Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

A Note on Anomalisa

December 9th, 2015 No comments

David Anomalisa

For Charlie Kaufman, with each passing film he has continued to deconstruct what we typically expect from a standard narrative, acknowledging there are no rules to how you can write or tell a story. Basically, rules are written by people trying to sell you books on screenwriting.

Anomalisa is his latest film, a “funny-ish” drama that continues Kaufman’s career of defying expectations. Originally an audio play the script found it’s way to the Duke Johnson and Starburns Industries, the studio responsible for Rick and Morty and Before Orel. This was serendipitous as a beautiful union was formed. The script calls for three actors. You have David, our main character voiced by David Thewlis, who is feeling alone in the world. He is on the road promoting his book and giving a speech on how to improve customer service. We are getting a small 24-hour glimpse into his life as he visits Cleveland, a city with a wonderful zoo sized zoo. It takes a minute to let everything register but the audience soon comes to realize everyone David interacts with has what we can call “World Face” and “World Voice.” Everyone looks the same. And they are all voiced by the great Tom Noonan (who you hopefully remember from his fantastic role in Kaufman’s opus and certified mind-f#@!, Synecdoche, New York). This world is, to say the very least, dull. We witness the most boring, mundane details of his night from the cab ride from the airport, the hotel check-in and then ordering room serviDesks anomalisace.

It’s not a subtle point being made. I’m sure many of you have felt it, the world can seem to lack real human interaction; it can lack depth. People have perfectly packaged platitudes they feel comfortable serving up for every situation. It can all start to blend together to the point where you aren’t hearing any distinct voice in the crowd.

David’s loneliness leads him to call a former lover, recalling I suspect that she was one of the unique ones. She had that distinct voice, a face to remember. She arrives for a drink in the hotel bar and she is part of the world voice, world face. What’s changed, I wonder. Is his memory that unreliable? Just romanticizing the past and building her into something she never was? Perhaps she has changed or maybe the problem is his perception of the world has changed. Needless to say it ends poorly, they cannot reconcile with their past and David returns alone to his room. And then, a voice! It’s new, it’s fresh, it is so distinct he rushes to get dressed and starts knocking on doors to find this woman with her siren song. It is Lisa; the anomaly in his world. His ‘anomalisa,’ voiced by actor number 3 in this film, Jennifer Jason Leigh.anomalisa-still2

The film is beautifully shot with naturalistic lighting and style. And performances are almost lyrical in their melancholy. The animation is brilliant, with incredibly expressive eyes on David and Lisa. And the sex scene they were able to pull off had more truth and honesty than any sex scene you’ll witness with live actors. It was awkward, slightly clumsy and sort of, real.

This is the sort of film that is wonderful to discuss after the fact and as you reflect on the themes, the style, the performances. It’s very cerebral. But the viewing experience itself was a little underwhelming. Maybe that was the point being made, which works but certainly doesn’t hold the attention of most audiences for very long. There is not much in the film to respond to viscerally, at least not until you get more than half way through.

ANOMALISAIn the end, this script doesn’t offer much hope. One could argue it is nihilistic in a way, suggesting that all anomalies, as hopeful as they may be, are doomed. Individuality seems to be fleeting. Upon reflection the film is profound with emotional depth and I’m probably going to watch it a few times more. It’s a complex and intelligent script that I’m sure will be on top ten lists this year. But general audiences should be cautious. While I loved experiencing different moments, at times I grew restless and most of my enjoyment came hours after the final credits as I was ruminating over the experience.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

A Note on ’12 Years A Slave’

November 20th, 2013 No comments

12 Years A Slave is the story of Solomon Northup, an African-American man born free in New York in the early 1800’s but was kidnapped at 33 and sold into slavery.  It’s a tragic and shameful part of U.S  history but it’s a story similar to many free black men at the time and is too seldom addressed in history books. If you want a full synopsis, Google it. I want to talk about how a gifted director can present a well-examined dark history with a fresh voice.

Watching Steve McQueen’s visualization of the autobiography is at times gut-wrenching. The emotional response the film elicits results from more than just the subject matter.  This film doesn’t present anything about slavery we didn’t already know (or at least you better have known otherwise your education has failed you). Slavery was a horrible abomination, an affront to the God so many of the plantation owners prayed to, but again, we knew that before McQueen got his hands on the story. What makes his account so exemplary is his remarkable control over point of view, pace and performance.

Most film directors today would take a few liberties with point of view on a film like this simply to address those unanswered questions an audience might have.  With 12 Years A Slave nothing occurs that is not from the POV of Solomon.  what efforts did friends and family take to find him back in New York?  Did William Ford (a compassionate plantation owner) ever consider looking into Solomon’s claim to being born a free man? We don’t know because Solomon doesn’t know.  We are tormented with the unknown as much as is Solomon because we are kept in the dark with him. Tremendous.

The camera direction was intensely unnerving at moments.  In a scene where a female slave is stripped and whipped for going to get soap from a neighbor the camera just floats from character to character, in and out of the action as slave owner Epps forces Solomon to whip the woman for him.  There isn’t an edit through the length of the scene, even though we are begging for a cut just to feel a bit of relief in the tension. There is no mercy from the director. And toward the end of the scene the camera moves around Epps for his infuriating lines, “There is no sin. Man does how he pleases with his property.” Beautifully choreographed, sublimely performed.

Suspecting Solomon is attempting to write a letter and get it sent North, Epps (played by Michael Fassbender) pulls Solomon out of the slave quarters and walks with his arm slung around his shoulders, holding a lantern to light the scene.  Epps questions Solomon and when Solomon denies the allegations Fassbender stares into his eyes.  The pacing of this scene was brilliant.  The anticipation of Epps decision is maddening and you can see some hatred buring in Fassbender’s eyes.  There is an authenticity and commitment in Fassbender’s performance here that scared me. I didn’t care what his response was going to be, I just wanted a damned answer! This moment is one of five key scenes for me that show how brilliant are the creatives involved.  It shows us that a very emotional and tense scene can be accomplished with what seems simple choices. But its more bold for a filmmaker to decide not to cut, to not “cover” a scene than it is to cut into close-ups with drum beats punctuating each cut. It reminded me of McQueen covering New York, New York in Shame with just two close-ups, or covering Bobby Sands conversation with the priest in one long take.  It shows unfettered trust in your actors.

Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor gave performance that will stir your emotions and leave you feeling exhausted and used. There was a strong supporting cast (although Giamatti and Pitt being cast pulled me out of the story a bit) and a special mention should go to Sarah Paulson.  Her Mrs. Epps was a deceptive Lady MacBethlike figure who would speak kindly one minute with that “southern charm” and then smash a woman in the face with a whisky decanter the next. She continued to pull the strings behind her husband’s cruelty. Excellent casting choice.

The account of Solomon Northup is something new, something that should be taught in our schools along with Frederick Douglass.  Perhaps in place of Douglass. Douglass in some ways romanticizes the North as a safe haven, but Northup presents a nationwide involvement in the trafficking and enslavement of human beings. Northup becomes a real life Dante, traveling through the depths of hell and emerging to tell his story and in the end nobody looks good.

Even though the mere fact that people practiced slavery not to mention hearing the details of slave treatment enrages me, it’s important to read this part of our history. It’s important that filmmakers are making these movies. And after we learn the these parts of our history and feel hatred rising, it’s important to remember Howard Zinn, who wrote “…that anger, cast into the past, depletes our moral energy for the present.”



Categories: See It, Uncategorized Tags:

A Note on Herzog at the Egyptian

November 11th, 2011 No comments


Thank God for the AFI Fest and their free tickets to shows that I just can’t convince my wife to spend money to see.  She’s not interested? No matter, a few friends are, so I reserve the tickets to Werner Herzog’s Into The Abyss at Grauman’s ornate relic from Hollywood’s Golden Years, The Egyptian.  Outside the palatial theater Brazie and I stand in line with other ticket holders, but we’re just about bringing up the rear of the line, so we’re nervous about even getting in.  But that is why I showed up an hour early, that’s why I printed my confirmation page off the AFI website, to get into this documentary.  I was confident we’d get in without any issue.

I end up apologizing to Brazie when we don’t get in.  We were turned away at the door as I had only printed my confirmation page and had not gone to the festival box office to exchange it for a hard ticket.  There was Herzog, in front of the AFI banners posing for the cameras ready to enter the theater and there was Brazie and I, rejected by the girl at the door who is probably some Freshman undergrad film student who has only taken her intro to film studies and screenwriting courses so can tell me all about Eisenstein’s montage theory but is completely unaware of the living legend she is refusing to let us see! After waiting in the rush line, we are ushered in, a few people didn’t show up and there are ten more seats available (or so they say but once Brazie and I took tickets 9 and 10 we saw a handful of empty seats inside the palace).  We ended up in the second row.

Werner comes out and introduces the movie, it’s brief, he just wants us to know that this film is not to take a stance on the death penalty and it is not his intention for this to be any sort of call to action or condemnation of the death penalty.  It’s simply a tale about death, a tale about life.  Thunderous applause, quick title cards with the sponsors being prominently displayed for the AFI Fest (brought to us by Audi) and then the face of Fred Lopez, the chaplain that stands in the room with the men that are executed.  He’s in front of the Huntsville cemetery where those executed are buried without names, just numbers etched on the crosses marking their resting place. “Why does God allow for capital punishment?” Herzog asks him. Starts to feel like a message movie.

More interviews begin, with family members of the victims of this triple homicide, with Michael Perry who is ten days away from his execution for said crime, with the accomplice Jason Burkett who got life in prison, with Burkett’s father who is serving another 40 years, with witnesses and with a former executioner.  I think I’m onto Herzog, a man I know from the past is anti-death penalty, so I can see him building this case as he builds sympathy for Michael Perry. Then we interview some family members of the victims and I’m not so sure. They are all pretty comforted by the death penalty as a form justice. And with each interview Herzog’s message seems to fade and it starts to feel more like a documentary from a younger Errol Morris.  We’re now just spending time with a group of people all tangled in the same web of misfortune.

Herzog’s latest documentaries have been either darkly and morbidly comedic or wondrous poetry, but both felt like Herzog had a very firm direction that he was pushing the documentary toward.  With Into The Abyss he only captured 6 hours of footage and what he cut together had it’s own unaffected life.  There wasn’t an opportunity for him to capture anything trivial or irrelevant.  Even when it seems to break off on a tangent with an interview of a local young man who once had a screwdriver stabbed through his chest you feel that it is all interwoven.  He had a loose connection to the boys convicted of the triple homicide, but still a connection and was affected by what had happened.

Although Herzog claims this isn’t an “issue film,” and for a good portion you forget about the issue and focus on the characters, at the end you are too aware of the filmmaker’s stance on the issue for it to not be considered an “issue film.”  He creates enough sympathy for both Perry and Burkett through interviews with Burkett’s father and wife and the way he presents Perry that regardless of guilt you don’t feel that anyone deserves to lose their life.

Herzog said in the Q&A afterward it is not about establishing guilt or innocence.  Which is true, it is a captivating look down on a menagerie struck with violence both from civilians and from the state.  At times I felt each person was absolutely crazy.  Burkett’s wife met him online, fell in love with him sight unseen and agreed to marry him on her first visit.  She later became pregnant with Burkett’s child despite not being about to do more than hold hands on each visit. To which Herzog asks knowingly, “there is often reports of contraband being smuggled into jail, but is there much contraband being smuggled out.” To which she replies, “we prefer to say that the child was artificially inseminated.” Oh!  and of course she doesn’t see herself as one of those inmate groupies that goes around falling in love to convicted felons. That would make her crazy.

A poor iPhone photo

As the interviews progress they become very human. Listening to the former executioner talk did more to cement any message than Herzog’s own words could, which is why narration would have been inappropriate for what he wanted to achieve.  In the end, it is a very engaging tale of life and inevitable death.  It’s fascinating to hear someone talk that knows when and how he will die, a torment (or comfort) that none of us have.

The Q&A only lasted about 15 minutes, and Herzog took that time to answer just one question (he’s a bit of a talker) so I didn’t get to ask him what really drew him to this particular story. It doesn’t seem like there was anything remarkable about this case opposed to any of the other hundreds of death row cases in Texas.  That speaks to the masterful hand of a veteran filmmaker who can take, in some of these cases, only 30 minutes to interview a subject and get right to the heart of the issue with a focus on the most interesting aspects of their character and life.   Knowing them now as human, it seems eerily disconnected to mark each cross with just a number, as though the state doesn’t want to think they’ve buried a name just a body.





Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Shooting Steven Spielberg

June 7th, 2011 No comments

Working for the New York Film Academy has some perks; aside from getting to bask in the cheery personalities that work the equipment room (Bianchi), we get to shoot video for the Q&A’s of working professionals after we screen one of their films, or in the case of Joe Mantegna a reel of his work.  We had more gear today, we started earlier today and had more faculty, students and camera operators than normal.  Today was a 35mm print of Jaws (1975) in the Hitchcock theater on the Universal lot with special guest Steven Spielberg. There was a bit of frenzy; students trying to get into the screening but being turned away because they failed to get on the list of 250.  The formidable Greenwood stood guard at the door and told students to take the next shuttle back to the school as they griped “I sent the email, I should be on the list.”  “Can we pay to get in?”  “Oh, let me see the list, I’ll just show you my name.” Nice try.  I even met some new faculty that suddenly turned up for a screening.  Where were they for The Bridge to Terabithia?

Knowing the theater was going to be packed I set up a little chair for myself while setting up the lights.  I tucked it next to a source 4 up in a balcony and nestled in for my first print of Jaws experience.  If you haven’t seen Jaws…. ….. – i couldn’t think of a snide witty thing to say, i was actually at a loss for words thinking there is someone who hasn’t seen Jaws – how about, shame on you? Every time I watch this movie I find more elements that become compounded to make this one of the best bits of story-telling to come out of the last 40 years of Hollywood. The first time you watch it, if you’re a kid like I was, it’s all about those tense shots of a dorsal fin, legs kicking under the water, the scares and the blood!  Then next time it’s all about the score, you’ve matured a little in your understanding of film and can pin-point what is helping build that tension. Then, after years of watching movies, you watch Jaws again and become aware of the amazing shot economy.  There are not nine angles to cover one conversation. This is the work of a director who is sure of himself.  He doesn’t need nine angles just to have choices during the edit.  He can choreograph an efficient oner of three men in an argument and land with a vandalized billboard of Amity Island square in the background to illustrate the point of the entire argument. Filmmakers today rely very heavily on fast “MTV” style editing along with dozens of angles because the director is lost on the set, doesn’t know what he needs to tell the story and hopes that he can desperately glue something together on his Avid (or FCP if he can’t afford a man’s editing system).

On this viewing I also noticed some good old tell-tale signs of 1970’s filmmaking including using a split diopter and the zoom lens.  Filmmakers in the 70’s really enjoyed their split diopters and zooms, they were somewhat new and people were experimenting.  The good thing with Spielberg, and he’s shown the same restraint with digital tools (excluding in Indy 4), is he uses the tools sparingly enough to tell his story.  Not every shot needs a split diopter, but when an old man with C-cup man-boobs is talking your ear off while you’re trying to keep an eye on a kid swimming in shark infested waters but the boy is far outside the depth of field for your lens and stop, then a split diopter is perfect to tell your story.  Man in foreground is in sharp focus yapping about God-knows what and we can see the sheriff is still concentrating on the boy in the water, as he is also in sharp focus.  Spielberg had a tool and used it appropriately as dictated by the story.  Bravo.

At the close of the film my work had to begin, throwing a hefty HPX up on the shoulder to be the “wandering” camera during the Q&A.  Spielberg emerges from the balcony to thunderous applause, I catch him coming down the stairs, high fiving students and taking his seat.  Immediately the moderator, I should probably know who she was but can’t remember, mentioned that she loved watching Jaws because there were practical effects.  She liked knowing the actors were on location, actually in the water, on a boat sinking, etc. She mentioned it twice before Spielberg had to step in to defend the implication of modern film-making.  It was obvious she was implying that it’s a nice change of a pace from the digital world everything is created in today.  For instance, have you seen this photo?

Seeing a photo like this, I understand the moderator.  But Spielberg refused to allow an attack on digital cinema.  He said that if someone would have offered to him back in ’74 a solution to Jaws that meant he could get off the ocean and stop futzing with that shark, he would have taken it. He said that computer effects has allowed filmmakers to start realizing the potential of their imagination which is a very positive thing.  He, of course, did not deny that it is abused.  When the film becomes about the special effects, about the CGI and not about the story, that’s a problem.  People used to have limits on what they could afford to put into a film, or what they could shoot, or what the schedule allows for, and that restraint on their ability unleashed their creativity. But now they have the ability to barrage each frame with everything of which they are capable by throwing money at post-production and forcing their team of editors, assistant editors and post PAs to work 36 straight hours at a time to get it done (I’m looking at you Pirates 4)

As Spielberg continued to answer question after question my arm started to fatigue. Then, around minute 40, it feel asleep and my handheld skills feel to absolute crap. Long lens shots? Forget it. The editor is probably watching the second half of my footage thinking the operator was either drunk or handed the camera to a five year old that had to pee. No matter!  Just keep pointing the lens at Steve and enjoy the conversation.  Oh, wait! My buddy Randy showed up, I handed off the camera and could concentrate on the last two questions (one of which was interrupted by the moderator’s cell phone, tsk tsk).

During these last two questions Spielberg echoed what I’ve been hearing all of the biggest professionals in Hollywood say and that is “you never get what you want as a filmmaker.  I still don’t everything I want.”  He expounded more on the topic, basically saying that film-making is about the compromises you have to make.  Too often I hear students on sets complain that “I must have curved track for this scene to work!” “That curtain must be red, or this doesn’t work!”  “I need her to eat breakfast nude or the scene doesn’t work!” Etc.  Spielberg went on to say, essentially, that as creative filmmakers we must be malleable, we must adapt to what is available.  Do your prep work.  Shot list absolutely every detail if you want, but once you get on set remember that it will all change and you have to be ready for that.  A lot of scenes that ended up in the final cut of Jaws was made up during the long days waiting for a shot on the ocean. Spielberg even stopped bring a shot list to set when shooting on the ocean.  Most iconic movie moments were “happy accidents” that occur during the exploration of collaboration.

This advice seemed to go back to what he told several students asking for advice on how to pursue a career of Spielberg’s caliber and he told them you need to have a plan but be ready to adjust it and accept the unexpected.  Life, like making a movie, doesn’t have one set direction or plan.  The more frustrated you get by any deviation from that plan, the more you are going to allow life, or the movie, to get away from you.  That’s when you fail as a director, when you refuse to allow deviation.  Maybe a refusal to deviate from your plan is the sign of a very insecure director, one that doesn’t know his story.

I hope these students took that point to heart.  I hope that when I go back to one of their sets this week I don’t need to spend an hour explain why they really don’t need to hang a jib off the roof of their apartment for the story to work.  Shoot the story, not the red curtains and not the cool dolly shot that you believe helps reveal the inner turmoil of the blah blah blah.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

A Note on “Hanna”

April 22nd, 2011 No comments

My apologizes to Ms. Hartwig, as I stole Friend-licia to watch Boston the other night so The Wife and I could catch a movie in Century City.  It was a last minute call and we got lucky that Friend-licia was on her way back from Coachella.  After a quick debate over several movies we decided to see Hanna, the new film from director Joe Wright who most recently directed The Soloist, but don’t hold that against him.  He took a departure from his usual fare of sentimental melodrama and brings us a coming-of-age tale masked as an action film.  I only wish he spent as much time working over the script as he did working over the soundtrack.

It starts off beautifully in the frozen forests of Finland with only natural light illuminating the scenes.  We’re introduced to Hanna (Saoirse Ronan from Wright’s Atonement) as a cunning hunter that takes down a majestic reindeer with a single arrow.  Make no mistake, this young sweet looking girl is a predator and dangerous.  She was trained for one mission by her father Erik (Eric Bana) and that is to be a weapon seeking revenge for the death of her mother.  She has been living with Erik her entire life, isolated in a cabin in the woods reminiscent of the Grimm Fairy tales of which she is so fond.  Soon after the script sets Hanna up as the agile predator, we see a gentler moment with her father where she asks him what music sounds like.  This girl is ready to grow up.  Knowing that she is ready Erik allows her to make the decision to activate a beacon that will signal his CIA nemesis, Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett).

From the moment Hanna activates the beacon the film is directed down a path that is part Run, Lola, Run and part coming of age tale.  The mixed genre actually played well.  She would go from driving shotgun next to Olivia Williams with gold light flickering through her blonde hair to knocking in the teeth and slitting the throats of middle-aged men set to the adrenaline-pumping score by The Chemical Brothers.  It is a refreshing change to the typical assassin-that-finds-his-heart storyline.  This is a girl who has only known only objective and as soon as she believes that objective achieved, she is free to explore the world and Ronan plays the part with an endearing innocence that makes you forget just how lethal this girl can be.

Eric Bana’s character was as cold and flat as the Finnish lake where we first met him.  At times it became difficult to tell if it were character choices Bana had made or if it were just a disconnected performance. The bond I thought we should feel between Erik and Hanna wasn’t there. I felt like he was just playing his character from Munich, at least the accent was the same as was his keen ability to kill.  He wasn’t in the film enough to be a real distraction for me, during the movie I was really just drawn into Hanna’s character as this deadly teen struck with an insatiable wanderlust and gentle spirit.  One performances that stood out, although her character was annoying, came from Jessica Barden.  If a character is written to be annoying and then succeeds in annoying you, kudos to the actress.  She provided much needed comic relief and appropriately provided an outlet for her exploration of sexuality.  They never do anything, but she does introduce Hanna to boys and they share a small kiss, but the truth is you cannot become of the world without a sexual awakening.  It was handled with delicacy and humor.  There is a temptation when handling a female coming-of-age story to exploit her sexuality and Wright avoided that temptation, which I applaud.

It would be unfair to the film to claim that major plot holes distracted me.  The only time I wasn’t fully on board with this plot was when a man named Issacs tracked down Hanna.  Issacs is played by the familiar face Tom Hollander, who was fantastic in In The Loop.  You’ll probably recognize him from the Pirates of the Carribbean movies. But he’s commissioned by Marissa to track Hanna down and he finds her almost immediately.  Perhaps I blinked, but it seemed highly unlikely that he would stumble upon the hotel she stayed in when she didn’t give her name, didn’t pay, wasn’t seen and slept in the back room.  But, let’s forget it and just enjoy the chase.

Now, after the credits had rolled and The Wife and I made it safely back to our car we started talking about things we liked about the movie.  Big questions arose (and major spoilers are a-coming). Why the elaborate plan for revenge when it seems they could have just killed Marissa without all the fanfare?  Marissa attacked Erik years ago by just stepping into the street and shooting him.  They couldn’t have done something similar? I guess then there wouldn’t be a movie, but why not track her down, follow her home and shoot her?  Then we got on the topic of who Hanna is, what she is.  It’s a typical “twist” to the story and for me that is where the third act started to go awry. I wanted Hanna to be a girl that was finely trained, nothing more.

But what can you do? These bigger questions didn’t distract me much in the moment, and Mr. Dill always said you should let your first viewing just wash over you.  Later, you can go back and analyze what worked, what didn’t and why.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Rambling ’bout a Valentine’s Day On The Fringe…

February 15th, 2011 No comments

I didn’t have a lot to do this Valentine’s Day.  The wife and I slept in as long as our 8 month old would allow (which was actually a pretty good sleep in) and then I got to reading a script sent to me.  I was prepping for an informal interview to 1st AD a short film coming up this March/April.  So around 2pm I headed over to the USC campus and met with the director at their new film school building.  We discussed the script in detail, basic logistical concerns and what have you, and proceeded to intellectualize the story which could easily become a very good character driven short film.  The whole while I was annoyed that the USC film school has a Coffee Bean in their lobby and food trucks lining their street where the best we had a Chapman was the Dairy Treat down at the corner – which was really only an option left for the bold, daring risk-takers out there.  Sure you could walk down to the circle and get some Cuban fare at Felix’s or any other great places to eat (which I loved), but this freakin’ Coffee Bean is in their lobby! Perfect for the film students who want to have quick meetings at a coffee shop, and then if they’re like me, order a lemonade or tea. I can’t stand coffee.

Adjourning at 5 I had to hurry home so we can begin our Valentine’s tradition of getting fast food, bringing it home and presenting it like a fancy homemade meal. Makes us feel like we’ve put some effort into our romantic day. With LA traffic I got home around 6 – just an hour long 6.5 mile trip –  I probably should’ve just ran there.   With an astronomical number of food trucks hitting the streets of LA recently we decided to venture out and sample some of their cuisine. We packed Boston up in the car and headed out to find a Brazilian food truck.

And what to my wondering eyes should appear?  A whole community of food trucks turning out delectable meals! That’s right!  Monday nights on Washington Blvd across from the Sony lot is this…Okay so the picture isn’t great, what do you expect when using a Blackberry camera? But what you can sort of make out in the darkness and blown out lights is a circled caravan of food trucks with folding tables and over-turned buckets for the guests to sit on.  It was like a bohemian, transient dining room. But we didn’t linger, we got our food to go so we can go home, put the kid to bed and then enjoy our meal and movie.  The meal presentation looked something like this…

What you see in the picture would be two Blue Moon Spring Ales, two Mexican Cokes, a chicken pastel, beef pastel, banana pastel (I never heard of a pastel until tonight but they’re delicious) and a Brazilian hamburger. That comes with fried onions, lettuce, bacon, corn, a beef patty and a fried egg.  Un-freakin’-believable. As for the movie we chose the high-school comedy Easy A starring Emma Stone.  It’s not available to stream on Netflix, which was pretty irritating as is the fact the HBO doesn’t allow their shows streamed on Netflix but that’s a gripe for another time.  So we had to order the movie on-demand, which seems a bit of racket. $5? Seriously?

Easy A is the story of Olive, an un-noticed straight and narrow girl who told a simple lie in order to save face in front of her friend and that lie spread like a wildfire through her school quickly earning her the reputation as the school slut.  Instead of a fighting the rumor, Olive embraces the new reputation, using it to help the seemingly “uncool” boys of her class look like sexual conquerors.  Each guy she fake hooks-up with gives her a gift card or present for the right to claim a sexual exploit with her.  This adventure obviously is doomed from the beginning as it continues to get out of hand and puts real relationships and emotions at risk.

The script actually works pretty well and has a few true laugh out loud moments.  I know the director, Will Gluck, continued to rework the script even the night before a scene was to shot as he was tweaking dialogue to fit with the actors and it worked. Which means, although a well structured and well told story, the strength of this entire piece lies solely on the voice of the actors; mainly Emma Stone. Let’s first look at the supporting cast that rounds out this little comedy.  Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson are, for lack of a better word to describe what I mean, delightful in their roles as the parents.  Sure, you could argue that these parents are a little “too cool,” as their laissez-faire attitude seems more like it was written by teenagers as what they wish their parents were really like, but that’s what works.  All teens want their parents to loosen the leash and allow them to make mistakes so they can learn and grow.  That’s what made some of the parents from those classic 80’s films so great.  Molly Ringwald’s dad in Sixteen Candles, I can’t remember that actor’s name and I won’t look it up that’s cheating, was an ideal father for a 16 year old girl.  Understanding, funny, compassionate.  It’s how the parents of the protagonist are suppose to be in teenage comedy (except for John Mahoney in Say Anything… who was stealing all the money from your grandparents, the prick).

I though Thomas Haden Church played a great teacher, again the cool teacher that we all wish we had in high school.  He’s able to make great moments awkward and funny. Like approaching Olive, who is now dressing like a whore to embrace her new reputation, he says, “What the hell are you doing?” Olive: “What?”  He proceeds to stare at her, they both know something is amiss, and after a long pregnant pause he replies, “Don’t forget, tomorrow’s Earth Day.”  Simple!  But had me and the wife rolling.

The real strength with this film is two fold.  First, major credit needs to be dealt to Emma Stone who made the “misunderstood teenage girl” seem fresh for the first time since Natalie Portman in Beautiful Girls. There is an undeniable charm laced with a caustic wit that makes her enjoyable (although almost always the same) in every role.  Sure, this could have been Wichita in high school before the zombies took over, but plucking her into this genre worked. She has great comic timing, she’s cute (not some plastic looking “bombshell” that will get all coked up and steal from jewelry stores), and best she can actually deliver a sincere performance.

The other strength is that this film is tongue-in-cheek.  It always knows what it is and in a small way deconstructs the teenage sex comedy by calling attention to itself in relation to the teenage comedies from the 80’s.  There are even elements of the teenage comedies from recent years, like Mean Girls and Saved! As Olive calls attention to the similarities from her life in John Hughes and Cameron Crowe films it makes us more aware we’re watching a movie that is fully cognizant of it’s own conventions.  We end up enjoying those conventions out of nostalgia, I suppose, because we all (in my generation) enjoyed those films and it was fun to see them recalled here as Olive gets to ride into the sunset with her prince on a riding lawnmower.

On a very quick note it should be said that while this film recalls the old greats, it never reached that full scope of those films because Easy A never tapped into the pathos of John Hughes. Hughes spoke to us like a fellow teen that was suffering the same high school dilemmas we were.  Which makes me sort of wonder, as I watched Hughes leading into my teenage years; did I love John Hughes because I suffered teenage angst, or did I suffer teenage angst because I loved John Hughes?

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

A note on Rex Reed and True Grit

January 3rd, 2011 No comments

I wasn’t going to be writing anything about True Grit.  I figured it goes without saying that the Coen Brothers know how to make a good film, and this is no exception.  But then I read a review from a film critic I have long thought to be a joke in the journalistic community; Rex Reed.  Do you know this man, this man who somehow earned mountains of cash writing “bitch” columns about society and film? To read Rex is to be misguided by Rex.  This is a film reviewer that calls Christopher Nolan “a hack” that has yet to make a comprehensible film.  He essentially credits the Coen Brothers as making only two good films; Fargo and No Country for Old Men.  Rex Reed is, at best, an archaic relic from a time when people found it fashionable to sip on brandy or martinis at soirees while listening to the resident bitchy gay social critic’s inane thoughts on people’s affairs, art and film. I thought that trend died with Capote and Warhol (although those two men actually had value).

While Rex occasionally gets something right, like John Wayne’s Oscar being undeserved or calling The Social Network a “film transcends its trendy, obvious limitations with enough vitality and vitriol to make it as informative and breathless as it is entertaining, most of the time Rex is so off-base that we wonder where and when he gained his credibility. Perhaps in grand ol’ yesteryear this man could shed some insight on the movie scene but today he can’t enjoy or even comprehend any film more intelligent or complex than Seabiscuit. Let us consider the Coen Brothers’ revisit to the classic western novel, True Grit.

Let’s start off by mentioning how brilliant this film looks.  Roger Deakins surpasses any cinematographer working back Rex’s heyday, including Storaro, Hall and Unsworth. Deakins has a command of composition and light that should be the envy of every aspiring cinematographer and the fact this man hasn’t won the Oscar simply proves again the award is essentially meaningless. But Rex doesn’t pay any respect to technical merit in almost anything I’ve read from his pen, so we must move past the technical and focus on the story-telling.

We open on a shot that draws you in; it’s a warm soft-focused image that begins as an almost pin-point on the screen so you lean forward slightly to make it out.  As the image grows and pulls focus, with the somber narration of an older Mattie Ross accompanying, we see a lifeless body outside an old saloon getting covered in lightly falling snow; his horses trots off the far right of the screen and it is clear this is going to be a darker version of the novel than the 1969 film. When Mattie Ross first enters (played by the bright young actress Hailee Steinfeld that graduated from Chapman student films to the major leagues in a matter of months) she is confronted with death all around her.  She identifies her father’s body then witnesses the public hanging of three criminals.  It is clear, the punishment for sin is death and Mattie demands the murderer Tom Chaney be punished.  Mattie manages to summon up her strength to bully around old western men with grit and determination.  Does she really have a lawyer like she constantly claims? Maybe not, but she’s convincing enough that she gets her way.

Rex Reed calls Stienfeld’s performance “passable,” which is an understatement.  Steinfeld brought the same refined confidence and articulate verbal mastery as Kim Darby did decades ago. But of course self-doubt and nerves surface during the journey and we witness the character’s final steps into adulthood. Darby and Steinfeld are so evenly matched in this role it would be difficult to really set one over the other. Bravo to Steinfeld. I look forward to watching her continue on what is certainly going to be a career that far outshines Rex’s sorry attempt at an acting career.

Which brings us next to Rex’s lambasting of Jeff Bridges. So you won’t have to go searching for his exact words, let me give the quote. Rex writes,

“…he gives the worst performance of 2010, grunting and growling with a throat full of gravel that renders any rational assessment of the screenplay pointless…Incoherent mumbling has become his trademark, substituting bloated self-indulgence for what used to be acting. Mr. Bridges does everything to out-wobble, out-drawl, out-screech and outdo John Wayne, hoping his meandering tirade will make everyone forget the original and forgo comparisons.”

I will say that I think drawing a comparison between Wayne’s performances and Bridges’ is senseless.  Bridges actually manages to act, where as Wayne simply plays John Wayne with an eye-patch.  There is comedy in this story, Rooster Cogburn has a sardonic sense of humor that got completely lost in Wayne’s stilted and flat turn as the marshal. Comedy is difficult, too difficult for the Duke to pull off.  But with comedy in the Bridges blood and a good handle on the craft of acting, Jeff manages to give new layers to Cogburn that haven’t been seen before.  There is not only an appealing sense of humor, but a clear emotional progression and arc that culminates with a tense ride to save Mattie’s life.  The words Rex couldn’t make out between grunts and groans is likely due to his own rapidly aging ears and not Bridges’ performance.

I know that above I’ve given a lot of praise to this adaptation of the novel, and the praise is well deserved.  But obviously this film is not flawless. Matt Damon was miscast. A fine actor in the right roles, here he was caught between the tough guy that he has branded himself as and the arrogant, somewhat “dandy” of a Texas ranger he is supposed to be playing here. In and out of his accent his scenes were airy without any emotion behind his dialogue and in the end he is eclipsed by the performances of Stienfeld, Bridges and Brolin (as brief as his appearance was). The ending felt tacked on, even though it is very true to the ending in the novel. I hated the horrible attempt at an uplifting ending in the original, but still this “downer” ending felt hurried and unsatisfying.  And finally, there is a scene where Cogburn and LeBoeuf shoot cornbread like skeet in a pissing contest which felt like a cheap attempt at levity.  The scene should’ve been cut, adding nothing to the plot and being a low point for each performance.

This was a great western. A wonderfully crafted story of wild west justice and vengeance, the story of an old curmudgeon learning to care for another and a young girl coming of age.  Although it’s not one of my top five Coen Brother films, it still brings me to my final point against Rex.  Master story-tellers deserve their recognition.  Rex said it himself in his interview with Cavett that he believes people should receive adequate recognition for their accomplishments. The Coen Brothers have proven themselves across all genres and time-periods, taking us on an odyssey in the depression era south to the Jewish communities in the suburbs of Minnesota, the seedy underworld of Texas and into the surreal worlds of parenting in Arizona and writing “boxing pictures” in 1940’s Hollywood.  There are only two movies they’ve made that I would say you shouldn’t bother seeing, which leaves them with a solid winning record.

So, the Coen Brothers will go on to make more cinematic history while Rex will simply start to fade into obscurity longing for the days when his opinions may have been relevant. And to The New York Observer, as long as there is Andrew Sarris who can contribute (despite taking him off your permanent staff) what need is there for Rex Reed?

Categories: Patton Notes, Uncategorized Tags:

A note on Tom Hardy and the film ‘Bronson’

December 24th, 2010 No comments

Back when The Wrestler was released two years ago I read this quote describing Mickey Rourke in the film; “A harmonic convergence of player and part that happens only once in a blue moon.” That’s from David Ansen of NewsWeek. Once in a blue moon?  Ansen must’ve missed Tom Hardy in Bronson, released in the same year.  If Rourke’s performance is a blue moon then Hardy’s is Halley’s Comet.

It’s a one man show! Starring Britain’s most violent prisoner and most expensive mental patient. He stands before a captive audience, breaking the forth-wall as he addresses us directly and announces, “I’ve always wanted to be famous.” But he can’t sing, ball or act so his options are limited. Yes,  he has a violent streak, he’s had it since childhood, so it’s a life of crime for Michael Peterson (who later adopts the moniker Charles Bronson).

When Peterson is first arrested it’s for a relatively small crime; he steals 18 quid from a post office and then is sentenced to 7 years.  The sentencing is comedic, in fact a lot of this film is comedic. It’s a tragicomedy that just happens rank among the most violent films.  In fact, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn shows tremendous skill in implementing an almost Kubrickian sensibility in both his visual style, his surreal approach to violence and  his ability to extract raw performances from his actors.

But how does a man go from sticking up a post office for 18 quid to being the most violent criminal in Her Majesty’s Prison Service? I think it looks like simple boredom. But he is presented to us as a man who loves prison. He loves his “hotel room,” as he calls it, and he loves to strip down naked smear himself in butter and go bare-knuckle to riot-gear against a slew of prison guards. And Hardy presents this to us with such bravery and uncompromising dedication that you believe every second.

There’s an amazing moment where we cut back to the stage, as is done regularly throughout the film, where Bronson is split like Two-Face. One side is himself. The other side is made up to be a nurse from the mental hospital at which he attempted to kill another patient. He whips back and forth, recreating a conversation – “when’s my trial!?” Bronson screams. “There isn’t going to be a trial.” The Nurse responds. “But I want my hotel room back.” – It’s a marvelous and inventive way to move the story along quickly, mixing again this surreal style with a bitter comedy and inspired theatrical performance.

Bronson ends up being a surprisingly innovative biopic that some critics have dismissed as just being “a pointless exercise in morbidity.” But such an over-simplification of this film is board-line criminal.  Refn’s bold profile of a violent man doesn’t shy away from the brutality of his life, but he does undercut the violence with his brilliant use of music, mixing rock, opera, classical and The Pet Shop Boys.

This is just another instance, in a long list of examples, that proves most awards are jokes.  Sean Penn won the Oscar this year for his role in Milk. It’s a very good performance, but doesn’t belong in the same category as Hardy’s performance. It’s the equivalent of ignoring Charlotte Gainsbourg at the Oscars last year. But to hell with award shows simply recognizing studios trying their damnedest to promote their films to increase their box-office after spending a mint on an awards campaign.  Awards can be a kiss of death to some.  What has Gooding, Jr or Berry or Bullock or Paltrow done since their awards?  Sometimes the award can be a mark of the end, not the beginning. Hardy’s performance here marks the beginning of a very exciting career and it will exist now as one of those fringe performances that wasn’t promoted relentlessly to the public.  It is one you need to discover years later on Netflix on the recommendation of a rambling, lowly, fringe writer….

Categories: Patton Notes, See It, Uncategorized Tags:

Rambling about Thanksgiving dinner

November 27th, 2010 No comments

Every other year my in-laws are in town for Thanksgiving and we go to Jim Brown’s house in the Glendale hills for dinner.  He’s the uncle to my brother-in-law. And no, it’s not the Jim Brown you’re thinking of; this Jim Brown didn’t play football and it’s not the casual name for the legendary singer (obviously).  This is “Our Man In Hollywood” Jim Brown, the retired Hollywood reporter for the Today Show.

His home is a nice ranch style home with a million dollar view of Glendale and in the distance, springing magnificently out of endless strip mall sprawl, are the high-rises of LA.  Looking directly west off his back porch is the best sunset in the greater Los Angeles area, see the picture below.But the most interesting thing here isn’t the view and it isn’t the house. It’s the man inside and his brilliant library of Hollywood books and biographies, most of them signed. I stood in awe in his library, looking at a wall of books.  I didn’t know they were signed when I started thumbing through them but when I opened the Hitchcock Truffaut book, the epic book-length conversation between Hitchcock and Truffaut, I was surprised to see a large swooping autograph from Hitchcock complete with a simple sketch of the iconic Hitchcock silhouette. Then, tucked into the lower corner was a small note to Jim scribbled and signed by Truffaut in handwriting that is barely legible.  Amazing. And that wasn’t all.  The other prize gem in the collection was an autobiography of Orson Welles, again signed. But this one came with a story.

Jim was thrilled to interview Orson Welles, who was very open and congenial during the interview.  He agreed to sign the book and wanted to do a quick drawing of himself on the first page. The sketch was rough, but Jim liked it, and continued the interview.  As the interview came to an end Welles asked for the book back. Jim was reluctant to give him the book, he asked why. Welles wasn’t pleased with the drawing and wanted to have time to finish it, promised that he would send the book back to Jim if Jim would leave an address.  Jim left the book and the address assuming he’d never see the book again.  Over a month later the book arrived, with this odd drawing of Welles, done with in pen and then painted with what looked like water-colors – and it’s not the young Welles that we all remember. This the bearded, rotund Welles from F For Fake and the drawing is perfect.

During dinner Jim was tending to all the food.  He was very quiet, didn’t talk to many of the guests and at the table he sat at the head with his wife and didn’t participate in much of the conversation.  He gets around slowly now, looking uninterested in much of what is being said and just concentrated on make sure we all had enough food and wine. When I got up to hit the bathroom I passed again through the library and spotted a book written by an old professor of mine, Paul Seydor.  It was “Peckinpah: The Western Films.” I returned to the table and mentioned to Jim that Seydor was a professor of mine and Jim lit up.  He didn’t much care for Peckinpah, calling him “crazy ol’ Sam,” but this began a film conversation that went on long enough I’m sure it eventually bored everyone else at the table.  Jim went from quietly eating his dinner to telling tales about flying to England to meet with David Lean, having long-winded conversations with Roger Corman and how memorable Sam Fuller’s voice was in person.

Jim is the sober version of Mank. Hearing his stories reminded me of sitting in Tom Mankiewicz’s class. The only difference being that Mank loved the seedy stories of the underbelly of Hollywood while Jim liked the nostalgic, prettier stories of Hollywood. It’s the difference between a film directed by Frank Capra or some Sam Fuller noir picture.

But something else dawned on me during my dinner with Jim; my true knowledge of American films before the 70’s is lacking when compared to Jim’s.  I knew more about the European filmmakers than he did, and that’s when I became a little upset with my film education. Why had I spent so much time learning and watching the films from the French New Wave and from the film school brats of the 70’s and not the films that inspired them? In the Cahiers du Cinema conversation between the notebook’s founders they exalt the American directors for their work as they deride the directors and writers of their own country.

So, for “Our Man In Hollywood” Jim Brown I’m going to dedicate some time to revisit the American filmmakers of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. I haven’t seen the Lubitsch musicals or his To Be Or Not To Be with Carole Lombard and Jack Benny – nor have I seen the Golddigger musicals, but I will now.  I’m going to explore the noirs and westerns that Jim told me I cannot go another day without seeing and I’ll let you know how it goes.

Cheers to a wonderful Thanksgiving…

Categories: Patton Notes, Uncategorized Tags:

A Note on the Notes

October 19th, 2010 No comments

Since the dawn of cinema there have been critics around to berate the filmmakers, extract some contrived meaning and cast harsh judgement on those who disagree with the critics opinion. It’s strange how it works, but many people take film personally. We almost get defensive when someone doesn’t like a film that we like. “you don’t like High Fidelity or Beautiful Girls? I will punch you in the trachea.” Sorry. While it is not a personal attack to disagree over the merits of a movie, our experience with a movie is personal. At times, very personal.

When we walk into a movie theater we do not walk in as blank slates completely ready to accept anything that is projected on the screen.  We enter a theater with misinformation (or even accurate information which could be worse for a filmmaker like Michael Moore). We walk in with assumptions, expectations, attitudes influenced by the drive to the theater, the parking, the lines, the inflated prices, the horrible movie you saw two weeks ago and that God-awful smell wafting your way from the Hippie behind you in a rotting hemp poncho and vegan open-toed sandals.  So if we are going to make a determination on whether a film is good or bad we need to assess it from different angles.  A film may be “good” because it speaks to us on a personal level, but when approached with a critical mind influenced by Truffaut or Kael or by our lifetime spent escaping into the land of celluloid then it may tend toward a “bad” film.  Or vice-versa.

Roger Ebert has published anthologies of his “less than two star reviews” in books I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie and Your Movie Sucks. He has scathing reviews of films like Pootie Tang and Catwoman. He even famously addressed Rob Schnieder personally in a review saying, “Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks.”  These reviews operate under the assumption that you can definitively state whether a movie is good or bad.  We find ourselves in a bit of a logical misstep here. Can we construct a particular criteria to establish whether a movie is unequivocally good or bad?  Do we live in a world of absolutes? I have several friends that say Citizen Kane “sucks.”  But again, they didn’t like Citizen Kane because of what they brought to the viewing, which was most likely in a class in high school or undergrad film studies.

I do not believe we can have a set criteria for a good movie (although I give it a good effort in my AntiChrist review).  By what do we judge? There are as many critical approaches to film as there are films.  The famed critics of Cahiers du Cinema couldn’t even all agree on one critical approach.  Bazin and Truffaut stood at odds on their criticism of auteur filmmakers and top American critics are always emphatic in their disagreement (just take a look at Rotten Tomatoes).

We can’t ignore the various critical approaches to certain films, like The White Ribbon for example. That is a brilliant film when considered art, but fails when considering it entertainment. It’s the belief here on the Fringe that a good movie can be artistically relevant, holding true to the individual “signature” of the director while captivating a larger audience.  We just ask when a film is promoted and released as pure entertainment it not sacrifice all intelligence (I’m looking at you, Michael Bay).  The best we can do as we evaluate, critique and ramble on about film is be honest about our personal influences, give the filmmaker the benefit of doubt and respond viscerally before we respond academically (because isn’t the primary intention of art and cinema to elicit an emotional response?)  This is the main focus, not the exclusive focus, of these Notes from the Cinematic Fringe.

And when a film fails to achieve any success, at any level, we will take great pleasure in writing a scathing review, because let’s be honest, scathing reviews are as much fun to write as they are to read – see Capone’s review of The Last Airbender here.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: