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 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.



Now that Oscar season has come and gone, we can all relax a bit and not drown in the complete saturation. On movies, I’m simply able to reflect more clearly. One opportunity came recently, after pondering TRUE GRIT and watching Jeff Bridges do his friendly guy thing on the red carpet– I popped in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and gave it a whirl (Criterion released it on blu-ray in December). I reflected – what a career Jeff Bridges has had. And what an ensemble cast – particularly the wonderful Timothy Bottoms. It’s worth going back to.


Article: SXSW!

Our movie, SMALL, BEAUTIFULLY MOVING PARTS is going to Austin, Texas this week, and we are in the middle of getting it ready. Our hard work is paying off – we feel like we took the micro-budget bull by the horns and are excited to feel the fruits of that labor, in the form of SXSW audiences – some of the most film savvy, fun-loving audiences in the nation. SXSW is an interesting event – it’s massive, and it’s certainly not only about film. In fact, mention it to a passer-by on the street and most likely they will know about it for the music, first and foremost. Truth is, however, Interaction, Film, Comedy – all parts of this extravaganza are extremely important to their own industries. It’s a massive intersection of some of the most creative people around … all in search of some good barbeque, and an experience that is relaxing, surprising, friendly, and filled with discovery.

Here are some of the films we are excited about:

Calling Miguel Arteta

Article: Calling Miguel Arteta

I recently googled “Miguel Arteta,” director of CEDAR RAPIDS, the new comedy about insurance executives attending a conference in the big city — Cedar Rapids, Iowa. My #1 hit was the movie section of a local Arkansas paper. The featured local film reviewer, “Big Screen Peter” of Fort Smith, is right out of … a Miguel Arteta movie. Or Alexander Payne. Big Screen Pete notes that CEDAR RAPIDS is not yet playing in the area, but he gives it a 4 out of 5 on his smile-meter, below:

As a filmmaker, I shudder at the lower part of the scale — the thin and dissatisfied lips of that menacing bottom image. THIS MOVIE SUCKS! What other art form is vulnerable to this sort of onslaught? THIS OPERA SUCKS! THIS PAINTING SUCKS! I don’t think so.

But indeed, I showed my students CHUCK AND BUCK (2000) a few weeks back — another Arteta work and in my view, a brilliant one — and I fear most of my trapped subjects were hitting Pete’s lower rungs.

How to do sad and simple

Article: How to do sad and simple

RABBIT HOLE is John Cameron Mitchell’s new film starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as Becca and Howie, grieving parents who just want to stop the ache. Have you seen it? There may be someone in your life who says to you, “There is no way in hell that I’ll see that sad sad sad sad movie.” (Someone said that to me.) But I say, “Hey, in your movies, you got big you got little. You’ve got amusement park rides – most big budget movies today — and you’ve got Sofia Coppola. Can’t you have sad too, with all the happy out there?” What’s more, I like the way in which this film is so simple. And I don’t mean basic.

The Franco Lure

Article: The Franco Lure

As we collectively come down from the Oscars, I am forced to reflect on the Franco-filled universe. I don’t want to reflect, believe me – but as you know, he’s EVERYWHERE. The New York Times this morning greeted me with a Franco cocktail. Entertainment Weekly Entertainer of the Year 2010? Check. Two oversaturation notifications on my husband’s Facebook page? (As in – check these out – it’s just too too too too too much. One of them, just to get you to click, is headlined “James Franco to Teach a Class About Himself.”) Check. And now, I am torturing myself even more … as I sit here and watch a screener of 127 HOURS. His arm just got stuck. Am I ready for all of this?

VALENTINE in close-up

Article: VALENTINE in close-up

Close to Valentine’s Day, my honey and I went to see BLUE VALENTINE. Not on Valentine’s Day, mind you, that would be called … a bad omen. We walked out of the theatre repeating the phrase, “If you have a choice, take Cupid’s Cove and not the Future Room, for Chrissake sweet Jesus!” But the other phrase we walked out repeating was, “Wow, a whole movie in close-up!”



I’m just not sure I get it. I watched a friend’s screener of I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS and was, frankly, mystified. Is “based on a true story,” or, as this movie states, “this is true,” really a satisfactory replacement for dramatic structure? Cuz this movie has, um, none. Other than Jim Carrey sort of bouncing around from scene to scene chewing up the scenery, taking us from one con to the next. Yes, there’s lots of gay sex. Yes, that’s great. Yes, that’s admirable to go there to such an explicit place with the actors and the story and yes yes yes. But ya gotta deliver dramatically, and not just ride it on out on a plateful of Carrey front teeth smiling that totally intense grin. Now that we are headed in to the Sundance Film Festival, I’m reminded of another Sundance film (MORRIS was there in 2009) that really took on the issues of passing – CHAMELEON STREET, winner of the 1990 Grand Jury Prize. A Sundance press release described it as “one of the first films to examine how mellifluously race, class, and role-playing morph into the social fabric of America.”



Why not spend the rest of your MLK week glued to the tube … for 14 hours? We hauled out episode one for ‘MLK movie night’ at my house and this seminal American Experience experience did not disappoint. (In 2010 the series finally became available on DVD – but it ain’t cheap. Hey, freedom costs money.) Episode one covers two historic events – the Montgomery bus boycott and the murder of Emmett Till. What’s striking here is the level of investment that this type of storytelling affords – while Rosa Parks and the bus strike certainly exist strongly in the American public consciousness, what’s missing and what EYES ON THE PRIZE provides is the time and space to really dwell inside these events, and boy oh boy the glorious footage! It’s amazing. Work-a-day beautiful black and white of all those Montgomery protesters walking to work (in gorgeous heels) day after day after day. Images of empty buses, a system nearly crippled by the absence of black riders, and of the evil Klan, its members pale, bespectacled and freaking creepy, whining and gesticulating.

Where is SOMEWHERE going?

Article: Where is SOMEWHERE going?

Nowhere, says Perrin Drumm on this site, and I wouldn’t want to argue. It’s a valid point, and the extraordinarily plot-less plot of this new film is not for everyone. We watch the mundane unfold as Sofia Coppola’s protagonist, famous actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) wanders from hotel room to pool to lobby to shower to car to press conference to the bed of yet one more blonde … then he hangs out with his eleven year-old daughter (Elle Fanning). She cries, he cries … he’s now vaguely more aware of a nagging dissatisfaction … and that’s about it! But some people do like these sorts of very-low-to-the-ground films – and I’m always one of them. The problem with Coppola’s film? It’s not the visuals, which are absolutely captivating — it’s the content. If I have to watch this amazingly talented woman do one more study of excess, wealth and celebrity, even I will cancel my subscription to Town and Country and move out of the Chateau Marmont for good, just in protest. In all seriousness, — c’mon, Sof, it’s a recession out there. Most of us can’t even afford Gray’s Papaya anymore.

Two artists: going in, going out

Article: Two artists: going in, going out

It’s getting to be that time – Golden Globes coming this weekend; non-stop awards season chatter until February. I happened to be watching LAUREL CANYON the other night, and seeing Christian Bale in that 2002 Lisa Cholodenko flick; I started thinking about these two artists, then and now. They currently exist in the same universe once again for said upcoming awards madness, as Bale makes a hard Method-acting hit with THE FIGHTER and Cholodenko goes the emotional distance with THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT. Both artists have made enviable progress in their careers since they were splashing around the pool in LAUREL CANYON (well, Bale splashed; Cholodenko ostensibly was at the monitor, poolside). While Bale has continued to take his craft outward, going beyond his typical detached cool-guy role (think AMERICAN PSYCHO), Cholodenko has successfully traveled even further in, going deeper into the modern American psyche with regard to family and love. Outward and inward – it’s inspiring.

Small appendages and BLACK SWAN

Article: Small appendages and BLACK SWAN

Ouch. I’ve never spent so much time in a film, focused upon – literally – the leathery skin of cuticles, tough toes, and fleshy ear lobes from which earrings go on and off, on and off. Yep, Darren Aronofsky’s BLACK SWAN is all fingers fingers toes toes, abused in such new and uncomfortable ways that you’ll vow to never use a pair of nail scissors again. EVER. And you thought the movies didn’t have the power to change your life! Once again, and with a different DP (THE WRESTLER = Maryse Alberti and BLACK SWAN = Matthew Libatuque), Aronofsky is (literally) following behind a struggling performer, this one’s insecurities expressed as meek, worried perfectionism as opposed to Micky Rourke’s loud bravado. But unlike THE WRESTLER, BLACK SWAN is a horror film, really, and the most beautiful horror film to emerge in a good long time. True to form, Aronofsky keeps his protagonist’s head squarely in the middle of the frame as he trails behind troubled Nina (Natalie Portman), her bun bobbing along top her emaciated frame.

Two end-of-year docs as antidote to holidays

Article: Two end-of-year docs as antidote to holidays

Are you craving to counteract all that holiday cheer with some good old-fashioned documentary depression? Never fear, two hard-hitters are still in theatres and soon to be on-demand or in your queue. I saw them both in recent weeks and while both hold their end of the bargain to keep up the doc-is-downer reputation, one is a far more complex experience than the other. (By the way, doc had a good year – with CATFISH, EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP, I’M STILL HERE – filmmakers soon may be able to ditch the downer syndrome and engage nonfiction for what it should be – more diverse in approach, content, tone and negotiation with ‘truth.’) I’m speaking here of INSIDE JOB (Charles Ferguson) and WAITING FOR SUPERMAN (Davis Guggenheim).

Indie Film and Bollywood mourn Manish Acharya's passing

Article: Indie Film and Bollywood mourn Manish Acharya's passing

The  film world suffered a shock this week with the death of filmmaker Manish Acharya. His 2007 feature, LOINS OF PUNJAB PRESENTS (one of the best titles in recent memory) was a wild, comic mockumentary ride, and reflected Acharya’s sharply comic sense and wry wink-of-the-eye with a healthy dash of over-the-top. Acharya, 40, was also…

THE NEXT THREE DAYS and the sentimental thriller

Article: THE NEXT THREE DAYS and the sentimental thriller

I saw THE NEXT THREE DAYS over Thanksgiving (Hello, Atlanta! What a welcome sight you are from the wilds of Ohio), and it was a crazy ride – I hesitate to say fun, because it’s really not – but exciting, thought-provoking, a serious film with serious performances, yet wrapped in the gloss of genre-Holiday-big-budget-excitement? Yes! I would also deem it falls into a new category, one I welcome: the sentimental thriller.

What makes a film trailer good?

Article: What makes a film trailer good?

I’ve been asking myself this question for weeks, mostly because Lisa and I are in the middle of cutting the trailer for our own movie, SMALL, BEAUTIFULLY MOVING PARTS. It’s really hard! We have an amazing editor named Cindy Yoon to lead this effort, and she created something awesome … to be premiered once we have a festival screening. But in the meantime, it has prompted a lot of thinking about how trailers are structured. What is needed? Plot? Beauty shots? Constructing a feeling … that’s not actually in the film? What is ultimately going to pull people in? How do these little machines work? I gave a closer look to trailers for two movies I’ve seen recently, and one I haven’t seen (but want to).


Article: David Michod's ANIMAL KINGDOM

David Michôd’s ANIMAL KINGDOM features one of the quietest protagonist you’ll ever meet. He’s ‘J’ (James Frecheville), a good looking kid with a heavy brow and downcast eyes, and in the first moments of the film – one of the strongest opening scenes I’ve seen in a while – he’s on the couch watching the telly (this is an Australian film) with his mum, who is asleep. Only she’s not asleep … (SPOILER ALERT – “inciting incident” about to be revealed right here and now) … she’s “gone and OD’d.” As the paramedics take her away, J, now fully alone, calls his estranged (no joke) Grandma Smurf (Jacki Weaver), and within minutes she’s on her way to pick him up . (“Do you remember where we live, Grandma?” “Course I do darling!”) She proceeds to pull him firmly into her family of criminal sons; into the ANIMAL KINGDOM where the weakest are, well, devoured. In this hyper aggressive world, where men lunge at one another like lions, shoot cops, do drugs and kiss their mother on the mouth, how did Michôd manage to pull off the writing feat of a passive protagonist? For much of the movie, J sits and stares, goes to his room and escapes to his girlfriend’s house. Passive.

Or is he?

Katharine, Jesse and Screwball Comedy in THE SOCIAL NETWORK

Article: Katharine, Jesse and Screwball Comedy in THE SOCIAL NETWORK

I have a friend and colleague here at Ohio University who stopped me in the hall last week: “THE SOCIAL NETWORK…?” — I had just seen it — “a Screwball Comedy without the comedy.” That makes it just screwball, right? I’d agree. I cannot wrap my mind around what the freaking bubble-dy blitz is all about. According to my colleague, Professor Louis-Georges Schwartz, Film Studies, Jesse Eisenberg stands in nicely for Katherine Hepburn, who is typically read as male in classic Screwball construction, only to be rightly feminized by such a film’s conclusion. Jesse as Katharine? Feminized from the start, Justin Timberlake’s bitch by the middle, his own version of the lonely and heart broken pimp by the end (read business card, “I’m CEO … bitch!”), Jessie certainly has the same Hepburn-esque wise-cracking snaps firing from his mouth, rat-tat-tat-tat-tat.


Article: CATFISH

I saw the nonfiction film CATFISH last week and it was the first time in a good long while that when the lights came up, I looked around … and I said out loud, “I loved it.”

Cinema, cinema, cinema. AO Scott said the movie looks like crap and is ethically suspect, and guess what? He’s wrong. New York Magazine said it’s a scam and guess what? Who cares! It’s an incredibly compelling story, real or imagined. And isn’t that the point? Our real and our imagined selves, due to media saturation, are getting closer and closer together; they’re overlapping, so that lives are part performance, part “time off” (that’s the “real”). We perform for Facebook; we perform because someone in the room just turned on a video camera. We perform. That’s not news; we humans have been doing this forever. It’s simply more prominent now that social networking provides the 24 hour stage. THAT’s the point, not where the film falls on the scale of “real.” But I digress.

Trapped inside HD

Article: Trapped inside HD

Recently my whole existence has changed. You see, my household has acquired a 47″ flat screen HD monitor (TV? I guess you could call it that), and our minds are being blown. The question is, is HD really better? It certainly is … strange. Sports? Sure. Amazing. But my tried and true film look? It’s gone, to my eye. A friend and I watched MAD MEN the other night and she kept saying, “I feel like we’re watching rehearsal. [and then again] It feels like we’re watching rehearsal.” Try watching an old classic or two — you probably have. I tried CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958, Richard Brooks). Holy crap. (The image above? Nuthin. Pixels. Chunks.)

I had a good childhood and all, but in HD with a modern transfer using advanced digital noise reduction, it’s not like I’m “really there,” it’s not “more than reality,” I’m living INSIDE Big Momma’s internal organs, and it ain’t pretty. “Big Daddy got a clean bill of health!” Help me, I’m inside her liver. Elizabeth Taylor slinks around as Maggie the Cat, Paul Newman limps around with his drink, and Mae and Gooper’s children run in with their guns, frightening everyone. It’s a wonderful film, even though apparently Tennessee Williams despised it. But in HD? I had to rethink it. The late 50s was not the hey day of creamy shallow-depth-of-field imagery in film, and so the Metrocolor crispness is now, well, singed. Orson Welles’ deep focus? Let’s call it deep deep deep focus. You can see what Brick is thinking about.



So not everybody is in on the hoax. At my local Community Center Appalachian gym the other day, the woman next to me on the elliptical was approached by a friend describing the “very sad” film she’d seen at our local art house theatre – I’M NOT THERE. “It’s terrible,” she said. “You see this innocent young boy at the beginning of the film [hoax], and then by the end, after all these drugs and alcohol and fame, you see what he’s become [hoax].” It turns out that it’s a pretty amazing feat. You leave the theatre really zeroing in on particular moments …. How did they do that? Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix basically duped the media and used its venues and players as their sets and extras, reflecting on contemporary celebrity and the reporters who work there. But hoax is too strong (it’s just fun to say). It’s pure performance. Phoenix is playing “Himself,” says the credits, but he’s really not. He’s playing a desperate celebrity – maybe a version of himself, but a pretty spectacular one — who attacks strangers, shreds his ‘friends’ to ribbons with profanity rants and barfs violently into toilets. He was really barfing, wasn’t he? He lived this character in the moment to moment nonfiction landscape of reality, making the film the most hybrid of hybrids to come along in a good while, and I don’t mean a Prius. (That’s doc plus fiction, good sirs.)

The long take

Article: The long take

I was recently preparing to teach my film students about coverage – the act of filming a scene multiple times from different angles in order to cut between the shots – when I happened to see GOMORRAH, Matteo Garrone’s grit-positive 2008 film about Neopolitan gangster life, filmed “like a documentary” (according to the director). Indeed. There’s nary a close up or a cutaway in sight. In fact, the entire film unfolds (basically) in one-shot scenes, the camera deftly moving between actors and what they happen to be holding/looking at, or where they happen to be going. And then back again. To the relevant action. In one shot! We call this the long take. (Don’t know why – it’s really a long shot, as ‘take’ implies one iteration – longer? — of a particular shot, but I suppose it might be confused with the term that describes filming something from a distance, or long/wide shot.)

GET LOW? Oh no.

Article: GET LOW? Oh no.

I live in a rural area, and as there happens to be more than one ‘small town’ film to choose from these days, I’m thinking about tiny communities in the middle of nowhere and the movies made about them. (Not that I can help thinking about where I live. You really, really cannot hide in a small town. No more walking the dog in my pajamas. No more hiding in the grocery store aisle – because they’ll damn well see you in the parking lot.) Two ‘small town, tragic life’ stories are gone in some areas, still around in others, but I got to see them both – WINTER’S BONE and GET LOW. Oh no.

Oh no. I thought I would love GET LOW. On paper, there’s a lot of good going on – an incredible cast, an indie period piece (rare), the promise of sentiment and wisdom but delivered slowly, cleverly, without the maudlin trappings of Hollywood. What happened? The premise is good enough – Tennessee hermit (Robert Duvall) attempts to stage his own funeral while still living. The performances indeed are very strong, particularly Duvall and Bill Murray as the opportunistic-but-still-lovable funeral director, who says “ass” every other line. But Sissy Spacek is totally underutilized – she simply has nothing to do but wipe away a tear or two. Oh, and she runs across a field at the end.

The women are all right, in fact they look human!

Article: The women are all right, in fact they look human!

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT really stayed with me. As in, I kept thinking about the situations, hearing those characters’ voices, and seeing globs of hair in my own shower drain. (That’s not a spoiler, and hopefully inspiring the curiosity of the disgusting and weird in those who’ve not yet seen the film – only movie I know in which drain hair plays a key role.) And seeing those women, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. What do I see? Hair on the legs on Julianne, no make up on Annette, wrinkles on both. And you know what? It’s awesome.

Introducing …. SPARKS!

Article: Introducing …. SPARKS!

So for the last month or so, Lisa and I have shamelessly been touting our own recent work. Is this our natural instinct? NO. Was I taught to talk about myself nonstop, providing photos, silly anecdotes, imdb links and other fodder? NO. (No! Says my mom.) No, no, no.

But guess what? It’s the new world for indie filmmakers. For years now, but in the last year or so more than ever, filmmakers have had to very carefully strategize every aspect of distribution. Partnering with a distribution company, if one is lucky enough to actually get one, as opposed to simply handing over a film, is simply the new way it is. (A recent indieWIRE event had a panel of experts generously doling out twenty great tips on distribution and festivals. The level of strategizing, which implicitly includes talking up your work, is an example of the level of involvement I’m talking about here. Read the summary here.) So with chin-up spirit, and not complaining at all, because who doesn’t like to retell what unimaginable feat they accomplished on the set, or how they survived the perils of micro-budget filmmaking, or how fabulous, gorgeous, talented and fashionable their actors are … introducing SPARKS.