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.

Is 3D the new normal?

Article: Is 3D the new normal?

I’ve seen two films recently in 3D, FRIGHT NIGHT and SPY KIDS, two very solid, genre films. A kid’s movie with bright colors, bubble gum complexions and gee-whiz humor, and a horror film with dark interiors and tired tropes of let-the-camera-follow-the-guy-who’s-about-to-be-jumped. And then it struck me. It happened when I laid eyes on Toni Collette, who plays a suburban mom in FRIGHT NIGHT, which is not her usual indie fare. I suddenly got very scared: will independent films soon be in 3D? What the hell will THAT look like? The LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE van hurtling towards you? Robert Duvall reaching for your head to bless you, APOSTLE-style? The SIDEWAYS spit bucket in your face?

In support of THE HELP

Article: In support of THE HELP

I resisted Katherine Stockett’s book THE HELP for years – which in premise alone inspired a personal cringe-fest of sorts. But after the online chatter on America’s new box office darling rose to a peak, I gave in and headed to the multiplex. And really? Not half bad. Here are some thoughts about THE HELP, given the online chatter from multiple critics of the film. (A quick google search will help you find the most prominent voices – but this statement from the Association of Black Women Historians [ABWH] – saw a lot of traffic.)

Giuseppe Capotondi's THE DOUBLE HOUR

Article: Giuseppe Capotondi's THE DOUBLE HOUR

There’s a fantastic indie thriller now playing in limited release, and if you have a chance to see it, you SHOULD. It’s THE DOUBLE HOUR, and features a wonderful performance by Russian actress Kseniya Rappoport, who won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the 2009 Venice Film Festival. An Italian romantic thriller with undertones in both noir and psychological drama, this film has more loop-de-loops plot-wise than anything else I’ve seen lately. The movie also manages to seamlessly integrate fairly disparate elements and events – affecting a bizarre, pleasurable experience that will definitely keep you guessing.

Brad Pitt and parenting in the movies, part 2

Article: Brad Pitt and parenting in the movies, part 2

I recently posted on THE TREE OF LIFE, the Terrence Malick lush-fest that has been blowing minds – like explosions in space – since its recent release. I wrote about the film and parenting, a subject that comes up infrequently if you Google the two terms together. After a few conversations with friends, I’d like to follow up. And yes, full disclosure, I’m a parent of two boys (7 and 2), and a filmmaker too (SMALL, BEAUTIFULLY MOVING PARTS), so both are equally relevant. (Did I just equate my love for my children to my love for movies? The parent police should be at my door momentarily.)

Cindy Meehl's BUCK

Article: Cindy Meehl's BUCK

Cindy Meehl’s BUCK is a horseman’s story. A character portrait featuring trainer Buck Brannaman – probably one of the best looking modern cowboys you’ll ever see (never mind his beautiful wife and daughter), BUCK is a story of self-realization. This coming-of-self angle may be why the film has been winning awards all over the place and crossing over to audiences who don’t give a lick about horses. That’s me, really (a rider I am not), but I have to say I wasn’t as charmed as I wanted to be. I took my son and had to explain beforehand that much of the movie was going to concern the fact that Buck had been mentally and physically abused by his alcoholic father. (“What’s abuse?” asked my son. When I told him some children are beaten he looked at me earnestly and said, “You and daddy don’t do that.”) Buck’s journey from foster child to world-class horse whisperer who revolutionized the way horses are trained is definitely interesting, but this is a case of slight overhype. “Much of the movie – too much of it – is just Buck in the corral, riding, working with ropes and flags, conditioning a horse to behave,” says Orlando Sentinal critic Roger Moore.

Terrence Malick and … parenting

Article: Terrence Malick and … parenting

I saw THE TREE OF LIFE last night at the Sunshine Theatre in New York, and no surprise here – I loved it. As an urbanite at heart and decades-long Malick fan, I went in expecting to like it, and this epic look at life through lenses both broad and narrow did not disappoint. Here’s one revelation: if a twenty-something newbie director had paired dinosaurs with the intimate story of one Texas family, I very well may have balked. But I’ve been in a relationship with Malick for years now, and I trust him. I’d go anywhere with the guy, so cuts between sunshine-drenched babies draped in gauzy white to (next shot) an exploding star deep within space seem amazing, not pretentious. The scope of the project and its ability to move between things small and large feels truly groundbreaking. The one thing I was not expecting from the film was its specific meditation on parenting. In detailing small moments in the daily lives of the adoring-playful Mother and the adoring-stern Father (Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt), Malick paints a stark contrast between child-rearing approaches but is never overtly critical. As a friend said, it was the most patient and thorough examination of the small trials of parenting that she’s seen on the screen (and the day after with her own kids was more or less a misty-eyed affair), as the film ultimately asks us to cherish the living through all the small struggles and heart aches – especially if they happen to be our progeny.

The more things change, the more they (mostly) stay the same

Article: The more things change, the more they (mostly) stay the same

It’s summer, and even the must-read daily film and TV daily “Film News Briefs” admitted recently that there’s just not a lot going on. It’s July. Business in the entertainment world is not unfolding with lightening speed. Not that “summing it up” is an unusual practice at any time – but the slower months do prompt, therefore, some serious reflection. indieWIRE has been publishing articles from their archives (in celebration of their 15 year anniversary), which encourages a little cud-chewing as well. Where are we? Where are we going? What’s the state of the state in screen-based storytelling? While clicking through indieWIRE, I also happened upon veteran producer Ted Hope’s recent conversation with film business guru Brian Newman on the future of film – mostly regarding missed ad and marketing opportunities via social networking. They were chatting as part of a “master class” at the Karlovy Vary Film Fest in the Czech Republic. (The reaction shots of the extraordinarily stoic audience members are perhaps the funniest aspect of this video.)

Denis Villeneuve's INCENDIES

Article: Denis Villeneuve's INCENDIES

Like two other films I posted on in the past year, Jacques Audiard’s A PROPHET and David Michôd’s ANIMAL KINGDOM, Denis Villeneuvie’s INCENDIES is a film of epic proportions. The story follows a young French Canadian woman (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and her twin brother (Maxim Gaudette) as they investigate the past of their now-deceased Lebanese mother (Lubna Azabal), who turns out to have lived a life far more dramatic — and traumatic — than her children ever imagined.

Michael Fassbender: big world small world

Article: Michael Fassbender: big world small world

Last night I ventured out to see XMEN: FIRST CLASS. It’s a big, big world. Its cast? Many arrived by way of much smaller worlds. As I watched, it struck me: What artist gets to participate in such completely different modes of making other than the film actor, who, if lucky and smart, goes from Hollywood to Indiewood or vice versa? A musician may be the closest – from orchestra to a more edgy or experimental gig? But an orchestra ain’t Hollywood. A new media artist who moonlights at Microsoft or Google? Nope, not art. Maybe XMEN isn’t art either – but the actor brings the same set of tools to the table when approaching something like XMEN or a teeny tiny film, in order to make his or her… art. Two of the XMEN stars are recent graduates of indie hits. Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique) starred in the Sundance film WINTER’S BONE, wherein she brought nuance and grace to her role as Dee. Michael Fassbender has the bigger role in this big world, though, as the tortured Magnito. Fassbender recently starred as a duplicitous and ethically-challenged player-bloke in Andrea Arnold’s coming of age story FISH TANK, and he brought a great sense of humanity to his Rochester in Cary Fukunaga’s excellent JANE EYRE. He’s also listed on imdb as one of the stars of Jim Jarmusch’s next film. How must it be to coexist in these worlds?

Allen’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS and the Mysterious Floating Master

Article: Allen’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS and the Mysterious Floating Master

In my own filmmaking education, the term ‘floating master’ was floated my way during one fine day of learning, uttered by an esteemed and respected editing teacher. I remember sitting in the classroom thinking … “Huh?” It sounded more Buddha-on-a-lily-pad than technical film coverage term. I believe she referenced the phrase – which is really ‘floating master shot’ in the same breath as the name Woody Allen, and as I watched MIDNIGHT IN PARIS this week, I harkened back to this particular method of working and its effects on narrative. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, by the way, is a finely charming narrative indeed. And Woody Allen does, by gum, utilize the floating master over and over and over.

Waves crashing on a BIG BEACH

Article: Waves crashing on a BIG BEACH

I’m writing to give props to a small company that I love … Big Beach Films. Why do I love them? (They have summarily rejected plenty of my own scripts … so why?) Well, they’ve been making good work. They’ve been taking chances.

Formed in 2004 by producer Peter Saraf and funder/producer Marc Turtletaub, one of Big Beach’s first films was Liev Schrieber’s EVERYTHING WAS ILLUMINATED. A success? Well, not really. It had some beautiful elements. But overall, adaptation is really difficult, and this epic Jonathan Safron Foer novel was simply tough to reduce to the screen. When the documentary OPERATION FILMMAKER hit the screen, a profile of ILLUMINATED’s Iraqi intern, it didn’t help in making the film look a little indulgent. But Big Beach survived it without a hiccup – and maybe ended up looking okay. (Trailer here.)

The next film out was LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. Nuf said.

Ahhhhhh, BRIDESMAIDS! Thank you.

Article: Ahhhhhh, BRIDESMAIDS! Thank you.

Thank God for you. Or Goddess. Or maybe just Thank Goodness, goddammit. It’s about time for a breakthrough female-penned and starred bona fide hit, one that inspires more of the same ridiculous editorial content like “Hey, are women funny?” Trampling its way over MEAN GIRLS and HOUSE BUNNY (sorry – but both of those scripts were funny but slightly overwritten), it’s not only laugh out loud hi-larious, but also truly crosses over to the boys without hiding that it’s solely about the girls. Moreover — what Manohla said – the film has some serious content exploring the nature of female friendship and the female sense of self.

Chang-dong Lee's POETRY and the world of MEN

Article: Chang-dong Lee's POETRY and the world of MEN

I saw POETRY last week and was moved by many elements, one of which being the simple fact that this long, contemplative feature is about — sit down now — an elderly female protagonist. Hollywood it ain’t. Sixty-six year old Mija (Jeong-hie Yun) has two recent challenges: memory loss and a sullen teenage grandson, whose escapades with his friends, we later discover, make the trouble one hundred fold for his grandma. In fact, in Lee’s accomplished second feature, the world of men – their desires and back-room dealings — are the root of most of Mija’s problems, and her quiet strategies toward solutions are a major force of subversion, even rebellion. But does she feel like a kick-ass protagonist with a big bad agenda? Hell, no.

JANE EYRE and shooting the classics

Article: JANE EYRE and shooting the classics

I loved Cary Fukunaga’s recent take on the classic JANE EYRE. (He’s pictured above with his Director of Photography Adriano Goldman.) And in addition to the deft direction, Moira Buffini’s adaptation is searingly concise and dramatic – it never feels like a stuffed-to-the-gills adaptation. But what I really want to talk about here is the cinematography, which is revelatory. The last two ‘classic’ films I’ve seen, this and Jane Campion’s BRIGHT STAR (not classic literature but based on Andrew Motion’s biography of John Keats) have both blown me away in terms of visual approach. (See my post from fall ’10 on BRIGHT STAR here.) Both eschew traditional coverage and framing in service of something more dynamic – a fluid, organic camera approach that plays mightily with depth of field, creative frames, and in short, ways of seeing. (Or, the DP and crew are not just there to document or illuminate the actors. The camera absolutely dances with performance – enhancing, contrasting, participating, rejecting — story.) The effect? Something that feels more modern, more present, more emotionally important – it’s not homework, it’s art.

WIN WIN … wins!

Article: WIN WIN … wins!

Wow – here’s something amazing. Tom McCarthy’s WIN WIN is enjoying a 95% approval rating with RottenTomatoes.com’s “Top Critics” – the same score as something like Altman’s NASHVILLE. Not that these two movies have a lot in common. They don’t. But just in the general zeitgeist of movie-liking and likability, this movie is really … winning. Why? Read on to find out. (By the way, no secrets here. I really… liked it.)

CERTIFIED SOURCE CODE COPY

Article: CERTIFIED SOURCE CODE COPY

Well, this is certainly random. But the last two movies I’ve seen: Duncan Jones’ SOURCE CODE and Abbas Kiarostami’s CERTIFIED COPY have more in common than at first meets the eye. Maybe in reality this correlation should only speak to my slightly diverse movie-going habits – big budget to small budget, American thriller to Iranian-directed drama – and the human need to draw lines between things. Nonetheless, back to back, both of these films engage with the notion that a copy or version of the self, if sent forward into the world or a parallel world, will behave differently and respond to different stimuli than would original ‘self’ (see how I’m getting all meta here with the single quotation marks?), and thus render strikingly different results for one’s life path. Characters from both films accomplish this. Cool, right?

UNCLE BOONMEE and an A+ for Originality

Article: UNCLE BOONMEE and an A+ for Originality

As Cannes 2011 approaches, it was nice to have the opportunity to see last year’s Palme d’Or winner on the big screen: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES. Tim Burton was last year’s head of the jury — if you see this film, you’ll see the affinity here – UNCLE is a slow, strange, plot-less journey, relying on visuals and a slow-burn Ozu-like filmmaking that gets better as it goes. The sprinkling of visual surprises feel shocking in comparison to the rest of the material. There are some strange, visceral and unforgettable images, right up Burton’s alley. It’s a real treat in terms of originality — promises abound here that you’ve never seen anything like it before.

Megan Griffiths' THE OFF HOURS

Article: Megan Griffiths' THE OFF HOURS

THE OFF HOURS, which premiered in January in the Sundance NEXT category, blew through my town this week and I was happy to have the chance to see it. Meticulously crafted, the film simply felt to me like years and years of work, as in, “This filmmaker has seen these shots in her head for some time now!” Turns out, that’s close to true. Another product of the “I almost made this movie 1,000 times with ‘name’ actors and a budget” syndrome, Seattleite Megan Griffiths bit the bullet last year and made her film the good ol’ microbudget way. I can sympathize, as I was on the same path last summer, buying batteries in bulk and making props in my living room. Griffith’s film has a solid polish that belies any major funding deficits, and the performances are subtle and sophisticated.

One more film set in the snow-scape of Fargo, North Dakota

Article: One more film set in the snow-scape of Fargo, North Dakota

Goran Rusinovic’s 2009 film BUICK RIVIERA was playing in my town tonight, and it was an interesting ride of a road movie. The road traveled here is mostly psychological, as two characters, both from the Balkans, one Bosnian Serb, one Bosnian Muslim, intersect on a deserted snowy road in Fargo, North Dakota. One has slid off the icy road in his beloved Buick Riviera, which functions as a sort of refuge space for him from the painful memories of war-torn Bosnia and the death of his parents. The Serb, on the other hand, who helps out at the scene, seems to take refuge in pushing his own suffering onto others, in this case, on our hero Hasan.

Aaron Katz' COLD WEATHER

Article: Aaron Katz' COLD WEATHER

Both COLD WEATHER and LOVERS OF HATE, two IFC / Sundance Selects releases, made it to my local-art-house-theatre-in-the-boonies in the past two weeks. I had seen LOVERS OF HATE (director Bryan Poyser) at SXSW last year, and enjoyed it – in all of its high-concept-low-budget-plot-dependent-character glory. COLD WEATHER (Aaron Katz) is harder to categorize and is, simply, a very unusual film. Is this good? Yes! Is this bad? Yes, as well.

What THE KILLING has going on

Article: What THE KILLING has going on

Executive Producer Veena Sud’s THE KILLING premiered on AMC last weekend, and it’s got a lot going on. First of all, in concept, it proves the brilliance of European storytellers. Based on the Danish series Forbrydelsen, the premise is one episode per narrative day – so one 13-episode season equals 13 days on a murder investigation. Three stories surrounding the murder of a Seattle teen intertwine: the police, the grieving family and the suspects. Now why couldn’t an American think of that? It subverts the entire cop procedural formula, allows for a type of storytelling that is practically non-existent in the States, and pairs a crime story with serious character investigation — a joy.

WENDY AND LUCY and A SINGLE GIRL: Separated at Birth?

Article: WENDY AND LUCY and A SINGLE GIRL: Separated at Birth?

I’m gearing up for Kelly Reichardt’s MEEK’S CUTOFF this spring, and in preparation, sought out a film of hers I’d not yet seen, the 2008 release WENDY AND LUCY. It’s such a simple and effective piece, beautifully rendered visually. It’s also driven significantly by sound. Dialogue operates here mostly at the level of basic function (“Where’s the nearest garage?” “I lost my dog.” “How much will that cost?”), allowing the sound design of trains and traffic to enhance the tension in quiet dramatic turning points of epiphany or realization, as Wendy’s situation worsens. As the film basically asks us to linger with the protagonist moment to moment, replicating the feeling of real time, it reminded me of another young-woman-in-trouble-in-slow-motion-film, A SINGLE GIRL (Benoit Jacques, 1995).

ANOTHER YEAR

Article: ANOTHER YEAR

Mike Leigh’s ANOTHER YEAR is, simply put, generous and amazing. It’s lovely. It’s heartbreaking. It’s been called his best film, and I’m not sure I disagree. Structured around the seasons, stitched together by repetition – scenes of two primary characters, a long-time married couple gardening in a huge community garden – Leigh essentially looks at time as it stretches across very different lives within one small group of friends: those lives that are beautifully stable, and those that are definitively … not.

BLACK RODEO – bucking broncos with the Queen of Soul

Article: BLACK RODEO – bucking broncos with the Queen of Soul

Last night we sat down around the boob tube to watch the recently-released documentary BLACK RODEO. (What can we now call our flat screens to disparage them and our mildly comatose activity staring at them? The Bean Screen? It just doesn’t have the same ring.) BLACK RODEO is a 1972 doc on an all-black rodeo in NYC – it delves into the history of black involvement in building the ranch-laden West, and boasts some amazing footage of cowboys gone crazy on bulls gone wild, all to an amazing soundtrack of James Brown and Aretha Franklin. It’s not your typical red neck “That is one rank bull!” commentary … it’s bucking broncos with the Queen of Soul! Now that’s awesome.