Annie and Lisa

Annie J. Howell and Lisa Robinson are the co-creators of SPARKS, a web series about the funny, frustrating and mysterious relationship between humans and their technology. The series is now playing on Sundance Channel’s digital shorts and can also be viewed at sparks-series.com. Howell and Robinson, both writer/directors, also brave the wilds of academia as professors of film, at Ohio University and Long Island University respectively. They are graduates of New York University’s Graduate Film Program and between them have exhibited short films at festivals from Cannes to SXSW to Telluride to Full Frame. Robinson’s recent writing projects include MIND BLAST, a film for the Blue Man Group; Howell’s most recent script received a 2010 San Francisco Film Society/Kenneth Rainin Foundation grant. The team co-directed their first feature, SMALL, BEAUTIFULLY MOVING PARTS in the summer of 2010, which premiered at SXSW 2011.

Genre big and small permeates screens

Genre big and small permeates screens

Are we inside a genre revolution? Lately the amount of content hitting screens that features either a modest nod or full-fledged over-the-top bow to genre is simply overwhelming. ANOTHER EARTH is indie-drama-with-a-side-of-sci-fi. MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is indie-drama-with-a-touch-of-thriller. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, the highly anticipated third feature from Lynn Ramsay, is indie-drama-experimental-fantasy. Yep, that’s right, on the surface it’s about raising a child who turns out to be a Columbine-like murderer, but in reality, I hear, it exists as a true art film. Lead actress Tilda Swinton said in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine that the film is “a fantasy that has as much to do with the practical business of bringing up a child as ROSEMARY’S BABY has to do with being pregnant.”

Dear Santa: Criterion, please

Dear Santa: Criterion, please

If you happen to be shopping online, a stop at premier DVD publisher Criterion is likely to derail your giving into dreams of receiving. Their site kicks ass, frankly. Not only can you drool over new releases of your favorite classic, arthouse and foreign films, you can browse a plethora of famous peoples’ top ten Criterion lists. Bill Hader is actually a cinephile genius with Kurosawa’s HIGH AND LOW as his number one and an obscure Ozu as his number three! Bill Hader and Ozu? I teach at a film school and when I wear my Ozu t-shirt that’s shaped into an Ozzy logo I get nothing but blank stares. Nice work, Hader. And Kim Gordon puts a film on her list (Catherine Breillat’s FAT GIRL) that she admits to not having seen! Awesomely bold.

But back to buying. Criterion does such an amazing job reinventing a film through not only through its famous Criterion extras, but also by redesigning a film’s identity and thereby inviting you to rediscover it in a new way. Take Kieslowski’s brilliant 1994 trilogy, THREE COLORS: RED, WHITE, BLUE.

The simple photographic approach of MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE

The simple photographic approach of MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE

I finally saw Sean Durkin’s Sundance standout MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, and I too found it absolutely deserving of the awards and accolades it has recently garnered. It’s a wonderfully compelling flashback narrative, the likes of which we really haven’t seen since SHINE, wherein the dramatic tension comes from the audience discovering the past and watching its inevitable collide with the present. But even more interesting than that, the film is lean and beautiful in its simplicity, specifically in the way in which it’s covered, or filmed from different angles.

HAPPY FEET TWO: King of the ensemble film

HAPPY FEET TWO: King of the ensemble film

Folks, we’ve got a number of ensemble films out at the moment – big casts with big names. One, J.C. Chandor’s MARGIN CALL, a first feature that attracted some of the biggest names in Hollywood, surprised even the most cynical of cinephiles. That’s a no-no in most industry circles, the prevailing wisdom being, “a new director just can’t attract the talent.” Go J.C. Chandor! Bring us back to the 90s! Other ensembles recently in theatres include TOWER HEIST and…HAPPY FEET TWO, which I would argue is the most ensemble-y of them all…

Jeff Nichols' TAKE SHELTER

Jeff Nichols' TAKE SHELTER

Jeff Nichols’ award-winning TAKE SHELTER takes place in rural Ohio, which is where I live, and involves a lot of rain, which describes the weather here as well. In fact, it’s been raining steadily in Southern Ohio since Sunday, so my ability to relate to the drama of precipitation was quite keen as I squirmed my way through this terrifying and ultimately moving film. As I’m smack in the middle of the same culture, where people actually go to church regularly and frequently needlepoint pillows, like young wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) does in the film, I really felt like I was there. Except that I don’t see what her husband Curtis (Michael Shannon) sees, which is much more than a steady drizzle: it’s apocalyptic storms with multiple twisters, raging birds in beautifully violent flight patterns and living room furniture that suddenly propels itself from the floor…

MARGIN CALL is one long, tense night

MARGIN CALL is one long, tense night

The most elegant quality of J.C. Chandor’s indie hit MARGIN CALL is the way in which time unfolds. It works in that hyper-dramatic way that critical life events do, burning into your memory with hours slowing into what seem like days and minutes stretching forward almost interminably. It’s practically the only cinematic tool Chandor has to play with because, speaking of play, his film – about the last 24 hours in the life of an investment firm peddling bad mortgage bonds in 2008 – feels like one. Thankfully his singular touch on the experience of time unfolding saves a film without costumes, locations or interesting lighting (it’s a lot of fluorescents inside a very drab office). We’re left with the script and the performances, which is fine, but raises the question – why not throw this on a stage and be done with it?

WEEKEND: some seriously moody pain

WEEKEND: some seriously moody pain

On our wedding anniversary my husband wanted to see HAROLD AND KUMAR, but I persuaded him to see WEEKEND, Andrew Haigh’s gay one-night-stand romantic drama. We both love Wong Kar Wai’s HAPPY TOGETHER (1997), another gay romance that chronicles the end, not beginning, of a relationship, as well as Barry Jenkins’ MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY (2008), a one-night-stand movie that tracks a flinging couple nearly moment to moment over a short time period, which WEEKEND does, too. This is practically a genre! It will clearly have something for us, we thought. And after we got over the fact that Haigh is using the same title as one of the most famous French New Wave films ever made, off we went…

Gandhi's KUMARE and other documentary tricks

Gandhi's KUMARE and other documentary tricks

On the heels of CATFISH and I’M NOT THERE comes Vikram Gandhi’s KUMARÉ, the SXSW Audience Award winner that should be showing up in theatres sometime this Spring. The director calls it “compassionate rule-breaking,” and his exploration of spirituality definitely breaks the rule of disclosure. A dozen or so people are hoodwinked into becoming spiritual disciples of someone they believe to be an Indian guru, but who’s really just a 30-something Columbia grad in India making his first film – that, and he happens to be named Gandhi.

Martin Sheen is the grumpiest old man ever in THE WAY

Martin Sheen is the grumpiest old man ever in THE WAY

Martin Sheen has never been crabbier than in THE WAY, the Emilio Estevez-directed “trail movie” that chronicles a grieving father’s pilgrimage walk from France to Spain to scatter the ashes of his only child. When Daniel (Emilio Estevez) ditches his dissertation to travel the world, he dies suddenly in a freak accident on the Camino de Santiago, the famous Christian pilgrimage trail spanning Spain. His father Tom (Sheen), who was already pissed at Daniel before he died, decides to finish the journey to honor the lost life, and boy is he mad about it.

TO DIE FOR out now on blu-ray

TO DIE FOR out now on blu-ray

My all-time favorite Buck Henry film, Gus Van Sant’s TO DIE FOR, is now out on blu-ray. Perhaps Nicole Kidman’s greatest comic/ironic performance, she strikes the perfect balance as Suzanne Stone, the overly ambitious, small town weather woman who dreams of stardom and comes to realize her pizza-slinging husband is a massive hindrance. So she does what any aspiring career woman would do: she enlists some disaffected teenagers to kill him. And it’s actually both dramatic and funny. The entire film, in fact, is an exercise in tone perfection, and that’s really, really hard to do.

The film is a balancing act between the ridiculous with the believable. Characters are…

Mona Achache's THE HEDGEHOG

Mona Achache's THE HEDGEHOG

I admit it. I hesitated on my in to watch Mona Achache’s THE HEDGEHOG (in select cities and making its last lap on the festival circuit). “Should I really do this?” I thought. Should I trust the French with a light comedy about a child obsessed with suicide? Hadn’t the Americans already proved that all efforts in this arena should cease post-HAROLD AND MAUDE? But in I went. And my expectations were spot on: a feel-good movie purportedly about darkness, but with very little darkness to be seen.

The casting of the eleven-year-old girl may have been the first misstep. A very skilled actor, Garance Le Guillermic’s craft was not the issue, it was simply her physicality that caused me to pause. Despite her best frown, perfected into a perma-grimace as bummer-child Paloma, this little girl has the architectural face of a Greek goddess and simply exuded light. I could not swallow that she was living under a black cloud…

Branded men: Harrison Ford passes the leading man baton onto George Clooney

Branded men: Harrison Ford passes the leading man baton onto George Clooney

George Clooney is occupying a number of screens this Fall. Whether peering at us from the other half of TIME Magazine in the IDES OF MARCH poster or literally running through the trailer of Alexander Payne’s forthcoming THE DESCENDANTS, he seems to be everywhere you look, and since he’s pretty much the sexiest middle-aged guy around, I don’t think anyone’s complaining. He’s definitely the sexiest major leading man who used be only be a television actor. (I’m kidding! I know, I know, TV is all that.) But is his trajectory absolutely unique?

What makes NOSFERATU scary?

What makes NOSFERATU scary?

Tonight I was at a screening that proved how F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Dracula film, NOSFERATU, stands the test of time. You can watch it online via YouTube, but if you can this Halloween weekend, get yourself to a screening with live music. The extra oomph a live organ provides transforms the film from a historical, over-the-top expression-fest to a truly terrifying event. Don’t believe me? My seven-year-old kid could barely sit through the first ten minutes he was so utterly terrified.

So once you add a score – and a really good one at that – it’s easy to look beyond the elements that seem dated now, namely the acting. Acting styles have changed so radically in the past eighty years that we can barely recognize what now seems like camera-mugging as the same craft. But beyond that, not much else seems dated. In fact, the shot construction and framing feel very sophisticated. When Ellen (Greta Schroder), our sweetheart of a protagonist, is discovered sleepwalking just as the dreaded vampire is attacking his first victim miles away, we see her eerily tip toe through the frame far in the distance, the shot size diminishing her presence but emphasizing her fleeting, gorgeously scary physicality as she inches along a high terrace wall…

Josh Marston's THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD

Josh Marston's THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD

I’ve been on the festival circuit recently (with my co-directed project SMALL, BEAUTIFULLY MOVING PARTS) and was lucky enough to see the Berlin world premiere and Chicago winner THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD. It recently made headlines when it was yanked it from Foreign Oscar competition for not being Albanian enough (read Anthony Kaufman’s story here), though the film itself is about a distinctly Albanian issue: the clash of modernity and time-worn cultural customs, this one being medieval blood feuds – rifts between families that can lead to the permanent threat of violence for men, prompting a form of vigilante house arrest that leaves the women and girls to become surrogate bread winners.

Marston, originally from Southern California, initially became intrigued when he read a news article about the phenomenon and began to do his research, boots on the ground. Unafraid of placing himself in cultures different from his own (see his debut feature, MARIA FULL OF GRACE), Marston boldly crafted a story with co-writer Andamion Murataj that dramatizes the futility of a feud from a teenager’s perspective – protagonist Nik (Tristan Halilaj), who just wants to be with his friends at school. Instead, he’s forced to grow up pretty quickly as the tension increases between his family and the neighbors, who his father and uncle attacked, claiming self-defense.

THE KID WITH A BIKE: The closed-off world of the brothers Dardenne

THE KID WITH A BIKE: The closed-off world of the brothers Dardenne

THE KID WITH A BIKE is probably the fourth or fifth Dardenne brothers film I’ve seen, and I’m always surprised by a few things. One, how similarly their films are executed in terms of style, tone, theme and even content, and two, how few people have even heard of these guys outside of cinephile circles. These Belgian brothers, infamously warm and joke-y in the press but earnest in their social commentary filmmaking, keep churning out the neo-realist work at the rate of roughly one every two to three years. Often, the story involves a couple, a child and a series of agonizing moral dilemmas. Well, maybe not so agonizing for the audience, who can usually identify right and wrong (like when a new father in L’ENFANT thinks it’s a good idea to sell the baby), but for the characters themselves, whose moral confusion is typically set in a hard knock, European landscape…

Important movie alert: THE BULLY PROJECT

Important movie alert: THE BULLY PROJECT

The Weinstein Company recently purchased a film at the Tribeca Film Festival that seems destined to join the ranks of Davis Guggenheim’s AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH. What, you say, could be as relevant as Al Gore explaining the imminent downfall of the very earth on which we live? Childhood bullying. And the film, Lee Hirsch’s THE BULLY PROJECT, feels extraordinarily pressing. Why? Because the generation of those who are bullied and those who do the bullying are tomorrow’s adults, and their general mental health affects just about everything. And if you’re a parent or a teacher, or currently attending middle or high school yourself – it’s required viewing.

BEING ELMO – there will be tears

BEING ELMO – there will be tears

Constance Marks and Philip Shane’s BEING ELMO: A PUPPETEER’S JOURNEY pulls at the heartstrings like a skilled marionettist. Winner of the 2011 Special Jury Prize at Sundance, this film continues to prove that audiences are hungry for documentary content that inspires. (See BUCK, another success story.) It’s highly likely that if you see this film, the incredible story of how puppeteer Kevin Clash not only realized his dream of working with Jim Henson but also ended up creating one of the most beloved childhood characters of all time, you will choke up…

The strange world of DRIVE

The strange world of DRIVE

DRIVE, Nicolas Winding Refn’s hyper violent, crime movie/love story is an extraordinary piece of work. The words that infiltrated my head while watching? Robots and bubblegum. Refn has created such a uniquely strange world. Everything is either soft and pillowy or luminous and plastic. It’s so stylized and clean that even the blood looks delicious.

Ryan Gosling, who plays a part time stunt driver who’s a sucker for romance, behaves more like a robot than a human. Line after line, Gosling waits a beat before delivering his dialogue so there’s not a single moment of…

MONEYBALL: Can sports neophytes like this film?

MONEYBALL: Can sports neophytes like this film?

Are you about to saunter leisurely into this Bennett Miller blockbuster, as thousands of Americans have done already? Should you have even an ounce of baseball knowledge before seeing a film about baseball strategy? Well, maybe. It ain’t ANY GIVEN SUNDAY (Oliver Stone, 1999), a family drama that requires only the most basic understanding of football. MONEYBALL is slightly different. Watching Brad Pitt act his heart out as Billy Beane, the manager of the Oakland A’s, is much more satisfying if you understand how and why players are traded and the ingrained culture that preceded Beane and his Assistant GM’s innovative method for evaluating undervalued players. But are there other factors at work to keep you engaged just in case you’re a baseball-ignorant heathen? Yes…

John Madden's THE DEBT: old people kicking ass

John Madden's THE DEBT: old people kicking ass

The greatest thing about THE DEBT, and this is no spoiler, is that it features older people acting out through violence. When’s the last time you saw that? Real ass-kicking and blood by the 50+ club? I loved David Edelstein’s review in New York Magazine, which doesn’t exactly talk about the violence enacted by retired-set, but he instead writes about the film’s somewhat maudlin properties and how they’re somehow forgiven. The second half of the film “turns into one howler after the other … yet it’s still gripping.”

Grief-stricken: THE FATHER OF MY CHILDREN and ANOTHER EARTH

Grief-stricken: THE FATHER OF MY CHILDREN and ANOTHER EARTH

Recently I’ve seen two very different films that deal explicitly with grief, Mia Hansen-Løve’s THE FATHER OF MY CHILDREN and Mike Cahill’s ANOTHER EARTH. One’s a drama, and very French at that. The other a science fiction melodrama, and quite American. I saw them nearly back to back and the experience inspired a few thoughts. First, WOW – these directors are really young (Love 29 when she made her film; Cahill 32). Second, how bold (in a good way) to mine this experience of family and loss from an adult (parent, spouse) perspective from the other side (that is, under 40). Third, does it work?

Soderbergh's CONTAGION: a no-thrills thriller

Soderbergh's CONTAGION: a no-thrills thriller

I saw CONTAGION last weekend and by God it’s the first thriller I’ve ever seen where a lingering shot of a coffee cup (or martini glass, or door handle) recently fondled by the recently infected is one of the scariest shots. A coffee cup! And it actually is scary. The camera holds just long enough to make the object – and the unseen germs just deposited there – terrifying. I’m not talking about a gasp-out-loud- sort of terrifying, but a sick to the stomach, this-could-surely-happen-to-me sort of terrifying.

Friends on Facebook have cried “Blah!” as in, “It’s boring!” Well, maybe. Moments, I admit, feel slow. But isn’t that refreshing for a thriller? Nobody but Soderbergh could impose a new pace on a well-worn genre, and nobody could rally such high power stars to, one by one, froth at the mouth. They die so well.

9/11 StoryCorps animations from the Rauch Brothers

9/11 StoryCorps animations from the Rauch Brothers

The 9/11 media blitz is well under way, and will rise steadily by the hour until we hit total saturation on Sunday. I’ve been subjecting myself to quite a bit already, ranging from news analysis to anecdotal retellings. Regarding the latter, NPR certainly knows how to go to the heart of the emotional matter, but it’s been this series of Rauch Brother animations that have so far been the most resonant material for me. The Rauch’s have basically created a visual to a selection of 9/11 StoryCorps interviews, part of the oral history project which, amongst many other goals, aims to record one interview for every life lost. If you haven’t encountered StoryCorp before, it’s fantastic. Members of the public simply book an appointment and then bring a friend or loved one to a roving StoryCorp “booth” for an interview about his or her life. The StoryCorp site features edited excerpts from these interviews, categorized by topic. And, as one might imagine, there’s a sizable 9/11 section. The Rauch Brothers use their playful style for these heartbreaking stories, lending them an extraordinarily moving, as well as surreal effect; We’re watching cartoons suffer, for Godssake.

Valuing the unexpected in cinema

Valuing the unexpected in cinema

Yesterday, a brand new crop of Filmmaking MFA students appeared before me at Ohio University, as suddenly as Fall weather. It’s that time – August is gone, baby, and us teachers are back in the classroom. One exercise conducted yesterday involved each person articulating what he or she values in the cinema – not a specific type of character or scene, but a methodology, strategy or approach that can be identified from film to film. I noted a pattern: many valued the experience of feeling surprised – when the storyteller crafted moments that veered from a familiar course with either plot or character (INCENDIES, above, does just this). Our collective expectations have been molded through years of watching films, so an innovation of form, complexity of plot or sophistication of character truly do deserve value. I thought back to my own summer movie-going experiences and measured how a few stacked up. Watch out, hold up – the teacher is giving out grades: