Monday, January 25, 2010


Every ten years or so, a film has to come out to shock the audience. In THE KILLER INSIDE ME, the gratuitous violence made everyone in the enormous Eccles Theatre squirm in their seats as acclaimed director Michael Winterbottom made the conscious decision to prolong excruciating long scenes of violent battering, showing Joyce's (Jessica Alba) face brutally beaten to a pulp and Amy's (Kate Hudson) ruthlessly, sadistic murder.

The main character, Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) is a deputy sheriff and a psychotic killer. Affleck perfectly plays a Norman Bates persona -harmless and polite on the outside, venomous murderer on the inside- although his Texan drawl was a bit hard to understand at times. To be fair, the production value is quite high as a period piece set in 1957. Attention to detail in the streets, antique cars and airplane, the family home with its picture perfect decor all makes for a visually appealing film. Aside from that, the story based on the novel by Jim Thompson was trite with barely developed characters getting so little screen time because most of the film was devoted to sadomasochistic sex and unconscionable violence especially towards the two women characters.

After the finale when everything is blown up (what a surprise, yawn), the director came out to answer questions as the stunned, silent audience blinked in disbelief at what just screened. The first question was about the gratuitous violence and Winterbottom cited the amount of violence that goes on in real life and this work is fiction based on a book he really enjoyed thus making it a form of entertainment. The second question continued upon the first, noting that the director made a conscious decision to sensationalize such extreme savagery just to make a point? What point was that? We got it after the first dozen smashes and kicks.

Perhaps the filmmaker and Trevor Groth who wrote the description in the Sundance catalog should look into sensitivity training because this is not "stylish" and does not "dazzle" all. It is unfortunate that a misogynistic film in 2010 can be labeled a "psychosexual thriller imbued with all the amoral energy of its genre". The audience response was powerful as they filed out of the theater in silence.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


The title, TUCKER & DALE VS. EVIL, makes me laugh with its emphasis on the twist of this romantic comedy horror genre that can be anticipated but not predicted and like a good joke, well-told with punchlines perfectly-timed, keeping the audience howling with surprise at the unexpected results. Andrew Kaiser, music composer, describing the film as SHAUN OF THE DEAD MEETS DELIVERANCE, piqued my interest as the film is not an official submission,nevertheless a Premiere in the Park City at Midnight segment, fast becoming my favorite screening time slot at Sundance Film Festival. Over eighty diehards stood on the waitlist line at the Library Center Theater, filling the venue to capacity and were not disappointed.

The opening short film, THE S FROM HELL directed by Rodney Archer, is a creatively convoluted collage revealing the seemingly innocuous 1960s update of the Screen Gems logo into a stylized "S" with annoying Moog notes, as a deliberate diabolical intrusion primarily on television viewers subjected to it at the show's close. Good warm up for what was to follow.

Director Eli Craig's introduction was a solid set up for a wild rife in the backwoods of West "Virginny". The good ol' boys, Tucker and Dale are on their vacation heading for their "fixer upper" cabin in the woods. At the last gas station stop, their paths cross with a car load of college kids going camping and Dale's innocent intentions towards pretty, blond Alison are taken as "creepy". Turns out they are all vacationing near the same lake where the college kids go skinnydipping and Tucker and Dale are fishing. A simple misunderstanding goes grotesquely wrong and the mayhem kicks into high gear not letting up until the inevitable final stand off between "Good" and "Evil".

Eli Craig and Morgan Jurgenson co wrote a whip smart script with set ups that don't give everything away and punchlines that hit their mark. Kaiser's music score captures the settings and ranges across blue grass, guitar and violin instrumentals intersecting good nature moments with menacing build up into a horror film finale. The gore is in equal parts with black humor and as Kaiser notes, he tested the gore level by showing it to his grandmother, who laughed all through the film.

Other screenings on Saturday, January 25, midnight, SLC; Wednesday, January 27, 5:30 p.m. Park City; Thursday, January 28, midnight, Egyptian Theatre, midnight Park City; Saturday, January 30, 9:00 p.m. Egyptian Theatre, Park City.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Top Twenty of Decade by Women Filmmakers

Indie or Studio, Women Filmmakers Still Underrepresented is headline screaming from the Atlanta Film Festival website The article asserts that according to a new study from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, the number of female directors and cinematographers has declined over the past decade. However, the study, "Independent Women: Behind-the-Scene Representation on Film Festivals," found the percentage of women working as directors, writers, producers, cinematographers and editors on domestically produced feature-length films appearing at film festivals is higher than the percentage of women working on the top 250 domestic grossing films- 24 percent versus 16 percent. Some notable numbers from the study:
• 77% percent of festival films employed no women directors
• Women accounted for 19% of writers working on films appearing at festivals, but only 12% on top-grossing films
• Women comprised 22% of executive producers working on films appearing at festivals, compared to 16% working on top-grossing films
• Women accounted for 33% of producers working on films appearing at festivals, but only 20% of those working on top-grossing films
• Women comprised 23% of editors working on festival films compared with 17% of those working on top-grossing films

Here are my Top Twenty of the Decade by women filmmakers:
1. REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES (2002) Directed by Patricia Cardoso, this coming-of-age story with newcomer and Golden Globe Award winner America Ferrera as a first-generation Mexican-American from East Los Angeles who struggles to balance her mainstream ambitions with a traditional cultural heritage. The film won the Audience Award at Sundance Film Festival.
2. WHALE RIDER (2002) A New Zealand film directed by Niki Caro, this tribal coming-of-age story embraced tradition, overcoming obstacles in a patrilineal society premiered at Toronto International Film Festival, won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Language and World Cinema Audience Award at Sundance Film Festival. Unsurpassed beauty of the South Pacific.
3. BLUE CAR (2002) Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Karen Moncrieff, the film is about a neglected teenage girl in a dysfunctional family environment finding solace in writing poetry with support from her English teacher who has passions other writing on his mind. The film was self-distributed and had a limited theatrical release and nominated for Best First Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards.
4. LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003) directed by Sofia Coppola. Lost in long distance loneliness.
5. MONSTER (2003) Written and directed by Patty Jenkins based on the life of Aileen Wuomos, an abused woman who was executed as a serial killer. The film doesn't excuse the murders, the woman becomes pitiful not despicable and Charlize Theron's performance is incredible as she transformed herself - not merely impersonating- into a character collecting accolades for Best Actress (Oscar, Golden Globe and Screen Actor Guild Award).
6. NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE (2005) Directed by Mary Harmon, is a biographical account of pin up and bondage model Bettie Page whose photos gave her the nickname "Dark Angel" and eventually led to a U.S. Senate Committee investigation. Gretchen Mol was right on and the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
7. WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL (2005) directed by Judy Irving and still finding audiences with its remarkably long tail.
8. JESUS CAMP (2006) directed by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing is about a pentecostal summer camp for kids focusing on three remarkably intelligent and eloquent children being trained to become evangelists centering around conservative political values. The film premiered at Tribeca Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary Feature category.
9. DIXIE CHICKS: SHUT UP AND SING (2006) Directed by two-time Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple and Celia Peck, takes the audience on the road, behind the scenes, recording studio and family home life of the Dixie Chicks - the biggest-selling female group in history. The infamous off-hand anti-Bush remark by lead singer Natalie Maines created a political firestorm that changed all three Dixie Chicks' lives and careers forever. World premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
10. LADY CHATTERLEY (2007) director Pascale Ferran picked up five Cesar Awards (the French equivalent of Academy Awards) for this beautifully shot, visually poetic and sensuous adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's once infamous novel. A true high-erotica art film.
11. RED ROAD (2007) directed by Academy Award winner Andrea Arnold. This feature debut, an exceptionally emotionally powerful film kept taking the audience on its sexually-charged twists and turns, premiered at Sundance Film Festival and won the Prix Du Jury Award at Cannes Film Festival.
12. PROTAGONIST (2007) Written and directed by Jessica Wu about the parallels of human life and its emotions against a background of Euripidean dramatic structure. A compelling perspective, the film premiered at Sundance Film Festival.
13. MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES (2007) Director Jennifer Baichwal follows world renowned still photographer Edward Burtynsky on his quest to document who we are in relation to our plant. World premiere at Toronto International Film Festival.
14. AWAY FROM HER (2007) Directed by Sarah Polley with beautiful memorable performances by Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent and Olympis Dukakis celebrating life and relationships with reality and optimism.
15. WATER LILIES (2007) Written and directed by first time filmmaker Celine Sciamma, a French coming-of-age story about teenage girls' burgeoning sexuality with a confluence of emotions and hormones in the rigid schedules of competitive swimming. Selected for screening in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes Film Festival.
16. THE BETRAYAL (NERKHOON) (2007) Written and directed by cinematographer Ellen Kuras (ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF A SPOTLESS MIND) and Thavisouk Phrasavath, a historic epic following a Laotian family forced to emigrate after the U.S. pulled out from its secret mission leaving behind their affiliates to fend for themselves against the communist government. Nominated for an Academy award for Best Documentary Feature.
17. THE ORDER OF MYTHS (2007) Written and directed by Margaret Brown taking the audience along the rim of the rabbit-hole she had free fallen into, unlocking that ornately embellished door and drawing us into an exotic world of Southern decorum and secret, mystical societies with both blacks and whites staunchly clinging to their centuries-old traditions. Mardi Gras masks still invade my dreams.
18. FROZEN RIVER (2007) Written and directed by Courtney Hunt with Melissa Leo in the role of one of two desperate women who smuggle illegal immigrants across the frozen St. Lawrence River. The film was Grand Jury Prize winner at Sundance Film Festival, Melissa Leo was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress and won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead.
19. BRIGHT STAR (2009) Directed by Jane Campion, this beautifully shot Festival de Cannes competition entry is a treat for literary romantics who allow their senses to become absorbed by carefully selected words and thus emotionally awakened. Read the prize-winning love letter on the website and swoon.
20. THE HURT LOCKER (2009) Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, the film is set in Iraq with an opening title, War is a Drug setting the stage that can be blown up at any time through the exploits of the main character, a bomb disposal expert living on the edge. No stunts or CGI used as Bigelow builds tension with classic tools of fear and surprise. Explosive.

Listen in on Film Festival reViews podcast conversations with Melissa Leo and Courtney Hunt (FROZEN RIVER), Ellen Kuras (THE BETRAYAL), Margaret Brown (ORDER OF MYTHS), Pascale Ferran (LADY CHATTERLEY)

Friday, January 8, 2010

Top Twenty Films of the Decade

Recently I read FILMMAKER MAGAZINE put out a list of twenty-five top independent films of the decade. Per their assessment, I do not agree with all of the choices. I do agree; however, that it all depends on memory, at least that much was given aside from the box office results. It also depends on who triggers that memory for others to agree with and from the list of people mentioned as contributors who voted, they were primarily the usual suspects for film reviews.

The past decade involved a monumental amount of changes in my life, both personal (successfully completing my marriage), educational (graduate degree from American University, School of Communications) and professional (moving back to New York area as writer, producer, podcaster Film Festival reViews). So, indie films, attending film festivals and talking to filmmakers became an integral part of my life with many films changing my attitude towards, genres, filmmaking techniques, storytelling in that I cannot go along with FILMMAKER MAGAZINE's suggested film list just because someone else's memory may be tunes in to a most certainly different station, some more violent than others. In any event, the list is chronological, depending on my memory.

1. CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000) directed by Ang Lee, this Chinese B-movie genre involved magic, warriors, flying monks, noble swordsmen. Mythically lyrical, it was on my birthday that I saw it at the Avalon Theatre in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The next day the theater closed with plans for renovating it into a CVS or some other retail outlet. The Key and Biograph were already shut down in Washington, DC and the Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland was still a closed eyesore ready to be razed. It was on the precipice either to be a renovated downtown theater venue or parking lot for the American Dream Mall.

2. O, BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000) by the Coen Brothers, an adventure film integrating a classical epic, Southern politics and American folk music coming away with a soundtrack that won a Grammy. I greatly admire their work (MILLER'S CROSSING as my favorite) and understanding when violence is used to move the story ahead. This one, however, that made the memory list is beyond the need for blatant violence. Amen.

3. ENDURANCE, THE SHACKLETON'S LEGENDARY EXPEDITION (2001) director George Butler's documentary on the big screen, one of the first in the decade making it a respectable box office success. The mix of original and new footage, stills and reenactments turned it into a hybrid docudrama we are so familiar with today especially knowing that Shackleton funded the expedition by selling the rights to Nat Geo before starting out. Most memorable when Shackleton ordered the photographer to burn over 400 pictures they chose not to carry with them, so that they wouldn't be tempted to return for them.

4. MEMENTO (2001) directed by Christopher Nolan, it's on my list as Best Mystery Thriller and has been acclaimed for its nonlinear narrative structure carefully delineated using black and white versus color sequences punctuated with aggravating sounds now used profusely as a mainstay in television. The marketing strategy was similar to BLAIR WITCH in that the website was used to provide clues and hints to the story. I especially liked the use of Polaroids which I found very helpful when supporting my own wandering memory searching for misplaced keys.

5. DONNIE DARKO (2001) directed by Richard Kelly, a science fiction that became a cult classic and one I can follow more readily than any David Lynch film. Timing is everything and a theater audience's cult-like following resurrected this film for another film life.

6. 21 GRAMS (2003) Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's dramatic feature appeared with an ensemble cast and non linear, interlocking story based around a car accident alluding to the afterlife with 21 grams representing the departing soul. While there is no scientific evidence to support this, the notion kept watercooler discussions going.

7. LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003) directed by Sofia Coppola. Lost in long distance loneliness. Not a big Bill Murray follower, but it was a brilliant decision on his part to take on this mid-life crisis role and relationship with a younger woman. One of the only Older Man-Younger Woman films I can appreciate and connect with.

8. THE STATION AGENT (2003) directed by Tom McCarthy won the Sundance Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay about a man who, looking for solitude at an abandoned train stop in New Jersey, becomes enmeshed in his neighbors' lives and neurosis. Patricia Clarkson is Queen of Indie Films.

9. THE FOG OF WAR: ELEVEN LESSONS FROM THE LIFE OF ROBERT S. MCNAMARA (2003) Errol Morris' brilliant documentary using archival footage and conversation recordings along with octogenarian Robert McNamara, himself. Awarded the Academy Award and Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary Feature, along with the "Lessons", I recognize and support the power of creative direction in a film bringing this from a potentially boring talking heads and audio recordings doc to new heights with conceptual graphics and visual presentation.

10. ROBOT STORIES (2003) four stories by Greg Pak called "science fiction from the heart" that continue to resonate with me since my Literature of the Fantastic course in college. This is an exemplary film by a first time filmmaker for first time filmmakers. Subtle and sublime presentation of human nature in a technological-worshipping society.

11. MARCH OF THE PENGUINS (2005) Luc Jacquet's doc on the mating rituals of the Emperor penguins in the Antarctic totally surprised me. However, I was angered (along with many parents of small children) by the distribution company's deceptive marketing practice calling this film "family fun". At the NYWiFT program event A Case Study on the Making of a Documentary, producer Emmanuele Priou discussed the tremendous obstacles in a hostile environment both in the Antarctic and stakeholders boardroom, as well as changes made to appeal to an American audience. It was awarded an Oscar for Best Documentary feature and became the highest grossing box office success at the time ($77 million).

12. WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL (2005) directed by Judith Irving based on a book by a man taking care of a population of feral parrots. Maybe it's because growing up, my family was adopted by one such parrot, Lulu, who became such a member of the family that her socializing forever left an imprint on me about most living things' basic needs for social connection. The budget was one million and after its theatrical release, Emerging Pictures digitized the film for its Emerging Cinema Digital Network and the film continues to do well finding new audiences and having a very long tail with it.

13. VOLVER (2006) Pedro Almodovar directed this coming home (literally translated as return to a place) drama/tragicomedy about the rich culture of death and superstition taken from Almodovar's birthplace. Penelope Cruz finally had a role that put her on a best actor level. She reminded me of Sophia Loren in the 1954 Italian comedy THE GOLD OF NAPLES and I hope she finds more roles like this one. I also loved the way Almodovar directed and brought out the essence of his women characters as a tribute to the women in his life and place.

14. THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY (2006) directed by Ken Loach is the only war film I have on the list, not that there aren't great films that should be listed (maybe on the Top Fifty). Set during the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War, the story is about two brothers torn by their beliefs and honor. It's a history that few are familiar with and caused a flurry of protests by rival historic interpretations. The film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes Film Festival in 2006.

15. AWAY FROM HER (2007) directed by Sarah Polley with beautiful, memorable performances by Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent and Olympia Dukakis. Kudos for the screenplay adapted from a short story into a feature that could have fallen quickly into a quagmire of depression. Instead, it celebrated lives and relationships with reality and optimism.

16. DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (2007) Julian Schnabel won the Best Director award at Cannes and while the entire film kept me in awe, the scene I found most affecting was Bauby shaving his ailing father and their man-to-man, heart-to-heart. Touching.

17. THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2007) directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Its details and nuances are what makes the film so captivating and surprising at what it means to recover your personal humanity no matter what the circumstances are or consequences can be.

18. FROZEN RIVER (2008) written and directed by Courtney Hunt, it started as a short story then turning full bloom into a feature with Melissa Leo as one of two desperate women who smuggle illegal immigrants across the frozen St. Lawrence River. Leo was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress and won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead. When the Academy Award nominations were announced, gossip editor Courtney Hazlett on MSNBC announced her ignorance live on camera stammering she never heard of FROZEN RIVER and that only films that people know about should be nominated and she wouldn't know where to go to see it. Meanwhile at Sundance, Quentin Tarantino, ready to announce the Grand Jury Prize Winner (Dramatic), described the film as "a vise around your heart that is continuously squeezed until the very end".

19. MAN ON WIRE (2008) directed by James Marsh was another Sundance Grand Jury Prize Winner (Documentary) and Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary. The entire film went off like the planned bank heist that Philippe Petit had envisioned in his 1974 high-wire walk/dance between the Twin Towers. During the decade, doc filmmakers over-used reenactments and other elements to alter their film's characteristics, often unsuccessfully. This film was not only superb technically, but it had the visual and emotional intensity taken to heights that even Alfred Hitchcock would have approved of.

20. DEPARTURES (2009) directed by Yojiro Takita and awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, this film embodies tradition and non traditional families along with a taboo subject of death, encoffinment, ceremonies and bereavement. Nevertheless, the soulful cello score throughout the film and the entire ceremony at the end of the credits become the small gems often missing in mainstream indie films.

NEXT: The Top Twenty Films of the Decade by women filmmakers.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

FILM FESTIVALS: Grow Up and Get a Life

The year 2007 may have been the height of indie films theatrical exhibition and distribution then it all failed miserably in 2008-09. Beyond blaming the economy, maybe it was more than the glut of mediocre films just to get them out in theaters. The same thing was going on with film festivals- a glut of them operated by inexperienced festival directors with too many cooks in the kitchen and the funding eventually drying up. For many festivals there wasn't much going for it if the general description would read " a festival that showcases undistributed short and feature films in all genres from around the world". Can't get anymore general than that including the ever expanding programming with "something for everyone" becoming the eventual death knell. One such festival in LA was touted as a non profit "established to provide a showcase for independent film that are often neglected and rarely presented". Yawn. Apparently, this festival started off with a bang in 2000 and peaked in 2007, at least two years beyond what I give a film festival the time necessary to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up. This festival is not around anymore since 2007 and there were probably more reasons for its demise that may have included bad management, bad films and bad economy.

One of the biggest blunders a film festival can make is not having a focus and getting too big, too fast before it has time to mature, establish and maintain a following. Two hundred films scheduled over a short period of time, understaffed in trained personnel and volunteers (yet there are thirty people sitting on the Board of Directors), not enough venues and technicians operating various projection systems, limited marketing and promotion planning and budget including stagnant websites that don't always include festival dates on their landing page. Nightmare city. The independent film audience that this was all going for becomes one or two people in a theater that seats four hundred and a disappointed filmmaker who gave up the prize (a premiere is like giving up your virginity - you only do it once) all for nothing.

The best festival websites have their festival name, dates and location in the title page, perfect for search engines to find and show up on the top of their list. The best film festivals go beyond panel discussions, master classes, public parties and private receptions. They have experienced, savvy film festival directors and programmers who understand the indie film business, are creative marketers and use their knowledge in conjunction with technology trends that takes over the lead from abandoned, ineffective distribution business models offering options for distributing the films that have been accepted in their program lineup and probably would not have progressed any further past the first film life and theatrical screening momentum. Film festivals need to get a life, too. Next: PART II FILM FESTIVALS THAT HAVE A FOCUS