Like every year, I spent a five day chunk of my life immersed in a film festival, FilmColumbia to be specific. It's a great festival and a truly surprising one considering it takes place in small town upstate New York. You know, that mythical part of the state north of "The City."
It was a great time and over five days I saw 18 feature films and a half dozen shorts. If you follow this blog you'll notice I wrote a ton on the movies the first couple days and then stopped. This is normal. After that the number of films starts to become overwhelming and the lack of sleep starts to get to me and I just stop writing. I did mostly keep going on Twitter though.
I would recommend pretty much everything to some degree but of course there are stand outs. Anonymous opens this week and is worth a watch, even if it's just for the shock value of watching Roland Emmerich not blow up the world in a movie. I fell madly in love with Downtown Express, but at this point it doesn't have distributor, so finding it may be tough. If you like a slow burn, Martha Marcy May Marlene is well worth your time. If you want to be greatly unsettled, We Need to Talk About Kevin should be on your to do list. The Descendants is another great offering from Alexander Payne. Coriolanus can simultaneously scratch your action movie and Shakespeare itches. And finally, My Week With Marilyn is immensely charming and beautifully shot.
But for me, the highlight will be the screenwriting panel on Sunday morning. Writers bring in a piece of their script and real working actors perform it live for an audience. I brought in a section of the short script No Big Deal that I've been working on since the summer. I was a nervous wreck during the whole event. Until someone else looks at my material, I don't really know what I have. All I know is that the idea interested me enough to write and that I've done my best to write it. There were some really strong entries and my script was the last to be read. By the time they got to mine, I had convinced myself that I had written utter crap and it would be booed off the stage.
This did not happen. The actors were Anna Acciani, Gian Murray-Gianino, Kevin Craig West, Lily Balsan, Glen Heroy and Parker Posey. They knocked it out of the park. I couldn't be more delighted with their performances, particularly Heroy and Posey who found a style and rhythm to an older couple in the story that I never imagined. And what they did was more interesting than what was in my head when I wrote it. Always leave space in your writing for the actors to work in. If they're at all talented, they'll elevate your material if you don't put them in a straight jacket.
After the reading there was discussion and the reaction was easily the best I've had at one of these events. People were fascinated with the idea and my plan for making it. After it was over I was able to talk to most of the actors and pick their brains about producing this short. To say it was informative is a huge understatement. And after the whole thing was over I actually had people in the audience stop me on the street to talk about it. If you're writing scripts, get them read out loud, you won't be disappointed.
So that's it. The fun is over and now it's time to go back to reality. And that first day back is pure drudgery. After a high like Sunday, Monday at the regular job is a big let down. No offense to my co-workers, who are lovely people, it's just not the same.
I'm writing this out of great selfishness. Downtown Express does not have a distributor at this point, which means that an album of the film's music is not available for sale. And I want that album badly. So I'm going to write about the movie in the hope that it will get more attention and get a distributor so I can get that album. C'mon, somebody pick it up. I'm standing here with cash in hand, ready to give it to anyone who takes a chance on it.
Downtown Express is the story of Sasha (Philippe Quint), a Russian immigrant brought here by his father Vadim (Michael Cumpsty) to study music at Julliard. Sasha is a gifted violinist, trained since the age of three by his cellist father. Sasha is working hard with his teacher Marie (Carolyne McCormick) to prepare for a recital which will launch his career. Vadim's passion for music is off the scale and he often barges into the lessons to correct Marie's interpretation of Tchaikovsky. Sasha is a bit more broad minded about music. We see him walking the streets of New York, thrilling to variety of street musicians he finds along his way. He goes to see the band Downtown Express play at a bar and is so taken with them, and particularly their singer Ramona (Nellie McKay), that he asks to join the band.
What follows is a lot of musical brilliance as Sasha tries to meld his classical violin with a modern alternative style band. The movie's story isn't anything new. The son clashes with the traditional ways of the father but earns his grudging respect by excelling in his own way. But the way that story unfolds, fueled by some truly gifted and charismatic musicians, takes this from something ordinary into something transcendent. Yes, I'm outright gushing here. I'm a guy who has struggled his whole life to put aside other people's expectations to pursue my own artistic creations. The phrase "But artists don't make any money" has haunted me over the years, as well meaning parents tried to push me into more lucrative careers. Money doesn't mean a damn thing to me if I'm miserable earning it. Pursuing art of my own is something I'd do for free. Learning to be okay with that has taken me my entire adult life. This movie is exactly about that struggle. There is a moment when Sasha is rehearsing with the band as they try to perfect their sound on the way to an important gig that literally brought tears to my eyes. This wasn't actors pretending to be musically brilliant as they evolve before our eyes. They really did it. And it is a beautiful thing to behold. Writer/director David Grubin has made something truly magical here.
I can't say enough about Philippe Quint as the lead. He is a monstrously charismatic fellow who backs it up with electrifying violin playing. He's a musician who learned to act for this movie and it's a spectacular debut. He has great chemistry with Nellie McKay, who has acted before but is also a wonderful musician. Cumpsty and McCormick are veteran actors who add a great layer to the movie with their sweetly developing romance. And in the smaller roles, I liked the band members and Sasha's cousin a lot too. It's just a great cast.
So, again, somebody pick this up for distribution. I'm ready to put cash down on a movie ticket, album and DVD right now. Please, take my money.
Despite swearing off being a film critic, going to a film festival brings it right back out of me. And since I'm spending pretty much all week at FilmColumbia, you'll forgive me a few critical indulgences.
Lars Von Trier is a provocateur, plain and simple. And he is very good at it. I have a strong reaction to every film of his that I see, mostly negative. Melancholia is a bit tougher to place than his previous work but it still managed to wind me up. The movie starts with a long section of surreal slow motion shots, mostly featuring Kirsten Dunst staring moodily into the camera while something bizarre occurs, like birds falling from the sky or electricity rising from her fingers. And then the segment concludes with an impressive shot of a rogue planet slamming into the Earth and destroying it. Then the movie backs up and starts over at the wedding of Justine (Dunst).
I found this part of the movie fairly maddening. It has moments of great charm and great humor. But it also has moments of pure acid rancor and self-destructive behavior. By the end of the wedding, I know with great certainty that Justine is someone I don't want to spend time with. Clearly she's suffering great mental pain, but because the style of the film is to jump into the middle of Justine's story, I couldn't find a place to get a grip on her. Similarly, her family is tough to figure out and I needed more than half the movie to make sense of them. This isn't me complaining about not being able to sympathize with the characters. I don't need that. I don't even need to like them. I do need to find a way to get a handle on them though. Something I can sink my teeth in, a point to build from. I've read a few reviews of the movie and from them I learn that Von Trier has suffered from severe depression and that fueled his previous film Antichrist and this one. With that in mind, Justine starts to make a lot more sense to me. Without it, I spent much of the movie wondering what the hell was wrong with her. Her character was opaque to me.
The second half of the movie switches the focus to Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). This part worked a lot better for me but at the same time I found it much less engaging. Justine was intriguing, even if I couldn't understand her while Claire was much easier to understand and subsequently less interesting. This section has a lot more to do with the rogue planet and has some interesting stuff about how people process disasters and the inevitability of death. But this is also where Von Trier started to get under my skin. There is an unpleasant nihilist streak running through it that I find it impossible to relate to. He's taking such a polar opposite to my own world view that he might as well just show a photo of himself flipping me off. Same effect. I'm going to avoid discussing this in detail, because you should discover it for yourself, but there is a scene that feels like Von Trier giving us his view of things that turned me off completely.
Von Trier knows exactly what he's doing here. This is a filmmaker in complete control of his medium and from a technical view, I can admire the hell out of that. I can and do disagree with some of his choices, most notably the handheld camera style, but I'm not putting his work down, merely voicing a difference in taste. What strikes me as most odd is that last night I watched Roland Emmerich's Anonymous, made entirely without world ending vfx, and tonight I watched Von Trier make prominent use of world ending vfx. The world has gone mad.
The first film today was a doc called The Bully Project. I had my doubts early on because it seemed to be one of those cause docs that usually make me crazy. If I can feel your politics coming through loud and clear, I'm probably not liking your doc.
But this one stayed out of that trap by not being preachy. Apart from the obvious bullying is bad theme, it wasn't pushing for anything. It just stands back and watches kids, parents and school admins try to deal with the issue.
The stand out parts, for me, was an assistant principal who will set your teeth on edge. If she is representative of what passes for schools' efforts to stop bullying, we're fucked. She had no business being around kids. Parents shouldn't be in the position of trusting in someone like that. If their only other alternative is keeping their children home from school, the public school system is worthless.
I'm guessing the doc was shot on a Canon 5D or something similar. They used shallow depth of field a lot, to varying effect. Holding focus was clearly a struggle for them, although that and the stability of shots improved as the film went on. Practice makes perfect.
Really quickly, I want to talk about Anonymous, which I caught tonight as the opening night film of the FilmColumbia festival.
I was pretty leery of this one going in. For one thing, I've never bought into the idea that Shakespeare wasn't the author of his plays. I particularly don't care for the class warfare inherent in the idea that someone can't produce brilliant work just because they come from humble origins. The other thing worrying me about the movie was the director, one Roland Emmerich. I don't say that to denigrate the man. Some of his stuff has worked for me and some hasn't. But he's been pretty consistent as the guy who creates big bombastic summer blockbuster movies. Subtle has never been a word you would use to describe his work.
But I'm happy to say that I enjoyed the movie quite a bit. The early going is a bit confusing as it jumps around in time and introduces a lot of characters quickly, at different ages to boot. But it slowly pulls together and by the end has turned into something not dissimilar from a Shakespearean tragedy. Screenwriter John Orloff builds the world nicely, giving us a weird identity struggle between three men. Rhys Ifans is impressive, playing someone very restrained for once. Vanessa Redgrave is the queen and makes for about the most animated royal I've seen in a long time. And Rafe Spall is a blast as Shakespeare himself. He's not the bard you've come to expect. The whole cast was great, those were just the highlights for me.
After the film, Orloff was on hand to answer questions. It was an entertaining Q&A, as this is a topic he's very passionate about. And he stated rather clearly that the movie isn't trying to convince you of anything. It's supposed to entertain you, and that it does.
I was paying close attention to the visuals which made heavy use of visual effects to recreate the time period. Orloff made it clear that pretty much all exteriors and large interiors were shot almost entirely on green screen sets. I was sure that a lot of comping was going on but the scale of it was much larger than I guessed, so this is damn good work. The budget was only around $30 million and feels a lot more expensive. It was shot on the Arri Alexa camera and the footage looks gorgeous. Emmerich dialed the bombast way down for this movie but he knew just how to use his technical chops to make a pretty convincing world for surprisingly little money.
You have my recommendation to go see it and not at all because Orloff is a local. It's just a good movie.
This is a bit of a test folks. I'm trying to see if I can successfully post to the website while mobile. If this works, I may do some quickie reactions to the movies I'll be seeing at the FilmColumbia festival.
It starts tonight with Anonymous, which I'm very curious about. For one thing, the screenwriter is a local, John Orloff. I love seeing people not actually in Hollywood get stuff made. The other thing is that Roland Emmerich directed it and I'm very curious what he does with a story that doesn't rely on explosions and destruction.
Lets find out how all of this works out, shall we?