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.

Movie in a Van

Movie in a Van

It’s fairly unreal, but our entire film project titled SMALL, BEAUTIFULLY MOVING PARTS fits into a Chrysler Caravan rented at LAX. We’re making this micro-budget feature, you see, and there’s just enough room for two directors, one DP, one actress and one sound guy. The van happens to be, er, the featured picture car as well. Here we are, on our way to our next location (this photo was snapped after leaving Las Vegas – the only people to drive out of there that morning with absolutely no hangover):

Beauty; Beast

Beauty; Beast

Lisa and I are in the middle of shooting our micro-budget feature titled SMALL, BEAUTIFULLY MOVING PARTS, and we are thinking hard about methodology, tools, and how this approach might simply … change things. Here’s a beauty:

Charles Swanson, our cinematographer … he’s in charge of beauty. The beast? Well, that’s the mountain of a challenge he has in front of him to achieve that beauty with ONE tool, make that two (see camera and Chimera light above) and, er, no crew. Sometimes he just looks at us, like … “really?”

Return to the 90s

Return to the 90s

If you haven’t noticed, Annie and Lisa have been thinking a lot lately about micro-budget filmmaking. Why? Full disclosure – we’re embarking on the adventure ourselves, we drank the Kool-aid and hope we don’t collapse in a fit of spasms. We have all the too-cool-for-school-tools. We got our Kickstarter, we got our 7D, we got a sound guy – wait – we didn’t get that, because the DIRECTORS are doing sound! Man, that’s cheap. Told ya … we got the fever bad … and we’re practically middle-aged women! What must the 20-somethings feel? In a certain sense the current wave out there is making me think about the early 90s.

THE LOCKSMITH

THE LOCKSMITH

At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the Barnes brothers’ (Brad and Todd) film HOMEWRECKER (now titled THE LOCKSMITH) took home the top prize in the festival’s inaugural micro-budget showcase, NEXT. Not too shabby. I had the opportunity to see the film and it’s super fun. Plot plot plot rules here – but so does performance, and Anslem Richardson (Mike) and Ana Reeder (Margo) are great as the unlikely team sleuthing down infidelity in Margo’s unstable, crazy Manhattan loft life.

BREATHLESS in the moment

BREATHLESS in the moment

Why is Jean-Luc Godard’s BREATHLESS truly breathless? Why does it still feel fresh to me after seeing it countless times, to my filmmaker friends, to my students in their twenties? Watching the 50th anniversary restored print at the Film Forum last week, I relaxed into the large screen version of this French New Wave classic. This film pulses like an organism, moving through space and time quickly and elliptically in the Paris street scenes and then slowing down and luxuriating in the bedroom scene between the intriguingly glowing Jean Seberg and the endearing grumpiness of Jean-Paul Belmondo, a scene that lasts for what seems like half the film. It’s not just that it’s energetic or that it’s full of stylistic surprises, innovative editing even for today, stunning actors, and marvelous real world Paris locations… It’s somehow “in-the-moment” in a way that films rarely are… a kind of Buddhist crime caper…

The Art of the Fund

The Art of the Fund

We know times are drastically different in the world of film financing when suddenly fiction filmmakers are creating and mastering a new nifty little form: the fundraising video. For years in documentary, one first shot some footage and then crafted a “trailer,” used really as a funding pitch reel for both grant and private equity opportunities. In fiction, of course, this was never needed (“Let’s wait for the studio to cut a trailer once we sell this thing for a MAJOR profit!”), but times they have a-changed. Some of those studios don’t even … exist anymore.

PERSIAN CATS: Can music set you free?

PERSIAN CATS: Can music set you free?

Bahman Ghobadi’s NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT PERSIAN CATS continues to play in art house venues across the nation — it’s billed as a docudrama, but I found it to be a fairly interesting amalgamationof drama (some of it melodrama), documentary, music video and almost a fantastical road movie, the roads, in this case, being exclusively in Tehran. Young indie rockers Ashkan and his girlfriend Negar are on a mission around the city, looking for a few things – a way out of the city to play a London concert, more musicians, and their new hustler friend Nader who is busy talking his way out of an arrest. Most interesting about the film is its nearly impossible-to-resist energy, harnessed mostly from a restless camera that swoops, gazes and jerks about the hazy, massive city, and the accompanying edit technique that yanks us around from our protagonists to vendors to traffic to faces to pedestrians and back again. It’s exhilarating to spend time in Tehran.

Jacques Audiard’s A PROPHET

Jacques Audiard’s A PROPHET

A PROPHET recently played at my local art house, and as usual here in fly-over Ohio, my husband and I were the only people in the theatre (okay, two of five). Hey, no matter, this movie rocks. Premiering in the U.S. at Sundance in January and internationally last year at Cannes, where it was the darling of the festival, this amazing film continues to open around the world – so who cares about the Oscar it didn’t win for Best Foreign Film? It’s the gangster film you’ve been dreaming of, in that, it both adheres to and also twists the genre. You end up satisfied by the tacit narrative promises (you know, spurting blood, revenge, power structures) but also surprised by the absolutely creative turns it takes in both style and tone.

Where photojournalism meets documentary filmmaking

Where photojournalism meets documentary filmmaking

I recently attended a lecture presented by the people behind MediaStorm, a multimedia studio based in New York but really based, well, online. MediaStorm is innovative in that it trains journalists in new storytelling opportunities on the web, as well as serves corporate clients, as well as engages in documentary projects for the web that combine still photography and video (see image above, a project on the new economic realities in the Midwest). Most of these have been created by seasoned photographers for whom video and sound are, er, ‘new’ tools. And indeed, it’s a whole new world out there. We can no longer understand photographers as those working with the still image when their cameras (see the Canon EOS 5D Mark II) no longer simply shoot stills. As the equipment moves more and more toward a single device that records both still and moving images, and beautifully so, the walls between disciplines continue to come down down down.

Slipping and falling women: PLEASE GIVE

Slipping and falling women: PLEASE GIVE

I’ve seen too many main stream romantic comedies that show its female lead literally slipping and falling on her face, to the point that this physical pratfall seems totally cliché. I’m all for women doing ridiculous things – but really there’s so much to draw on out there. Let’s try for more meaningful, complex and embarrassing stuff. The kinds of things we women do that on reflection make us cringe so deeply we’d like to just implode into ourselves. Nicole Holofcener is still making films her way thankfully and PLEASE GIVE satisfies all these needs. What a relief to see imperfect women on the screen whose actions are not defined by their male counterparts and who do not totally reform by the end of the film in simplistic two dimensional ways. They are complex characters. They are selfish, vulnerable, loving and misguided in subtle and not so subtle ways. They are often gloriously ridiculous…

The changing face of procedural television, or  why is The Good Wife so good?

The changing face of procedural television, or why is The Good Wife so good?

“The Good Wife” is very, very alluring. Even though I have excellent intentions to spend hours in front of the television – you know, “Glee,” “Hoarders,” “Lost,” “The Lazy Environmentalist,” “Dead Wood” on DVD — somehow I … sigh … just can’t get to it, so the only thing I watch, ever, is “The Good Wife.” Flipping to it doesn’t feel so different than settling in for some good comfy “Law and Order.” But guess what? It’s so much more satisfying! Why, you ask? There have been plenty of lawyer shows on network television, plenty of political thrillers, plenty of who-done-it, how-do-it, do-it, and un-do-it. Why is this one so different?

Documentary as grown up genre – THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA

Documentary as grown up genre – THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA

Isn’t it great when a film surpasses your expectations, and in fact makes you think more about the world, and about filmmaking itself? I went to see the new documentary THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA: DANIEL ELLSBERG AND THE PENTAGON PAPERS (Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith) and it’s a full blown, knock out blockbuster. Documentary so often suffers from the bastard stepchild image, the geeked out brainiac who won’t shut up about human suffering. Yes, yes, we need those films too – but when I walk out of a doc saying, “WOW! That was a political thriller right up there with ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN,” well, then I’m glad to see the bastard child growing up into a big bad contender – just as engaging, just as nail-biting, just as tear-inducing, as something that tens of millions of dollars made.

More on tone, and how THE HOST pulls it off

More on tone, and how THE HOST pulls it off

Cannes is approaching in late May, and as bloggers and journalists speculate about what will splash along the French Riviera, I recalled the festival’s hit of 2006 — Bong Joon-ho’s THE HOST. Part satire, part sit-com, part horror and mostly monster, THE HOST is hailed as Korea’s ‘biggest film ever’ and was certainly a critical darling. If you haven’t seen it – do – if nothing else, as a balm to ready yourself for the barrage of mostly bad summer blockbusters that are gearing up to piss you off.

YOUSSOU N’DOUR – Everyone is bringing love

YOUSSOU N’DOUR – Everyone is bringing love

Chai Vasarhelyi’s documentary YOUSSOU N’DOUR: I BRING WHAT I LOVE was released on DVD recently, and the film opens widely today in France. I had a chance to sit down and screen this hit doc on the Senegalese mega-star, although admittedly I was longing for a big theatre with big speakers, in order to revel in the singular sound of Youssou’s voice.

Of course I’m a dumb American and all I can do since I saw the film is sing Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” over and over and over in my head, thinking of Youssou’s great back up riff. (If you’re over 30, it’ll come to you – you know, right after one of the many “the light and heat’s” – Youssou comes in strong – and I’m transported instantly to my small liberal arts college self, blasting it out my dorm room window.) Vasarhelyi’s film is rich, rich, rich – and as is usually the case, also has problems. But who doesn’t these days, really?

CHLOE and the problem of tone

CHLOE and the problem of tone

It’s been coming up a lot in filmmaking class — what is the importance of tone, how do I get it, how do I keep it, what happens when it goes awry?

CHLOE, in theatres now, is an erotic thriller from brilliant filmmaker Atom Egoyan. (My husband almost wrote his dissertation on Egoyan – so I’ve seen all of his work – and he’s fabulous.) The screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (SECRETARY, FUR) is someone I know and respect whole-heartedly. She’s a wonderful writer. So why didn’t I walk out of CHLOE glowing? These are some of my favorite artists. Julianne Moore? C’mon, awesome. Liam Nisson? Check. But I didn’t glow. And I’m mad about it and I want to know more about why I didn’t. Glow, that is.

PRODIGAL SONS and superlative filmmaking

PRODIGAL SONS and superlative filmmaking

Kimberly Reed’s documentary PRODIGAL SONS expanded to a few cities over the weekend, one of which is my Athens-Ohio-Main-Street-USA theatre, the Athena. The winner of a number of recent festival awards (two with “bravery” in the titles), the film is a jaw-dropper, the kind of “you can’t write this!” content that only, and I mean only, exists in life. Stranger than fiction, indeed, and more tragic, more superlative: More more more.

Lena Dunham's TINY FURNITURE

Lena Dunham's TINY FURNITURE

Lena Dunham’s TINY FURNITURE premiered at SXSW this year, and I was lucky enough to be in the audience at the Alamo Draft House for the premiere screening. It’s an understatement to say that I’m pleased to be reporting on a young woman director’s launch with a beautifully crafted coming-of-age piece, terrain usually reserved for the boys — the ones who annoyed me all through film school with their sense of aw-I-just-threw-it-together-it-was-nothing entitlement. Bravo, Lena!

The Cinemagicians: Kentridge and Melies

The Cinemagicians: Kentridge and Melies

I caught up with the shows at the MOMA last weekend, including the William Kentridge exhibit. A show that grapples with heavy subjects like apartheid and colonialism, Kentridge’s animated charcoal drawings get smudged, erased, and redrawn to tell stories about characters that are often heavy, egotistical and morally adrift. Kentridge said, “I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain endings. An art in which optimism is kept in check and nihilism at bay.” My favorite part of the exhibit however was where the weighty politics of the stories disappeared and Kentridge does seem to let loose with a cinematic fun that is both surprising and welcome…

FUTURESTATES

FUTURESTATES

On Monday, ITVS (the Independent Television Service) launched a new online series titled FUTURESTATES, eleven short films imagining a contemporary American issue thrust in to the future. Full disclosure: I’ve got a piece in the series. But it’s worth a plug here: it’s the first time to my knowledge that a major funder (ITVS, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) has invested this heartily in a web series, and almost most importantly, put significant marketing muscle behind it. In the press release, Executive Producer Sally Jo Fifer (haven’t you seen that name dozens of times on television docs?) says: “FUTURESTATES is an opportunity to reach new audiences that are younger and more diverse by combining online viewing with a shorter-format and edgy content with a sci-fi twist that inspire, entertain, and inform. Our end goal is to make FUTURESTATES available for public television broadcast down the road bringing along the new online audiences we gain.”

Filmmaking at the speed of pink

Filmmaking at the speed of pink

Filmmaking is becoming a brain science. According to an article “Bringing New Understanding to the Director’s Cut” in the Science section of the New York Times, cinematic language is beginning to align more and more with our natural brain patterns. Researchers at Cornell University have discovered that directors are increasingly using groups of shots of a similar length, edited together in clusters. They call it 1/f (one over frequency) or they call it “pink noise.” Apparently this pattern of pink noise is everywhere in our world…. in a heart beat, the flow of tides and traffic, the movement of our stock market, in the movie BACK TO THE FUTURE (apparently a very pink movie) and most interestingly in the way we think! So the fact that movies might unknowingly take advantage of this pattern almost sounds like accidental brainwashing – perhaps a very good kind of brainwashing but certainly with some questionable side effects. It could at least give me a good excuse for why I sometimes involuntarily cry during the cheesy sad moments of mediocre films (on an airplane with no audio)…

Comedy class

Comedy class

Recently I’ve had two students in for a weekly tutorial on film and comedy. We’ve been wrapping our heads around the mercurial question: Why is something funny on the screen? What makes it chug? What keeps me in my seat, and laughing? It’s been a pleasure to dissect a few films, and revisit three really good comedies in particular, funny for three really different reasons.

BROKEN EMBRACES: Almodovar's picture puzzle

BROKEN EMBRACES: Almodovar's picture puzzle

With the Oscar buzz in full swing, I decided it was time to catch up on some of the films that probably should-have-been-but-were-not part of that buzz starting with Pedro Almodovar’s BROKEN EMBRACES. It’s not fair to blame the Academy, after all Spain’s Oscar shortlist committee were the ones who curiously snubbed it. Once in the theater however, I forgot all about the Oscars. I dropped happily into Almodovar’s magical world of films within films, boldly graphic sets with paintings of fruit the size of boulders, and his headstrong Spanish women who seem to charge into every scene like beautiful matadors. Sure some of the dialogue was a little clunky and some of the twists and turns a tad more melodramatic than I usually like. But all I could think as I was leaving was a quote that I’ve heard attributed to the screenwriter Robert Towne: “A movie is five or six moments.” I, however, would tweak that slightly and say… an Almodovar movie is five or six luscious images you can’t forget…

Manly Kathryn (Bigelow)

Manly Kathryn (Bigelow)

There’s been some chatter in the blogosphere of late regarding Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar nomination for Best Director (THE HURT LOCKER), some of it pointing toward a sort of remorse that for this ‘first,’ the film content wasn’t more reflectively ‘female.’

Whoa whoa whoa whoa. So all the parenting I witness around Manhattan and hippy-dippy Ohio (current locale) wherein moms/dads slyly push the tractors and robots toward the girls and praise toward the boys when they dare to don a pink tutu … is really all a fiction? We truly want girls to ‘behave like girls’ after all? Tears and love and princesses? Or to carry an obligation to represent on behalf of, you know, our rights??

Rollerblading GIRL (ON THE TRAIN)

Rollerblading GIRL (ON THE TRAIN)

I came out of André Téchiné’s latest film THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, haunted by the images of twenty-one-year-old Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne) rollerblading through the streets of Paris. Her beauty and physical strength come towards us in shots that are so close they give us the sensation of being her partner in motion. This power is in contrast to the rest of what we learn about her. She seems, for the most part, intellectually vacant and even her boyfriend, a possessive and aggressive aspiring wrestler (Nicolas Duvauchelle) calls her “an airhead.” Yet the images she occupies give her character weight and the film a level of tension not achieved in any of the dialogue scenes that surround them. By the time Jeanne pretends to be the victim of an anti-Semitic attack, we don’t really mind that we don’t understand. We are fascinated as we watch her speed forward like an empty train hurtling through space. Unable to take our eyes away, we watch with trepidation and awe as she heads for a crash…