Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Announcement: I'm Going to Sundance!

Photo courtesy rogerebert.com


Apologies for the break in posts, readers! Blame the holidays and an uncharacteristic amount of travel between November and January.

Along with my return comes some very exciting (well, to me), news. Almost two months after receiving the invitation email, I'm still in dazed disbelief as I write this. In a twist of glorious fate (and for reasons I'm honestly still scratching my head over), I've been selected for the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism.

Starting tomorrow through February 1st, I'll be on the ground in Park City, Utah, reviewing films, learning from a mentor, networking (hopefully), and with any luck, not making a complete awkward fool of myself while doing it all as I navigate my way through the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, courtesy of the Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation.

Indiewire provides a more detailed breakdown of what the fellowship entails in its article last week (check it out here!), but in a nutshell, the fellowship is described as an initiative "designed to bolster the career momentum for emerging practitioners."  once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to immerse myself in a creatively-charged environment while simultaneously learning from veterans in the field and celebrating the best of indie cinema with like-minded film enthusiasts. I don't think it gets better than that.

They've got us working right away, with two preview pieces on Indiewire.com:

Look out for at least 10 more to follow on Ebert.com and Indiewire over the course of the festival. 

To say I am intimidated is an understatement. To say I am excited is an even bigger one. And to say this is a dream come true would be entirely inaccurate indeed--this is a privilege and an experience I didn't even dare to imagine could ever be real.

Track me on Twitter to keep up with my reviews and reflections throughout the festival. Hope to do you all proud!


Thursday, November 6, 2014

Indie Movie Preview: November 2014



It may be because awards season is starting to peek out from around the corner, but the movies are kicking it into high gear this month. For the first time in awhile, I’ve gone through the roster of upcoming releases and not only been amazed at the sheer number of them, but have found something genuinely compelling about each one and have wanted to include everything here.

But since that would defeat the purpose of making this a curated list, I’m picking the handful that stood out most (note that while I am bouncing off the walls in anticipation for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I, releasing November 21, it will not be a part of this roundup in the interest of keeping things slightly off the commercial path. It’s clearly doing well enough for itself in the promotions department anyway). It’s going to be a good November at the theaters.


Elsa & Fred
Release Date: November 7
Director: Michael Radford
Starring: Christopher Plummer, Shirley MacLaine, Marcia Gay Harden

What’s the story? The remake of a 2005 Argentinian film. Fred is a soft-spoken widower who has lost direction after the death of his wife. But when he meets the spunky Elsa, a hopeless romantic who dreams of her own Fellini-esque love story of La Dolce Vita proportions, they both learn that life—even in its twilight years—can be full of surprises.

My take: I highly doubt this film is going to come with some profound message we haven’t heard before. But who said every movie has to be a cerebral mind-twister to be considered good? And it’s Captain Von Trapp, you guys! Aside from the fact that no film he does will make me think of him as anyone other than the pitch-perfect patriarch, I have faith that he and Maclaine can at least take it back to old fashioned romance here, rather than the melodramatic teenage stuff we’ve been subject to of late.* I’m pegging it as this month’s feel-good factor.


Rosewater
Release Date: November 14
Director: Jon Stewart
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Claire Foy

What’s the story? Television host, modern muckraker, and all-around funnyman Jon Stewart turns writer/director with his debut feature, an adaptation of Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari’s book retelling his own arrest, interrogation, and 118-day imprisonment while covering the nation’s 2009 presidential elections.

My take: Stewart’s passion for both comedy and politics collide in this at-times lighthearted, at-times intense portrait of one man’s solitary confinement—and according to feedback, his unique blend of satirical reporting is both the film’s strength and it’s flaw.  While audience and critic responses have been inconsistent, Rosewater nonetheless seems like an earnest endeavor to celebrate the spirit of honest journalism, and to highlight the volatile energy of Iran’s changing social landscape. Plus, I never have to be arm-twisted into seeing anything Stewart or Bernal do. Team them up, and they’re sure to be worth a watch.


Foxcatcher
Release Date: November 14
Director: Bennet Miller
Starring: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo

What’s the story? The biography of Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz, whose desire to break out from under his older brother’s athletic shadow leads him to pursue training under multi-millionaire coach John Du Pont, with harrowing and irreversible consequences.

My take: I know, I know. A film that includes three A-listers can hardly be considered “off the beaten path.” But the buzz around this movie has been deafening for months, and it would be plain foolish to brush of a film that nabbed Miller the Best Director award at Cannes and was a nominee for the zenithal Palme d’Or honor simply because of its blingy starcast. Stories based on real-life sports figures are seldom unwatchable, the best of them tapping into to the corners of our psyche where competitiveness and morality converge. I’m not just intrigued to witness Steve Carell’s embodying of a downright disturbing character, but also legitimately excited to see how Tatum takes on the part of a young sportsman careening down a spiral of misplaced ambition–without a doubt, his most demanding, substantial role to date (no, a striptease to the tune of “It’s Raining Men” did not count).


A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Release Date: November 21
Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
Starring: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marshall Manesh

What’s the story? Director Ana Lily Amirpour’s feature debut centers on the dark and dismal ghost town of Bad City in Iran, in which residents are unknowingly being stalked by a vampire.

My take: Given my previous experience with the genre, never in a million years did I think I’d ever go around actually recommending a vampire romance. But favorable reviews for it across the board have me thinking that this one may just be different; not least because of the director’s apparent focus not so much on plot as on auras and aesthetics (if that sounds too loopy for you, I don’t blame you—but give it a shot anyway). Throw in the fact that it’s set in Iran, and is (very randomly) produced by Elijah Wood, and there are just too many unlikely elements coming together here to not be curious.


The Imitation Game
Release Date: November 28
Director: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley

What’s the story? Another cinematic take on a biography, this time with a computer scientist rather than a wrestler at its center. The Imitation Game reflects on the life and achievements Alan Turing leading up to and throughout his critical involvement in the decrypting of Nazi Germany’s Enigma code during World War II, as well as the prosecutions that followed surrounding his homosexuality.

My take: Two words: Benedict Cumberbatch. I should think that’s explanation enough, but for those of you who aren’t quite as captivated by the inimitable specimen that he is, there are other reasons to look forward to The Imitation Game, whether its Keira Knightley marking her promising return to her comfort zone of period films, or writer Graham Moore’s exalted, four-years-in-the-making screenplay. The combination of British talent, a wartime setting, and a hero who is an intellectual genius but a social underdog tend to work with viewers (most recent case in point: The King’s Speech), an assumption further validated by the seven Audience Choice awards its swept up during its festival circuit. There’s no reason not to believe the hype.


Before I Disappear
Release Date: November 28
Director: Shawn Christensen
Starring: Emmy Rossum, Ron Perlman, Paul Wesley, Fatima Ptacek

What’s the story? Troubled 20-something Richie is minutes away from attempting suicide when his sister calls, desperate for him to look after her pre-teen daughter that evening. The babysitting job turns into a wild nighttime ride as Richie and his niece traverse from one end of Manhattan to the other, creating unexpected bonds through their unlikely shared experiences.

My take: The feature-length version of Christensen’s Oscar-winning short, “Curfew,” Before I Disappear seems to be more of what its 2012 precursor offered, and from the praise I’ve heard so far, that’s not entirely a bad thing. Admittedly, suicide isn’t the most uplifting of topics, but I’m keen to see how Christensen has developed Richie’s emotional journey, especially with an eleven-year-old girl beside him. Apparently, in between shots set in quintessential New York locations, we can expect glimpses of magical realism and even a choreographed dance sequence (and yet, it’s not Bollywood!). Sounds like something I can get on board with.




*Fully aware of how ancient that sentence makes me sound, but I’ve long since made peace with many of my medieval traits.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Sitting in on a Conversation with Marion Cotillard

 
Marion Cotillard at NYFF
One of the most graceful actors on screen today, Marion Cotillard is a rare example of simple and delicate beauty as well as profoundly perceptive, nuanced cinematic portrayals. Last Sunday, I finagled my way into the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Amphitheater to sit in on a conversation with the Oscar-winning actress, part of the 2014 New York Film Festival’s free live event series. The talk served as a precursor to a screening of Cotillard’s latest film, Two Days One Night, directed by renowned Belgian filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, in which she plays a young mother battling depression, who has just one weekend to convince her co-workers to let her keep her job.

In a chat with interviewer and Variety critic Scott Foundas, Cotillard discussed her process, her inspirations, and her latest project. My takeaways from the conversation below:

On working with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne:
What struck me most about them was how well they had organized everything. They had left plenty of time, a full month, for rehearsals, which is unusual for a low-budget film. It was really helpful because it allowed us all to explore and for me to go deep into my character. But really, Jean-Pierre and Luc gave me everything I’d want in terms of a relationship with my directors: the creativity, the challenge. It was one of my best experiences.

On getting immersed into dark roles, then stepping away from them post-filming:
I sometimes get asked when I’m going to stop living the lives of people who are so “messed up.” (laughs) But I unfortunately, or fortunately, love doing them.  Sandra, my character in Two Days One Night, has a history of depression. Sometimes, she’d burst into tears mid-conversation for no apparent reason other than her dark past. I needed inspiration to understand how and why this would happen, so I started researching and scripting my own dramatic scenes for preparation, just for myself—the directors didn’t even know about them! But they helped me get to those emotions during the tough scenes.

La Vie En Rose was the first time I went so deep for months into the body and spirit of someone dark. After that, I realized that I need a process to get back to my own life, something like a detox. It’s hard, but it can be as interesting as the process of getting into a role.

On watching herself on screen:
I feel like it’s important to see my work. It’s part of the entire experience of making a film, and I also do it out of respect for the director’s work. The first time I watch my own film is especially hard because I don’t actually watch the movie. I’m too busy judging myself, which I do very harshly. The second time around, it’s easier to watch the movie—that being said, if I really didn’t like myself during the first watch, I won’t watch it again! Two Days One Night I haven’t seen and I don’t know if I will. The process of making it was so intense that I don’t think it’s even possible for me to watch it as an audience.

Cotillard plays a young mother battling
depression in "Two Days One Night"
On “celebrity:”
It’s a very weird thing. I don’t think you can ever be prepared for it. When people began to recognize me after Taxi, I used to literally run away—not something I’m very proud of doing! But now, I’m used to it and I do like a lot about it. It’s a different connection to people, many people you may never meet, with a story that touches them. But it was my childhood dream to be unrecognizable from one movie to another. So for me, it’s more about that, as well as the opportunity to explore more than my own culture. I’ve been Polish, Italian, Belgian, even a non-living person! It’s been everything I wanted and more.

On keeping at it during the tougher years:
There was a phase in my early 20s when getting work, at least the type of work I was ambitious to get, was hard. I was questioning my patience because I always wanted more even though I was lucky to be working and many of my friends weren’t. I viewed my ambition as negative at first, and wondered if acting was useless. If you think about it, it is a very strange job. Especially since I tend to choose such heavy material and let it consume my life. Then, a director asked me point blank, “why do you do this?” And after thinking about it, I just replied, “Because I feel alive when I do it.” (laughs). So I guess it really isn’t all that useless after all.

On actresses she admires:
I’m inspired by a lot of people. I love Toni Collette. When I saw The Hours, I couldn’t recognize her. She completely disappeared into her role. She’s a genius. There’s also Meryl Streep, she’s the master, isn’t she? I’ve always loved Greta Garbo. And then there are the younger prodigies, Jennifer Lawrence and Adele Exarchopoulos, from Blue is the Warmest Color. I’m always very moved when a newcomer gives such amazing things at such a young age.

On next steps:
­I don’t really have a strategy for how I go about my films. I read scripts, meet people, and when I feel I have a place in an adventure, that’s when I go along with it. It’s funny: in the past, whenever I’ve felt a particularly strong need to express a specific emotion, a movie and character comes along that allows me to do just that.  A few years ago, I had been feeling a certain need to channel anger. And then A Very Long Engagement happened. It’s never planned; I’m lucky that it just happens.  I’d love to do more comedy. That would be fresh air and a departure from my comfort zone. And then, I also have stories I’ve really wanted to tell, with French actresses I’ve always wanted to work with. So direction could happen. It’s definitely a desire growing inside me.



Monday, September 29, 2014

Indie Movie Preview: October 2014



After a brief, end-of-summer hiatus in September, it's time to gear up for the films hitting theaters this fall! We're smack in the middle of festival season, and that means a whole new spread of exciting indies to feast on--or, if you're not careful, the risk of drowning in the sheer excess of mediocre content also floating around in the mix. As always, my goal is to help sift out the gems from the junk. Sadly, not all of them get released where I live, so if you happen to watch any of them, do comment below with your own reviews and I'll live vicariously through you. That said, here are my picks for must-see October releases...


Gone Girl
Release Date: October 3
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry

What’s the story? When Nick Dunne’s wife Amy vanishes on their fifth wedding anniversary, he initiates a town-wide search party and enlists the help of detectives.  But when the details surrounding her disappearance grow increasingly murky, speculations of murder grow, with Nick himself becoming the prime suspect.

My take: Whatever the term is for the movie equivalent of a book that you just can’t put down, that’s what Gone Girl needs to be, no questions asked. Taking on Gillian Flynn’s 2012 international best seller (8.5 million copies is no joke) that captivated even the thriller-averse likes of me, director David Fincher had his work cut out for him to convert the gripping page-turner into an equally enthralling film.  I confess, I initially resented the casting choice of Ben Affleck as the leading role (really, couldn't they have gone with someone less mainstream?), but on subsequent reflection, he’s actually pretty perfect for the clean-cut, morally ambiguous, husband-in-distress whom you want desperately to trust. After months of anticipation for the film, I’m in equal parts nervous and psyched to see if Fincher's version can satisfy a story so many of us have long visualized in our own minds. 


Whiplash
Release Date: October 10
Director:
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist

What’s the story? Determined not to succumb to the mediocre career that was his father’s fate, talented young drummer Andrew Neyman enrolls in a prestigious music school to hone his craft. But, mentored by an instructor whose merciless teaching methods often spill into abuse, Andrew finds himself pushed to the edge of the deep end, straddling the line between perfectionism and insanity.

My take: Thanks to my interest level in the Divergent series (read: nonexistent) in which he recently had a part, my only exposure to Miles Teller thus far has been his turn as Ren MacCormack’s goofy sidekick Willard in 2011’s Footloose. While that was fun and all, I’m looking forward to seeing him reveal his range as a laser-focused drumming prodigy here, a leading role that’s earned him resounding praise at Whiplash’s showings at Sundance and Cannes earlier this year.  Watching him berated & bullied, even slapped, in the trailer by a cutthroat J.K Simmons, is enough to make one wince in both sympathy and horror. With its fairly straightforward story, Whiplash’s success seems to rest on its impact as a performance-driven film depicting the ugly side of ambition.


Dear White People
Release Date: October 17
Director: Justin Simien
Starring: Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Teyonah Parris, Brandon P Bell

What’s the story? Student activist Samantha takes to her campus radio show to call out racial stereotypes. As she broadcasts her views against the diversification of a traditionally all-black dorm, her life intersects with three other individuals on campus navigating, criticizing, even exploiting the culture of university race relations.

My take: Judging from the steady flow of snarky quips dished out by lead character Samantha in the trailer (i.e. “the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, your weed man Tyrone doesn’t count”), debutant director Justin Simien’s feature comedy is primed to simultaneously shock, amuse, and make us think. And judging from its “Audience Award” at the San Francisco International Film Festival and “Breakthrough Talent Award” at Sundance, among others, Simien’s no-holds-barred satire of the politics of race has evidently struck a chord with viewers. I love the idea of a film that’s brave enough to take an often sensitive and polarizing issue and uses its volatile energy to appeal to our collective senses of humor. I’ll be watching this both as entertainment and as a study on one brave individual’s unique approach to address a 21st century society in which racial prejudice and stereotyping is still far from obsolete.


Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Release Date: October 17
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan

What’s the story? Adapted from Raymond Carver’s stage play What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Birdman follows an aging, has-been celebrity once celebrated as a on-screen superhero, as he attempts to reclaim his fame, career, and dissolving family by starring in a Broadway play.

My take: I admit, the oversized CGI birds in the trailer make me nervous as to just how bizarre things are going to get in this film. However, Birdman, for all its hints at being some sort of enigmatic and supernatural satire, nonetheless looks to be a fascinating critique of the fickle and unforgiving film industry, as well as a poignant story of one man’s battle to remain relevant in a world that seems to have moved on. Plus, there is just no way I’m not watching a movie that’s earned a 9.0 rating on IMDB, is made by the guy who gave us Babel, is already vibrating with Oscar buzz, and has Emma Stone and Edward Norton and Zach Galafianakis in it. Lots to look forward to here.


Men, Women & Children
Director: Jason Reitman
Release Date: October 17
Starring: Rosemarie DeWitt, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer, Dean Norris, Adam Sandler, Ansel Elgort, Kaitlyn Dever

What’s the story? High school teens and adults struggle to maintain their relationships, both with others and themselves, in the face of the Internet’s ever-expanding power and contemporary society’s alarming tendency to live out most of our lives online.

My take: Like many, I was automatically intrigued by Men, Women & Children’s trailer: a dialogue-free, no-voiceover compilation of scenes contextualized only by mysterious, sometimes suggestive text messages exchanged by the characters. While unusual for a preview, it’s a clever way for director Jason Reitman to set the tone of this novel-turned-film. Tapping into a phenomenon that has become commonplace in our everyday lives, he shines a glaring light in the promo itself onto the irony of our increased digital interactions resulting in diluted real-life intimacy and a greater sense of loneliness. If so much can be established in a two-minute trailer, imagine how it all plays out in the full-fledged feature. We’ve seen cinematic explorations of hitting a technology saturation point in films like Her and Transcendence, but Jason Reitman’s unique way of infusing humor with darkness—not to mention the eclectic ensemble cast he’s assembled—will hopefully lend Men, Women & Children a compelling perspective.




Sunday, August 17, 2014

Boyhood


For most filmmakers, one of the biggest narrative struggles is finding a way to distort—or evade altogether—the depiction of the passage of time.

That’s not the case for Richard Linklater, who doesn’t just embrace the elusive concept with a profound understanding that few of his contemporaries can match, but makes it the very core of his work. We’ve seen him do it before, revisiting Jesse and Celine at progressive intervals through their lives in the Before Sunrise trilogy. But never before has Linklater captured the essence of growing up with such graceful authenticity and fluidity as in Boyhood.

It’s difficult to assign the film a synopsis. The word often implies a story heavy with construction, and forces us to condense it into a single sentence that cleanly encompasses its major events. But there are no major events in Boyhood. No “a-ha” moments, no brewing struggles that crescendo into a dramatic climax, no tidy denouements. There’s just the gentle observation of a young life and of the lives around him. I even hesitate to call him the male lead, as portraying a character seems to be the last thing the remarkably natural Ellar Coltrane is doing here. But technically, that’s what he is.  

He plays a pint-sized Mason when we first meet him, grinding rocks through pencil sharpeners and collecting snake vertebrae—as any six year-old boy would. Over the next 164 minutes, we watch him become a high school graduate through snippets from his life, interlaced with those of the lives around him.  The product of a divorce, Mason and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) are shuttled from city to city within Texas, following their mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) as she goes back to college and stumbles through a series of toxic husbands, and reconnecting with their father, Mason Sr. (a hammy but perfect Ethan Hawke), on weekends and holidays.

By many accounts, it’s an all-American childhood, each year a fifteen-minute collection of memories: the kids reading Harry Potter in bed with Olivia. A particularly amusing conversation on contraception with Mason Sr. Perfecting s’mores by a campfire. Cracking voices. Teenage girlfriends. Part-time jobs. They’re not necessarily milestones, just moments, made special by the simple virtue of being part of life.

The years flow seamlessly, without captions of clarification or prolonged black screens that blatantly declare the passage of time, but with transitions that are more organic—a character turning a corner, a passing comment about a recent news event, Mason’s ever-fluctuating hair length. Everything is historically accurate by default, from computer models and political campaigns to the music accompanying the chapters, each tune a reminiscent throwback to its era (think Coldplay of the early millennium, up to "Summer Moon" from Jeff Tweedy's still-unreleased album).  Like scribbled notes, the moments are disconnected, compiled in a cinematic scrapbook that chronicles the evolution of not just a young boy, but of an entire family. Linklater is keenly in tune with their growth along with Mason's, from Olivia’s turbulent relationships to Samantha’s middle school crushes and Mason Sr.’s own maturation from a responsibility-shunning, accidental dad to a remarried and graying owner of a minivan. It’s as much a tale of childhood as one of parenthood or even sisterhood, not a singular transformative story but the trajectory of many, each character’s arc as real as it gets without slipping into nonfiction.

But at its heart is the boy. Mason is a slight shadow of a being during his first ten years, the nonchalant background observer as Samantha steals scenes with her pre-adolescent sass. But as he explores where to stand on the vast spectrum of the people he could become, he gradually takes steps to the forefront. Glimpses of passion and purpose reveal a budding personality: a preference for photography over football. A disdain for the digital invasion of human interactions. The quiet kid, whose ambivalence we at moments worried for, has become sensitive, receptive, and a real individual, evoking a wistful pride that can only come from the unique experience of having watched both Ellar and Mason come of age before our eyes.

Some months ago, mere days before the film’s release, I attended a Q&A session at Manhattan’s 92nd St. Y with Coltrane and Linklater, the latter confessing his “extremely low standards” for what qualifies as a film; according to him, anything can be turned into a story. What was cited self-deprecatingly as a flaw is actually a rare gift: the ability to view ordinary incidents through an understated yet distinctive lens that doesn't elevate or inject them with contrived sentimentality. We appreciate them simply by watching. What would appear corny in anyone else's hands is, in Linklater’s, thought provoking and deeply touching. In this literal and figurative labor of love, he is guided by his gentle intuition to let human journeys unfold, rather than the motivation to impart a weighty message about them.


 Moreover, he makes his brand of storytelling look deceptively easy, effortlessly weaving improvised dialogue into predetermined plot points that camouflage the sheer conviction, commitment, and yes, the time it took to realize this vision: less than 40 days of principal photography sprinkled over 12 years, a production conceived on a shoestring budget, shot on film, with little foresight into the distribution landscape upon its completion, and driven by the collective leap of faith of its cast and crew. Transporting us into this family’s life, the 2+ hours pass in waves of humor and heart-tugging nostalgia. At one point, Mason and a new friend contemplate the popular notion to “seize the moment,” realizing that in truth, it’s the moments that seize us. In Boyhood, those moments are fleeting portraits of poignancy, constant in their presence and their transience. Like in life itself, they melt into years that suddenly, somehow, go by in the blink of an eye.