Malcolm, manages to communicate their desires to Caesar, who cautiously allows them to work at the dam.  Some of the other apes are not as trusting as Caesar, though, and they suspect that the humans have deadly intentions.  Their distrust soon evolves into all-out war, not just between the humans and the apes, but between factions of the apes themselves.

The first thing that stands out when you watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the special effects.  They are phenomenal.  The ape characters are created using such fine detail that every single strand of hair is distinctive from those around it.  No two apes look alike and you can tell one ape character from another just as easily as you can tell two human characters apart.  The effects don’t stop with the apes, either.  A herd of deer is terrifically realized, as was a giant bear.  Beyond the animals, the digital effects are also used to realistically create a post-apocalyptic San Francisco and the movie’s exciting climactic battle.  Even though cinemas have been crowded with stunning visual effects this season, this movie stands apart and will surely make the Academy’s shortlist come Oscar season.

Speaking of the Oscars, one has to wonder if this could finally be the year that an actor gets recognized for work in performance capture.  The undisputed champ of the art is Andy Serkis and he returns to give a spectacular performance as Caesar.  His performance is so remarkable that despite the fact that he is a simian, Caesar proves to be the most human character in the movie.  His every thought and emotion is portrayed wonderfully through the often subtle, never cheesy facial expressions that Serkis gives him.

The movie is impressive from start to finish.  It looks terrific, the story moves at a good pace, and the action scenes are as exciting as any others we have encountered this year.  It may run a little long at 130 minutes, but there is nothing in the movie that stands out as something that should have been cut.

Over forty years after the franchise initially took off, it seems that Planet of the Apes has once again become one of cinema’s more interesting franchises.  It will be fun to see where they take it from here.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16, the AMC Kent Station 14, and Century Federal Way.

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by Greg Wright

Diane Ferlatte, the National Storytelling Network’s Circle of Excellence Award winner, will be a featured “teller” at this year’s PowellsWood Storytelling Festival.

The first day of the festival, which runs July 18-19 this year at PowellsWood in Federal Way, storytellers engage registered attendees with workshops designed to turn everyday people into tellers of their own stories.

The second day, it’s all telling, all the time at key locations throughout the 3-acre garden. This year’s tellers include Donald Davis, Angela Lloyd, Barbara McBride-Smith, Ed Stivender—and Diane Ferlatte.

I had the opportunity to chat the other day with Ferlatte, fresh from her appearance at the Sydney International Storytelling Conference in Australia.

I understand you were raised in Louisiana. That’s ripe storytelling country. Were you born there?

Grammy-nominted storyteller Diane Ferlatte is featured at the PowellsWood Storytelling Festival

Grammy-nominted storyteller Diane Ferlatte is featured at the PowellsWood Storytelling Festival this year

Diane Ferlatte: I was born in New Orleans and migrated with my parents and two brothers to Oakland, CA when I was nine years old.

Can you recall the first time you were captivated by oral storytelling?

DF: We used to joke that my father had a motor mouth. Both he and my grandparents could really spin yarns on the porch in Louisiana, but I was too young to really appreciate it at the time.

When did you become inspired to start telling stories yourself?

DF: After we adopted our second child, I discovered that he was a TV brain. I had been reading stories to his younger sister but he wasn’t interested. I had to find a way to get him to sit and listen instead of watching TV. So I not only read in a more dramatic way but soon began to tell stories instead of just reading to them. When I was asked to tell stories at a church function, I was hooked. The first professional teller who had a big impact on me was Jackie Torrence.

You spent some time in Georgia’s Sea Islands collecting stories. How did that come about?

DF: I was interested in the Gullah culture and wanted to collect some of their folktales. Problem was, on Sapelo Island’s Hog Hammock community which I visited, the primary storyteller was long in the tooth and couldn’t remember much. So I interviewed and spent time with many of the remaining inhabitants left in that small community whose families had been there for generations since slavery. As a consequence, I developed a show around their various personal stories.

Do stories generally come to you, or do you search them out?

DF: Some stories come to me through personal experiences or through friends, but I do research on historical stories and folktales.

Your scheduled workshop at the PowellsWood Festival this year is titled, “Bringing Stories to Life.” Why is it important for everyday people to learn how to “tell their story,” as opposed to simply passing along facts about who they are?

DF: It is first and foremost important that we talk with one another. Passing along facts is better than nothing, but when we share stories we get a much clearer and meaningful idea of each other. We also are able to relate in a more emotional way to the other person through their stories. In addition, stories are just more interesting.

So is it about more than just leaving a legacy of sorts? Is it also about the “how” of living out our own stories, day by day?

DF: Sometimes we think there isn’t anything interesting about us that we can share, but we all are interesting in different ways, and we all have stories to share.

I hope your experience at PowellsWood this year gives you more stories to tell!

DF: I hope so too, and thank you very much.

For complete Festival schedule information, visit powellswoodfestival.com

PowellsWood: A Northwest Garden
430 South Dash Point Road

Price $15 and up; children’s and family rates available

Online Ticketing at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/531089

by Greg Wright

The PowellsWood Storytelling Festival “is like a little pearl,” enthuses storyteller Syd Lieberman.

The two-day festival, which runs July 18-19 this year at PowellsWood in Federal Way, is decidedly unique.

The first day of the festival, storytellers engage registered guests with workshops designed to turn everyday people into tellers of their own stories. Full-pass participants even get a chance at “Tea with the Tellers” on PowellsWood’s fabled Garden Room Terrace.

DonaldDavis

Donald Davis anchors the lineup of “tellers” at the PowellsWood Storytelling Festival July 18 and 19

The second day, it’s all telling, all the time, with special secret spots in the 3-acre garden set up with tents featuring storytelling tracks for adults, families, and children. This year’s tellers include Donald Davis, Diane Ferlatte, Angela Lloyd, Barbara McBride-Smith, and Ed Stivender.

“I haven’t been to anything like this,” says Lieberman. That’s quite a testimony from the man who’s a regular feature at internationally-renowned festivals like Timpanogos and the National Festival in Jonesborough. “It’s this little special thing in the woods that you come upon and you find,” he continues. “It’s wonderful that way. ‘Wow! I’m telling in this beautiful setting!’”

It’s magical by design, a “fairy tale come true,” to use the words of the Federal Way Mirror.

“Our belief is that people come away from the Festival happier, more joyful,” says garden founder and Festival organizer Monte Powell. “And maybe revitalized—from being here at the Festival, and also from doing the Festival in a beautiful, green environment.”

And make no mistake. The garden setting offers a one-of-a-kind experience. “Telling a story in a garden like this definitely makes a difference,” attests Indian storyteller Jeeva Raghunath, who also appeared at last year’s festival.

“I’ve told stories in the classroom,” she notes. “I’ve told stories in the auditorium. I’ve told stories by the sea. But this is very different, the reason being that it’s very identical: the gardener and the storyteller. Both of them do it with a lot of soul. And stories are not from head to head. It’s from heart to heart. So every story has soul. It has life.”

Festival anchor and master teller Donald Davis has the heart of it.

“I love trees,” says Davis. “They are listeners.”

Visit the PowellsWood Storytelling Festival this year and listen. Listen with the trees.

Listen, and grow.

PowellsWood is located at 430 South Dash Point Road in Federal Way. For complete schedule and parking information, visit powellswoodfestival.com. Price $15 and up; children’s and family rates available. Online Ticketing at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/531089.

PWSF-Logo-300x400July 18-19, 2014

PowellsWood: A Northwest Garden plays host to this annual 2-day festival of the art of storytelling.

The first day, internationally-renowned storytellers engage registered guests with workshops designed to turn everyday people into tellers of their own stories. Full-pass participants even get a chance at “Tea With the Tellers” on PowellsWood’s fabled Garden Room Terrace.

The second day, it’s all telling, all the time, with special secret spots in the 3-acre garden set up with tents featuring storytelling tracks for adults, families, and children.

For complete schedule information, visit powellswoodfestival.com

Phone (253) 529-1620
Price $5 – $125

Mothers Day 2014 Poster AltA great garden brings people together; visit PowellsWood Garden this Mother’s Day weekend, May 10-11, 2014 from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. with your mother or child and share the magic of this remarkable garden.

Entrance is $5.00 for adults and children under 12 are free.

Together explore the updated grounds and garden features via a new self-guided tour. Relax and visit in the Garden Room where tea, scones, lemonade, and cookies will be available for purchase from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Musical entertainment will be available both days as well!

by Greg Wright

Monte Powell’s garden in Federal Way plays host to a regional festival with international flavor… the PowellsWood Storytelling Festival. Curated by Des Moines resident Margaret Read MacDonald, a Huntington Park retiree from the King County Library System, the festival drew hundreds of visitors in its first year, and is back for its second installment July 26-27.

Eth-Noh-Tec at the 2012 PowellsWood Storytelling Festival. Photograph copyright Christopher Nelson.

Last year, the Festival drew the attention of CBS producers, who came to Federal Way to observe and speak with featured “teller” Donald Davis, an artist of international reputation–like MacDonald herself. (See the CBS video embedded below.)

The festival covers some seventeen total hours of storytelling from ten different storytellers covering remarkable variety of styles for different audiences. Federal Way Mirror journalist Andy Hobbs describes the festival as a fairy tale come true, an opportunity for the community “to sample culture and nature, right here at home.”

The term most used by adults and children alike is… magical!

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Learn more about the Festival at PowellsWoodFestival.com.

PowellsWoodReopeningby Greg Wright

Summer is a great season to visit newly renovated PowellsWood Garden, 430 S. Dash Point Road. The garden will re-open its doors to the public, with a celebration on June 22nd and 23rd 2013. Festivities include exploration of the garden’s summer color, bluegrass and harp concerts, a raffle, and refreshments.

Located on the upper end of the 40–acre Redondo greenbelt, PowellsWood Garden is a unique urban oasis, in which themed garden rooms are designed to inspire both homeowners and professional gardeners alike. Portland area designer Rick Serazin’s renovations have added additional structure, new vistas, more four-season color, and take advantage of the new plant varieties available to Pacific Northwest gardeners due to a changing climate.

Each visitor to the garden during the Re-opening Celebration will be entered into a raffle for 2 free passes to the 2nd annual PowellsWood Storytelling Festival Saturday July 27th 2013. The festival is co-sponsored by the Seattle Storytellers Guild, and we reported on that a few weeks ago.

The re-opening marks a return to the garden’s regular open hours of 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday through October. Details about the Grand Reopening event can be found on the PowellsWood website.

PWSF-Logo-300x400by Greg Wright

Storytelling has become a worldwide phenomenon. The Puget Sound’s newest annual festival, hosted at PowellsWood Garden on the upper edge of the Redondo greenbelt, is expanding this year to include a global-village emphasis. Tamil storyteller Jeeva Raghunath, based in Chennai, India, will be headlining the PowellsWood Storytelling Festival, now in its second year.

The festival runs July 26 and 27th and features a day of workshops in addition to a full day of storytelling.

One of the garden’s four storytelling venues, the spectacular and newly redesigned Perennial Borders, will feature a daylong program with an international focus titled, “Lively World Folktales for All Ages.” Jeeva-Portrait-199x300Raghunath (right) will be contributing along with Heather Forest and internationally-renowned local teller Margaret Read MacDonald. Festival newcomer Syd Lieberman will also co-host a session in the Spring Garden titled, “Traditions: Tamil, Jewish, Borneo.”

In addition, Donald Davis will share evocative tales from his North Carolina childhood, and Heather Forest will delight with her singing fables and with stories of her life as a gardener.

Now in its second year, the PowellsWood Storytelling Festival was inspired by PowellsWood owner Monte Powell’s annual visits to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. When Powell discovered that MacDonald had moved almost literally into his own backyard, creative sparks flew—and the Festival was born.

The Festival’s first edition in 2012 was a wild success, featured in a national network broadcast on CBS Sunday Morning. The Festival was anchored by Jonesborough regular Donald David, who is back again for the 2013 edition.

Raghunath is particularly excited to be participating in a Pacific Rim festival. She has represented India at 17 international storytelling festivals around the globe, training over 25,000 children and adults in the art of “telling.” Having conducted over 500 performances, Raghunath has also translated 45 books into Tamil from English. Her storytelling style leaves audiences spell-bound. She believes that she herself is the best prop for her storytelling.

Tickets to the event range from $10 full-day passes for the Saturday storytelling sessions to two-day passes priced at $120, which also include Friday workshops with Donald Davis and Syd Lieberman. Children’s and family rates are also available.

Learn more about the Festival at PowellsWoodFestival.com… and check out the CBS News report (below) that featured the 2012 PowellsWood Storytelling Festival.

by Greg Wright

Earlier this summer, Monte Powell’s garden in Federal Way played host to a new regional storytelling festival… the PowellsWood Storytelling Festival. Curated by Des Moines resident Margaret Read MacDonald, a Huntington Park retiree from the King County Library System, the festival drew hundreds of visitors in its first year.

Eth-Noh-Tec at the 2012 PowellsWood Storytelling Festival. Photograph copyright Christopher Nelson.

It also drew the attention of CBS producers, who came to Federal Way to observe and speak with featured “teller” Donald Davis, an artist of international reputation–like MacDonald herself. The segment aired last week on CBS (see below) and is described as follows:

Whether it’s Mother Goose, the tales of the Brothers Grimm, even the parables of Christ, you might say the human mind is hard-wired to respond to stories. In fact storytelling may be the oldest art form.

Correspondent Serena Altschul explores our oral tradition at those Woodstocks of words, storytelling festivals – there are dozens of such fests to be found around the country. We visited one of the newest, the PowellsWood Storytelling Festival, just outside of Seattle.

Plans are naturally already in the works for the 2013 edition of the Festival, though dates and schedules have not officially been announced yet. We’ll naturally bring you news as it breaks. This is one of those events to plan your entire summer around!

Learn more about the Festival at PowellsWoodFestival.com.

by Greg Wright

Over 340 guests showed up at PowellsWood Garden on Dash Point Road July 14 to sample some seventeen total hours of storytelling from ten different storytellers, and everyone seemed delighted with the variety of remarkable storytelling they experienced. Something for all ages, and every taste.

Debra Harris-Branham holds day campers spellbound

Debra Harris-Branham holds day campers spellbound

Federal Way Mirror journalist Andy Hobbs described the festival as a fairy tale come true, “an opportunity for Federal Way to sample culture and nature, right here at home. PowellsWood gave people across the region a good reason to visit and play. Most importantly, the festival nourished the community’s lifeblood.”

On Friday, July 13, around 450 daycamp children and leaders also tromped into the gardens to sit in the shade of an awning (one hundred at a time) and listen to three tellers wow them with tales.

The term most used by adults and children alike was… magical!

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The organizers expect this to become an annual event. Follow the website for updates.