Filmmaker and Nephew of Joan Didion, Griffin Dunne, Visits Campus

Griffin Dunne in conversation with writing faculty member Jo Ann Beard. Credit: Benjamin Willems

Griffin Dunne in conversation with writing faculty member Jo Ann Beard. Credit: Benjamin Willems

Joan Didion’s essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” begins: “The center was not holding.” From there, she paints a picture of America in the 1960s, where young people sought an escape from the status quo. Some found it in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, a center for music, drugs and idealism. But the more time Didion spent among them, the more she realized that they formed “a scale model of Vietnam,” plagued by troubles all its own.

Throughout her career, Didion has taken many other lives on the edge, mining them for just as much truth and beauty. These inimitable works changed the face of journalism and placed her among this nation’s greatest writers. However, her life has never been captured on film - until now.

Griffin Dunne, Didion’s nephew, rose to the challenge. On Nov. 8, he joined Sarah Lawrence writing faculty member Jo Ann Beard for a screening and discussion of Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, which debuted on Netflix to great acclaim.

“I was really the only person who could do it,” Dunne said. “There were a lot of people out there who I knew would be interested [in seeing it], and she’s getting older now.”

Jo Ann Beard, another member of the SLC faculty has obsessively followed Didion’s career over the years, and is just as fascinated by how critics respond to her unapologetic nature. “Who is this strange bird,” Beard joked, “who talks so gloomily beneath all this California sunshine?” However, she felt that Dunne brought “something meaningful” to her - the kind of “love and understanding” that one can only get from having seen the entirety of someone’s life.

Dunne struggled with this at first. From the beginning, he hoped to portray Didion’s work within the context of her life and era. But their lives have been entwined for as long as he can remember. “When you’re a writer,” he said, “some things just feel so bright in the moment. But you have to go through them to know what you’ll keep.”

Each time Dunne found a new memory to include, he asked himself: did it say something about Didion’s character that absolutely needed to be there? Or was it just a memory of his Aunt Joan? If so, he cut it out.

One thing he did keep, though, was the first time he saw her. The whole family was at the pool together, and her husband told Dunne that he had “something poking out” from his bathing suit. Everyone else laughed at him while Didion “kept on going with a totally straight face.”

Why did he leave this in? Part of it was just how funny it was, and how much he loves to see her laugh. But it also speaks to Didion’s character in a way that nothing else Dunne found did. “She doesn’t write what other people are writing,” he said, “or see what other people are seeing.”

Beard told Dunne that she loves teaching documentaries to her students. From them, she has learned a lot about structure, and how to shape details into a coherent whole. The filmmaker’s task - getting their ideas down, then finding out how to bring them together - “makes what writers do look so easy.” So she asked him whether or not he planned this one beforehand.

Dunne found his structure in Didion’s own writing. As he went through her novels, memoirs, and articles, he thought long and hard about who he would talk to. “I wanted people who could speak about her work,” he said, “but also knew her personally.” Anna Wintour, Vanessa Redgrave and even Harrison Ford are just a few of the luminaries who share their memories.

Much of Didion’s life has been recorded on tape, but very little of Didion herself. “If I hadn’t brought up the doc[umentary],” Dunne said, “I doubt she’d have asked about it.” But she kept “a tremendous amount of personal memorabilia,” from family photos to handwritten notes to some of her earliest publications.

Beard felt that such a project would confront anyone with what might be the most difficult challenge in writing. “It’s hard to tell your own story, but even harder to tell that of people close to you,” she said. “But you do it all the time.” She asked Dunne if he doubted himself in the moment before everything came together.

“I felt terrified,” Dunne said. “Like, what the f--- had I done.” As much as he cared about Didion, he knew he was not the only one who felt the same way. Messing her up would be like messing up “everyone’s favorite book.” Dunne thought that if he had the resources support he needed, he might have the slightest chance of doing his aunt justice. It wasn’t until he showed her what he’d done, and heard what she thought, that he could let his own instinct guide him.

“She cried,” he said. “All these people talking about her, who she knows so well. And all this stuff I found, that she hasn’t seen or thought about in years. It showed me how much love I put into it, and how much everyone loves her.” Once Dunne saw that, he realized that “it was gold.”

Beard then asked Dunne how it feels to know that it worked, and that people liked it. All he could say was, “I don’t take a moment of it for granted.”

Benjamin Willems '21

Student Profile: On Set with Leila Chediak

Chediak with SLC ALUM Cary Elwes. photo Credit: Lisa Marie Kubikoff

Chediak with SLC ALUM Cary Elwes. photo Credit: Lisa Marie Kubikoff

Last month, when most students were heading home for Thanksgiving break, Leila Chediak (‘17) was on her way to Madrid for an altogether different type of family celebration. The occasion? The premiere of La Reina de España (The Queen of Spain), a Fernando Trueba directed comedy which Chediak worked on as a production assistant in the spring of her junior year. “It was very special to reunite with that entire crew and see my boss again,” she shared. “It’s a very family oriented, close-knit community that developed in those three months on set. And It was the first time I that I got to watch it, which was really cool.” 

For Chediak, a native of Miami, Florida, show-business runs in her blood. Her father, Nat Chediak, a Grammy winning Latin-Jazz producer and film producer, co-founded the Miami International Film Festival and serves as the director of the nonprofit Coral Gables Art Cinema; her mother, Conchita Espinosa, is a first-time producer for the The Queen of Spain. For her own part, Leila has been a student and long-time lover of film— she’s been both an intern and employee at Coral Gables Art Cinema, and cites the work of Hitchcock, Linklater, and Woody Allen among her primary influences. When Treuba, an oscar award winning director and a family friend whom Chediak regards as “sort of like an uncle” suggested that she come to Spain to work on the set of his latest project, she jumped at the opportunity. “He knew that I was interested in film, so it was kind of easy to put me in” she explained. 

Chediak working with the cast of  La Reina de España.  Photo Credit: Clara León 

Chediak working with the cast of La Reina de España. Photo Credit: Clara León 

La Reina de España is a film within a film, a period-piece set in Franco-era Spain which chronicles the production of an American film based on the life of Queen Isabella I. It’s billed as the sequel to Trueba’s 1998 film La niña de tus ojos (released in the US as The Girl of Your Dreams), and sees Penelope Cruz reprising her role as Marcena Granada, a Spanish-born, Hollywood starlet. Chediak admits that the process of shooting - which took place on location in Madrid and Budapest - was often more tedious than it was glamorous: “It’s a huge ensemble, and I had to make sure that they’re on set, know where they are. … of course, they’re Spanish and they like to smoke, so it’s a lot of ‘Where’s so and so?’” In addition to her search crew duties, Chediak - who’s fluent in Spanish - also often served as an interpreter between the Spanish and American cast. 

Granted, the job was not without some pretty cool moments. One day, when some extras failed to show up to set, she was asked to fill in on the fly: “I shaved my legs in the sink, did my hair and makeup really fast, and they pinned a dress on me,” she recalled. “All I had to do was walk with two extras down a corridor. You don’t really see my face, it’s more about the movement of the legs.”

Chediak also became friendly with Princess Bride star and SLC alum Cary Elwes, who plays a sort of spoof on Cary Grant in the film. Though she admitted, “I didn’t initially know that the had gone to Sarah Lawrence,” the two did have the chance to chat about their alma mater after another cast-mate made the connection: “He’s one of the nicest actors I’ve met,” she said. “He looks back on it fondly and remembers everything— where Westlands is, he can tell you about the Pub… He understands the inner-workings of SLC very well.”

Now back at Sarah Lawrence, Chediak is carrying her on-set experience - and her time studying under Fred Strype, Misael Sanchez, Heather Winters, and the late Gil Perez - to her own projects. She’s currently in the process of editing Constellations, a comedy which she wrote, directed, and produced, and hopes to submit it to film festivals once completed. Looking back, she credits Sanchez’ “Working with Lights and Shadows” course with preparing her for working on a set: “We recreated scenes once a week for five hours. When I went into the set I knew, on at least a basic level, what they were doing, how much time it was gonna take— if I didn’t take that class, I’d be lost.”

Chediak on the set of   La Reina de España.  Phot credit: Clara León 

Chediak on the set of  La Reina de España. Phot credit: Clara León 

Post-Sarah Lawrence, Chediak hopes to pursue a career in screenwriting— a goal she’s had in mind since first watching Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. As for what advice she can offer to film students at SLC, she urged, “know how to network, know your film history, and broaden your horizons when it comes to your courses: From history, to lit, to science, you can take inspiration from wherever you go.” 

 La Reina de España is tentatively set for a U.S. premiere in 2017.

Frank Chlumsky ‘17

SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.

Reels on Wheels: Creating a New Scene for Film Students

The 2016 Reelies. Courtesy of Sarah Lawrence College 

The 2016 Reelies. Courtesy of Sarah Lawrence College 

Many Sarah Lawrence film students imagine and create projects that expand beyond the school campus. Until two years ago, however, students did not have easy access to free, reliable transportation to facilitate their on-screen aspirations. This all changed when senior Nick Ransom ‘17 decided to start the club Reels on Wheels, which now provides film students with school vans to transport them to and from shoots. 

For most of last year, Reels on Wheels was solely focused on the van service. Then the film department announced that they would no longer be putting on the Sarah Lawrence Film Festival, so the club decided to take that on as well. They created The Reelies, a dinner, film festival, and awards show celebrating student work at Sarah Lawrence. The first Reelies festival was held in April.

“We realized that we could do a lot with this club, so we decided to kind of up it a little bit,” Ransom said. “We still [did] the vans but we also started doing little panels with alumni and professors.” Addressing the club’s success, Ransom said, “[The Reelies] had a huge impact on the school, I think, and they talk about it in the [campus] tours now. It’s like a selling point to come to Sarah Lawrence.”.

The club is going to continue everything they did last year, including The Reelies, but their organization has been restructured to make it possible for them to accomplish more. Ransom and Darcy Thompson ‘19  are the co-chairs, but a council of core members has been added to help make decisions about projects they would like to do. When they do decide on a possible project, they’re hoping to have town halls, possibly one each month, with other students who want to be involved in the club. Their idea is to let those students decide whether or not they actually move forward on the project. 

Reels on Wheels’ new council is still deciding what they want their first big project to be. The co-chairs know, for one thing, that they’ll be focusing on diversity in both Sarah Lawrence’s film department and the film industry as a whole. 

“One of the biggest problems we have in the film department, and at Sarah Lawrence in general, is that the amount of people of color at our college is ridiculously small,” Thompson said. “And so one of the things we’re pushing for is trying to get more and more of the people of color who are here and are interested in film to become more involved in film.”Alisha Brabham ‘19 has been put in charge of leading the club to reach their diversity-related goals. 

Emma Garcia '20

SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.

Selma's Oscar Snub Doesn't Matter

Films that are meant to be controversial don’t always become so for the reasons the filmmakers intended. Ava DuVernay, David Oyelowo and the other major players of Selma, t­he first film ever to have Martin Luther King as its protagonist, ­probably did not expect most of their conversations following the film’s release to focus on, first, the portrayal of President Lyndon Bird Johnson as resistant to voting rights and, subsequently, the experience of Oscar snub victimhood.                

The outrage that both developments inspired suggests a larger myopia in how we discuss the impact of art and popular culture, at least in the short term. Instead of making any attempt to genuinely assess this impact, or even find a framework for doing so, national conversations focus on tired­, old platitudes and short term indignation.  

In every discussion of the LBJ portrayal by historians and former white house staff, there is one familiar refrain: the film is another attempt by Hollywood to subvert the efforts of the real truth ­tellers for the sake of entertainment. (Joseph Califano, LBJ’s top domestic affairs aide, began his op­-ed with “What’s wrong with Hollywood?” before ridiculously implying that the Selma episode was LBJ’s plan and MLK was just one of his foot soldiers). Historian Julian Zelizer claims,

"[Johnson’s] totally committed to doing this but the big debate for him was when to do it. He was scared that he had all these bills he was trying to get— many of which he thought were important for African Americans like education assistance and funding for his poverty program — and that if he pushed for voting rights too soon ... voting rights wouldn’t even pass...he was still fearful and worried that the power he finally had was very limited and would be fleeting. I don’t think the movie captures that at all."

I don’t think Zelizer watched the right movie. The central tension that Johnson endures throughout the film is exactly what Zelizer articulates ­ as the pressure for voting rights intensifies: how can he balance it alongside his other priorities? This drives his arguments with Oyelowo’s MLK and haunts him in quieter moments, such as one scene in which he scans the newspaper photos of beaten black children while simultaneously listening to George Wallace’s racist vitriol on the radio. In the end, he comes out heroic, resisting the pressures of his party’s racist wing and, in his last scene, expropriating the civil rights movement’s theme ­ “We shall overcome” ­ in his speech sending the Voting Rights Act to Congress. So not only does the film portray Johnson as a fundamentally moral figure, it does so while giving us a sense of the basic struggle he endured that summer.                        

Granted, the response may have been far quieter if not for the film’s false suggestion that J. Edgar Hoover’s wiretapping of King came from Johnson’s orders; but, the need to fall back into indignation over “Hollywood’s” incomplete depiction of history ignores the fact that the film offers a window into how the figures involved experienced these events. When Johnson tells King, “You’re an activist, I’m a politician. You’ve got one issue, I’ve got a hundred and one,” he instantly summarizes the myriad books and documents that attempt to explain their relationship.

So perhaps what drew the ire of the keepers of Johnson’s legacy was the concept of the film itself: the telling of the Selma episode through MLK, the one man who was at the center of the many events surrounding the march. They didn’t know how to square their image of Johnson as a driver of events with the film’s depiction of him as a reactive participant.

Those who were outraged at Selma's limited presence among the Oscar nominees would make a similar claim about Academy voters—they are put off by films that have black people as the drivers of their own narrative. At the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Oyelowo was asked about being the subject of “Oscar snub outrage,” to which he responded, “We as black people are celebrated more when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings...” He went on to point out that “Until The Butler and 12 Years a Slave did well at the box office, films like this were told through white protagonists because there is a fear of white guilt; so a nice, white person holds black people’s hands through their own narrative.” (Coincidently, this is quite similar to Califano’s interpretation of history—LBJ carrying MLK through the Civil Rights narrative).

While Oyelowo is doubtlessly right about the reason films like Selma have had trouble getting made, he overstates the implications of the Oscar snub. In the same interview he asked the audience what movie they believed won Sidney Poitier his Oscar. When they almost unanimously responded “In the Heat of the Night,” Oyelowo revealed that it was in fact Lilies of the Field,  in which Poitier played a handyman on a farm run by Eastern European nuns. But without intending to, Oyelowo corroborated a point that DuVernay made when asked about the Oscar snub: “In a year from now, we’re not going to be thinking of anything but the film. Film is forever...we’re still watching films that were made a hundred years ago. If I asked an Oscar watcher now who won best supporting actor three years ago, you could not tell me.” (For the record, it was Christopher Plummer for Beginnings.)  

In other words, it does not matter that Poitier was not even nominated for In the Heat of the Night cause it is the role for which he is still most collectively treasured. Those outraged over Selma’ Oscar snub should rest easy because not only will it be remembered as a great film, it has set the standard for all future cinematic depictions of MLK and his stories.   

Moreover, as Oyelowo indicated, the film is part of a trend that has seen more films that show black characters determining their own narrative finding critical and financial success ­ among them 12 Years a Slave, the Butler, Fruitvale Station, and, of course, Selma. A look at the history of film shows that with just a few exceptions there has never been a successful movie that did not have a self­-absorbed white man as its subject. So, if Selma advances the counter­trend, it will not only diminish the caricatures around which black characters have been constructed, but instead broaden the array of stories that filmmakers can tell without great distributional risks. No volume of awards could alter such an enriching contribution to the medium.

Ultimately, national conversation over an important film was overclouded by two claims that easily falter under inspection. In a sense, this was inevitable because there is no framework for assessing the impact of works of art and popular culture. 

Take The Daily Show for example. For nearly the entirety of its run, it has been depicted as a driver of political change despite a lack of evidence to support this view. Just four months before announcing his departure as host, Jon Stewart argued that the show had done nothing to change the political world and compared people who believe it has to those who believe Bob Dylan’s songs changed the world in the 1960s. Stewart had been making the same claim even before Stephen Colbert became his successor on the cable line up—reminding pundits who took him too seriously that his show preceded one about “Puppets making prank phone calls.” 

The fact that Stewart has had to engage in this dispute for so long is indicative of the same trend that dominated the coverage of Selma. While it is true that the broader implications of works of art can only be properly assessed in the long term, the lack of any framework for doing so in the short term leaves us with platitudes and weak, sporadic arguments that consistently resurface. This insults our collective memory and robs us of any genuine, educational public conversation.

[sources:, Washington Post, Salon, NYMag,]

by Sam Harwood '15

SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.

Boyhood: Picus's choice for movie of the year

Image ©

Image ©

Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, and Ethan Hawke
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Screenplay by: Richard Linklater

Although a film twelve years may be a long time to make a movie, I assure you, it was well worth the wait. Boyhood is a story about a young boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), and his family from the time he is about six years old until he is about 18.  He must navigate a life with his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and deal with divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke), his mother’s subsequent two marriages, and his father’s frequent absence.

For the two hour and 45 minutes of the film, the audience watches everyone grow up, even the adults. The film provides insight into how the characters truly mature over time and grow both individually and as a family unit, even when that family unit shifts throughout the film. 

I do not know if Richard Linklater knew where he wanted to go with this film when production began more than a decade ago, but it is truly remarkable that he and his crew kept up with one young boy’s life for so long.  Boyhood is an innovative film in which the audience is literally watching someone grow up. In many movies that take place over a long period of time, the actors are changed out, but in this film, the actors remained the same, which is what makes the film so special. It is not apparent at the start of the film, but by the end, all of the characters in it have a special bond, perhaps because the actors created a unique bond among the filmmakers as well as each other throughout the filmmaking process. 

What is nice about this film is that even though it is entitled Boyhood, we watch Samantha grow up alongside Mason; and his parents grow, too. Though Mason is the main character of the film everyone develops in their own. Because of this, perhaps Boyhood is not the most suiting title for the fillm: "Growing Up" might have been more appropriate. 

I was 20 years old at the time this film was released, and some of the pop culture references throughout the film brought back memories of my own childhood. The film is true to the time that each particular segment was shot. This chronology of entertainment also helps audiences figure out that the film is progressing, because there are not specific indicators that tell us the film is moving between years of Mason's life. 

Boyhood is an important film for anybody who feels any bit of nostalgia for their childhood. While the film is almost three hours long (it feels like five hours when you are watching it), there is never a dull moment. So far, this is my absolute favorite film of 2014 and I cannot recommend it enough. Boyhood is by far the must see film of the year.

I give Boyhood an A+. If this were IMDB, I would give it a 10/10, but it is not so I guess you will just have to settle for that.

by Matthew Picus '16


SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.

Jeff's reviews this summer's blockbusters (part 1)

Okay so let’s face it: summer movie reviews are played out. The whole process is stale—you have got your previews (which have gotten far too long by the way), mid-point previews, wrap-ups, look-backs, and sneak peaks. It is unoriginal and it is boring. I get it. But, I wanted to try, so bear with me.    

Before we start, I want to explain the format. There will be three parts to this article. Each will consist of two superlatives. The latter will be a serious review while the former decidedly less serious (though still informative).

Without further ado:



Summer is a time for the franchise; ‘tis the season when we witness them shamelessly birthed and, two-to-three years later, grow. However, this summer—though abundant with reboots—really lacked a solid offering of sequels. While I saw Thor, Captain America, and X-Men and could have done without them, I am not labeling them as “unnecessary sequels” because I must admit I found them a bit enjoyable. Their cinematic quality is undeniable, especially X-Men’s.

The Contenders: The Purge: Anarchy, Transformers: Age of Extinction

The Purge: Anarchy poster © Universal Pictures, Transformers: Age of Extinction poster © Paramount Pictures 

The Purge: Anarchy poster © Universal Pictures, Transformers: Age of Extinction poster © Paramount Pictures 

Let me start by saying that I dislike most movies that have a colon in the title. Granted, neither of these movies made the ill-fated choice of including such punctuation in their first iteration (sorry, Percy Jackson), but it is still, generally speaking, a bad sign. It screams “I’m only in this for the money.”

Let’s begin with The Purge: Anarchy. Just right off the bat, stupid premise. I am usually not a stickler for “realism” in film but come on. For those unfamiliar with the premise of The Purge, it is one night a year where there are no laws. Not even against murder. Everyone gets out their pent up angst and frustration so they can live happily and comfortably for the rest of the year. Now I understand that there are certain allegorical purposes (governmental policies that maintain existing social arrangements) for this premise, but if we do accept that it serves the purpose of social criticism, can’t we agree that it’s ham-handed at best?

Aside from the basic premise being fundamentally flawed (good start), the sequel to the 2012 surprise hit shakes up the premise of the original almost entirely. I get not wanting to rehash material you have already worked with, but James DeMonaco (writer and director) seems to have entirely changed the genre of the film. The original was a home-invasion thriller ala Panic Room. This one changes the game and sets the main characters out on the mean streets. It kind of looks like Escape from New York; except not fun. I only liked Escape from New York because it was fun. And because of Kurt Russell. Purge: Anarchy has neither of those.


Then we have Transformers: Age of Extinction which is a blatant cash-grab. It is a prime example of the trend in action movies over the last decade or so to be disguised as if made for American audiences,  but they are actually just for the international audience. Explosions translate without subtitles. The plot is not hard to catch on to. Yet, for some reason, I am kind of okay with it in this case because of the fact that it does indeed grab a shit ton of cash (over $1 billion as of this writing); and they replaced Shia LeBouf with Mark Wahlberg—who was okay in The Fighter and The Departed—so I do not hate him.

Verdict: Purge: Anarchy



Life Itself poster © Magnolia Pictures

Life Itself poster © Magnolia Pictures

Now for the serious bit.

Life Itself is a documentary about Roger Ebert. It is an interesting choice of subject as he was a celebrity that was never exactly famous. People knew of him. They may not have read any of his reviews but they were aware he was important. But Roger, the man behind the critic, was ignored.

I always had the sense that Ebert was simply a mild-mannered man. Essentially an elder statesman of film. One of the vanguards of a movement responsible for popularizing a critical approach to movie going, even if it did result in the terribly reductive “thumbs-up, thumbs-down” system of rating film.

The arch of the film is interesting in the way that it subtly mirrors the arch of Ebert’s life and relationship with the public. As a younger man the view of the public was manufactured, filtered by the producers and such behind his review show At The Movies. However, once medical complications took his voice and ended his career in front of the camera, he began to interact with moviegoers in a more authentic manner through his presence online and with social media.

Similarly, the first half of his life is covered somewhat distantly with only scant cracks made in his façade. Then once Steve James (the director) was actually present and filming live, the façade is outright shattered. He is emotionally naked. There is one scene in particular where he is having his mouth and throat cleaned that made me completely forget the image of Ebert that I once had of him: that of the smiling older gentleman on the film’s poster.

All told, the film painted a complete picture. One that you would want to know. However, it never shies away from showing either the hard-to-watch  moments that challenge this perception. Life Itself achieves the goal of humanizing its subject. It shows his good and bad. The result is powerful. 7/10.

by Jeff Bernstein


SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.

Ernest and Celestine excels in animation, yet feels clichéd

artwork by Melkorka Tómásdottir '17    

artwork by Melkorka Tómásdottir '17    

Ernest & Celestine is ambitious in parts and lazy in others. Though visually striking, the characters felt two-dimensional and the plot – in particular the resolution – thin. It may be a movie meant for children, yet, in the context of Pixar and movies such How to Train Your Dragon and most recently The Lego Movie, that excuse for lack of depth in such a context is flatly invalid.

Following an unlikely friendship between a bear, Ernest (voiced by Forrest Whitaker), and a mouse, Celestine (voiced by Mackenzie Foy), Ernest & Celestine attempts to impart the message that one should not judge a book by its cover. However, this message seems to crack at the seams under the weight of its oafish, yet lovable – though mostly oafish – bear of a protagonist.

Ernest & Celestine takes places in modern France save people, who are now bears. The mice make up the underclass (perhaps the Algerians). The bears occupy the surface, the mice the sewers. Each vilify the other despite only having, at best, chance encounters to base their opinions upon. Furthermore, most of these encounters consist almost entirely of either running from or trying to kill the other; certainly not trying to get to know one another.

Even though their groups are in such opposition, Ernest and Celestine inhabit very similar realms within their respective societies. They each occupy the periphery, as their aspirations do not seem in line with those of their peers. Over the course of the film, it is this fact that brings the two of them together as they slowly come to help each other get by in a harsh, unforgiving world.

By helping each other, the two become wanted criminals. The resolution takes place in parallel court room scenes: Ernest being tried by the mice, Celestine by the bears. When all is said and done, the resolution feels weak and, at times, even forced. The message is good – one of the dangers of prejudice –  though it has been told before and more completely.

Plot-related shortcomings aside, the film achieves what it was meant to. Namely, it adequately provides a backdrop upon which to display the true achievement of the film; the animation style. Even though I have seen films that utilize a similar, seemingly-unfinished style, none quite feel as complete as Ernest & Celestine. The plot is simple enough for a child to follow, while delivering a worthwhile didactic message, and the animation plays to both children and their parents.

The version of this film that was recently released stateside is dubbed with American actors. It should be said that I am not a fan of dubbed foreign films, independent of any lip-mismatching that is bound to result. I believe there is a poetry to the native language that is present – whether intentional or not – that is lost whenever studios try to pander to audiences. Moreover, a good screenwriter does not just take into account the meaning of the words being said but also the sound – and, if done properly, the harmony – they make. However, I was not able to write on such a subject as I only had the watered-down version to go off of.

All things considered, Ernest & Celestine is a solid film that can be enjoyed by both children and adults – even without the presence of the former. The subject-matter is light and the film works very well for a short, date-type movie. Yet, it would have served this purpose more fully had it not been dubbed. Regardless, it was worth the admission price as it served as a worthy respite from either the explosions of action/comic book films or the heavy-handed, rain-drenched scenes where one character decries his/her love for another that has become typical of the modern romance film. It surprised me – in a good way. Though it could have been better, it is certainly worth your time. 5/10

by Jeff Bernstein '15

artwork by Melkorka Tómásdottir '17
nstagram: @korkimon


SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.

Picus explores the interconnected Marvel Universe

illustration by Thomas Ordway '17

illustration by Thomas Ordway '17

Almost any moviegoer these days knows about the massive Marvel Studios project, The Avengers.  Most probably know about Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, who have all had their own independent blockbusters.  The Avengers franchise is the third highest grossing series in film history, behind only the James Bond and Harry Potter franchises. Some of the biggest names in Hollywood play characters in the series, and these roles have only made even bigger names out of them.  Robert Downey Jr. is synonymous now with Iron Man, as are Chris Hemsworth with Thor, and Chris Evans with Captain America. These are some of the most engaging superhero movies ever made; watching them is unlike watching any other series. What about this series’ structure has made this so?

The Avengers project started in 2008 with the release of The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man. Not many people remember The Incredible Hulk because it was a critical flop, it did not earn any sequels, and the title character has since been recast. After Hulk’s false start, Iron Man was the true beginning of the series. The film was a smash, largely due to Robert Downey Jr.’s charismatic performance. It is a near-unanimous opinion that the Iron Man films would not be of nearly the same caliber if somebody else were to play the lead. 

In 2010, we saw Iron Man 2, the movie that really began to build the premise for the 2012 release of The Avengers (the film that ultimately brought each lead hero together), as it introduced Nick Fury and Scarlet Widow, characters from other realms of the Marvel universe. In 2011, we were introduced to Thor, in (of course) Thor, and Captain America in The First Avenger. It became clearer with each passing film that these stories were not intended as standalone pieces, but that they were going to be part of something even larger. 

The series has proved captivating to millions of people worldwide.  People are constantly wondering what is going to happen in the next movie, who is going to be the next villain, which celebrity is going to play which legendary character, and how the next movie going to fit into the overarching Avengers plot. By interweaving each Avengers-related release, Marvel has constructed a franchise where each piece heightens and complicates the other. Walking into the theater, even for a run-of-the-mill, single-superhero affair, audiences are delighted to wonder which other Avenger will make a surprise appearance.

A series constructed in this way is compelling for so many reasons. These films are made so that audiences wait after the credits to watch a short bonus clip, foreshadowing the next movie in the series. Sometimes these short clips can be comedic, and other times, they show us some major event that is going to happen in the next installment. If you go see any of these movies, you absolutely must keep watching throughout the credits. Some major elements to the overall story are introduced in these clips. 

Another compelling layer to the series’ construction is the novelty found in viewing the post-Avengers films in order of their release, regardless of which superhero is the lead. This might sound weird for some of you. One might expect to be able to catch up on the Avengers series on a hero-by-hero basis, but a scene at the end of Iron Man 2 that introduced Thor to the rest of the Avengers universe changed the rules. Now, each of the subsequent movies reaches across its individual brand and builds on the other, often teasing the story for the sequel to The Avengers (the film)To further complicate matters, each of the new films includes a new leap forward in the Avengers storyline, rendering the solo-hero films integral to fans of the super-group film. You have to see every piece of the puzzle; you will be lost otherwise.

Because of the Avengers series’ interweaving aspects, and the way they are epitomized in the supergroup blockbuster, The Avengers, this series makes for an awesome movie marathon.  As it continues, I suspect that The Avengers will become the highest grossing movie series in history, eventually beating out the Harry Potter movies (sorry fans).  The interconnectivity in this project was and is an ingenious marketing plan: audiences are always going to want more. The form of the series invites audiences to binge-watch it, much like a Netflix series. Get your popcorn ready and get comfortable in front of your TV or computer; you are going to be awake for a while.

by Matthew Picus '16

Fast Films: Need For Speed vs. The Fast and the Furious Series

I grew up in Los Angeles, a city in which car culture is the name of the game. I am kind of a car guy. I love looking at cars and learning about them. I am also a movies guy, so when cars at the center of movies, naturally, I am drawn to them.  

Since The Fast and the Furious came out in 2001, the series has been about extraordinary cars and flashy speed racing. On March 14, a new film came out that is sure to have its share of sequels: Need for Speed. This Scott Waugh-directed blockbuster is destined for comparison to The Fast and the Furious series that we are all quite familiar with. Both of these stories offer similar surfaces—cars and street racing—but they share a deeper connection as well.

The first Fast and the Furious film took us to the streets of Los Angeles, where we met police officer Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker), an undercover cop, and Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), a driver already involved in the underground street racing league. The first three films introduce us to all the main characters in the series, always keeping the story about street racing.  By the fourth film, we see all of these characters not just as street racers, but as a (crime) family. As they constantly run from the law while the stakes of their races climb higher, they become people the audience can rally behind and cheer for when they succeed, and feel sorry when they fail. 

By the fifth film, The Fast franchise is less about characters or street racing and more about drug lord takedowns. Fast Five (the best of the series, in my opinion), takes our familiar characters to the streets of Rio de Janeiro, where they attempt to take down the biggest drug lord they have met, all while being chased by the FBI. Fast and Furious 6, the newest film in the series, released last year, is essentially the same. The largest change: instead of Brazil, the story takes place in Europe. Most of the real the street racing, arguably the series’ best part, took place back in its beginning. I loved watching the street races, eyeing the customized cars, complete with high-tech, after-market accessories.

 Street racing remains the foundation and the bulk of the story in the new film, Need for Speed.  Aaron Paul stars as a street racer named Tobey Marshall from Mt. Kisco, New York, fresh out of prison.  He was framed for the death of his fellow mechanic and friend, Pete (Harrison Gilbertson). Pete was killed in a street race that also involved Tobey and a business associate named Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). Tobey intends to get revenge for Pete’s death by entering the Deleon, a secret race. The location is known only to its invitees; Tobey knows Dino will be among them.  The winner goes home with all the cars involved in the race.  There are some sweet cars; their combined cost is near $8 million.  

While there are fewer women in this film than there are in the Fast and the Furious franchise, all the characters in this film echo the Fast family-like dynamic.  They enter the adventure as a singular unit, all rallying behind Tobey as he tries to avenge Pete’s death.  

I pay more attention to production cars because those are cars that you can actually find and buy without going to underground dealers.  While these cars that are used in Need for Speed are quite rare (in some instances, less than ten cars of a certain model exist in the entire world), they are still cars that if you look carefully for them and if you go to the right parts of town, can be found.  They can be more easily found if you go to your local auto show, depending on what city you live in.  You will find Bugattis, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and a whole lot of other cars that will make your jaw drop.  In The Fast and the Furious, the cars start out far less expensive than in Need for Speed, but are highly customized.  It is the contrary for Need for Speed.  

So if you are into cars and some good racing action, these movies are not to be missed.  Also, a plus for Need for Speed: the new 2014 Ford Mustang—the legendary car’s 50th anniversary model--is unveiled in the last scene of the film.

by Matthew Picus ‘15

SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.

The Grand Budapest Hotel meets pastel-toned expectations

original work by Alexandria Brown '17

original work by Alexandria Brown '17

My stay at The Grand Budapest Hotel was thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish. More visually-driven than Wes Anderson’s previous work, Grand Budapest hits all the notes it needs to. Yet, overall, the film failed to leave me with the same satisfied feeling that I had fter first seeing Moonrise Kingdom; however, it should be noted the only real similarity between these two movies comes in the form of the directorial flourishes of Anderson; in that regard, fear not. Grand Budapest lives up to the Wes Anderson style in the truest sense of the ill-defined term.

The movie follows the relationship of Gustav H., played by Ralph Fiennes, and Zero Moustafa, played by Tony Revolori, as the two embark on a journey to prove Gustav’s innocence in the murder of a close acquaintance. As the action unfolds, so do a bevy of cameos, whimsical set pieces, and smile-inducing quirks. The framework of the film is a retelling of a story, which effectively results in a three-layered narrative that altered by the effects of time on memory. In this way, Grand Budapest essentially offers a “stylistic explanation,” a feature unique among Anderson’s films that, especially in the seemingly vapid characterizations, works to smooth over some the films weaker points. To be clear, the existence of a valid explanation does not mean that I am “okay with” those weaker points.

All told, the story works—it does what a good story should, namely keeping the audience invested. However, there are times when this pseudo-whodunit/prison-break/love story/coming-of-age tale/buddy adventure feels like just that: too much, too indecisive. Granted, in scope and style this movie is undeniably the most ambitious of Anderson’s career. While many elements feel intentionally shrunken down, the storytelling suffers a little under the immense weight of countless cameos, locations, and layers.

Visually speaking, the movie has a very clearly defined texture. As with most of his previous projects, Anderson makes use of a curiously crafted and meticulously executed mise-en-scène that runs throughout the film, bleeding into every last element from the dialogue to the shot transitions.

The result feels contained, even when following an ‘exhilarating’ sled chase. In essentially every scene are striking, pastel color combinations that are like a four-star all-you-can-eat buffet for the eyes with similar consequences; it is both delicious and nauseating in its decedent richness.

Outside of Fiennes, the performances fall flat. Most of the actors simply are not given enough of an opportunity to shine especially in light of the distant manner of the dialogue that defines Anderson’s films. The biggest disappointment is Revolori. Though Anderson has had a pretty successful history working with first-time actors in lead roles, nod to Rushmore and Moonrise Kingdom, the nature of Grand Budapest, being far less of a character study than a plot-driven spectacle, leads me to want to place the onus more on Anderson than Revolori. The character would have benefitted far more from an actor with quicker delivery that expresses more through facial expressions and body language than his tongue (an Owen-Wilson type), rather than the sweet – if not flat – performance delivered by Revolori.

Though my very high expectations were not met, I would certainly recommend this movie. Almost every single shot has something – quirk or otherwise – that will put a  smile on your face, if one’s not already there. Despite this, Grand Budapest is definitely Anderson’s darkest film to date though not his most grown-up (I’d give that distinction to Darjeeling Limited). 6/10.

by Jeff Bernstein '15


SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.

Picus gives his rundown of the 86th annual Academy Awards

It’s that time of year again where Hollywood honors the best movies of the year: the ones that inspired us, made us think, and made us wonder.  But the show itself is entertainment all on its own.  This year, Ellen Degeneres hosted the Oscars, filling the show with lots of laughs throughout the night. The pizza delivery?  One of the best moments of the entire show by far! The picture of Brad Pitt eating a slice?  That was just perfect!  And how about that selfie Degeneres took with all those celebrities?  That picture set a record for most retweets EVER!  And it happened before the show even ended!  For nearly three-and-a-half hours on March 2, Degeneres entertained us all as we watched some of the best movies of 2013 win well-deserved awards.  Here are some of my thoughts about the awards themselves.

Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen’s latest film showcases some of the best acting performances of the year.  With acting nominations for Sally Hawkins and Cate Blanchett, this film about a woman who loses almost everything is not to be missed. Blanchett, delivers perhaps the finest performance of her career. She won Best Actress in a Leading Role, proving that movies about strong female characters are not a niche. “Audiences want to see them and in fact they earn money,” explained Blanchett to journalists in the Oscars Winners Room. If you have not seen this film yet, you must go and watch it.


I think a lot of people would agree with me when I say that this film won too many awards.  A film about an astronaut falling out of the sky, this was my 4th favorite film of the year.  Visually, it’s stunning.  It actually feels like you’re in space while watching it.  Excellently directed, shot, and edited, this film took home the most awards of the night with 7 wins, and many more nominations.  Sci-Fi fans, you won’t be disappointed.  While this film makes great achievements technically, it lacks in its storytelling.  Does it deserve all the technical awards?  Yes, but should it have even been nominated for its storytelling ability?  Maybe not.

Dallas Buyers Club

2013 was a great year for Matthew McConaughey.  He won Best Actor in a Leading role for this film, showcasing his best performance yet.  Jared Leto is also outstanding in his role, earning him the win for Best Supporting Actor.  This film, about a man who is dying of AIDS at the height of the AIDS scare in the 1980s, is a must see.  This film is not talked about nearly as much as it should be. If I were you, I would make sure to go see it.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorsese has yet to direct a bad movie.  The Wolf of Wall Street may not be his finest movie, but it is absolutely incredible. Earning the bronze medal for my favorite film of the year, Leonardo DiCaprio shines in what is probably the strongest performance of his career.  DiCaprio has been nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role many times before and this time should have been his time to win. Without a doubt, this was the biggest snub of the night.  If you like a movie about people making millions of dollars illegally, The Wolf of Wall Street is the movie for you!

American Hustle 

David O. Russell produced an amazing film. All of the actors in American Hustle deliver some of the finest performances not only of their careers, but also of the entire year.  All of them were nominated for Oscars this year, yet none of them won.  I expected this film to be the big winner of the night, winning awards in acting, as well as in directing and production design but alas, I was wrong.


Joaquin Phoenix may not have delivered the strongest performance of the year, but it did have my favorite original screenplay of the year. Her is beautifully written, telling the riveting story of a man who falls in love with a computer. Spike Jonze deserved his award for this movie. Her will take you on an emotional roller coaster like few other movies will, and like no other movie of the year will.

12 Years a Slave      

12 Years a Slave was the big winner of the Oscars.  The film took home some of the biggest awards.  This is one of the toughest movies of the year to watch.Steve McQueen successfully directed a story that makes his audience uncomfortable.  Chiwetel Ejiofor delivered my favorite performance of the year, but was outshined by Matthew McConaughey for this award. Steve McQueen lost the Best Director award to Alfonso Cuarón, director of Gravity. This is perhaps the most important film of the year to see, and certainly my favorite, I recommend you go see it.

You can read this and all of my other reviews at

by Matthew Picus '15


SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.

Cohen reviews Jonze' latest Academy Award-winning film


Spike Jonze' makes his debut as a screenwriter in his new film Her, the first he has directed since 2009's Where the Wild Things Are. Her offers a plausible, thought-provoking vision of what our increasingly technology driven culture may look like in the near future, anchored by an intensely felt romance between a recently divorced, heartbroken man and an artificial intelligence. In this sense, Her qualifies as science fiction, but the futuristic setting is secondary to the emotion. At its core, Her is a love story about how and why we love and what happens in the moments in between when we're still figuring it all out.

In the case of Theodore Twombly, wonderfully played by Joaquin Phoenix, figuring it out means finding a way to move on from a devastating break-up. A year after his wife leaves him, and still refusing to sign divorce papers, Theodore works in an office where he writes moving, heartfelt letters for people who want to send letters to loved ones but do not possess his unique way with words. His ability to speak into his computer and watch as the words appear instantly on the screen is one of many small details included in the film that help us to and believe and feel immersed in this futuristic world. For example, Theodore comes home from work depressed and mouths "melancholy song" into what looks like thin air. But then all of a sudden, "Off You" by The Breeders, a suitably melancholy choice, starts playing, instantly triggered by his request. Her is filled with moments like this that emphasize the relationship between humans and machines and how machines have completely adapted to our everyday emotional needs.

It's all surprisingly believable. The film's central plot point is the relationship between Theodore and Samantha, a first-of-its-kind artificial intelligence brought to life by the voice of Scarlett Johansson. Their romance works because their relationship evolves in much the same way a real relationship would. Samantha and Theodore's love grows as they learn from one another; she discovers the complexities of human connection while he rediscovers his capacity to love and to be loved.  


Of course, there is always the nagging suspicion that Samantha is nothing more than a series of complex algorithms, therefore their relationship cannot be real in the same way that a relationship between two humans can. This is addressed by the film and handled with care. There are no clear-cut answers, though the ending of the film, best left unspoiled, provides a subtle insight into the filmmaker's intentions. This is one of those films whose ending will leave you contemplating what it all means for days after you have left the theater.

Cast of 'Her' from left to right: Joaquin Phoenix, Director Spike Jonze, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde

Cast of 'Her' from left to right: Joaquin Phoenix, Director Spike Jonze, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde

Ultimately, Her provides no easy answers, but it does raise a number of important questions about the nature of love. It is uncompromisingly honest in its depiction of the messiness of love; the pain and sorrow that accompany the joy. It embraces it all, tackling the subjects of intimacy and love with a sensitivity that only someone who has ever felt such emotions could have conjured. Audiences will recognize this and appreciate this compassionate, thoughtful and unflinchingly honest film for the powerful feelings it evokes. The film is incredibly moving at times, and hilarious at others. It's gorgeously shot and scored, and the performances are sublime. Much like love, it's an emotional roller coaster not for the feint of heart, but in the end, Her is well worth the journey. 

by Anthony Verone '17