Tried something different last week and took in the regional stop of the Disposable Film Festival, sponsored by the tireless Suzz and Brett Cromwell of the Lowell Film Collaborative. It was presented at the Historical Park Visitor Center's theater right here on Market Street in Lowell, which proved the perfect setting for the event.
The Disposable Film Festival is a competition, based in San Francisco, that highlights films from around the world shot and edited on non-traditional media, such as iPhones, web cams, and scanners. This festival presentation showcased the competition winners from 2010. I came into this with low expectations. As a film school elitist, I was ready to be meh’d.
But these 26 films, ranging in runtimes from 20 seconds to about five minutes, showed a wide range of imagination, talent, passion, energy, and personality. Instead of acting as a restrictive hindrance, the chosen media unleashed creativity in impressive and sometimes mind-blowing ways.
Far from telling a traditional narrative, most of the films used stop motion, split screen, and music to create singular worlds and tell stories in ways that probably would not have worked otherwise. There’s a feel of outsider art to many of the pieces. The films act as reminders that the mobility and low price of technology has leveled the playing field for filmmakers and musician alike.
Each member of the night’s audience was encouraged to vote for their favorite film. Highlights from the festival include:
Domino. A series of still photos that animate a series of dominoes being pushed over by a camera as various illustrations pass by, one on each falling domino. The film gives the impression of a flipbook, with cars driving, dogs running after balls, and other active events. The thrill is wondering where each domino takes you. The soundtrack includes the rhythmic click of dominoes falling, adding to the visual trick:
Stop Motion Wolf and Pig. Just what it sounds like, but oh so much more. Stop motion that moves as much or more than a fluid, continuous shot. We follow the adventures of a man in a wolf suit lazily pursuing a paper mâché pig. The adventure is shot and presented as a series of still pictures. But these pictures are laid out across floors, tables, sinks, the whole of an apartment as an intricate chase sequence. A must-watch:
Sour. Playful, energetic, and a wonder of organization, planning, and production management. A band starts playing a song, and within seconds the screen splits and splits again showing webcam and digital camera shots of listeners grooving to the song. This tumbles into variations of split screen interaction which grow and become more impressive. It's a celebration of music and sharing and happiness. Corny as that sounds, that's the emotion it evoked:
The Lost Tribes of New York City employs audio interviews of New York denizens played over city locations where some object, like a suitcase or a newspaper dispenser, are animated into faces that appear to be doing the talking. It cribs from Aardman's Creature Comforts, but the soundtrack is great and the animated objects give a playful, entertaining face to the voices:
My favorite film of the night was Lucia. It proved how versatile and inventive the medium can be, mixing lyricism with what I can only describe as a disturbing diorama that grows, flexes, and shifts underfoot. Nothing is as it seems. Plus I had no idea where it was headed or how it would end. It's quick, and there are subtitles, so it warrants multiple viewing:
Spoiler alert-o-meter: Mild to medium spoiler alerts ahead.
In Matt Reeve'sLet Me In a 12-year-old boy, Owen, living through a snow-filled Los Alamos winter with his not-quite-there mother, falls for a beautiful new neighbor girl, Abby. Abby's different. She walks around in the snow wearing a simple black skirt and no shoes. She completes a Rubik’s Cube in a snap. She doesn’t go to school. She’s been, as she says, “12 for a very long time.” Okay, no secret—she’s a vampire, doomed to live an eternal life as a blood-eater.
So how do you make a compelling vampire movie when pop culture is saturated with all things vampire? You set the story in 1983, make your vampire a young girl (played by Kick Ass’ Chloe Moretz, looking pouty, knowing, and almost demure), and make it as much about the loneliness of the boy as the plight of the vampire.
Let Me In adds nothing new to the lengthy and apparently uninterruptible pantheon of cinematic vampire lore. All of the classic tropes are here: the drinking of the human blood to survive, the only-go-out-at-night thing, the wandering the earth with a smitten human assistant facilitating the next meal.
Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Owen. In The Road, Smit-McPhee was sullen and natural, carrying the "fire" through the desolation. Here he’s a small, shy, and defenseless kid with a bad haircut who is all but designed to get picked on relentlessly by a troop of bullies at school. As solace he carries a knife and acts out scenes of revenge by stabbing trees. Owen also spies on his neighbors across the apartment complex courtyard through his telescope. We can plainly see that Owen longs for a life away from his stifling apartment, and from his mother who is either working, off to religious-group meetings, or getting soused in front of the TV.
Owen and Abby start hanging out regularly in the evenings. Owen asks her at one point if this means they’re going steady. She has told him that she doesn’t make friends, but she takes pity on the kid while growing genuinely fond of him. He buys her his favorite candy and she accepts a piece, but can’t keep it down because it was made with corn syrup and not, you know, human blood.
Meanwhile, the guardian Abby lives with (played by Richard Jenkins as the ultimate beleaguered male) goes out at night and kills off some of the locals so she’ll have sustenance and won’t have to do the dirty work herself. Although, when he screws up this task, Abby is plenty capable of dispatching hapless humans all by her lonesome. In effective night-time sequences we plainly see that Abby strikes with the speed and precision of a piranha. But don’t take it personally. A girl vampire’s gotta do what a girl vampire’s gotta do.
Hanging out with a kick ass vampire lifts Owen's spirits and teaches him some self preservation techniques. The next time the group of bullies corners him, he fights back, hitting one of them with a metal stick. Meanwhile, due to all the mutilated bodies turning up around town, the local police are starting to wonder what kind of satanic cult has moved into town.
The setting, snow-bound New Mexico, adds to the already chilly subject matter. Although, why Los Alamos? And setting the film in the year 1983 has nothing to do with the story, except hint at a kinder, gentler time, which lends itself to the initially laconic introduction of characters and events. I really appreciated the fact that the filmmakers took their time easing into this story. They take measures to set a tone and atmosphere which go a long way to making this movie a success.
While the acting is believable, Chloe Moretz has a long line of cinematic vampires to best, and she can’t—no actor can—so she just reads her lines, looks like she has a secret that, once revealed to a normal human, let’s him in. For better or worse. I saw the ending coming before the one hour mark. But I still enjoyed seeing how they got there.
What’s a vampire movie without some violence? The film builds up to the scenes of inevitable violence and confrontation well, and effectively put me into the moment. In one scene, Abby's guardian steals a car with his latest victim fresh in the passenger seat. He is caught, panics, and drives away from a gas station—backwards.
Suddenly, an average moment, another vampire trope, becomes a disorienting and unique filmic set piece as the audience is put in the backseat while the car turns the characters’ world literally backwards and upside down. Later, during the inevitable showdown/revenge scenes, Owen is held underwater as a mini massacre goes on above him. We see what he does, (a head sink past, a body pulled through the water from an unseen hand, the muffled screams and shouts above) and again the film gets the bloody point across without spilling truck-fulls of fake blood. (Although, to be clear, this is R-rated stuff, and plenty gory.)
I’m not sure I loved the ending (a kid sitting behind me said, “I fucking hate the way that ended,” as she and her friends filed out), but as I said, it was inevitable. What have we learned? Nothing new (especially considering this is a remake of another vampire movie, Let the Right One In), but we’ll always have younger actors ready (or should I say, thirsty) to play a vampire. Stylish and nasty, sad as these tales must be, Let Me In gives you a building payoff during a shivery, entertaining night at the picture show.
Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Tuesday night bargain show. Price $6.00. Viewed with JW.
Saw 3D: Oy. A trailer that touts its technology over its story obviously knows which of the movie’s strong points (no pun intended!) to highlight.
Paranormal Activity 2: Oy. The first one was unscary. This trailer hints at the addition of a baby. Very unscary.
The Warrior's Way: "An Asian warrior assassin finds peace, contentment and perhaps love in a forgotten western town on the edge of the desert but is then faced with...?" This looks like a cross between How the West Was Won, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and some sci-fi. But don't ask me to explain it.
Spoiler alert-o-meter: Mild to medium spoiler alerts ahead.
Week 2. There are a lot of ideas in David Fincher’s latest film, The Social Network, as least as many as there were in the head of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg when he was a sophomore at Harvard in 2003. The movie covers the year Mark took Harvard’s campus-only student connection network, the Face Book, into the invite-only world of juried friendship known today as Facebook. One year. It’s incredible how quickly the landscape, attitude, and texture of online communication exponentially changes.
The film breathlessly takes us from the early decisions Mark makes regarding how and why he does what he does, to the many repercussions of creating Facebook out of someone else’s idea, and turning it into a powerhouse of social networking, where friends yeah or nay your inclusion into their world.
When we first meet Mark (a transformative performance by Jesse Eisenberg) he tries and fails to relate with his girlfriend (Mara Rooney). He appears to have no emotions, or at least all the wrong ones. He can’t read social situations, and is totally blindsided when she breaks ups with him. Jealousy, anger, and frustration get blended into a potent cocktail, and when you consider that all these generation-defining characters are college-age and just above, it’s no surprise these youthful emotions are central to the movie.
Mark has a best friend, Eduardo (Andrew Garfield), a fellow student and outcast who provides early seed money for Mark's venture. Mark's jealousy flares when Eduardo is chosen to join an exclusive Harvard club, one that won’t consider him. Other objects of his jealousy take the form of the blond, athletic Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler (both played by actor Armie Hammer), seniors at Harvard, and expert rowers who consider themselves specimens of Harvard ethics.
The twins hire Mark to expand their idea for a social network on Harvard’s campus. Mark listens to their ideas, then goes off and writes his own code for a similar site. When his site, The Facebook, goes live, the twins find out about it nearly two days later after hundreds of students have already joined. They have been beaten to the gate. In the lightning-fast world of hype and the Internet, getting there first means everything. And since Mark essentially wrote all his own code, he believes he did not steal anything.
The story is told as a flashback originating from the deposition sessions for lawsuits sparked by Mark's actions. The twins end up suing, after much ethical debate, and a useless, but humorous visit to then Harvard president Lawrence Summers. Mark, with steely countenance and an utter okayness in himself and what he has done, says to the twins during their deposition: “If you were the inventors of Facebook, then you would have invented Facebook.” Point taken. Ultimately the twins did not, and, according to this version of real-life events, Mark did.
Mark has lots of help. Including the guy who started Napster, Sean Parker. Played by Justin Timberlake, Parker is a cocky, overly self assured young man who has some good ideas, but more important he has contacts with money men. He also has the wide and deep vision which Eduardo does not. While Eduardo is dutifully and busily trying to find advertisers to monetize the burgeoning site (which Mark is totally against because it would make a cool site very uncool), Parker helps take The Facebook (which he rechristens Facebook) out of Harvard and into other schools. He subsequently moves Mark out to Palo Alto and helps him secure venture capital which is where the real money comes from. Friends (even Facebook friends) be damned.
The second lawsuit concerns Eduardo, who we find out later gets kicked out of the Facebook family, albeit legally since he signed papers he never read. Throughout the film Eduardo is Mark's only true friend. Sean Parker may get Mark laid but Eduardo was always a sounding board and a good guy. Since it's not all about money for Mark, we have to assume Eduardo's ouster is a reflection of Mark's deep-seated jealousy.
While the film is constructed within the framework of legal maneuvers and the legalese of who did what to whom when, it is mainly concerned with the brilliant young men who want to make a mark. There is a bemused detachment to the presentation, a feeling of marching just behind the action. We are not necessarily part of the action, but, like Eduardo and the Winklevoss twins, we are stragglers trying always to keep up.
When Mark spouts computer-language speak as fast as he can to keep up with his ever-shifting brain, the audience can only marvel. Maybe that’s the point—those who aren’t fast enough for the business of the Internet have no business attempting to tame it. And those who are blessed with fleet ideas and C++ get there first. The music by Trent Rezner keeps things atmospheric, always marching, and slightly ominous. Reminding viewers to stay on their toes, and that nothing is quite as it appears.
After the movie I mentioned to Liz that there were few female characters, and only one in a position of power and decision-making (Eduardo's lawyer). The girls in the movie are spurned girlfriends, partying college girls, or shrill club sluts. Is this a reflection on the writers (Aaron Sorkin did the screenplay, based on the book The Accidental Billionaires, by Ben Mezrich) or on the characters who fuel the story? Boys playing at men. Boys who have an arrested adolescent approach to feelings and love, and think girls are no deeper or meaningful than the latest issue of Maxim. (Sorkin talks about this subject here.) There are also no parents around--except for the twins' father, fleetingly. So where did these precocious rug rats learn their ethics? On the debate team? The Internet?
Toward the end of the film, Sean Parker is arrested at a house party where there are drugs and underage girls. He seems small now, scared, pimply. In his pockets, instead of a bag of cocaine and money, the police find his asthma inhaler. These accidental billionaires are all adolescent bravado, playing at being rich and popular. The Social Network brings this microcosm of a specific moment in the very short history of social networking and makes fun, engrossing, and thoroughly realistic. Even if we can never be sure how it all really went down.
Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Tuesday night bargain show. Price $6.00. Viewed with Liz.
The Dilemma. Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Jennifer Connolly, Winona Ryder. Directed by Ron Howard. This could also be called, "Where Starlets Go After They Turn 35." All I can think is that Jennifer and Winona, who can be wonderful actresses, take these types of supporting roles because there are no other roles offered. Both actresses are relegated to wife roles. Winona plays a woman who cheats on her husband (James) but is discovered by his best friend (Vaughn). So, the movie’s dilemma is, should Vaughn tell his best friend his wife’s cheating. Regardless, it’s great to see Winona Ryder in a mainstream movie again.
The Tourist. Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie. “Revolves around Frank, an American tourist visiting Italy to mend a broken heart. Elise is an extraordinary woman who deliberately crosses his path.” Is she a spy? Is he? Nothing is as it seems…
I Am Number 4. Looks like a cheesy video game. More of a teaser for the movie than a preview. Maybe it’s an early version of the trailer. Or, there’s trouble in the editing room as the producers figure out what kind of movie they’ve been saddled with.
Love and Other Drugs. Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway. It’s a rom-com. Liz said, “It’s weird to see Jake Gyllenhaal smile.” He plays a slick salesman who falls for a beautiful free spirit. So, maybe we’re not supposed to trust his smile.
How do you know? Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd, Jack Nicholson. Directed by James L. Brooks. All star cast, big director. What could go wrong? It looks entertaining enough, but Brooks has had a very spotty record in the last decade and what he thinks is funny hasn’t been since the late-80s. Still, great cast. Looks cute and honest. Promises to be a large-ish Christmas movie.
Week 1. The Town, directed by Ben Affleck, is smart. We know this because the hardened bank robbers who make short work of those banks and armored cars in Cambridge, the North End, and other Boston-area locations pay attention to detail. In the opening bank robbery, the cell phones of everyone in the bank are collected, dumped into a candy bowl, and covered with water. It’s that kind of detail that needs paying attention to, because today’s movie audience for a bank robbery, a hatchet murder, a quirky romance, high tech corporate espionage, or a comic book adaptation knows all the answers already. So a good director won’t give the audience a reason to ask questions, or time to think of them.
The Town is isn’t quite short, shrewd, or fast enough not to give the audience time or reason to ask, but it’s a sturdy, enjoyable ride, and refreshing in the way that The Friends of Eddie Coyle was probably a blast of something new almost forty years ago. The Town is nothing new, but you don’t always recognize the used parts, and that’s good.
Ben Affleck plays Doug, a recovering alcoholic, working stiff from Charlestown, MA., and bank robber. It’s in his blood. His father (gravitas: supplied by Chris Cooper) is doing some time up in a New Hampshire prison for robbing banks, but before he went away he passed his knowledge to Doug.
Doug seems like a good guy. He’s relatively smart, or at least knows smart when he sees it. He’s shagging the town pump and family friend, Krista, played by TV actress Blake Lively (in a performance that made me forget I’ve seen her someplace before—and announces a new Ellen Barkin for 2010). On Doug’s team is Krista’s brother, Jim, effectively played by Jeremy Renner. Jim’s quick with a gun and would rather not leave witnesses, but what are you gonna do? Shoot everyone? Rounding out the team are two other guys, one an electronics expert who learned his stuff working for local phone company Vericom. Replace com with zon and you’ve Massachusetts phone company Verizon.
During the robbery that opens the movie, the gang takes a hostage and gets away with the loot. The hostage is a beautiful bank teller, Claire, played by the lovely Rebecca Hall who brings an understated naturalness to the role. After the gang lets her go (she’s blind folded the whole time), Jim insists on cleaning up this loose end, thinking she'll somehow give away their identities. Doug tails her, makes contact, and falls for her. Meanwhile, the Boston branch of the FBI, manifested by Jon Hamm (sans any Boston accent -- and that’s a good thing) uses Claire to finally get close enough to try to take the gang down.
Doug wants different life away from the streets of The Town. He'll take down one last score (or two, but who’s counting?) and leave town with Claire. I never forget I’m watching Ben Affleck, but that’s okay because he’s fun to watch, inherently likeable. But as director and star, Affleck gives all the showy moments to Jeremy Renner, who really plays a menacing character well. Renner does what he can, saddled with a character who “can’t go back to prison” after doing nine years for killing a man (for the sake of Doug—thanks for nothing).
There’s an armored car robbery and subsequent high speed chase through the streets of the North End that is impressive, and the final shootout/showdown underneath and outside of Fenway Park is pretty breathless. But the action scenes were shot as if from across the street, where Affleck’s direction must have been “Zoom in. No zoom out.” Lots of movement but no real pace or logic. Which seems to be the way chase/action scenes have been shot for the past 10-15 years.
William Friedkin shot one of the best chase scenes for The French Connection, where the camera was put in the front seat of the car, and out on the street and sidewalk—where you’re either driving or about to get hit. Then George Miller amped it up in Mad Max, put the camera down by the bumper and drove cars as fast as they could, so now you’re a neighboring car angling for supremacy, or you’re a poor slob wrapped around a bumper. For today’s movies it seems like the cameras get a lot of coverage (or, maybe not enough) and these action scenes are literally created in post-production, with the result generally an unintelligible mess. Film is a language--learn it.
Pete Postlethwaite shows up as the gang’s boss, the guy who Doug’s father worked for back in the day. Pete is an actor who just needs to show up for things to get real. He’s got a great face, and he’s always pissed off. And you do not want Pete Postlethwaite mad at you.
Doug (ben’s character) possesses, if not the smarts, at least the knowledge about robbing banks. But the jobs these guys pull off are so slick and professional, I just don’t buy that these four neighborhood guys could pull it together to make these heists. Do these kinds of sophisticated, coordinated jobs really go down in Boston? Anywhere? Charlestown, MA. apparently breeds more bank robbers than anyplace else in the country, yet most of the robberies on the local news involve extremely dimwitted young men who can barely find the exit when they’re done playing stick-up.
It would have been nice if the Doug character showed more intellect, more—hell I’ll say it—more Good Will Hunting savantness for me to believe he’s the ringleader and the brains behind this operation. Even if Pete Postlethwaite’s pulling the strings, somebody has to execute the plan, and I just don’t see these guys doing it.
Oddly distracting for me were the exterior scenes shot in Boston. Especially in the beginning when the gang rob a bank in Harvard Square. I couldn’t help but try to recognize the locations. That’s part of the fun of living near Boston where many movies have been shot in the past decade thanks to tax breaks. And the location shooting adds a layer of authenticity that a movie like this needs. Adding to the local connection, the movie is an adaptation of local author Chuck Hogan's book Prince of Thieves.
If you miss the crime dramas of the ‘70s, then I recommend The Town.
The Company Men. Another Ben Affleck movie with Chris Cooper, along with Maria Bello, Tommy Lee Jones, and Kevin Costner. More Boston locations. About white collar workers who lose their jobs and learn some wit and wisdom from blue collar nimrod Costner. Looks pretty good, although, like many trailers, appears to show the entire arc of the story.
The Fighter. Shot in Lowell, so of course I’ll be seeing this one. About Mickey Ward, the boxer from our mean streets. Story seems very conventional, following the sports underdog template: athlete has potential, has personal problems, loses his first shot, overcomes adversity, gets a second shot. On the plus side it's directed by David O. Russell.
Next Katherine Heigel flop. This movie releases this Friday I think, yet I’ve seen previews for it so many times I feel like it’s already hit theaters, tanked, and is now getting a quick-turnaround DVD-release.
Cat Fish. I hadn’t been interested in this documentary until I saw the trailer. Now I’m intrigued.
As I announced on Thursday, UN is getting an extreme makeover*. Starting next week I will write about a movie a week for a year.
Before you click away in disgust, let me explain:
When I was a kid, I went to the local movie theater every weekend—often on Friday nights—to see whichever new movie was out that week. I loved the gestalt of movie going. The one-sheet posters in the lobby and out front. The lobby cards (photos of scenes from the movie—which I haven’t seen used in years). The smell of the lobby: gum, popcorn, butter: both fresh and stale. Waiting in line at the concession stand to buy Pom Poms, Milk Duds, Twizzlers, or popcorn, and a large Pepsi.
Every movie was a hoot—the good and the bad. Movies were an event. Each week was a small Christmas. Going to a movie combined many of my favorite things—candy, soda, friends, and getting out of the house without adult supervision. Going to the movies was, ultimately, a celebration of the mighty Friday night when school was over for the week and the weekend lay ahead, unadorned (until Sunday afternoon when I had to buckle down and do my homework).
This weekly devotion to movies was planted early. The first movie I saw in a theater that I remember was a David Niven movie from the late '60s called The Brain. The theater was in Manhattan. Why were we all there? The whole family? Mom, dad, me, my three older sisters? In a building that was many blocks long and as tall as the tallest skyscraper. The inside of the theater seemed many stories high, the aisles as long as a football field, the screen stretched wide and convex.
My sister, Cindy, loved movies and shared this love with me. She took me to see The Sting, which I didn’t really understand. Was it funny? Scary? Sad? What happened at the end? I didn’t get it. That didn’t stop me from loving movies, and the experience of movie-going. She took me to see all the disaster movies I could stomach: The Towering Inferno, Airport ‘77, Earthquake. She was excited to take me to see Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I begged her to drive me and my obnoxious friends to see the King Kong remake. The one with Jeff Bridges. And Jessica Lange! Va va voom!
When The Exorcist came out there was a furor in the mainstream media. The trailer played on TV and it was the most frightening thing I ever saw. Or heard, since I hid behind the couch or ran out of the room when it came on. That movie, and the ideas behind it which I never understood when I was growing up, just twisted through my malleable young mind and gave me nightmares for months. In a weird way, that experience of thinking about a movie so hard that it affected the way I thought solidified my attraction, my repulsion, my non-stop love affair with movies.
So much so that when I graduated high school I went to film school. I learned all about how films were made. I learned how to shoot and edit and light and direct actors. I learned that an extension cord is called a stinger. I crewed on student films and struggled to write a script for my senior thesis. And I watched a lot of films (no longer movies, but films). Deconstructing and reconstructing films was an unforgettable experience.
I didn’t consider it at the time, but it also scraped away the mystery of the movies. When I moved to Los Angeles for 16 months in 1990-91, I learned more about the business of the movies. In L.A., Hollywood is front page news, not relegated to just the Calendar or Arts section. It wore me down. It ruined that initial little-kid excitement I felt growing up. Movies had been larger than life. Now they were just a business. I didn’t last long out there.
That was twenty years ago. I still watch a lot of movies. Mostly I watch movies on DVD. I go to the theater occasionally. But very seldom catch that movie-fever feeling I had as a kid. I’m not blaming film school, or Los Angeles. There is no blame, because there is no problem. I learned what I wanted out of both experiences, and met some great people, made lifelong friends, some of whom are still in the business of making movies. But this last point brings me back to my first point.
I’m going to watch a movie a week for a year and write about it. Mostly new movies. These will be more than reviews. I’ll write about the entire experience. I’ll mention who I went to the movie with. And the theater I saw the movie in. And the trailers they showed. There may be spoiler alerts because what’s a discussion about a movie if you don’t include the entire enchilada?
But, finally, I’m doing this because I want to catch that feeling I had when I went to the movies and it was like celebrating a birthday and opening gifts and dating the hottest girl in school. Why did going to the movies change? And why do I not care about 95% of the movies that get released, when as a kid I was egalitarian? Did I get big, or did the pictures get small?
Give me a year and I’ll give you 52 movies. We’ll find out together.
* Note: I will still post about literature, books, publishing, and writing if something strikes me. So, like a book featuring multiple narrators, not all of whom you sympathize with: if there's a post you're not enjoying, wait a couple days next one.