Monthly Archives: November 2011

WTF Sundance

The Grand Jury Prize (for best film) at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival went to Like Crazy. This is a decision I don’t agree with in any way. I thought Like Crazy was okay film, but this year that’s just not enough because Take Shelter and Martha Marcy May Marlene (which did win Best Director) were on a whole other level of filmmaking. In this blog post I’ll give my mini reviews of all three films and reveal what I believe should have won the Grand Jury Prize and best Director.

Like Crazy: I saw Like Crazy a couple weeks ago. The director (Drake Doremus) and main actress (Felicity Jones) were in attendance for a Q & A after the film, which is always awesome. The film had a tiny budget ($450,000), was shot on a 7D (side note #1), and didn’t have a typical screenplay. Instead, there was a 50 page outline and the actors came up with the dialogue. This works and doesn’t work. Scenes between characters seem genuine, but I also feel like the film is missing the precise details and pacing that could really make it better. There were great moments. A montage that involved voicemails was really well done, but, to me, Like Crazy had a surface level understanding of what a relationship is like. The problem is I didn’t really feel anything. For me, an emotional investment is more important than any other aspect of a film. When I feel something I can forgive poor writing (even though that investment is usually the result of great writing), technical mistakes, poor direction, ok acting, etc. Not all films have to break my heart, but this is what the want the film wants to do and it didn’t come close even though the film even though it felt tailored to me. I dealt with a long term relationship (Samantha being in Senegal). I understand how hard they are. Like Crazy showed this, but it had no weight to it. I care more about the side relationships than the actual relationship. This is how I knew the film didn’t really work for me. I thought it was a poor man’s Blue Valentine and comes no where near Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (my all time favorite film about relationships).

Final Grade: B- (Okay)

Side note #1:  I used to be obsessed with the idea of using DSLRs for filmmaking, and I know a lot of my friends love the DSLR movement but I gotta be honest, I’m over it (and I haven’t even shot with one yet). A lot of the film felt soft and when it a DSLR is in focus it’s glossy and digital. That said, it’s still a great inexpensive tool for people without access to other equipment. Honestly, I’ll probably end using it on my next short film (blah).

Martha Marcy May Marlene: This another film with a tiny budget (under $1 million), but it’s so much more precise than Like Crazy. The director, Sean Durkin, wrote a meticulous screenplay, and the difference between MMMM and Like Crazy is easy to see. The film moves at a methodical pace as the dread builds and ties knots in the pit of your stomach until the brilliant final shot. We see the film through Martha (Elisabeth Olsen – yes the younger sister of the Olsen twins) and feel every bit of anxiety and paranoia that she feels. Elisabeth Olsen is great. Like Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia, her performance is subtle and real. This is a role that could easily be exaggerated. This is a testament to her and director, Sean Durkin. I can’t believe this is a film by a first time director. It’s the best first film I’ve seen since Hunger (UPDATED! This statement is incorrect because Animal Kingdom came out last year. Which I loved). The way Sean Durkin blurs the line between fantasy, reality, and dream is brilliant. Some of the cuts between past and present are well done, but some of them are genius (members of the cult swimming in dark murky water to Martha walking out of the darkness). This film also has one of my all time favorite slow dissolves. Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of the three best films I’ve seen so far this year.

Final Grade: A (Incredible)

Take Shelter: Is Take Shelter the best film I’ve seen so far this year? Yes… I think. Currently Take Shelter, Martha Marcy Marlene, and Melancholia are in a weird three way tie. The order changes every time I think about it. Is Take Shelter the scariest film I’ve seen this year? A resounding yes. About 15 minutes into the film my girlfriend turned to me and said, “You didn’t tell me this was going to be so scary.” My response? “I didn’t know!” The first half of Take Shelter is truly disturbing. We experience Michael Shannon’s nightmares through his eyes and they’re real, visceral, and universal. He’s dreaming about what it would be like if society fell apart and people only cared about himself. He’s dreaming about a world not that different than our own. When we aren’t seeing intense nightmares we’re watching an honest portrayal of working class life and a man slowly losing it. Take Shelter isn’t as consistently great as Martha Marcy May Marlene. A few moments were kind of on the nose, but there moments so powerful and brilliant you forget about the little things. When Michael Shannon can’t hide his fears anymore he loses it in front of a whole town that has been talking about him. Chills ran up and down my spine. As the intensity increases and the film climaxes I was disappointed the film didn’t end. I didn’t need the resolution we were getting, but then the final scene happened and it was worth it in every way possible. The final scene of Take Shelter is a brilliant emotional catharsis to a great, great film.

Final Grade: A (Incredible)

In my opinion, Take Shelter should have won Best film and Martha Marcy May Marlene should have won (Best Director – which it did). Both films hit me in an emotional way (which is the most important thing for me). They did this in different ways but they were equally effective. So why give Take Shelter best film over Martha Marcy May Marlene? The end of Take Shelter is just so incredibly powerful to me, and in my opinion the Best Director award kind of means best first film and totally fits for Sean Durkin and Martha Marcy Marlene. The real truth is the are both Cannes films, not Sundance films (they were both at Cannes). Cannes films tend to be more challenging/art films. Sundance films are “indie.” They tend to be a little safer and a little more mainstream (Like Crazy). A lot of the time there are great films here but too often they end of being “independent films” produced by studios. Hopefully, Take Shelter and Martha Marcy May Marlene are evidence that Sundance is trying to be the great festival it used to be when it started the careers of people like Darren Aronofsky and Spike Lee.

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Have you learned nothing from Arrested Development?

We’ve received some great news. After years of rumors, Arrested Development is coming back. There’s going to be a whole new season dedicated to letting us know what these beloved characters have been up to, leading to an Arrested Development movie! I know… Holy shit. I can’t believe it’s back either. You may be saying, “Yay! Arrested Development is returning! It’s so good. How could such an amazing/hilarious show ever be cancelled?” My reply? “Well… are you watching Community?”

In my opinion, there have been a few brilliant seasons of comedic television in the last decade. These include: Seasons 1 and 2 of Scrubs, Seasons 1-3 Arrested Development, Season 2 The Office, Season 2 of Louie and Season 2 of Community. Scrubs has been off the air a couple years now. The Office is still going, but honestly I haven’t watched it in a couple years because it’s running on fumes. Louie is luckily on a station that takes chances, and Arrested Development was infamously cancelled in it’s prime. As for Community? It’s third season just began and it’s amazing, but recently, some people received some horrible news.

Community was pulled from the mid season line up by NBC. They tell us it’ll definitely be back and the season will end, but that’s no guarantee the show will continue past this season. The show has horrible ratings, and just like Arrested Development may be cancelled at the height of its powers. Community is currently one of the best shows on TV. It is hilarious and incredibly smart. It’s probably the closest thing we’ve had to Arrested Development since that show went off the air. And guess what… more than likely you are not watching it (again). Most people spend their time Thursdays at 8 pm watching The Big Bang Theory. If you’re a nerd, geek, love film and television you’ll love Community because the people involved love that culture. It isn’t exploiting it like The Big Bang Theory. Seriously, watch the click below of The Big Bang Theory without a laugh track. It hurts my soul.

In five years everyone will watch Community on Netflix and demand it be brought back. It will be a classic and everyone will wonder, how do such a brilliant shows get cancelled. First Arrested Development. Now Community? My first reply? Where were you 5 years ago? People my age have an excuse when it comes to Arrested Development. We were very very young (Myself and others probably watched it but I’m sure most of us didn’t realize the brilliance at such a young age), but we’ve lost that excuse when it comes to Community. In a world where we have access to anything and everything. Where countless blogs watch the hours and hours of crap television produces to find the gems for you. How the hell are you not watching Community? How come my Facebook didn’t explode the way my twitter did (where I follow film and television sites). My second reply? You have no right to complain. I hear people complain about how much television sucks all the time. IF you aren’t going to watch the brilliant shows when they’re actually on TV then why the hell would stations make them? By watching shit like, Whitney or The Big Bang Theory we’re telling the networks that’s what we want. I beg you… Watch Community. It starts a little slow, but as you get to know the characters and the show gets its footing it becomes amazing. If you don’t want to take the time to watch the whole thing from the beginning watch the paintball episodes (Modern Warfare), Chicken Finger Gangster Episode, Dungeions and Dragons episode, claymation Christmas episode, Clips episode made entirely and clips not actually from the season. And if you watch Whitney or The Big Bang Theory instead of Community. Fuck you, seriously.

 

 


I saw The Artist last night.

Last night I went to see The Artist with a few friends. Two of them didn’t know what they were seeing (it was a free screening). As we ate pizza, waiting for the bus I said, “You know this is a black and white silent film right?” He laughed, “You’re kidding right?” He didn’t believe me until The Artist actually started. I thought this was pretty funny, but I honestly had no idea what I was going to think of this film. It has been getting amazing reviews, and it’s actually a front runner in the Oscar race, and I have to ask… seriously?

I think a lot of people will like it, maybe even love it. It was pretty funny, and there was one brilliant scene I absolutely loved. My friends liked it a lot. I do think it has the potential to crossover to a more general movie audience. However, I personally feel like a lot of the love the film receives stems from nostalgia. We’re a culture that idolizes the past. At first I ate it up. I spent the beginning of the film with a smirk on my face, but when I’m honest with myself I found the film kind of boring. There were funny parts, then boring parts, then funny parts, then boring parts. I felt like I was forcing the laughter out of myself.

Some people may have loved seeing two people lipping words to each other with nothing but a score for 5 minutes at a time, but I did not. You may be thinking, “he just doesn’t like a movie without dialogue.” If you know me, you know this is not true in any way. I hate expository dialogue and love when a film moves the story forward through action. The problem is this just isn’t what’s happening when you have two characters looking at each other mouthing words for minutes with a dialogue card or two showing up. However, when The Artist chooses the really tell the story with image that’s when it’s funny and very good. I just believe it constantly switches back and forth between this and the “talking scenes” (which accounts for the funny, boring, funny, boring dynamic).

I could have dealt with this better, but what I really missed was the sound of the world. I’m one of the people who believe sound is more important than image. A great sound can make a bad image look very good while a bad sound can make a great image worthless. Don’t get me wrong, the score was very well done. But I need more. SPOILER: I think it’s incredibly telling that by far the best scene used diegetic sound in a funny and clever way and the final dance number is powerful because of their breathing in the end. You can argue these scene works so well because there’s no sound until these moments (and you’re right) but it also reveals how much more power film has because of sound).

After all of this, I haven’t even mentioned the story. Honestly, outside of the context of a black and white silent film I think it’d be pretty cheesy. There’s a moment during the end of the film I couldn’t take seriously in any way (SPOILER: When he pulls out the gun END SPOILER). Also, I’m averse to films dealing with the harsh lives of the ultra rich when they don’t acknowledge they still have it better than the vast majority of the human race. At the end of the day the main actor was the most famous actor of a particular time and his house after his stardom faded looked better than 99% of the houses I’ve even stepped foot in.

It may seem like I didn’t like The Artist. That’s not true. I did like it. I just see an okay film where other people see a great film. Like I said, I thought The Artist was cute. A lot of people are using the word “charming.” But Best Picture worthy? I understand why the Oscar pundits are so big on it. There are a lot of older voters in the Academy, and their nostalgia will probably have an even bigger effect on them than other people. Also, Harvey Weinstein bought this. He’s very good at pushing his films during the Academy Award. After all, last year he helped push The King’s Speech into the best picture winner (a film I really disliked). If The Artist wins best picture, I think a lot of people will look back in 5 years and say, “Really? My favorite films that year were Melancholia, Drive, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Shame, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Take Shelter, Attack the Block, The Descendants, The Tree of Life, etc.”

Final Grade: C+ (OK/Meh).


Melancholia: A Tale of Two Sisters… and the end of the world.

Spoiler: Melancholia begins with the end of the world. The sequence has no dialogue. Instead, it’s a slow motion montage scored with classical music, and it’s beautiful. The sequence ends with a giant blue planet (that’s been hidden behind the sun) crashing into earth. Is this prologue for everyone? I don’t think so. When the title card popped up I felt an anxiousness wash over the crowd I viewed the film with. I felt the same anxiousness during a screening of Drive. Something about a story told without dialogue gets under some people’s skin. After the prologue the film is told in two chapters. Each part concentrates of one of two sisters, played by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg. In my opinion the two chapters feels like two separate movies.

The first chapter (or movie), Justine, concentrates on Kirsten Dunst during her wedding party. This part of the film reminded me a lot of The Celebration (one of the most famous dogme 95 films), directed by Thomas Vinterberg, but I don’t think it’s done as well. The party is awkward because there’s so much family history brimming under the surface and different people want different things out of the party. This part of the film is actually kind of funny (not going to reveal to funny parts). All of this happens while Dunst’s severe depression prevents her from enjoying the expensive party her brother and law has paid for. She becomes so overwhelmed by her depression her husband leaves at the end of the night. The depiction of depression was subtle and realistic and Dunst’s acting is superb. It’s refreshing to see consistent, restrained acting through out without an “intense” performance during a scene. Unfortunately, these are the kinds of scenes that win awards. All of this is great, but for some reason I didn’t fully connect with this portion of the film, but this is a very subjective feeling. I’ve never dealt with depression myself. I have the feeling people who have will find this first chapter devastating.  (First chapter grade: B-)

The second chapter of Melancholia is so brilliant. The chapter deals with Claire and the science fiction portion of the film. Claire is scared the planet might hit earth. Meanwhile, her husband is excited for the “fly-bye” because, “It’s going to be the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen.” One aspect of the science fiction that I loved (and the film in general) was there was almost no expository dialogue. Any information given about the planet was entirely organic. We didn’t have news broadcasts telling us everything or 5 minute explanations. We get little bits and pieces from characters as the film proceeds. I found this incredibly refreshing and very well done. It was also very interesting to see how different people dealt with the potential destruction of the world. Maybe the most interesting emotion was denial. Claire’s husband denied the fact that the planets would collide while assuring their son everything would be fine. How would you react if you thought the world was going to end? Would you try to live your final days to the fullest? Or would you let the fear consume you? Melancholia forces us to confront our fear of death because we know the destruction of earth, like life is inevitable. Even though we know the planets are going to collide, the moment the characters realize it doesn’t lose any of it’s power. The end of the film is incredible emotional. All the different ways the characters react when they know it’s end of the world is heartbreaking. Melancholia is the only narrative film so far this year that brought me to the verge of tears. Everything leads to the brilliant final shot, where some characters have accepted their fate, together (footnote 1). (Second chapter grade: A+)

Total grade: A-

Footnote 1: There have been some amazing final shots this year. The end of Melancholia, Take Shelter, and Martha Marcy May Marlene have all been brilliant. On the same tier as the end of The Wrestler and Black Swan. I love when a film ends with the climax.


Darren Aronofsky’s Anti-meth ads

One thing I always wished Breaking Bad did was show what happened to people who used Walter’s meth, but that’s not what the show is. That would kind of make it more like The Wire. Luckily (I guess?) every once in a while Darren Aronosky decided to make some PSA’s about meth, and he’s just released 4 new ones. The last three are well done, but kind of typical meth PSAs, but the first one… Oh my god. Just to warn you, it’s very graphic.

 

 


The Descendants

Last night I saw a special, early screening of The Descendants at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge. I had modest expectations going into the film. It has received rave reviews since it’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, and was immediately considered an Oscar’s frontrunner, but I don’t love Alexander Payne’s films. I never really fully connected with them. A large part of that may be because I saw them when I was younger, and I’ve grown as a film viewer since then, but his name doesn’t mean must see in the same way Darren Aronofsky, Alfonso Cuaron, Spike Jonze, Steve McQueen, Paul Thomas Anderson, or Paul Greengrass’s name does. Also, his films tend to be about people I can’t always relate to (upper class characters). Since, George Clooney plays a rich common man (as common as George Clooney can be) I was a little worried.

That feeling didn’t go away when The Descendants began. The film opens with George Clooney’s narration. He’s talking about how hard it is to be rich and live in Hawaii. Typically, I don’t like narration. I think it’s incredibly hard to do well. Most of the time it feels lazy. In my opinion, the narration in The Descendants is on the nose and expository, and it’s used the first third of the film. Another frustrating aspect of the first third of the film was the sexist perspective the film was taking. Maybe I’m hyper aware to social issues because of my background in Sociology but there were a few moments I couldn’t believe. The male characters in the film seem to believe women should do what they want them to do. I spent sometime trying to determine if the film was trying to critique patriarchy, but I don’t believe it is because the film is putting you on George Clooney’s side. I was worried the narration and sexism would continue through out the entire film, but there was one shot that kept me invested. When George Clooney tells his daughter some upsetting news she dives underwater and begins crying. It was brilliant and very powerful An example of what the film was capable of if it got ride of the narration.

Luckily, the second third of the film has no narration at all. The story tells itself instead of George Clooney telling us the story and it’s so much more engaging. In fact, The Descendants is very very good once the narration ends and sexism isn’t as intense. It’s very funny and emotionally engaging. We begin to really care about the characters and appreciate the great performances. One aspect of the film that I loved was the characters grew in a natural way and it showed the good and bad sides of characters. There’s still a few hiccups (like a completely random and distracting wipe cut and some poor child acting that made me think the girl from this one scene had to be someones daughter) but I cared about what was happening to this family. I cared most about Shailene Woodley‘s character (yes the actress from The Secret Life of the American Teenager). Shailene’s performance was real, understated, and powerful. A lot of people in the theater were crying. I did not. The Descendants didn’t affect me in that way, but no one in my life has ever died. I can’t relate to that experience and if I had I probably would bawled.

Grade: B+


WTF MPAA?

Two upcoming films recently received their official ratings from the MPAA. So, I have a question for you. Which of the following descriptions given by the MPAA was rated NC-17? 1. Some explicit sexual content. 2. Crude and sexual content throughout, nudity, drugs, drinking, pervasive language, reckless behavior and mayhem – all involving teens. If you guessed number two you are wrong.

If you’re serious about film you’ve probably heard about Steve McQueen’s new film about sex addiction. Shame has been receiving rave reviews on the festival circuit. Its’ lead actor, Michael Fassbender (my favorite actor working today), received the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival this past September. Ever since its’ premiere, the most talked about aspect of the film has been its’ realistic, unflinching depiction of sex addiction and what rating it will receive. Everyone’s assumption was that it would receive an NC-17 rating. As you can tell (by the huge writing in this trailer) that’s exactly what it received. But is it warranted?

According to the MPAA:

An NC-17 rated motion picture is one that, in the view of the Rating Board, most parents would consider patently too adult for their children 17 and under. No children will be admitted. NC-17 does not mean “obscene” or “pornographic” in the common or legal meaning of those words, and should not be construed as a negative judgment in any sense. The rating simply signals that the content is appropriate only for an adult audience. An NC-17 rating can be based on violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse or any other element that most parents would consider too strong and therefore off-limits for viewing by their children.The rating means no kid under 17 or under can see the film.

Based on that description I would have said, yes, Shame should be NC-17. The film is meant for adults. However, many people fear this would prevent the film from being released because the NC-17 rating is very stigmatized. A lot of theaters refuse to screen films with that rating. This is because the rating is still associated with the X-rating or even considered pornography.

Over a decade ago Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream was slapped with the dreaded NC-17 and he decided to release the film Unrated. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you’ve seen or at least heard of Requiem for a Dream, but did you see it in theaters? Even though most people have seen Requiem for a Dream it made practically no money at the box office because it couldn’t be advertised the way a normal film would, let alone a normal independent film.

Even though he had just made an independent cult classic, Aronofsky spent the next 6 years trying to get films funded. That’s six years out his filmmaking career. Do you know what he made the next 6 years? The Fountain (underrated science fiction excellence, Grade: A), The Wrestler (Golden Lion winning film at Venice that reestablished him as one of the best working directors today. Grade: A+) and Black Swan (the critical and box office hit that allows him to do whatever he wants even though he should have had this privilege years ago. Grade: A+). We should have at least two more films by Darren Aronofsky.

Back to Shame. I was worried something similar would happen to Shame. I thought I might not get to see my most anticipated film of the year until sometime next year on DVD, but something very unexpected happened. Fox Searchlight bought Shame. Initially I figured they’d try to force Steve McQueen to recut the film to receive an R rating (even though everyone knew he’d refuse). Typically, Fox Searchlight release kind of safe “independent” films (films that have an interesting mix of mainstream and independent aesthetics or straight up studio films pretending to be independent. You know, The [500] Days of Summer of the world – they want to make money after all). But they’ve been making riskier decisions lately (Never Let Me Go, Black Swan, The Tree of Life, Martha Marcy May Marlene, now Shame). It almost feels like it’s all been leading to this. Fox Searchlight has decided to embrace Shame’s NC-17 rating.

I think NC-17 is a badge of honor, not a scarlet letter. We believe it is time for the rating to become usable in a serious manner. The sheer talent of the actors and the vision of the filmmaker are extraordinary. It’s not a film that everyone will take easily, but it certainly breaks through the clutter and is distinctive and original. It’s a game changer. (Steve Gilula)

I’m so proud of Fox Searchlight for doing this. It’s something that should have been done a long time ago. I believe de-stigmatizing the NC-17 rating will lead to more powerful, real films. Honestly, someday I want to make films that may or may not have been NC-17. If that’s no longer a big deal, myself and other much more talented filmmakers will be able to allow their films to go wherever the story should without second guessing. So at the beginning of the day I was perfectly fine with Shame’s NC-17 rating. Then I saw the trailer for Todd Phillips’ (The Hangover) new movie, Project X.

This trailer is for the second film in my first paragraph. To recap: Project X is rated R for Crude and sexual content throughout, nudity, drugs, drinking, pervasive language, reckless behavior and mayhem – all involving teens. Seriously? This gets an R rating but Shame could never possiblly get an R rating? The comparison of these two films is just one of the many examples of the MPAA’s hypocrisy. Let’s start by breaking down the trailer.

First 25 seconds are of a kid talking into his camera, revealing this is a found footage comedy? (Semi interesting).

0:28: this movie is a celebration of bad high school behavior! Yay.

0:30: “Tonight’s about having sex with those evil women who aren’t attracted to us (I’m paraphrasing).” Sexy dancing from a high school “girl”- although the actresses are obviously women (I try to always refer to females over 18 as women, not “girls”,  because they are women and the term “girl” is used to take away their power.)

0:31: Woman licking a guy’s neck.

0:35: Two women grinding on each other.

0:37: One woman licking another woman’s nose.

0:38: Sexy dance by a new woman.

0:43: Woman sucking a lollipop.

0:47: Woman seductively getting out of a pool in a sexy black bikini.

0:48: Same woman being thrown into a pool by a guy.

1:00: Idolized blonde woman grinding some guy.

1:01: Woman in her underwear about to have sex.

1:02: Some guy using a leaf blower to blow some woman’s skirt up, revealing her underwear (because it’s so funny to have your butt shown to a whole party).

1:03: Woman making out with some guy.

So… there about 40 seconds in this trailer that feature women. In those 40 seconds women are never treated as people, merely sexual objects. And they are treated as sexual objects 13 times (or every 3 seconds). Can we stop and think about how this influences teenage boys? Maybe you don’t want to admit it, but sexism is alive and well. Currently, a woman makes about $0.75 for every $1.00 a man makes. Movies and other forms of media continue telling young men, “You are better. You deserve any woman you want. If they won’t give it to you they’re a prude, a bitch. And if they do give it to you, well, then they’re a slut. You see, it’s a lose-lose situation for them. Take advantage of it. We have. And look how much money we earned, by ourselves of course.

Apparently it’s perfectly okay for kids to see a movie that completely glorifies the sexual exploitation of women, but they can’t see the film that’s actually critiquing the effects a hyper-sexualized society has on people. If Project X had come out a couple of years ago I bet this would have been one of the films that inspired Steve McQueen to make Shame. And that’s why this film is so important. It’s holding a mirror up to our society and forcing us to see how fucked up we are. Project X perpetuates the status quo while Shame challenges it. This is why Project X passes by with a R rating and Shame receives an NC-17 rating, and why I am now outraged by the rating. It truly is a form of censorship.

So now what? Go see Shame. Tell everyone you know that cares about real films, our society, politics, life, anything to go see it. Make Shame a financial and critical success. Help de-stigmatize the NC-17 rating. Realize we live in a patriarchal society and find some way to stand up to it every day.