Thursday, December 17, 2009


What is it about first time filmmakers? It's all the same, especially when the director, also writer of SAINT JOHN OF LAS VEGAS, Hue Rhodes "has a circuitous path to filmmaking, following many interests and careers before deciding to focus on becoming a director in his late twenties" (taken from the production notes). What I saw was a bunch of poorly shot scenes totally unrelated within a very small story. It's like going off on tangents while telling an overly-long bad joke. Typical of the first time writer/director is the character's bland narration, inconsistently placed, lacking originality and freshness with the obligatory opening: a start-in-the-bathroom scene staring in the mirror, doing some personal hygiene, standing in front of the closet in underwear, getting dressed. The rest of the movie takes place in badly lit convenience stores (three), gas stations/office bathrooms (three), cheap hotel rooms (two), very long car rides, harsh blinding desert light into total blackness of a strip club, strippers parading around to obnoxiously audio-mixed music, naked militants reassessing their philosophy. None of the characters with their trite one-liners are funny, surprising or add anything to a weak script.

What is surprising is that Steve Buschemi is starring in this lowly, low budget class exercise coming out of the film-related extension courses taken by the director because that is the reason why I went to see this film in the first place. Buschemi consistently takes an odd-ball character to new heights, midtones and ranges as shown in so many excellent films and his attempt to do so in this film is commendable. Recently, THE MESSENGER was screened at the Hamptons Film Festival and I saw him at different social gatherings deeply engrossed in conversation with producers and filmmakers who probably pitch him left and right. Perhaps after reading the script about a down-on-his-luck character -the trials and tribulations of a former gambler trying to change his luck- made an impression on him and I could understand what may have drawn him to the project. It makes sense especially seeing a credit "in association with" Olive Productions where he and partners Stan Tucci and Wren Arthur have various film and television projects in development and signed a first look deal with Lionsgate Television. On the other hand, a very talented Peter Dinklage who has not had a role that outshines the one in THE STATION AGENT (then named as one of the "breakout stars" of the year) should have been more selective. The character he plays in the film is especially offensive.

This type of film and filmmaking may be what's in store for years to come since the end of the indie film distribution model as we know it where films are submitted to festivals, screened competively with audience awards as a kind of focus group, picked up by a distributor and theatrically exhibited. Not that there weren't problems with that and often unfair to first-time filmmakers, but the filters have been removed and in place of film aficionados there are financiers, lawyers and acquisition coordinators turned producers raising funds up front to cover low budget production through investors, product placement and video game development and then financing an independent theatrical release. Oh yeah, don't forget a drop dead great trailer with rearranged scenes and dialogue to make this look like a funny, exciting film is a must. A case for false advertising if ever there is one where so many features are guilty of this ruse. While it's still true that filmmaking itself takes a "circuitous path" once made until theatrically released, this one goes straight downhill from the start.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


On Wednesday, December 2, the red carpet rolled out in front of the Paris Theatre in New York City to welcome cast and crew who all came out for the film to celebrate the special screening event of THE LOVELY BONES directed by Peter Jackson. Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Rachel Weisz, Michael Imperioli, Susan Sarandon (who looked absolutely stunning at the premiere), the acting including Sairse Ronan and Rose McIver was excellent, the entire cast was outstanding as was the film production and special effects.

The drama takes us through the afterlife of Susie Salmon, a small-town Pennsylvania girl who was murdered by her neighbor, a local serial killer. She looks down on her shattered family from her place in limbo seeing her mother abandon the family and her father becoming increasingly obsessed with finding her killer on the verge of a mental and emotional breakdown. From this celestial vantage point, she starts to fear for the safety of her little sister who may become the next target of this seemingly innocuous neighbor.

The trailer is awesome. I didn't read the book but read how great the book was in the production notes and why everyone was so excited about it. It is intriguing and challenging. Just as other great books turn into movies, some translate well, others do not. Since the film premiere, I have been watching the trailer over and over again. It's a great trailer that makes me want to see the film and then I asked myself - what happened with the movie?

There were individual, separate vignettes of characters, all well presented but they didn't gel. Where one story begins, another becomes attached and then forgotten as another becomes introduced and takes over the film. From a crime ripped out of the headlines, followed by grandmother and grandson stealing scenes from one another for comic relief, then the marriage that inevitably falls apart without really knowing the cause culminating with the tense, horror film genre where the young heroine puts herself in harms way only to be saved at the last minute. Finally, the suspicious neighbor seems to get away with murder. Tough story for the big screen. I still like the trailer best.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Ten years ago at the first Woodstock Film Festival, Jonathan Demme screened his Talking Heads performance film STOP MAKING SENSE, so it makes perfect sense to screen his latest film, NEIL YOUNG'S TRUNK SHOW, at this year's Woodstock Film Festival tenth anniversary. Demme's enthusiasm is contagious, spreading over the audience like wildfire during the introduction, saying he wanted to capture the "energy of the rock and roll show" starting from scratch in making art and putting it on film that would create a satisfying emotional experience. And that's exactly what happens watching Neil Young rock away on tour through his direction.

Demme's earlier film with Neil Young was HEART OF GOLD, a tightly coordinated collaboration with Young providing his own creative insights into the filmmaking process. This time around, the directorial undertaking unfolds with Demme focusing on all aspects of the staging during a tour stop at the Tower Theatre in Upper Darby, PA. Built in 1927, the theater was a vaudeville house one of the area's first movie houses and since the 1970s has been a venue for music concerts. It is known for its natural acoustic properties and used in the past for recording live albums. Neil Young booked many theaters like this on his tour paying homage to the spirits of past performers and theatrical performances that linger among the collection of equipment and items that sometimes have no meaning other than they come out of Neil Young's trunk. It feels like a painting, a still life set up with appropriate lighting, elements making up the scene, an artist ready to capture it all on canvas. And then the music explodes.

As part of the intro, Demme warned the audience that if they don't like Neil Young, electric guitars, a 22-minute electric guitar rendition or very loud rock music, they should leave the theater before the start of the film. And then it begins, rocking hard and loud, later the acoustic guitar is brought in, harmonic sounds as Neil Young communes with the past and the present. His music is an emotional journey through the epic, long distance, hard core blaring electric guitar, then back down into the acoustics all along resonating that satisfying, draining, emotional experience.

NEIL YOUNG'S TRUNK SHOW embodies the musician heart, mind and soul with an astute filmmaker's eye that mixes sight and sound with a combination of cameras, digital and stock footage into a blend- some grainy, hi def, full of lighting and shadow design adding to the performance itself and highlighting rarely-heard selections from Neil Young's proverbial "trunk". Great stuff. Long live rock!

film review: 2B: THE ERA OF FLESH IS OVER

Even the logline is a statement that cannot be dismissed merely as exaggerated fiction: New York, soon. Technology's exponential growth is fast and furious. Human life is in the process of being transformed. Mia 2.0, the world's first "Transbeman" and her creator, "father" Dr. Tom Mortlake make a shocking, global political statement "designed to prove that human reliance on the fragile, human body is over and eternal life is at hand". It sends a spine tingling chill down my own fragile, flesh body.

The story is not a new one with well known science fiction authors as well as Mary Shelley's foreboding message in Frankenstein - that we ought not to dabble with Nature by playing God. There are consequences. And there are scientific and medical advances that humans are accepting into their lives at a remarkable level of technological expansion despite expressing discomfort at the pace and what is predicted as what will be.

The setting in a gritty New York is familiar with the lights and huge screens in Times Square streaming breaking news from around the world. James Remar (THE WARRIORS, COTTON CLUB, 48 HOURS) plays Dr. Tom Mortlake (mort=death, lake=water,birth), an eccentric technology inventor and billionaire who lives in a cavernous mansion echoing medieval great halls and labyrinths and is surrounded by and immersed in media that plays throughout the environs. His genius/madness brought into being Mia, played by Jane Kim (WEST 32ND STREET, FEEL), a beautiful, naive creation, who is summoned to participate in Mortlake's showdown with leaders of the "Fleshists" movement. The Fleshists are the political power ready to take Mortlake down before MINDFILE (a software that downloads human consciousness) becomes available to the public. During a news blast, the entire world, including down and out journalist Clay Konroy, played by Kevin Corrigan (THE DEPARTED, GOODFELLAS), as Mia executes Mortlake, shooting him in the head in cold blood. She leaves the scene with Mortlake's cerebral/soul essence in a box, escaping human homicide detective, Vicky Borano's (Florencia Lozano) hot pursuit. Following Mortlake's direction, Mia finds Clay and asks for his help in uploading the first MINDFILE, thus resurrecting Mortlake back for his eternal life. The white light spreads all over. All are welcome.

Visual effects and production design with technological graphics delivers a synthesis between the digitized and filmic styles. Everything could be going on either now or the very near right now, especially the gritty neighborhoods that camouflage the ultra cool tech bar where the fugitive Mia meets with Clay for her side of the story. But it's the music that gives it the human touch and composer Michael Galasso's score is beautifully poignant throughout this film adding sentiment into an otherwise biotecho engrossing and a seriously palatable course in science fiction entertainment.

Watch the streaming video from the Woodstock Film Festival panel Redesigning Humanity- The New Frontier on

Friday, October 2, 2009


AGAINST THE CURRENT, written and directed by Peter Callahan, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year. As most filmmakers already know, the audience there is an eclectic sampling of demographics representing Sudance festival lovers while the recent screening at the Woodstock Film Festival has the hometown crowd welcoming the hometown filmmaker son of the Hudson Valley.

The film's premise sets the tone where the main character, Paul (Joseph Fiennes) is still grieving after five years over the loss of his wife and unborn child. A date is marked on the calendar in memory of that fateful day and plans are set into motion to swim the length of the Hudson River starting from Troy all the way to the Verazzano Bridge where the ocean begins. He enlists his best friend, Jeff (Justin Kirk), a wisecracking actor/bartender who invites Liz (Elizabeth Reaser) to come along on the boat that will escort Paul on his mission. During the first leg of the swim, Paul reminds Jeff of his promise five years earlier and Liz gets the story from Jeff on Paul's plan to commit suicide. From that point, Liz tries to change Paul's mind and despite the stopover at her mother's (superbly played by Mary Tyler Moore) with other eccentric family members and a night together, Paul's course and destiny is apparently set.

Justin Kirk (WEEDS) and Elizabeth Reaser still have the onscreen chemistry first seen in PUCCINI FOR BEGINNERS and, as the supporting cast, their banter moves the film along with the swimmer. Mary Tyler Moore's character, an exggerated, blissfully ignorant suburbabite living in her own glossed-over bubble, is reminiscent of the mother character in ORDINARY PEOPLE who couldn't deal with her younger son's attempted suicide. Joseph Fiennes understands the tortured soul character from ELIZABETH and SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE where as a young Shakespeare, he was prodded into writing a play about pirates, clowns and "a bit with a dog" then, surrounded by actors, eager with anticipation, he describes the scene where Romeo takes the poison and Juliet, upon seeing him dead, kills herself. Unresolved grief is just as strong as true love in its purest form. At times, there are no words that can comfort.

The setting and scenery along the Hudson Valley is beautiful and these moments are skillfully interwoven by editor Michael Taylor (ORDER OF MYTHS). While not always in the order except for the beginning (Troy, New York) and the end (Atlantic Ocean), the film is deftly handled along with music composr Anton Sanko's lyrical calling to our primordial emotions, capturing the alluring mystique that the Hudson River evokes. It's one that the local population have known for a long time.

AGAINST THE CURRENT will be playing at the local theaters in and around Hudson Valley.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


The tenth annual Woodstock Film Festival Opening Night event promised and delivered a communal experience exemplified a generation ago by showing on a big screen WOODSTOCK: NOW AND THEN produced and directed by Barbara Kopple with executive producer, Michael Lang who produced the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in 1969. The Q&A following the film was led by WFF founder and executive director Meira Baustein whose film arts community is an inviting environment for such collaborations.

While there are numerous docs and books on the now mind numbing, legendary gathering of the masses for a weekend of music and human connection, Barbara Kopple used the archival footage from early documentary filmmakers (including a young, seriously-focused Thelma Schoonmaker) intertwined with recently-discovered treasure trove of memories, personal photo stashes and artistic renditions.

It's the sights and sounds that have the most impact; however, as there were many in the audience who were participants reliving the event that so many (including myself) could only wish they could have been. Barbara Kopple goes beyond the obvious and finds elements that connect and enliven the main event presented- from a Craigslist posting, an attendee who had just arrived in the U.S. and found himself on the road to Woodstock, a new generation of student musicians from the School of Rock, framed Woodstock admission tickets numbers 1 & 2, a high school student's assignment who wrote for and received a press pass, led to amazing photographs never seen before, a couple who met at Woodstock frolick with their grandchildren forty years later, an artist from another country, who like so many, heard about the event but couldn't be there, has a comic book version highlighting the now-famous stories.

While I was on the way to Woodstock, I had the soundtrack blasting, taking me back on a long strange trip through my own turbulent adolescent years. From the opening scene, the music took me in and didn't let go. Watching the performances that the Woodstock audience themselves had missed is a wonderful experience interspersed with behind-the-scenes backstories and how things turned out through sheer willpower (NO RAIN). The final day (Monday morning) with Jimi Hendrix (scheduled to be on stage Sunday afternoon) who performed before the remaining 40,000 proving the adage that the best things come to those who don't (or can't) get up on time. True in this case and I stayed with this film until the last credits roll. Truly a fitting way to open the Woodstock Film Festival going on from Wednesday, September 30 through Sunday, October 4, 2009.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

IFP Week and the State of Film Festivals as Emerging Technology Takes Over the World

Independent Film Week, running from September 19-24, 2009 in New York City and formerly known as the IFP Market, was always the place to be whether you had a film in your pocket or just happy to see other filmmakers networking their hearts out, hanging on to every word industry professionals expound on revised business models and film festival philosophy. The film festival landscape is shifting out from under our feet just like continental shelves groaning under geological pressures as film festivals revert into individual altered states and the top tier directors/programmers check out of the executive positions. Maybe that's not a bad thing.

Historically, film festivals started out as a means of extending the tourist season in seaside regions producing revenue for the local economies in the off-season months. While there are festivals that still play that card, others that started out as such blossomed (or bloated) into a huge festival business eventually spinning off into year-round, entertaining target-marketed enclaves. Submissions, acceptance, rejections and awards often have been held over filmmakers' heads, overshadowing good filmmaking with the coveted brass ring of getting a distribution deal for theatrical exhibition. Just as the shake out of festival directors and programmers have left us pondering how this is going to affect the way things work for the continuously streaming influx of new and emerging filmmakers, emerging technology is stepping in, automating processes faster, more efficiently and environmentally sound, taking over and touting online festivals and submissions.

Sitting in the audience. I braced myself for another onslaught of streaming video, online distribution platforms, mobile phone screenings, etc. Sean Farnel, festival programmer for Hot Docs, Jarod Neece, SxSW, Erick Opeka, New Video and Christian Gaines, formerly festival director AFI West and currently film festival director for Withoutabox (WAB), all brought out points for expanding the film community, platforms and acquisitions. The IFP staff recorded this panel and it would be a good idea to check it out, particularly on how Christian Gaines sees film festival programmers becoming "curatorial attention managers" providing recommendations for audiences of what they would like to see, therefore, "assuring a strong, provocative, curatorial experience" for audiences who still want to watch films on the big screen and in a communal, film festival setting.

During the Q&A, someone asked the panel their opinion on the recent shake up at Film Society of Lincoln Center New York's Film Festival (going on from September 25-October 11, 2009) without Kent Jones, ten year veteran, associate director of programming and editor-at-large at Film Comment, whose high-profile resignation and departure had the indie film community buzzing. The panel members shrugged and said they knew nothing about it. Maybe that's not a bad thing.

Check out an earlier podcast conversation with Kent Jones at

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Silence is Golden in a Black Market: LORNA'S SILENCE

An early scene in LORNA'S SILENCE sets the tone between the married couple, Lorna and Claudy, when Lorna arrives home with the groceries - a money exchange and exact change returned for the purchase. The visual statement of this marital arrangement is punctuated by setting out the mattress for Claudy to sleep on in the living room. He doesn't sleep, however, but goes through heroin addiction withdrawals calling out her name. She becomes his unwilling nurse and inspiration to stop being a junkie. His junkie status and Belgian citizenship was her reason for marrying him including the money paid by her black market connection, Fabio.

The marriage of convenience business has gone on forever because there are always reasons other than love that make people bond in legal matrimony. For young Eastern European women, there are limited choices with possible entrapments in human trafficking lurking at every hope-inducing job opportunity thus holding them hostage to taking chances. The black market ring for citizenship offers Lorna a misguided opportunity at securing a loan to open a snack bar with her boyfriend, Sokol, who also travels outside their home country borders for similar deals in fast buck moneymaking.

What Lorna doesn't count on is her influence on Claudy and as he becomes the non violent, decent but unemployed young man coming out of his heroin addicted persona, her conscience tugs at her emotions as she tries to alter the original plan for Claudy to O.D. Another marriage to a Russian mobster paying for Belgian citizenship is already being arranged and Lorna tries to obtain a divorce rather than follow Fabio's orders. Just as the loosened lynchpin throws off the cogwheel's balance, so does the decisions Lorna makes in trying to save Claudy's life and in the process derails her best laid plans and puts her own life in jeopardy.

The film is shot in 35mm and it shows, especially in the night scenes where Lorna frantically tries to make deals all the while becoming part of the deal with the next customer. The main character is a composite of the young women coming from a big European city that embodies all sorts of hope often turning into something unimaginable happening to them. Arta Dobroshi, the actress chosen to play Lorna brings these qualities together beautifully. Finding the money Claudy gave to Lorna for safekeeping and her attempt to return it to his mother becomes a heart-wrenching meeting between two women who otherwise would not have exchanged a single word despite their marital ties. It was another attempted money exchange, but this time not accepted. Again, the tone is set, yet there's a sensual, innocent quality added to the unfolding dramatic darkness up until the end.

The Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, have been making documentary and narrative films since the 1970s but it was not until twenty years later that their films won a major prize at Cannes and since then their films have played at the Cannes main competition. This latest film, LORNA'S SILENCE (LE SILENCE DE LORNA), won Best Screenplay at the 2008 Cannes festival and will open in New York (Lincoln Plaza and Cinema Village) and Los Angeles on Friday, July 31 with a national roll out to follow.

Friday, July 17, 2009

film review: A WOMAN IN BERLIN

It's hard to imagine. The fear, the atrocities, the humiliation that Stalin's soldiers of the Red Army inflicted on women, raping them one after another, time and time again. It was the last days of war, they were enemies and critically acclaimed film A WOMAN IN BERLIN is not easy to watch. Written and directed by Max Farberbock, the film is based on the diary of Anonyma, a well-educated, well-versed woman and journalist who lived in the capitals of the world, Moscow, London, Paris and believed in the nationalistic rhetoric of a new world order. It is visually, compelling storytelling.

In the final days, Berlin, the Soviet Red Army makes its way to the center of what civilized life once was, their barbaric trampling and wanton destruction strikes fear in what will come next. It's hard to watch what does come next because of the knowledge that it's coming. It is known that the rapes had begun as soon as the Red Army entered east Prussia and Silesia in 1944. By the time the Red Army reached Berlin, its reputation had already terrified the population, many of whom fled while others stayed behind. That's where the story begins, bombed out ruins with rumblings of tanks approaching, people scrambling for the safety in meandering cavernous cellars twisting into dead ends. But no one was safe.

The Soviets saw rape, often carried out in front of a woman's husband and family, as an appropriate way of humiliating the Germans who had treated Slavs with disdain as an inferior race. In accordance with Russia's patriarchal society, Stalin condoned the brutality and encouraged binge-drinking that kept his soldiers drunken and depraved. Women were raped on their death beds, pregnant and due to give birth, others raped by countless men waiting their turn, one after another, day after day. Fear, shame and because they were members of the nation that started the bloodiest war in history contributed to their gritted teeth and silent suffering.

Scenes flowed from the real-life journalist's pages. After the initial barrage of physical attacks, life had a way of settling down as the soldiers settled in looting and pillaging what were once shops and private homes. The juxtaposition of sitting room and dining furniture dragged out in the street and the care taken of a treasured mahogany table within one apartment dwelling brought out the universal need to carve out a little comfort from the chaos. When the women made their decision to do whatever it takes to survive the ordeal, victors and their victims took on faces and voices of real people, not what the official propaganda branded them to be.

And that's how the author of this journal determined not to be the victim, but decided who would be allowed to take her, finding higher ranking officers who would not only protect her but the other occupants within the building she resided. The relationship with the Major teetered on mutual respect and admiration for their educated conversations and the sudden realizations that they still are on opposite ideological fronts still suffering from wounds inflicted by their own people. Here, Farberbock brought out the faces from the maddening crowd that could have been a blur for the women characters whereas, they became: the Alpha Wolf, the Farmer who managers a milk cooperative, a Merchant with gifts for a specific woman he visits, the silent Mongolian sentry. Their countenances are that of young men, fathers, sons, brothers and brethren of war under dire circumstances with their own personal stories of death and destruction. The cinematography superbly captures the haunted looks of the women and the soldiers with particular emphasis on the defeated who could only stand by and witness the rapes, unable to do anything to stop it.

Academics have begun recording the victim's experiences and according to military historian, Anthony Beevor, the Red Army's rapes were conducted on a much greater scale than otherwise suspected but never brought up as war crimes. "By the time Russians reached Berlin, soldiers were regarding women as carnal booty: they felt because they were liberating Europe they could behave as they pleased. That is very frightening, because one starts to realise that civilisation is terribly superficial and the facade can be stripped away in a very short time." Although the Mein Kampf struggle came to an end in May 1945, the ordeal of german women continued well into the end of the decade when the soldiers were finally removed from where civilians lived and remanded to security checkpoints and their own camps. The scale of rape is suggested by the fact that about two million women had illegal abortions every year between 1945 and 1948.

A WOMAN IN BERLIN screened as part of Special Presentations at the 2008 toronto Film Festival and under Film Comment Selects at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2009. Opens in New York on Friday, July 17 at the Angelika Fiml Center followed by a national roll out.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

film review: DEPARTURES

First, I advise all to stay for the end credits because they roll over a scene of the entire ceremonial procedure in one take, culminating what the main character has learned into an art form. The logline reads "Winner of Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, DEPARTURES is a delightful journey into the heartland of Japan as well as an astonishingly beautiful look at a sacred part of Japan's cultural heritage." In essence, what DEPARTURES turns out to be is all about the art of life and living it well.

The established character scene spotlights Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) playing the cello at his job with a symphony orchestra. While most people highly regard symphony musicians as artists, in reality, many are not truly musicians, but technicians trained to produce their instrument's piece from the notes provided. And so, Daigo lives his life this way, doing what is expected and in the process finds it difficult to handle common human interactions such as telling his wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) that he lost his job and that be bought an exorbitantly expensive cello without telling her, afraid she would say no. His attempt to empathize with a still-moving octopus Mika brings home for dinner proves clumsy and ineffectual when he tries to release the mollusk off an embankment into the river, killing it in the process. It's not until after the couple moves back to Daigo's hometown where he answers an ad thinking it's a tour guide position when in fact it's a pre undertaker "encoffinment" profession, that he discovers and embraces his inner humaneness. It doesn't come out all at once, but evolves through one of Japan's most accomplished directors, Yojiro Takita's deft intertwining of the film's characters and interactions.

It would have been easy to let Daigo's mentor, the Boss (Tsutomo Yamazaki) become the focus of Daigo's metamorphosis, but like a good seasoning, the Boss is used sparingly, effectively and unsentimentally potent yet providing comic relief starting in the opening scene. His staid outer business demeanor gradually melts away, like the winter scenes into the cherry blossom spring, as he attends to and is surrounded by blooming plants and life-affirming dining experiences. Supporting characters, particularly the women, provide the insights and backstories, confirming the Boss' philosophical views that Fate brought Daigo to his destiny as do the families who are portrayed anything but what an outsider might presume a typical Japanese family would be within today's mix of traditional and unconventional situations.

Eventually, Daigo immerses himself into his calling, showing respectful caring for the deceased and becoming the "tour guide" with an uncanny sensitivity for the ones left behind in need for closure. The childhood cello turns his music from formally trained into spiritual delight, playing under a string of small moments throughout the film that interweave personal history into Daigo's transformation ultimately finding "it really isn't what it is". The cello's major role in the film highlights a music score both sumptuous and sadly beautiful as only a cello can do, encompassing themes of rebirth and reconciliation. Very stirring.

Fortunately, the film, distributed by Regent Releasing, has only been out since October 2008 going on to win an Oscar and subsequently 10 Japan Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, the Grand prix des Ameriques at Montreal World Film Festival, Best Feature at palm Springs International Film Festival, Washington DC International Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival and Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. It opens in theaters May 29 at Lincoln Plaza Cinema, City Cinema 1, 2, 3 and landmark Sunshine Cinema, 143 East Houston Street, New York, Los Angeles, San francisco and Chicago followed by a national roll out as I most definitely plan to see it again especially staying for the end credits.

62nd Festival de Cannes 60s Love Fest

Festival de Cannes began May 13 and goes on through May 24. While I did attend the last two years (see Film Festival reViews website for Cannes 2007 and 08) wasn't able to make it there this year but have been keeping up with the updates from a lot of sites including the Festival newsletter that I have been getting all along. There are a few familiar names and directors I've seen and have been following that are in competition.

Big Cannes premiere for director Ang Lee's TAKING WOODSTOCK. The trailer is out and I think it will get the audiences into the theaters just for the nostalgia of the 60s music, counterculture, free love and being a hippie even if you never were one. Jane Campion's BRIGHT STAR on a torrid, romantic interlude between the poet John Keats and a young woman, Fanny, told from her point of view. Spanish director Pedro Almodovar and Penelope Cruz came to cannes with VOLVER in 2006 and are back this year with BROKEN EMBRACES (LOS ABRAZOS ROTOS).

I look forward to Andrea Arnold's film FISH TANK, an intimate family situation about a rebellious teenager having to deal with her mother's new boyfriend. After winning the 2006 Jury Prize with RED ROAD, I met up with Andrea at the New Directors/New Films 2007 and we talked about her twisting, winding way that ends up smack against a wall. I remember seeing her squirm in her seat not knowing how the audience will react to her film. I thought it was intensely gripping as she sets her characters in situations that find a way to go wrong.

The best part of the Marche du Film is the Short Film Corner (added to the Cannes film market in 2003) promoting emerging filmmakers with opportunities to be seen and make professional contacts during Festival de Cannes. Films must be less than 35 minutes, produced after January 2008, not previously screened in the Short Film Corner and only one film per filmmaker per year. Over 1,900 were submitted in four categories: narrative, documentary, animation and experimental mostly from france, U.S and the UK totaling more than 1,400. They digitize the film submissions and are made available for individual or two-person viewing during a two-hour period. There's also a Buyers Corner and three mini screening rooms with seats for 3-9 persons. A great opportunity for an entrepreneurial filmmaker out to get their film in front of the right person. All filmmakers with short films should be there.

Beyond the Narrative

I like to find the most innovative filmmakers taking risks and finding their own cutting edge and the most recent podcast on Film Festival reViews EPISODE 65 Top Notch Filmmaking includes a couple more conversations from BE FILM: The Undergound Film Festival. Just an amazing group of films and filmmakers that kept my attention even weeks after the festival ended. Tim and Mike Rauch are animators behind GERMANS IN THE WOODS. Their illustrative style matches the animation with a rhythm and pace of an orchestrated composition, getting the nuances of physical gestures perfectly in sync with the grain in the voice. Other animation artists challenged them on how they were going to create complex camera movements and getting in on the subject from all angles. Amazing deft work of very talented directing, illustrators as directors of photography - I was hooked on every scene. Check out their website at Rauch Bros. Animation Their most recent film Q&A, another remarkable, three minute brain whoo that won Best in Show at ASIFA East will be at the ANNECY in France, June 8 through 13. I find their Rauch Brothers blog quite interesting, too.

Fearless filmmakers Mark du Pace, Matt Okterberg and Elliott Jokelson of Ghost Robot describe their technique used to create a spec ad for the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival (June 11 through 14, 2009, Manchester, TN) as a stratelstencil animation procedure which involves removing the negative space of an illustration enabling you to see the animation move in time and space. Their energy level rises not only from talking about the collaboration efforts and logistics involved but from the artistic and artisan aspect in making the 3D film look really beautiful and natural without resorting to cheap CGI tricks. The process took about three months to complete with thirteen people spending weeks cutting out each one of the 1,336 frames by hand then mounted on and shot with a special-constructed 3D camera rig.

Their collaborations take them where few traditional filmmakers attempt to go and that's just about every visual media market from award-winning theatrical feature films most recently AGAINST THE CURRENT that premiered at Sundance this year and directed by Peter Callahan who along with editor, Michael Taylor, I met at Sundance in 2008. The film just won the Special Jury Award at the AFI Dallas International Film Festival. Past films include CHOKING MAN, THE HAWK IS DYING and one of my favorites, THE STATION AGENT and their most recent feature documentary, CROPSEY premiered at Tribeca Film Festival. Their work includes 3D music videos and commercials, video games, interactive shorts, magazine covers and websites and can be seen in movie theaters, art galleries and museums, local and international film festivals like Sundance, Tribeca and BE FILM The Underground Film Festival where collaborator Encyclopedia Pictura's Bjork film WANDERLUST won the 3D category. 

Ghost Robot was founded in 2005 with award-winning work across all platforms as well as all virtual spaces on the Internet. On their website they invite visitors to call, email or swing by their studio at 25 Howard Street, Third Floor to learn more. Maybe I'll do that. 

Thursday, May 7, 2009

BE FILM Is A Festival to Watch

During film festivals, I gather recorded conversations throughout my stay and then put them into a podcast creating a non linear piece where each show feels like a short film sans the visual part. So, being present as film festival podcaster at BE FILM The Underground Film Festival for the entire festival schedule was a first time for me - there's a first time for everything - everyone's still a virgin at something. It presented a challenge, however, to be present as part of the festival team, set up before the screenings, meet and record conversations with filmmakers, industry and film supporters, watch the films, get home and edit the recording making it sound somewhat balanced and then get it out before having to be at the next screening location and do it all over again. The pace was hectic yet I didn't miss any of the short films because they were just sooo good. As mentioned in my first podcast, I was a virgin at watching 3D films, not sure why probably I just wasn't interested in the Hollywood hype and didn't know very much about the technology. Being the first established film festival in the U.S. to have enough stereoscopic films in competition is an outstanding achievement and surely will put BE FILM on the map of film festivals to watch and for filmmakers to submit their films. 

Having been around the film festival block, I see a lot of high points and pitfalls when it comes to running one and experienced what it's like at the forefront of the pre festival film search and submissions when I worked for Catherine Wyler, artistic director for the High Falls Film Festival. While BE FILM is already established as one of the best short film festivals on the East Coast, the submissions increased as it did after several years with many films eventually getting nominated for Academy Awards. Not a bad reputation to have. But then founder and executive director Laurence Asseraf along with programming director, Dimitris Athos decided to up the ante with a category first and their search for 3D indie films from around the world grew into a monumental task for all involved. Filmmakers sent their films in every kind of format known, technical professionals from Dolby Production Services and Heavy Light Digital came in with their projection equipment and system set ups that had not been invented before and the New York Stereoscopic Society - an assorted collection of scientists, artists, entrepreneurs, pioneering souls - collaborated with their combined knowledge and came out in full support Opening Night celebrating an achievement at finally having a competitive platform for 3D indie films. Necessity is the mother of invention? That's what made it so exciting, especially for me because I knew what was going on behind the scenes. The focus was deadline driven where that extra ounce of adrenalin kicks in, they worked nonstop to get it right before a seated audience who waited in anticipation with their 3D glasses on. We were not disappointed. Only after the house lights go on that they realize their being at the forefront of a breakthrough taking technology to the next level, pushing science to the limit where they hadn't gone before. Ideas are already in the works for BE FILM next year as are filmmakers planning their next film in 3D.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Everything appears copacetic. And in Jim Jarmusch's new film THE LIMITS OF CONTROL, he applies Rule #5 of the Jim Jarmusch's Golden Rules in filmmaking where he steals from anywhere that resonates with inspiration and fuels his imagination and then breaks the rules creating a film experience with deliberate contemplative shifting through elements of visual space, tactile senses, perception and above all, music integration. 

The music score is the driving force, propelling the film from the start opening with BAD RABBIT and continues to the end with Boris, SUNN O))) and Earth, Schubert's beautiful Adagio from his String quintet and a different form of flamenco, peteneras, a version of the blues. Longtime collaborator Jay Rabinowitz edits the music and film, fitting it along Jarmusch's eclectic tastes, turning the score into an essential and vital element. Hearing about the release of the Soundtrack compilation (I am such a Soundtrack junkie) before the film release, I forego my personal expectations of what this film could possibly be about and unleash my repressed cinematic senses for what is clearly an integrating dimensional experience without the glasses.

The plot is simple. A mysterious loner notices all the everyday details surrounding him while staying focused on an undisclosed mission, maintaining his control over the discipline holding him to complete the job he is hired for. The journey could have become an incongruous, twisting trail of deceit and deception ala Hitchcock and Welles, complete with train rides through terrain changes and expansive landscapes into tight, urban corners, exotic and mysterious women, shadowy characters weathered in life, speaking philosophically in terms not readily interpreted or meant to be. Instead, Jarmusch drops enough breadcrumbs for the average viewer to follow along without noticing how the music - traditionally used for emphasizing turning points in plot and action - overtakes dialogue, replaces exposition, personal reflection, determination, completion and denouement.

Joining Isaach De Bankoie are Hiam Abbass (MUNICH, PARADISE NOW, THE VISITOR); Gael Garcia Bernal (THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES); Paz De La Huerta (THE GUITAR): Alex Descas (of the "No Problem" segment of COFFEE AND CIGARETTES): John Hurt; Youki Kudoh (MYSTERY TRAIN); Bill Murray; Jean-Francoise Stevenin (BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF and THE MAN ON THE TRAIN); Tilda Swinton; and Luis Tosar (MIAMI VICE). Award winning cinematographer Christopher Doyle (IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE) is the Director of Photography creating a visual smorgasboard integrating light, colors, textures, time and space. I was feeling and tasting every scene, waiting with anticipation for the next course of sumptuously designed scenes underscored by production designer, Eugenio Caballero (PAN'S LABYRINTH).

This marks the fourth film collaboration between Jarmusch and De Bankoie. The theme runs along a similar style in his previous films of American culture seen through the eyes of a foreigner or from a different cultural heritage like in STRANGER THAN PARADISE (still one of my favorites). Jarmusch has always included music from a different palate. Artists from Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Neil Young, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, GZA, the WU-TANG Clan's RZA among others have been fused throughout as Jarmusch advances towards bridging the artist gap within pigeon-holed genre categories. THE LIMITS OF CONTROL is a gratifying eclectic mix of indie sounds within a visually stunning film. I look forward to coming back for seconds.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Tribeca's New Image

As Festival Director with Sundance for two decades, Geoffrey Gilmore witnessed the metamorphosis of independent film's low budget image to studio feature film-level production value. More product not under studio control infiltrated the film markets vying for the same theatrical exhibition regions and ancillary routes. The dam burst and in the past year we witnessed several distribution arms closings, reorganizations, financial difficulties turning it's vise grip several notches tighter, wringing out little of what's left of a fairly good financial and highly visible run for indie films and film festivals. Perhaps this is what Gilmore means when he said film festivals must change or become dinosaurs. Maybe bringing Gilmore to New York is thought to be a way for Tribeca to change its image. 

Former festival and creative director, Peter Scarlet now heads the Middle East Film Festival coming up in October. This was recently announced since his late February resignation. That makes it just six weeks for Gilmore to take over the reins (reign?) and just a week away before the festival insanity starts. Can he do in seven weeks what Scarlet did for seven years? I found Peter Scarlet to be very accessible, meeting him at several pre festival screenings at the original Tribeca Film Festival theater, Tribeca Cinemas. He introduced the films with exceptional cinema knowledge and wit, engaging an intimate media audience staying afterwards in the lobby catching up with the local media writers and bloggers during a time when you normally can't reach or talk to someone in his position. It's a tough act to follow. Just how accessible can Gilmore be? During the past several years at Sundance, I'd see him at Festival headquarters, but he never had a moment for me or anyone during the ten days of Film Festival mayhem outside of the Sundance sanctioned media. 

Although I've been an accredited press person for Tribeca Film Festival these past three years with my Film Festival reViews podcasts, I found it increasingly media unfriendly. Decisions were made to create a Hollywood East image complete with red carpet celebrity intros, ET media and paparazzi mentality handled by an elite security force of hulking, black-suited figures equipped with ear pieces staunchly turning away anyone not on "the list" or past security checkpoints. It became almost impossible to meet filmmakers or to see their films as the sprawl mentality broke away from the original Tribeca neighborhood and spread into Midtown and Uptown locations not easily found. Combined with high ticket prices, it has become difficult - especially for students and independent filmmakers whose films were not accepted - to access the film festival. While the Tribeca Film Festival took on a life of its own creating platforms for celebrities and famous directors, the New York independent filmmaking community, along with the local contributing writers, podcasters and bloggers were left out in the cold. I did not get accreditation this year, but I'm still on their Email list. According to a Tribeca press release, American Express, a founding partner, along with new sponsor relationships promise to enhance the "Filmgoer's" (their word, not mine) experience, providing Cardmembers access to private screenings, filmmaker interviews, red carpet premieres and panels. Maybe that's the new way to go.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Getting the Most Out of Film Festivals

On Thursday, April 2, the New York Women in Film & Television (NYWiFT) panel Getting the Most Out of a Film Festival - A Guide for Filmmakers started promptly at 6:30 p.m. and I was still on the NJ Transit bus dragging its way up the snaking , snorting conga line into Port Authority. It was a learning experience, as I was one of the panelists, cursing under my breath about the Thursday night rush hour into the City, running down the street against the flow of pedestrian traffic towards One Penn Plaza. Fortunately, the evening was just kicking off with introductions as I joined my esteemed fellow panelists. 

Ted Hope, producer of nearly sixty notable films including three Sundance Grand Prize winners and the recently released ADVENTURELAND was the modertor. He took my entrance in stride allowing me to momentarily catch my breath before including me in the discussion of how to festival your film at film festivals. The discussion began with what festivals are the best to get into and should the filmmaker expend time, energy and funds to get into the Top Five (Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, Toronto, Venice) Ryan Werner, IFC Films and Winnie Lau, Fortissimo Films, coming from the film acquisition end, responded with their experiences for finding and distributing films within the circle of the top five where some include an international film market.

How to approach producers, filmmaker etiquette was a discussion thread that cautioned excessively assertive behavior having a negative backlash especially when interrupting a business conversation. On the other hand, that same persistence could gain attention for the film if memorable loglines eventually make an impression on the intended person. The junior executives may be a better way to approach rather than going after the top executive whose time is usually scheduled-to-the-max for their entire film festival stay. Finding a champion for the film among the assistants is one of the most effective ways of getting the film watched by high level executive decision-makers.

Anne Chaisson, producer and co-chair of the Advisory Board at the Hamptons International Film Festival, helped the audience understand the difference between the Publicist and Producer's Rep, two positions that assist filmmakers promote their films. A publicist has media contacts and finds people like me to watch the films and write about them. A Producer's Rep arranges meetings with buyers, distributors, other film festival representatives and, as Lau cautioned, should never take a fee upfront. Their fee is based on the agreed amount after a sale is made and not before. She also explained a Sales Agent's role which as I would expect it to be, a person who actually makes the sales agreement with the "brass ring" - the distribution deal.

The discussion then veered from feature films to documentaries. Hope turned to me and asked my opinion on the best way to submit a film and what are the top documentary film festivals. Withour a doubt, Without-A-Box offers filmmakers a way to submit their film to hundreds of film festivals for one flat fee. Established in 2002, WAB is a highly-regarded company for indie film submissions with an astronomical number of filmmaker and film festival membership. Last year, IMDb (Internet Movie Database), the biggest online film information site acquired WAB, so filmmakers can now get their filmmaker information and credits on the IMDb. This, in turn, is under the huge Amazon umbrells, a place where the public can then buy independent film DVDs.

As for the documentary film festivals, I still see the Top Five as being Cannes, Sundance, Berlin, Toronto, Rotterdam. SxSW is increasingly stronger with its docs followed by music week. Hot Docs (Toronto) and SILVERDOCS (Silver Spring, MD the DC metro area) have solid programming, great audiences, surrounded by international communities, offering conferences and pitch sessions. Slamdance coincides with Sundance and its laid back, yet indie supporting focus, finds and shows the gems worth discovering. Other good festivals include Full Frame (Durham, NC); True/False, (Columbia, MO); Edinburgh International Film Festival, Sheffield Doc Fest have solid reputations and loyal programmer followers from other film festivals. One festival I suggest and will keep my eye on is Big Sky Documentary Film festival in Missoula, Montana. Sandwiched between Sundance and Berlin festival schedules, I took the trip out west two years ago and found it to be a great place for filmmakers. The community is film savvy - one local told me he sees films at the renovated Wilma Theatre (a magnificent former vaudeville theater) and rents documentary films as soon as the video rental store gets them in. I met Les Blank and in our podcast conversation, he discussed ways to position yourself and had strong opinions on a film's premiere and how and when it should be given up. 

Film festivals are my passion as are independent features and other non fiction films I discover during my travels whether its across the country or across the ocean (or the pond), While festivals are a platform for film and filmmakers to spingboard off of, they are a business, a complex forum of film programming, world premieres, celebrity highlights, cinematic retrospectives, themes and sidebars and the economic balance of tourism, partnerships and sponsorships. Supporting the films and cinematic media provides independent film lovers an alternative to the mainstream studio fare. Keep making those films. Keep the faith.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

film review: SHALL WE KISS?

From a woman's point of view, it can happen. It starts out innocently enough - a chance meeting in Nantes, where Emilie (Julie Gayet) and Gabriel (Michael Cohen) are strangers who connect and become deeply, mutually attracted. They go to dinner, he drives her back to her hotel and forwardly asks for a good night kiss as a memento. They come close to kissing and then who knows what would have happened next before Emilie sounds the alarm demurely excusing her hesitance proceeding into a story that flashbacks for most of the movie. It turns out to be a bittersweet story of a married women, Judith (Virginie Ledoyen) and her best friend Nicolas (Emmanuel Mouret, who also wrote and directed), both acquaintances of Emilie, and the kiss between them that turns out to be more than a kiss. While most critics (mostly male) relegated this to a pile that ends up tossed in a corner, I found it romantic and elegant, attributes lacking in American films churned out using flashy fashion to entice women (considered a special interest group by Hollywood studios) to go see unintelligent mainstream films. Julie Gayet is seductive as Emilie, a character she perfected as the sophisticated friend to Daniel Auteuil in Patrice Leconte's MY BEST FRIEND, a satirical account of friendship that includes a Who Wants to be a Millionaire scenario that solidifies a friend's relationship. Just as with the podcast conversation I had with Patrice Leconte, there's a curiosity in and about relationships between best friends of the opposite sex and the extent of their friendship in hypothetical settings. I personally know several situations between opposite sex friends and one in particular, was a situation I found myself in, but that's another story. It's different in American society where evidently the boundaries between relationships are intentionally vague and nondelineated as portrayed in the weak, spineless made for television mainstream film MADE OF HONOR. In any case, SHALL WE KISS keeps the friendship intact despite awkward moments as the romantic situation heats up turning into something neither one expected yet could not escape. The interesting twists continued to mount into an uncomfortable situation as they try to manage the outcome without hurting feelings of the unaware parties. Of course, there's always a hurting party and that becomes the moral of the story. Despite the warning, however, Emilie succumbs to desire after coming up with absolute rules that Gabriel heartily agrees to and the final kiss did not disappoint. On my way home I thought about a couple of friends from a long time ago that perhaps I could look up and connect with. 

film review: An Indomitable English Surgeon & Those Bloody Kozaks

On Sunday, March 29, I had the good fortune to be at the Second Annual Cinema Eye Honors for Non Fiction Films in New York City. It seemed that just about everyone whose films were shown around in the documentary and major film festivals were here tonight and it really did feel like one big party celebrating the filmmaker's achievements. I saw many nominated films at Sundance ORDER OF MYTHS, THE BETRAYAL, MAN ON WIRE including a Sundance Midnight Screening of ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL. I also saw PRAY THE DEVIL BACK TO HELL (Tribeca) WALTZ WITH BASHIR (Festival de Cannes), IN A DREAM (Woodstock Film Festival). And while I didn't see THE ENGLISH SURGEON at Hot Docs (Toronto), I heard a lot about the film after it won Best International Feature. I was able to arrange a special screening for the KINO-Q Ukrainian Film Festival in upstate New York before the film was shown at SILVERDOCS, another win with the World Feature Award in Silver Spring, Maryland.

At the Cinema Eye Honors cocktail hour, I met both Geoffrey Smith (director and producer) and Henry Marsh (brain surgeon) and we chatted about THE ENGLISH SURGEON being nominated for Outstanding Achievement in International Feature and in Music Composition having an beautifully sensual, original soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. And while they didn't win one of those interesting-looking awards (very spiky and could have been used in place of a surgical instrument) there was all the more interest for seeing the film as it was scheduled to open the spring season of Stranger than Fiction film series at the IFC Center, Tuesday, March 31.

From THE ENGLISH SURGEON website questions become rhetorical with statement like " What is it like to have God-like surgical powers, yet struggle against your own humanity? What is it like to try and save a life and yet to fail?" The trailer starts off with a Once Upon A Time musical rendition as Henry Marsh reflects on these questions and answers with deliberation and the same steadfast determination as his Ukrainian surgeon counterpart and friend, Dr. Ihor Kurilets. Henry has been going out to Kyiv for 15 years with suitcases full of slightly-used equipment that normally would be thrown out after one use. He passes his knowledge of surgical procedures and performs dangerous operations in a Ukrainian hospital full of desperate patients and makeshift equipment. Dr Kurilets, considered a maverick and troublesome by the State system notes that Henry worries too much and as a pioneer focused on creating Ukraine's first neurosurgical clinic in Ukraine, he refers to a painting of Kozaks celebrating after a battle and remarks, " Kozaks are the heroes of Ukraine... and a brain surgeon is just like a Kozak." In the film Henry anxiously scrubs in on another dangerous procedure, and just before entering the operation room mutters, "bloody kozaks, off to battle".

This amazing film has been an Official Selection in over 60 film festivals and is the winner of numerous awards. Geoffrey Smith and Henry Marsh continue making personal appearances to promote THE ENGLISH SURGEON as a way of raising financial support for the neurosurgical clinic. As Henry puts it - "We have to try to make things better."

Check the website for dates on its limited theatrical run.