Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Super grandpas save the day...

A bit late to the party, I'll admit, I recently watched Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino.  Not his best work, and I'm not surprised it received no Oscar nods for any major awards, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't moved by it or that I didn't enjoy it. 

The acting was- to put it generously- not believable.  That's not to see the actors lacked charm.  I liked them one and all.  But the brother and sister (Thao and Sue) who are Kowalski's foils were profoundly unconvincing, and next to an actor as complete as Eastwood, it's hard for the juxtaposition not to be awkward.  Yet, in the end, I could not help feeling ennobled by Kowalski's sacrifice, moved deeply by the fatherly sentiments he feels towards these two kids who are not his kids, but are much more so than his own flesh and blood.
These warm, tingly emotions reminded me of the last film I watched that had a similar effect on me.  This film also had an elderly protagonist save the day through his sacrificial actions: Captain Abu Raed, a gem of a film that happened to be scored by Austin Wintory, the whiz kid composer who also wrote the majority the music in my short, MISSING PIECES.
Abu Raed is Amin Matalqa's first feature film, but the story is so finely told, you wouldn't know it.

Like Gran Torino, Captain Abu Raed employs a lot of non actors in the young, underprivileged section.  But unlike the situation in Torino, Matalqa knows how to work with his kids, and coax brilliant performances out of them.  Much of it has to do with casting- finding the kids who's life experiences give them the emotional depth to necessary to project that gravity onscreen.  But it also has to do with a unique directorial talent and skill: working with first time actors. This skill requires a combination finding ways to poke and prod in the right ways, communicate in way that someone who doesn't have the language of acting will understand it.  It's not surprising to me then, that Clint Eastwood at a loss...  He's been spoiled by the Sean Penn's of the world...
In any case, perhaps watching the trailers will give you a sense of the parallels between the two films:

As a postscript, when I asked Amin if he noticed any similarities between his film and Gran Torino, he confessed that he hadn't seen it, then adding:  "But a lot of people tell me it's like a harsher version of Captain Abu Raed..."

Monday, January 19, 2009

Would you like a Soul Pancake?

Rainn Wilson is starting a new website called Soul Pancake.  It's been a dream of his for a while to create a site where spirituality and creativity meet.  Part of that is aggregating content- the way MySpace or YouTube does- but just the stuff that brightens your day and makes you want to be a better human being- and not the stuff that weighs you down, the way eating too many Twinkies does.

The other part of that is creating content.  That's where a few trusted friends come in, who've been asked to create some content for the site.  So that's what I'm helping with.  For now, we're creating conversation starters, hearing from people as they answer some thought provoking questions.  It's like this site for example.

Anyway, that's what I did today.  But unfortunately, I was only able to interview 14 people- we got some lovely footage though...  We'll see how it turns out- I'll post it here and the link to the SoulPancake website...

The Wrestler

Just saw Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler...

A heart breaking film filled with life's verisimilitude.  Aronofsky deserves major props for going the extra mile in achieving a truthful depiction of Randy The Ram's world and character.

There's also an interesting cinematic approach that Aronofsky takes.  Much of the camera work and mis-en-scene in this film is reflective of the social realism so pervasive now and so expertly rendered by such filmmakers as the Dardenne Brothers and Ramine Bahrani.    On the other hand, Aronofsky still uses quite a bit of music, and more cutting in general than one will find in the work of either of these two examples, who often let entire scenes play out in a single take and without any non-diegetic sound.  While Aronofsky may not have adopted quite as severe an aesthetic, for a filmmaker who's previous works were truly made in the edit, through masterful post manipulation, this film represents a major departure.   But how could it not?  The story and subject matter called for such an approach,  and Aranofsky clearly has the artistic maturity necessary to recognize the need to find the essence of a story and develop it, rather than graft and impose his signature imprint onto it.

If you have not, I strongly encourage you to see this film.  I'd like to hear what you think of it as well...

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Making way for the next gen...

About six months ago, my film, MISSING PIECES, was a featured film on MySpace. 

It was featured both on the front page of MySpace, and I was also a featured filmmaker in the filmmaking section.  Anyway, the coolest thing about being showcased in this way was hearing from a lot of great people.

One message that stood out was from a young duo, the Carberry brothers from Ohio.

Here's an TV piece from FOX where the producer of Slingblade mentions them:

 I was very impressed with the work of these 17 year old kids.  You can see their work here

Anyway, now they are 18, and out in LA.

Yesterday, I had the good fortune of hanging out with them, and checking out their work. I was blown away with what they are doing- incredibly sophisticated stuff for two 18 year olds.  It made me happy to see these kids with tools to chase their dreams so early. They have a lightness I hope they never lose.  But along with that they had depth, and don't just want to make cool, flashy technically impressive films- they also want to make work that comes from their heart.  And when I spoke with them about serious filmmakers, like Gus Van Sant, they really seemed to get it.  At their young age they have a handle on their craft, while still in possession of the humility necessary to progress in one's art.  I look forward to seeing where they go, learning from them, and supporting them in their dreams.

It's A Small Globe After All...

Today I had the great privilege of hearing the seven Golden Globe nominees for best foreign film speak today at the Egyptian theater.

The directors for all of the nominated films were present and they all spoke about their films.

Here's a look at them all, and a small taste of what their directors had to say at the event:

The Baader Meinhof Complex
directed by Uli Edel

It seems in life that the means often pervert the ends, rather than justify them. So it was in 1970's Germany, when that nation was rocked by the RAF (The Red Army Faction), a radical organization devoted to bringing down what they perceived as the new tyranny- American imperialism and its cohort, the West German establishment. Director Uli Edel spoke of eloquently about the genesis of his film and its historical context "We were the children of the war generation, they had lived through the Third Reich." He went on to explain that the impulse of his generation, when in their 20's and 30's, was to be the opposite of their parents- to speak out in the face of danger, to not be complicit with evil. In the RAF, this impulse reached a fanatical fever pitch. Edel explained that he wanted to make this film for his children's generation of Germans, so they would understand what happened during this pivotal period of German history.

Everlasting Moments
directed by Jan Troell
(Sweden, Denmark)

If you read my last post, you know I really adored this film and found it to be a stunning and profound gem. I won't repeat myself, but if you're interested, please read the post below. As for director Jan Troell, so highly regarded is he that the master of ceremonies had no problem referring to him as the most distinguished of the directors in attendance. It came as no surprise when Troell revealed his sense of kinship with his protagonist- that is just as when Maria receives a camera and is forever changed, so too was the case when Troell received his first camera at the age of 15. The film is in many ways a love song to art, and the ways its fleeting, eternal glory, can change us, and be an instrument by which we change our world.

directed by Matteo Garrone

Based on the best-selling book by Roberto Saviano, Gomorra is an unsparing look inside inside the mafia families that virtually rule the Italian cities of Naples and Caserta. Noting Martin Scorsese's association with the film, the MC asked irector Matteo Garrone if he was influenced by American mob films. Garrone replied that he enjoyed those films, but that he didn't see his film as a mob movie- he saw it as a war film, which was an entirely different perspective, adding that it was closer to City of God. Hearing Garrone speak made me want to see Gamorra- but after watching the trailer, I'm a little reticent to experience the trauma...

I've Loved You So Long
directed by Phillippe Claudel

Director Phillippe Claudel got his start as a professor of literature and as an acclaimed novelist. His novel acclaimed novel, Grey Souls, was itself made into a film. Apparently Claudel got the filmmaking bug himself soon after.

Waltz With Bashir
directed by Ari Folman

An incredible film, a true tour-de-force.  Watching it, I could not conceive of how much work it would take.  Also fascinating was listening to Mr. Folman discuss the genesis of the film.  He said he would never tell people that he was making an animated documentary ever again- that he probably could have got financing much more quickly had he simply found another way to describe the film to financiers.  At the end of this brilliant film, there is heart rending actual footage of the actual human carnage on display in the aftermath of the Sabra and Shatila massacres.  When I saw this in the film, I said to myself "This is a director with a message." This was confirmed by Folman himself when he was asked about this choice.  The MC asked Folman if that choice was ever discussed with the producers on the film.  To the audience's laughter, Folman said: "I am a producer, so I talked about it with myself."  He added that it was a choice that came from his ideals, not an artistic choice, so it was non-negotiable.  It was important to have this moment he added, because know American filmmakers when they make war movies, they fall in love depicting the thing they hate, and they miss the point entirely.  Yes, Bashir was a war film, but the real consequences of war are with the civilians- therefore it's important to show them.  I felt Folman showed a courageousness and moral integrity that is essential to a true artist....

All in all it was a very inspiring afternoon.  Wish you were there!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Everlasting Moments in the Aero Theater...

I just got back from a double feature at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica.

There I saw a screening for two of the 2008 Golden Globe nominees for best foreign films: Everlasting Moments and Waltz with Bashir

They were two astounding and remarkable films that could not have been more different... Except that they were two heavy, heart shattering films.  I'll have more to say about Waltz another time- but since it's been getting all the attention, I'm going to talk about Everlasting Moments now...

I had never seen a film by Jan Troell before, but now I want to see all of his work.  Based on the life of his wife's grandmother, the story of one woman and her family, the film is a perfect vehicle for exploring the specific contours of individual lives as they interact with the vast historical forces of their time: Evangelical temperance movements, socialist anarchism, industrialization, urbanization, war and technological innovation.  It is this last force of change that is perhaps the most personal, as it allows Maria the device that is her means of both observing the world and creating images or great beauty: the still camera.

The trailer for Everlasting Moments

The American festival title, Everlasting Moments, is a bit misleading.   The actual Swedish title  Maria Larssons eviga √∂gonblick captures better the essence- it translates to Maria Larsson's Everlasting Moments.  

And that really is what it's about- it's about the way our protagonist Maria Larsson sees the world and captures her visions in lasting images.  The through line of the film is in Maria's struggle for wholeness- both in safeguarding her family's integrity as well as her newfound craft.

The beauty of this film is in the richness of its vision, both in its formal elements and in the blending shades of thought so humanely presented.  We see the spectacle of domestic violence, of abuse in the home- but its presentation does not take us into one of the two dichotomous possibilities we are conditioned into accepting in the narrative treatment of this subject.  That is the two options of either leaving her abusive husband or being his tragic victim...

Instead, we see the character stand up for herself in subtle ways, but still living through much abuse.  And we see an abusive husband who gradually changes.  Many will say she should have left him...  But that would not be realistic.  And it is truer to our experience in so many situations.  I have seen it with my own eyes: a woman abused, and she should've left him, but the ending is not as tragic as one would expect.  Somehow there is change, somehow there is growth.  Not ideal perhaps, and not with the consciousness one would hope for. But somehow, there it is...

And through it all is the eye of Maria, catching those poetic moments in between, where a light seems to be shine through a thin linen veil...  

Throughout the film, gems of wisdom come spilling out the mouths of its characters, all seeming to articulate the filmmaker's worldview.

"Not everyone has the gift of seeing" one of them says.  And so it is.  But Maria clearly does, and she demonstrates to us what it is to look into all things with a searching eye...

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Interesting Thing about the The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

If you haven't seen 
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button 
don't read this***

I saw Benjamin Button recently.  It was a virtuousic and moving film, an intimate epic, and not without its flaws.  No surprise in the technical virtuosity of the film, given the extreme prowess of its director, David Fincher.  What is surprising is its departure in tone from Mr. Fincher's previous work, better known for chronicling serial killers (Se7en, Zodiac)and most especially, the brutal and social commentary-laden Fight Club.

Much like Forrest Gump.  Actually there are some striking parallels- no wonder the screenplays are both penned by the same person, Eric Roth.  In some ways it seems like Mr. Roth simply blew the dust off the template, and changed the colors in the paint by the numbers paradigm.... I know that sounds harsh- much harsher than I mean it too, since I did enjoy the film.  But if anyone where to watch the two films side by side, and consider what I'm saying from the two films story structures, their eccentricities and morales, I think it would be hard to dispute my point.

Here are a few salient examples:  

Both characters have a strange disability.  In the case of Gump, Forrest's disability is, for lack of a better word, dumbness.  Or perhaps more precisely, an overly earnest and literal heart.  With Benjamin Button, on the other hand, we have the odd handicap of a man growing younger as he ages.  

In both films, a very sincere point is illustrated through ironic means.  Forrest Gump sees the deeper truth in life and articulates it in the simplest and clearest terms possible, because of his seeming cognitive limitations. Benjamin Button, on the other hand, illustrates the immortality of love and sacrifice through death, and the effects of aging through it's exact opposite.

They both span a panoramic view of the 20th century, rely heavily on special effects and both screenplays are adaptations of literary works.

On the last point, however, there is a significant divergence.  Forrest Gump was adapted from a novel, and the movie is fairy true to the literary work, in both tone and style.  There are some significant changes, but just par for the course in film adaptations.

The the short story by the same name which The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is based, on the other hand, conveys a very different moral than its feature film version.  The Benjamin Button of the short story is rather a rather selfish fellow, unlike his noble and kindhearted film version.

The story of Benjamin Button chronicled in the F. Scott Fitzgerald version is more Twilight Zone than intimate epic, more a sad commentary on the cruelty and vanity of men than the immortality of a deathless love.  In Fitzgerald's version, Benjamin comes out of the womb a grown, ancient man, not just baby with the skin of an eighty year old man.  No, he is grown, 5'8", and already in full command of the English language- no goo goo ga gas here.  He has a whispy beard, and the temperament of an old man.  He is not just fully grown and old in body, but his mind's development matches his body's, unlike in Fincher's world, where part of the pain is the developmental mismatch.

Unlike in Fincher's version, Benjamin does not leave his wife out of a selfless desire to leave her free to find a good father who will not revert to childhood in his old age.  Rather, he drifts away from his wife because she is saggy and boring.

The ending of the short story is to me much sadder than the film.  Both illustrate the hardship of going through life in reverse and of being out of step with your peers- but in the short story, this tragedy is compounded by the absence of deep human ties.  It's these ties that allow humans to powerfully sustain one another.  Yet poor Benjamin (of the short story) has no such meaningful connections, and it is this one element that stands out in an otherwise fantastical tale as all too tragically true.

Fitzgerald's sad tale of Benjamin Button ends with these graceful words:

"There were no troublesome memories in his childish sleep; no token came to him of his brave days at college, of the glittering years when he flustered the hearts of many girls. There were only the white, safe walls of his crib and Nana and a man who came to see him sometimes, and a great big orange ball that Nana pointed at just before his twilight bed hour and called "sun." When the sun went his eyes were sleepy--there were no dreams, no dreams to haunt him.

The past--the wild charge at the head of his men up San Juan Hill; the first years of his marriage when he worked late into the summer dusk down in the busy city for young Hildegarde whom he loved; the days before that when he sat smoking far into the night in the gloomy old Button house on Monroe Street with his grandfather-all these had faded like unsubstantial dreams from his mind as though they had never been. He did not remember.

He did not remember clearly whether the milk was warm or cool at his last feeding or how the days passed--there was only his crib and Nana's familiar presence. And then he remembered nothing. When he was hungry he cried--that was all. Through the noons and nights he breathed and over him there were soft mumblings and murmurings that he scarcely heard, and faintly differentiated smells, and light and darkness.

Then it was all dark, and his white crib and the dim faces that moved above him, and the warm sweet aroma of the milk, faded out altogether from his mind."

For the full text of the original story of Benjamin Button go here.