shout out sunday, 2.26.12

Remember, if you want to be featured in future SOS posts, send me a message with your blogs / artwork / music / films / Kickstarters, anything!

Movies: Daughters of the Dust, directed by Julie Dash, 1991, USA.

Keeping with the theme of Black History Month, this week’s film selection is Julie Dash’s landmark film Daughters of the Dust. Dash, who is Black Cinema’s predominant female voice, created one of the most unusual films in American history by crafting a narrative that was told from the perspective of an unborn child. It was also a tale of the underbelly of the American dream, as it is the story of three generations of Gullah women, a community of African Americans in the south who strove to maintain and perpetuate their African heritage by recording and developing new languages and customs. The film was entered into the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress in 2004.

Music: Visions by Grimes.

I was first introduced to Grimes a few years ago by my colleague Joshua Dysart, writer for the acclaimed graphic novel Unknown Soldier, and I was really taken with her. A true artist in an age of highly-manufactured pop ingenues, Grimes has the talent, presence and charm to really hit it big time. With her new album, Visions, Grimes lays down a sonic palette that is one part classic 4AD lushness (think This Mortal Coil mixed with the vocal stylings of Cocteau Twins) with the snyth cool of Cliff Martinez’s Drive soundtrack. It’s still very early in the year, but this record has skyrocketed to the top of my best of the year list.

Funding: Girl Walk, a feature film by Jacob Krupnick.

One of the truly fantastic indie films made in the past year, Jacob Krupnick’s Girl Walk is a feature-length music video that is scored by the complete All Day album by mashup maestro Girl Talk. It’s one of the purely enjoyable films I’ve seen this year, and its origins are true indie film, from crowdsourced funding to a DIY release strategy that includes promotion through dance workshops, symposiums and special events. I applaud Krupnick’s tenacity to create such a bold indie vision and release it on his own terms, and that’s definitely worth supporting. Krupnick is constantly raising funds for the logistics of his distribution, and donations can be made on his blog page via Paypal. You can learn more about the film - including seeing it in its entirety for free - on the film’s website: girlwalkallday.com. Believe me, you don’t want to miss it, it’s something truly, truly special.

Blogs worth checking out (with Twitter links, if available):

The Cosby Sweater Project.

If you’re too young to never have seen The Cosby Show (oh, don’t remind me that I’m in my thirties), you owe it to yourself to head over to Netflix and watch the early seasons. One of the more distinguishing features of the program was Bill Cosby’s vibrant array of sweaters, which act as a symbol of aesthetic lunacy but also of cultural significance. This blog catalogs each and every sweater worn on the show, and is a work of true - if not inspired- passion.

Films and Flappers, a Tumblr blog by kimj0ngfun.

A great tumblr blog celebrating the films of yesteryear, an historic journey with the early pioneers of cinema. This is a beautiful blog for anyone looking to learn the roots of cinema, which is an essential starting point for any aspiring filmmaker, myself included.

Opening Credits for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, from The Art of the Title.

Art of the Title is one of the truly great film blogs on the internet, and their current feature on the opening credits sequence for David Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is simply outstanding. Heavily researched and thoroughly documented, the article features in-depth interviews with Fincher and his credits crew, and goes not only into the technical execution of the piece, but also the artistic philosophy and inspirations behind it. An incredible read, and the same goes for the entirety of the blog.

Trailers: The Grandmasters, directed by Wong Kar-Wai.

It’s Wong Kar-Wai. With Tony Leung and Ziyi Zhang. With fights by Master Yuen Woo-Ping. ‘Nuff said. I’m sold.

Remember, if you want to get a shout out, you gotta let me know!

Shout Out Sunday Archive:

February 19, 2012

11 Best Films of 2011, Part 1.

A disclosure: I still haven’t seen Steve McQueen’s Shame, Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, Michel Hazanavicius’ critically-acclaimed silent film The Artist, or Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation. Given my upcoming travel schedule, there will be a high liklihood that I won’t be able to get around to them before the New Year. I’ve also not much desire to see War Horse or J.Edgar for the sheer manipulative feeling that both exquisitely-crafted films present.

But that said, I’ve seen enough films this year to proffer what I feel are the year’s eleven best, and I’m confident that the list would stay the course irrespective of what new films I may see in the next two weeks.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s been an amazingly strong year for American filmmaking, a feat that is likely hidden by the shitty economy and the shadows of studio juggernauts like Transformers 3, drivel like New Year’s Eve and Twilight, and the umpteen comic book films leading up to next year’s Avengers. But the other American cinema, the less than $15 million dollar budget films that populate only a handful of screens and haunt the DVD and Video-On-Demand circuit, this cinema has shown a remarkable insight and gift for nuance. This has largely and shockingly been missing in the foreign films of 2011, as only two non-American productions made my list, and those two films were British.

It’s also noteworthy that four of my top ten films are documentaries. I’ve stated on this blog that escapism has engulfed the global box-office, where tepid, unfunny romantic comedies and jingoistic superheroes provide the opiate to our everyday realities. But it is in the documentary where we find our most truthful and compelling stories, because those stories are our own. I do hope that one of the offshoots of the digital DIY age is the emergence of low-cost, high-concept documentary films that pull back the curtain on the mysteries of our everyday life.

But without further adieu:

11) Attack the Block, Joe Cornish, United Kingdom.

J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 got the global appreciation of a thowback kid-fantasy akin to The Goonies or classic Spielberg, but it was actually Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block that truly captured the sheer joy of being a kid on a wild and dangerous adventure. Set in the housing projects of South London, the film follows a ragtag group of teens as they are inexplicably forced to defend their block against an alien invasion. It’s no coincidence that the film echoes the racial and economic potboiler that resulted in the devastating riots in London earlier this year, and the film pulls no punches on where it is coming from. That this is all couched in a white-knuckle action film with some of the most kinetic and bravura sequences to defy a small budget in recent memory is astounding. An instant cult classic.

10) Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog, USA.

Werner Herzog is guilty of being as big a manipulator of emotions as Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, or any of the big-name studio blockbuster directors. Herzog’s insistence upon placing himself in the thick of his documentaries often clouds the veracity of the subject, as he often makes commentary from his own experiences and places them over the subject.

But the saving grace is that Herzog is one of cinema’s great thinkers and philosophers, and despite his insistence on asking questions of the subject within his own context, every question is meaningful and absolutely necessary. Herzog’s latest documentary - shot in beautiful 3D no less (the only 3D film to make my list) - explores the caves of Chauvet in France, long believed to be the home of the oldest cave paintings on Earth. Herzog is given exclusive access to this treasure of art history, and his study and questioning of the art leads to a greater discussion of our purpose and function as both creatures and as an organized society. The paintings serve as a mirror to our fears and ambitions, and through them - and Herzog’s relentless inquisitiveness - do we learn the nature of survival, work and our pursuit of beauty. The claustrophobia of the setting echoes our own paranoia and fears the unknown, all plunged in darkness. It is an amazing documentary and an extraordinary achievement, one that is likely never to be made again.

9) Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sean Durkin, USA.

Paranoia strikes deep, and in the grips of the unknown, comfort is found in the form of a status quo. One might argue that this is the foundation of the modern cult or gang - to take in the broken and confused, and provide a sense of order and belonging. Sean Durkin’s harrowing Martha Marcy May Marlene is a portrait of a placebo, a band-aid on a bullet hole in the consciousness of a young woman struggling to reconnect with reality after spending time in a cult.

As with most stories that deal with issues of the mind, the film leans heavily upon nuance and real-time exposition, and as a result the pacing is slower and languid, befit for the lush surroundings of where the film takes place. The true success of the film however rests upon the shoulders of actress Elizabeth Olsen, who deserves far more notoriety for her acting prowess than simply being the sibling of the Olsen Twins. Olsen delivers a powerhouse performance of extreme subtlety, burying her inner torment with a mask of false confidence. There is so much going on in this character’s mind, and Olsen never once allows any of it to bleed as obvious. A slow, engaging film that commands our attention and compassion.

8) Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt, USA.

An article in the New York Times called Meek’s Cutoff as eating one’s “cinematic vegetables,” in essence a film that is consumed for the betterment of the understanding of cinema, no more, no less. I disagree, as Meek’s Cutoff is simply brilliant filmmaking, a ramrod-straight experience of the American West, told without romance or agenda. Kelly Reichardt’s direction is free form and as open as the plains, a style the mirrors the experience of the pioneers, not knowing where they are going, navigating on hunches and base knowledge of the sciences of soil and water. The film is an exposition upon survival and trust, two elements that often painfully contradict one another. Meek’s Cutoff ends abruptly and without warning, leaving us with the same level of uncertainty as the characters. We don’t simply watch the film, we experience it, which is a rarity in today’s explain-it-all studio filmmaking.

7) Bill Cunningham, New York, Richard Press, USA.

I admit it. I take Bill Cunningham for granted. On my two-hour Sunday ritual of reading the New York Times Sunday paper, I often thumb past the Style section and maybe give Cunningham’s “On the Street” photo spread about ten seconds of my attention. Logic tells me that this is a Herculean task to put together, but I turn the page as if it is just another giant ad for Macy’s.

After seeing Bill Cunningham, New York, not only do I have a far greater appreciation for his column, I’ve come away with a greater message of what it means to pursue one’s bliss. Cunningham, who has done this job for decades, lives beyond modestly and refuses to take payment for his work, citing a salary as a true detriment to his freedom. And ultimately that is what this film is about - freedom. Cunningham lives in New York City as if it is his true playground, and he is bound to nothing. It is a philosophy however that is not without its collateral damages, and Cunningham, when asked the tough questions of faith and companionship, artfully dodges with an air of dignity and composure, like so many of the fashion-forward socialites in his photos.

6) Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn, USA.

Drive is, unquestionably, first-and-foremost, an exercise in style. It’s plot is simplistic and the film languishes in the day-glo synth aesthetics of yesteryear (actually the 80s) and is undeniably cool. Ryan Gosling plays the antihero to pitch perfection, with a swagger and style that was the stuff of macho wet dreams and countless Halloween costumes on Facebook. The movie doesn’t pretend to be anything other than an uber-cool love story, and that is completely fine by me. This is escapism done right - effortlessly, elegantly, and always with that one bit of reality (a shockingly violent bludgeoning) that always reminds us we are still only on the periphery of abandon. Perfectly executed.

Tomorrow, the top five!

Under Your Spell

Desire

Drive (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

Played 190 times

Music for the Weekend: Under Your Spell by Desire, from the Drive soundtrack.

Having worked so incredibly well with Julia on Lilith and becoming a dear friend, I often take for granted just how beautiful she is. I know, it’s crazy, but it actually happens. Sometimes it’s just nice to step back and enjoy the grandeur of creation. Julia was recently on the black carpet at the premiere of Twilight: Breaking Dawn and was an absolute vision.

Julia Voth is killer. Glad she’s on my side. :) Have a great weekend!

Marketing ‘Moneyball’

Last week I saw Bennett Miller’s Moneyball starring Brad Pitt. But of course you already knew that it was starring Brad Pitt because if you saw the trailers or commercials, then he’s all you’d see. Him and maybe a smattering of pre-weight loss Jonah Hill.

If you’ve already seen the movie, then the trailer makes absolute sense and is extremely compelling. But if you don’t follow baseball, then the trailer is an enigma - it’s not easy to ascertain what the film is actually about. Having seen the film, I can say with utmost confidence that Moneyball is not really about baseball, it’s a compelling story of risk and belief that is set against the backdrop of major league baseball.

It’s classic Aaron Sorkin, who uses monumental, iconic locales, businesses and events (The White House, Facebook) and writes stories of men who are reluctant to be true to themselves and their core beliefs, because those beliefs are so contrary to convention that those men risk losing everything that is dear to them. Moneyball is no different, with maverick Major League Baseball manager Billy Beane staking his professional career and personal stability on a tradition-bucking system of player evaluation. The script is taut with classing Sorkin dialogue and machine-gun exchanges of wit.

Sorkin is in fine form, coming fresh off the Academy Award for The Social Network, along with his Oscar-winning co-writer Steven Zallian. Also remarkable is the work of cinematographer Wally Pfister, he too earning Oscar gold last year for Inception. In fact the cast and crew for Moneyball is so rife with Oscar winners and nominees, it comes as no surprise that the quality of the film is impeccable. Made on a $50 million budget, the film bleeds film craft, every shot meticulously composed and performed. It’s an outstanding film, one of the year’s best, and is a shoo-in Oscar nominee for Best Picture and Best Actor.

In three weeks of release, the film, despite the star power of Pitt, Hill and a wildly underused Phillip Seymour Hoffman, has earned a paltry $49 million, a far cry from Pitt’s last bona-fide Oscar vehicle The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which in three weeks earned $91 million and went on to make $328 million worldwide.

I have to think that it is indeed the state of the economy that is playing a major role in the film’s performance, as the entire box-office is down historically. The film has an incredible aggregate score of 95% on the Tomatometer, and by most accounts it should do just as well as any other Brad Pitt vehicle.

But if we look at the differences between Benjamin Button and Moneyball, we see that Benjamin Button had a very clear, high-concept hook. A man ages backwards and grows younger as the world and people he loves grow older. It’s easy to digest and is extremely compelling. I try to think of a single sentence encapsulation for Moneyball and it’s far more challenging. A man ditches the traditions of baseball to reinvent his team, his life, and the game of baseball. That’s fine, but it’s still general - I don’t have that “hook” of a high-concept, which the film definitely has. If I add in the concept, it is A man ditches the traditions of baseball to reinvent his team, his life, and the game of baseball by using unconventional statistical models to evaluate talent. That’s fascinating to me because I’m a junkie for economic statistical models and seeking replicable patterns in chaos, but even I think that one sentence summation is pretty uninspiring to the ear.

Moneyball has elements of faith in oneself, love of family and community, and the desire to rise above and contribute to the fields that we are so passionate about. Those are amazing concepts but they are ridiculously difficult to summarize in a trailer or a commercial because these are internalized emotions, and there aren’t quick, catchy lines of dialogue that capture these elements fully for the purpose of marketing. The sentiments are spread out masterfully by director Bennett Miller, and they weave in and out of the film which culminates to a beautiful, final epiphany. It’s magnificent for the storytelling, but absolute murder for the marketing department.

Hence the true challenge of marketing Moneyball. When you see the ad campaigns, you can ascertain that the marketing teams at Columbia Pictures have covered their bases, but their strategy is clear. Let the fans of Brad Pitt come see this film, and then hope that those fans spread the word of mouth of how truly great Moneyball is.

There’s one last challenge to this, which is that if the studios are willing to ride the star power of Brad Pitt, then they must acknowledge that Brad Pitt is in a stage of transformation that may not be friendly to his star power. Pitt, who is one of the most gutsy and astute of Hollywood’s A-list, is reinventing himself from being an all-American heartthrob man’s man to becoming a true cinema artist. His work as both an actor and a producer have demonstrated his commitment to high-concept filmmaking, and he has used his star power to make some of the most definitive, artistically bold films made in the past twenty years. From the beginnings with David Fincher’s Se7en, Fight Club and Benjamin Button, to the insanity of Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, to the true arthouse of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, Pitt, along with George Clooney, has become one of the strongest voices of classic American filmmaking.

But both Clooney and Pitt have struggled mightily in making their A-list values translate into runaway box-office success. One can argue that this is the economy, or conversely the sobering reality that our A-list stars which our industry leaned so heavily upon are just plain getting older. In any which way, we can no longer truly depend on a name to carry a film. The stars are fading, and because of our reliance upon these stars way past their peak expiration date (Tom Hanks, Jack Nicholson, Julia Roberts, Johnny Depp, George Clooney, Harrison Ford, etc.) the industry has given little room for new stars to flourish and develop. Even a bona-fide star in the making, Ryan Gosling, is no guarantee for success. Drive and The Ides of March are under performing despite their excellence.

So Moneyball is depending on strong word-of-mouth from the fans of an aging star who is actively redefining himself. It’s a risky proposition, and I applaud the studios for taking that risk, because Moneyball is a film worth taking a risk on. And now the responsibility falls upon us, the consumer. We have to support risky films like Moneyball and Drive by going to the theater and seeing them. That’s the only way we’ll guarantee that we’ll see more high quality films like them. Ultimately, it is we the audience who determines the quality of films that we receive. If we show love and money to well-made, high-concept movies, then that is what the industry will give us. If we give money to mindless, poorly made action films, then that is what the industry will give us, because they’re in the business to make money. It’s our consumer rights advocacy that determines the quality of product we have to choose from, and it empowers filmmakers to take bolder risks. It’s a win-win situation.

Hot Topic: Remakes, Reimaginings and Sequels - Are they good for the industry?

I’m completely baffled by The Smurfs. At last check, the movie has grossed $519 million worldwide, with another glut of income anticipated from cable, DVD and VOD sales. In total I’d estimate a total gross of around $700 million for the film, making a net of around $220 million. That’s damn good business.

And yet it’s not a good movie, rather it’s cashing in on the nostalgia of Generation X, and it’s not the only one. One glance at the production board for 2012-2014 sounds like a schedule ripped from a page of an old TV Guide: 21 Jump Street, Arrested Development, Thundercats, 24, Entourage, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I found that there is indeed a Jetsons movie in the works, rendering my nightmare vision of that film a distant, macabre possibility. And here I thought I was joking.

And we haven’t even gone into the sequels: Ghostbusters 3, The Fast and the Furious 6, Jurassic Park 4, Terminator 5, Austin Powers 4, Bad Boys 3, Scary Movie 5, National Treasure 3, Toy Story 4, Avatar 2, Pirates of the Caribbean 5, The Hangover 3, Zoolander 2 and yes, The Smurfs 2.

And we still have the remakes / reimaginings of old movies, including Footloose, Dirty Dancing, Red Dawn, Robocop, Mortal Kombat, Oldboy, Logan’s Run, Red Sonja, The Karate Kid, The Crow, and Short Circuit. There’s even an Angry Birds movie in development.


It works only as a commercial.

I know, I know. It’s just business. I’m not here to question the decisions made by studio executives, but as a filmmaker and audience member, I do wonder why we the public are so willing to pay the highest ticket prices for films we have already seen? Did we not learn our lessons from the multitude of Star Wars redoes? Did we all not agree that Indiana Jones 4 was completely unnecessary? Didn’t we collectively scratch our heads when classic films like Straw Dogs (and soon another Peckinpah film will get butchered, the immortal Wild Bunch) and Psycho get remade for no good reason? Why remake a film that is already great? What more can be done to it?

We have to remember that all of these sequels and remakes started with an original film with an original screenplay - and by original I’m saying as a work with no precedence or a work adapted from a book, article or event. Without the embracing of original ideas, today’s remakes are a complete impossibility. Sequels were generally relegated to a trilogy, and the rarely has the third chapter shown any kind of promise - the only cases I can think of is Toy Story 3 and both the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series, which are weak examples because they are based on a series of books . Films are being made with open endings not because the filmmaker wanted to leave things ambiguous, they’re being left open because studios want to leave the option of having a sequel.

I think we’re treading on very dangerous territory here. Right now the only way an original script will see the light of day is with a star attachment, and even with that star those films will see limited resources. Case in point is Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive with Ryan Gosling. It’s a magnificent piece of filmmaking, and could only be made with the involvement of Gosling. And even with him, the producers could only muster up a $13 million production budget for the film, a far cry from the average star vehicle. The film has performed poorly due to limited exposure and a smaller distribution P&A budget. The same can be said for Brad Pitt’s Moneyball, an original film that could only see the light of day because of Pitt’s involvement. Both films provide little to zero possibilities of sequels or remakes.

Studios want franchises, and they want them rightfully because franchises make a shitload of money. But they also cost a lot of money to make and distribute. It’s just like running a McDonalds, franchising and churning out ho-hum product. But what would happen if we ran the film industry like an In-N-Out burger, where we focus on quality instead of quantity. I’ve been reading Stacy Perman’s book about the founding of In-N-Out, and was struck by founder Harry Snyder’s overriding philosophy, which was to “keep it simple, do one thing, and do it the best you can.”

Snyder was defiant of what McDonalds and other chains were doing to gain business, which was throwing gimmicks (remember the McDLT?) at customers while serving them consistently inferior product. Those chains also added other products to the basic hamburger, like fish sandwiches, salads, and pizzas, all of which were still inferior, and which also added logistical costs to the franchises, which had to now handle twenty different types of food. Snyder, in the face of this billion dollar shitstorm of fast food competition, decided to stay true to his original vision - just make really really good hamburgers, and keep the customer happy with the best quality product possible. I think Chik-Fil-A follows the same principle, and both chains are amongst the most successful businesses in the country, and are growing steadily without compromise to product.

The film industry has to look at its product in the same way. All of these gimmicks - remakes, reimaginings in 3D and sequels - are just a dilution of the core product, which is compelling, original screenplay. Give the people what they want, at a consistently high quality level.

One can argue that the studios are making billions off sequels and remakes, and so too is McDonalds wildly successful, as they open one new restaurant every day on this planet. Sure, these companies are successful, but we have to ask if there is such a thing as too much success, of a toxic success that serves to kill the fundamentals of commerce and industry. Look at the maelstrom that is happening in the global markets and banking industry. The ultra wealthy corporations have pillaged the economic landscape, ridding the consumer of choice and making the barriers to entry impenetrable. Competitors are cut out either by pricing or legislation, supported by lawmakers who have placed all eggs in one basket, counting on these ultra-successful corporations to support the nation’s economy. All this while small business cannot compete and new ideas can only flourish under the wing and financing of larger conglomerates. When a company like Goldman Sachs controls the fate of every major economy (via markets) on the planet, we should call that a dictatorship, and not a success of capitalism. Sure, Goldman Sachs became that successful through hard work and long hours, but then so did the Gestapo. That’s indeed hyperbole, but we have to absolutely wonder if too much growth is toxic, like a cancer.


I support the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement, and will be there next week.

The film industry was built on original work, and now it has turned its back on it. Original work must be funded and nurtured independently, which is a shrinking window. Major festivals and smaller distributors, to hedge their risk in a turbulent market, are seeking movie stars just as much as major studios. Like small businesses, the original works must build and persevere in the face of oligarchies, who continue to play a game of smoke and mirrors with the consumer, because the consumer has little to no access to the alternative.

The remake and sequel are gimmicks, taking something that was one original and bleeding it dry, a complete scheme for studios to capture a built-in audience and save money on marketing. And yet we’re paying for it. Ultimately, the success of remakes and sequels is our fault because we support it. Let’s be honest and vocal about what we want - we don’t want another Ghostbusters, we want something just as funny and original as the first one, something that sparked our imagination as much as that first one. There’s an original script out there about paranormal hunters that’s just as funny, and I want to see that. I don’t want to see something that I’ve already seen a million times. I want something new, like Drive, like Another Earth, like Bellflower, like Moneyball, like Midnight in Paris, like There Will Be Blood. I will pay for that, because I get something back from it.