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Sundance Review: Upstream Color

Friday, January 25th, 2013

There are filmmakers who tell a straightforward story, and then there’s Shane Carruth, back at Sundance nine years after his brainy sci-fi film Primer, which was anything but straightforward, won the Grand Jury prize and went on to become a cult favorite. This time around, Carruth brings us Upstream Color, perhaps the strangest film I’ve seen at Sundance this year, but also one of the most interesting and technically complex. It took me awhile to wrap my head around this film; it’s not something you can digest and then immediately spit out any sort of thoughtful analysis of, but I finally think I’ve figured out what Upstream Color means … or at least, what it means to me.
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Sundance Review: Blood Brother

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

While on a vacation to India to find both himself and a more “authentic way of living,” Rocky Braat decided to visit an orphanage for children with HIV. He expected he’d visit the kids, feel sad, and leave – and he did. But something kept pulling him back to that place, so he returned to spend the rest of his vacation there with the children who’d come to call him “Rocky anna,” (“anna” meaning “brother”).

Perhaps it was the smiles and laughter of these kids, determined to enjoy life in spite of the hardships they face. Perhaps it was the simplicity of the lifestyle in India; when your day-to-day life is about minimalist survival, you don’t have to worry about things like credit card debt, or making sure you have the latest model smartphone, or the nicest apartment, or the coolest friends, or the hippest clothes. Perhaps it was some deeper spiritual call, a desire to strip away the typically materialistic Western values with which he’d been raised, to find the purity in a life of giving to others rather than taking from them. Or perhaps Rocky simply found in the children of that orphanage the closeness of family and unconditional love that he lacked at home. Whatever the case, he also found he didn’t want to leave. These kids needed him, and perhaps he needed them as well.

Without employment in India, though, Rocky was forced to return to the United States, but upon his return he found it impossible to fit back into a societal structure he now found largely meaningless, and to friends caught up in their own busy lives. When he was eventually able to return to India, he gave up everything he had in America and moved there with a suitcase packed with toys for the kids, and there he stayed, adopted a sparse lifestyle in a ramshackle, rat-infested house with no running water, in part because he didn’t want to be perceived as having a different lifestyle than those he was there to serve, and in part, it seems, because he found a sort of spiritual, almost monk-like cleansing in ridding himself of material goods and comforts.

Rocky’s friend, filmmaker Steve Hoover, documented his friend’s personal journey in the excellent, deeply moving film Blood Brother, playing here at Sundance in the US Documentary competition, and the end result is a completing absorbing look at a world that Western audience’s may at times find hard to watch. There is ignorance in this place, and fear, particularly evidenced when the villagers learn that the orphanage is a haven for HIV positive children and mothers. Fear of HIV runs strong, and the villagers don’t take too kindly to this news. Rocky’s frustration with the villagers is clear; how can anyone think it’s wrong to help these lost children who need love and support to survive? There’s also the grim reality Rocky has to face that it’s not so easy to keep a sick child alive in this place. The access to medical care the Western world takes for granted just isn’t as accessible in India, particularly to sick orphans with no money. And then there’s the inevitability of loss that comes with working with children who are ill; Rocky struggles with this as well, though he grimly faces it, acknowledging that this is what he signed up for, and the kids need him.

Hoover, a professional videographer, captures some excellent footage here of the orphanage and village, and both cinematography and editing contribute greatly to capturing the feel of this place. We also see lots of the kids just being kids, and of the children’s relationship with Rocky and his with them, and it’s clear that as much as Rocky has given of himself to these children, what he gets in return from them — their openness and their love, and perhaps most of all the sense that they’ve come to truly depend on him — is priceless. There are some sequences in Blood Brother that are very tough to watch, but that’s what life – and death – are like in this world Rocky has adopted as his own, and the reality is that to not show it in both its moments of light and its moments of darkness would be to do the film, and the children, a great disservice.

It’s clear that both Rocky and Hoover have been greatly changed by their experiences; what’s more surprising is how effective Blood Brother is at moving the audience as well. This is a richly layered, ethically complex, wrenching and sometimes brutal film and boy, does Hoover put the audience through the wringer, though thankfully never in a way that feels overly manipulative or contrived. Rocky himself feels both utterly genuine and utterly human, and doesn’t shirk from letting us see him in his bad moments as well as the good. He wrestles with how to handle a relationship with an Indian girl he’d like to marry; he comes to terms with handling blood and other bodily fluids without blanching; and most of all he learns from the children themselves that what they most want is to be treated as the normal, beautiful kids they are and not as pariahs. And so Rocky — more quickly than Hoover, who has a bit more of a hurdle to overcome with it all — touches the children, puts bandages on little owies, and even eats off their plates when they offer him food. It’s clear that all he really wants is to love these kids, and accept their love in return.

Blood Brother
was funded entirely from donations of time and money, with the goal being that any profits the film should make will all go back to the orphans at the heart of the story. This couldn’t be more fitting; in spite of tragic loss and terrible suffering it’s the children, who are endlessly positive and optimistic despite their situation, who uplift both the story and the audience.

Sundance Review: Escape from Tomorrow

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

At once one of the more interesting and more over-hyped films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, first-time filmmaker Randy Moore’s Escape from Tomorrow is stronger in concept than execution, but it’s still one of the films playing here this year that I’m most glad I didn’t miss. Is it a perfect film? No, it’s not. But one of the great things about this festival is that the programming often takes risks that other fests don’t, and you sometimes get to stumble upon something that, while flawed, still shows a brilliance and originality that’s lacking from so much of low-budget indie film. For that it’s absolutely deserving of some accolades.

The black-and-white, partially guerrilla-shot film takes us into the bowels of Disney theme parks through the story of one man, Jim White (Roy Abramsohn), who’s unceremoniously fired from his corporate job while on vacation there with his family. Determined to have one last day in the fantasy world with his wife and kids, unmarred by the grim reality of having to tell his wife he’s lost his job, Jim tries to make their final day at the theme park idyllic, but things quickly get surreal and more than a little disturbing.

A pair of flirtatious young French girls catches Jim’s eye, and soon he’s following them around the park, dragging his young son along with him for the ride, and getting increasingly shameless in revealing his lust as the film progresses. How much of the girls’ flirtation is real and how much is Jim’s delusion is left to you to judge, though given the rest of what’s happening here, I think it’s maybe a little of both; regardless, it’s a lot creepy, this middle-aged man trolling after a pair of young girls, but it also makes a statement of sorts about sexual fantasy and objectification that one doesn’t expect to overtly find in a film about Disney anything.

And yet, what are Disney princesses if not early gender role training for little girls? They are largely fantasy incarnate – the male fantasy of being needed and desired by a nicely busty, youthful and attractive young girl who flirtatiously giggles and bats eyelashes and radiates desire. Every now and again one may be a little feisty or independent, but at the end of the day what does a Disney princess want but to be rescued by her prince to live happily ever after, while sacrificing self-hood to be with her man?

Moore underscores this by contrasting Jim’s wife, Emily (Elena Schuber), a nagging wife and mother who’s always on his ass about something, with the giggling, attractive younger girls. Jim can’t seem to please his wife no matter what he does, but when he follows these young girls around, they stroke his male ego in a way that his wife does not, and whether that’s reality or fantasy matters little, given that we’re seeing it all from Jim’s perspective, warped through the lens of Disney-esque fantasy. All this fantasy exploration of screwed-up values is further underscored by an encounter Jim has with a seductive aging Disney princess who ties him up and beds him, a potentially fatal virus working its way through the happy, smiling tourists spending their dollars at the theme park, and a team of rogue scientists operating beneath Epcot Center, who have their own sinister plans for Jim.

Filmmaker Randy Moore says in his director’s statement for this film that it was inspired in part by his own trips to Disney theme parks as a child – something he loved when he was a kid, without realizing how he was being influenced by the surreal unreality of the temporary world of make believe and magic. The Disney theme parks create an illusion of fairy tales and princesses and happily ever after, and the influence of corporate branding and marketing sells children on a synthetic fantasy that doesn’t exist. While the execution of Escape from Tomorrow doesn’t always quite hit the fairly high ambition for which it’s aiming, it still manages to be an interestingly subversive exploration of the ideas and values peddled by a corporation that makes its billions off selling outdated ideas about gender roles and relationships. Moore plants the pretty princesses — both the young, fresh and dewy ones and the older, washed up and desperate ones — squarely in front of his protagonist, and reveals through Jim’s interactions with them just what’s so fucked up about the happily-ever-after Disney theme.

Among industry, there are films that are what we’ve come to think of as typical “Sundance films.” You know what I’m talking about here: low-key dramas exploring the rather mundane lives of lost and bored late-20-somethings who can’t seem to get their lives together; slow-burn relationship dramas, usually involving one or both partners cheating; small films that feel like extended visual blog posts in which the filmmaker is trying to sort through some aspect of their own lives. We get films like that at Sundance in spades. So when we get something that stands out as different in idea and execution, it’s a rarity, and there’s a tendency to immediately latch on and overhype the buzz. This is good in that it generates enough interest in a small, weird film like this to pack the press into the cattle chutes in the P&I tent, but not so good in that that same press come into the screening expecting to be blown away, and then are mildly (or even a lot) disappointed when they are not.

Is it absurdist and flawed in execution? Yes, it is, particularly in the green screen scenes, which are just not well-composed. But I’m not sure that matters as much as the idea of a filmmaker actually trying to do something different and new and darkly humorous, and at least it’s not another goddamn Mumblecore film. I’d far rather see a filmmaker doing what Moore is here, aiming for something completely original and darkly subversive, than yet another rehashing of the same story lines we’ve seen so many times we can predict the ending within the first five minutes. And a first-time filmmaker pulling off guerrilla filmmaking in the Disney theme parks, with a score that rather brilliantly both subverts and evokes Disney films, inventively using mics and smartphones in place of a sound mixer to capture the audio, all while exploring interesting ideas about gender roles, male sexual fantasy and the skewed view of reality the Magic Kingdom represents, is undeniably interesting. Escape from Tomorrow isn’t a perfect film, but it’s completely unlike anything I’ve seen at Sundance or any other fest, and for that reason alone I would highly recommend catching it if you get a chance.

Sundance Review: We Are What We Are

Monday, January 21st, 2013

Spoiler alert: This review contains a significant spoiler. If you don’t already know (or want to know) what it’s about, move along.

As heavy rains and flooding hit a small town in the Catskills, a middle-aged woman collapses, spewing up blood, and drowns in a ditch. Thus Jim Mickle’s stunningly shot We Are What We Are, a re-imagining of Mexican director Jorge Michael Grau’s 2010 film of the same name, sets in motion its tale of the Parker family, headed by patriarch Frank (Bill Sage), a fierce, controlling, humorless man who rules over his three children with religious fervor and a devotion to maintaining a macabre family tradition.
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Sundance Review: Kill Your Darlings

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

Kill Your Darlings, director John Krokidis’s excellent tale of the early beginnings of the Beat Generation writers, pulls us into the world of a very young Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) at the cusp of his coming-of-age, as he breaks free from the hold of his mentally disturbed mother, gets accepted into Columbia, and takes his first tentative steps into exploring a world bigger than Paterson, New Jersey. It’s a world of jazz music and black musicians, hard drugs, and sex, all of which shaped and informed the style of writing that would ultimately come to define him as one of our greatest American counterculture poets.

Krokidis effectively pulls us into this moment in time, when a brilliant young man like Ginsberg could believe he had the power to change the shape of the world with his words and his mind — and further, by working collectively with other brilliant young men like William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, actually create the spark that helped create a counterculture generation that cast aside the values and traditions of the post-WWII era in favor of birthing something born of completely different values. The film introduces us to young Ginsberg as he surprises his father, the poet Louis Ginsberg, with the news that he’s been accepted to Columbia.

Upon his arrival at Columbia, though, he quickly realizes that the staid traditions of that storied institution and, in particular, its insistence upon following structured, formulaic “rules” of writing, chafes against the burning desire Ginsberg has within him to break free from those molds and forge his own path. Early on, he meets a fellow undergraduate, Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), and finds him to be a kindred spirit. Carr takes Ginsberg firmly by the hand and pulls him into a fascinating subversive world of drugs, jazz and writing, and together with the older, more worldly William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and eventually Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), these young aspiring writers challenge themselves and each other to set the world on fire, creating a manifesto of their “New Vision,” the seed of what would come to define the Beats.

The shadow hovering over this story is David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), an older man who’s as obsessed with Lucien Carr as Ginsberg himself will become. Kammerer controls and clings to Lucien and will not let him go and that, ultimately, leads to the defining moment of the film, Lucien Carr’s well-documented murder of Kammerer, into which Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg himself get pulled. Krokidas could have chosen simply to tell the tale of Ginsberg’s homosexual awakening, but instead he keeps his focus on the young poet’s awakening as a writer, drawn in parallel to Lucien Carr’s relationship with the obsessive Kammerer, who does his level best to put out the fire of the younger mens’ new vision so he can keep Carr to himself. This proves to be a smart choice for this film; Ginsberg’s sexuality is much less interesting to explore than how he came to be this remarkable writer whose poetry – along with the work of Kerouac and Burroughs – would come to define a generation.

Almost everyone has a sexual awakening at some point in their lives, and those stories are something we’ve seen done and overdone; not every young man grows to be the kind of writer who has a work like Howl gestating in his soul, though, and the murder of Kammerer and its aftermath is shown here to be a milestone of sorts in Ginsberg’s life, shaping who he becomes.

That this film works so well is due in no small part to the superb talent onscreen Krokidis’s deft, skillful direction. All of the performances in Kill Your Darlings are superlative. As Lucien, DeHaan radiates complicated, over-privileged tragedy, one minute all soulful puppy eyes and pouty lips, the next icy cold disdain; Huston brings to life the restless energy that defines Kerouac as both a person and a writer; and Foster is remarkable as the droll, bored-with-life-and-bourgeois-privilege Burroughs, who ultimately shrugged that life aside in favor of the deliberate criminality and addiction that in turn informed his own seminal works, Junkie and Naked Lunch.

Radcliffe is a revelation here, casting aside all remnants of the cloak of Harry Potter to fully immerse himself in becoming Allen Ginsberg. Radcliffe flawlessly takes Ginsberg on his journey from naïve middle-class Jersey boy to awakening young writer, from an emerging poet inspired by the casting aside of tradition and structure of Walt Whitman to the early stages of manic creative energy that shaped the influential writer he would grow to become. It’s terrific to see Radcliffe making such smart choices in his post-Harry Potter career, establishing himself as a young actor who’s pushing himself and stretching far beyond what anyone might have imagined.

My only quibbles with the film – and they are small quibbles, relative to how much I enjoyed it overall – are the use of modern music in a film about the Beats (for me, it should be jazz, jazz and more jazz), and one fairly graphic sex scene toward the end of the film that I felt almost edging toward gratuitous, than the scene actually needed to be to underscore its point. Had the focus of this film been more strictly about Ginsberg’s sexual awakening, I probably wouldn’t have felt that way, but as it is, in a film that’s about his awakening as a writer and about the pivotal impact of Carr’s murder of Kammerer, it felt out of place. Even so, I can respect the filmmaker’s choice to push the boundary of the audience’s comfort level, and I certainly can’t deny giving Radcliffe appropriate props for his bravery in going there on the big screen.

Production value is solid throughout, with both cinematography and editing being especially noteworthy. The editing of an early scene in the film, when Ginsberg, encouraged by Carr and Burroughs, gets off on a drug-fueled, manic writing session, effectively evokes the burning passion catching fire within this young, middle-class, would-be poet as he begins shifting toward the fiery, impassioned writer he would become. Overall, Kill Your Darlings is a terrific exploration of the young Beats in their earliest gestation, a lovingly rendered, well-executed ride that immerses the audience in that rare time and place when young people like Ginsberg and his compatriots truly felt they could change the world, when the casting aside of tradition and the challenging of social norms felt relevant, real, and genuinely world changing.

Sundance Review: When I Walk

Saturday, January 19th, 2013

I’m not always a big fan self-exploratory, therapeutic docs in which the filmmaker explores some aspect of their lives through cinema, but When I Walk, director Jason DaSilva’s wrenchingly autobiographic journey through the hell of his rapid physical deterioration after a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis is an exception to that rule.

DaSilva was filming a vacation trip with his family in 2006 when he collapsed to the ground and found himself unable to get up again; from that moment on his previous life of traveling the world to make documentary films would never be the same. As part of coming to terms with the new and ever-shifting “normal” that would be the rest of his life, DaSilva followed his instinct, picked up his camera, and turned it on himself. This project could have devolved into the maudlin and self-absorbed; instead DaSilva’s strength and resilience, his determination to stay positive – bolstered in part by his relentlessly positive mother, who’s prone to calling him out on any over-privileged American kid whining and reminding him constantly that we only have one life to live, and have to make the most of it – is what shines through every frame of his story.
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Sundance Review: After Tiller

Saturday, January 19th, 2013

I was more than a little uncertain going in what I’d think about After Tiller, the documentary by filmmakers Martha Shane and Lana Wilson about the last four remaining doctors in the United States who are qualified to perform late-term abortions. All four were colleagues of Dr. George Tiller, the controversial abortion doctor who was gunned down in 2009 by an anti-abortion activist at his church in Wichita, Kansas. As the title implies, this film isn’t so much about Tiller, or even about late-term abortion as it is about what happened to his colleagues – and the desperate women seeking their help – after Dr. Tiller was assassinated.
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Sundance Review: Who is Dayani Cristal?

Friday, January 18th, 2013

Immigration reform continues to be an issue for heated debate, particularly in the states that border Mexico, which serve as a floodgate of sorts for illegal immigration from Mexico and points south. Marc Silver’s documentary Who is Dayani Cristal? explores this issue through the story of one such immigrant, an unknown man whose body is found in the Arizona desert with no identifying paperwork, the only clue to who he was in life elaborate tattoos on his chest spelling out “Dayani” and “Cristal.”

Structurally speaking, Silver breaks from the more traditional documentary mold by using dramatic reconstructions with the film’s producer, Gael Garcia Bernal, playing the part of the unknown immigrant as he retraces the man’s journey. More effective are interviews with the medical examiner and consulate caseworkers assigned the daunting task of trying to determine the identities of those who leave behind all traces of who they are in their attempt to forge a new life across the border, who passionately advocate for the idea that the United States immigration policy dehumanizes humans, reducing them to chattel to send back across the border or put in body bags when the grueling attempt to cross illegally cuts their lives short. Where you might expect people who deal daily in the science of decomposing bodies to become jaded about their task, the people interviewed here are emotional and seem genuinely invested in their belief that there has to be a better way.
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Sundance 2013 Preview: US Documentary Competition Picks

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Much like last year’s US Dramatic preview, my curtain-raiser on the US Documentary competition for the 2012 Sundance is packed with notable alumni: Chasing Ice, Detropia, The House I Live In, The Invisible War, and The Queen of Versailles all played at Park City last January. This year’s slate could potentially be just as solid; the next week or so we’ll find out which Sundance docs are hot for 2013. Here are my picks.

Title: 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film

What It’s About: In 2011, seemingly overnight, Occupy captured the imagination of our nation—and the world. The sweeping story of the birth of a movement, 99%—The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film follows a disparate group of activists who converge on lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park to build a society organized by nonhierarchical decision-making structures. Inspired by the idea that wealth and political power are dangerously concentrated, grassroots groups from Minneapolis to Mississippi to Oakland soon follow suit, converging to focus on issues crucial to their own communities. After confrontations, expulsions, and mass arrests, the movement finds itself at a crossroad. What’s next?

Designed in part as an experiment modeled on Occupy’s process, the film employs multiple cameras around the country to capture the kinetic, immediate experience on the ground, peppered with a comprehensive range of viewpoints from activists, experts, and detractors. In an era of hopelessness and resignation, this film is a reminder that another world order is still possible.

Why It’s Interesting: Okay, honestly, this film could very well be a rudderless mess. But even if it is, it could also be a mess that works by emulating the movement about which it’s telling a story, right? And that story is one of the most interesting things to happen in our recent history, which in and of itself I find compelling. There’s not a lot to go on with this one other than knowing generally what it’s about and how it was constructed, but it could work in the same way that Life in a Day (aka the film made possible by the existence of the Internet) worked. We’ll see. Worth a look-see anyhow.
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Sundance 2013 Preview: US Dramatic Competition Picks

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

The Sundance Film Festival kicks off this evening, and although the program of Sundance, like any large fest, can be a bit of a crap shoot, I’m always hopeful for more good films than lousy ones. Writing a curtain raiser for Sundance is always a bit of a crapshoot as well; it’s a program packed with new films, many of them from new filmmakers, and the best you can hope to do is hunt out the ones that look most interesting, or at least most promising, and hope for the best.

This seems like a totally random way to evaluate the Sundance Program, but it actually works out pretty well for me. I was looking over last year’s preview of the US Dramatic competition, and many of them have gone on have a life outside the fest circuit: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Middle of Nowhere, Safety Not Guaranteed, and The Surrogate — all solid films that had a good life outside the fest circuit. With the perspective of a year behind us, last year’s Sundance US Dramatic competition was pretty damn good, y’all. Here’s hoping this year’s slate holds just as much promise.

Here are my picks of the films in the US Dramatic competitions. Some of these are there because of the director’s history, some just because they sounded interesting based on the program notes. All of them, I hope, will be worth our time catching them here in beautiful Park City.

Title: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

What It’s About: Bob Muldoon and Ruth Guthrie, an impassioned young outlaw couple on an extended crime spree, are finally apprehended by lawmen after a shootout in the Texas hills. Although Ruth wounds a local officer, Bob takes the blame. But four years later, Bob escapes from prison and sets out to find Ruth and their daughter, born during his incarceration.

The barren landscapes of David Lowery’s poetic feature evoke the mythology of westerns and saturate the dramatic space with fatalism and an aching sense of loss. Aided by powerfully restrained performances by Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, and Ben Foster, Lowery incorporates an unnerving tension into the film, teetering it at the edge of violence.

The beautiful, irreconcilable dilemma of the story is that Ruth—compelled by the responsibilities of motherhood and her evolving relationship with the deputy she shot—remains haunted by her intense feelings for Bob. Each of them longs for some form of peace. Ironically, it’s Bob, the unrepentant criminal trapped in the romantic image of a bygone past, who is driven by an almost righteous sense of clarity. Following in the footsteps of Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde, Lowery’s humanism transcends the genre.

Why It’s Interesting: Love Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara and Ben Foster, so that triad leading the film intrigues me. is also at Sundance this year with another of my picks, Kill Your Darlings (see below). Director David Lowery previously had St. Nick at SXSW, and edited one of my favorite shorts of last year, Kat Candler’s Hellion. Definitely one I want to check out here.

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This is it. Vote.

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

Voted. Dropped off our ballots. Finding it hard to concentrate on anything else today. This is it. Months of supporting Obama, carving money out of our limited budget every month to give to his campaign. Months of talking to friends inclined to support Romney, trying to (hopefully gently) persuade them to change their minds. Months of waiting, watching polls, watching debates. Hoping. It all comes down to today. Has it all been enough?

What values will our country uphold today? Will we support women’s rights, universal health care, education, immigrants, the right of two people to marry the person they love, the idea that the rich should not benefit on the backs of the poor and the struggling middle class? I wish I didn’t care so much. I cannot help but care so much. Now, I’d like to drink a Xanax smoothie and crawl under a quilt under it’s over, please.

Our president looked powerful and presidential last night at his last campaign speech. Never have I put so much faith in one man to fight these battles on our behalf. May the odds be ever in our favor.

Louisiana Film Prize Kicks Off with a Big Winner

Friday, October 12th, 2012

Last week I went to Shreveport to judge at the inaugural Louisiana Film Prize. Incepted by Gregory Kallenberg as a way to both support budding filmmakers and bring them to Shreveport to shoot films, the event required aspiring entrants to come to Shreveport to shoot a short film, which they then submitted to the competition; the Top 20 films chosen were invited to compete against each other for a $50,000 grand prize. Kallenberg said he’d anticipated they’d get maybe 30 films to shoot in Shreveport with this contest. They got nearly 80. The shoots for the films entering the contest, according to the press release, used over 650 local cast and crew and spent over $2 million in the Shreveport-Bossier area in payments for cast and crew, food, equipment and lodging.

I liked a number of things about this fest/contest. First and foremost, one of the issues short filmmakers have is trying to figure out what purpose their film serves. Is there a way to make money back on a short? Are they used only as calling cards to show potential future investors that you have what it takes to pull off a feature? By giving the filmmakers a chance to compete for real prize money, this contest motivated them not only to figure out how to shoot in what was for some of them unfamiliar turf, but to have a shot at winning enough money to actually shoot a low-budget feature with their winnings. Additionally, three films would receive $3,000 “Founders Grants,” money they can get reimbursed to them off their production costs next year if they return to Shreveport to enter the contest again.

I keep shifting back and forth between calling this a contest and a fest, with good reason. Although it was technically a contest, it was also a festival, screening the 20 short films in the contest in two 10-film slates multiple times over the course of the weekend. Kallenberg hoped they would sell 500 tickets to the good people of Shreveport, but the locals really came out to support this budding fest, with over 1600 tickets sold by Friday when I landed (I believe the final count was closer to 2,000). They had an interesting system of determining a winner, also: 50% of the vote came from the ballots of the judges, and 50% from the votes of audience members. Everyone had to get their badge punched after viewing each slate, and you had to have seen both slates in order to cast a ballot. The fest encouraged the filmmakers to come to the fest and promote their films in interesting ways, which many of them did by throwing parties, putting on a haunted house and street performances, creating window displays, or walking around in costumes that evoked their film. It also encouraged the filmmakers to get out and talk to the people attending the fest, which is terrific because it makes filmmaking and the filmmakers feel accessible to the audience and gives folks a sense of investment in the films for which they’re voting.

Having that much money on the line made, overall, for a much stronger competition that what I generally see of shorts even at the bigger fests. Having seen and judged an awful lot of shorts at fests, I estimated that if 10% of the films I saw didn’t suck, it would be a good run. Instead, I ended up with five films out of 20 that I thought were very strong contenders, and many more that I liked quite a bit, which isn’t a bad percentage out of 20 films in a competition like this.

The grand prize-winning film, The Legend of Luther Anderson, was a comedic Westernish short about a young dude who seeks to exact revenge on the bad guy who shot and killed his father, and finds the courage to go after him after he finds the pair of magic cowboy boots his father died to protect. Luther Anderson was a fun little film, hitting many comedic elements right. Luther Anderson was written and directed by Chris Armand, Noah Scruggs and Thomas Woodruff, who also starred in their own film – a pretty ambitious sort of undertaking. If the filmmakers wanted to expand their idea into a feature, they’d have some work to do in better fleshing out character development and theme, but they made a very solid and entertaining entry with their film, which was very well received by the fest attendees and many of the judges, and they were over-the-moon ecstatic to win. Luther Anderson also won one of the Founders Grants, so hopefully their team will return next year to make another entry. Also winning the Founders Grant prizes were Sock Monkey, a puppetry-based film about what happens to all the socks that go missing from the drier, and This is a Microphone, a well-crafted and timely drama about an ex-loan officer who confronts the bank that employed him about their practices after he’s fired and has his home foreclosed on.

Speaking of Sock Monkey, this was one of my favorite films from the weekend. Directed by Robert Montgomery, and told entirely without words (although the sock monkeys in the imaginary world the filmmakers created “spoke” in their own language of grunts and hoots), this short had some spectacular production value in the way in which the filmmakers created the sock monkey fantasy world, using inventive puppetry to tell a very visual and visceral story. Loved this film a lot, and I hope to see it make a mark on the fest circuit.

One of my other fave films from the fest was an equally inventive black-and-white film called A Most Complex Form of Ventriloquism, written and directed by a young female filmmaker, Ashley Brett Chipman. Evoking the style and sensibility of both Guy Maddin and Georges Méliès, this film was ambitious in design and scope and is one of the most creative shorts I’ve seen. I’ll be looking forward to seeing what Ms. Chipman does with this film on the fest circuit, and with her future endeavors. There are few things I enjoy more than discovering a new voice through a film at a fest, and A Most Complex Form of Ventriloquism definitely fit that bill; it was worth the weekend trip just for the pleasure of seeing this film.

I also want to mention a couple of solid family-friendly shorts in the competition (for any of you fest programmers out there struggling to find family-friendly fare to round out your own fests): Biggo, written and directed by Josh Smith, is about a boy with unusually large hands who’s bullied or ignored by his classmates; and The Adventures of Captain Oliver, written and directed by Bryan and Claire McManus, follows the unlikely adventures of a stuffed pentapus who gets separated from his human sidekick and must find his way back home. Both were delightful.

Saturday of the fest, there was a series of three panels (called the Judges’ Roundtable) at which those of us there judging the fest were invited to discuss storytelling and screenwriting, film production, and distribution and criticism. There were some very smart people on these panels with me, and we spoke before a packed house of attending filmmakers and one very smart 12-year-old boy who aspires to become one. We had some lively discussion, and a lot of great questions from a pack of very enthusiastic and passionate filmmakers.

Overall, I thought Kallenberg and his staff (Festival Director Chris Lyon, Festival Coordinator Kathy Melancon, Festival Producer Sabrina Adsit, and Festival “Badass” Ian Summers — lovely and amazing people, all of them) did a terrific job of organizing the first year of their event. I came to Shreveport fully anticipating there would be the usual first-time hurdles and missteps, but I found the team running this fest to be incredibly organized and thoughtful in their planning. The screenings seemed to run smoothly, and hospitality was fabulous; the VIP lounge had a splendid buffet of Louisiana cuisine and open bar every night, there was always a staffer on-hand offering to give rides or just have a friendly chat, and the Shreveport residents who came out in abundance for the fest were warm and smiling and eager to talk to filmmakers and judges alike. The audiences with whom I saw both slates were also very open to the films they were seeing, and responded positively to even the more challenging films.

If you’ve ever made a short film and submitted it to fests, you know that shorts filmmakers generally don’t get a whole lot in the way of attention once they get into a fest, unless it’s a fest that focuses only on shorts; it’s just kind of the way it goes in the world of short filmmaking. The Louisiana Film Prize, though, went way above and beyond what I generally see for shorts filmmakers. The fest put up the filmmakers at the Shreveport Hilton (one of the fest’s sponsors, where the judges also stayed) and gave each team $500 to use for either post-production costs or toward the marketing of their film during the fest. The filmmakers also got VIP badges, which gave them access to the VIP lounge.

Now personally, I would suggest that next year it might be better to consider dividing the prize money up into two awards, a popular audience award and a judges award; in part, this would ensure that filmmakers journeying from outside Shreveport, who don’t have the benefit of inviting tons of friends and family out to see their film and vote for it, wouldn’t be penalized for not being locals (which, in turn, encourages filmmakers from outside Shreveport to enter the competition because they won’t feel it’s weighted in favor of locals). This is one change I do hope the fest makes for next year. I’d also love to see this fest bring on an education and outreach coordinator and engage both Millenium Studios and Moonbot Studios (which produced the Oscar-winning animated short, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore) in Shreveport to maybe run a couple of filmmaking camps for young people in Shreveport and add a student competition to their fest. If they were able to focus on outreach to ensure that kids from less wealthy families could participate as well, they could really do something amazing in nurturing the next generation of filmmakers out of Shreveport.

Look for the Louisiana Film Prize to become increasingly popular once word gets out more about it; filmmakers take note: Kallenberg plans to bring the fest and contest back for its second year bigger and better, with even more prize money at stake for the winners. This is one film contest worth taking the time to enter, even if you don’t live near Shreveport. With that kind of prize money up for grabs, it just might be worth your interest.

Note: The title of one of the films listed as winning a Founders Prize had a typo and has been corrected. The correct title is This is a Microphone. Apologies to the filmmakers. – KV

Review: The Master

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

The Master, auteur Paul Thomas Anderson’s minimalist drama about a cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his troubled and troubling acolyte (Joaquin Phoenix), is Anderson’s first film since 2007’s There Will Be Blood, and it’s easy to see the stylistic similarities between the two films humming underneath the surface: Two strong-willed male characters, as alike internally as they are disparate on the surface, set on course to collide with each other. Keep the conflict close and very personal, but paint it on a huge, sprawling canvas. Don’t be afraid of unlikable, complicated protagonists.

Simple stories. Complex, textured characters. Superlative actors. Anderson excels at working in this space.
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TIFF12 Review: The Act of Killing

Monday, September 17th, 2012

I’ve never seen anything quite like The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s outrageous, defiantly different documentary about gangsters in Indonesia who killed millions of people around the time of the overthrow of the Indonesian government in 1965, making a movie touting their “heroic” exploits. Really, you need to see this movie. You just do. It’s one of the most compelling, riveting docs I’ve ever seen; I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and I’ll bet you haven’t either.

Oppenheimer started out to make a movie about the survivors of the massacres, filming for three years and even living in a village of survivors for over a year, according to press notes. But the filmmakers found that they faced constant dangers while trying to film the story of the survivors, and they feared compromising the survivors’ safety in the current political climate, which is controlled, essentially, by the same people who perpetrated the killings. Oppenheimer decided the answers he sought lay in trying to understand the perspective not of the victims themselves, but of the people who openly boasted of slaughtering countless people in the name of “cleansing” the country of “Communists” — which appears, in the context of Indonesia, to roughly mean “anyone who fights for the rights of workers to not be brutalized and exploited.” And interestingly, he found that once they shifted focus to the gangsters — who in their country, perhaps through intimidation as much as anything, are lauded as heroes, not killers — suddenly officials were more than accommodating. Thus was born the beginnings of the film that would become The Act of Killing.
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TIFF12 Review: Ginger & Rosa

Saturday, September 15th, 2012

Elle Fanning delivers an astonishing performance as Ginger, one-half of the titular characters in Ginger & Rosa, Sally Potter’s gorgeously shot and thoughtfully executed story of a young girl growing up in early-’60s London, raised to be a free-thinking activist, who’s growing up in the shadow of the Cold War. Ginger and Rosa (Alice Englert), born on the same day, if not quite under the same star, are the best of friends, inseparable in all they do. Rosa’s father took off when she was small, leaving Rosa’s mother to raise her alone; both Ginger and Rosa chafe against the banal domestic imprisonment in which they feel their mothers are trapped.

Ginger’s father, Roland (Alessandro Nivola) is present, but offers little in the way of moral guidance or structure, being himself wrapped up in preaching anti-establishment morals and nudging his daughter toward the same rebellion that drives him, while positioning himself on a higher-than-though intellectual and moral perch to justify his abhorrent choices in his personal life. Ginger’s mother, Natalie (Christina Hendricks) tries to offer her intelligent, recalcitrant daughter guidance and discipline, a task rendered nearly impossible by Ginger’s hero-worship of her more lenient father, which forever puts Natalie in the position of playing the bad cop parent.
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TIFF12 Review: Pieta

Saturday, September 15th, 2012

By far the most difficult narrative film I saw this year at TIFF was Pieta, a dark, relentlessly brutal film about the mother-love and sacrifice, by South Korean master filmmaker Kim Ki-Duk. The film won the Golden Lion in Venice, much to the chagrin of many critics and, presumably, the jury, which reportedly wanted to award the fest’s top prize to The Master, which won awards for best director and best actor (shared by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix) but was prohibited from doing so by an archaic rule that prohibits the film lauded with the Golden Lion from receiving any other awards.

Much of the first half of the film is so disturbing as to be almost unwatchable, at least by Western audiences – even those who love arthouse cinema and therefore have a higher tolerance than your average film-goer for brutality taken to its most absurd extremes. But if you can tough it out past the pinnacle of debasement and suffering at the midpoint or so of the film, where it’s at its absolute worst, the film gradually heads from that point to a payoff that does make it worthwhile to stick around for. Redemption? Not necessarily that, exactly, but something, at least, approaching understanding and acceptance of all that you’ve just seen.

The story is set in a gloomy industrial South Korean slum, where cramped machinist shops perch amid filth, poverty, and utmost despair, and if it didn’t have some ultimate redeeming value and an actual point to its plot structure that takes us through all its blood and muck and mire with deliberate intent, this could almost be considered poverty porn, so thoroughly does it glory in the miserable lives of its subjects, poor machinists so desperate to survive that they take out loans from a loan shark to keep their heads above water.

The loan shark’s enforcer, Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), has blankness to him, an emptiness of light and life – a lack of soul, if you will – that’s mesmerizing to watch even as it disturbs and repulses. Kang-do’s method of enforcing the payback of loans is simple: He forces these desperate wretches to sign insurance policies payable to his boss, and when they are unable to pay debts that multiply tenfold with exorbitant interest, he coldly destroys an arm, or a leg, or casually tosses the debtor off a building, crippling him forever. In what there is of his personal life, Kang-do is hardly any better. As he walks into his small, dingy apartment, he stabs his knife into a picture of a woman hanging on the wall; the bloody entrails of the animals he consumes to feed his body strewn and smeared all over the tile floor, evoking his butchering of human beings in his work. In every respect, the filmmaker establishes that this is a man who has lost all sense of decency and humanity, if he ever had them to begin with.

And then a woman (Cho Min-soo, in a riveting, astonishing performance) shows up on his doorstep, claiming to be his long lost mother, and thus we get the first piece in the puzzle that is Kang-do: abandoned, alone, perhaps brutalized himself in ways we are not given to know, whatever humanity he was born into this world with, life has long since drained almost every drop of it from his soul. Kang-do at first rejects the sudden appearance of his mother, brutalizing and debasing her over and over again, in ways that will make you shudder and turn from the screen, but no matter what he does to her, she takes it with a calm and patient suffering, a sense of being given a just punishment for whatever her imagined sins may be. Slowly, he comes to accept her, and then to love and become dependent upon her – and that is when the film takes a sharp turn to its unexpected and riveting concluding act.

The film’s title, evoking the patient suffering of the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of her son, reveals what Pieta is on one level; but the anti-capitalist thematic element threading through the film, with money frequently referred to as the work of the Devil, and Kang-do as the devil’s tempter, allows it to function also as allegory for a system in which how much money you have controls how you live, your place within the social strata, and what the life of a mother’s son is worth within that corrupt and dehumanizing system.

As such, Pieta makes a bold and worthy, if challenging statement about our capacity for cruelty and greed. From the comfort and safety of our complacent lives where such things happen only in movies, we can only sit, mouths agape, unable to accept that such terrible things actually happen, probably every day. How do people live like that? And yet, they surely do, in countless numbers, sacrificing their limbs, their organs, their children, their very humanity, in order to survive the most brutal and inhumane definitions of existence. It’s terrible to watch, honestly, and makes you question who and what we humans are, exactly, that there exist people who can coldly execute orders that destroy lives in the name of transactions that are, at their basest level, an invention of man to define an artificial structure of power in which humanity is hardly in the equation.

The violence in this film is just brutal, even though the worst of it happens off-frame, but it’s not gratuitous; within the structure and context of the film, everything that happens is absolutely relevant both in building the thematic elements of the film as a whole, and in establishing a frame of reference for all that happens. This isn’t a pretty film to watch in the aesthetic sense of the word, either. It’s shot to evoke the dismal, gray despair of the lives of its players, and in that its very ugliness becomes a character as well. A hopeful and uplifting cinematic experience this certainly is not, but as a dual exploration of the both the inhumanity of human beings, and the deeper humanity that allows for terrible sacrifice in the name of love and loss, Pieta is undeniably effective.

TIFF12 Review: Middle of Nowhere

Friday, September 14th, 2012

Middle of Nowhere, Ava DuVernay’s quiet, reflective film, starts out with an interesting premise and builds from there with some strong performances and thoughtful cinematography that effectively evokes the desperation and sorrow of its protagonist, a young woman with a promising future who puts her life on hold when her husband is sent to prison. Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi), drops out of medical school to work as an nurse for the duration of husband Derek’s (Omar Hardwick) prison sentence, which she convinces herself will be reduced to four years for good behavior, if only he can stay out of trouble. In a sense, Ruby is imprisoned too, though she puts herself into a prison of her own making by her choice to stand by the man she loves, and as the likelihood of Derek’s early release looks bleaker and bleaker, Ruby finds herself questioning the path she’s taken.

Derek wants to stay out of trouble, no doubt, and get the hell of there, but he’s also caught in the reality of being in prison, which is that it’s just not always possible to go about your business and keep your head down without putting your own safety in danger. He also knows that Ruby needs to follow her dream and stay in med school – it’s established early on that Ruby is by far the smartest one in the room — and that if she could just stay in school she’d achieve her goal of becoming a doctor. But Ruby, for reasons that, frankly, rather baffled me as much as they do those close to her, decides she has to continue working in nursing while Derek’s away. After all, she has to keep a roof over her head, and pay off the hefty fees for Derek’s attorney.

Ruby’s sister Rosie (Edwina Findley), a struggling single mom, supports Ruby emotionally while being jealous that Ruby has someone who loves her, even if he is in prison; their tough-love mom, Ruth (Lorraine Toussant) loves her daughters, but can barely contain her disappointment and anger over Rosie’s single mom status and Ruby’s choice to drop out of med school. Still, Ruby toils along, day by day, until the day she meets Brian (David Oyelowo), a kind-hearted bus driver who wants to take Derek’s place in Ruby’s tumultuous life. Ultimately, Ruby has to make a choice: Be true to her marriage, in spite of everything? Take a chance on a new life with Brian? Or find her own path?

DuVernay’s become something of an icon among the African-American filmmaking community over the past several years. She won the Best Director laurels at Sundance this year, making her the first African-American woman to do so, and is the organizer of the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement film collective, which organizes efforts for festival submissions and coordinates theatrical releases for films made by African-American filmmakers. She’s becoming quite the powerhouse, known for her passion in articulating her ideas around distribution and minority filmmaking. She’s also, it turns out, a fine writer and director, displaying an able, controlled hand in directing her cast and weaving a story about a strong female protagonist who just needs to find her way. Keep an eye out for DuVernay, this woman is on the move … and she’s not waiting for Hollywood to give her permission to do exactly what she wants to do.

TIFF12 Review: Love is All You Need

Friday, September 14th, 2012

Susanne Bier’s latest film, Love is All You Need, takes an accessible, easy-to-digest premise – at their children’s wedding, a man who’s closed himself off to love meets a sympathetic woman whose marriage is falling apart – and makes of it a much better film than it sounds on paper, thanks in no small part to a smart screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen, who’s just good enough at storytelling to pull it all off. I enjoyed this film quite a lot, although I went into it fully prepared for it to be overly saccharine, based on the catalog description. It’s not. Bier and Jensen have crafted an entertaining little slip of a story here, quite Danish in style and with bit of a humorous bent, and if it’s not taking itself too seriously, well, it is at least entertaining to sit with for a couple hours.
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Review: Step Up to the Plate (Entre les Bras)

Friday, September 14th, 2012

You don’t have to be a foodie to appreciate Step Up to the Plate (Entre les Bras), Paul Lacoste’s terrific documentary chronicling the decision of celebrated chef Michel Bras to hand over the reins of his renowned restaurant, located in Laguiole in the heart of southern France’s agricultural region, to his son Sebastien (Seba to his father). If you are a foodie, though, and you’ve ever dreamed of attaining the holy grail of actually dining at Bras, you’ll revel in the opportunity to see these master chefs at work, creating edible, exquisite art plated with every bit the care and precision a master painter considers brushstroke, color and composition. But this documentary tells a story about more than the art of haute cuisine.

Filmed over the course of a year and structured in four chapters that express the seasonal use of local products, Step Up to the Plate is as much about the relationship between a father and a son, and, in particular, the emotional and intellectual challenge of being the offspring of a person much renowned in their field of endeavor, who seeks to follow in that parent’s footsteps, as it is about the food this famous father and son create. You might say Sebastien Bras chose being a chef, but then again you might say being a chef chose him.

From the time he was dressed in miniature chef’s whites, learning to use a knife and to select produce and herbs at his father’s knee, this was his path and his destiny. But his mother, who has always been the hostess of her husband’s restaurants, expresses her concern that her son be able to find himself, to make his own place in the food world, and fears that the pressure of potential failure is too great. After all, she notes, Michel had it easier, he started at the bottom and worked his way up to the top; his son has the unenviable position of being already at the top, and having to stay there while stepping out of his father’s shadow and truly into his own place in the world.

The film is sumptuously — one might even say rapturously — shot, capturing the stunning beauty of the region, the carefully minimalist architecture of the restaurant, perched high above the fields, and most of all, the careful, meticulous work that these chefs put into their creations. The opening sequence, in which Michel Bras plates his famous gargouillou, a deconstructed salad composed of over 60 ingredients — fresh spring vegetables, herbs, bulbs, flower petals, fruits, seed pods and more, is mesmerizing. This mirrors nicely with the ongoing, integrated chronicle of Sebastien’s painstaking, agonizing work over the course of the year to create on his own a new dish that will serve, if he can only get it right, as a symbolic passing of the mantle from father to son. Meanwhile, fellow chefs and locals speculate at a grape festival that Sebastien will never be able to fully come into his own until his father steps down.

Lacoste merges beautiful, quietly meditative scenes of Sebastien gazing upon the countryside in which he grew up, while pondering the future that lies before him; tense moments of Sebastien struggling to find the right combination of ingredients for his new signature dish (appropriately enough, translated when he presents it at the end of the film as “The Pathway”); and both father and son critiquing each others creations, even as they clearly share a love of the French countryside, their restaurant, their cuisine, and each other. And fittingly, Lacoste brings his theme of fathers and sons to its own natural pathway, with Sebastien teaching his own young son — now wearing the miniature chef’s whites given him by his father — to follow in his own footsteps some day.

Step Up to the Plate (Entre le Bras) opens today in New York, with a national release to follow. Highly recommended.

TIFF12 Review: To the Wonder

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

Terrence Malick’s style of visual poetry, particularly as expressed in last year’s Tree of Life and now in the equally enigmatic and abstract To the Wonder, isn’t for everyone. And that’s fine. Part of the beauty of film is that not everything has to work for every person, and this is in part because what we get out of a film is refracted to a large degree by what we’re bringing into it. In that sense, there’s not really any such thing as objectivity when it comes to cinema, not even the objectivity of the movie a filmmaker thinks he made; until that end result is viewed by an audience, what a film “is” exists only within the context of the filmmaker’s intent, and what it becomes to each person watching it as individual as the pattern of a fingerprint or snowflake. For me, at least, To the Wonder was lovely and challenging, difficult and beautiful in the same way that life itself is difficult and beautiful.
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