Saturday, April 14, 2018

Junkies


Regardless of who is at "fault" in the whole Cannes v. Netflix battle, what I'm most curious about is whether or not this conflict will lead filmmakers to choose not to partner with the streaming giant, lest they end up in the same boat as Alfonso CuarĂ³n and Roma. The world of film financing these days is the wild west and you have to take whatever opportunities come your way or you will miss out on a chance to tell your story. But what seemed prudent last year, could come back to bite you in the end. Did Martin Scorsese know he was helping to launder stolen Malaysian money when he agreed to direct The Wolf of Wall Street? Probably not, but that's what happened. And due diligence will only shield you so far.

Remember when a movie from Warner Brothers had only one logo at the front of the film? Now it feels like you're attending an animation festival with the un-ending stream of production logos preceding a feature. Are you sure you know where these Executive Producers got their millions from? Getting caught up with unscrupulous financiers used to be the burden of indie filmmakers like the one depicted in Alexandre Rockwell's In the Soup. But nowadays, you have "studio" films like Wonder Woman receiving funds from the likes of Brett Ratner. And of course there's all that Chinese Money we keep hearing about. Everybody's hustling. Just check out the documentary Seduced and Abandoned, directed by...Oh...

When you step back and really look at the big picture, you understand why someone like Steven Soderbergh would want to abandon the film world for the world of painting. The idea of just needing paint and a canvas to express yourself must be very tempting. Yet since, "retiring" Soderbergh has directed two features, a TV series, and an interactive app. I guess Frank Capra was right when he said, "Film is a disease. When it infects your bloodstream, it takes over as the number one hormone. It bosses the enzymes, directs the pineal gland, plays Iago to your psyche. As with heroin, the antidote to film is more film." Anything for a fix.

And we who watch and write are not innocent, either. I believe the term is Co-Dependent?

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Florida Project (2017)


When Allison Anders was looking for a cinematographer to lens her film Mi Vida Loca, lots of candidates tried to impress her by talking about the “gritty” looks they were capable of getting. Anders opted for Rodrigo Garcia instead, because he recognized that the whole point of the movie was to be from the POV of Echo Park residents who see their neighborhood as the most beautiful place on earth. A quarter century later, Sean Baker and his team appear to have taken the same approach to their film - The Florida Project.

Just because the budget is small, the actors are non-professional, and the locations are functional, doesn’t mean the film has to look like garbage. From frame one, The Florida Project has more style than 90% of the crap out there. Cinematographer Alexis Zabe and Production Designer Stephonik Youth are able to turn a couple motels and a few restaurants into a child’s wonderland that is on-par with the amusement park around the corner. This movie can seriously stand toe to toe with Killer of Sheep and Pather Panchali as a romantically subjective depiction of impoverished living, featuring non-actors, that still bluntly acknowledges the brutality that can encroach from any and all directions. And then there’s that ending!

How was this not a Best Picture nominee and Three Billboards was? This world is a cruel place. But it’s also beautiful.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Call Me By Your Name (2017)


I’ve seen lots of Italian Films in my day. From Neorealism to Giallo, I’ve taken in some of the best Cinema that boot-shaped country has to offer. Yet, as "sensual" as that country truly is, that is not the word I would use to describe their films. Luca Guadagnino is the exception.

Unlike his countryman Paolo Sorrentino, I don’t feel a slavishly self-conscious debt to the operatic camera movements and emotions of Fellini, Visconti, or Leone. From the enveloping soundtrack of insects and wind through trees, to the sun-soaked photography that is so bright it warms you with refracted light off the screen, every artistic decision here is intended to make you feel as though you are actually in the north of Italy, in the early 80’s, during summer. There is no need to beat us over the head with heighten emotions in desperate hope of making us feel something/anything. We are already/immediately right there. We are taking everything in with all five senses simultaneously. We can smell the sweat, taste the food and feel the caresses. We are living it. We are living the good times...and the sad times, too.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Desert Hearts (1985)


I’m pretty sure that the idea of "love at first sight" was invented by a writer. As someone who has attempted screenwriting, I can tell you definitively that it takes a lot of pages to make characters believably fall in love. Love at first sight is a shortcut that allows the filmmakers to get to what they were really trying to make a film about. But what if your film is entirely and exclusively about the slow dance of falling in love? That is what Desert Hearts is. It’s a short movie, but it takes its time building that love story. Like Cay, it is single-minded in its pursuit. Everything else just falls away. The whole world falls away. All that is left is the beauty of the desert, and these two women, falling in love. You really have to admire the simplicity.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Princess Cyd (2016)


While it isn’t about gay cowboys eating pudding, this is very much what people think of when they think of an indie movie. It has female protagonists, it deals with trauma, it features bisexual and gender non-conformist characters, it’s multicultural and there are prolonged discussions about fascinating/important issues. This could have felt like a bunch of topics or issues being checked off of a list. Instead it is one of the best films of last year. The characters are so well-drawn that you cannot help but care for them, and the whole thing is directed with the perfect balance of beauty and unobtrusiveness. I’m so glad to have finally caught up with it.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Black Panther (2018)


While other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have dealt with issues of treaties and succession, I would never consider them to be political films. Though the Guardians of the Galaxy films make it more apparent than some of the others, in the end they’re all about family dynamics. Even Captain America and Iron Man’s conflict is little more than a heightened version of most dinner tables at The Holidays.

When MCU movies are topical it is either in a vague sense (ie: platitudes about sticking up for the little guy) or simply by refuting the carnage of DC’s cinematic output. Black Panther, on the other hand, is very specifically topical and political. It talks specifically about refugees and barriers that keep people out. It also talks about disadvantaged communities and how helping them is more involved than just saving the planet from annihilation every other week. And of course there is the fact that this cast is predominantly black and overwhelmingly female in the era of #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo.

The fact that there was a concerted effort to diminish this film by lowering its rating on Rotten Tomatoes or claiming that white attendees were subjected to physical violence at screenings, let’s you know that the “other side” was aware of this film’s power. And the fact that this film smashed so many records let’s you know that audiences the world over are thirsty for what it is selling.

This is not a one-off. This is a repeatable model. Hire non-white actors and crews. Hire and cast women. People are sick of having to identify with a token either in front of or behind the camera. May the one-two punch of Wonder Woman and Black Panther be the blast that finally opens the floodgates!

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Columbus (2017)


Can filmmaking be taught/learned? Being able to notice and appreciate the inspired techniques and motifs of a great filmmaker doesn’t mean that you will be able to execute them yourself.

These were my thoughts going into the debut feature of visual essayist kogonada. And while he certainly didn’t produce a masterpiece like Tokyo Story on his first at-bat, he did succeed at internalizing the techniques of Ozu et al and personalizing them. That Columbus doesn’t feel like a Tarantino-esque stream of citations is a small miracle. He makes the experience seamless. You are not distracted by the style. He is not teaching. He is being.

Perhaps the next one will be Tokyo Story.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Monster (2003)


This film is much more than Charlize Theron’s excellent performance. If this movie had been directed by a man, that director’s filmography would absolutely be longer than two feature films in fourteen years. Patty Jenkins gets so much out of such a short runtime. AND SHE WROTE IT TOO! Meanwhile, people like Josh Trank and Colin Trevorrow are just handed millions of dollars after debuts with nowhere near the same tonal complexity as Monster. How Patty Jenkins didn’t go on her own rampage during the past fourteen years is completely beyond me. Well at least Trank and Trevorrow got fired from huge gigs while she is gonna make a huge payday for the second Wonder Woman. Now if only we could get Hollywood to consider Ms. Jenkins as something other than a fluke...

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Phantom Thread (2017)


Though it was the Scorsese-like, visual gymnastics of Boogie Nights and Magnolia that caught the eye of the Film School Kids, we must remember that the principle influence on Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut film Sydney (aka Hard Eight) was Melvin and Howard. Instead of opening with a whole lot of whiz-bang, both films begin with protracted conversations between two characters. At his core, this is who Paul Thomas Anderson is as a filmmaker.

Of course he played around with all the fancy toys on his next couple of films (who wouldn’t?), but as early as Punch-Drunk Love you can sense a filmmaker casting aside all of the bravura in favor of a simpler, more character based cinema.

For all its fire and fury, There Will Be Blood is the story of three people in the desert. The Master is a love story between Freddie and Lancaster. Even with all the Pynchonian intrigue, Inherent Vice is really just the story of Doc, Bigfoot and Shasta Fey. Phantom Thread is Anderson’s minimalism taken to its logical end-point.

It’s not shot on antique, large-format cameras and most of it takes place in small rooms. It’s not about Capitalism or Religion or any other “important” issue. The only maximalist element in the whole thing is Johnny Greenwood’s wonderful score.

It’s taken him many years and films to get to this point, but Anderson has successfully pruned away that which is not essential, held on to a few handy tricks, and returned to where he started. But this is no ending. This is a new beginning. And I cannot wait to see what comes next.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Shape of Water (2017)


A director’s job is more than just coming up with wild shots. It is also more than developing a very deliberate color palette. A director’s main job is to answer questions. This hat or that hat? Happy or sad? Faster or slower? The correct answer to any of these questions depends on the director’s taste. Guillermo Del Toro is a director of exquisite taste. Like a master chef, he knows just how much of each ingredient to include in the dish. Just the right amount of comedy. Just the right amount of gore. Just the right amount of sex. On paper, The Shape Of Water should not work. In other hands, the story of a mute woman falling in love with a gill-man would induce ridicule and laughter. But under the guidance of a master like Del Toro, it is a front-runner for numerous awards. This is all thanks to Guillermo’s excellent taste.