Author Archive

Larry Gross on the Passing of L. M. Kit Carson

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

Kit Carson’s passing really got me.

I knew him on and off for thirty years.

Definitely one of those rare guys in the film universe who danced to his own kind of music.

Never figured out Hollywood to Hollywood’s detriment. A terrific writer. I wished my stuff was as good as his.

David Holzman’s Diary, Paris, Texas, American Dreamer, Bottle Rocket, Breathless, all of which he contributed to substantially albeit in varying degrees, constitute an authentic track record. He also wrote an article on Hollywood’s New Wave for Esquire that was one of the few journalistic pieces to become part of the history it was covering.

Kit wasn’t easy. Lived deeper inside his own head than even the rest of us who live inside our own heads. He could disappear on you, and you didn’t know why. Was fairly quick to take offense. There was a disappointed kid there somewhere. That being said, he was consistently funny, smart, had fantastic artistic taste and judgment. Whatever time you had with him left you wishing you could find a way to have more. And now there won’t be any more. Sad.

Only Nic Forgives: Gilchrist Talks Style And The Future With Refn

Friday, July 26th, 2013

By Todd Gilchrist

Only God Forgives is the story of an American expatriate turned drug dealer, played by Ryan Gosling, who finds himself in a tug-of-war between his domineering mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and the God-like detective that she blames for other son’s death. But in the hands of writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn, whose previous film Drive doubled as a car-chase movie and a dreamlike, ultraviolent portrait of romantic heroism, the crime-and-punishment saga becomes a landscape of twisted sexuality and psychological corruption. Whether or not it catches on with the same commercial fervor as Drive fans remains to be seen, but given the highly-anticipated follow-up’s often obtuse visual style and its sparse, cryptic spurts of dialogue, the film seems likely to divide audiences–which, love or hate, seems to suit Refn just fine.

We sat down with Refn at the recent Los Angeles press day for Only God Forgives to get a snapshot of the budding auteur’s creative process. In addition to talking about his ongoing collaboration with fellow on-the-riser Ryan Gosling, he reveals the intuitive process by which he combines personal experiences, psychological themes and conventional stories to create something entirely unique—and often provocative—but always interesting.

You’ve often discussed the relationships between sex and cinema–both of which are integral components of this movie. Did Only God Forgives prompt that ongoing conversation, or was this the result of it?

pantsYou can kind of say that the movie is very much a catharsis of the last three films I’ve made. And there is a sexual-ness to it in the sense that in each movie, I’ve tried to peel away anything that would stand in the way of what I would say is the pureness of an experience. So the broad analogy is more to say that I would like to make a film that feels like acid, where all conventions that we’re used to in terms of storytelling is not existent—and what you’re left with is not about good or bad, which is irrelevant. It’s about how does it touch you, and however it touches you is great. It’s like the Sex Pistols of cinema, as I’ve said—that love and hate is the closest emotion to each other, and you can only polarize with an experience because either people dig it, or they don’t, but they can’t deny the experience.

How did you conceive the story for this? And how quickly did you land upon the sexual symbolism with the main character’s fists that you return to often?

OnlyGodForgives_4The first image, the whole concept with this was this—and I don’t really know what it meant. And then I had other things going on at the same time—my wife had a difficult second pregnancy, I was very distressed and destroyed and afraid, and I wanted to fight God. Because why was he putting me through all of this pain, if there is a God? So I wanted to make a story about a mother and a son, and I had all of these themes combined with this. And I started taking all of those individual experiences and trying to map out a flow of them—not so much a story, but a flow. How would they flow through the film?

Because the movie frequently shifts between events that are imagined and ones that are actually happening, how much do you personally distinguish between the moments that are symbolic and those that are actually happening?

OnlyGodForgives_2The few times I’ve seen it lately, I always see something new in it. It’s like the way that I make movies, I structure them. I put all of these ideas down on index cards. They can be all of these various ideas based on all of these fears or thoughts or fetishes I have. And then I use these cards to create a waterfall. And you don’t always understand why the waterfall works, it just feels right, and then when you see it, you go, “Oh! Well, that didn’t work.” Or you go, “Oh, that works.” Or you go, “Let’s mix it like that.”

sheenFor example, when he’s looking at the Asian girl in the club, fantasizing about penetrating her, the vision of his mother comes up—and the vision of his mother is raw masculinity. Like she devours men. And then he’s taken out of that possible fantasy about his mother, even as he’s entering this beautiful Asian girl. To him, being taken out of it, his fantasy, by these customers that are having a good time, you see that through his behavior sex is violence. And that’s something that comes along as I’m putting it together, so I like that sense of constant exploring, and not knowing always why, but it just feels right.

You say this story of a mother and a son was inspired by your wife’s pregnancy, and when you talked about Drive, you said you wanted to tell a story about rescuing your wife. How do you come up with ideas like these, and then how do they evolve into these dysfunctional stories?

You know, first it’s like, heighten the drama. You know—you kind of come up with something like, well, in Only God Forgives it was all about the idea of an antagonist. Who was going to be that? Because I didn’t want to make just a mother and son drama, I wanted to make an action movie out of it, and the idea that the mother has full control, almost like she’s put him under her spell and devours him. And once he rebels against her, she takes advantage of him and uses him and manipulates him—and we see all of the evil colors that she represents. At the same time, there’s a very strong moral character with this man who believes he’s God. That kind of in a way is the connection, the key to unlocking the relationship between Julian and his mother. And it’s through him, he kind of represents Julian’s redemption by having his hands removed—because his sin is that he can’t rebel against his mother, because he’s both sexually attracted to her, and repulsed, and under her spell. And that’s a very dysfunctional set-up, but it’s extremely dramatic at the same time. And so that’s what makes it interesting, that that heightened reality is so enormous and yet the dramatic nature is so accessible—but at all, multiple levels of meaning. It’s like staring at a red wall for an hour and a half; it will automatically give you images of what red represents.

dealIn that case, do you feel like you can apply their lessons to your life after you make these films, or do you feel a sense of personal catharsis from telling them in this heightened, dramatic way?

Yes, I exorcise it out of me. It’s like therapy. I’m so happy, and empty, afterwards. I’m relieved. But I know it’s going to come back. So I have to get ready to do it, again, and again, and again.

Working with Ryan on this in comparison to Drive, it seems like he’s supposed to do very little as a performer—and your last several films, Bronson and Valhalla Rising, you seem to use actors in a spatial way almost as mannequins. What kind of guidance do you give to him, and how much do you rely on color and sound to enhance his performance?

We very much talk about the sense of movement, you know. Once all of the dialogue has been minimalized, next to nothing, like also in Drive, it’s about positioning him and the camera and understanding that the camera and him, the camera is the window to his soul, which is his performance. And you realize that he has this ability to say everything without having to talk. That I can become obsessed with, and it’s so inspiring to work with, because it opens a whole new possibility of how to tell the story. And music underscores that in different ways. Like when this Asian woman apparently ties his hands and he’s submitting as she pleasures herself, which is a symbolism of his own fear of sexuality—a sense of impotence, symbolically. And as that goes on in the beginning, there’s a very romantic love theme—a very gentle, sensuous piece as the woman pleasures herself leading up to this amputation of his sexual genitals. We take that theme again and we place it in the exact same situation with his mother, in the same room, and this time, she’s a predator. She hugs him in the wrong way. She caresses him in the wrong way. She commands him. She tells him off, she humiliates him. But because of that theme, there’s a sensuous, sexual nature between them, and Ryan’s ability to portray that just by his aura is what great acting is about.

How tough was the “God”-like detective to conceive as a character, as opposed to maybe just a concept, and then what did the actor bring to him?

OnlyGodForgives_5The idea was to base a creation on the origin of God in the Old Testament. The Old Testament says, God says, “You have to fear me because I will be cruel. But you have to love me because I will be kind.” And that’s a very primal instinct to base someone on, because that’s beyond all logic, it’s beyond any kind of common sense. It’s purely based on instinctual emotions. And the idea that he has this logic, which is that he is God, everything he sees has a consequence—and we all know that, without logic. And that is of course a very frightening character, because that means everything is possible—there is only one judge, jury and executioner, and that is God. And the Thai actor that played him was a very interesting person; he was 50 years old, he had only started acting three years before, and he had many different kind of professions. He was also a master in all of these Asian art forms of martial arts, so his movement, his construction, the way he looked, his sense of speed—it was almost like he would float as he walked. And things like that would give him an unearthly character. At the same time, I wanted him to have a normal life, so the sense that was he unearthly or not was always a mystery.

Your cinematography is always so specific and deliberate, it gives viewers lots to examine when they watch the movie a second or third time. In one scene, for example, you have a static shot of a little enclosed area, and a limping dog runs through.

That was just there. I didn’t put that in. I was like, oh my God—shoot shoot shoot! The dog’s running!

How do you find the compositions that combine the location and the action to achieve the meaning you want a scene to communicate?

OnlyGodForgives_1It’s very much about finding locations, and finding the right locations. Because that is very much like a character. And then it’s how well can you use it, and what do you want it to represent. The important part of the movie was the film had to have no modern technology—there’s no cell phones, there’s no computers, there’s no Google, all of the devices we’re used to having. There’s none of that. It’s almost like it doesn’t exist. It’s like a land of its own authenticity.

And then it’s like finding, like some of those for example, we shot a lot of the gay bars in Bangkok because they were very flamboyant, and very fairytale-oriented in a way that would give the sense of this film being almost science fiction, in fairytale land. With those it becomes very important to tell the story, because with the limited budgets one has, you have to turn your weakness into your strength. And I always believe that’s one of the great creative experiences, when you can take something that is a weakness and turn it into a strength. You are being creative, and that’s the most enjoyable process. It’s not about the result, it’s about getting there.

This and Drive both have a sort of “neon” aesthetic, which seems to have become popular lately. What intrigued you about it?

Well, I liked that sense—it’s very strong colors, very vibrant, very alive, and Bangkok is full of it. It’s how they light the nights in Bangkok, so it was also something that was given to me by the locations. But it’s a very powerful world of lights.

Because of your collaboration with cinematographer Larry Smith, it’s easier to see stylistic similarities between Only God Forgives and Bronson than, say, Drive, where you worked with Newton Thomas Sigel. How much are those differences a result of just choosing what you think is right for each project, and how much do they come from those cinematographers exerting their creativity upon your vision?

Well, I really love working with Larry, and I very much like to set up the compositions, and then let the director of photography light the image. That’s some of the most fun in the actual filmmaking process. But what’s good about working with different DPs, I find, is it helps you to look at the films you make in different perspectives. Larry’s strength in Bronson and Only God Forgives is that there’s a very strong unity, unlike with Newton Thomas Sigel on Drive, but it’s like each one brings their use of light, and sensibilities—and I take full advantage of that. I always like to try to make something different from the various films that I do. But I loved working with Larry in Bangkok, one, because I was working with a very tight budget, and under a lot of pressure in a foreign location. So it was good that we knew each other very well.

How specific is the construction of each frame for you before you turn it over to Larry, particularly on a film like this that’s so heavy with symbolism?

OnlyGodForgives_3I would block out the scene with the actors, and then I would look at that blocking with Larry, me and him. And once the actors felt comfortable in their movement, they will also give their best performance, so I find that very important—to work with the actors in terms of how they would like to move. And then once we find what works for them, I would look at it with Larry, and we’d talk about style. After we set up the camera, then I set up a frame, once I have the frame, Larry then lights.

You’ve talked often about the way the specific ideas for Only God Forgives arose, but when do you get a real sense of what you have has become cohesive or achieved some sense of meaning, even if it’s a different meaning than you intended?

It kind of varies, but I look at every frame, or every set-up and every composition, and it’s like each composition has its own DNA into the next composition will follow that or even precede that, [and that] is much and much of my existence. It’s more like painting a picture—you use each set-up so individually. Because first, someone invented the camera, then they took the camera and shot something as mundane as a person walking down the street or the filming of normal life activities. And in a way, the camera is the mirror of the actor’s performance, so with the camera, you can enhance, you can disregard, you can compose, you can create, you can symbolize the performance of the actor which relays the emotion—because the camera is not an emotional mechanism. The camera is a mechanical device, and it helps you access an emotional reaction from the actor. But the camera can be a huge tool in the construction of a performance, in terms of how it composes.

Looking at some of your other potential projects, Barbarella is a movie that I really love, and the sense of sexuality in your work suggests it will be an interesting interpretation. But the original film was sort of silly, so what you feel the emphasis needs to be in an updated form, since she was so passive, which audiences might not embrace like they did then?

All of what you’re saying is true, and that’s why I feel that I can never reinvent Roger Vadim’s version. His collaboration with Jane Fonda was a very successful marriage between a time, a certain political movement, and a certain aesthetic movement in filmmaking. But what’s interesting about Barbarella is that she’s essentially a counterculture character, and the comic books are very different from Barbarella, the Roger Vadim movie, and we just went back to the comic and forgot all about Roger’s film. Because I could only make this if I was to go back to the source material and find my view of Barbarella, because again, her being a counterculture character, you can basically resurrect her every ten years or so. And don’t forget the real appeal to me for Barbarella was also the fact that I knew that my chance of doing “Wonder Woman” was [shot down]. So maybe in a way, Barbarella was a better canvas for me to indulge myself.

Another project that you’re attached to is “The Incal,” a graphic novel that is illustrated by the iconic comic book artist Moebius from a story by filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. Given that you clearly like Jodorowsky, whom you dedicate Only God Forgives to, how much pressure does that put on you to avoid the safety of their imagery and their storytelling in your adaptation of the material?

That’s what will make it interesting. I mean, who knows if it’s ever going to happen, because one thing is what you say and another is what reality brings with it. But if I were to do “The Incal,” I certainly wouldn’t fear it; I would do what Alejandro did on his version of “Dune,” which is tear it to pieces, and in that process make his own version—almost, not disrespect the source material, but take the source material as only being source material.

As films like Drive get more commercial recognition, how much are you thinking about each project just in terms of it following your previous ones, and how much consideration are you giving to the movement you’re making, by accident or design, towards the mainstream?

Well, it’s a very interesting question because it’s a minefield of explosions. I do an exercise after every movie, which is to erase my memory of it as much as I can. Or I make the conscious effort of always saying to the people that I work with, we’re not doing what we did the last time, simply for the fact that the fear of repetition, but also for myself, if I’m too comfortable, there’s no pleasure in the creativity. And so I always approach every film I make as if it was going to be my last movie—if I was in a situation where all of the funding was going to be drying up and I was going to be able to do no more movies, at least the last movie I went out with was the way I wanted it to be, regardless of what I had done before.

And I think it’s important to me to always retain that approach, to erase my memory of what was, because I’m always more interested in what doesn’t work. And all of us want success in everything we do, but if we’re still making this contribution with so many different elements, once there’s a formula that seems to work, there’s a tendency to cling onto that just because of the fear of failure. It can be so destructive for us. And that is the exact same fear you have to turn into strength—the fear of the unknown, the fear of deconstructing everything again, and again, and again, whenever you’re making a new movie.

Richard Linklater On His “Best Film You’ve Never Seen”: An Excerpt from Robert K. Elder’s New Book

Sunday, June 2nd, 2013

By Robert K. Elder

As an aspiring artist growing up in small-town Texas, Richard Linklater immediately felt a bond with Frank Sinatra as Dave Hirsch, the struggling writer home from war, torn between a world of debauchery and a world of respectability in Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running. The film was overshadowed, in part, by the success of Minnelli’s lighthearted musical Gigi, released the same year. The difference in the style and tone of the two films is further evidence of Minnelli’s talent as a director and his diverse gifts. Here, Linklater discusses Minnelli’s penchant for divided characters and why he considers Some Came Running the ultimate Rat Pack film.

“So much of what I like about this movie, I can’t articulate. It’s just a feeling, like looking at a painting, the way the colors and the camera just all add up,” Linklater says. “It’s just something to be experienced.”

Some Came Running
1958
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, Martha Hyer, and Arthur Kennedy

How would you describe Some Came Running to someone who’s never seen it?

Linklater: It’s a story about Dave Hirsch (Frank Sinatra), the prodigal son returning to his hometown, post–World War II. The movie came out in ’58, but it really depicts a period ten years earlier. So the movie itself really is a period piece.

Sinatra plays a drifting soldier and writer who is blocked, who hasn’t written in a while. He’s cynical and drinking more, but he returns to his home in Parkman, Indiana, where all his colliding, contradictory impulses are played out—his mixed feelings about his hometown and these two worlds that he seems to inhabit simultaneously: both the world of respect, culture, and smart English teachers and then another world of booze, broads, and gambling.

These worlds are embodied by different people, most pointedly his drinking buddy, gambler Bama Dillert (Dean Martin), and Ginnie (Shirley MacLaine), the floozy who he’s kind of taken up with. His other world is the hypocritical, social scene of Parkman with his phony older brother—played by Arthur Kennedy in one of the great depictions of a phony—and his frigid wife and all these frigid and false society ladies. The movie just rips the cover off the mannered ’50s era of America—just that whole mind-set of conformity. It’s a wonderful melodrama.

Do you remember where you saw the film?

I saw it on campus in ’84, at the University of Texas. I was just starting to make films for the first time. This film affected me. I remember the next few days thinking about it constantly; it was so much more than I expected. It was a big eye-opener.

It had something to do with Dave Hirsch’s character and something personal with me. I think we’re all torn, in a way, between both worlds. I felt that way personally. I’m from a small town in east Texas. As an aspiring artist at that time, I was moved by his story. He’s a writer and nothing’s come of it yet, so he gives in to his lower impulses with the gambling and the broads. He can hang out with that world, but he really craves some sort of respectability. Ultimately, Dave inhabits both these worlds, but he’s not really at home in either of them.

He was a failed novelist. He had one novel that no one had read…

Linklater: The artist out of work is a dangerous thing. He’s attracted to these two different women.

Speaking of which, a 24-year-old Shirley MacLaine plays Ginnie, the “loose” girl who follows Dave around. She was nominated for an Oscar for the role.

Deservedly so. She’d only been in a few films then: The Trouble with Harry and probably most importantly Artists and Models, the Frank Tashlin movie. She’d also been in Around the World in 80 Days, as the Hindu princess.

I always think of Shirley MacLaine as the title character in Sweet Charity. I think of Charity as Ginnie come back to life and moved to the big city. I just feel a connection between those two characters for her. She’s so great in this movie.

And Sinatra, the story was that he had a print of Some Came Running, and it was a film that he would watch over and over. He would invite people over to see it in the screening room, usually under the premise of “Come see how great Shirley is.” And she certainly is. I’ve shown this movie to a lot of people and they just go, “Oh my God.” She was the babe of her day.

I think all three of them are fantastic. It’s my favorite film of all three of those people: Martin, Sinatra, and MacLaine. 

Is there a particular scene that closed the deal for you, that made you a fan?

I love all of it; so much of it’s so funny. I love it when Dave first meets Bama; you see him sitting in the background. It’s a tremendous use of CinemaScope, one of the best ever, in the way Minnelli frames the shot. You see his hat before you see him, on the right side of the frame [laughs]. Bama and his damned hat. The way those two come together is sort of a seduction between them.

How do you interpret the title?

I just love it. I find it very moving. I know it’s biblical—I think of it as a life metaphor. There are some people walking through life or strolling through life, but people who are really passionate come running. To me, it’s about passion.

This movie was quite a departure for Minnelli. What about this film lets you know it’s a Minnelli film?

It’s almost impossible to describe; you just have to feel it. I always call it a musical without the numbers—the way it was shot, the colors—and yet it was filmed on location, so it has this realistic quality. Billy Wilder was quoted as saying that Minnelli was “a decorator.” And he certainly was, but I think at the service of something. Visually, he was one of the most interesting directors ever. That last sequence where the guy is chasing Dave with a gun. The music swells and there’s this blast of red—you’re getting lighting and things that you would see in a musical on a soundstage, and boom! It’s real. I just love the way he can amp it up.

There are two great Hollywood stories that came out of the production. The first one is in reference to Shirley MacLaine and Frank Sinatra. They were on set, in his trailer, and the assistant director comes over and says, “Mr. Sinatra, won’t you please come out? We’re two weeks behind schedule. Please come out.” And Sinatra says, “Come in. Is that a script in your hand?”

“Yes that’s a script in my hand.”

“Let me have it.”

So he takes it and flips through it, rips out twenty pages, and says, “OK, we’re not behind now.”

That’s a takeoff on John Ford doing the same thing when some studio person visited him on the set. I’ve almost tried that myself.

According to Shirley MacLaine, he had accidentally ripped out one of her scenes. Sinatra’s character was supposed to die at the end of the film, not Ginnie. So, according to one story, he said, “Why don’t you have her get shot and maybe that will give her more exposure or boost her credibility, maybe she’ll win an Oscar”—and that one gesture made her a star.

How could it be any different? This movie ends at Ginnie’s funeral, at a tombstone. Bama takes off his hat. Something he’d never do for anyone, he does for Ginnie. Maybe there’s hope for Bama after all. But he’s going to die from alcohol and probably of diabetes. He’s on the way out. It’s grim.

Sinatra was famous for doing one take and then leaving. In fact, Billy Wilder said he would never work with him just because of that tendency. But Minnelli went head-to-head with him on the set because of this.

Sinatra felt that his first take was his best take. But yeah, Minnelli had his famous “That was great, darling; let’s do it again” kind of direction. And he drove people crazy, because it was often not only the performance but it was “The Ferris wheel in the background has to be in that part of the frame.” It was all about the shots.

Well, that’s the other famous story: Minnelli is setting up the carnival scene, and he’s looking through the lens, and then looks up from the camera and says, “OK, move the Ferris wheel.”

That’s a great story and no doubt true.

Minnelli said it was. Sinatra was so pissed that he got in his limo and went back to L.A. But Minnelli’s point about this was “Well, if we didn’t move the Ferris wheel six feet then it wouldn’t be the focal point. You couldn’t see it in the background.”

And you know what? He’s right. It is beautiful. I heard years later Minnelli asked Sinatra for a song for a movie, and he gave it to him because they were real buds. They did bend the shooting schedule to suit Frank. From noon to 8 p.m. How are those for hours? Sinatra is just so great in this movie. I think it’s the pinnacle of his acting career. To me, it’s the peak of his vibrant middle period, if he has a three-act acting career… He had a great run in the ’50s, From Here to Eternity on, but this is the best Rat Pack movie of all time. I think this depiction of him is a guy just like himself, like Sinatra. He was never a soldier; he played them. But here, he is an artist.

Shirley MacLaine said of Sinatra, “Oh my goodness, think of what that man could do if he really worked.” She thought he was afraid to see what might happen if he worked up to his full potential. It might destroy everything he’s done by playing it casual, which was his screen persona. Right about this time in his career, he was an artist in crisis.

Or he had been. Certainly, I don’t know where he was at this moment… it might have been a crisis over Elvis, maybe thinking his singing career was at an end.

In All the Way, his biographer quotes Sinatra saying, “I wasted ten years trying to do everything at once and getting nothing really done well.” But from your perspective as a fan of this film, what does he do well?

I think he plays himself incredibly well. Just as the way he would put himself into a song and just interpret it, I think he’s so aligned with Dave Hirsch. I think probably this is so close to him and who he was at that moment. And it was a lot of the way he saw himself too.

I’m not surprised that he would watch this film later in life and look back. It’s him: that’s the guy on the album cover, that’s the guy on the lamppost alone, the cigarette burning. He’s forlorn, and other happy people are walking by—but he’s conflicted. Maybe if he had a shot of whiskey? There might be some floozy nearby. But fundamentally, he’s alone. Maybe, in his heart of hearts, he was that kind of lonely, conflicted guy. I always imagined Sinatra as hugely torn and ambitious.

I think the contrast is between Martin and Sinatra . . . that’s where you really not only depict these two characters Bama and Dave, but you see also Martin and Sinatra. While they’re friends, I just think that for Sinatra, things meant more. He held grudges. He was aggressive. He was ambitious.

Look at how their lives turned out. When Sinatra died, I felt he had worked hard for his legacy—he sang until the day he dropped, practically. He was on tour as an old man. He was going for something. There was some internal demon in him that needed something in his performance, in whatever it was: adulation, his place in history. He wanted to be more than he was, he wanted to be a tough guy, he wanted to be a gangster. The best quote I’ve ever heard about these two guys was: “Sinatra wanted to be a gangster and all the gangsters wanted to be Dean Martin.” That tells you everything.

What distinguished them?

Let’s look at Martin: a truly gifted singer—maybe not quite Frank, but he’s truly gifted. He was a natural actor, a charming, wonderful person but just wildly underachieving, ultimately.

Just go into a record store and look under Martin—and then look under Sinatra. With Sinatra, you get eight thousand albums of every kind, and Dean Martin, today, you would find his greatest hits. That’s all you would find. When they died, Dean Martin got a cursory treatment, but it was nowhere near the outpouring for Frank Sinatra. It was almost like Sinatra had earned that; it meant something to him. Dean Martin, on the other hand, didn’t give a shit, you know? His attitude would be, “Why? I’m not going to be around to enjoy it.” He never pushed himself—but that was his charm.

I heard that on his TV show Martin got paid like $15 million a year to do this show, and he put it in his contract that he wouldn’t rehearse. He didn’t need to. He was so smooth, you know? Everything came really easy to him. He was the master of getting the most out of the least amount of effort.

He exuded that character, and that’s who Bama is. He says it very clearly in the movie, why he is a gambler: his father “used to gamble when he was plowing up his fields, hoping for a crop… So I figure if a man’s gonna gamble, he might as well do it without plowing.” It’s very funny. He states it very clearly, but he’s the kind of guy who’s going to confidently wing it through life—just be himself and that’s going to be plenty, you know? That’s going to get all the girls, and it comes easy to him. He’s not conflicted; he’s happy with who he is.

With Sinatra, you get the feeling he wasn’t totally comfortable with his place. He never totally settled in. That’s why he’s so interesting to look at. His interior is so conflicted. So I know Sinatra didn’t do a lot of takes, but that’s probably because he knew in the first one he could be himself, and it probably was his best.

Let’s get back to Minnelli moving the Ferris wheel. What do you think that illustrates about him as a director?

He was the top stylist of his day. He couldn’t just say, “I’ve had it in my mind for six months that this shot would be in there” and then go, “OK, well, I don’t want to upset anybody; it’s not that big of a deal.” He had that in his mind: “That’s the way it should be. That’s the way it’s gonna be.” If I were working with Vincente Minnelli, everyone would bend over backwards to do anything he fucking said, because he deserved it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about him lately. I just don’t think he’s ever gotten the credit he deserves. I think maybe because he was a studio guy completely, whereas Wilder and the other guys were seemingly more independent. But I think Minnelli had the greatest career. I would trade anything to have that. It’s a fantasy of mine to be a studio director at MGM for three decades. It just sounds like heaven to have a career like Minnelli.

I’m probably the only guy who flew across the country to see Liza Minnelli perform the songs of her dad on Broadway. There was this great show “Minnelli on Minnelli.” It was wonderful, because she never sang her mother’s songs, but she did in this revue. She sang songs from her dad’s movies and she did a slideshow and just talked about growing up.

She said, “Most kids go to camp, I went to MGM for the summer.” She just talked about her dad, and it was this loving tribute to her father. I just think he had one of the great twenty-year runs. I would say between ’45 and ’63, arguably, he made more good movies than anybody else in that period. By definition, musicals and some of these melodramas aren’t taken as seriously. He just pulls you in; he has a real feel for his characters.

What made you so drawn to him, and why do you think he’s so overlooked?

Well, I think that he could take on such a vast array of material. Like all the great studio directors, he had a huge range. All the guys back then—that was just the way you made movies. With Minnelli, you have the musicals, you have the melodramas, you have comedies, The Long Long Trailer; you have Cabin in the Sky. You have so much. Yet he found his way into all of these and personalized them.

I would rate him in the same breath as Hawks and Wilder. I think it was his personality. He wasn’t very articulate. He personally didn’t make a legend of himself. He didn’t have a lot of crazy stories to tell. He wasn’t that big a character. You feel like he was kind of a quiet guy, the sensitive artist-type dude. He wasn’t a notorious person, just kind of an artistic perfectionist.

I see him as the quiet craftsman. He saw the studio as an apparatus to work for him. When the studio system was falling apart in the ’60s, he was old, but that was pretty much the end of his career, too. So his fate was MGM’s fate, more or less. I don’t think you could find a director whose career so paralleled the studio system, the ups and downs.

Speaking of downs, the review from Newsweek read, “Despite its lack of thematic purpose (or possibly because of it) [it] shows flashes of brilliance.” Time wrote, “The spectacle of Director Vincente Minnelli’s talents dissolving in the general mess of the story [is] like sunlight in a slag heap.”

It’s almost the same thing they would say about Douglas Sirk or anything that’s melodramatic. It’s why It’s a Wonderful Life didn’t work in its day. It’s just too much; it’s just too raw. Time has a great way of shaking out a film’s core, what it’s really about.

When you first watch a movie, you pay your money. Maybe you’re on a date. I mean, movies have two lives, obviously. Their short-lived economic life is just how you hook up with an audience at that moment. If you’re breathing the same air and it fits into the culture, then you’re lucky that the planets have aligned and people respond to your movie at that moment.

Once it’s an artifact from the past and you go see it in a repertory theatre or watch a DVD, then it’s something else. You see it on its own merits for what it is. You can see more clearly the artist’s intentions and the depth in there.

It’s always fascinating to see the reviews. Pull out the Raging Bull reviews from when that came out and they’re all over the place. There’s something unlikable about that film. I’d say, in a similar way, there’s something just fundamentally unlikable about Sinatra and Dean Martin in this. Do you really want to pay money to see an artist dig through his own shit? Is that worth your money? And at that time and date, it probably is a little much, even though it is Frank Sinatra. It’s misogynistic.

And that comes to the core question of why this movie was overlooked. Certainly Shirley MacLaine and Martha Hyer were nominated for Oscars for it. But it was also up against Minnelli’s own Gigi, which swept the Academy Awards. Minnelli was against himself.

See, that’s what’s exciting, too, in Minnelli’s career, to have in the same year made this dark melodrama and then make Gigi, one that we all can rally around and say, “We love that.”

Some Came Running, on the other hand, audiences seemed to say: “This depicts a world I don’t love. In fact, I wish it didn’t exist. So thanks for rubbing my face in it and reminding me that we’re all kind of phonies. We all want what we can’t have; we all are conflicted.”

Did you ever have any association with people who worked on the film?

A buddy of mine, Nicky Katt, an actor I’ve worked with several times, he was in a movie called The Limey. He got up at an awards show to accept an award on behalf of Terence Stamp, and Shirley MacLaine was in the audience.

Nicky got up and said, “Not to be too Ving Rhames about it, but I’d like to dedicate this to Shirley MacLaine for Some Came Running,” and she came up onstage. In her mind, it was a forgotten film, too. No one hits her up on the street and goes, “You know, you were really great in Some Came Running.”

Everyone knows Shirley MacLaine from The Apartment, and that’s a great movie, but Some Came Running, to me, is as good. It’s funny the way the canon exists. I think some of the depictions in it make people a little squeamish.

I forgot to ask, but what were you haunted by that week after you saw it?

Just a feeling, just an emotion like when someone depicts something dark and personal. I woke up thinking about it the next few days after I first saw it. I’ve shown it a lot in the film society that I run. If I can get the good 35mm CinemaScope print, I’ll show it to some people who haven’t seen it. It’s a real eye-opener for people. It’s not what you expect; it’s deeper and richer and more nuanced.

It’s far darker than I expected it to be.

That’s what I think is so ballsy about it. It’s getting below the veneer of ’50s America. It’s creepy and just amazingly current. It’s amazingly not dated in a certain way. Things change, but the way guys refer to women behind their backs is not that different. That milieu of gambling, drinking never changes. To me, its cup runneth over. So much of what I like about this movie, I can’t articulate. It’s just a feeling, like looking at a painting, the way the colors and the camera just all add up. It’s just something to be experienced.

Depending on whose biography you read, Minnelli brought them together—according to his version—but I think it’s more likely that Sinatra got his friends a job, making this the first Rat Pack movie.

This was the first Rat Pack movie, and to me it is the best Rat Pack movie. It’s the ultimate Rat Pack movie, although it lacks Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop. Those guys were always kind of minor players anyway. To me, it was always about Frank and Dean, and Shirley MacLaine as the mascot. But this is unique because these guys are—in a big way—sort of playing themselves.

There are definite parallels between Dave Hirsch and Sinatra. Pre–From Here to Eternity, Sinatra was sort of washed-up, not in favor, probably close to being an alcoholic bum, kind of a has-been, and that’s where Dave finds himself right at that moment.

This was filmed just after Elvis hit it big in 1956, so Sinatra had been outshined or replaced by the advent of rock ’n’ roll.

Yeah.

It’s interesting that you bring up this thing about Shirley MacLaine as the mascot. It’s been written over and over that she was the mascot of the Rat Pack. In this film, that’s exactly her role. I’m wondering if that was informed by their actual relationships, if you get a sense of that on-screen?

They couldn’t have nailed it so well if there wasn’t something personal there. I think they were all buddies.

The thing for me that was off-putting was Bama constantly calling Ginnie and the other girl “pigs”!

Even she knows she’s a pig. There are charges of misogyny. But how can you look at this and not think it’s Dave and Bama who are the pigs, clearly? But it is a sad portrayal of a woman’s masochism, certainly. Bama is ultimately a piece of shit, but a charming one. But see, Bama never would have responded to Ginnie and her pure love the way Dave does. Dave is an artist. Bama would be incapable of what Dave is capable of.

When you first saw the film, what was it about for you?

It’s a great depiction of a guy dealing with conflicting impulses, a typical Minnelli character, an artist who’s divided against himself. You saw the same guy over and over, whether he’s Gene Kelly as An American in Paris or Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon, Kirk Douglas in The Bad and the Beautiful—an artist who’s trying to come to grips. He’s trying to reach out to other people. You see these people yearning for some kind of human connection, but there’s something within themselves that makes it difficult. It is a depiction of how people come together or don’t come together. How your needs really can’t be fulfilled by one person.

And in Some Came Running, Sinatra is torn between two women—Gwen, the respectable schoolteacher, and Ginnie, the floozy.

Linklater: When these women do meet, there’s that one just unnerving scene where Ginnie visits Gwen (Martha Hyer) at the school and they talk. In a movie with opposites colliding, they are so opposite that they shouldn’t even be in the same scene. It’s just unnerving, like they shouldn’t be in the same frame together. Opposites colliding everywhere—stylistically and thematically.

According to James Jones, this is what his novel “Some Came Running” is about: “the separation between human beings—the fact that no two people ever totally get together; that everyone wants to be loved more than they want to love.” There was some tension about the movie adaptation, so Minnelli’s response to that quote was “Why you would take 1,266 pages to say that is debatable.” But do you see that theme come to life in the film?

Linklater: I think the adaptation of Some Came Running is one of the greatest adaptations ever. I’ll admit, I haven’t made it all the way through the book. I read about three-quarters of it, got interrupted, and never picked it back up. It’s dense, it’s lengthy, and actually, to Minnelli’s credit, the movie’s depiction of Ginnie is much more sympathetic than in the book. I just think Minnelli loved women and had a feel for her. She’s a great depiction of someone giving unconditionally, and when Dave responds to that, when he asks her to marry him, to me, that’s such a moving moment.

Excerpted with permission from The Best Film You’ve Never Seen, published by Chicago Review Press, June 2013, available via IPGAmazon, and wherever books are sold.  

http://bestfilmneverseen.com/. Follow Robert K. Elder on Twitter: @robertkelder

If Manipulative Marketing Keeps Making Money… Why Stop Making Bad Movies?

Monday, May 7th, 2012

I recently sat through over two hours of cheesy one-liners, and I’m left wondering whether the 92% favorable rating given to The Avengers by critics on Rotten Tomatoes means they’re all on the studio’s payroll or just didn’t think critically enough. I’m also beyond confused as to why Marvel didn’t hire Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, Joe Johnson or Louis Leterrier – or indeed any director with the genuine talent to tell a story. Joss Whedon has no credibility for this project, and was clearly out of his depth. What a waste – of the studio’s money, and of mine as a frequent moviegoer and shareholder. To mention nothing of the minds of Americans, which this movie will help to further dumb down into thinking that hype and CGI make a “good story” despite grossing $200M opening weekend. But unlike other consumer products, smarter moviegoers can’t “return” their viewing of this movie for a refund.

Let’s begin with the script, which is appallingly low-minded. Even a fast-paced comic- book-hero action movie can and should contain thoughtful, character-revealing dialogue (dialogue meaning more than two sentences per utterance, at least now and then!).    It becomes quickly impossible to care at all about any of these once-special characters, each of whom is reduced to sheer flatness.

Nor is there any discernable armature (moral) – just a vague sense that the movie is flogging to death the platitude of how awesome America is because it’s full of rag-tag teams of really special, gifted people who are destined to save the world from some nebulous evil. The entire plot is, in fact, disconnected and rambling. On the one hand, the movie makes the sweeping assumption that every moviegoer will already know the backstory of the characters (It opens with Loki arriving and being introduced as Loki. End of introduction.) Why not set up each character (as well as the concept of S.H.I.E.L.D) in a way that ties all the prior movies together into this one? But regardless of the lack of backstory and context-setting, the plot is full of outrageously intelligence- insulting turns that are devoid of both logic and human (or superhero) authenticity. Loki plans to use the Hulk against the group – because in a convenient up-ending of logical continuity, the Hulk’s first rage in this movie will be unleashed on anyone and anything around him and be unable to distinguish his friends and enemies. The Black Widow announces that apparently, a blow to the head is sufficient to clear Loki’s magical mind- controlling energy zaps. Loki opens a hole in the sky and randomly brings in Transformers-esque aliens to help him in his feebly articulated quest to “free Earth from freedom”.

Kudos to critics like A. O. Scott for telling the truth about this movie and Whedon’s failed vision for The Avengers. Just because people spend their money on something hotly anticipated doesn’t mean it’s good. This movie is a crass manipulation of people to cough up money to cover the studio’s ill-spent investment, and you can keep doing this because moviegoers are not entitled to demand a refund for the waste of two hours of their life. Nor, can they take you to court over product misrepresentation through trailers that set a tone of quality that the feature film doesn’t even begin to reach. Clearly, it’s time for that kind of consumer protection in the movie industry, because failing that it seems unlikely that studios will actually take responsibility for the egregious waste of resources that goes into churning out mediocre movies like The Avengers, let alone the outright duplicity of packaging it as something worthwhile and meaningful.

“The Film That Changed My Life”: Richard Kelly On Brazil

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Robert K. Elder’s latest book, “The Film that Changed My Life,” came together as he met filmmakers as part of his regular writing assignments, and then got them to expand on one film that changed their lives, and what form that “change” took. Among the thirty equally appealing conversations, Kevin Smith talks Slacker; Danny Boyle, Apocalypse Now; Atom Egoyan, Persona; John Woo, Mean Streets; Frank Oz, Touch of Evil; Rian Johnson, Annie Hall; and Steve James, Harlan County U.S.A. In his introduction, Elder cites Reservoir Dogs as his own touchstone. At 17, it was “the first time I felt the presence of the director: a full-on personality and force of style imposed on the movie. Tarantino’s DNA was on each frame of celluloid.” Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly chose Brazil. Here’s an extended excerpt of their intense appreciation of Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece. [You can buy the book here. The official “The Film That Changed My Life” website is here.]

Robert K. Elder: Terry Gilliam called this film “Walter Mitty meets Franz Kafka.”

Kelly: I would best describe Brazil as a portrait of bureaucracy run amok, or capitalism run amok. It’s probably the most visionary example of an alternate universe portrayed with such incredible logic. It’s incredibly absurd, but it’s incredibly accurate to the system that exists in our world. I would call it one of the most profound social satires that has ever been filmed. It is unlike any film that has ever been made before or after. It is also incredibly difficult to describe to someone who has never seen it. You just have to say to someone, “This is a film you must see, and you must experience it without any preconceived notions of what you’re going to be watching.” I wouldn’t even know how to explain it to someone or sell it to someone. That’s what’s so great about it.

How did you first hear about the film?

Kelly: I grew up as a huge fan of Time Bandits. Time Bandits had always affected me as a kid, and I had memories of that from when I was very small, and it frightened me. I remembered when the dwarves came into the little kid’s bedroom and started pushing his bedroom wall and it opened up to this abyssal tunnel, and the image of them falling from this light grid in the sky captured my imagination as a really young child. Those images stayed with me—they burned themselves into the back of my head. I started reading about Terry’s other films, having seen The Fisher King prior to that. I was aware of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen but I had never seen Brazil. I grew up in Midlothian, Virginia, where you’d be lucky to find Brazil in a Blockbuster Video. It wasn’t a film that was jumping off the shelves and available to someone in a town like Midlothian, Virginia. When I arrived in film school, I suddenly found myself with this gigantic library of LaserDiscs, and Brazil was one of the first ones I checked out at the library.

Most people, when they say “the film that changed my life,” they mean the film that made them want to be a director, propelled them to film school. But you saw the film when you were already in film school. How did it change your life?

Kelly: In my freshman year of college, I was in the school of fine arts and hadn’t yet been accepted into the film program. I had gotten an art scholarship for a lot of illustrations and drawings and paintings that I had done in junior high and high school. I immediately started dropping art classes and started taking the general film courses my freshman year and got guest access passes to the film library, so I knew I was trying to get into the film school, but I wasn’t there yet. I was more in that transitional period, where I was trying to gain confidence and put together my vision and my voice as an artist and a filmmaker. Having discovered Terry’s work and seeing that he followed a similar course, beginning in the visual arts as a cartoonist working with Monty Python, I felt a kinship to him. The visual design in Brazil is so astonishing, my head almost exploded. You have to give Terry, Tom Stoppard, and Charles McKeown credit for explaining what was wrong with the world in very elegant strokes that are alien to us because the world is not our own, but it is incredibly familiar because it is absolutely our own.

Gilliam has said Brazil was a documentary. He said he made none of it up.

Kelly: It is a documentary film with the brushstrokes of a profoundly mad genius who can create a fantasy world, but he created a fantasy world literally within—he re-created our world in a different visual language. I had never seen that done in any other film. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is maybe the closest approximation, but I think that Brazil certainly said many things that Metropolis couldn’t, maybe because Lang didn’t have the benefit of sound. Gilliam has an artist’s eye. He is someone who sees every frame as an oil painting. He meticulously assembles every frame with so much detail as to make that image worth watching dozens and dozens of times. You end up with a film that is timeless. It becomes this essential viewing experience that seems to ultimately get better with age because as one matures, the meaning of the film matures. That meticulous attention to detail is something that only the greatest directors are capable of. [There are] sight gags you literally need to watch three or four times to catch all the jokes hidden in every frame. They’re not just crass, empty, cheap laughs; there’s profound irony invested in every frame, just an extraordinary amount of social criticism invested in each one of the gags.

I think the moment that got me was when Lowry was running through the shopping promenade, and Robert De Niro’s character is suddenly overcome with hundreds and hundreds of sheets of paper blowing in the wind, and they start affixing themselves to his body. He’s just standing, and there’s nothing but paper blowing in the wind in every direction. That’s when the film got me, and I finally understood what it was about. The whole film was about that scene. On one level, it was about how the system—bureaucracy or capitalism or whatever you want to call it, whether you want to get into a Marxist critique on modern life—how our means and methods of production and the Ministry of Information retrieval, how all these institutions can ultimately suffocate our humanity. And that’s exactly what happened to Robert De Niro’s character in that scene. He ceased to exist, and there was nothing left but a bunch of paper. It was just a profound image and, to me, one of the more emotional images in the film. With the terrorist bombings and the plastic surgery gone bad, we are living in Brazil right now. We get closer to Brazil with each passing week.

Gilliam first toyed with calling the film The Ministry or, more popularly, 1984½, which was a tip both to George Orwell and to Federico Fellini for 8½. One critic called it “1984 with laughs,” but Gilliam’s totalitarian society is one that is absent of Big Brother. The system itself is the antagonist; there’s no physical villain. How does that change the viewing experience?

Kelly: It makes it more demanding for the viewer. There are plenty of villains in history, but what you don’t realize is that behind that villain lays an infrastructure, and it is the infrastructure that empowers that villain. And I think Terry and his collaborators were being very ahead of their time and looking less at a figurehead and more at an infrastructure that can be manipulated to create a figurehead, like… I don’t want to mention any names here. Thank God Terry has such a great sense of humor because that’s where his voices come from, ultimately. Aside from his humanity or his sense of moral anarchy or his visionary visual imagination, it is his sense of humor that ultimately keeps him alive.

Brazil is also famous for Gilliam’s fight with [executive] Sidney Sheinberg, when he delivered a movie seventeen minutes longer than was contracted, so he took the film away from him and it was a yearlong battle before they released it here. Were you aware of this when you saw it?

Kelly: No, I wasn’t and that’s why, in subsequent years, I have become so obsessed with the film, because having to observe those battles on my first film and seeing and reading the history—there’s a great book called “The Battle of Brazil” [by Jack Mathews]—and reading about the fight he put up gave me a lot of confidence. I never had to go to the lengths with Donnie Darko that he had to, but I had to fight like hell and I didn’t win every battle. They gave me a director’s cut later, so that was an indication that if you know you’ve done a good job, and you know that you have a voice and you’re confident, it may get you in trouble in the short term, but in the long term all that matters is the film that is released. It isn’t the fight, the memos, or the words that are exchanged—it’s your art, it’s what you are going to be judged for when you are dead and buried, and it’s worth fighting for. Thank God that Terry fought for Brazil. Had “love conquered all,” we would have been denied a real masterpiece.

The Los Angeles Film Critics Association forced Universal’s hand; they named Brazil Best Picture of the year and Gilliam Best Director. It’s the one documented case in which critics banded together to save a film, and that’s a pretty complex relationship. What is the role of the critic? Is it to critique art or to influence it?

Kelly: Their perfunctory role is to critique art, but in every critic’s heart is a desire to better the art form, in their dialogue, in their criticism, in the critical literature they are creating. They want to promote good films and suppress the bad films, and hopefully make the process better—contribute and support bold, risky, innovative filmmaking. It should be the duty of any film critic. I think that if you ask any film critic if he or she has an agenda to support those films, that critic will say “absolutely.” It really can make all the difference. You see it all the time, like with Patty Jenkins’s film Monster, when Roger Ebert was one of the first critics out there to herald not only Charlize Theron’s performance but also the film itself. An important film critic like Roger Ebert can certainly rescue a film from oblivion, and I think that has to warm any critic’s heart to have the power to do something like that.

Gilliam told the New York Times in 1986 that “you can’t talk about artistic values or social values or philosophical values; economic values are the only ones that count.” Has Hollywood changed?

Kelly: I think economic values have only been foregrounded in the vertical integration of studios. We’re now seeing gigantic corporations merging with one another. There’s talk of synergy and vertical integration. Karl Marx is chuckling in his grave somewhere because it all comes down to one word: money. It costs a lot of money to create these works of art, and ultimately they are not seen as works of art any more by the people who are writing the checks. The fight has become that much more difficult, and you have to be that much more savvy and manipulative in order to work your way into the system and somehow emerge as a piece of art, not a piece of commerce.

Can you point to any specific ways that Brazil influenced your work?

Kelly: If I’m taking inspiration, or if I’m going to blatantly rip off my favorite artists, I try not to make it quite so blatant. But I think the greatest thing I learned from Terry is that every frame is worthy of attention to detail. Every frame is worthy of being frozen in time and then thrown on a wall like an oil painting, and if you work hard on every frame, the meaning of your film becomes deeper, more enhanced. New meaning emerges in your story because of your attention to detail. It is also developing a visual style that is your own, that is hopefully unlike anything that has been done before. He gave me something to aspire to as a visual artist but also as a storyteller, as one who aspires to be a social satirist. I have a long way to go, but I aspire to do some of the things that Terry has done, and to do them as well as Terry has done. It’s about being thorough, and having a great sense of humor and being able to laugh at the end. I look at the film now, and it’s more timely than ever. It makes more sense now than it did in 1985. That’s a testament to how much of a documentary it really is.

There are two kinds of satire. There’s Juvenalian satire and there’s Horatian satire. One of them says the world is a shitty place but in the end we’ll all be taken care of, and the other says the world is a shitty place and in the end we’re all fucked. One sees the glass as half-empty and the other sees the glass as half-full. Some may accuse Terry of seeing the glass as half-empty, but I think, really, in his heart, he sees it as half-full.

[© Robert K. Elder. Reprinted by permission. You can buy the book here. The official “The Film That Changed My Life” website is here.]

The Exit Through The Gift Shop Diaries, pt 2 of 2

Friday, October 8th, 2010

ENTERING THE GIFT SHOP, (Part 2: 2009 – 2010)
by Jaimie D’Cruz

(link to Pt 1)

January 2009
For a while now Banksy has had Bristol drum and bass legend Roni Size composing music for us. He now gets Geoff Barrow from Portishead involved too. With Roni Size and Geoff Barrow scoring original tracks we have some of Britain’s best musical talent on board.

February 2009
The overall narrative is pretty much in place. It has a weird beginning, a bizarre middle and a frankly unbelievable end. Now we start fine cutting and refining the narration script. Already the talking heads are pretty much gone, discarded on the cutting room floor. All that remains of the master interviews is actual testament from those directly involved in the story. It’s encouraging that we haven’t in the end needed to rely on cutting away to generic interviews to tell the story about wider issues such as Banksy’s relevance, the origins of graffiti or street art’s crossover into the big money art world. Thierry’s tapes and the story they tell, plus the broader narrative of his art show seem to be a compelling enough story in its own right.

March 2009
“Last” tapes from Thierry turn up. All throughout the editing period we have been calling up more tapes from Thierry, usually in response to specific holes in the story. For example when we needed more videos of general family scenes, or more tapes of Thierry’s first foray into making his own art, or old pictures of Thierry as a kid. But Thierry has from time to time unearthed another box of tapes and shipped it over. This last batch of tapes includes Thierry’s footage of Banksy’s 2006 ‘Guantanamo Bay’ stunt at Disneyland. What a find.

Still shooting master interviews with Banksy. Naturally, as someone who works with the power of images, he is all over the composition of the shot and I have to keep stopping recording to play back for him so he can see the frame. After a few experiments he wants me to shoot the interview back-lit so he is in silhouette, wearing a black hoodie. To be on the safe side he has also decided to wear a ski mask under his hoodie. That should do it! This will end up being the main interview set-up used in the film (the mid-shot with the monkey mask in the case) along with another wider back-lit shot in his studio.

April 2009
Having only signed on for three months Chris has been turning down film after film to extend his availability to us and, finally, an immoveable commitment means he has to finish after a mammoth ten month edit. It’s a blessing really as we could be rough cutting forever. With this impetus we finish the main ‘offline’ edit and lock the picture.

April 2009
A new editor, Tom Fulford comes in for just “a couple of weeks” cleaning up and recuts. Just fine cutting really. Or so we think. Late addition of another interview (with Space Invader) shot in London. The picture is unlocked!

May 2009
Up to this point only those directly involved in making the film have seen it. Naturally we are working in highly secretive conditions, but now we hold a couple of small screenings for two or three friends at a time to gauge reactions.

As the film edges slowly towards completion Banksy is becoming more focussed on the minutiae. For me it’s a very unconventional way to make a film. He is not just one of the main contributors, it is also his idea and his film. But probably the most unusual aspect of the production is that there doesn’t seem to be any urgency. At one point he explains to me that when you finish a painting the thing to do is leave it for a bit and come back to it later. There is no equivalent in the world I am used to when there is always a commissioning editor breathing down your neck or a broadcast deadline looming. But that doesn’t apply here. Hardly anyone even knows we are making a film!

June 2009
What shall we call it? No one sure what the title should be. Banksy likes Exit Through The Gift Shop. Seems a bit leftfield to me. Begin cutting a title sequence. Banksy is adamant that as well as the minute-long street art sequence in the film, we need a big street art sequence up front. Ironically Thierry’s footage, amazing and bizarre as it is, is fairly sketchy on actual art being done. We start to trawl for footage, putting out the word in the street art community: if you did it and shot it we want it for a “graffiti’s greatest hits” title sequence.

July 2009
Thierry flies over from LA to watch the film for the first time. Everyone nervous. He declares it to be “the best film I have ever seen in my life.” Thierry then tells us that he has been commissioned by Madonna to do the cover art for her new album. Can this be real?

August 2009
Recuts, fine cuts, addition of a couple of shots from yet more new tapes brought over by Thierry (so the last “last” tapes weren’t the last ones after all).

September 2009
Fine cutting continues. Tom’s “couple of weeks” of fine cutting is now in its fifth month. Shepard Fairey is in London briefly and comes in to watch the film. He likes it a lot which is a relief and puts to rest one of the elephants which has been hanging around in the room; the film which started off being Thierry’s film about Shepard has now morphed into Banksy’s film about Thierry. Surreal moment driving through London with Banksy and Shepard when we suddenly spot a gigantic billboard for the new Madonna album displaying a forty foot high image of her by Thierry/MBW. It’s all getting a bit meta.

October 2009
Fine fine cutting; we’re really just tinkering now. Picture lock again. Online and grade begins. Really need to decide the title of the film.

Bombshell drops. It turns out that since seeing it in July, Thierry now thinks he may have some issues with the film and he flies back in to see it again, this time with his entourage. He can’t put his finger on what exactly he doesn’t like. But he does say, ominously, that it is a great film, “except for the end”. Everything suddenly feeling a bit wobbly.

November 2009
Thierry arrives back in London with a bag of tapes. He has some ideas he says. My heart sinks. Over the next couple of weeks Thierry flies in and out of London and we try to accommodate his ideas which turn out not to be ideas at all. Painful as it is, this process is not without entertainment value. Thierry has a natural gift of speaking as if prompted by a very witty screenwriter living inside his head – he’s full of lofty quasi-philosophical observations which he really, actually means. Completely genuine and totally lacking any sense of irony, Thierry may seem silly but he takes himself very seriously.

Banksy is getting more frustrated. He, like all of us, has great affection for Thierry and doesn’t want to him to be upset. On the other hand it is becoming increasingly difficult to take his erratic suggestions seriously. This is Thierry after all we have to keep reminding ourselves – the crazy Frenchman who had never done an art show in his life. Yet now he is telling us that the film may damage his “reputation” as an artist.

We tell Thierry to relax and leave the film making to us. Finally he disappears back to LA, his attentions thankfully diverted by the need to prepare work for his new, even bigger show he has coming up in New York.

Banksy has created a Frankenstein.

November 2009
Banksy has brought in actor Rhys Ifans for the film’s narration. Rhys’s off-key fruity wryness fits the tone of the story well. We are still cutting the title sequence. We’ve managed to get a good selection of bare-faced vandalism from our trawl of footage online and elsewhere, but it’s been a bit of a struggle. It’s incredible how little footage exists, and it shows just how invaluable Thierry’s “rooftop years” really were in documenting the key events of a movement which may never have been caught on tape otherwise.

December 2009
We really really need to decide the name. Exit Through the Gift Shop it is. Screening for potential distributors in the UK. Loads of them come. The film seems to be well received, but everyone appears to think it’s a hoax. Not quite sure what to make of this.

January 2010
Banksy turns up in Park City, Utah where the Sundance Film Festival is held and donates a few unsolicited artworks to the city’s walls. The press are immediately enthralled. A few days later Exit Through the Gift Shop receives its world premiere at the festival with an unannounced surprise screening. Almost immediately an incredible consensus starts to emerge both in the press and the blogosphere: Exit is a hoax! While the reactions seem almost entirely positive and full of praise for the film, no one seems willing to believe that we have told is true story. It’s a bizarre position to find ourselves in. it’s hard to gain a critical distance from something you’ve been so immersed in but it had never really occurred to us that the film might not be believed. I guess people – film critics in particular – are scared of looking foolish if they were to praise the film as a documentary only for it to be revealed later on as a hoax. Most commentators seem to have come up with a variation of the idea that while they of course realise it is all a “clever spoof” or a “wry faux documentary”, Exit still has interesting things to say about life, the power of hype and the commodification of art etc. Some of the more outlandish theories suggest that Thierry IS Banksy. Others speculate that Banksy, Shepard and Invader got together, cooked up the idea of Thierry and then created him as a way of exposing the shallowness of the art world. Most commentators suspect that at the very least, Banksy played a much more active hand in the transformation of Thierry from loveable eccentric to art world sensation than in fact he did. I find this puzzling because Banksy’s involvement is clearly documented in the film which explains that it was Banksy’s idea in the first place for Thierry to try to put on his own art show; likewise that Banksy stepped in, enlisting Roger Gastman and co. to help when it all looked like it might spiral out of control; and that he gave a quote to the LA Weekly which fuelled speculation that Thierry was “Banksy-endorsed”. But even Banksy couldn’t have created that outcome. Nor I suspect would he have chosen to.

February 2010
Banksy and his crew build a cinema in a derelict railway arch in central London to show the film to proper audiences for the first time. It’s an incredible transformation and once they have constructed an amazing 150 seat cinema complete with original velvet-covered Victorian music hall seating (bought on e-bay), they fill the space with Banksy’s pieces including some of the animatronics from his Village Pet Store in New York and the Bristol City Museum show from last summer, as well as a riot ice cream van handing out popcorn and wine. Over 2 weeks the film plays twice a day to general audiences, journalists, crew and friends.

Meanwhile in New York, Thierry’s new show Icons opens. Bigger and bolder than Life Is Beautiful, the new show is an immediate sensation. The same night Icons opens in New York, we unveil Exit at the Berlin International Film Festival. The co-incidence of these two unrelated events is claimed by some to be further evidence of the elaborate hoax!

March 2010
Exit opens nationwide in the UK. Low-key word of mouth screenings are held in a few key American cities. By now the film seems to be earning a global reputation as a spoof documentary of epic proportions. It’s a hard charge to react to – on the one hand it is fantastic that the story is considered to be so unbelievable that it must all be one giant hoax. But on the other hand, it’s only a powerful story because it is true. This is all testament to Banksy’s original insight. He saw that Thierry would make a compelling subject for a documentary because Thierry is genuinely unique. But the corollary of that uniqueness is that no one can believe Thierry is a real person! Whatever the case, Banksy’s reputation as an international prankster means that it is useless to protest. We’ve gone from the Emperor’s New Clothes to The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

April 2010
Exit’s US premiere at the Los Angeles Theatre in downtown LA. The theatre which is semi-derelict and normally only used as a location is perfect – despite the fact that it takes us three days to make it capable of actually projecting a film.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Postscript: September 2010
With Exit in its sixth month of release in the United States and more screens scheduled to open all over the world, the art career of MBW goes from strength to strength

The Exit Through The Gift Shop Diaries, pt 1 of 2

Monday, October 4th, 2010

ENTERING THE GIFT SHOP, (Part 1: Origins, 2008)
by Jaimie D’Cruz.

An anonymous phone call from a mysterious woman signaled the beginning of a two year odyssey for documentary producer Jaimie D’Cruz. Here he charts the behind the scenes story of the making of Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop

February 2008
Mysterious call from a woman claiming to represent Banksy. Apparently the notoriously anonymous artist wants to make a film and thinks I may be able to help. Considering that countless film-makers have been turned down in their approaches to Banksy, plus the fact that I haven’t made such a request myself, this seems an unlikely proposition. I naturally dismiss it as a crank call and carry on with the crossword where I am having trouble with 5 down.

February 2008 a bit later
Get another call, this time from a man claiming to actually be Banksy. Maybe this is for real after all. Over a decade earlier, in my incarnation as a journalist specialising in what is loosely known as “underground culture” I had briefly met Banksy, then an unknown (but already super-secretive) graffiti artist. However in the intervening years he had become so famous for his stunts and his anonymity that I had subsequently decided that I must have imagined this encounter.

February 2008 a bit later still
Meet Banksy in a London pub where he lays out his pitch: a French guy called Thierry has been filming him for a year or two. (Filming him? How?! Why?!). In fact he has been filming everyone. For years. Apparently “French Terry”, who has lived in LA for over twenty years, is a legend in the street art world, and has an unbelievable archive of all the big names (and a lot of the lesser known ones too) at work. Now Banksy has taken the first steps toward making a film about Thierry. I think this is a very strange idea. Who would want to watch a film about an unknown French guy called Thierry? Banksy says that I need to meet Thierry.

March 2008
A package of video tapes turn up at my office: a mixture of tapes shot by Thierry and tapes shot of Thierry. He seems like a funny and engaging character. But I am still not sure why Banksy has suggested that Thierry becomes an artist when he seems perfectly happy being a film-maker.

March 2008 a bit later
Receive a DVD of Thierry’s film. It is 90 minutes long and it’s called Life Remote Control. I now understand why Banksy has suggested that his friend Thierry re-focuses his energies in a different direction.

April 2008
Meet Chris King for coffee. Chris is one of the best editors in the UK documentary business and is always busy. However he is intrigued by the idea of Banksy’s pitch and agrees to come in for a couple of weeks. We go through the bag of tapes. It is clear that Thierry is a natural-born character: funny, likeable and clearly insane.

Bank Holiday Weekend, early May 2008
Banksy has commandeered a tunnel in central London to stage a huge stencil art event, The Cans Festival. He has invited some of the world’s best-known street artists to come and take part. He has also invited Thierry over as a kind of practice run for his own show. Thierry arrives in London and I start filming with him. During his few days in town, Thierry seems enthusiastic about the idea of Banksy taking over his film, and he promises that all the tapes of his years of filming are in the process of being sent to London so we can begin viewing and editing.

I am confused. I can see the appeal of a film about Thierry – he’s a brilliant character. But an art show? Thierry tells me that when Banksy suggested to him that he might try to become an artist himself, he thought it was “a genius idea”. He has rented a huge space in Hollywood for his debut show which will be called Life is Beautiful, and he has recruited a team of people who have been helping him over the last few weeks, making the art which will fill its cavernous multi-floored interior. He has adopted the name of Mister Brainwash (MBW) and he has decided to open on June 18th. A month from now!

Mid-May 2008
Phone discussions about shooting style with B+, an LA-based photographer and film-maker. He and his crew will document the behind-the-scenes action in the build up of Thierry’s show in LA.

Various conversations with Thierry on the phone; he is terrified that his show will not be ready in time. But he is also adamant that it will be. He is a big believer in fate and he insists that whatever happens he cannot lose. He “can only go up”.

June 1st 2008
B+ calls. “You’ll never fucking believe it dude. Thierry fell off a ladder and broke his fucking leg.” Brilliant – did you get it on tape? “Nope.” However, B+ and his boys did rush over to LA’s Cedars Sinai hospital to film Thierry having his leg X-Rayed and being seen by a doctor. Thankfully one of Thierry’s helpers captured the ladder incident on a stills camera.

June 2008
Chris King starts working full time on the tapes. He has been booked for three months. The only problem is that none of the promised new tapes have arrived. Thierry says he is still trying to sort them out. He isn’t quite sure where they are, or how many there are, or what’s on the ones he has got. And he says he has to make copies of all of them before sending them. I tell him that will take too long and he just has to take a leap of faith and send them.

June 2008, a bit later
Still no tapes. Banksy sends a friend to LA get them.

Mid June 2008
I fly to LA to film the final run up to the show opening. Banksy’s special envoy, despatched from London a week earlier to get the tapes is still in LA and is encountering some resistance. The struggle to part Thierry from his treasured backlog has been going on since Banksy first came up with the idea of swapping places with him. The rational side of Thierry understands that we need the tapes, but his emotional attachment to them has led to months of prevarication and stalling from the Frenchman. However, the moment of truth is upon us: no tapes – no film. Luckily Thierry has got enough on his plate getting his show ready and the envoy finally prevails and heads back to London with 700 or so hours of material for Chris in the edit.

Over the week I am in LA I get to understand more about who Thierry is. He operates from the centre of an intense group of family and friends – all of whom seem to be French Jewish émigrés, it’s like Paris with palm trees. I realise why Thierry’s English is so sketchy. He may have lived in LA for 20 plus years, but he has never really left France. Beyond his inner circle he has a gang of young talented guys and a highly skilled screen-printer called Celeste, turning out a never-ending stream of art. The operation is based out of an incredible studio equipped with professional looking screen-printing equipment and chock full of “stuff” being turned into art works (hundreds of TV sets, eight foot high stacks of warped vinyl records, literally thousands of single shoes which Thierry purchased as a job lot…)

Thierry seems to have built up a wildly varying body of work, from gigantic sculptures to spray painted bed sheets to tinkered-with oils on canvas to endless Photo-Shopped screen-prints of iconic images. It’s like someone went into a gallery with a giant Hoover, sucked up tons of art and spat out less substantial versions of them at the other end. The references are there in plain sight: Space Invader, Shepard, Monsieur Andre, Zeus, lots of Banksy and a good dash of Warhol.

June 16th 2008
Go to show venue and meet Roger Gastman, a street art expert (ex-graffiti writer, publisher, journalist, curator) who Banksy drafted in to help Thierry out with the production. We can both see that there is absolutely no way on earth this show is going to be ready for the opening. It’s definitely going to be a total disaster.

June 18th 2008
Thierry’s show is an outstanding success. Thousands of people attend. Thierry’s wife Debora tells me it is their wedding anniversary. But Thierry didn’t realise this when he planned the show. He isn’t good with dates.

Late June 2008
Back in London and Chris is getting stuck into Thierry’s tapes. Chris has Rainman-like powers of recall and an intuitive ability to spot the relevance of a tape as he watches it. Which is fortunate as the tapes are unlabelled, unordered and seemingly random. Some tapes have no audio. Some have no picture. Some have neither. We find multiple coverage of single events as Thierry often covers the action on two – sometimes three – cameras. When we find a tape that is labelled, the information is usually misleading or cryptic and dates, where they appear, are unreliable. By getting some key dates from Thierry’s wife (when they were married, when the kids were born etc) we start to work out when things took place by cross-referencing wherever we can.

July 2008
Through the painstaking process of working through the tapes, the faint shape of a story slowly begins to emerge. Some key moments are revealed; when Thierry stumbles across his cousin who is, unbeknown to him, a leading anonymous street artist going by the name of Space Invader; the moment when Thierry meets Shepard Fairey for the first time…. And of course the big moment when he somehow persuaded Banksy to let himself be filmed in LA.

August 2008
Still unsure how far Thierry’s tapes will take us we start shooting other interviews for the film. Some of these are with friends of Banksy, speaking about him for the first time (Damien Hirst, 3D from Massive Attack). Some are with critics, art world people, other graffiti artists, even a barrister. I also start to film master interviews with Banksy. After all it’s his story. He is initially uncomfortable being on camera but he is very funny, and another natural. Starting to feel this film might actually have legs – it’s a straight up two hander with a great back-story, some funny supporting characters and a ridiculous present tense narrative to boot.

September 2008
With the main blocks of the story in place we now know what to ask Thierry, and shoot the first master interview with him in LA. As we go through the interview tapes back in London some incredible revelations emerge. Thierry admits he was obsessed with filming because it was a way for him to ‘preserve’ the lives of the people who were important to him. Having lost his mother at an early age he was trying to take control of his life by filming everything. It was his way to make sure, as he puts it, that “those moments would live forever”. Thierry also admits that far from trying to make the film everyone assumed he was making, his unwatched tapes, once shot, were locked away in boxes, never to be seen again. At last we understand why it was so difficult persuading Thierry to hand over his tapes.

October 2008
Shoot master interview with Shepard Fairey in LA. Interesting stuff about the relationship between him and Thierry. Basically Shepard allowed Thierry to follow him around for 6 or 7 years. It had never dawned on him that Thierry had never seriously intended to finish his film. For Thierry, the filming was an end in itself.

November 2008
Still blocking out the story, Banksy is happy with the way that the film is shaping up, but he is concerned that with the story gathering its own pace there doesn’t seem to be space to fit in the street art story itself in. We have a good archive of old footage but the sequences we are cutting from it seem out of place somehow. Banksy suggests that we make one short sequence which tells the whole story in a minute.

December 2008
With the back-story more or less blocked out we start getting into our own footage of Thierry getting his show together. It’s a moment we have been a bit apprehensive of. We are jumping from telling Thierry’s story through his own material to telling it though our material. We aren’t sure what device we’ll use to signpost that handover. But as it turns out the transition seems to sit quite smoothly. No signposting needed…. Maybe?

Banksy’s notes are getting more in-depth. I think initially he thought it would be interesting to see what happened if he suggested that Thierry make some art and have a show; but I don’t think he guessed for a minute how far Thierry would go. When we had first met and I had expressed my doubts about his concept, Banksy had told me that at the very least we would end up with a nice five minute clip for you tube. I think we’re all realising that events have acquired their own momentum and that from here on we just have to run and try to keep up with the story.

(link to Pt 2)

SXSW # 2

Saturday, March 13th, 2010

I wake up – not as early as I had hoped and with not a lot of time to get to my Cherry interviews this morning. So with Farah giving me directions on the phone as I drive, I make my way back to the convention center or as I think of it – home base.

I get to the restaurant where they’re doing the interviews and the publicist gives me the production notes verbally like they used to do it when Indian tribes had press junkets and just repeated the production notes from generation to generation. I sit down and get my video camera ready – which I use to transcribe only – I’m just visual that way – and of course, I notice the battery is about to buy it in the crossfire. Crap. I have 23 minutes of recording time. Oh, and I’ve just been informed that I will be interviewing the director, Jeffrey Fine, and stars Kyle Gallner and Brittany Robertson separately when I was thinking and prepared to do them as a group. Double crap.

BRITTANY ROBERTSON

JW: We’ll start with the obvious stuff first. How did you get involved with this project?

BR: I was originally given the script in March, 2008 and my manager said, “It’s a really good part for you.” And I was supposed to go in and meet with Jeffrey Fine but I wasn’t able to because of other projects at the time. Then they asked if I wanted to come in and do chemistry read with Kyle. And I said, “Sure.” I had actually known Kyle for years. And he’s a great actor and fun. And it went great but I looked very young and meek in that audition, so they said, “Can you come back in and look a little tougher?” So I came back in and I wore a short black bob with different color hair and piercings sort of like the character in the movie and they said, “Okay, we buy it.” Then we started rehearsing a few weeks later and then went to Michigan and started shooting.

JW: You’ve been Ms. Work here for a little while. So, as you’re doing that, going from project to project to project, are you just happy that’s happening or do you actually think to yourself that it would be nice to have a little time off?

BR: I actually had never thought about that up until three weeks ago. I have been working as the lead in a show for six months straight with long days. So I was ready for some time off. Oh, and that last few weeks I was deathly ill, I had some kind of flu and I couldn’t get rid of it. So I was like, “I need to get better A, and sleep B and just conk out for a few days.” So coming here to Austin couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s kind of like a vacation, but still being able to work, you know?

JW: Let’s talk about that. The SXSW experience or film festival experiences in general. Have you come here before or gone to other festivals?

BR: I was supposed to go to this past Sundance…

JW: For Mother And Child?

BR: Yes. But I wasn’t able to because I was working. And I’ve been to South By Southwest before because I was shooting a pilot nearby but I didn’t have a film at the festival.

JW: Okay. So you have a film at the festival and there’s all kinds of hoopla and fanfare on the streets last night and you’re one of the chosen people because you’re starring in a film here. What’s that like?

BR: It’s cool. We went out after the movie premiered and had a good time and talked about things and then I said, “Okay, you have a great time. I’m going back to my to sleep,” and of course passed out five minutes after I got there. I love seeing the films and the new music and everything, I’m just not huge on going out to the bars and clubs. Not really my thing.

JW: And what about the other side – you have to do the press stuff: interviews and junkets. And, let’s face it, you’re a youngster. Is this part fun for you?

BR: Yeah, it’s cool. It’s not like I’m working and I like talking to people. It’s exciting, it’s fun.

JW: This year you have Cherry and Mother And Child. What’s the difference for you as you talk about the films and your roles in them?

BR: My part in Mother And Child is a little more minor than this one because it’s a big ensemble cast. But it’s the best of both worlds because the opportunities on Mother And Child working with that cast, you just want to jump onboard and just be a part of it and then you have this film and I’m so passionate about it because it’s been such a big part of me and we worked so hard to make the film. So, yeah you have one where you’ve worked so hard to do it and other you just want to be a part of. I’m really grateful for both projects and how well they’re doing and being perceived.

JEFFREY FINE

JW: When I came in, I asked the publicist, “I want to make sure that I’m not an idiot. Is this definitely contemporary because there is this timeless, maybe even throwback aspect to it? Because I couldn’t quite place it.

JF: That’s a very reasonable question. Because I didn’t graduate from college five years ago. So, for me I consciously didn’t have people with I pods or I phones or texting. And that was a conscious decision because I wanted to pare things away and focus on the characters. And there was sort of a nod to a period with a little nostalgia. The ‘Linda’ character (the single mom) has an older car and the furniture in her place – there’s a reality of the economics in her world: she has great taste but she doesn’t have money to buy high-end stuff, she’s going to go to flea markets and drive an old clunker. I wanted her world to reflect someone with taste and style that bought all her stuff for five bucks.

And I DID want the college campus to feel sort of universally old school and frankly you go to a lot of these campuses and you do feel that they live in their own little bubble. When we found Kalamazoo College to film, we were looking for something that had an Ivy League feel to it. And the minute you walk onto that campus – well, we didn’t have to do anything.

JW: This is your feature debut?

JF: I made a feature when I came out of SC, like a year later. And then I had some opportunities with documentaries…

JW: Exactly – the doc stuff…

JF: I did a lot of doc work and this story kept kind of resurfacing. And I found myself on planes heading all over the country and going to Europe and the story kept coming back to me so I started writing the scenes…

JW: I ask because, for myself, having worked with film festivals for a few years now (and one of the reasons I trumpet the films I have at these festivals), is that films like Cherry strike me as films that “had to be made.” A filmmaker just had to make them, just had to get it out and that’s why it exists. Because, if they had to go through the other system or left to the rote designs, it just wouldn’t happen. So how tough was it for you to get this one made?

JF: It was extremely tough. I had a lot of support. Sam Kitt, one of our producers was with Spike Lee’s company and that’s where he read Cherry. We flirted with a lot of different models to get it done. And there was this other producer that read the script, and he wanted to have a meeting, and he said, “I’d like to buy this script.” And I said, “Great! When will we make it?” And he said, “We can start making it in a year but you won’t be directing.” And he really wanted to do a super A-list talent and he probably would have changed the material and I could see the writing on the wall. And I just knew it wouldn’t end up being this film. It was a long, long process and we had some flirtations with other cast members, actresses, etc. but at a certain point Sam and I decided to just set a time and do it. And the other great thing was that my brother came on board. He’s not a filmmaker but an artist and a businessman and he thought he could raise some money, which he did. And we figured out a way to get it done for the amount that we had raised. And shooting in Michigan with the incentives really helped, as well.

JW: Have you come to film festivals as part of the documentary stuff you’ve done or is this your first experience?

JF: The docs – most of that was for hire – for series, etc.

JW: So this is your first rock star experience you get at a film festival. And like I asked, Brittany, you come out on 6th Street amid the craziness and your one of the chosen ones – especially for you – what is that like?

JF: I have to say, last night was pretty overwhelming for me because you’re working toward that moment for so long. And the Alamo is such a great place. It feels like a temple for movies. It just felt really great to finally cross the finish line.

I watch a journalist negotiate a photo of himself with Kyle. The publicist takes the pictures not convincingly at all. And then, Kyle moves his tray with his BBQ burger over to my table because that thing is a priority. And since I’ve had that same burger before, I completely understand where he’s coming from. Because it IS good. Anyway…

KYLE GALLNER

JW: I’ll start with you where I’ve ended with Brittany and Jeff. Tel me about your film festival experiences.

KG: It’s kind of like the first. I went to Sundance with this little indie film,
Red. We didn’t compete. It was just screening there. Other than that, I’m pretty new to this. I’m almost a film festival virgin.

JW: So, what was last night like?

KG: It’s cool. It’s really gratifying. We got picked which is flattering. It was exciting. You know it’s been a long time coming. Jeff has had this thing for a long time. It’s basically been in the can for two years. I’m really excited and happy for Jeff. I really think it’s a movie that deserves to be seen.

JW: How did you get involved with it?
KG: I auditioned for it. I had read the script. And really wanted that script. I did a bunch of work on it, a lot of journal stuff. And then, went in and they decided to pick me.

JW: At this stage in your career, you’ve had a nice run. What is the audition process like for you?
KG: It’s always frustrating. Because you’ll never e as good in that room as you’ll be on set. And you’re always like, If I can just get in there…” When you go in for something you really want – it’s nerve wracking because you just want it. And the prep is different for each one. Should I use music, do a journal, just throw it out to the wind and see what happens? It’s always different.

JW: And then you got cast before Brittany’s character so you had to do readings with the prospective actresses up for that role. So what is that process like?
KG: It’s just making sure you’re ready. You want to be as giving as you can – not show up and be an asshole thinking, “I don’t give a shit about you, I’m already locked in.” No, you want to be a generous actor because you want to have someone that is going to bounce off of you and bring good stuff out of you that you didn’t know you had.

JW: Do you find yourself developing a rooting interest?
KG: Yeah, it’s not necessarily that one person is better that the other, but chemistry is a big factor. If you’re supposed to be in love with someone but can’t stand them – then that’s gonna be a problem. But Brittany and me read and it was fun, and we played and…when they said she had the role I was like, “Perfect. Let’s play”

JW: Let’s talk about the differences between a project like this a project like NIghtmare On Elm Street.You’ve talked about how important it was to do this for Jeff. Do you feel a little additional responsibility to help this one?

KG: Huge difference. Studio films have a lot more money, they’re guaranteed to be seen whereas this one you have got to do justice to it. You know he busted his ass to get the money to do this thing because he really believes in it. So, yeah there is a different responsibility. It’s a different feel, a different vibe.

I get seats at the end of a football field, it feels like, for a horror film panel – so I make a decision to give my seats up to Adam Donaghey, a producer friend of mine and his girlfriend Kelly Dawson because I just got a call that a client just sat down to lunch nearby and I haven’t done a face-to-face thing since I got here. And I should. Wilford Brimley would want me to. So – off I go to do the right thing (in the business universe).

Justin Muller is THE GUY at the Las Colinas Studios in Dallas that is home to a lot of production and now he’s about to launch a new webisode series called “The Dream Factory.” And he’s got ideas upon ideas for other things he wants to do and he wants everyone to know about it and, and, and… Dude’s almost bouncing on his seat with enthusiasm coming out of him like one of those lightning globes. I’ll try to contain that after I have a few bites of quesadilla. I mean, it’s a lot to harness and I need some fuel first. Anyway, this place has the only motion picture district designation in the state of Texas and he took that thing over at the age of 22 and now seven years later, he’s chomping at the bit for…well, let’s describe it as an expansion of vision. And I feel like I’m getting a similar pitch that some local in Hollywood got from a film guy as he stood next to a bunch of orange groves in the 1920s. Which is appropriate because Muller is bound and determined to be bring back that kind of old school movie studio dynamic. I throw some ideas at him, add a little structure, he pays for the quesadilla and I’m out.

Next, I’m off to do a hit and run meeting with one of the producers on Tucker And Dale Vs Evil. I really liked this movie (saw it at Sundance) and I want to help the programming team secure it for DALLAS IFF. Here’s what I wrote about it at Sundance:

TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL

Eli Craig’s Tucker And Dale Vs Evil is about as one-note, high concept as it gets: Two hillbillies heading to their “fixer-upper” cabin for a getaway encounter a group of vacationing college kids. The kids stereotyping them as backwoods lunatics manage to start killing themselves off one by one in an effort to attack Tucker and Dale and rescue one of their own.

This one starts off great, pulling off a pitch perfect homage to the iconic Easy Rider drive-by and doesn’t let up. Tucker and Dale’s cabin was obviously home to a lunatic that actually did murder several people years ago (complete with newspaper clippings of the missing that the guys are oblivious of since they also spy one that has a fast food discount on it). And yes, the entire thing could not be more obvious or telegraphed (Tucker cuts into a tree stump with a bees nest and in running away from the scene with his chainsaw…well, I think you probably get it). Each misunderstanding leads to a gory conclusion.

But the thing making this work beyond a basic string of set-piece gags are Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine. As Tucker and Dale, they don’t just give us characters whose reality as “nice” and “sweet” guys that can speak in complete sentences runs counter to the stereotype. They (and great credit to Craig’s script and direction as well) score with the oftentimes hilarious (given the setting) emotional support and friendship they display toward one another. It’s nice to watch a comedy where the players know what they need to work hard at for the funny versus what will easily take care of itself (I’m looking at you, any film called “Something Movie”).

So, anyway… It’s back to the BBQ place and while the producer stands in line to get his Austin reward, I do the pitch, and negotiate, and with great relief it sounds like it’s all good and Dallas gets a cool-ass crowd pleaser.

Then it’s back to the convention center, run back into Adam and Kelly. They enjoyed the panel. I have regret pangs. Or post-quesadilla pangs. They are pangs. Of that I’m sure. Then, Chris Vognar of the Dallas Morning News walks up and Adam and Kelly might as well tag him because they are now out and on their way and he is in. We review what films are playing at both festivals and I talk to him about moderating a panel at DALLAS IFF. Short, sweet and productive and I make my way for a place to sit to power through writing and sending in what happened yesterday.

Done.

On my way back to panel central, a publicist and a friend of his that knows of me but I don’t know her but I know I should and now I can’t ask her what her name is. Crap – I’ve got to be careful and try to find clues within the conversation while strategically doing that Terminator grid thing with her festival pass. But it’s not working. But it is a fun chat with the two of them. And then, director/writer Tracie Laymon does that film fest wave at me from down the hall with a vague pointing gesture toward a party or event in the future and/or distance where I will see her and we can actually talk.

So, next I step into my first panel. It’s in progress. Called “Not so Usual Suspects – Players on the Future of Film Distribution,” it’s headed by Michael Barker (Sony Pictures Classics), with Thanda Belker (Sony Pictures Television), Steve Bunnell (Cinemark Theatres), Tina Santomauro (Atom) and Vinnie Favale (CBS Late Night).

Immediately, I’m confused because a lot of people are VERY interested in Alice In Wonderlandand closing exhibition windows and I’m quickly wondering if anyone in the room has actually made a real live movie yet. Then someone speaks up. They can’t get all the post production needs and deliverables done for theatrical presentation because it’s really, really hard or something so she asks if it’s okay with the panel if she just goes straight to VOD (like I’m guessing she does with little video snippets of her kitty being cute and stuff on facebook). A second woman follows by asking if she too can just go straight to VOD or DVD with her movies because you know, she has a jib and it’s exhausting to come home after a long hard day AND then have to be bothered trying to get her films released too. Both women take what seems like 15 minutes a piece asking and rephrasing as they ask their questions. Both times, Barker pauses as he looks at them and then even though he used a few more words than this, it amounted to: “No.”

Well, I think everyone felt enlightened after all that.

On my way out of the convention center, I make a quick stop to get my festival bag with magazines and flyers and paper and stuff and then do the traditional film festival t-shirt purchase for my wife and additional program guides for my programmers. Then it’s off to the Texas party.

But first a quick review break for something I saw prior to getting here:

AMERICAN: THE BILL HICKS STORY

Directed by Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas,American: The Bill Hicks Story is in many ways a straight up birth-to-death road map of a man’s life. And I think you go into a documentary about a guy like Bill Hicks really, really curious as to the genesis of this guy’s genius. Not simply funny, but groundbreaking, provocative, incendiary screeds he dared audiences to take in and process and of course, laugh at.

And it succeeds on every level. It is both thorough as far as tracing the development of his act is concerned and it is enlightening as far as tracing the evolution of the man is concerned. Naturally, this is the kind of film that’s “pre-sold” as far as the faithful out there feel. But, I think the personal connection the filmmakers have as well as the deft use of the animation techniques utilizing the images in addition to the wealth of video at their disposal would make it work even for the uninitiated.

I try to take a little step back with a film like this because I am such an easy target, but this is a case where the reality of the man and the film that has been made on his behalf (so-to-speak) would make it work for everyone. And ultimately, make them miss that guy and that talent and that mind or discover fresh what he meant in terms up the art of stand up comedy.

Okay, back to regularly scheduled programming…

I’m at the Texas Film Commission party and I do indeed find Tracie Laymon and talk to her and film composer Ludek Drizhal. Tracie fills me in on her film fest technique of checking the shoes of the person she’s chatting with to see if they are looking for a way out or if they are shy or really into what she’s talking about. The feet are the “tell.” Now, if I can just open up that standing room only blackjack club…

I miss the next film I was planning on because it’s playing at Lamar and you have to drive there. That’s just not happening. So writer/director pal from night #1 steers us to another party because she’s got a flyer that promises a free drink. Sold.

Two parties later and I’m back in a line for American Grindhouse. Another movie made just for me. Nearby a girl has to have some emergency work done on her bustier. Two girlfriends swoop in, jack her up like a NASCAR ride, get to work, and in moments she’s out of the pit with what would have been a glorious wardrobe malfunction narrowly averted. Behind me is Steve James, regaling his crew with details on his new No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson doc. And walking by me is a squadron of motley storm troopers. Seriously, someone needs to buff a few white plastic uniforms… The line for Brotherhood is next to me, which includes Orly Ravid of The Collaborative. Which is a very cool help-a-filmmaker-out-distribution-marketing-do-it-all-every-single-bit company launched very recently. She tells me it’s her first SXSW. And she’s a world film fest traveler, so that is remarkable.

AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE

Directed by Elijah Drenner, American Grindhouse is a deluxe look at the evolution of what we think of as grindhouse films, how they existed or co-existed with Hollywood, influenced more mainstream films, and shocked and entertained millions since the time of Edison.

I went in thinking this would be the bookend toNot Quite Hollywood, a similar look at Oz-ploitation films by Mark Hartley. But as much as I loved that one, this makes that film look like an appetizer. I mean this thing is dense with highlights and insight into seminal films like Traffic In Souls, Freaks and Maniac, climbing the family tree down to “nudie cuties’ and “roughies” blaxspoitation and the introduction of gore by Herschell Gordon Lewis.

Brilliant moments of dramatic voice-overs saying things like “Now let’s consider that other public enemy – gonorrhea.” Or from a teen delinquent film, describing them as, “Dangerous and angry one moment – rocking and rolling the next!” The scene from a “Nazis vs. Jesus” film may have been my personal highlight.

This film would be win-win-win just coasting on the clips alone, but it’s a laundry list of great characters who were either key figures or really know their stuff, like Jack Hill, Joe Dante, John Landis, David Hess, William Lustig, Kim Morgan, Fred Willamson, Allison Anders and many more.

Too much fun and the DVD with the stuff they couldn’t fit in already has a reserved space in my library.

Afterwards, I pass a guy wearing a sideways baseball cap doing the “I’m walking down a staircase” bit for the people sitting inside a restaurant. I think he believes no one has seen that one. I’m referring, of course, to the baseball cap.

I make a judgment call to watch a secret screening at midnight. The film is Amer.

AMER

Written and directed by Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani, this Belgium production is presented by Forzani as “the French version of 3D without glasses.” He adds, “’Amer’ means bitter, sour.” Then Cattet says something and I don’t know if it’s the language barrier or they just got here direct from a 25 hour flight or something, but I have no idea what the hell she said.

The film is focused on three key moments of carnal crisis and discovery in the life of a French girl, then young woman and adult, ‘Ana’. And just when you think an old woman crushing a bird’s corpse with her granny kung fu grip or little girl version Ana using a cross as a handy tire iron-like tool to pry a locket from a corpse’s hand followed by Technicolor filter flourishes and asthmatic wheezing and eyeballs looking through keyholes at curious little girls is enough for one film, then were introduced to pouty full French lipped teen Ana clutching her white virginal sun hat against her sex while she stares holes into the leather clad motorcycle gang she’s encountered. And so on.

There’s bold, striking imagery and sound design, “provocative and in your face, no?” kind of stuff, but I’m wondering what the hell it’s all supporting. This is like a horror film for the Tea Party types that are scared shitless over the influence of Europeans on our country. They should re-title it “Socialist!” and release it grindhouse style in the “real” America.

By the time adult Ana had her body rip out of its dress like she was Bruce Banner’s long lost French cousin who had been made mad – with desire, I was out. In my head I’m shouting, “Just have sex with the chauffer, already!” Like the film Enter The Void, I reached the point where I just wanted the movie to say it was okay and let me go home to have missionary sex with my wife without any subtext.

So, finally I was released from the theatre out and into the insanity (and after that film, I am incapable of using that word lightly) of 2AM 6th Street complete with girl-on-girl dirty dancing in a storefront window and party riot activity. A giant neon dinosaur bicycle thing with two guys inside it pedals by me.

I’m calling my wife and going to bed.

_________________________________________________

John Wildman is the former Head of Press and Public Relations for the American Film Institute. He is noted for innovating film festival public relations through his work as the Director of PR for film festivals such as AFI FEST, the Dallas International Film Festival, the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, and the Feel Good Film Festival (Los Angeles).

‘Dancing With The Wildman

Friday, January 29th, 2010

Sundance – Day 7

“It was weird. But I knocked (on the bathroom door). I think that was a sign that I was polite.”

As I was sitting in the theatre waiting for my first screening of the day to begin, my new indie film community nemesis approached me saying, “Hey man, you know I was kidding, right? I was just kidding.”

Hmmm… Kidding about chanting “Fuck John Wildman” repeatedly during some Hate Karaoke (which, frankly I had never heard of “Hate Karaoke,” but in a big picture sense kind of admire, actually). Or kidding when he said that he didn’t want to move on, let bygones be bygones, blah, blah, blah, indie film non-partisans, blah because “It was more fun.” not to do so?

Curious. An interesting move obviously to soften me up enough to buy time for him to concoct some elaborate plan of nefarious doings – like trying to convince one of the artistic directors of the film festivals I do PR for that perhaps he has been mistaken by working with me. Hmmmm… But, I like the style.

And so the dance between adversaries continues…

COUNTDOWN TO ZERO

Lucy Walker’s Coutdown To Zero takes up the cause regarding an issue that gets very little play in politics or the public’s consciousness today because frankly one side of the political spectrum (Republicans/ Conservatives) can’t make any great hay about it since the other side, led by President Obama has long held this as a major concern and directive. And that is the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the threat they pose if they get in the wrong hands.

But, to be fair to Walker’s very comprehensive and impressive documentary (produced by Lawrence Bender by the way), the film not only lays out the history leading to our current situation, but provides some truly frightening historical footnotes that are not public knowledge as well as illustrating quite simply and clearly what a nuclear blast really WOULD do and how far the destruction would spread.

Talking heads like Valerie Plame Wilson, Howard Baker, the late Robert McNamera and President Carter all give the soundbites you would expect along the lines of nuclear weapons being bad and scary and we really need to get rid of them. In fact, the most significant thing about this part of the film is the number of people and the caliber of the people willing to go before Walker’s camera.

Among the stuff that really gets you are the details of how lax security is in Russia when it comes to guarding the highly enriched uranium which is the key building block for the bombs, or the sheer impossibility to guard against the import of the stuff 100% (there are suggestions that the best way to sneak it in is to hide it in either a shipment of kitty litter or marijuana – think about that one awhile). Then there are the accidents and near misses; a bomb that fell on South Carolina in the early 60’s (five out of six safeguards failed with one standing in the way of catastrophe), a very near miss in 1995 (the world’s collective ass was saved by Boris Yeltsin not being trigger happy), etc.

Throughout, Walker gives us a birds’ eye view of what a five mile radius of destruction would cover in cities like Paris, New York, Moscow, London and throws in details of how that blast would do its damage on both the landscape of the city as well as the landscape of the human body.

I will admit (and I can’t think that I am unique in the least in this regard) that I went into this viewing with a pre-conceived notion that the topic and necessity of nuclear disarmament was somewhat also ran. Consider that opinion corrected. Whew.

SUNDANCE FEVER: It’s a call to action documentary. Always good here.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: Not a “sexy” doc per se, but it’s a slickly produced one. I think it could see some play.

Next up were a couple of interviews. The first one being with the star and director of All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, Angela Bettis and Tim Rutili as well as Angela’s co-sat and boyfriend Kevin Ford(who also served as one of the film’s editors). And the interview turned up some facts that may have surpassed the fun strangeness of the film itself.

MCN: Let’s start with the obvious question. What comes first, the music or the movie?
Tim: The music. By that much (holding his fingers very close together). Most of it was song that we had completed; we recorded the album about a month prior to filming.

MCN: You’ve done music videos and smaller projects before. Why a feature at this point?
Tim: It just seemed like the right batch of songs and the right story.

MCN: Angela is such a key for this film, the fulcrum for the story. How did you convince her to become involved?
Tim: I went to her house and Kevin (her boyfriend) was there and he wouldn’t let me talk to her. So then I sat outside the house. I was in a rented car and I sat outside for three days straight. I had juice, I had cigarettes…

MCN: So you were on a stakeout?
Tim: And I just waited. And I waited for Kevin to leave and he never leaves. But once he left, there was a basement window that I managed to get open. I crawled in through the basement and went upstairs, looked around but didn’t see her anywhere. I found the bathroom and knocked on the door and she was in the bathroom. I was like, “I’ve got this movie idea.” And she was cool about it.

MCN: And this was because you’ve never heard of what they call a “casting director”?
Tim: We did not have a casting director. I think we’re heading for a period of time when casting directors won’t be…an issue.
MCN: Obviously, if you are willing to do a stakeout at an actress’ home and then break into the place, it really is all about her. Why were you so inspired that it had to be Angela?
Tim: There was no one else that could do it.

MCN: I would agree with that, actually. And Angela, you were convinced.
Angela: Yes.

MCN: Why?
Angela: His eyes. He has kind eyes.
Tim: It was weird. But I knocked (on the bathroom door). I think that was a sign that I was polite. It’s weird because most people are dying to do me a favor…

MCN: But it was reversed here.
(They both nod.)
MCN: Angela, you also have Drones playing at Slamdance. You have a distinctive persona and presence onscreen. As far as the roles that you choose or end up playing, do you find yourself being sought out? Because, frankly, I don’t know who else falls in your camp, an “Angela Bettis type”. In fact, let’s use Dr as an example. How did you become involved with that film as opposed to this one?
Angela: It was very similar, actually. They kinda sought me out. So, I guess the answer to your question is that yes, I am sought out.

MCN: And Kevin, do you keep her from doing these roles because you’re like her bodyguard too?
Kevin: Yeah, I get really uncomfortable when she’s out of my sight. But Tim wormed his way in and theDrones people wormed their way in. Because if it was up to me, she’d just not do anything.
Angela: (smiles) He’d just keep me in that bathroom.
Kevin: Tim made up for it. He convinced me that if I played her boyfriend in the movie that it would be alright.
Tim: Kevin also edited the film.

MCN: Well, that was good politics right there.
Kevin: He basically bought my permission. That sounds bad, huh?

MCN: Angela, besides Tim’s kind eyes there was also a role to play. What about that role got to you?
Angela: First of all, the music. But secondly, there is a universal issue or theme of “letting go” that I felt I could do a little therapy with Tim and these people and myself. Which I did. It kinda worked. With the other people as well.

MCN: And there is a different approach to presenting the film. Tim, can you explain what you’re planning to do with it after this?
Tim: Well, the band has been touring and on the tour we play the film and perform a live soundtrack. We’ve been doing that at museums, theaters, and a couple clubs.

After an interview with Lucy Walker, the director of both Countdown To Zero and Waste Land (that I’ll add to the next posting) was my attempt to get into a screening of The Kids Are Alright. Unfortunately, this one had quite the line. I had heard stories of various press peeps getting bounced from the (relatively) tiny confines of the Holiday Village Theatres but it hadn’t happened to me yet.

In fact, the guy in front of me complained A LOT to the volunteers about his prior misfortunes. This time, the combination of his haughty accent and indignation worked their magic on the poor volunteer he had singled out for haranguing. He got in.

And he was the last one so I got….shut out. Damn.

But the wait gave me some time to notice one of the volunteers wearing a “Vida” hat. Now, it is most definitely a staple of Sundance to hand out the knit caps promoting your movie or product. For example, the place I’m staying at has one for The Violent Kind and another that says “I (heart) Café’ Bustelo ” sitting on the dining table right now. But something tells me that the guy wearing his “Vida” hat has no idea that Vida is a high-end sex toy line. My guess is that if he knew, then he’d rather have received one of their products from the pretty street team girls I met earlier this week. Or more to the point, his girlfriend would.

Speaking of The Violent Kind… Midnight at the Egyptian (which incidently is my favorite Maria Muldaursong) has always been good luck for me. Old Boy (the couples movie for my wife and I), 28 Days Laterand Grace were all witnessed for the very first time at this spot, so I was hoping that lightning would strike once again.

However, first was a short titled Still Birds.

STILL BIRDS

Sara Eliassen’s Still Birds was introduced (by her) as “a dance horror movie.” Okay, go for it, I thought. I’m primed and ready for whatever your crazy little Norwegian mind can come up with.

Well, that is unless what transpires is a mélange of industrial based dread and choreographed nonsense with pale and creepy kids and teens working their way up and down a concrete labyrinth in the service of getting the one kid (a pre-teen girl) to talk into a machine to do some kind of thing to either start something or stop it. I don’t know. I was rooting for her to speak into the machine to say something like, “The End.”

Honestly, the only “horror” I was experiencing was the fact I had to sit through it. When it, indeed, was over, someone seated behind me said, “Seriously, what the fuck?”

THE VIOLENT KIND

The Butcher Brothers’ film The Violent Kind follows the strange and horrific events that happen following a rough and tumble bikers’ party at a secluded cabin in the woods including some kind of bloody possession of a biker’s girlfriend played by the always reliable Tiffany Shepis. Well, that’s what you would be thinking had you seen or read any of the promo materials and info heading into this screening.

But it’s much more than that. Said bikers and biker babes are “visited” by some eerie/creepy 50s types as well as some kind of Northern Lights shit-storm that would likely be literally tossing everyone to hell in a hand basket if only bikers routinely kept hand baskets in their homes.

Now I can’t say much more than that for a couple of reasons. One, I don’t want to give away any more than I already have. Two, I honestly don’t know or understand exactly what it was that was happening to everyone. I do know that it was all kinds of crazy and weird and bad.

But I do want to take a moment to talk about expectations. Because The Violent Kind has a whole lot of David Lynchian-style Sci-Fi at its core. So much so that I was almost expecting a Dean Stockwell cameo performance of another Roy Orbison chestnut to be sprung on us at any given moment. My point being that if someone went in expecting a “Who will get out alive?” gore fest, I could easily see them being disappointed. However, if they’re putting their money down for a horror stew of violence, gore, science fiction, and biker movies with some 50s flare, then they’d be exiting with big dazed grins afterward.

SUNDANCE FEVER: It’s all about expectations. And this one is more than just a rough and tumble midnight movie.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: Selective. But handled properly people could really get into it and trip out on it on some midnight-type screens.

_________________________________________________

John Wildman is the former Head of Press and Public Relations for the American Film Institute. He is noted for innovating film festival public relations through his work as the Director of PR for film festivals such as AFI FEST, the Dallas International Film Festival, the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, and the Feel Good Film Festival (Los Angeles).

‘Dancing With The Wildman

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Sundance – Day 6

“I should’ve known that if a guy like me talked to a girl like that, someone would end up dead.”

Before I start with today’s films, here are my thoughts about Gone To The Dogs and Armless which I saw a few days ago but never got around to writing about for one reason or another.

GONE TO THE DOGS

Liz Tuccillo’s Gone To The Dogs is a short film that follows two tried and true approaches to a short film: Deal with a very specific social “issue” and do it at a dinner table, lunch table, breakfast – whatever – just keep all the action at the one table and no one gets hurt, nor spends a lot of money making the damn thing.

And this one does very well for itself. The “issue” is the importance some people place on their pet dogs; treating them like people, spending exorbitant amounts of money on their medical problems, and emotionally substituting them for the children they can’t or haven’t had.

In this case, a small dinner party of friends is disrupted when one of the guests (played by Martha Plympton) insists on bringing her little lap dog with her and to the table AND proceeds to let it eat off her plate. It’s uncomfortable and awkward, but when she is asked to put the dog in another room, she sulks and inspires everyone else to bring their issues to the table.

It’s a thorough and fun treatment that doesn’t wear out its welcome. Nice.

ARMLESS

Habib Azar’s Armless is a film about a man who has finally gathered enough courage to act on his desire to have his arms chopped off in order to (so-to-speak) feel complete. Starring Daniel London as the man and Janel Maloney as his wife who is forced to deal with this sudden revelation and realization, Armlessis a comedy that isn’t funny or a drama that isn’t compelling – you make the call.

As I was watching the excruciatingly drawn out machinations (I mean, it seemed like it was going to take the entire film for London’s character to just say out loud that he wanted to have his arms cut off), you could feel the audience becoming more and more frustrated with the proceedings. And what is meant to be a funny admission, “I want nubbins.” just doesn’t cut it. (And yes, I meant that.)

Anyway, he goes to the city to find a doctor that a chat room discussion has led him to believe will do the surgery (since among other hurdles, it would be illegal to do). Maloney’s character finds out where he has gone and enlists his “colorful” mother character to help her find him and confront him after he has left her a message saying he’s never coming back home. The doctor turns out to be a plastic surgeon that simply shares the same name as the doctor he is looking for, who also happens to have a very sassy receptionist….and hilarity ensues? No. How about light whimsical farce? No, not that either. A fascinating look at a very real condition (body integrity identity disorder)? I’ll have to pass on that as well.

Can I say something nice? As a matter of fact I can. Zoe Lister Jones, who plays the sassy receptionist, does her level best to add some snap to this thing. Unfortunately, I think that’s because she believed she was in a different movie than the one Azar was directing. I would have much rather have seen THAT movie. Because you couldn’t even say this one was “unfunny”. You’d have to describe it as “undroll”. In fact, the best way to describe it would be to say it plays like an interminably bad scene in an acting class: earnest performances misfiring in the service of ill-wrought material.

SUNDANCE FEVER: I think it’s one of those cross off the list experiences you get here.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: Not a chance in the world. As a curiosity, it could hit cable at some point.

And (as they would say on Monty Python) now for something completely different…

TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL

Eli Craig’s Tucker And Dale Vs. Evil is about as one-note, high concept as it gets: Two hillbillies heading to their “fixer-upper” cabin for a getaway encounter a group of vacationing college kids. The kids stereotyping them as backwoods lunatics manage to start killing themselves off one by one in an effort to attack Tucker and Dale and rescue one of their own.

This one starts off great, pulling off a pitch perfect homage to the iconic Easy Rider drive by and doesn’t let up. Tucker and Dale’s cabin was obviously home to a lunatic that actually did murder several people years ago (complete with newspaper clippings of the missing that the guys are oblivious of since they also spy one that has a fast food discount on it). And yes, the entire thing could not be more obvious or telegraphed (Tucker cuts into a tree stump with a bees nest and in running away from the scene with his chainsaw…well, I think you probably get it). Each misunderstanding leads to a gory conclusion.

But the thing making this work beyond a basic string of set-piece gags are Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine. As Tucker and Dale, they don’t just give us characters whose reality as “nice” and “sweet” guys that can speak in complete sentences runs counter to the stereotype. They (and great credit to Craig’s script and direction as well) score with the oftentimes hilarious (given the setting) emotional support and friendship they display toward one another. It’s nice to watch a comedy where the players know what they need to work hard at for the funny versus what will easily take care of itself (I’m looking at you, any film called “Something Movie”).

SUNDANCE FEVER: Laughs are hard to come by at Sundance. But not with this movie.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: Oh yeah. It should be out there. Easily.

My final screening of the evening was to be one of the New Frontiers “experimental” screenings. And this was a film that not only had been required viewing according to a good friend of mine, but it also would include a live music performance. So – c’mon, you don’t get that everyday – and it didn’t disappoint.

ALL MY FRIENDS ARE FUNERAL SINGERS

Directed by Tim Rutili, the principal songwriter and singer for Red Red Meat and Califone, All My Friends Are Funeral Singers stars Angela Bettis as a psychic advisor facing an upheaval in her life when the numerous ghosts and spirits that reside under her roof demand to leave and go to their final resting place.

Those ghosts also happen to include the members of Rutili’s band, Califone and the music that dominates the film doesn’t just add a soundtrack, it frequently acts as a driving force or counterpoint to the dramatic actions of the characters.

The other central focus is Bettis herself. An actress that is so distinctive that she defines the term “focus pull,” the film’s energy rides with her character’s moods and takes its cues not just from her actions but also seemingly from her intentions. It’s kinda like she’s a next generation ‘Carrie’ with no need for that overwrought telekinesis nonsense.

Now, to be sure, this movie won’t be for everyone. It is an experience. It is not an Adam Sandler movie or a mad dad played by Mel Gibson getting revenge on bad guys that done his daughter wrong movie. So, if you need your shit spelled out for you – then steer clear. However, if you want to try something very much by design off the beaten path then by all means check this out. AND if it happens to come to town with the band playing live, so much the better – because that just multiplies the immediacy and energy the film gives off.

SUNDANCE FEVER: Even at Sundance, it’s a personal taste thing. So people that want to see it will seek it out and enjoy it. The others won’t understand the fuss.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: No, this one is an event kind of experience. They’ll likely do some kind of special tour combining performances by the band with the film.

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John Wildman is the former Head of Press and Public Relations for the American Film Institute. He is noted for innovating film festival public relations through his work as the Director of PR for film festivals such as AFI FEST, the Dallas International Film Festival, the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, and the Feel Good Film Festival (Los Angeles).

‘Dancing With The Wildman

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Sundance – Day 5

“You either Joseph Gordon Love-it, or you Hate it.”

Sometimes films at Sundance can either completely miss the mark compared to the expectations people have built up or be so genuinely wrongheaded in their eyes that they literally inspire rage. Such as it was that while waiting with the press to go into my first screening of the morning that I was surrounded by people trying to one-up each other on how bad they believed 3 Backyardsto be. They were just mad at it. Mad, it was so bad.

Which, of course, in a film going perverse kind of way made me want to see it so I could get my hate on too.

Fortunately, my Sundance morning was about to start me off on a great day…

HIGH SCHOOL

From the opening scene of a spelling bee champion completely losing it while at the mike thanks to some potent marijuana, John Stahlberg Jr.’s High School delivers everything you could possibly want in a stoner comedy and most assuredly much, much more.

The story is simple (as it should be): After the opening incident, the school’s smarmy principal institutes a zero-tolerance policy AND a school-wide screening for the very next day, which just happens to coincide with the school’s valedictorian-to-be lighting up for the first time with his estranged boyhood friend who is now the school’s most notorious pothead. The solution the two reunited by necessity friends come up with is to get the entire school stoned on brownies so that EVERYONE will fail the screening test therefore invalidating the entire thing.

Of course, you’re asked to accept A LOT (the typical stoner kids living seemingly without supervision kinda stuff) and humor is mined from the obvious sources; the fallen spelling bee champion’s last name (‘Phuc’), to Michael Chiklis’ giddy portrayal of the tight-assed principal complete with classic fright wig, and Adrien Brody’s “Psycho Ed” baked genius lawyer/drug dealer character.

But all of this soars because ‘Henry,’ the valedictorian and ‘Travis,” the pothead are both legitimately smart guys. Applied differently to be sure and not immune to making wrongheaded strategic moves, but still smart. So as they deal with dilemma upon hurdle upon impossible situation, we never have to fall back on someone being more stupid that the other guy to get out of a sticky situation. This may be a newsflash to some, but apparently just because you smoke marijuana doesn’t mean you’re dumb and just because you’re a “bad guy” in a high (ignoring that pun) concept comedy, also doesn’t mean you have to be a buffoon.

And even though it’s simple stuff at the core, the stakes keep getting ratcheted up and hurdles keep escalating so those arguably cliché deux ex machina moments that routinely sink a comedy like this for anyone that didn’t just love Paul Blart: Mall Cop, are fun and not eye-rolling.

SUNDANCE FEVER: One of the few films offered that everyone can laugh out loud at and enjoy unabashedly before they step into the next film portraying human tragedy or angst.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: I think this will happen. I also think people will wonder which character that ‘Mackey’ guy from The Shield was.

Apparently I have a nemesis. Because, you know, because sometimes the film festival community’s set and subsets rub each other the wrong way and sometimes a film rep might really get worked up over you to the point that they’re solidly NOT in your camp. But to be clear, as MSN’s James Rocchi was nice enough to school me: This person is clearly not an “arch-enemy” otherwise he’d be trying to destroy me. No, he must be a nemesis because he needs me around to fuel his dark hatred of all things…me. Because that’s fun? I’m definitely getting the full film festival experience this go-round.

Rocchi also offered this about the polarizing buzz over Hesher, saying, You either Joseph Gordon Love-it or Hate it.” That’s James Rocchi, ladies and gentlemen; He’s here all week.

12TH & DELAWARE

Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 12th & Delaware takes a heads on view of the abortion debate by focusing its cameras on the title location, a street corner located in Fort Pierce, Florida which is the home to an abortion clinic as well as a Pro-Life pregnancy clinic right across the street.

It’s a simple exercise, but beyond riveting as Ewing and Grady simply let the people (literally on both sides of the street) speak for themselves via their words and actions. We begin by seeing Pro-Life activists up before dawn trying to talk to people at the abortion clinic through he windows, blocking the driveway as much as they are allowed to and carrying signs and posters with graphic depictions of aborted fetuses.

Across the street, teenage girls are “counseled” by being told that having by having an abortion they are likely to get breast cancer, bleed to death, etc. And if that doesn’t change their mind, then maybe typing “Hi, Mommy!” onto a print out of their ultrasound will do the trick.

It’s a remarkable process to watch as a mother of two contemplating having an abortion because her boyfriend is abusive is told, “For all you know, the baby will change him.” Meanwhile, across the street the women entering the clinic are bombarded with please not to abort, and promises of financial support, etc., if they change their minds. Inside, the husband and wife that own and operate the clinic patiently go about their business, counseling the women and literally “minding the store.” And that takes a moment-to-moment diligence, as they have to go to extraordinary lengths to protect the women and the doctors (who are driven in to the facility covered by a sheet to protect their identity).

We follow a particularly threatening Pro-lifer as he does some investigating work, locating the drop off point and discovering who the doctor is. He then follows by all but admitting that they’ll do anything they can to stop that doctor from continuing to perform abortions. And you know that we are talking about the potential of another Dr. George Tiller-type shooting. Across the street, the woman running the clinic shakes her head at the protesters explaining they don’t reciprocate (protesting and trespassing on the grounds of the Pregnancy Center) because they have families to get home to and lives to lead.

But 12th & Delaware is careful not to get pulled into histrionics. Rather, it takes care to allow both sides to speak their piece, calmly, in their own environment. Unfortunately, for the Pro-Life side, that means seeing them misrepresent facts, outright lie to woman after woman, and harass the abortion clinic with the conviction of zealotry. As a group of Hispanic Pro-Lifers convinces a young woman with 6 children to not abort the 7th with promises of financial support, you shake your head as you overhear her being offered a stuffed toy inside their clinic.

Yeah, she should be able to feed that to one of her kids.

SUNDANCE FEVER: Oh boy, this one will inspire a lot of talking. Not debating, mind you. More like “Where can I contribute to Planned Parenthood?” kind of stuff.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: No, this one is going to have a nice run on HBO.

I arrived at the Library Theatre for a photo shoot for a project I’m working on and found Tiffany Shepisoutside ready for the premiere of her film The Violent Kind, smoking. As she explained, she decided to go ahead and smoke for the day so she could relax and actually enjoy it all on her terms without the pressure of “being good.”

And if that keeps her from being the title of her film, then I believe that was some good thinking there…

Finishing the night was a midnight screening of Splice. Another theatre manager friend escorts me in early. Having the right friends is KEY here. The music guy from Frozen is sitting in my row complaining about fan boys knocking the film for its implausibility. His friend’s (a producer) response, “And Avatar is plausible?!” The producer follows, “I just had the most expensive calzone in my life at Main St. Pizza & Noodle. It was like, 25 bucks for that and a drink!”

Oh, Sundance…

SPLICE

Directed by Vincenzo Natali, Splice is a gonzo horror treatment of the “Frankenstein” story. StarringAdrien Brody and Sarah Polley as two young, brilliant and ambitious genetic engineers, the film follows the results of their decision to include some human DNA into a new life form they’re creating.

The inspiration has some typical genre movie standards: The nameless, ominous and cash rich corporate company that they created another kitchen sink life form for (let’s just say it has both fish and fowl in it) so they could harvest all kinds of organic and bio-wondrous material from is ready to make them rich and famous. And the desire of Polley’s ‘Elsa’ character to produce a child new jack style (not so much on the whole birthing thing) so she can deal with her parent/child abuse issues adds to the predictably combustible nature of what will transpire.

And what transpires is ‘Dren,’ a Heinz 57 of animal/human hybrid with a lethal stinger of a tail that gives them much more than they can handle. But, of course they do. They begin to raise Dren in secret, torn between treating her like their child or like the freak result of their experimenting gone off the reservation.

Naturally, I want to steer clear of spoilers. However, if my stating that things go horribly, horribly wrong is a stunner for you then…you’re adorable. But I will say that they go horribly, horribly wrong in wild, freaky town ways that would warm the heart of David Cronenberg. And again, without giving details I will say that (by design) Dren is an exotically beautiful (if really fascinatingly bizarre) creature-woman. And if a horror sci-fi film introduces a character like that, then the immediate question is “Will someone have sex with it/her?” Hmmmm…

So – does the movie work. Ultimately, for me – no. But I also think that depends on your expectations. People want (and I know this because I’m one of them) a really, really cool and very, very scary monster movie. And this one has got ambition to spare, but for me it also took things to a point where scares ceased to be the priority versus the craziness of the vision. A lot of people in my audience laughed at a key point in the film that wasn’t meant to be comic relief. And that laughter said, we’ve now turned off the road from scared-shitless-land and now we’re racing toward “I-can’t-believe-they-just-did-that-ville.

SUNDANCE FEVER: Those that want to be really scared – not liking it. Those that want to see the trippy and crazy – all over it.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: With Brody and Polley – possible. But no sure thing – at all. However, the Syfy channel could chop it up and make a series out of it. It’s the kind of thing they dream about.

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John Wildman is the former Head of Press and Public Relations for the American Film Institute. He is noted for innovating film festival public relations through his work as the Director of PR for film festivals such as AFI FEST, the Dallas International Film Festival, the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, and the Feel Good Film Festival (Los Angeles).

LETTERS FROM LARRY

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010
..Sundance 2010
..Letters: On the Way
..Letters: Day One
..Letters: Day Two
..Letters: Day Three

DEAR DAVID:

Brian Poyser’s Lovers of Hate is the kind of tiny brilliant gem that low-budget indie films ought to be and so seldom are. Three no-name actors, (four speaking parts over all) star, half the movie shot on one practical set (located incidentally, in Park City, the action taking place in a three day period. The budget undoubtedly less than catering costs on a studio effects picture–the narrative combining elements of romantic-comedy psychological thriller, and slice of life character study, combining to produce a completely unclassifiable hybrid that is an authentically personal cinematic vision. Bravo!

Cooper and his programming team for finding this and if they could find five movies this good at this budget, in any one year’s program you’d know that American indie cinema was enjoying an artistic renaissance. I simply can’t start describing this film in detail without getting into damaging spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that you will think you’ve seen the set up and the situation before but I promise you that you haven’t. Every stock situation plays out in a quietly fresh and different way than you expect or assume If the multitudes in Park City know what is good for them, cinematically speaking, they will run not walk to the next screenings of The Lovers of Hate..

Quite a good deal more later.

Larry
Sent from my iPhone

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Larry Gross is a 25 year screenwriting veteran and Winner of Sundance’s Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for his most recent release, We Don’t Live Here Anymore.

‘Dancing With The Wildman

Monday, January 25th, 2010

Sundance: Day 4

“This is an early picture of Michael Jackson. When he was black.”

Ran into Ella Taylor as I was finding my seat and she was all about the doc, Long Train Home. And when a critic like Ella is all over a film to that extent, I have to take notice.

PHOTOGRAPH OF JESUS

Laurie Hill’s film short Photograph of Jesusis a fun illustration via cut-and-paste animation (that I’m sure has another more respectful term) about the sometimes very strange and fanciful requests the keepers at a photo archive get. Hence the title. People actually request pictures of Jesus. Other fun requests: Hitler at the 1948 Olympics (think about it) and Neil Armstrong and all the other astronauts in a group photo. On the moon. And all of it plays that much funnier because the guy being interviewed is British. Can’t beat that accent for silliness like this.

SMASH HIS CAMERA

Leon Gast’s Smash His Camera is a profile of the original paparazzo, Ron Galella. For more than 40 years, Galella has photographed celebrities (and stalked them in the pursuit of those photos according to many) paving the way for the behavior of paparazzi and much of the feverish demand for raw celebrity images that tabloid journalism feeds on today.

Gast takes us both on a chronological tour through Galella’s life and career as he shadows him on a few current outings (an event with Robert Redford, a red carpet appearance by Angelina Jolie, etc.) with particular focus on two key events. The first being a court case brought against Galella by Jackie Kennedy Onassis and the second being an incident when Marlon Brando punched him, knocking out several teeth.

The Jackie O section is telling for many reasons, as Galella built much of his career and reputation on the photos he got of her (he describes the moment he got the “windblown Jackie” shot as his great day). He also puts forth the idea to anyone that will listen that they had a “relationship” through the lens of his camera. And, naturally, the trial between the two wasn’t just all-encompassing for the two principals – it was genuinely precedent setting.

In a similar vein, the Brando incident marked another step (infamous as it was) in the celebrity/paparazzi “dance.” Even if you buy in to the explanation of how it all went down and accept that Galella was “innocent of trying to provoke Brando, you can easily see how that was clearly a precursor for the TMZ-style of baiting a celebrity to incite a reaction and create an incident for the cameras.

There is the expected look at the personal side: His romance with his wife, their New Jersey Sopranos-esque house, and his unabashed love for rabbits and bunnies. And there are the dizzying array of photographs through the years with Galella sometimes offering expectedly crass commentary – “This is an early picture of Michael Jackson. Back when he was black.” But Gast also uses his subject as inspiration for a couple bigger picture talking points. A series of talking heads debate the value of what he and his fellow celeb photographers do and discuss their legitimacy as “art. And three of the lawyers that faced off against one another are still ready to start sparring again over the 1st Amendment issues raised by that case. At one point one of them says, “Ron Galella is the price tag for the 1st Amendment.”

This is a “fun” documentary – diverting. It’s like a film version of one of the coffee table books that Galella creates by “harvesting” the 3 million plus images in his archives. Regardless of who you are, it’s damn near impossible not to be compelled to flip through a few of the pages of those things to see what movie star or celebrity images are there. But I also could see the film going through some retooling before it sees a mass audience (if that happens). There is some confusing editing: The Jackie O trial seems to be done, but then it is revived after an extended section having nothing to do with it. But then again, they had a relationship.

SUNDANCE FEVER: Hardcores will probably dismiss it as lightweight. First timers and movie fans will appreciate the counterprogramming.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: It’s possible. A Leon Gast film that is somewhat light entertainment about movie stars and Jackie O. I could see someone giving it a shot around the country.

Sundance went on pause while I watched the football playoffs with journalist-turned-producer Don Lewis(The Violent Kind) and journalist just returned from self-imposed New Zealand exile, Mark Bell. There were also countless other filmmakers and film festival-types coming and going (I’m staying at THAT kind of house), but I couldn’t keep track of what films they were here with and Peyton Manning’s duel with Mark Sanchez AND Brett Favre vs. Drew Brees.

Next up was a party for Lewis’ The Violent Kind. Organized by the agency repping the film, it was typical: Free beer, toothpicky things with meatballs on them, and lots of photo ops with the film’s publicist doing yeoman’s work both wrangling and posing the stars and the directors in the thick of celebrating making the finish line and being told over and over again how great they were and how much that particular person loved them. That sort of thing.

After being attending several years now and having gone to numerous parties like these, it’s still a lot of fun to see someone like Lewis get to enjoy that part of the film festival experience. Especially at the Sundance level.
One of the stars, Tiffany Shepis was offering disclaimers about potential strange behavior since this was the first event like this for her since quitting smoking 20 days ago. One of her co-stars, Mackenzie Firgens, returning to Sundance with a film for the first time since Groove in 2000, was marveling that the festival has red carpets now.

TIFFANY: Are WE having a red carpet?

ME and MACKENZIE: (silently nodding)

Instantly, you could see the wheels begin to turn as Tiffany was obviously rethinking the next day’s clothing choice…

CLIMATE REFUGEES – “The Human Face of Climate Change”

Directed by Michael Nash, Climate Refugees is the latest in a series of films imploring us to wake up and smell the incoming tide. The film offers the next logical conclusions and issues that face our world if we accept that global warming does in fact exist. And that is the potential for mind boggling large scale human displacement and migration from lands that will either be under water or uninhabitable due to the lack of water.

Actually, to the film’s credit, it doesn’t just hang its activist hat on the science of global warming. It also throws a bone to those theorists that believe that this is just a cyclical thing – out of our control. And the message to those people is pretty simple: Well, if that’s the case, then we’re screwed that much more because it’ll be harder to correct or fix.

What the film does well is to present in simple terms how the math works: “Climate Change is a threat multiplier. It puts more pressure on areas that are already stressed.” It illustrates this by showing situations that are already dire in areas like Bangladesh and Indonesia, and then follows up with a handy map and arrows showing us the likely destinations of those displaced peoples (for those of us dependent on USA Today-style pie charts). And if that doesn’t get the message across, then maybe a little visit to the Island of Tulalu (which is damn near already completely submerged) or a trip back in recent memory lane to the aftermath of Katrina is in order.

Where I believe the film misses the boat (so to speak) is when it resorts to close ups of threatened or displaced people in the style of one of those Sally Struthers plea for help ads or Sarah Mclachlan animal shelter spots. I don’t think the corporate conservatives, nor the isolationists in our country can be made to care any more just because they see a few sad music close ups of suffering big eyed Africans or Tulaluans with nowhere to go. I have to believe it’ll play like annoying do-gooder liberal muzak to them.

If you are onboard with a film like Climate Refugees you hope that the right messages resonate with its audiences the way it has with you. And one of the final messages within the film is that the likely result of all this displacement and impossible living conditions (if nothing is done to counter where the world is headed in terms of global warming) is that the number of desperate people will increase dramatically, and they will likely fall prey to or under the influence of evil people. Then it becomes an even larger problem that potentially affects us all. It’s tough stuff and ultimately the movie gives some think locally, act globally-type solutions, but it thankfully doesn’t let the viewer off the hook or downplay the difficulty of righting the ship.

SUNDANCE FEVER: This is the kind of doc that always hits a happy spot in Sundance.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: This goes directly to PBS. Not enough of a gimmick to send it to theaters. It’s just straight message/call to action stuff.

_________________________________________________

John Wildman is the former Head of Press and Public Relations for the American Film Institute. He is noted for innovating film festival public relations through his work as the Director of PR for film festivals such as AFI FEST, the Dallas International Film Festival, the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, and the Feel Good Film Festival (Los Angeles).

‘Dancing With The Wildman

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

Sundance – Day 3 – Wild On Slamdance

“Brian, you’re project manager. You’re saving the earth.”

Sometimes, in the spirit of “things happen,” a day here will take on its own theme. You miss one screening and have to duck into another one, you run into someone at a party or on Main Street and they steer you in another direction, and so on.

As it happened, today turned out to be Slamdance Day. It began as I watched a screener of the comedy,Cummings Farm. Because, let’s face it, what better way is there to start your morning than by watching a movie about an orgy.

CUMMINGS FARM

Andrew Drazek’s Cummings Farm is supposed to be a dark comedy fueled by one awkward situation piled upon an embarrassing revelation after another awkward situation. Supposed to be. The story of three troubled couples prepping for and trying to take part in an orgy is labored at best. The film wants to give us characters that are barely able to coexist in their own relationships let alone play well with others, but it strains to leave not a single stone unturned when it comes to ladling on the dysfunctional.

And for a film that seems to pride itself on defying expectations, there is A LOT of convenience on the scene. The guys are the ones saddled with all the issues: One couple is dealing with HIS alcoholism, another couple has lost the relationship’s spark due to HIS relentless nebbish ness, and the host couple is plagued by HIS borderline sociopathic behavior. Characters condemn one another or give each other more allowance than elite Hollywood gives Roman Polanski depending on what’s necessary to move along a plot point. But wait, there’s more: conveniently, the members of each couple have focused their desires on a single member of one of the other couples and not one of them has designs on the same person. Great! Glad no one has to choose straws.

Now to give credit where credit is due, the cast is not filled with Gossip Girl or The New Melrose Placetypes. These aren’t Ready For US Magazine tabloid pretty people. I mean, I’m not saying they’re not attractive enough to be allowed to procreate and stuff by a jury of their peers. I’m just saying they’re “real”. And did I mention the part about the black drug dealer coming to crash the party with dreams of horny white women primed for the taking? And there’s ecstasy! Because people are hilarious when they’ve had the ecstasy!

Cummings Farm does have its moments and I enjoyed Laura Silverman’s performance as the accepting and submissive mom hosting the orgy and blithely supporting her bizarro husband. Ultimately, though, it struck me as something that likely plays as roll-on-the-floor funny to the people involved in the production yet doesn’t translate easily to the general public.

SLAMDANCE FEVER: Great Slamdance movie. It’s “outrageous” and edgy and done on the cheap.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: No.

Next up was a trip to the Treasure Mountain Inn to see Drones. I’ll state right now that I LOVE Slamdance. I love the idea of it and love the reality of it. First time I did the Sundance thing ten years ago; Slamdance was actually the place that I immediately felt “okay” at. Like I could walk around the premises unescorted (if you know what I mean). The first screening I saw there had issues with the projector forcing us to watch a photo negative of the film for a good 30 minutes – and no one walked. It made it that much more weird and fun.

There is an enforced simplicity and rejection of the formal that just puts you at ease and prepares you for the films you’re about to see. And you forgive the fact they still haven’t conquered that air conditioning issue.

So, the fun bonus was that the film’s publicist sat me down next to animation legend Bill Plympton. And after chatting him up and talking about past film festivals, we got started. My first thought was that Slamdance wins the trailer contest by a landslide with its “Sweet 16” spot. A feverish Latina teen literally dancing an animatronics bird out of its egg/shell almost dares the film following to step up its game.

HORSEFINGERS 2: BUT I AM THE TIGER

Kirsten Kearse’s Horsefingers 2: But I Am The Tiger is the second in a trilogy of Horsefingers films, following last year’s Horsefingers 3: Starfucker. This one is a silent trip following the “life cycle” of the mythical Horsefingers (which is Kearse with two large hooves instead of hands. We follow Horsefingers as she goes on some sort of treasure hunt through the woods, the treasure apparently being a nice pantsuit and a cup of coffee. Then she finds her way to the city and an office and naturally a lot of secretarial work ensues and an instant pregnancy, until she returns to the woods, gives birth and the whole thing starts again.

It is kind of cute, somewhat inventive, and quirky to a T. And I would’ve been fine with it all had she not insisted (twice) during the brief Q&A afterwards that she couldn’t hold the mike because of her “horsefingers”. And no she wasn’t wearing the hooves. And yes, it was irritating. The cutesy, quirky routine quickly dissipated any goodwill I had for the film.

DRONES

Directed by Adam Busch and Amber Benson, Drones is comedy with equal parts silly and droll mixed up in a story about an office worker, ‘Brian’ who is happily whistling his life away in a cubicle when the discovery that his best friend, ‘Clark’ is an alien followed by the discovery that his office girlfriend, ‘Amy’ is also an alien throws his life – which is his work routine – into chaos.

To say that everyone takes everyone else’s (literally) out-of-this world revelations in stride would be to state the obvious. Actually, make that beyond obvious. Brian deals with the plans their respective planets have for our planet like most people would deal with changing dinner plans. That is until things with Amy hit a snag (and let’s just say that negotiation would be tough enough without bringing potential interplanetary war to the table).

Drones is the kind of arch comedy where characters speak in strange cadences, behave strangely with casual nonchalance and have as much concern about the reality they’re presenting as a high school play would. Because it’s just for fun. And if you’re asking for more, then maybe you’re having a low sugar moment. Top-to-bottom, the cast is game for all of it. Jonathan M. Woodward, Samm Levine and Angela Bettis are solid as Brian, Clark and Amy. And if James Urbaniak (their boss who has more natural “alien” to him than the real thing – according to this movie) isn’t “money-in-the-bank” then no one gets to claim that compliment. Few actors can deliver the line, “Brian, you’re project manager. You’re saving the earth.” with the style and aplomb that guy can.

SLAMDANCE FEVER: Again – fun. And sitting in the conference rooms made into makeshift screening rooms, no one begrudges and slight production design limitations.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: I don’t think so. Which is too bad. Cable could give it a lot of play though.

For the next screening, I found myself sitting next to the sister of the director of the short film preceding the feature. Which meant that she was also a production member and the head of his street team. Because that’s how you do things in Sundance/Slamdance land. Family IS staff. I think it’s a law in Park City or something. She tells me his name is S. Vollie Osborn, but his real name is Sam. He’s just highlighting the Vollie (his middle name) because that adds to the coolness factor. Okay, we can dance with that.

Again, I LOVE the “Sweet 16” trailer.

MONSTERS DOWN THE HALL

S. Vollie Osborn’s short film, Monsters Down The Hall is a creepy, scary exercise in perception. A little black boy lives in squalor with his heroin addict white mother. And in his world, the hallway becomes a frightening path to a forbidden door his mother tells him never to enter.

Which means, of course, after he draws a picture of a monster next to his “ABC’s”, that’s exactly what we must do. And that little trip down horror lane doesn’t disappoint with scary imps and monsters and horrific images take us where you’re supposed to take us when your title says there is a monster down the hall.
The connection made between mom’s heroin use and the visions of madness aren’t groundbreaking but that gooey-scary imagery is well done.

Not a bad lead in to set the table for the feature-length scary.

YELLOWBRICKROAD

Directed by Andy Mitton and Jesse Holland, Yellowbrickroad follows the descent into the unknown and a special kind of hell a small group of book researchers and map specialists undertake as they seek to solve a decades old mystery as to what happened to an entire town’s population that left all of their belongings behind and ultimately their lost their lives as they hiked up a trail into the wilderness.

Sounds like The Blair Witch Project? Of course, it does. Send some people into the woods without backup, and with a not-so-healthy lack of respect or fear for the potential of evil. To their credit, we are spared the shaky cam video “real” footage. This is a movie movie. So there’s that. And that IS appreciated, to be sure.

The roster is made up of a married researcher, their psychologist friend, a brother/sister map team, a forestry ranger guy, an intern and a local gal that knows some history. Things start predictably enough after some initial hurdles. The coordinates they’re given for the trail deliver them to the doorstep of a spooky old theatre house, but before they all can turn around and ditch the project, the girl behind the counter agrees to take them to the real start of the trail if she can go along with them.

The slow burn or build that follows establishes the personalities via the psychologist’s “brain test” video interviews (you know, so we’ll know when they’re going crazy later) and their prep time bonding moments as well. That is until 30’s music starts coming from somewhere within the woods. Then, it starts getting interesting. And the horror ensues.

At the interest of not spoiling things, I don’t want to offer more details than that. So – the central question is, of course, is the film scary. The simple answer would be, “Yes, it is.” But just as I believe that the funny has many styles and shades that need to be specified, horror also needs to properly characterized. And simply, this isn’t a “monster” movie, and it’s not a “slasher” movie, it’s more ambitious than that. Mitton and Holland are aiming for the horror that potentially lies within everyone’s cerebral cortex. They don’t want to just scare you, they want you to think and ponder and ruminate on the horror of it all. They don’t completely get there and arguably, the fate of the various victims can get repetitive, but if you care about having some horror film choices that don’t start with the word “saw” or are retooled versions of a handful of 80s franchise baddies then you’ll give this one a shot.

SLAMDANCE FEVER: Ambition. Scares. Films without easy conclusions, but with scenes that people can talk about and a theme that people can argue about in the lounge. This is what they come to Slamdance for.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: Not really. A Syfy channel staple potentially. Although they’d have to provide enough space between Syfy’s CGI giant mosquito movie or Raptor Family movie and this film. You’ll probably have to look for it in the DVD horror/genre section.

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John Wildman is the former Head of Press and Public Relations for the American Film Institute. He is noted for innovating film festival public relations through his work as the Director of PR for film festivals such as AFI FEST, the Dallas International Film Festival, the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, and the Feel Good Film Festival (Los Angeles).

LETTERS FROM LARRY

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

DEAR DAVID:

In case the readers of these posts think I’m a softie who likes everything he ever sees or who is blowing smoke up the ass of the Sundance programming staff let me clarify:

LIFE IS TOO SHORT TO PAN ALL THE BAD FILMS

There are plenty of weak or ordinary films here this year as every year at this and every festival for vastly different reasons.

If a film is weak but likely to be popular, there’s no point in attacking it.

If a film is weak and nobody is going to like it, there’s also no point in attacking it. You’re just piling on a dead horse.

There are plenty of pretty good, so-so movies you find yourself kind of liking. But if your honest in describing your reactions and all the flaws you notice, you can’t help sounding like – or being read like – you’re doing a pan. That’s the bad part of the thumbs up or down consumer culture situation we’re in. So I skip those too.

As a reader I never learn from negative reviews except for learning about the kind of thing those reviewers don’t like.

You learn more from a writer whenever they talk about what they like. You learn the most when they talk about what they love. That’s what they’re motivated to search out and see with precision.

Art, in anything from criticism to filmmaking to pingpong is that seeing with precision. Or as I think Ezra Pound said, “Art is attention.”

Larry
Sent from my iPhone

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Larry Gross is a 25 year screenwriting veteran and Winner of Sundance’s Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for his most recent release, We Don’t Live Here Anymore.

‘Dancing With The Wildman

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

Sundance – Day 2

“Can we just follow the spandex?!”

Fueled by my daily film festival shots of Airborne and Emergen–C (yes, I know they’re both basically placebos high in vitamin C. But it reassures me; therefore it’s doing its placebo best for me). Anyway, I get a quick start to…watch a screener ofDouchebag.

DOUCHEBAG

Drake Doremus’ Douchebag is another entry in the tried and true film festival “go-tos”: The Road Movie. ‘Sam’ is a week away from getting married when his fiancée’ ‘Steph’ decides to take it upon herself and surprise him by fetching his estranged younger brother, who previously was not planning on attending. The reunion is unpleasant at best, but the brothers try to put a happy face on it for her sake. With the younger brother, ‘Tom’ suffering he slings and arrows of Sam’s opinions regarding practically every thing that he does. Boorish, controlling, and rude, Sam is a prize to be sure.

That is until Tom reveals he has only had one true love in his life – in 5th grade. Hearing this news Sam makes it his mission to help his younger brother find the girl again. And thus, the road part of our road movie begins as the brothers seek out women that share the same name of Tom’s flame with the hope of find romance in a haystack.

Meanwhile, Steph, already holding the bag for the wedding prep is discovering clues that maybe somebody she’s engaged to isn’t quite ready for the big step. And on the road, his older brother’s acting out more and more appalls Tom.

Douchebag is the kind of film that fills you with increasing dread as it builds to likely obvious conclusions. The kind where you watch people make mistakes and sabotage themselves in real time. What Doremus gets right is not overdoing the melodrama. Just because it’s intimate, doesn’t mean it isn’t devastating – and he obviously gets that. But, at the same time, this is a cautionary recommend because I think you have to really be up for a movie like this to appreciate it. It’s not an automatic on the enjoyment front. But then again, I don’t think it’s meant to be either.

SUNDANCE FEVER: Rather than love, this is the kind of film you “appreciate.” Even at Sundance.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: Not so much. A definite mainstay on cable though where people will stumble upon it and find themselves unable to turn it off.

Okay. So after that, I finally ventured forth out into a heavy snowfall to do my first walk up Main Street. Working my way around L.A. types as they scoot gingerly through the slushy sidewalks like geishas in Ugg boots (and no, we’re not just talking about the women either). But the snow can’t stop the fun. Wait a minute – I mean “the fun.” Small packs of promo girls all dressed in identical perky colored parkas hand out everything from hand sanitizer to stocking caps to something that may or may not get you a free room at a cool-ass hotel in Miami (but certainly will give some more e-mail spam you can count on). Event P.A.s strategize how to get mountains of pizza boxes across the street and into their party. Pretty actress types do the eye contact “Do you recognize me? Please don’t recognize me. I can’t believe you didn’t recognize me!” thing all in a split second. Somewhere on the street a guy says with exasperation, ”Can we just follow the spandex?!” And there is an army of bouncers shipped in from Samoa (apparently they corner the market on that and offensive linemen) guarding various doors to various parties.

One of those parties was my next stop on the map as I hit the Douchebag pre-screening cocktail party. Crowded. But not gross crowded. While there I ran into Marguerite Moreau. I think she is one of those constantly working, but under the radar actors that I’m always happy to see onscreen so I seized the opportunity to ask her a couple of questions:

MCN: How did you become a part of the film?

Marguerite Moreau: They called me a few days before filming and said we remember you from an audition six months ago; do you want to do this thing with us? And I was like, “Sure, what do I have to do?”

MCN: Three early projects of yours: WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER, EASY, and QUEEN OF THE DAMNED are all pretty much variations of the same film, right?

Marguerite Moreau: How are they the same?

MCN: I was kidding. Anyway, Kyle Patrick Alvarez (Director of EASIER WITH PRACTICE) was full of praise for you and said you were a godsend to have on the set. Do you feel a particular responsibility on behalf of the production when you do an indie film like that or Douchebag?

Marguerite Moreau: I think with smaller films, you actually feel less responsibility because it feels more like a team. I feel a bigger sense of responsibility with bigger films, but that may be my own psychosis.

MCN: And you’ve been doing A LOT of television (MAD MEN, LOST, MONK, BROTHERS & SISTERS to name a few), so do you just approach them all the same – a role is a role, a job is a job?:

Marguerite Moreau: Yes, absolutely. A role is a role, a story is a story. What story will we tell this week, what are my opportunities?

MCN: We’ll finish with the required question. Were there any “douchbags” in your past that you were able to reference for this role – boyfriends or otherwise?

Marguerite Moreau: No comment.

Next stop on the map was the Eccles Theater to see the premiere of John Wells’ The Company Men. After the fun film festival “Where’s Waldo?” game to find the publicists with my ticket – easy, came the sequel, “Where do we get to sit, because we’re special AND we know the theater manager?” – great, and finally, “What the hell?! Tommy Lee Jones actually showed up AND decided to sit right behind us?!” moments – and let’s face it, that stuff is fun sport. Anyway, the review…

THE COMPANY MEN

A film about the effects of corporate downsizing on the men and women being downsized, John Wells does almost everything right. Almost. The Company Men stars Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, and Tommy Lee Jones as the men at three very heady levels of corporate success suddenly body slammed back down to recession earth.

Affleck’s character is the first to be let go and goes through the traditional stages of facing death (Denial, Anger, Acceptance, etc.) as he joins the sea of humanity discarded by their companies. Cooper’s character, despite hanging by his fingernails, is next. He wrestles with the shame and loss of the situation, exasperated by ageism. Jones’ character is the highest up in the food chain, the one fighting to preserve the lives of those around him, let alone trying to retain a shred of dignity during a near-hopeless time. And even he is placed on the chopping block.

Wells’ ace in the hole with all of this is an absolute sincerity in his approach to the subject matter. This isn’t about inconvenience, it is about real suffering. On many, many levels. And it IS harsh. Putting your “best face on” for job interview after job interview, having details of your work history casually dismissed, time marching on with severance pay and savings rapidly disappearing. It’s all there.

Wells knows that in the real world things don’t get fixed quickly because someone comes up with a genius out-of-the-box idea and then one snappy montage later, everyone is back on easy street. Nope. In the real world, the genius out-of-the-box solution is made for you when you’re forced to sell the house and move in with your parents.

But I did say he almost gets everything right. Because even Wells can’t entirely escape the “sometimes poor people are actually better off” thinking. Apparently being poor can be better because poor people build things with their hands, and play with their kids and best yet, actually have sex with their wives.

And yes, this is the kind of movie that is colored greatly by your own personal experiences. I have never had the level of wealth these “company men” enjoy, so the film had a chore ahead of itself to convince me to give a rat’s ass about their predicament. But I think Wells is smart enough not to expect outright sympathy for these guys, but rather understanding. Regardless of what heights you had attained and gained, when the unemployment rug is pulled out from under you, everyone is equal. Or, as someone tells Affleck’s character, “You are just another asshole with a resume’.”

SUNDANCE FEVER: Let’s face it, if you are at Sundance then you likely were able to afford coming to Sundance. So losing those “privileges” should speak to a lot of people here. I bet a lot of folks will reflect deeply on it as they hang out at their condo parties.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: Has to. Despite being somewhat of a marketing challenge (Up In The Airwithout the romantic sheen?) there are too many movie stars in a top-of-the-line production to deny it. But when? End of the year kind of thing…?

At the Q&A afterwards, Cooper emotionally explained his own personal connection with the storyline having seen the parallels with the struggle his own brother has experienced due to the recession. But it was Jones, who begrudgingly took the microphone then spoke of the “vanity of materialism” and the “drama about losing things”. So, as life imitates art, Tommy Lee Jones cut to the chase for the benefit of a movie-watching crowd.

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John Wildman is the former Head of Press and Public Relations for the American Film Institute. He is noted for innovating film festival public relations through his work as the Director of PR for film festivals such as AFI FEST, the Dallas International Film Festival, the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, and the Feel Good Film Festival (Los Angeles).

LETTERS FROM LARRY

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

DEAR DAVID:

Jack Goes Boating isPhillip Seymour Hoffman’s directorial debut adapted to the screen by Bob Glaudini from his play. It’s a foray into the ordinary- every-day-people- find- true-love genre personified by the Oscar classic, Marty. Hoffman and his superb cast do a wonderful job with it by conveying the obsessive craziness that even “little” people are capable of when they’re in love.

Hesher is another impressive surprising piece of work in a well-worn indie vein. A mysterious anarchic stranger appears to upset all decorum and to teach the timid the gospel of carpe diem. The prototype is Ruth Gordon’s Maude in Harold and Maude. James Spader’s interloper in Sex, Lies, and Videotape is the darker Ibsenesque variant. Here it is the wonderful Joseph Gordon Leavitt in the title role, channelling both his inner Brando and his inner Keanu Reeves, with his shirt off, a lot his tattoos on display, and a haircut shouting, “Jesus!”

The secret trick of Hesher is that the movie is not at all about this entertaining character Levitt plays. It’s about the ten-year-old boy, furious with grief, whose life he invades. It is told from this boy’s pov. Writer directorSpencer Susser takes many cool left turns and gets a career best supporting performance by Natalie Portman.

The best most powerful American indie I’ve seen so far is Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, a tale of murderous family loyalties among meth-manufactuerers.

In the most economically deprived region of the Ozarks in Missouri, Ms. Granik channels her inner John Ford and Sam Peckinpah and suggests that more women are ready to enter narrative preserves where men used to have sole occupancy.

I have no idea who Chris Morris is and I’m not sure if in so-called real life I want to. His Four Lions, a political satire about an Islamic terrorist cell in London, is brilliant, scary and sick fuck funny. Here he radicalized the method of Sacha Baron Cohen and The Coens with the merciless logic of Kubrick in the days of Strangelove.

Whatever else is true, Morris has a vision and he takes no prisoners.

Larry
Sent from my iPhone

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Larry Gross is a 25 year screenwriting veteran and Winner of Sundance’s Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for his most recent release, We Don’t Live Here Anymore.

LETTERS FROM LARRY

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

DEAR DAVID:

If there’s a better film that plays at Sundance 2010, than Jacques Audiar’s thrillingly compelling A Prophet (Un Prophete) I will be surprised.

Audiard synthesizes a classic young-gangster-on-the-rise tale akin to Scarface or Public Enemy with a convincing depiction of what it is like to make it in French society as an illiterate teenager of North African Arabic descent.

Audiard’s provocative choice was to set this brutal story of crime entirely in a bleak and terrifying prison.

In The Battle of Algiers and Malcolm X we were shown how, in prison a criminal might be politicized. Here, Audiard’s protagonist Malik knows nothing of his Islamic roots, at the start, and could care less. Sheer survival is the art he cultivate. But he has anuncanny combination of intelligence and luck. He realizes that ultimately that there is no survival without power. Audiard’s film is political even if his hero is not.

Two superlative performances drive A Prophet. Tahar Rahum as Malik is like a young De Niro or Pacino. You feel as if you see his nerves are exposed as he faces down each new threat, and his gradually increasing strength and confidence become uniquely believable.

Niels Asterup is the old time mob boss who teaches and terrorizes Malik and he brings a constantly surprising freshness to his scenes.

A Prophet puts new wine in old barrels in a way Hollywood genre film makers dream of doing but rarely know how to do. It deserves to be sensationally popular with American audiences.

Larry
Sent from my iPhone

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Sundance 2010 Letters from Larry
Jan 21

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Larry Gross is a 25 year screenwriting veteran and Winner of Sundance’s Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for his most recent release, We Don’t Live Here Anymore.

‘Dancing With The Wildman

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Sundance – Day 1

I drive to Sundance. From L.A. It’s an eleven hour drive that I have become very accustomed to and even when it takes me through crazy rain and snow (and that was just between L.A. and Las Vegas) or the dreaded black ice threatens to send me careening into a snow bank somewhere outside of Provo, it is more than worth it. And not just because that way I can bring my snowboarding gear. Because – for me – the films are worth it. I’m not saying they are all brilliant cinematic masterpieces. Of course not. And you could argue that they all aren’t even good – eye of the beholder and all that.

But as I watched the first two films before I even began the trip, I couldn’t wait to get here and get started. Couldn’t wait to jump right in and start the movie marathons – squeezing every screening I possibly could out of each day. See, my expectations of what studios are delivering to us have been so lowered that more and more, even the previews strike me as unintentional parodies from the old Ben Stiller Show. The trailer for Robin Hood which might as well include a voiceover along the lines of “It’s just like Gladiator – but with bows and arrows!” or “He steals from the rich and gives to the poor! AND KICKS ASS!” Or the newTom Cruise movie, where Tom is desperately trying to convince us that Cruise is still “the guy” – to the point where he literally declares to Cameron Diaz (but seriously, he’s talking directly to us, imploring) “I’m the guy! Remember? Not the Oprah couch jumpin’, psychiatry hatin’, Matt Lauer beratin’ guy! Not that one. I’m the spy dangling from a bungee cord, shootin’ two guys in two different directions at the same time and still charmin’ the ladies guy! I’m THAT guy!”

No you’re not. Not anymore.

So, yeah… Sundance, I need you. We need you.

However, I am also well aware that I and others that feel like I do to one degree or another can become so enraptured with this experience and so wrapped up in these films that we can attribute greatness to them and heap the praise in larger and larger piles of gush (and gush can be hell to clean up) to the point where the hype has far outdistanced the reality of the film’s accomplishments and set up ridiculous expectations for its post Sundance life.

So, I’m going to try something a little different here. With every review, I’m going to include a Sundance Fever rating and a Multiplex rating. The idea being that beyond the simple review of the film, I’m going to offer an assessment of how I think it plays to the Sundance crowd versus what I think its prospects will be to reach the hallowed ground of the Multiplex so it can enjoy some hearty mass consumption.

So let’s get started.

THE SHOCK DOCTRINE
The new documentary from Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross is based on Naomi Klein’s bestselling book of the same name. And the film basically goes back and forth between Naomi herself laying out her case (through speeches and interviews) and using file footage, etc. to illustrate her points of how free market policies (in general) and Milton Friedman (specifically) have done their best to send the entire world to hell in a broken down hand basket.

Basically, The Shock Doctrine, as Klein sees it, is the systematic and dedicated effort to dominate the world through its economies through the exploitation of disaster-shocked people and their countries.

I know what you’re thinking. And yes, it will royally piss off everyone at FOX News. Well, everyone there that chooses to watch this to get some insight into his or her world, as opposed to uhmmm…SHREK in 3-D.

Anyway, depending on what color you call your state, you may be shocked, SHOCKED, I TELL YOU! To find out that Nixon helped overthrow Chile because AT&T was going to take a header on their investment thanks to a new socialist regime. And everyone else may yawn as they hear about the shenanigans of Reagan and Thatcher and others leading up to and through Afghanistan and Iraq.

Make no mistake; this is a straight-down-the-line view of the past and present. It makes a definitive, compelling argument, and it connects all the dots for you. And, as is often the case with a film like this, there is no room for dissent onscreen. Which always disappoints me. While Winterbottom and Whitecross don’t tip the scales to the extent a Michael Moore does, they also don’t have any talking heads extolling the virtues of Friedman and the Chicago economics boys that were responsible (in their view) for bad times after bad times. So you will likely see it as the real unvarnished truth as you look over you’re struggling to recover 401K or you’ll pass it off as revisionist ravings as you escort you’re dressed to the nines significant other to the latest exclusive society shindig.

SUNDANCE FEVER: Everyone here have to be all over this thing politically. Some mild critical carping over no “fair and balanced”.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: Don’t think so. Smells like PBS fare – where it can be appreciated.

HOMEWRECKER

Courtesy of Sundance’s new NEXT section, that features films made for $500,000 or less (and we are going to assume that in most cases, it is MUCH less), Homewrecker is an absolute delight. And maybe for the first or second time (I’ll give myself the benefit of the doubt), I am saying that phrase without a hint of irony. Directed by Todd Barnes and Brad Barnes, Homewrecker introduces us to ‘Mike’, a locksmith on work release that has the misfortune of unknowingly helping a distraught ‘Margo’ break into her boyfriend’s apartment because she suspects he is cheating on her.

After discovering her ruse and wary of her potential “crazy”, he beats a hasty retreat from the scene. But she jumps in his van and the kind and accommodating to a fault Mike can’t shake her. And we are off to the awkward, quirky and sweet romantic races with these two as Margo coerces Mike into one borderline disastrous scenario after another.

Is there anything new with this story of two mismatched people discovering something about themselves and maybe even finding love with someone they don’t want to be with in the first place? Not really. But is it fresh? Yes, for me it was. And all because of the lead twosome. Anselm Richardson and Ana Reederare fantastic as ‘Mike’ and ‘Margo’ and Stephen Rannazzisi also scores as Margo’s boyfriend. None of them are obvious as they deliver performances that draw you in seemingly without effort. And to their credit, the Barnes Brothers are assured enough to not try to set the world on fire with their little romance as they manage all of this without a hint of sit-com cliché or smarmy.

SUNDANCE FEVER: You can’t get much more “Sundancy” than this. A great date movie for the away-from-home hook-ups.

MULTIPLEX PROSPECTS: Doubt it. Which sucks. If you aren’t here, my guess is you’ll have to hunt this one down at another film festival or on VOD or something. But it would be worth that effort, for sure.

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John Wildman is the former Head of Press and Public Relations for the American Film Institute. He is noted for innovating film festival public relations through his work as the Director of PR for film festivals such as AFI FEST, the Dallas International Film Festival, the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, and the Feel Good Film Festival (Los Angeles).

LETTERS FROM LARRY

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

DEAR DAVID:
Heading up at some ungodly hour to Sundance, tomorrow morning.

Have noticed that there are three films playing at the festival this year that I’ve seen already, and I thought all three of them happen to be utterly worth seeing.

Sympathy for Delicious is the directorial debut of Mark Ruffalo from a script by the film’s star Christopher Thornton. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked with Mark and think he’s a terrific guy but that is emphatically NOT why I like this film as much as I do.)

Starting off with a convincing depiction of the homeless community in downtown LA and focusing on one particularly bitter guy (Thornton) whose poverty is compounded by his being confined to a wheelchair. We’re also introduced to a compassionate priest (played by Ruffalo) who tries to make sure the community gets fed. The story seems to be a pretty worthwhile, if familiar, piece of social realism for awhile. Then it makes a dangerous and difficult swerve you don’t see coming:

SPOILER ALERT

‘Delicious’ Dean O’Dwyer displays healing powers. He fixes people, but not himself. The priest tries to get him to channel this gift in constructive ways, but O’Dwyer harbors a passion to make rock-and-roll music—and he’s not above using this new power in manipulative ways to advance his career.

SPOILER ALERT OVER
One of the many complicated ideas this film gets at is that having a gift doesn’t necessarily make it easier for you to be a better person.

The film makes a dizzying and largely successful turn toward social commentary and religious allegory, always done with a mixture of realism and dark humor worthy of some of the most interesting movies written by Paddy Chayefsky, like Networkand Altered States.

What’s mainly amazing is how skillfully Ruffalo is able to represent rise to glory and fall from grace of this character on a tiny budget.

What’s not amazing perhaps, given Ruffalo’s background, is the uniform excellence of the cast. Thornton is restrained and persuasive in what is clearly the role of his life…Juliette Lewis is spunky and sad as the rock chick who reaches out to help him,…. Laura Linney, Ruffalo’s acting partner from the much-loved You Can Count on Me, is both funny and scary as a rapacious showbiz attorney…

But the real revelation is Orlando Bloom as a rock-and-roller with the ego to be Mick Jagger but not quite the talent. Bloom is so utterly into this part that for a long time I couldn’t recognize him. The talent that seemed exclusively limited to and defined by the Pirates of the Caribbean andLord of the Rings movies flourishes again here in this completely fresh and unexpected setting and Ruffalo deserves great credit for seeing and believing that Bloom could do this.

The first step in Mark Ruffalo’s career as a movie director, and the artistic rebirth of Orlando Bloom’s acting career could make Sympathy for Delicious one of Sundance 2010’s upbeat stories.

The other two movies that I want to very much recommend are French films I saw last year at Cannes, A Prophet and Enter the Void. (New chief Cooper’s decision to show stuff from other festivals is worth some discussion… personally, I’m for it.) More on them a bit later. We have to pack.

Larry

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Larry Gross is a 25 year screenwriting veteran and Winner of Sundance’s Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for his most recent release, We Don’t Live Here Anymore.