California, Britain, & making it in the movies: SFFilm Festival Wednesday

I dressed for rain Wednesday, but fortunately didn’t have to. I saw one film, one TV episode, and one very interesting talk.

California Dreams

Sometimes a movie starts badly, but gets better. That’s the case with Mike Ott’s curious and funny study of struggling actors living in the desert not too far from LA. We meet five people as they audition for parts they’re never going to get. Outside of that troubling situation, they talk to each other about sex, lack of sex, and the often-embarrassing reality of their lives. The movie concentrates mostly on Cory, who’s a real mess-up. He has addiction issues and hasn’t had a job in years. He lives with his mother, and he can barely spell or subtract. Oddly, as the movie progresses, you find him, and the rest, very endearing.

I give it a B+.

I saw California Dreams at the Roxie. Ott did a Q&A after the film, but my schedule was too tight to stay for it.

The film will screen one more time, at the YBCA Screening Room, next Sunday, at 8:30. I doubt you’ll ever get another chance to see it again theatrically.

A Tribute to John Ridley: Guerrilla

SFFilm has moved the Kanbar Award, which used to be for screenwriting and is now for “storytelling,” out of the festival and into the fall. Fortunately, the Festival gave tribute to a man known primarily as a screenwriter – even if he produces and occasionally directs.

I first discovered John Ridley as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave (he also produced). Other films he wrote or co-wrote include U Turn, Three Kings, Red Tails, and the most recent version of Ben-Hur. He’s best known for his work on television, especially for the ABC series, American Crime, that he controlled.

His current project, Guerrilla, is a Showtime series about leftwing militants – arguably terrorists – in England in the 1970s.

The tribute took place at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission. After a clip reel, Variety’s Debra Birnbaum interviewed Ridley on stage. Some highlights, edited for clarity and brevity:

  • I’m trying to take my opinion and myself out of my work. 12 Years was about Solomon. Guerilla is about two people in love.
  • It’s a really wonderful time in TV. A lot of the movies I saw when I was young, such as Network, couldn’t be made these days. But on television we got Atlanta and This Is Us in the same year. But I still love film, with its communal space. Both mediums have their strengths.
  • My career really got going with Hendrix movie. At the same time, we were shooting 12 Years, which was a spec script I was working on for years. Before 12 Years came out, I screened Hendrix at ABC, and they asked me to do a crime show. I felt it was more interesting to look at the effects of crime.
  • Guerrilla is a child of the 70s. Militant revolution seemed very romantic back then. But as you get older, you get beyond the iconography and you start thinking about consequences.
  • I want to talk about people of color with agency.
  • We put Guerrilla in front of Idris Elba, and he not only wanted to produce it, he wanted to star. That made it happen.
  • Put down twitter, pick up Final Draft. Write that story that you have to tell.
  • The important part of moviemaking is in post. That’s where the movie really comes together. That for me is the biggest thing.
  • The Rodney King riots didn’t start with Rodney King.
  • TV is very much a writer-driven medium. The show runner controls the show as it moves through a long story. Film is a finite experience. It’s about what the director brings to it.

And then they screened the first episode of Guerrilla.

How do I review the first episode of a TV serial? A lot of characters are introduced. What I saw was basically the first act of a movie that might run 60 hours or more.

This may be the next Breaking Bad, in that it’s an extremely suspenseful crime drama. But it’s far more political, and has a much more intelligent approach to race. One early scene killed any idea I had left that the British police are the best, least violent in the world.

The plot involves a young couple who decide to break a black radical out of prison. This is set in the 1970s, when leftwing militants rocked western Europe and North America.

The alleged star, Idris Elba, barely appeared in this episode. I assume he’ll become a major character.

Note: This article was altered to correct a spelling error a few minutes after it was posted. My thanks to Brian Darr of Hell On Frisco Bay for bringing the mistake to my attention.