Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Say it loud and proud: We Still Live Here screens Wednesday at Rice Media Center

So here's the pitch: Jessie Little Doe, a Native American social worker, starts to have recurring dreams in which vaguely familiar people from another era talk to her in an incomprehensible language. Jessie -- a feisty and inquisitive thirtysomething -- is befuddled and annoyed: Why can't these folks just speak English? Only gradually does she realize that they're speaking Wampanoag, the ancient language of her tribal ancestors. A language no one had used for more than a century.

These and other events send Jessie and members of the Aquinnah and Mashpee Wampanaog communities on an odyssey to uncover hundreds of documents written in their language. Which in turn leads her to pursue a master's degree in Linguistics at MIT and, more important, accomplish something no one has ever  done before – bring a language alive again in an American Indian community many generations after its last Native speakers had passed away. Jessie's now six-year-old daughter, Mae Alice, is the first Native speaker of Wampanaog since a time before movies talked and radios broadcast.

It may sound like the stuff of uplifting fiction, but it's actually the true-life tale compellingly told by award-winning filmmaker Anne Makepeace (pictured above) in We Still Live Here. The acclaimed documentary, a presentation of Public Television's Independent Lens series, will have a free screening at 7 pm Wednesday at the Rice Media Center as part of the ongoing Community Cinema project.

"I was profoundly moved by this story," Makepeace told PBS NewsHour, "and by Jessie herself, who never ceased to amaze me with her earthy humor, her loyal friendship, and her fierce dedication to the work of reviving the language."

Even so, Makepeace feared she would face resistance if she tried to make a movie about that revival: "Jessie and other members of the Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project had a strict policy of never allowing their language to be used in anything that could be sold. They had refused many requests by teachers, filmmakers, and writers for translations and use of the language, because they want to nurture the language and keep it to themselves, at least until they reach a critical mass of fluent speakers."

And there was another complication: Makepeace's own family history.

"My ancestors were Puritans who came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630," Makepeace said, "and over the decades and centuries [they] proceeded to co-opt Wampanoag lands" in present-day Massachusetts and Rhode Island. "Distant Makepeace relatives own Ocean Spray, and have thousands of acres of cranberry bogs in what was once Wampanoag territory. One of my direct ancestors took part in the Great Swamp Massacre during King Philip's War, a devastating conflagration that decimated Native people in New England in 1676."

Near the of 2007, however, Makepeace mustered the courage to approach Jessie and her associate, Linda Coombs. "I told them that I would love to make a film about the resurrection of their language, that their story had grabbed me by the heart and wouldn't let go. I said that I didn't know how I would do it but that I felt it was an incredibly important story, that it had reached a place very deep in me and that I would be honored to tell it. And then I told them of my family history, even though I feared that this would put an end to the idea right then and there.

"Instead, they listened carefully, and when I was done, one of them simply said, 'You're closing the circle.'"

Now that We Still Live Here is complete and in circulation -- the film is getting public screenings in many other venues nationwide, and is available on DVD -- Makepeace hopes it will inspire the efforts of other indiginous people.

"It is a story of Native Americans taking charge of their history and their identities," the filmmaker says, "reaching back to the words of their ancestors and forward to their children's futures. My hope is that Native Americans and indigenous people around the world whose languages and cultures are endangered will take heart and renew their efforts to revive and revitalize their Native tongues, so that this country and this world retains its rich and infinitely varied cultural diversity.

"I would also like every American to see this film and acquire a deeper understanding and a greater awareness of the Indian people they celebrate at Thanksgiving every year, and of the unique and diverse histories and cultures of Native American communities living in our midst."

Here's a trailer for We Still Live Here.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Blast from the past: Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt in The Devil's Own

Not very long before the 1997 release of The Devil's Own -- the late Alan J. Pakula's thriller about an IRA terrorist (Brad Pitt) who hides out under an assumed name in the home of a too-trusting New York cop (Harrison Ford) -- Pitt was quoted by interviewers as being highly displeased by the way IRA activists were depicted in early rewrites of the script. (Midway through production, he denounced the movie as the  "most irresponsible bit of film making — if you can even call it that — that I've ever seen." He seemed to have changed his mind about the project by the time I caught up with him at the New York junket for Devil's Own. (At the very start of the video, we're caught briefly chatting about the long-delayed release of Hard Eight -- a.k.a. Sydney -- which starred his then-sweetheart Gwyneth Paltrow.)

But I have to say: Looking back at my interview with Ford at the same junket, it strikes me that he was still a tad unhappy about his co-star's going public with complaints. Come to think of it, Ford doesn't seem much happier about the then-upcoming re-release of Star Wars movies, does he?

Friday, November 25, 2011

3DS vs. Nintento DS Lite

The nephew of a dear friend prepared this "review" for YouTube. And, frankly, I'm impressed. Even if YouTube had existed back in the day, I'm not sure I could have produced something equally slick for King Kong vs. Godzilla.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Posters for movies that may or may not ever exist

For more, check here. And don't say you weren't warned: At least one or two appear to be forthcoming releases from those wild and crazy guys over at The Asylum.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Me & Ethan Hawke

Ethan Hawke was so witty, gracious and enthusiastically forthcoming Saturday night at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, he actually made me look like I knew what I was doing during the Q&A we did for Cinema Arts Festival Houston. We talked about everyone from the late River Phoenix to the indestructible Albert Finney, and everything from surviving early failure (Explorers, the first film for both Hawke and Phoenix, was a box-office flop) to muddling through an on-stage embarrassment (and laughing off a comparison to Rick Perry).

Among the highlights:

Monday, November 14, 2011

Blast from the past: Barry Levinson talks about Wag the Dog

Back in 1997, I talked with director Barry Levinson about Wag the Dog, his bold and barbed satirical comedy starring Dustin Hoffman as a movie producer enlisted by a political fixer (Robert De Niro) to help distract the public from a White House scandal by "creating" a nonexistent war. Of course, that was back before either of us could have known that you just as easily could create a real war with nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Blast from the past: Clint Eastwood in Absolute Power

Those were the days, my friend: Back when I'd just take a couple days off from covering the Sundance Film Festival to mosey on over to Carmel-By-the-Sea, California, to drop by the Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant and kick back with Clint Eastwood.

We started out talking about... well, believe it or not, about Lawrence Welk, actually. But the conversation soon turned to Eastwood's about-to-be-released movie, Absolute Power, in which he played a sly cat burglar who inadvertently witnesses a horndog US President (E.G. Marshall) do a bad, bad thing. (Note that Eastwood is much too polite to correct me when I refer to his character as "Luther Wilson" -- even though the guy's name actually was Luther Whitney.)

After that, we kinda-sorta drifted over to his ongoing balancing act as director and lead actor -- and then discussed his next project, a film adaptation of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I would like to say that it was during this get-together that I suggested he do a biopic about J. Edgar Hoover, or maybe play a feisty senior citizen who wants those damn kids to stay off his lawn. But, well, no one would believe me, quite possibly because I'd be lying...

On the other hand: I actually did get Clint Eastwood to promise that we'll never see him tangling with dinosaurs or extraterrestrials. That should count for something, right?

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Blast from the past: Renee Zellweger in Jerry Maguire

I like to joke that I “discovered” Texas native Renee Zellweger way back in 1995, when I singled her out for praise as “the most formidable scream queen since Jamie Lee Curtis went legit” while reviewing The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre for Variety at the SXSW Film Festival. (Come to think of it, I also “discovered” Matthew McConaughey in the same flick.) Unfortunately, by the time that film was theatrically released two years later as Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, blockhead or blockheads unknown had decided to trim some of the best scenes – including an expository sequence that indicated Zellweger’s character had for a long time been forced to defend herself against the sexual advances of her mother's husbands and boyfriends. After those experiences, Return appeared to be saying, it would take something a lot more formidable than some masked doofus with a chainsaw to keep her intimidated for very long.

But never mind: Zellweger went on to earn praise and touch hearts as schoolteacher (and aspiring writer) Novalyne Price, the very special friend of author Robert E. Howard (Vincent D’Onofio) in The Whole Wide World. I was happy to chat with her (and D’Onofio and director Dan Ireland) when that unjustly overlooked drama premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. And I was downright overjoyed when, later in 1996, I caught up with her at the junket for one of my favorite films of the ‘90s – Jerry Maguire.