Memphis-based alt-rockers One Word released their first official music video for the song Letter to the Monk off of their freshman album, The Birth of Ikmik. I was so excited to work with these guys on a fun piece. We were going for a 90's throwback video just like all the old Weezer and Jimmy Eat World videos we loved when we were growing up. I shot on a Canon 5D MKIII with a Nikon 50mm prime. I added a bit of grain in post-production to take away some of the cleanness of the DSLR and give viewers something a little more tangible to grip onto. Enjoy if you'd like!
The team behind the short film THE NEIGHBORHOOD is ecstatic to have received four major awards at the Savannah College of Art and Design's yearly film awards ceremony, the SCADemy's. THE NEIGHBORHOOD won Best Graduate Film, Best Graduate Director, Best Graduate Cinematography, and Best Graduate Production Design. A huge thanks to all of the film's cast, crew, fans, and supporters for making the film and these humbling recognitions possible.
There was a time when Hollywood, California was, quite literally, the dream-making capital of the world. The classical studio system, before becoming part of larger corporate conglomerates, regularly churned out massive films like Casablanca, The Searchers, Grand Hotel, and Gone with the Wind. This culture of competition pushed the studios to invest in large scale films with large scale talent on a regular basis, often times releasing multiple prestige pictures a year. The budgets that are now reserved for escapist tent-pole summer releases were then used to make films like Gold Diggers of 1933 and All Quiet on the Western Front. Directors, writers, stars, and technicians were employed by the studio on a contractual basis instead of hired by the job. The studios all had a particular personality: the socially conscious pictures of Warner Brothers or the high-gloss sophisticated films at MGM. By the 1930s all of these factors would contribute to Hollywood films being seen on every corner of the planet, provided it had a screen, a projector, and the means of obtaining film prints.
Though it was not fair to other global cinemas, the proliferation of Hollywood would come to be recognized for decades as the singular standard for the aesthetic and narrative techniques utilized in narrative cinema. This effect was so widespread that it would not be until the European art house boom of the 1960s and the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s (over half a century after the invention of the film camera) that this approach to narrative filmmaking would be usurped. The study of classical Hollywood is essential for these very reasons. It is not the job of the film scholar to watch a film as an isolated and self-contained specimen, but instead she must ask herself, “What does it mean?"
What does classical Hollywood mean? It certainly means more than can be said here. Classical Hollywood merits close analyses, generally, because no other system of cinema has ever reached such a globalized pollination and industrialized mechanization since or before. If one is to understand where the state of cinema rests today, one has to look back to the state of Hollywood then. There is a reason why a big budget Hollywood film, a Mexican soap opera, and a cable television show all look the same. Filmmakers are still employing the techniques pioneered in classical Hollywood: screen direction, screen position, and continuity editing.
A study of classical Hollywood is also important because, from the New Hollywood filmmakers (e.g. Bagdonovich, Scorsese, Spielberg) to the current ones (e.g. P.T. Anderson, Tarantino, Baumbach), a certain amount of self-reflexivity is at work in contemporary films. Think of the Wizard of Oz inspired opening of Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore or the Grand Hotel like tapestry of P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia. The elements at work in these and many other contemporary films draw directly upon films from classical Hollywood. There are things happening in these films that can only be understood and appreciated by one who is aware of what inspired them in the first place.
Today the studio system is little more than a group of distribution companies. Of course studios still make films, but the passion of the executives and owners of the studios has been misplaced. There is no Irving Thalberg or David O. Selznick. Contemporary producers care about their films, and some of them make very good ones, but their bosses and their bosses’ bosses only care about one thing; and it’s not making quality movies. Then, however, Hollywood synthesized so much of how America saw and still does see itself. In fact, it practically invented classic American themes: the American dream, the frontier, and the self-made individual. Now films like Love Finds Andy Hardy and The Crowd are so readable because they perfectly crystallize the values and perspectives of the majority of American mindsets during the time in which they were released. Classical Hollywood matters because it so clearly mirrors many founding American ideals, respectable or not. Film scholars must continue to analyze, preserve, and theorize about Classical Hollywood because without it we could never understand the state of American cinema today or the trajectory of its future.
Incredibly proud and excited to announce that So Brief Was His Torso is 100% finished! We literally shot the film a year ago this weekend. It has been a tough battle to see it through post and there where times when it looked as if the film would never get finished. A HUGE thanks to our dedicated and talented post team: sound designer Kurdice Neal, cinematographer/colorist Sean McGaw, and graphic designer Russell Shaw. A very special thanks also to the entire cast and crew who made that 3 day shoot in the freezing cold a lot of fun and very memorable. Everyone on set knew they were making a special film and that feeling has creeped into the final version. Look for a trailer in the coming weeks. Now onto festivals!
I would put this year of film up against any in recent memory. In addition to getting new Scorsese, McQueen, Polley, Bier, O. Russell, Baumbach, Malick, Payne, Jonze, Cuaron, and Coen brothers, we got incredibly exciting new indies like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Fruitvale Station, controversy inducing foreign films like No, Blue Is The Warmest Color, and The Patience Stone, and unnaturally heavy studio fare like Prisoners. It was a very good year. A year that proved cinema is certainly not dead, dying, sick, or out of town, regardless of the now firmly changed paradigm.
This year every single outing to the theater was filled with promise. Here are my favorite 10.
10. Before Midnight // Written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke, Directed by Richard Linklater
Reteaming for the third time in seventeen years (since 1995’s Before Sunrise) Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke bring Jesse and Celine to life again, this time over the course of an afternoon and evening in Greece’s golden countryside. Jesse has spent the summer at an invitation only writers' getaway of sorts, bringing with him Celine, their twin girls, and his son from his previous marriage. Delpy and Hawke, yet again seemingly indiscernible from Jesse and Celine themselves, bring a wizened gravitas to characters once colored with a smidge of pretense. Linklater’s subtle framings, sea foam palettes, and long takes catch all the resentment and impassioned love flowing in equal parts between the couple. That the end of the film leaves less of a question mark about the couple’s future than the other two films is of little consequence. Before Sunset (2004) is still the best of the three, but the climactic hotel room scene that plays out near the film's end is a heavyweight fight of writing, acting, and direction often missing from relationship films. And we, of course, fall in and out and back in love with Jesse and Celine all over.
9. American Hustle // Written by Eric Singer and David O. Russell, Directed by David O. Russell
David O. Russell is now 3 for 0. It is no secret that the writer/director has now firmly reinvented, or at least updated, his cinematic voice. The question is, is it working? It would seem so. Though The Fighter (2010) is still the best of O. Russell’s triplet return (followed by 2012's Silver Linings Playbook and, now, American Hustle), this crime and con epic deserves much of the attention it is receiving. At times American Hustle feels a little too self-conscious for its own good, but that does not stop it from being a mesmerizing bout of cinematography, sound design, writing, acting, and direction. And that cast. It would be hard to piece together a much more complete American dream team. Jeremy Renner gives, arguably, the best performance of the lot. O. Russell’s soundtrack is a mix tape of disco-sized proportions. American Hustle is clearly the work of a hurried filmmaker (made immediately after Silver Linings Playbook), containing both the rushed flaws and go-for-broke flashes of brilliant immediacy inherent therein.
8. The Wolf Of Wall Street // Written by Terrence Winter, Directed by Martin Scorsese
Film-nerd freak-outs aside, The Wolf of Wall Street is an American epic as only Scorsese can deliver. It is a disgustingly audacious and lush piece of work about Neanderthal-like greed and lavish capitalism run amok in an era of American financial history where guys like Jordan Belfort could, well, do what he did. That being, namely, selling penny stocks at inflated prices to the wealthy elite just looking to blow wads of cash on the next big thing. Comparisons to Goodfellas (1990) are unfortunate because this is an entirely different movie. The only similarities here are Scorsese’s style (quick cuts, whipping camera, long Steadicam takes, narration) which are, in some combination, all over every one of his other films anyway. The Wolf of Wall Street is decidedly a comedy, albeit as dark and murky as Belfort’s psyche. The film does not come without its share of problems. The pace is a little uneven. Some scenes drag while others are over too quickly. We don’t spend enough time with extraneous characters (Kyle Chandler’s Denham, Cristin Milioti’s Teresa). The effects of Belfort and Co.’s actions are not felt much farther than their own office walls. But Scorsese and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker jam shots together like prize fighters taking big swings and quick jabs, creating montages that have been too long missing from Scorsese’s work. I can’t think of a single role more tailor made for DiCaprio’s manboy quailities and quirks. He ignites every frame he is in. Not to mention Jonah Hill’s hilarious and terrifying performance as Belfort’s partner in crime. Scorsese is not back. He has always been here. It’s just that with The Wolf of Wall Street he is screaming at the top of his lungs rather than quietly murmuring.
7. Mud // Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols
I honestly do not understand why this movie has been so criminally forgotten. Mud has to be the most overlooked film of the year. It was a critical darling when it was released, but then it was seemingly set adrift on the waters of its own prominently featured Mississippi. Jeff Nichols remains one of the most uniquely regional voices in contemporary cinema, letting us peer into worlds distinctly southern but refreshingly universal. Matthew McConaughey gives another one of his dozens of great performances from the past few years. Nichols says he had McConaughey in mind for the role when he began writing the script back in college. It shows. Reese Witherspoon also, finally, cashes in the startling dramatic performance from which she all too often shies away. Clearly drawing inspiration from Mark Twain, Nichols creates a sprawling mythic yarn. One part fairy tale, one part coming of age story.
6. Blue Jasmine // Written and Directed by Woody Allen
Woody Allen returns with his yearly offering delivering a type of film we have not seen from the filmmaker since Stardust Memories (1980). Blue Jasmine meanders between bleak comedy and stark drama with all the charming neuroticism inherent in Allen’s own onscreen persona. The laughs come frequently but with an even more frequent price. Cate Blanchett gives, arguably, the best female performance of the year. Louis C.K. has an amusingly fitting bit part and Bobby Cannavale’s Chili is brimming with well-grounded anger and passion. In fact, the entire cast does some of the best work of their careers; possibly a testament to Allen’s now-famous hands off approach to directing actors. Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe makes this the most well shot Woody Allen film since his work with Gordon Willis in the 70s and 80s. But what takes the film to new heights, even for Allen, is the end. It is unsettlingly bleak and quite shocking, proving Allen still has the guts to pierce into the ambiguity of the human experience.
5. Nebraska // Written and Directed by Alexander Payne
With the exception of my number 4 pick, Alexander Payne is perhaps the most European (unconventional/anti-Hollywood aesthetic and style) of contemporary American filmmakers. That being said, Nebraska is perhaps the filmmaker’s most cinematic work. Pairing his Truffaut-like observationalism with beautiful black and white cinematography by Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska plays in turns laugh out loud hilarious and heartbreakingly bleak. The cringe inducing awkwardness that Payne does like no other is almost too much to bear as Will Forte’s underplayed David and Bruce Dern’s masterful Woody visit family, dine at a local restaurant, and arrive at their destination. That scene, the end of their journey, is both inevitable and alarmingly disappointing. I was fortunate enough to sit in on a master class with Payne and speak with him briefly this year at the Savannah Film Festival where Nebraska screened. He told me that filmmaking means “becoming friends with despair.” It would seem with Nebraska Payne did just that.
4. Frances Ha // Written and Directed by Noah Baumbach
It’s hard to like some of the characters in Frances Ha, but that doesn’t mean it’s a hard movie to like. As is the case with Baumbach’s entire oeuvre the film deserves revisiting and requires a lot of post-viewing rumination. Also filmed in stark black and white, many might think Baumbach is trying to comment on the current effort to define us aimless millennials. For me, Frances Ha is a much more specific narrative. Frances is not a representation of an entire generation. She is her own person, flaws and triumphs, and more accurately represents a universal feeling and place in life than a group of people. The script, penned by Greta Gerwig (Frances) and Baumbach, is perhaps the film’s greatest victory. An entire course on good dialogue could exist solely from examining Frances Ha. The Squid and The Whale (2005) still remains Baumbach’s best film, but Frances Ha feels more like a matured culmination of Baumbach’s unique perspective, voice, and style
3. Prisoners // Written by Aaron Guzikowski, Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Another massively undervalued film this year, Prisoners simply is not getting the awards season credit or attention it deserves. Absolutely stunning performances all around. Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Terrance Howard, Maria Bello, and Paul Dano are lit with subtle command by Roger Deakins and directed to pitch perfect pace by Denis Villeneuve. The cast creates portraits of everyday people that will haunt you for days after the film ends. Not to mention a chilling and unrecognizable Melissa Leo. With an airtight script by Aaron Guzikowski, Prisoners plays like the film version of the little dutch boy with his finger in the dam. The characters’ pasts weigh on them heavily and yet we never really know what those pasts included. It’s an incredibly tense device that makes the film feel as if it could erupt in volcanic proportions at any moment, but it rarely does. When it does, though, watch out because it’s truly explosive.
2. Inside Llewyn Davis // Written and Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
I could not have loved this film more. Again, this is when it is important to remember that my list is a completely subjective one of my favorite films from this year. Are there imperfections? Probably, but I was so stunned the entire time that objectivity went out the window from the first guitar strum Llewyn delivers. The Coen brothers, wisely, do not make this a movie that feels like a musical nor does it lack its share of musicality. The greatest favor they pay the film is letting each song play out in full rather than cutting away after the first chorus like many movies about music often do. But Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t really about the music, at least not entirely. It’s more about Llewyn the drifter, the punk, and the dreamer. He is a vehicle through which all aspiring artists can vent their own frustrations with “making it.” Every single one of your preconceived expectations derived from the tropes a film like this often employs is completely undercut. There is no happy ending here and about half way through the film it becomes clear that there shouldn’t be. Not every musician in 1960s Greenwich Village became Bob Dylan. Some must have fallen by the wayside. Positioning us with the Llewyns of folk music rather than the Dylans, the Coens create a portrait of a musician and a person more in line with the reality of many aspiring artists’ fates instead of cramming a falsified American dream of success and celebrity down our throats.
1. 12 Years A Slave / / Written by John Ridley, Directed by Steve McQueen
1. Her // Written and Directed by Spike Jonze
I simply could not choose between these two towering feats of cinematic achievement. Both will unequivocally become parts of the contemporary canon. And, oddly enough, both couldn’t be timelier. With 12 Years A Slave Steve McQueen finally confronts the horrors of American slavery with an unflinching and uncompromising eye for the brutality often left out of films about the period. The film begins a conversation that must be had and is particularly effective given the social atmosphere surrounding high profile racial cases like the murder of Treyvon Martin this year. Her also asks questions about the current state of urban existence. What does it mean to live in a post-technological world and where does that situate us as individuals seeking connection with the people around us? Spike Jonze’s dizzying whirlwind of cotton candy colored futurism is, at its core, just a love story. Simple enough. But the way the film handles modern loneliness is specifically 21st century. Both films are beautiful, masterful works from irreplaceable filmmakers at the height of their directorial prowess.
Other Favorites: The Butler // August: Osage County // Place Beyond The Pines // The World’s End // Gravity // To The Wonder // The East // Fruitvale Station // Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
What I Missed: Upstream Color // Stories We Tell // Blue Is The Warmest Color // Dallas Buyer’s Club // Enough Said // The Act of Killing // Short Term 12
The following is a compiled excerpt of a short speech I gave to the cast and crew of THE NEIGHBORHOOD at a recent production meeting. - Kyle
There’s this term I use when I’m making a film. I call it going down the rabbit hole. I don’t really say that aloud to anyone but it’s what I’ve always said to myself in my head.
"Is this really going to happen again? Are you ready? I think so. Ok, I’m ready. Down the rabbit hole.”
Now I know that sounds weird or crazy, or at least stupid. But it’s sort of the pep talk I give myself when I need to get up the morning of a shooting day and get to work. It helps me in some way to think, “Here we go. Down the rabbit hole.” And then start working.
The process for THE NEIGHBORHOOD started in March. Over spring break I was trying to figure out what my thesis needed to be. I didn’t have it planned out since I started grad school or anything like that. I guess for me I don’t force myself to come up with some idea I just kind of wait until the idea finds me. And then I try to harness it, fight with it, get it down on paper, and figure it out. I did, however, know that I was not going to go bigger for my thesis. I wanted to go small, intimate…easy. Though we all know it is never that. And somehow it not only became bigger, it became huge. 23 cast members. Over a dozen locations. 40 extras. A crew of 50+.
So much for smaller.
But here we are and I’m already farther down the rabbit hole then I’ve ever been. It starts with pre-production of course, with looking at a bunch of words on a page, and figuring out how in the world you’re going to take this thing that only exists on a piece of paper and come out on the other side with a movie. And that’s really scary. It’s the part of the journey that is completely unknown. Because no one can do it alone and dozens of hands have to touch this thing to get it from script to screen.
That’s the part that always baffles me. All the moving pieces and that a movie ever even exists at all. It’s so bizarre. But so exciting.
So in April, Dwayne (cinematographer), Steve (producer), and I decided we were going to do this. We were going to make THE NEIGHBORHOOD happen. And we weren’t going to sacrifice the scope of the script and the largeness of it to make it easier to do. We wanted to tell this story the best way we could, the only way we could. We wanted to make it worth it. And so Steve and Dwayne joined me in the rabbit hole.
May. June. July. August.
And here we are. September 25. 8 days away from our first day of principle photography. And things are so crazy. But so totally exhilarating.
I don’t say all this to be self-important or pretentious or anything like that. I just think it’s important for you to know where I’m at so that I can know where you are.
Let me describe the rabbit hole a little bit.
The rabbit hole is dark. Sometimes pitch black. It echoes and it’s slippery and there are ugly monsters hiding around the corner waiting for you. These monsters are things like self-doubt, second guessing, people dropping out, people being mean, people telling you that you can’t do this thing you’re trying to do, that it’s too much. That it is impossible.
But the only reason they think it can’t be done is because it never has.
But sometimes in the rabbit hole you find warm light seeping through a crack in the wall or a drink of cool water in a small pool on the ground. In other words, sometimes, if you work hard and act right and are kind and respectful and honest, you find relief.
And that’s where you come in. You are that light. That water. You are the relief. Because for all of the crappy people we’ve dealt with, all of the questioning and fighting and failure, for whatever reason you are here and you are very, very important.
This is a very special film. Not because of me or anything I am doing but because of you and the massive amount of talent I know you bring with you.
Perfection is not expected. We’re all still trying to figure it out. I know I am. Hard work, however, is expected. And I know for sure that all of you can and will work hard. Last time I checked we were all in film school because we wanted to make films. So let’s do that. Laziness isn’t cool with me. If there is an issue you have just let us know. I promise we’ll be nice to you and understanding and work with you to make your situation as best as it can be. If you do not let us know what’s going on and you become unreliable however, that won’t be fun or cool. I know you’ve worked on a lot of crappy sets that were poorly run, unprepared, nasty places to spend two weekends of your life. This will not be one of those sets.
I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again. This is collaboration, not a hierarchy. We are all collaborators here. I don’t care what your job is. This is your film. This is our film. So let’s make it the best thing we can. Let’s be a team. Let’s get our hands dirty. Let’s help each other out, be nice to each other, work hard, learn as much as we can as artists and get this thing done.
So now the question is, of course, will you go down the rabbit hole with me? I promise I won’t steer you wrong if you’ll promise me you won’t give up.
Let’s make a great movie.
A perfect description of the magical transportive results of narrative films and the effects many narrative filmmakers strive to achieve (including myself). Some will find this problematic, a further argument against suture. Yet, I find this a most eloquent description of why I want to make narrative films.
Here's the excerpt:
"I am everywhere at once, thanks to the mobility of the camera and the multiplicity of the shots. All I have to do is take part in the game and let myself go. I am 'swept along.' Not just captivated but literally 'captured,' absorbed into the strange and fascinating space which the screen reveals. The hero of the film is suddenly closer to me than the fellow in the next seat - so much so that he nearly touches me. I closely follow the movements and changes of position of this character or that; I move, see, act with them, like them and at the same time as them; I take part in their drama (which temporarily becomes my own). I am no longer an audience member but well and truly an 'actor.' I know that I am in the cinema but I feel to be in a world presented to me through my eyes, a world which I experience 'physically' by identifying with one or other of the characters of the drama - with all of them in turn. That is the same as saying that in the cinema I am both inside and outside the action, inside the space and outside it. With the power of ubiquity I am everywhere and nowhere."
- Jean Mitry | The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema | Chapter II: The Film Image
I take as my task a call to action, echoing those who have come before, denouncing those who merely pretend, and preserving an object once sacred, now perverse, the filmed story. This is not meant to define the art of cinema in an entirely new or unique way (I could never be so consciously brazen), but rather to embolden, italicize, capitalize, and furiously underline the words of the great filmmakers and film-thinkers who have already so eloquently and certainly made the importance and meaning of cinema known. Yet, the time has come for me to meagerly raise my cracking voice in argument for the restoration of that elusive chupacabra known as the movies…
B E C A U S E :
i. The proliferation and democratization of the once impossible production of even the shortest filmed sequence by the amateur or the aspiring has created a vacuum of white noise in which one must now completely and determinedly navigate to be seen and heard.
ii. The movie industry has all but lost interest in new ideas, new perspectives, bold stories, and even bolder statements, which was once its purest aim.
iii. The cinematic experience has been diluted to the singular viewing of a singular viewer on a 21-inch computer screen, or, more frightening still, a 2x3 cellular telephone.
iv. Three dimensional films now populate our movie houses like bums by the river.
v. The bombardment of broad spectacle in all but the smallest art house or specialty cinema has left the truest of film’s sons and daughters on the abandoned fringes of town, only available to those brave enough to seek them out and coax them from their cavernous hiding places.
vi. We would rather play with technological toys than tell good stories.
vii. Crowd funding can put money in the hands of those who might misuse it, or, at least, act cinematically irresponsible.
viii. In spite of these disturbing trends, I believe this can change for the better.
ix. Humans still and always will love good stories.
x. Our audiences are smarter than we give them credit for.
xi. We have lost our way.
L I N E S I N T H E S A N D
Lines are often drawn between the terms movie, film, and cinema.
The unwritten definitions are usually somewhat thus:
i. Movie – Anything with moving images, with or without sound, that an individual watches, whether alone or with others, that may or may not tell some kind of story but lacks emotional or relational substance.
ii. Film – Those movies that strive for some higher plane of critical commentary, cultural observation, or eager answer seeking in regards to the human experience.
iii. Cinema – Those films that have, whether over time, across borders, or through societal opinion found themselves held as important cultural, thematic, and/or aesthetic texts reflecting any part, specific or broad, of some place and time.
Though criticisms of such distinctions (i.e. trite, self-important, pretentious) may in this century be generally accepted, the criteria prompting said distinctions means well. Regardless of internal, external, or contextual analysis, the differences between the words movie, film, and cinema exist because we must distinguish superhero escapism from, say, Port of Shadows or broad horror schlock from Seven Samurai. There must be a difference between the spectacle and the special. All are fine in their own right, but we cannot further the sentiment that anything projected onto a wall in a dark room is all born of the same mother. There is a fundamental difference, the creator’s motivation. Right now that motivation is cold hard cash.
If one were to hold up a Jackson Pollock to a painting by Thomas Kinkade as comparable, one would be immediately disregarding as having no fundamental understanding of the difference in substance. “It’s all just paint on a canvas,” one might argue. But we know it is not. We know it is different. Again, that difference is motivation. Thomas Kinkade, it would seem, wants to make money off of the patrons at the local mall. Jackson Pollock’s work changed the medium, affected his audience, and commented on the time and place in which he found himself. This is not in criticism or support for one or the other; it is just calling it for what it is.
Unfortunately I sense a hesitancy to do the same thing with film.
I cannot help but to think that if Truffaut were to publish “Une Certaine Tendance du Cinéma Français” in today’s cinematic climate he would be laughed out of the room as an arrogant radical and faux-intellectual idealist. In fact it was this very text, a harsh and unforgiving criticism of French movies in the early 1950s, which sparked a cinematic revolution called the French New Wave. This in turn influenced the American film brats of the late 1960s and early 1970s who, for a bright albeit brief moment in time, changed the course of American film for good.
Yet, here we find ourselves again, making escapist cinema for the layman, telling her what to think but not teaching her how.
If we are to return the movie industry to its natural state, not a business built on piles of dollar bills but a phenomenon founded on good storytelling, we must first call our spades, spades. And we can start doing that by defining…
F I L M A S M O M E N T S
What then is that defining piece of the cinematic puzzle? What makes up the DNA of a film that is inherently absent from that of a movie?
It must be moments.
When Jake LaMotta flips over the dining room table, propelling dishes and food across his apartment, in protest to his wife’s own justifiable shouts of rage in Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980).
In the sad, infectious, and terrified eyes of Jacqueline in Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes (1960).
When Jack Torrance infamously screams, “Here’s Johnny!” in Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).
These moments are the only tools the filmmaker has. If she has not moments, she has nothing. Moments are built upon the things that precede them, clothed in the things that surround them, and understood by the events to which they lead.
What happens when a film strings together a collage of these moments? Well, there I would argue is where cinema is born. Cinema has to be more than just a chic term for the movies. This is not just tiresome semantic pretention. It is the recovering of something that has slipped from our grasp, the very thing that called us to the medium when we were kids playing with our parents’ camcorders. The awe. The majesty. The wonder. The fun.
Every other artistic medium has its own terminology through which it identifies itself. It’s own words through which it can categorize its creative products. Why should cinema be the exception? Because it is a mass medium? I don’t think so.
Why does pleading for a restoration in the financial, cultural, and faithful investment of movie studios and moviegoers in good filmmaking label me naïve or idealistic? Does it not take an idealist to shed light on the non-ideal state of things?
The time to reclaim our cinematic identity as artists is now, for we are certainly on the brink of something, and if we are to claim it for the furtherance of good filmed storytelling, we must move quickly.
Steven Nyberg (PRODUCER), Dwayne Green (CINEMATOGRAPHER), and myself recently announced our graduate thesis film for the completion of our MFA degrees from the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Here is the film's synopsis:
THE NEIGHBORHOOD is a story about three childhood friends that move back home after college and take up residence in the very bedrooms they vowed to leave. Though they left for college full of hope and optimism, they have returned broken and confused about the things they encountered. Each of them now carries real world problems without the real world maturity to handle these issues appropriately. Through narration and flashbacks, THE NEIGHBORHOOD creates a candid window into the lives of Y-generation suburbanites, exposing their secrets and vices.
(Below is an excerpt from my updated purpose statement which was recently accepted as a part of my portfolio for MFA candidacy review at the Savannah College of Art & Design.)
February 2013 marked five years since I directed my first short film. Twenty-five minutes long, shot on mini-DV tape, and horrendously directed, it was an overly talky and embarrassingly expository meditation on love, god, and death. That’s right, the future film student’s first student film; I just didn’t know it at the time. The title was Wax and each of its three acts began with a Woody Allen type narration directly to the camera. I was so proud of this car wreck of a short that I screened it at my college’s theater to a packed house.
I was that guy.
Once a year or so, when I get up enough courage, I’ll watch it again with some mixture of lamentation and nostalgia. It’s funny now because time has passed and I have matured as a filmmaker, but the film remains a fixed window into a world I can no longer access. While I find myself oddly captivated by its so-bad-you-can’t-look-away qualities, I always recognize something that is barely there about my filmmaking struggling to break free from the primitive trappings in which it is suffocating. I can see, however slight, the raw ideas, the passion, the innocence of a first time filmmaker totally oblivious to all of his first time mistakes.
When the film ends and the four person cast and crew credits roll, one feeling surprisingly continues to pervade all others. I am encouraged. Not because I think it is a good short film, but because I can see what I was trying to do and say. I just had no idea how to do it or say it yet. Without that film and the following handful of other shorts I directed before beginning graduate school at SCAD, I would not have gotten a lot of those mistakes out of my system. That process would have started much later in my development, further delaying the good work I have now been a part of creating.
This is important because what I have realized over the last five years is that from film number one to film number thirteen (my most recent, Synesthesia), one thing has not changed. My purpose. The reason I made that first short film, the reason I made twelve more, and the reason I will never stop making films, is exactly the same. I believe that film can more purely, more engagingly, and more effectively communicate emotions, ideas, and experiences than any other medium in storytelling. I could recount all of the influential film experiences I have had during my life, but they would be no different or anymore revelatory than those of any other cinema lover. But what I can, and should, say is that film really does just make sense to me. Ever since I saw my first Scorsese and Malick and Kubrick, it just clicked. And it became my purpose.
I want to create a visceral and overwhelming experience that makes someone feel the way I felt when I first experienced Goodfellas or Days of Heaven or 2001. I know. A little far reaching, to say the least. But hey, I can dream.
This is not a statement of purpose. It is a RE-statement of purpose. The same purpose I have had for five years and do not plan to give up on any time soon.
(This blog was originally published online by Russell Shaw.)
I’m still a nobody. A nobody who loves film. A nobody who, regardless of VOD, the digital revolution, and a democratizing of the art, still believes in the power of the cinema. A nobody who would purport that film isn’t dead but is only just transforming into something more beautiful and exciting. While I may have directed over a dozen short films and written even more, you haven’t seen any of them, and I guarantee that you’ve never heard my name. And that’s okay. I don’t expect to be heard of.
But now you know where I stand.
I remember exactly when I decided that I was going to try and do this thing. This impossible thing.
“And what do you want to do when you grow up?” inquired everyone. “I want to direct movies for a living,” responded the naïve and idealistic young bearded man.
How can we do this? How can we get paid to play?
I was recently discussing with someone how there are probably about five film directors who are worldwide household names. And probably only two of them would be physically recognizable. I claimed that Spielberg was probably the most famous and instantly recognizable director around the world.
This person responded, “What does he look like again?”
Those are the odds. Not that my goal is to be Spielbergian in my pervasiveness (in fact, I don’t desire that at all). But these are the odds creative professionals deal with, especially the ones with insatiable ambition. The ones who would rather create than eat, rather express than exist. Maybe for musicians the odds are a little greater, novelists a little less, and graphic designers somewhere in between. But the margins are so small and so terrifying that it takes an already slightly insane person just to take a step out of the boat and onto the water.
I’ve always concluded that it takes around four things to get there –
- A grain of talent
- Complete overreaching passion
- Several truckloads of luck
- And never, ever stopping
That fourth thing, undoubtedly the hardest but most obvious of qualities, is also the thing that will, eventually, set artists apart from creatives (because I would argue that, in fact, everyone is a creative…but that’s something else entirely). That label, creative, has somehow snuck into our modern vernacular.
“Oh, he’s creative.” That’s right, because he can use the burn tool.
This is unfortunate because it has diluted the powerful vocabulary of true artistry (which, by the way, is more about amassing hours and hours of experience than anything else). Because now we have art fairs and art schools and art factories. And what this does is create the image that art is a choice and a product. If you go to IKEA you can buy 20 copies of the exact same painting to match your throw pillows. If you want to go to art school you can be a painter or a fashion designer or a cartoonist. These things are not inherently evil, yet they are all built on the presupposition that artistry, or creativity, is a choice just like anything else, when in fact it isn’t a choice at all. None of the greats would ever claim that they chose to be what they were…painter, filmmaker, writer. They just are. And they can’t be stopped. It’s a calling from the collective consciousness, born from every generation’s need for artistic representation and voice.
This isn’t elitism; it’s just a defense of something that was once sacred. The way ball players discuss Babe Ruth or cooks Julia Child.
There used to be a reverence attached to someone labeled an artist. You can almost hear it being whispered about Rothko, Rembrandt, Mozart, Bob Dylan, Emily Dickinson, Stanley Kubrick. These aren’t creatives, as we now understand that word. These are artists. And what’s beautiful is that though their mediums may have been different, their ability to communicate ideas and emotions were exactly the same. And if you look into the trajectories of any of these or a dozen other greats, you will find at least one common denominator.
A relentless and unshakable stubbornness. Their specifics may have been different, but their circumstances were all the same.
The odds were completely against them. And they didn’t care. They kept going in spite of themselves. They didn’t know how else to operate. Nothing made as much sense to them as their art, if anything else made sense at all.
Dictionaries often define stubbornness as “being bullheaded and justifiably unyielding.”
When did brazenly believing in what you were creating become negatively stigmatized? Do you think Rothko cared when someone told him his blurry squares were meaningless? Or Dylan that he couldn’t sing? Or Kubrick that 2001 made no sense? If it bothered them they wouldn’t have let you know it.
No, they believed in their creations as blindly and as boldly as possible. So much so that if you didn’t agree that the work was of value, their stubbornness alone would have quickly convinced you otherwise.
I can only believe that this is the truest combatant of self-doubt, destructive criticism, and unavoidable creative blocks. If you don’t believe in it, how will anyone else? After all, conflict and friction are the strongest change agents, and if you truly want to influence the medium or impact your audience with what you’re doing it can’t be expected. It can’t be status quo.
But, we also mess up. It’s true. As artists, and especially young, burgeoning ones, we make mistakes. A lot of mistakes. An unwillingness to revise, consider, and adjust your work will quickly become your Achilles heel. It’s happened a million times. But you better believe in your creations. And when you know in your deepest deep place that this thing you’ve chosen to do is the best thing you could ever do, don’t look back and don’t second guess yourself. There a thousand other creatives chasing you down, ready to trample over you and take your spot.
Let’s hold each other to a higher standard again.
Let’s call each other out for lazy work and praise one another when it hits us in the gut.
Let’s pull the rug out from under our feet and see if we can stand.
Be relentless. Be demanding. Be brazen. Be bullheaded and justifiably unyielding.
Just make sure you're right.
Inevitably, beginning around Thanksgiving of every year, “Best Of” lists start to infiltrate the pop culture consciousness. By the New Year it is nearly impossible to pull up your browser’s homepage without seeing “The 10 Best Works of Fiction in 2012” or “The 15 Best Rock Albums of the Year” or “The 5 Best Ways to Cook a Ham.” Maybe it’s nostalgia. Maybe it’s our natural inclination to assign value to the things we’ve experienced, cinematically or otherwise. Or maybe it’s a need to just rank something for ranking’s sake. And yet, also inevitably, I find myself poring over these lists as if they might guide me to some democratically decided truth about the “artistic” products released from January to December. What’s intrinsically upsetting about “Best Of” lists though is that they assume we have the ability to decide which of this is better than that. (By the way, this is what is so unfortunate about all of the awards season hullabaloo.) Regardless, and hypocritical though it may seem, as a lover of and writer on film I feel some inherent compulsion to add to the noise. An important difference must be drawn here though between the adjectives best and favorite. So, here are my favorite films that achieved wide release in 2012.
10. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey // Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro, Directed by Peter Jackson
I know, I know. The criticisms of Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth are vast and well documented, and it isn’t that I necessarily disagree with them. But I didn’t have more unadulterated fun at a movie all year long, and sometimes that’s all you can ask out of a big budget genre film.
9. Rust and Bone // Written by Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, and Craig Davidson, Directed by Jacques Audiard
On paper it sounds pretty silly. An orca trainer gets her leg bitten off by one of her whales, falls for a bouncer/petty thief/underground boxer, and the two live happily ever after. But Audiard grounds this film with some combination of realism and surrealism that is completely entrancing. I don’t remember having such an overly emotional experience in the theater all year long. Marion Cotillard’s heartbreaking performance doesn’t hurt. But then again, I’m a big softy.
8. Django Unchained // Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Cinema’s undisputed nerd of a punk rocker, Quentin Tarantino, brandished the 2012 big screen with a twisted history lesson on American slavery so irreverent and bombastic that it teeters on the line of utter carelessness. I’m still not completely sure what to do with the grotesque representations and implications of Django Unchained, but Tarantino blazed into theaters this year (on Christmas day no less) and demanded attention; which is exactly what he always gets. Ironically, at least in regards to his absurdist vision, he really doesn’t care what you think. And that’s always a good time.
7. Bernie // Written by Richard Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, Directed by Richard Linklater
The slacker is back. Linklater reteams with Jack Black to create an offbeat portrait of the small town funeral director turned murderer, Bernie Tiede. Why this movie didn’t get more attention beats me. Maybe you would have to had grown up in a town similar Carthage, Texas to really get what Linklater is doing. The absurdity of Black’s performance is hilarious until you realize that there is something much darker brewing beneath the surface. I won’t spoil it, but you’ll know it when you see it and the laughs become less frequent.
6. Take This Waltz // Written and Directed by Sarah Polley
Who knew Seth Rogen could act? It isn’t that the story is completely groundbreaking; happily married woman falls for the tortured artist who lives across the street. But the way Polley juxtaposes a relationship built completely on friendship and fun with another a little messier and mysterious is quite refreshing. What is really great about Take This Waltz are the questions it makes us ask ourselves about our own relationships, being unfaithful, and personal vice. Polley has made good films before, but with Waltz she announces herself as a major cinematic talent. It’s in lines like “Life has a gap in it. It just does, but you don’t go around trying to fill it like some lunatic” that Polley’s cautionary tale wants us to take stock of what we do have and ask is it worth it?
5. Lincoln // Written by Tony Kushner, Directed by Steven Spielberg
Other than that laughably Hallmark opening where the black union soldier walks away from Lincoln quoting the Gettysburg Address and it’s unfortunately obvious appendix of an ending, Lincoln is decidedly un-Spielbergian. And that is a very good thing. Of course Daniel Day Lewis’s performance is impeccable and totally captivating, but what else is new. It might sound trite, but Lincoln brings together some of Hollywood’s most conventional heavy hitters to make a film so solidly crafted it really does work the heart and mind in a way that made me wish for the days when this is what the classical studio tradition consistently offered. It might be Hollywood, but it’s Hollywood at its best.
4. Moonrise Kingdom // Written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola, Directed by Wes Anderson
Stuff white people like. Yeah, I know. But Wes Anderson’s summer release bleeds red. Anderson hasn’t produced a film so brimming with passion and life since The Royal Tennenbaums. If the greatest justice we can do in film analysis is judging the pairing of form and content appropriately, then Moonrise Kingdom fits the bill. While some might have grown tired of Anderson’s characters-suffering-from-arrested-development, unmotivated slow motion, hipster soundtracks, or symmetry-for-its-own-sake style, just give Moonrise a shot. Finally Anderson tells a story about blossoming puberty and raging hormones equally fun and sobering. What Anderson discovers, along with his leads Sam and Suzy, is that sometimes its best to run away for a while; you might just rediscover what was so refreshing about where you came from.
3. Beasts of the Southern Wild // Written by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin, Directed by Benh Zeitlin
Forget the dissenters preaching about social and economic misrepresentation. There’s no way you can claim Zeitlin doesn’t care about his characters or the people they symbolize. Part Terrance Malick, part Jeff Nichols, all the watermarked work of a burgeoning visionary, Beasts is a southern anthem for the human spirit, community, and endurance. Perfectly scored, tenderly acted, and gushing with unashamed underdog mentality, no movie this year so completely refreshed my belief in the power of cinema.
2. Amour // Written and Directed by Michael Haneke
Just because Michael Haneke’s Amour is his most tender work to date doesn’t make it any less brutal. Built on the towering performances of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, Amour forces its audience to live with an ailing married couple during the dreary final months of Anne’s (Riva) life. Georges (Trintignant), through a love both unconditional and stubborn, watches as his wife slowly deteriorates under his care. Haneke rarely lets us leave their apartment, forcing his viewers to watch Anne deteriorate with Georges. The result is a portrait of old age and inevitable death so stark and unfiltered that Haneke’s trademark discomfort is almost unbearable. But there’s something beautiful and truthful at work here too, the result of which is a modern cinematic classic.
1. The Master // Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
I nominate Paul Thomas Anderson as the Ambassador of American Film to the World. If we could put only one film a year in a time capsule as a representation of the best American cinema has to offer, The Master would be my pick for 2012. From Anderson’s remarkable novelistic script to Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s gorgeous camera work to Johnny Greenwood’s skin-crawling score, nothing here is out of place. And, of course, there are the monumental performances of Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. Who cares if there isn’t one likable character in the lot? Since when was having a relatable character the necessary rubric for having a good film? For those who claim such, I plead for you to look deeper at Freddie (Phoenix) or Dodd (Hoffman). I guarantee that if you open yourself up to the existential experience Anderson and his team have crafted, you will see yourself reflected in the gnarled face of Freddie Quell or the prideful ignorance of Lancaster Dodd, as terrifying as that may seem.
Other Favorites: 28 Hotel Rooms // Argo // The Grey // Looper // Sleepwalk With Me
What I Missed: Cosmopolis // Holy Motors // Life of Pi // Once Upon a Time in Anatolia // Zero Dark Thirty
(This interview was originally published online by The Cine-Files.)
When it comes to the big Hollywood brass, Denzel Washington is as decorated as they come. Pair his star power with Robert Zemeckis's return to live action filmmaking after 12 years of pioneering animated motion capture efforts, and you've got a potentially interesting, completely American cinematic outing. But the man behind the curtain, and probably the most overlooked, is John Gatins. Though it took him over a decade to get his film from a blank computer screen to every multiplex in the US, Gatins is now enjoying the commercial and general critical success of his newest screenplay, Flight. The film tells the story of Whip Whitaker, a depressed and alcoholic commercial airline pilot who unbelievably saves a malfunctioning plane full of passengers by landing it upside down. However, an investigation into the crash reveals that Whip was intoxicated and mentally unstable when the plane began to go down, and the crash might be his fault. I recently sat down with Gatins on behalf of The Cine-Files at the 2012 Savannah Film Festival where the film was screened out of competition.
Flight took several years to get off the ground (pun intended).
JG: Haha. Forever. Yeah.
What was the hold up?
JG: As a screenwriter the bulk of your work comes from assignments, you know. So if a studio buys a book or someone's life rights or already has a script or something, the development starts from them down and we kind of jockey for jobs. Then there's speculative stuff. If you come up with your own material, you know, you can then write it at your own pace. And that's what this was. I would just pick it up and put it down. It was my own little Rubik's cube. And since I wasn't working for the studio, because it was spec, I was on my own timeline. Also, R-rated dramas aren't a great piece of business for studios so it's not like I thought this would be a big spec sale. It wasn't aliens or superheroes, like an established franchise, you know? Also, not having a boss didn't help me. No one was saying "Where is it?" So, I would work in fits and starts.
So, it was your own sort of struggle with it instead of studio interference?
JG: Yeah, but I wanted the movie to be as interesting and textured as it could be. I really did think it would probably never get made, but I wanted to finish the script because it was something more personal and an expression of the sort of things that go on in my brain. I like to think that every time you make a movie, you've made somebody's favorite movie, you know? It's an odd thing. But this one was personal.
How did you originally envision the film? Indie? Hollywood? Experimental?
JG: Well, really, I didn't have an original vision other than to create a vehicle for this character. I have a fear of flying, but I fly all the time for work. So, I was on this war movie [Behind Enemy Lines], and I would spend a lot of time with the actual pilots used for that film. They were kind of funny guys, hardcore drinkers, and a lot of them become commercial pilots, and I thought that was interesting. Then I was on a flight from Germany and I was sitting next to a guy in a commercial pilot's uniform on his way home. He started talking to me and chatting me up. I really wanted him to stop, you know, but then I wondered, "Why is that?" and I realized it was because he was a pilot and I didn't want to know anything about his personal life. I want to think that the guy flying my plane totally has his life together. I don't want to think that this guy is going through a terrible divorce, or his wife hates him, or he's an alcoholic. So that was the thought, "Wait a second. What if there was this guy?" From there I let Whip tell the story.
Obviously this film's going to draw comparisons to what happened on the Hudson River.
JG: It's funny because I remember I was in Arizona when that happened. I was getting all these emails. Then I started reading about Sully, and I was like, guys, Sully was totally sober, straight, a great pilot. My guy is a total disaster. But it was interesting because it shined a light on something heroic that a flight crew had done so that was kind of helpful.
What about the process with Robert Zemeckis?
JG: It was really great because he knew I'd been trying to direct this movie for a long time. When he read it he asked me to lunch and that lunch turned into 6 hours of us sitting around in a room talking about it. He's a pilot so that was his fascination with it. Then he asked me if I was cool with him doing the film and I told him I couldn't get it done without him. He invited me to Atlanta so I was there the whole time we shot and he let me have a real voice in it. So it was the best of all worlds.
So Need For Speed is going to happen.
JG: Yeah. We're going to shoot in Georgia. Aaron Paul is in it. Such a great guy and perfect for the part. We're trying to do an edgy, 70s take on it. It won't be as high gloss. And I'm the producer this time and helping the director who made Act of Valor. We're really excited.
A timely question. Where are you at with the digital revolution?
JG: I'm a little bit old school, but I've shot a few movies on the REDs and all the new cams. I started out as an actor though, and I remember how it would be when that film would start clicking, how focused it would make you and everyone else. There's only a certain amount of time on it. So there's part of me that misses that feeling, like this is precious and every moment counts. It seems weird that now someone can say "Here's your movie," and hand you this little piece of plastic. I like behemoth mags and being like, that's the movie. But, look, it's great. Flight looks so good. It looks amazing and we shot it digital, on the Alexa.
Flight is currently in theaters and drawing awards season attention.
(This review was originally published online by The Cine-Files.)
“This is what I believe to be true: If you stay positive, then you have a shot at a silver lining,” or so claims Pat, the bi-polar and emotionally unstable protagonist in David O. Russell’s newest effort, Silver Linings Playbook. Thanks for the thesis statement, Pat. It is on this foundation that Russell builds his film of love found, familial generations tested, and rambunctious mental illness. The issue is not that positivity is a bad thing; it’s just that Russell wants his audience to believe that positivity must inherently end in a dance contest and kissing in the streets.
The film played to a packed theater on the opening night of the 15th Annual Savannah Film Festival, and the decision to showcase this dolled-up rom-com as the festival’s first film became increasingly apparent as the audience screamed with delight at nearly every frame of the film, even cheering enthusiastically during the film’s climax. The film does, after all, have all the markings of a crowd-pleaser, including Bradley Cooper as the perfectly flawed, yet charming, leading man and Jennifer Lawrence, fresh from her turn in that worldwide sensation, The Hunger Games. There’s a quirky family. Football. Laughs. Love and ballroom dancing. Even Chris Tucker cashes in an amusing performance after a five-year hiatus from the screen. Early reviews praised the film as a smart and sassy romantic drama, and if all of these ingredients weren’t enough to cook up a tasty awards season casserole, Silver Linings Playbook has already racked up a handful of festival awards for audience favorite. With all of that precocious weight behind it, expectations were high. Unfortunately, the film rarely met them.
The first two acts of the film play in typical Russell fashion. Opening with Pat’s release from a court-ordered stint in a mental institution, Russell quickly creates sympathy for his battered pariah. Never mind that Bradley Cooper looks like he stepped right off the pages of GQ—he’s a real outcast. What unfolds is the very likely/unlikely pairing of Pat and Tiffany, a recently widowed young woman who has been sleeping her way around town in a slash-and-burn campaign to mourn her dead husband. Whatever flaws may befall the film, Jennifer Lawrence is joyous to watch and deserves all the praise she’s received for the role. She hasn’t been this good since Winter’s Bone. Unfortunately, Russell never allows her enough narrative room for sincere character exploration. In an offensive and misinformed move, Russell, who also adapted the film’s screenplay, makes Tiffany a wounded woman whose true remedy for happiness can only be the love of a man. This is the film’s most inexcusable crime. Yes, she might enjoy moments of spunk and individuality, but Russell only plays them for comedic effect and never lets us mine the depths of Tiffany’s spiky exterior. Russell is more interested in viewing the world through Pat’s eyes (and, thus, his own) than giving equal weight to Tiffany’s character.
Russell’s trademark visual style, perfected in The Fighter, is revisited here, but with much less potency. The camera movement is odd and unmotivated, pushing in on Pat’s face at severely non-dramatic moments and circling around characters a full 360 degrees for no apparent reason. It gives the film an uninformed immediacy that the narrative, a semi-sprawling tale of white woes, just doesn’t support. Russell’s most impressive visual constructions in the film are also its best sequences. There are at least two scenes in the film when Pat is on the verge of mental collapse. One takes place in his parents’ attic when Pat is searching frantically for his wedding tape, and another occurs when Tiffany begins screaming that Pat is accosting her on a crowded sidewalk. For both scenes, Russell uses an extremely wide lens and a jarring handheld camera to create an experience both visceral and trippy, putting his audience behind Pat’s eyes. These two sequences, and my favorite parts of the film, show Russell toying with convention and experimenting as a filmmaker outside typical Hollywood boundaries. It was a reminder of why he holds an important place in the contemporary canon during a film where I needed one.
Russell’s most notable decision, and the most exciting for cinephiles, is his casting of Robert De Niro as Pat’s bookie father, Pat Sr. This performance is arguably De Niro’s best in at least a decade. His comedic work is the best in the film, and for the first time in many years, he is not just playing a caricature of his younger self. One of the better scenes of the film finds Pat Sr. confronting his son the morning after the pair have a physical confrontation. De Niro, with tears in his eyes, finds gravity and grit, confessing to Pat that he loves him and wants him to get better. For all the corny fluff Russell pulls on us in the film, this scene is actually moving, and it’s De Niro who does the heavy lifting.
Maybe if Russell had ended the film just when it gains momentum—with the extended scene where Pat Sr. places a double or nothing bet on his son’s dance contest score—he would have been better served. Instead, Russell seems determined to wrap things up neatly without a hint of forewarning. The final third of the film gets thrown in with little structural setup and massive amounts of contrivance. It seems that Russell was more preoccupied with secondary narratives (Pat’s brother, Chris Tucker’s character, Pat’s married friends, the therapy sessions) than with an appropriate, believable ending. Silver Linings Playbook may be hopeful and reaching for sweetness, but ultimately, the film fails to satisfy in the moments where it counts, and the drama that is promised in its early and most effective scenes plays second fiddle to a beaten-to-death love story that is ice-thin and manufactured.
(This review was originally published online by The Cine-Files.)
Ry Russo-Young’s newest film, Nobody Walks, has more potential than any other indie drama this year. The film boasts talent both behind and in front of the camera: The script was co-written by the director herself and Lena Dunham, of Tiny Furniture and HBO’s Girls fame; it stars John Krasinski, Olivia Thirlby, and Rosemary DeWitt; and it was shot by Christopher Blauvelt, who captured the beautifully stark Meek’s Cutoff. Thus, this film has all the markings of something offbeat and possibly original. Unfortunately, these elements add up to nothing more than a bit of a disappointment. The plot weaves haphazardly through several stories of sexual temptation and inevitable infidelity, regrettably never stopping long enough at any of them to explore their understated complexity.
In the center are Peter (Krasinski) and Martine (Thirlby), whose scenes are the real reason to see this film. The two actors’ performances are subtly unnerving, and the major crime of the film is that their story is just one of several. It is certainly the most complex and interesting, pitting the settled and happily married Peter against the young and free spirited Martine. Peter is a sound designer whom Martine hires to flesh out the sound on her upcoming video installation. Locking them in a sound proof mixing room for hours on end, Young creates so much believable sexual tension that most viewers will feel relieved when the two of them finally give in to one another. Peter becomes a man obsessed, yet Martine is only toying with him. The most riveting scene of the film finds Peter confronting Martine in his pool house where she is staying while the two work on her video art. Peter confesses that he can’t get her out of his head and blames her for his infidelities. Martine wants nothing to do with this drama, claiming, “Dude. You’re married.” Thirlby reeks blasé and that statement only further ignites Peter. That’s the movie I want to watch.
Unfortunately, Young and, presumably, Dunham, give far too much screen time to the secondary relationships like Peter’s assistant and stepdaughter, Peter’s assistant and Martine, Peter’s stepdaughter and her Italian teacher, Peter’s psychiatrist wife (DeWitt) and her screenwriter patient, and Peter’s wife and her ex-husband. Yes, it really gets that convoluted. Krasinki, Thirlby, and DeWitt have enough bravado to carry the whole film, and if Young could have stuck with that trio’s dynamic—the classic love triangle—she may have had a shot at creating something really interesting. Instead she seems preoccupied with making some larger statement about the desires of all people at all ages for something they can’t have. Maybe Young thinks the grass is always greener. In sprawling an otherwise scant script over a short running time, however, Young pigeonholes herself into a struggle to address each relationship equally, a task that becomes impossible and mortally wounds the rest of the film.
(This review was originally published online by The Film Nerd.)
It’s a makeshift troupe of international rebels that create Once. The actors are untrained and inexperienced; both leads seem to be doing the film a favor rather than relishing in its spotlight. The writer/director used to be a bass player (in the lead actor’s Irish band, The Frames, no less) with only a couple of previous films. The songs seem to be straight off a long lost Damien Rice album floating somewhere between O and 9. It’s an unconventional, untamed, and unconstrained piece of filmmaking that, by the opening credits, blasts its audience with so much singer/songwriter bravado that any person who has ever picked up a guitar and strummed feels instantly a part of this Irish busker.
Clothed in shaggy attire, sprouting a great, red half-beard, and hair unkempt, he’s a broken, emotionally compelled vacuum repairman who is living with his father, mourning his dead mother, pining over his lost love (wait for “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy” and subsequent bus song bits) and alternating between playing music on the streets and fixing Hoovers in his dad’s shop. He is also an exceptional musician and lyricist choosing to perform popular songs during the day that passers-by “want to hear” and playing his “not established” songs after nightfall. His only solace remains in the eternal tug-of-war between the pain and peace of these “not established” tunes.
She’s a magazine and flower street saleswoman on the verge of a big job break; cleaning the house of a very wealthy Irish family. She lives with her mother and young daughter in an inner-city apartment. They have the only TV in the building. It’s obvious they are living off of her sparse income. While she remains married, her daughter’s father is still at home in Poland. She’s a shy pianist and songwriter who can’t afford a piano of her own but, rather, often visits the local music store to stretch out her fingers.
It’s a premise that could either stand for quirky individuality or trite trap. Thankfully it’s the former.
According to mindless, modern Hollywood fare it should have failed. Like really, really failed. Lost on straight-to-DVD shelves at Hastings and used record stores all over the states. Trust me, it doesn’t.
What happens with Once is a phenomenon rather rare in film, or any art, that allows some ekes of transcendence to permeate its quaint 85 minutes.
Everything falls into place exactly as needed.
Few films rarely ever get everything right. Once does. If the acting, directing, music, photography, or editing had been performed by anyone else or through any other lens, the film would not be what it is. Because musicians are playing parts both in front of and behind the camera, it’s the most stomach wrenchingly honest piece of film about music in recent years, maybe ever.
The movie is about the music. And the music is really about the movie.
It’s not August Rush. It’s not Mr. Holland’s Opus. It’s not (necessarily) uplifting, motivational, or vainly inspirational, even in a good way. And thank goodness.
These are not actors playing musicians. These are musicians writing and playing music and letting cameras peek in. It’s real. So much so that Glen and Marketa have reported, together and separately, being approached and asked about each other, their relationship, and their “record.” All of which are fictional but are portrayed so brilliantly that people really do think this movie is a documentary.
(Glen and Marketa actually did form a band together after the film, calling themselves The Swell Season and currently have two albums out, both of which are quite good, in addition to the film’s Oscar winning soundtrack.)
Hipsters, romantics, and your v-necked mountain man boyfriend will all rave about Once. And I’m thankful for that. But Once defies even the tags it may procure given its independent film status and emotionally vested soundtrack. Get any ideas of faux-hip negativity out of your head. This movie has none.
It’s a great little piece of filmmaking, knowing when to be funny, serious, sad, and joyful, all at the right moments, supported by a script and plot so subtly nuanced it’s packed with tiny punches that will leave you full of holes before the credits even roll.
(This review was originally published online by The Film Nerd.)
I have it figured it out. I know what happens. I understand everything from totems to the gallons of hair gel and I’m here to say that I really don’t think Inception is very confusing.
At least after a second viewing.
After several months of leaving my blog in Internet limbo (the reference was too easy), I have decided to return to posting with the only film in wide release theaters worth discussing; and of course there is plenty of discussion surrounding the latest mind melter from visionary writer/director Christopher Nolan. However, the purpose here is not to offer an opinion on the elements of which the film is composed, like cinematography, acting, directing, writing, score, and editing, but I wish to return to the infinite reality of the blogosphere with my interpretation of what actually happens in the film's plot.
I know what Inception means.
A cross-genre film that will soon hold its place in the annals of sci-fi film history alongside 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and The Matrix, Inception is a beautifully photographed, complexly scripted, and hauntingly acted masterpiece from one of modern cinemas most visionary artists. I fully believe that once Inception gets some years behind it, critics and audiences will find it a definitive work from Nolan that really did change something about filmmaking.
The end of Inception has undoubtedly filled water cooler discussion and sci-fi chat rooms with hours of debate. The last frame will go down in film history as one of the silver screen’s most gut wrenching cliffhangers.
Nolan and crew did something right.
The film’s end proves its most poignant and climactic moment as the question we ask ourselves the entire movie (Is this all a dream or not?) is answered…except it isn’t.
As Cobb spins his totem (once belonging to Marion, a point which could prove especially important) one last time we all know what’s coming, but it doesn’t lessen the size of the crater the film’s final frame leaves in our imaginations.
Does the totem stop spinning?
If the answer is yes then Cobb’s reality is true and he has finally made it home safely to his very real children with their very real grandfather in their very real LA home.
If the answer is no then Cobb’s reality is contained within a dream and his children, their home, and Miles, are all projections of the real individuals themselves, still somewhere in reality, waiting for Cobb to wake up.
But what if it doesn’t matter?
Cobb accepted reality. He allowed himself to see his children’s faces. He didn’t wait to see if the totem was going to topple over...so why should we?
Some will always say that the top began to look and sound like it was wobbling over, and the movie ended just moments before we saw it happen, so it must be reality.
Some will say that Nolan only showed his audience what he wanted them to see and we can only assume that the top continues to spin, so it must be a dream. The truth is that trying to answer that question only gets you one level deep. We must infer something deeper.
The only thing that actually matters is Cobb’s acceptance of that state as reality. If what was truly driving the plot forward and sideways and backwards and deeper was Cobb’s emotional journey, which I believe it was, then this answer can and does satisfy the viewer. Cobb accepts that reality, whether it was true or not, and so should we. After all, we’ve invested in this grimacing extractor’s journey the whole way through and we should trust him until the very end.
The problem is that both arguments regarding the ending are correct and ultimately both arguments can be supported with evidence from the film.
If you want to believe that the totem topples over and true reality finally belongs to Cobb, the argument certainly exists. We see Cobb’s totem topple over only twice during the film, once in his hotel room after he escapes attempting to extract information from Saito and once in the warehouse after giving Ariadne her first lesson in dream sharing. Once Nolan establishes the rule that an individual’s totem will always topple over if they are in reality, it can’t be broken. It may be a nearly silly plot device but it's also basic screenwriting. There is no question that reality is seen from at least the moment we see Cobb’s totem topple over in his hotel room to his visiting of the chemist in Mumbai.
If you want to believe the totem spins infinitely on in the film’s last moment you can point to Cobb’s trip to Mumbai as your evidence. To test the chemist’s sedation potency Cobb allows himself to be put into a dream state in the chemist’s underground operation where individuals “come to be woken up.” After Cobb is awoken from this voluntary test, he rushes to the bathroom where he promptly sees Marion’s image in the mirror. Unsure if he is still dreaming, Cobb attempts to spin his totem but it slips on the wet sink and Saito walks in on him before he can spin the totem again. This is the third and final time we see Cobb spin the totem, the result of which is never seen. If Cobb is indeed still dreaming at the end of the film, in reality he remains asleep on a bed under the chemist’s office.
I think this apparent contradiction is no mistake, and Nolan is probably having a good laugh.
Does the answer lie in what the chemist’s Indian assistant says about those who choose to go into that dream state voluntarily “because it has become their reality...who are you to say otherwise”? Maybe.
Does the answer lie in the tiny detail that Cobb now uses Marion’s totem? Does the usage of another’s totem by someone else negate the rule that an individual’s totem is theirs and theirs alone? Maybe.
Does the answer lie in the children’s apparent lack of significant aging or their mirrored appearance in all of Cobb’s visions of them, even at the end? Maybe.
But even these questions could both be answered yes or no and your interpretation of the ending would have no significant foothold against the other.
Answer these questions for yourself. Argue with your fanboy friends or the teenage girls who just wanted to stare at a tortured Leo for the film’s bulky two and a half hours. Go and read someone else’s blog.
But I’m right. And whether or not the totem topples does not matter.
As Cobb’s totem spins so do our minds and the sharpness of Inception is its ability to do just that, spin the mind of its audience in directions unknown, infinitely on or toppling over as we ultimately throw our hands up and accept the end of the film just as Cobb accepts his reality, without question.
(This review was originally published online by The Film Nerd.)
It’s been nearly three years since Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody plastered silver screens with their indie infused, sublimely suburban pop culture smash Juno, and we’re still left with its tangy after taste of orange tic-tacs in our mouths.
I recently re-visited the ‘07 comedy starring a fiery Ellen Page and typically numb Michael Cera and upon further inspection found its highest points still eroding my every attempt to dismiss its precociousness. Reitman’s pace perfect and Cody’s wit unfailing, Juno fires shot after shot at its audience. The film only lets up long enough to subtly suck you back into its emotional depths before catapulting itself back into a post-Napoleon Dynamite niche. It's a real roller coaster.
The film’s serious players, a wonderfully smug (his most endearing on-screen characteristic, no matter who he’s playing) Jason Bateman as Mark and surprisingly vicious Jennifer Gardner as Vanessa, have just enough yuppie quirk to survive a scathing stereotype (although the couple flirts with such trite classification the entire film). The film’s eccentric players, Reitman staple J.K. Simmons as Juno’s dad Mac and perfectly cast Allison Janney as stepmom Brenda, manage just enough humanity to call to mind your pink flamingo and gnome covered lawn neighbor down the street.
While Cody’s script is not immune to near-gag-worthy speeches about love and friendship and making others happy, its cheese ball weaknesses are overshadowed by its brilliant one liners and hilarious dialogue. It mixes equal parts emotional realism and comedic drive into a 96 minute gut punch that leaves you in side splitting laughter and stomach wrenching unease as you watch a 16 year old girl carry and deliver her first child.
In anyone else’s hands but the refreshingly apt Reitman’s, the Cody penned screenplay
could have been disastrous. But Reitman brings enough brevity to his character’s predicaments and reality to their words that we buy it.
Every minute of it.
By assembling a near perfect cast and an even more perfect soundtrack, Reitman knows exactly what the film needs, from its opening animated credits to its smile inducing acoustic close. That closing song, as bare and believable as the film itself, begs to make an equally bare statement.
Yet there are only a few moments in the span of the film that ground it, that pull it back into the stone cold suburbia where it takes place. These few moments are probably regarded by many as the uncomfortably awkward ones and introduce a secondary plot line that is never fully addressed or resolved. It’s the moment when Juno calls Mark just to say hi. It’s the moment when they slow dance together alone in the basement. He is a man completely unhappy, trapped in a suffocating relationship (wait for Vanessa to call his shirt dumb). She is a lost girl, pregnant and scared.
They emotionally connect.
The terribly subtle implications are never fully realized but their meanings stick with you until the closing frames. Mark, who we first see as calm and hip, may not be entirely perverted but he is certainly not entirely blameless. Juno does little to help these tendencies. No one’s fully to blame, but that’s Reitman's point.
While their connection seems irrelevant, it preludes all of the decisions Mark will make throughout the course of the film, ultimately resulting in he and Vanessa’s divorce. In these moments Reitman finds reality. In these moments Juno strikes a collective nerve and begs to reach deeper than our funny bones.
And it does.
Juno, though containing its own quirks, is not wholly original. But then again, what is? It’s a tally mark in the recent line of indie romance comedies (see Braff’s Gardenstate, Crowe’s Elizabethtown and, more recently, Webb’s 500 Days of Summer) about young kids searching for something, finding love, and sometimes losing it.
These pictures will always be made.
But re-visiting the Best Picture nominated Juno pulls us back to a place equal parts comfort and unease, both elements necessary to the film's truisms. After all, in the words of Juno herself, “It started and ended with a chair.”