Saturday, February 19, 2011


Here are a couple of my latest (finally) pieces for the site film-forward; they're only capsule reviews, but they give a good idea what to expect if you happen to be able to catch the films (which you should as they're awesome to varying degrees) at the Film Comments series or later on DVD.  There are also two other films playing at the series - the much anticipated I Saw the Devil (which I've seen and, SPOILER, is the first great film of 2011), and Hobo with a Shotgun, which could very well do for Rutger Hauer what The Wrestler did for Mickey Rourke; not necessarily 'resurrect' his career, just make him more prescient in the public.

You can check out the reviews HERE!

The films:



Thursday, February 17, 2011

Faces of Top Ten of 2010...

... with honorable mentions at the end (i.e. 11-30)

(Note: this list took some time to put together as I wanted to wait to see as many 2010 movies as I could.  To be fair, I... didn't see them all, and indeed when I do my top-ten-wrap-up podcast tomorrow with fellow C-Stumper Matt for Creatively Stumped Podcast, he'll have films on his list that I've yet to see, though also visa-versa.  At the moment, as a film buff who tries to see as much as possible but only can do so much as a not-official film critic, it's what I got):











Honorable Mentions (that is, movies I thought were awesome, but didn't make the cut):

Inside Job
The American
Winter's Bone
Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
Shutter Island
I Love You, Philip Morris
The Fighter
Rabbit Hole
The Ghost Writer
Let Me In
A Film Unfinished
The Killer Inside Me
Casino Jack and the United States of Money
A Prophet
and, last but not least....
The Illusionist

(list of the top 10):
10) Toy Story 3
9) The Social Network
8) True Grit
7) Catfish
6) 127 Hours
5) Mother
4) Exit Through the Gift Shop
3) Black Swan
2) Another Year
1) Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

So there.


Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu doesn't usually make very 'happy' films, or characters who are going through anything very pleasant, at all, and Biutiful is no change to that trajectory in his career.  And indeed it may be even more depressing than 21 Grams, which was a film that dealt with death and grief, and Babel, which dealt with the ramifications of a guy with a gun and a victim and a girl unrelated but just as unhappy.  I suppose that's his game: if you need some message of 'Humanity can be fucked', Inarittu is your man, and always with depth and intensity.

In Biutiful the protagonist, Uxbal played by the always-present-and-great Javier Bardem, finds out he has cancer, and even with treatments (which he decides to opt out of) he only has a couple of months.  In this time he could have the chance to straighten things out with his life, and have the comfort of his family.  But for Uxbal, this is not as easy as it looks.  He's a kind of shady character on the streets of Mexico (though I think it was shot in Spain?)

He assists in making deals with illegal immigrants- from Senegal and parts of Asia- but is not as shady as other characters in similar work.  He hates that the Senegalese get caught for drug dealing (and he, too, is caught in the raid that sprawls out in one epic scene into the streets), and that the Chinese labor is being exploited.  But he, too, is an exploiter, and is only a notch or two above the scummy Chinese labor-cattle-drivers, and keeps on doing what he does to get his cut of the money.  He finds some peace in helping out a Senegalese mother with a baby, yet can't help what happens at a crucial, heartbreaking moment later in the story that involves much death - and, arguably, at his fault.

Uxbal also has problems at home; custody of two kids and an ex-wife who is bi-polar, and yet earnest in her lov and affection as she is with her bouts of craziness and despair.  So, too, are things wacky with his brother, who is also a shady character in business dealings and more than likely with his ex-wife Marambra (Maricel Alvarez).  He could reveal all of what's going on with him to them, but he'd rather focus on things moment to moment: minutia at the dinner table (a "stop kicking the table" scene carries more drama than expected, though not to melodramatic proportions), or with bigger things like Marambra's peaks and valleys as a person in general.  And all the while he has another 'thing' about him: he can speak to the dead.  Or, at least, that's what he sometimes makes people believe.  Whether they really talk back to him is another matter.

Biutiful could have been a rough slog through a depressing tale of a man coming apart, and perhaps it still is.  It is rough going as Uxbal is having to get by on his wits end, sometimes sick as a dog, other times sick of the people around him (though, of course, never his kids whom he loves and protects).  What makes it not just enudrable but moving is that the director Gonzalez-Inarritu is dedicated to never making things sentimental.  We see how much he struggles so that even when he is flawed, and he is, we can still feel for him when things get really bad and tragedy strikes.  He has true existential dilemmas: the responsibility for himself, what hangs over him in nearly every scene after he finds out he's dying, and to the others.  There's a particularly traumatic scene that the director shoots with a dark beauty as bodies wash up on a beach.  How they got there is shocking, though not as shocking as their first revelation in a warehouse-room where they are kept in-between office hours (that is, at night).

As with his first film, Amore perros, Inarittu's gaze is unflinching and raw, and I was absorbed in the drama unfolding.  If there is a criticism it's that the drama in some scenes goes on for just a minute long, lingering just for a few too many moments on some shots and scenes that are ancillary to the story.  It's never an unpleasant (that is not boring) mood set in, but at two and a half hours for the story that's being told it's too long.  Where to cut I would feel embarrassed (or just unsure) exactly where, as so many scenes, particularly all of those with Bardem, have something interesting to them.  It's more of a matter of a few lines and a few beats just building up dramatic fat to them.  If it were cut by ten minutes it would be not simply very good but great.

Call me Friend-O one more time, I DARE you!

For some the length might be just fine, as a meditation (so to speak) on death and what matters when one is alive and with those he loves and what he can care for.  For me, Bardem was the key, and likely Inarittu's wildcard in case scenes got dull or didn't live up to their potential.  His is a serious, heart-rending performance where he becomes this character as he did Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men.  It's such a good performance that I could forgive the film some of its shortcomings with some of its (non?) actors as he would pull the scene together with his sometimes-quiet intensity and making Uxbal so fragile even when he seems so strong.  And when Uxbal breaks down finally and sobs it's felt wholly on Bardem.  And when he's having a small moment with his daughter, sick and weary, and talks about a ring that was his mother's, it's certainly made far more emotional because of Bardem at the center.  In other words, there's soul here, boatloads.

I keep harping on him because, really, some of you out there would not be concerned to see this if not for him.  Sure, there would be some out there (and I would have been one of them if not for the star) that would see it simply for the dark drama, of a man in the midst of personal and professional chaos and with little hope. Biutiful is bleak and full of despair, not least of which for its many characters without speaking roles and "minority" in the country it's set, but there is light and pathos too.  A few scenes do let some levity come in, little stories around the same dinner table that can also carry the dark times.  It's a heavy film about life and its end, but should it be any other way?

Oh, and PS: The actress playing Marambra is excellent here, a fine match for a powerhouse like Bardem.  Id' be remiss if I didn't get one more mention of her here, and how deeply felt she makes her character: lived-in, warped, depressive, and like a hurricane at times.

Monday, February 14, 2011

An Elia Kazan film of Budd Schulberg's A FACE IN THE CROWD

"And you were just a face in the crowd, out in the streets, thinking out loud, a face in the crowd." Tom Petty

Larry Rhodes is just another driftin, amblin' along with his guitar and big voice, gettin' drunk and gettin' in to some trouble when he's found one day by the amiable Marcia Jeffries, who works at the local Arkansas radio station and goes out for the segment 'Face in the Crowd'.  This is when average folk, in this case inside of the prison walls of the local sheriff's department, can show off their talents or anecdotes.

Suddenly Larry appears  from the corner with a minor reputation already from some of his other cell mates.  When he's awoken it's like waking up a big happy "yee-HAW" bear of a man.  He sings like one of those blues men on the road- a genuine one, despite being white- and can tell a dang-nambin' good joke or story from his time walking around.  He's endearing, he genuinely is, at least when he's just a folksy kind of guy.

He first goes on to the radio show thanks to Marcia, who becomes his sort of cheerleader as he becomes a town-star.  Then he's tempted by a local TV guy in Memphis, and he brings his folksy charms and witticisms there.  This is where some of the more natural comedy comes in A Face in the Crowd before it becomes full-blown satire; he doesn't really know how to speak to the camera, but goddamn does he know how to speak to an audience, without a script, barely without a net.  "Lonesome Rhodes" shouldn't work but he does, boy does he.

 And he does things that are groundbreaking for the time, like bringing a "Colored woman" (as the liberal co-star Walter Matthau says) on the air, which brings in African-Americans to the TV's in drove.  Hell, it brings anyone who can connect with his genuine grit and lived-in quality.  "I'm just a country boy."  There's no reason to deny it at this point.

But it's here that director Elia Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg are just warming up.  The bigger message is in the pudding of Marshall MacLughan: the media is the message, and this message and media is that of Lonesome Rhodes.  Yet it could really be anyone who suddenly skyrockets to the top, which is what happens when Larry (still guided, and loved, by Marcia as his one-true confidant) decides to take Lonesome Rhodes over to New York City to get a bigger Nationally Syndicated Show.  More than that, commercials.  Lots of them.

And for vitamin-pills that should be nasty but Rhodes gets the bright idea- nay, almost the wisdom- to make the pills yellow "Cause it's like sunshine!"  It's around here that the belly of the beast starts to grow, and A Face in the Crowd becomes kind of like a cross between Network and Frankenstein, with poor Marcia (or not so poor, pretty well-off but pretty guilty about what she ultimately has done) as the doctor and Lonesome Rhodes as the Monster, complete with laugh/audience track built in at his penthouse.

It is amazing to see how much forsight there could be with Schuldberg and Kazan with what would become the cult of personality in the Mass Media of America.  While I could claim that by now the country has become a little *too* ADD to focusing on such a guy so intensely and with such a point that he becomes influential, maybe it's becomes cross-mutated by this point.  I don't know if Face in the Crowd has dated much outside of back then there being only a few channels available on TV and commercials being more concentrated with their delivery, a handful of products.  If anything one can look at this as being almost innocent(!) compared to how things look today, with politicians making the successful cross-over and becoming celebrities, almost in spite of themselves (i.e. Sarah Palin).

Does that, and how closely and intensely the film makes its points on the cult of celebrity and how much people are willing-and-able sheep to messages and people (that is until there's cracks in the veneer, and even then there can be forgiveness, i.e. Michael Richards), make it still a good movie?  No, it's a great movie besides.  The acting is all top-caliber, and astonishing considering my somewhat-medium expectations.  Andy Griffith, from my generation's POV (and maybe for the one before mine) always seemed to be that crusty-older-guy on the show with his name and lil' Opie Cunningham.  From his performance here as Lonesome Rhodes I am more shocked that he didn't get bigger and better roles after this.  What I liked most is that from the start we know something is not quite right about Rhodes, that there is a reason he is in this jail cell and is a drifter without much of a job or prospects.  He may not even seem like the "nicest" guy, and that he may be hiding something.

Griffith does a lot to make that character complex even when it doesn't look like it.  There are smaller scenes where he's not bellowing and acting like a big-bear-of-a-man when there's some subtlety, like when Marcia is asking him about his parents and upbringing and Larry talks about his mom and his many "uncles".  He can show restraint and moments of being somber, but then that's not what Rhodes totally is, and certainly not what he becomes at all.  It's a LOUD performance and full of physical vigor (comparable today might be Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland), and raw comedy and odd charisma.  When he enters a room, especially those scenes with the stuffy politicians and businessman, he makes Lonesome Rhodes come alive like what he is: bigger-than-life but all "folksy" and from the streets and dusty roads of America.  The contradictions aren't quite lost on me, but by the last act he becomes this Monster Rhodes with a passion and fury that is mesmerizing.

In his "I like to move it, move it, I like to move it , move it, I like to move it, move it, you like to... SAY IT DANGNABBIT!" period
Equal kudos to Patricia Neal who is more like a surrogate for the audience than we think until later in the film, as she starts off (naturally awestruck), midway through distrustful and uncertain (of course), and as he's going into full-blown Ego-Maniac-with-a-Dustbowl mode she's naturally panicked and with a face like death (why not).  Neal is there for every beat that she needs to be, and is excellent in those scenes where Griffith frankly needs a more reasoned-toned person in the room, which makes the scenes where he's going all ballistic that much more terrifying and heartbreaking.  Lee Remick is quite good too, if a little one-note as the lovable young girl who becomes more like an accessory to the Lonesome Rhodes Media Machine(tm) than an actual wife.  And Walter Matthau does his concerned-look-at-yourself face pretty darn well.

But what's meant to stick is the social message, and it's made with force and vigor and some dark comedy.  It  would almost appear on first glance that the way in which Lonesome Rhodes meets his downfall is too obvious, but in retrospect it's like perfect poetic justice.  It's akin to the line from The Seventh Seal: "We make an idol out of our fear and call it God".  Media manipulation is something to be feared, I think Schulberg and Kazan would surely argue, and even moreso today (although people, arguably, are much less wiser to it save perhaps for Fox News... sometimes).  But unlike a God itself a public figure can be torn down by the very same medium that he/she is created in.  Or another obvious quote on to the bonfire: Pride cometh before the fall.  You know, all that jazz.

I don't know whether this is really hot or creepy, you tell me?
What makes A Face in the Crowd, like Network, stick so long in the viewer's mind is how true it is.  Kazan may have a slightly heavier hammer to grind than Lumet/Chayefsky, but its no less entertaining.  It's got fantastic moments of montage, those scenes of old-style 1950's TV and big amusement settings like the baton competition are riveting pieces of cinema, and that central performance from Griffith that's a career highpoint right at the beginning.  It also treats very seriously love and trust, who people really are deep down, and how manipulation works when caught in the crossfires of fame and (mis)fortunes - not to mention, of course, money being the big fucker of all.  And, in the Warhol tradition, how quickly it can be drift away from "Superstar" status.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Writing War & Peace in Bumper Cars # 1: The Rhyme and Reason for Jealous Jerzy

(This will be, I hope, an on-going blog series within the Cinetarium about filmmaking, inspired by a quote from Stanley Kubrick: "Anyone who has ever been privileged to direct a film also knows that, although it can be like trying to write 'War and Peace' in a bumper car in an amusement park, when you finally get it right, there are not many joys in life that can equal the feeling.")

Now that you've seen the Jealous Jerzy short film trailer, you might be asking 'what gives? I came here to the Cinetarium for movie reviews! I want my metaphorical money back!'

Well, every so often, as in the next few weeks, I got to get my pimping-my-movie going, as my short film is getting its world-premiere screening at the Queens World Film Festival in Jackson Heights, NY!  It's playing March 5th 12 PM at the Jackson Heights Cinema 1,2,3 in JH, and it'll be playing before another feature film there at the festival.

It's exciting times, and I hope to get as many people as possible there.

But what is Jealous Jerzy?  It's a short film, of course, but what of it?  How did it come into being?

I think that one of the things is that I had not made a dramatic effort in a while.  I had just come off doing a comedy, a successful one all things considered, called Lines of Glory, and felt I needed a change of pace.  I also had some ideas about the nature of jealousy and more-over the nature of projection: how we as people end up projecting our own fears and insecurities and hate on to those around us, especially those we're closest with.  Some may do it in subtle ways, and others may just have it consume them from time to time, based on a look or a gesture or a conversation.  But is there more than meets the eye to a person?  How much do we really know about the other person in our lives, even if we love him/her, if we don't know ourselves well enough?

Following on the kind of dramatic tone that I had with my first short film, Infidelio (now on Vimeo finally btw), I wrote the script, but this time in a change of pace from strict realism as I had in that film (save for some trickster-stuff being that it was my first short film and wanted to move the camera a bit) this would be more stream-of-consciousness.  The protagonist is doing a pretty mundane activity, walking to get some Chinese food, but he does two things that sets off the drama of the piece: 1) what's in his mind that keeps him second-guessing himself as he walks along, and 2) what he leaves behind on a computer screen for his girlfriend to find, which is something not so much a twist but a carefully staged reveal.

The reveal: Jerzy and Thora are from the hood and up to no good!
So most of the film is a subjective experience, one where a character has this worst-case-scenario thing going on.  Maybe his girlfriend Thora did cheat with her boss.  Most likely, not.  The inspiration if I can pinpoint it to one source would be in Eyes Wide Shut.  While under different circumstances than her- in Kubrick's film Tom Cruise's doctor has no reason to suspect his wife of infidelity or basic mistrust until she unloads a story of feeling hot for a sailor on vacation, so he imagines what she might have been doing with him as he walks around the streets of NYC at night - it's a similar motif.  I may have taken it a step darker in that Jerzy has no exact reason given (then again it's a short film, only so much time to reveal such things) to suspect Thora.  But then again, do any of us?  But it happens, even, I'd bet, people like Ossie and Harriet or the Beaver-Cleavers or Ronald Regan.

I worked that into being the narrative structure, yet I like to think of the script, and the subsequent film, more like music.  It moves along to a rhythm, bodies move and punctuate one another (so to speak) in an office where it's supposedly after hours- Terry, the boss, lowers the blinds as Thora is at her desk in a tight white blouse- and there is no one around.  My cinematographer and I shot this regularly, but then in post production went into the color correction to make sure that it was with a slight tint of orange.  A love for Vittorio Storaro's stylistic preference for it, maybe, but more than that it was to emphasize, but not so over-the-top as, say, Kubrick did with his full-on blue tint of imagined sex scenes in EWS.  The intention is for a dream-like affectation of lust, and this given further emphasis with slow-motion (but not super-slow, we cranked the speed just slightly away from 24fps so that it's like half-slow-mo).

and sometimes some odd-ass angles like this
The shoot itself went over quite well; we had to move it down to a couple of weeks past the original intended start-date, yet everything came together quite quickly, I should add, having written the first draft near the end of January of last year and then shooting it in the first weekend of March.  It was a fine cast, with perennial Whiplash film favorite Zack Abramowitz in the lead (also doubling as producer), plus Audrey Lorea, found after the usual route of read-throughs with actresses.

Why her is quite simple: Audrey is that damn-good of an actress for a role that requires some ambiguity, even near the end when Thora's rightfully pissed, and a certain look for the part.  Not to be shallow, but as a director you do have to cast for a certain look for a role.  Sometimes talent can supersede that, but really the way an actor looks, how reaction in the face makes its mark, some improvisation, and how he/she will look in relation to how you pictured it in the script, are all big factors.  Frankly, I couldn't have cast someone who was, how shall I say, "homely"(?), but at the same time not super-attractive.  It's a delicate balance as it's a face and attitude and (yes) body that would correspond with what Jerzy is feeling: in love but protective, and who would be with a guy like Jerzy.  In other words: natural.

And from Zack what I looked for was something a little different; after so much comedy in the past couple of years, between a webseries (Losers) and a short film collaboration with myself (L.O.G.), I wanted him to flex some dramatic muscles.  Thankfully he was not only up to the challenge, when I sent him the script saying simply "just take a look, if you'd like a part let me know" (I could have equally, frankly, seen him in the part of Terry the boss as well), he jumped at the chance to play Jerzy.  Perhaps it was a personal connection to the ideas or the character, or just wanting to work with SuchaSwellGuy(TM) again.  But it was just a case of everything clicking.  And subsequently the actor hired for Terry, a mostly comedic actor with awesome chops (not mutton chops, just like good talent and skills and timing), John Holloway, rounded up the cast as the one who is given just a little character - "Take a card, take a few, hand em out, spread the word" (wink) - and rolls the story forward.

On top of this the technical side of things were exciting and, for me anyway, ambitious: access via the sound operator (and, ultimately, co-executive producer) to an HVX camera, which is a cut above my usually dependable DVX camera, with picture quality that is practically 35mm-film worthy (and indeed we also had access to a plethora of lenses for the camera), some cool features despite being a big beast, and a damn good DP to do it.  I merely need to direct you to his cinematography reel for the man's full credentials, but if anything he was probably my closest collaborator in terms of bringing the vision to total fruition.  With a good array of lights and lenses, complex but workable ideas on how to move the camera and create some dream-like poses, and one moment in particular inside the Chinese restaurant that was all his own idea (the camera 'wipe' from down the papers and up into the 'imagined' scene), this was the clincher.

So, for two days and two nights we shot - not all night, mind you, we all had to get back to bed at some point - and it was sometimes hectic.  At one point the location for the front porch of Terry's house fell through, and so my house's front porch had to double, luckily we hadn't yet shot there, so the backyard could double as Jerzy's place, with a great flood-lamp at the ready.  At another point as Jerzy went to town at Terry with the fight scene and the "WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?!" line, which was shot in multiple takes, a neighbor ultimately came outside and yelled "HEY! We're calling the cops!!"  To which Zack, bless him, responded practically in character "Hey, we're makin a movie here!"  If he'd become Jimmy Smitts that would've been the end of it.  But it was 9:30 PM on a Sunday night, some kids somewhere were sleeping, so we quieted down... somewhat.

Punch-Drunk Acting 101
Sometimes, as with most films, shorts, commercials, etc, there was waiting around.  Sometimes the schedule fell behind for this reason or that, in hindsight no one's total fault though in the moment a frustration close to root canal (Time is be the great enemy, Chaplin might've written or something).  Sometimes a technical glitch stalled things.  Sometimes an actor just needed a few moments to get in the right mood.  At another point the actors playing Thora and Terry went off for an hour to just talk and get-to-know-you stuff so they could get to the sex scene.

It also carried some surreal quality as I was shooting it at my very office (at one point my driving instructor, I run a driving school in the day-time on weekdays, came by just to grab a sandwich, and actors may have been in just their underwear at this point).  But it was also always professional, albeit the lot of 'That's-What-She-Said' jokes flying and other things such as 'Harry S. Plinkett' references to the Red Letter Media reviews.  There were more pizza rolls in spirit there than on any other film production that day.

But where am I getting at?  The production itself - it wrapped after a hectic two days and two nights, and yet everything needed was gotten.  Then came the task of editing.  Unfortunately there was one misstep, my fault, which was that the HVX had a system where the footage was saved on the camera on little cards which one had to upload quickly on to harddrives (or a hard-drive) since the little cards were not so sustainable as to be able to hold on to them for very long, especially as they weren't mine as well as the camera.  The original editor, bless him (gotta stop saying that), was cool as hell about the process and I looked forward to working with him and still do in the future, but it didn't work out just due to the technical shit of having a hard-drive set for a certain editing system for the moment, and then not working with another (DAMN YOU FCP!!!)

Zack to Editing System: ZACK SMASH!
That, too, worked out eventually, as I reconnected with an old friend, and the editing on that took several weeks.  Oddly enough I might have done more editing than he actually did (and you know who you are out there), yet he still deserves all of the credit for setting the right tempo and mood, editing some key scenes, and teaching me the basics of how to edit again after not doing it for five years.  It was what true collaboration is about, doing some experiments, trying others, criticizing helpfully and discarding some material altogether (i.e. my second unit crew shot loads of footage for the fight scene on the porch, all but one or two shots were discarded for the simplicity).  And finding some nuggets of cinematic gold.  He also helped me with my current company logo, which will now be put before all Whiplash films and shorts.

The film is done, and now on the festival tour (or trying to be, it's hard out there for a short film in a climate where it's ever so easy to make them, much more so than feature films).  This one in March is the first, then the next one is in May.  It's one of the most exciting times for me as a filmmaker, as the process still keeps rolling along.  Despite having a finished short and a wonderful trailer for it (and now in two versions, one with music featuring Angelo Badalamenti's "The Pink Room" off of the Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me soundtrack, and another with a blues song, one "approved" for Youtube, by John Lee Hooker), it still is a process, getting it out there, trying to find its audience.  That is the unspoken 'fourth' part of filmmaking after writing, shooting and editing is what comes with the audience, when you can sit down with them or, in the more marginal sense, when they sit down and watch it at their computer or, hopefully one day, on their DVD players.  And I hope that keeps going on throughout this year.

Tales from the Filmmaker... may continue at another scheduled time.  Till then, happy watching. :)

PS: Can't neglect the score to the film by Rob Sbar, and how meeting him via Indie Film Nights (a networking group, yes, who knew those things worked!) made for a fruitful collaboration that is just stunning.  The guy is basically a rock star, but can do most music scores one can think of.  And his name is Rob Sbar, how cool is that?  Saying his name even brings to mind going to a corner bar owned by Rob, hanging behind the barstool and smoking big cigars.  Or something like that.

Jealous Jerzy trailer (aka new short film)