The Chinese Mayor

Sundance Film Festival

Datong is an overwhelming place. Home to three and a half million people, this historic mining center is now the most polluted city in China. Like many metropolises in the world’s largest nation, it also has a huge housing problem. The scale of these urban challenges is the visual foreground of Hao Zhou‘s The Chinese Mayor, the first great political documentary of 2015. New apartment blocks tower over nearby lots, which would be empty were they not brimming over with piles of rubble. Everything seems bigger in Datong, from the 21st century developments to the 5th century Buddhist temple grottoes carved out of rock.

Zhou uses his camera to capture the physicality of Datong’s contradictions. He finds small dogs amidst the remains of knocked down houses, modern tourists visiting ancient sites, and newly relocated farmers stranded in the urban school system. In the middle of it all is Mayor Geng Tanbo, the incarnation of Datong’s confused coexistences. He’s an atheist Communist with a little figurine of Chairman Mao on his dashboard, in the company of which he recites Buddhist mantras. His signature project is the reconstruction of an enormous 14th century wall that encircled the city. It is at once a symbol of cultural history and 21st century construction, a replica of a medieval monument of the state produced by contemporary China’s bevy of independent and enormously wealthy contractors.



Universal Studios

It’s been fun coming up with funny women who could or should be in the all-female Ghostbusters sequel/reboot, but now the actual foursome has been announced, and it’s heavy on the Saturday Night Live vets. First up is Melissa McCarthy, never an SNL cast member but one of its favorite hosts of the past few years. We knew she’d be in the movie, even before writer-director Paul Feig acknowledged he’d likely re-team with the actress. She’s the Robert De Niro to his Martin Scorsese. Joining her is fellow Bridesmaids star Kristen Wiig and two current ladies of SNL, recent addition Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon, who has sort of been the Kristen Wiig substitute (yet still brilliantly hilarious all her own). This is a dream cast for some of us. I’m one of them.

It makes sense that Feig would look to the late-night sketch comedy show, as it keeps with the original Ghostbusters cast, which was actually supposed to be more SNL heavy than it was. Dan Aykroyd‘s first choices for the main trio were himself, John Belushi and Eddie Murphy. After Belushi died, another SNL cast member, Bill Murray came aboard. Murphy, meanwhile, declined his offer. Harold Ramis and Rick Moranis were both sketch vets, too, but from SCTV. Ernie Hudson, meanwhile, was an odd man out in that regard. As for the other parallel you’d all like to make: let’s not bother trying to determine which new Ghostbuster matches up with which old Ghostbuster, even if there’s one black person in this foursome, just like in the old.

Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy 03

Marvel Studios

It all began with a really great Photoshop of Chris Pratt dressed as Indiana Jones. No, wait, it actually started with the actor’s performance in Guardians of the Galaxy, the opening of which has him aping the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Fans of Pratt thought, “Hmm, he’s sort of doing a bit of Indy meets Han Solo there in that surprisingly awesome movie; perhaps he’s the new Harrison Ford and so let’s get the Internet excited with an image of what he would look like in a Regarding Henry remake.” Just kidding; they exclaimed, “Here’s Pratt as Indy with hat and jacket and whip!!” (specifically “Rahzzah” on Deviant Art) And some websites ran with the idea to the point that others were reporting it as rumor if not truth.

Well, now even the trades are on board, because maybe Disney is actually on board. Deadline claims the studio is “eyeing” Pratt for the role once they start making new Indiana Jones movies. That doesn’t mean there’s any deal out to the actor or a greenlight of a production or anything. If the sources are to be believed even, this is all just a matter of Disney saying, “Hmm, he sort of looks perfect as Indy in that fan-made picture — let’s consider it.” But last year, before their Guardians movie was a huge hit and fans were playing with Photoshop, they were all, “Hmm, how about Robert Pattinson for the Indiana Jones franchise?” And before that, they were saying, “Hmm, how about Bradley Cooper for Indy?”

Sembene Documentary

Sundance Film Festival

Often credited as “the father of African cinema,” Ousmane Sembène has nonetheless gone unknown to wider audiences, though his films are beloved by art house aficionados. There’s a lot to cover about his life, from his humble origin as the son of a dock worker to his time as a union activist in France, yet the biographical documentary Sembene! doesn’t seek to act as an easy introduction to him or his work. It treats the Senegalese director’s story as just that, a story.

That doesn’t sound like it should be an unusual approach, but by relating Sembène’s upbringing, development and evolving career while neither assuming the audience is already familiar with him nor simplifying anything for their benefit, the movie is treading fresh ground.


How to Dance in Ohio

Sundance Film Festival

Teenage rites of passage are difficult enough when you’re “normal.” But having autism or other developmental issues brings its own set of anxieties and challenges to growing up. In Columbus, a group of young people all attend a special workshop designed to help them improve their social skills. The culmination of a 12-week program is a spring formal. How to Dance in Ohio focuses mainly on three girls as they prep for the big night.

Although the impending event and its buildup lend a narrative skeleton to the documentary, it’s mainly a slice-of-life piece. The day-to-day details of living on the spectrum come to the forefront, often to interesting effect. Pop culture is thick with stereotypes about autism, which have, if anything, grown more aggressive as autistic characters have taken more prominent roles in entertainment (e.g. The Big Bang Theory or Sherlock). This film gently nudges those preconceptions aside.


Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo for Selma

Paramount Pictures

When it comes to the Oscar nominations, critics and moviegoers alike tend to focus on the negatives, but at least the outrage this year has been about a snub of genuine importance. Upon its rapturous reception by critics and audiences, Selma figured to be nominated in all the major categories, but it ultimately received only a pair of nods – for Best Picture and Best Original Song (John Legend’s beautiful “Glory”) – that have left its supporters furious and bewildered.

Oscar pundits have cited an amalgam of reasons one of the best-reviewed movies of the year received just two arguably token nominations – from its late release-date to a poorly-run campaign by Paramount – but everyone also seems to agree that the suspicious fact-checking campaign that emerged around its release date took a serious toll. In case you missed it, an historian and a former presidential staffer took to the op-ed pages over Christmas to complain that the film painted an unfairly antagonistic portrait of President Lyndon Johnson, who, they argue, was in reality very supportive of the film’s titular march. One of them even suggested that “Selma was LBJ’s idea.” The Hollywood trades reported on the controversy the following Monday, which, perhaps not coincidentally, was the day Oscar ballots went out. It would take a major suspension of disbelief to see this as anything but a very effective smear campaign run by a rival studio.

Chev and Bev

Warner Bros. Pictures

Sometimes you need to let the past be the past and do something original for a change. And sometimes you just need to give us fans what we want. Do we need for Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo to co-star in a TV show that strangely doesn’t have anything to do with the Vacation movie franchise? No. Do we want for the duo, best known together as Clark and Ellen Griswold, to just co-star in a TV show based on the Vacation movie franchise? Yes. At this point, why not?

They’ve done so many of those movies, some great and some not, and there’s another sequel/reboot on the way focused on grown-up Rusty and Audrey (Ed Helms and Leslie Mann). They’ve also done commercials as their Vacation characters. A TV show like what ABC has a pilot order for, titled Chev & Bev, is only going to remind us of their iconic pairings. It’s time for Chase and D’Angelo to face the fact that as they enter their twilight years this is what they have to do, forever.

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

Gravitas Ventures

In 1973, the production company Kelly-Jordan Enterprises sought to fund a group of relatively inexpensive features, one being a blaxploitation vampire film in an attempt to reproduce the success of the previous year’s Blacula. When playwright Bill Gunn was initially pitched the idea, he balked, but later grew intrigued by the potential for using vampirism as a metaphor for addiction. Gunn’s film, Ganja & Hess, bore a uniquely elegiac dream structure, with its hypnotic images, arthouse sensibility, and cyclical music cues resembling something worlds away from William Marshall’s broadly comic take on Dracula. Concerned with themes of desire, self-destruction, and the tensions between cultural history and assimilation, Gunn created an image of black vampirism that refused to be a novelty or gimmick, manifested in a style of filmmaking that rejected token categorization.

Baffled, the production company didn’t know what to do with Gunn’s film despite its positive reception at Cannes. Kelly-Jordan sold Ganja & Hess to a smaller distributor who cut it by more than half an hour, advertised its sex scenes, and rescored/redubbed its audio track until finally releasing the film on the grindhouse circuit under the title Blood Couple.

The original cut was restored twenty-five years later through a combination of prints, and with new restorations, upgrades, and repertory screenings since, Gunn’s film has slowly gained a reputation as a truly singular work of African American filmmaking.

Spike Lee’s remake, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, is a manifest tribute to a still-underseen film – another important “upgrade” that serves as a widely publicized means to bring an essential work of film history out of obscurity and into contemporary relevance. But remaking Ganja & Hess also affords Lee himself new opportunities, as retooling such a defiant work of filmmaking should.


Here in Texas, where Film School Rejects calls home, there are a lot of pop culture nerds. But not so many that it could be called a cultural landmark, at least not across the state (or outside of Austin, for that matter). There is however, a prevailing cultural entity that does exist in every corner of the state: football. It’s not so much a game or a pastime in Texas as it is a way of life. It’s everywhere around us, which is why we’re particularly curious about the Esquire Network show Friday Night Tykes.

Friday Night Tykes season 2 continues to take a hard look at youth sports, the coaching, and the extreme lengths that some parents are willing to endure in order to make their child a champion. Brutal hits, ferocious coaches, rabid fans. The show takes an inside look at the Texas Youth Football Association, the most competitive youth football league in America. A place where old-school virtues of victory and competition haven’t died and there are no trophies for second place. For the parents and coaches, losing is not an option – ever. But are these kids being pushed too hard, too fast?

Henri Short Film

Eli Sasich

More than a tribute to the sci-fi films of the 1970s and 1980s, this short film from Eli Sasich takes on a life of its own by blending a sleek design and DIY effects with an emotional story focused on the naivete of a mechanical heart.

In HENRi, the well-trod concept of floating solo through the darkness of space is injected into a spaceship — a self-aware AI that doesn’t seem to be all that aware. Voiced by 2001‘s Keir Dullea (in a clever meta move), the ship goes through its tasks “There Will Come Soft Rains” style until he begins creating a humanoid body for himself. Like the best sci-fi, it features a sweet vulnerability within unbending metal — a spirit in the machine.

It also looks cool. Some shots look like they were gift wrapped from The Frame Store, others appear to have been done in someone’s basement, and while that sounds like it could be a bad combination, the end result here works wonders specifically because of the underlying childhood nature to its star. By the time Margot Kidder shows up (no kidding), the bigthink questions are swirling around, surrounding every action. What does it mean to build yourself? What does it mean to emulate a mind? What does it mean to come to the end of who you are? What does it mean to evolve?

HENRi captures these questions with seriousness, not severity, and it’s a beautifully rich short film for doing so.

Fantastic Four reboot trailer

Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

For a while there, it seemed like maybe the Fantastic Four reboot was as imaginary as Stan Lee wished the Roger Corman version was. But here, at last, with barely more than six months left until its release, is our first teaser. Sorry if you want a lot of footage of the superhero quartet in action and using their powers or even showing off their powers, because this is still only a slight look at what we have to look forward to.

Still, what’s here is pretty, um, fantastic. There’s voiceover narration from The Wire and House of Cards actor Reg E. Cathey, who plays Dr. Franklin Storm — father of Johnny and Sue. There are a mere hints at The Thing and Human Torch in transformed mode. Mostly, though, this is interestingly Interstellar-like in the story it’s teasing. If we didn’t know it was a superhero movie, I doubt we’d get that impression at all from this.

Also, is it just titled Fantastic Four now, without a “the”? Or, should we be spelling it Fant4stic

Going Clear

HBO Documentary Films

There’s nothing especially revelatory contained within Alex Gibney‘s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (or just “the Scientology doc,” if you’re feeling compelled to go clear in your own way) and viewers who have previously read the source material — Lawrence Wright‘s nonfiction book of the same name — won’t be shocked by what the documentary contains, but what Gibney offers instead is a clearly designed crash course in understanding the so-called “prison of belief” that entraps the organization’s devotees. Crisply cobbled together from interviews (many from former Scientology members, including exceedingly high-ranking figures), stock footage, fresh looks at the various Scientology centers, and personal information, the film is a faithful companion to Wright’s book that also stands on its own, mainly because it’s put together so well.

Gibney has collected an impressive area of interview subjects for the feature, and their various levels of indoctrination and information neatly layer the material. The most recognizable talking head of all is filmmaker Paul Haggis, who infamously left the Church of Scientology in 2009, and has spoken out about his decision ever since. Haggis is an interesting case study, and his story works on an almost microcosmic level. Gibney’s feature opens with his subjects discussing how they first got into Scientology, and Haggis’ story is the most recognizable: he wanted things, he heard they made things happen, he joined them. The repercussions, of course, could not have been foreseen.



In the grand finale of our “Debut Films” series, Cargill and I don our black suits, gather at the Junkfood Diner, and discuss the cultural and cinematic impact of Quentin Tarantino‘s explosive first feature, Reservoir Dogs. QT didn’t simply hit the ground running with a smart, engaging neo-noir, he also helped jump-start an indie film revolution.

The episode also diverts temporarily into a discussion about jalapeno sausage crazy, which is both apropos to Tarantino dialogue and pursuant to the core values of this podcast. Alright ramblers, ramble on over and download this week’s show.

And hey, if you’d like to nominate Junkfood Cinema for a Podcast Award, you can do so via this link.  (Maybe the People’s Choice and/or Movies/Films categories why not?)

You should follow Brian (@Briguysalisbury), Cargill (@Massawyrm), and the show (@Junkfoodcinema).

Download Episode #41 Directly

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published: 01.28.2015
published: 01.27.2015
published: 01.27.2015
published: 01.27.2015

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