We Really DON’T Need to Talk About Kevin . . .

. . . but we could say a few more words about Anna Karenina. In my review, I praised the performances of both Keira Knightley as Anna and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky. But I was troubled by my dislike of the characters and by my emotional detachment from the world of the movie. I blamed this partly on the innovative staging of the scenes on what appear to be actual stage sets. While interesting, the device serves to heighten the artifice, and keep the viewer at a distance from what should be an emotionally involving drama.

Now, however, I am re-evaluating my thoughts on Knightley’s and Taylor-Johnson’s performances. I don’t believe them in those roles. I believe Matthew Macfadyen in his role as Oblonksy, and I believe Jude Law as Karenin, but bot Knightley and Taylor-Johnson feel too 21st-Century. Knightley was excellent in this same director’s Pride & Prejudice, and in other costume dramas, as well, so I’m not sure why she can’t do a Russian princess of 1874.

Or maybe I’m wrong about her performance, and I’m just reacting (negatively) to the mise-en-scène. Hmmmmm . ..

What I am sure about it is my reaction to the next film.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)

I loved Lynne Ramsay’s first feature, Ratcatcher. Filled with precise compositions that framed the working-class world of 1970s Glasgow in stunningly bleak parameters, Ratcatcher was a marvel of cinematic efficiency, and a pleasure to watch, even though the story was a downer.

Ramsay’s second feature, Morvern Callar, was less of a marvel, and much less precise. I admired Ramsay, however, for taking a chance and making a messy portrait of a woman who suddenly finds herself free to remake herself. It reminded me a bit of Kieslowski’s Blue, only with greater chaos. I didn’t enjoy the film, but I thought it was worth watching. That, and the soundtrack was pretty kick-ass (I own it and still listen to it frequently).

Now – 9 years later (ahh, the film world is harsh on women who do not make hits), Ramsay is back with her third feature, We Need to Talk About Kevin. I really wish I liked this. I tried to convince myself while watching it that I could like it. But no amount of wishing helped. The simple fact of the matter may be that I was only destined to like one film by Ramsay, and that was her first.

I could write my own review, but Ty Burr of the Boston Globe has written down exactly what I would have written. Enjoy!

To end on a brighter note, here’s one more film which I just watched on Netflix tonight (available instantly):

A Cat in Paris (Une vie de chat“) (Jean-Loup Felicioli & Alain Gagnol, 2010)

This is a sweet, affable, and fast-paced (and short, at just over one hour) animated film about a girl, her cat, and her cat’s cat burgler. The rough hand-drawn animation is a nice contrast to today’s constant digital perfection, and quite beautiful. The story is simple – there are good guys and bad guys, and one bad guy who’s really a good guy – with a happy ending and only cartoonish violence. It’s a lovely children’s movie, and even if it’s nothing too special, I’m happy to have seen it, and recommend it to families (especially families who own cats).

The “Silver Linings” of the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”

I continue to do my best to watch as many films released in the past year as my schedule will allow. Below you’ll find a review for one film seen (last night) in the theatre, and one seen at home, on DVD.

Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, 2012)

My favorite David O. Russell film, and of my favorite films of the past 20 years, is Flirting with Disaster. In it, Russell creates a world of chaotic madcap shenanigans over which he exerts just enough control (but barely) to keep the characters from careening wildly out of the frame. Ben Stiller plays an adult adoptee, and new father, so consumed with finding his birth parents that he is unable to come up with a name for his infant son until he knows who he is. Aided and abetted by his long-suffering and neglected wife (Patricia Arquette) and a comely but inept graduate student (Téa Leoni), Stiller embarks on a cross-country journey in which blood may not be the thickest of connectors. It’s great fun, and a true comedy in which elements of drama occasionally surface to enrich the laughs.

Russell seems to enjoy mess, and even the films of his that I have enjoyed less – like I Heart Huckabees and Three Kings – have nevertheless impressed me with that same sense of chaos-about-to-explode that I liked so much in Flirting with Disaster.  I enjoyed The Fighter to some degree, and appreciated the fine performances that Russell was able to get from his actors – especially Christian Bale – but the narrative arc of the film felt a little flat, perhaps because the central character, played by Mark Wahlberg, was so passive.

One cannot say that the central character of Russell’s new film, Silver Linings Playbook, is passive. Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a bipolar man just released from the hospital after an 8-month stint following a breakdown, brought on after he nearly beat his wife’s lover to death. Among his many behavioral issues is anger management, and when we meet his father, played by Robert De Niro, we see that this runs in the family. All Pat dreams about is getting back together with his wife – even though she has taken out a restraining order against him – and he continues in this obsession even after meeting a very attractive and almost equally unstable young widow, Tiffany, played by Jennifer Lawrence. Their friendship helps each of them heal, with the predictable result that Pat gets over his wife, falls in love with Tiffany, and learns to control his demons.

I didn’t hate this movie. It has the usual Russell chaos, with much handheld wide-lens camera work to emphasize everyone’s lunacy. For a while, it seems as if the film won’t quite come together, just as Pat can’t get his own act together. But then, with the establishment of Pat’s and Tiffany’s relationship, both the camera and the characters settle. There is a lot of joy in watching Cooper and Lawrence interact, and I loved their final dance and ecstatic reaction to their mediocre score. De Niro rises above his routine later-in-life performances (Analyze This, Meet the Parents) to deliver something more meaningful, and Jacki Weaver is wonderful as the mother.

Somehow, however, the film did not quite gel, for me. Perhaps it’s because the main character is not that appealing, or that I just don’t believe that he could behave the way he does and not get sent back to the mental institution (how many times does he have to break the rules and get warned by his police watcher before that man will act). Or perhaps it’s because Russell didn’t quite manage the comedy and drama well enough to keep me engaged. For whatever reason, although I enjoyed aspects of the film, I was ultimately left a little cold at the end. Since this film has been getting quite ecstatic reviews, that counted as a sizable disappointment. I had been hoping for another Flirting with Disaster, and instead I got an I Heart Huckabees. Interesting, but not great.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (John Madden, 2011)

Wow – I have seen two films that use India as an exotic backdrop in the past 4 days (this and Life of Pi). I’ve been spending my morning repeating the title of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in my best approximation of Dev Patel’s accent. He plays the hapless part-owner and manager of the place, and viewers will recognize him from Slumdog Millionaire, in which he played the oldest incarnation of Jamal. I’ve never been able to do a good imitation of an Indian accent, but if these films keep on coming, perhaps I’ll get it. Or I could go back and re-watch Gandhi, A Passage to India, or even The Darjeeling Limited.

I’m being silly, but I’m trying to get at the heart of why I did not want to see this film when it first came out. From the previews, it looked like some weird combination of Cocoon, Enchanted April, Ladies in Lavender and Black Narcissus, with all of the faults of those films and none of their considerable qualities. There was just something so off-putting about the over-the-top head-bobbing way that Dev Patel announced, “Welcome to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” that I was sure the film was going to present India as a crazy third-world country that exists to force uptight older Westerners to confront their materialistic views and realize that a simple life filled with simple pleasures is what they really need. Some will be repelled by the colors, smells and chaos of this strange land, while others will embrace it and become youthfully rejuvenated. Along the way, these uptight Westerners will impose just enough of their own worldview to help a sympathetic young local achieve his own dream.

And The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is all of that. But it is also more. The film is filled with well-drawn characters – British and Indian, alike – and it does a good job explaining why these particular elderly Brits would want/need to make the trip to India.  The actors, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy are all first-rate, and I enjoyed the non-judgmental way the film presented the city of Jaipur, with both its beauty and flaws. Anytime an outside crew films a location, there are bound to be stereotypes that would no doubt offend the locals, but the director, John Madden, seems to successfully straddle the line between romanticization and condescension, emerging with a respectful portrait of the city, instead.

Along the way, we spend time with an appealing cast, and experience real moments of comedy and drama. The conclusion feels a little too convenient – everyone, more or less, gets what he or she want or need – but the film nevertheless delivers on its promise of cinematic redemption. It’s a feel-good movie where not every aspect of the script works, but which overall leaves one . . . feeling good.

Life of Pi, Anna Karenina, The Interrupters, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, Monsieur Lazhar

Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012)

When modern 3D technologies first started making serious inroads into contemporary filmmaking, thanks to the phenomenal world-wide success of James Cameron’s 2009 Avatar, I viewed the technology with more than just skepticism. “Why,” I asked, “is this even necessary? Are 2D movies with surround-sound systems not immersive enough – do we need the addition of the third dimension? Won’t this be just a gimmick, as it was in the 1950s? And what about those glasses?”

But Avatar had been – if nothing else – a visually beautiful and stimulating experience (though I found the story derivative and often nonsensical), so I was open to the idea that another director as creative as Cameron might be able to make equally good use of it (and have a better script). Then, in September, 2011, Panasonic lent my university its AG-3DA1 camera for a few weeks, and while we couldn’t quite figure out what to shoot with it in that time, I was nevertheless intrigued by the technology. But there was still the problem of how to view the footage or view the finished movie without needing glasses. Plus, it seemed as if the initial onrush of 3D movies was slowing down, and that it might take a few years for the true application of this technology to catch on: training videos, medical videos, and certain documentaries where modeling might be needed.

This past summer, when I was called upon to appear on the radio as a film critic, and to discuss the movies of the season, I went out and watched 14 films in one week (I had seen more films earlier). My impression after seeing most of the big 3D films of the year, then, is this: the technology, and the artistic use of it, is quite impressive. We have seen far too many slapdash after-thought applications of it in films that were never conceived in 3D, like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, and far too many re-releases of films shot in 2D and now converted to 3D, like Titanic, to nauseate those of us with even the strongest stomachs, yet here was a batch of films that all used the technology brilliantly: The Amazing Spider-ManThe AvengersMen in Black 3, and Prometheus. Whatever one may think of those films, the 3D within them enhanced their respective stories. The one exception to this upward trend was the horrible Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which was ugly to look at it on top of its unappealing script.

What all of these films have in common is that they offer us tales of the fantastic and unreal. But now comes Life of Pi, which is certainly a movie that dabbles in the supernatural, yet also offers us images of the natural world, conceived and designed with such unearthly magnificence – and which surround us in all their 3D glory – that one has to wonder if 3D cannot also be used to tell more realistic tales, as well. Of especial note is the opening sequence of the film, in which the camera takes us on a lingering journey through a botanical garden, revealing animal after animal in vibrant colors, palpable and present. The hummingbird that circles around the koala’s head took my breath away. This is a deeply spiritual film that, although filled with religious allegory, is nevertheless grounded in the physical world, and it’s the technology that helps ground it.

I have not read the book, so I cannot say how well the movie works as an adaptation. I can, however, attest to how well it works as a film. For three quarters of its just-over-2-hour running time, Life of Pi is pure cinematic brilliance. From that opening sequence in the garden to Pi’s arrival at the floating island, I was in movie heaven. I am not particularly spiritual, yet I was along for the voyage, following the main character as he tries to find his way through life by embracing all of the world’s religions. Played as an adult by Irrfan Khan, Pi was especially appealing. I would love to learn about the Kabbalah from such a teacher!

The story is about a young Indian boy, named Piscine Molitor after a Parisian swimming pool (which he shortens to “Pi” to avoid schoolyard bullying) who, after a fairly idyllic childhood (in spite of the bullying) as the child of zookeepers, leaves India suddenly, as a teenager, and ends up, post-shipwreck, alone in a lifeboat with a tiger named Richard Parker. The story of his survival, and what it means about faith and about God, is the main focus of the book (I think) and the film. As a multi-layered allegory, enhanced with striking visual imagery, it is sublime.

But then, towards the end, the film loses focus as we leave the lifeboat, first to visit a strange floating island inhabited by meerkats (why meerkats?), and then to visit Pi in the hospital as he recovers, post-rescue. I found the way that Lee filmed the hospital scene, where Pi must explain his oceanic ordeal, quite unimaginative. I admit that that may be his point – that once the mystical experience is over, everything is ordinary by comparison. But it was such a strange off-putting scene, with a series of overlong shots on Pi, with too much exposition and no supporting visuals. It might have been nice to have some flashbacks that would show us how different the constructed tale appears from the one we have just witnessed. Ang Lee could then have done something interesting with the color palette and shot design to highlight the separate realities. Well, it’s his movie, and he chose to do it this way. So be it. The unremarkable ending does not detract from the remarkable portions that come before. I almost wished I believed in God . . .

So who is most responsible for the gorgeous visual design of the film? Since digital production and post-production is still not widely understood by film reviewers, much less the general public, much credit is being given to the cinematographer (or Director of Photography – DP for short), as in this New York Times review. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially since we can tell, by looking at Claudio Miranda’s IMDb page, that he has a lot of experience with what is known as “visual effects cinematography:” among the other films he has shot are The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Tron: Legacy. A DP who specializes in creating images for a film that will rely heavily on visual effects needs to know how to photograph images just like the cinematographers of old, but also needs to know how to light and capture images that will be used in artificially constructed “composite” frames in post-production, long after the shoot is over. Once his/her job is done, other people continue the process of refining the image.

These “other people” do not just show up at the end of production, however, but have been equally as involved as the DP and Director in the conception and design of the film. Probably the most important additional creative person in a visual effects-heavy movie is the Production Designer (whom we’ll call the PD), who in this case is David Gropman. This brilliant man (whom I had the privilege of learning from when I was a graduate student at NYU) has worked on films as diverse as Marvin’s RoomChocolat, and Hairspray. Traditionally, a Director may bring the PD or DP on to a picture first, depending on his/her preference, but increasingly, since so much of the image we will see on-screen is going to be constructed out of many different elements, the PD is the one who will need to see the film through to the end, along with a Visual Effects Supervisor, who in this case is Bill Westenhofer. And let’s not forget the legions of creative talent working within both the design and effects departments who help bring the film to life.

So when you’re watching Life of Pi, if you find yourself marveling at the beauty of the universe, think of all of the many different people responsible for that beauty. Ultimately, Ang Lee deserves our thanks, as it’s his vision that drives the movie. But you’ll probably see folks like Claudio Miranda, David Gropman, Bill Westenhofer, and others, nominated at Oscar™ time, and they will deserve that honor.

Now – we just have to get rid of those damn 3D glasses . . .

Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, 2012)

The most interesting part of this new adaptation of Lev Tolstoy’s 1877 novel is also its most problematic. Director Joe Wright, wary of treading where other filmmakers have trod before, decided to design the entire movie as an elaborate stage set. Backdrops whiz up and down, characters move through ceiling-mounted catwalks, and all the time we see the ropes and pulleys at work, in a glorious reveal of the artifice that defines the process. Wright’s conceit is that the rules that defined behavior in 1874 Imperial Russia imposed the same kinds restrictions and limitations on behavior as those faced by actors in a carefully constructed and blocked play. Deviate one step from the plan, and the entire production will go awry.

I admire Wright’s daring, and he almost pulls it off. There is something fascinating, at first, about the transitions between scenes, with one door opening from a dining room or ball room and leading us into a snowy field. But after a while, this device begins to feel gimmicky, and ultimately acts as a wedge between the viewer (or, at least, this viewer) and the characters. If none of the action is real, then why should we invest in it, emotionally? This is the story of a married woman who carries on an affair with a younger man, and loses everything as a result. Given the tragic nature of the ending, the artificiality of the production design somehow doesn’t work.

Which is too bad, since most of the actors deliver fine and emotionally complicated performances. Jude Law is perfect as the upright but rigid Karenin, and Keira Knightley does fine as Anna. But the standout performance, for me, was Matthew Macfadyen as Anna’s brother, the unapologetically hedonistic Prince Oblonsky. Previously I had not seen Macfadyen – great in Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice and Frank Oz’s Death at a Funeral – be so animated and sleazy. What fun! Aaron Taylor-Johnson, all of 22 years old, equips himself well enough as Vronsky, as well, yet somehow lacks the sexual magnetism that I always imagined he would need to tempt Anna to stray. My main complaints are with the actors who play Levin and Kevin, who are too boring to hold my interest, yet whose characters are central to the novel.

I studied Russian literature in college, and read Anna Karenina and other works by Tolstoy. At the time, I found the novel quite compelling. Today, though, watching the film, I found myself doubly detached. I already mentioned the first detachment, above. My second detachment came because I ultimately didn’t care about the lives of these people. As portrayed in the movie, Anna and Vronsky – pampered nobles, both – behave quite recklessly, throwing all of their good fortune away. Well, Anna throws it away. Vronksy (and Oblonksy), being male, can do whatever he wants and suffer no real consequences, which is one of Tolstoy’s points about the hypocrisy of the Russian society of the time. But even so, as I watched Anna ignore her son and stupidly flaunt her affair in front of Karenin, and then reject his (unwanted) offers of help, I kept on thinking that, a little over 40 years later, none of these petty problems will matter, because the peasants who are paying for the nobles’ rights to behave in this way are going to rise up and slaughter them.  It didn’t help that the previews for Les Misérables preceded the main feature . . .

The Interrupters (Steve James, 2011)

I had the great pleasure of seeing this film recently at a Friends of the Maryland Film Festival screening, where the director, Steve James, was present for a post Q&A. I had previously missed it at the 2011 Maryland Film Festival, so it was great to finally catch it. James, whose previous work includes Hoop Dreams and Stevie, is the kind of documentary filmmaker who does his research and spends the needed time with his subjects to guarantee that they will ignore him as much as possible. While no film crew, no matter how small, can guarantee that its presence will not affect the behavior of their subjects, in James’s case, the actions of the people being filmed feel real and unadulterated, and we, the audience, become completely immersed in the story as a result.

The result is a powerful movie about a group of brave and motivated souls trying to rescue violence-plagued communities in Chicago from their ongoing cycle of tragedy. These “violence interrupters,” as they are called, step in and start dialoguing with people who have, themselves, been subject to some kind of injury, be it a beating, a robbery, or a family member/friend who has been killed. In this way, they try to force a moment of reflection, or pause, that just might prevent a retaliatory act of violence. These amazing activists are all, themselves, former gang members and criminals who have done jail time and emerged from their pasts with a desire to better the world.

We watch as the three main interrupter subjects – Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra – operate under the direction of Tio Hardiman, who runs CeaseFire (now known as Cure Violence), the organization which employs them, and who is, himself, a former gang member. Navigating different Chicago neighborhoods, each painstakingly labors to save people from their own (very human) desire to exact retribution on others who have done them wrong. I was amazed, watching, at the amount of personal one-on-one time these courageous folk were willing to spend to reach out and (maybe) prevent violence. It’s heartbreaking work, and only they could do it, since only they have the credibility in these neighborhoods to lead these discussions. Whatever violence or crime Ameena, Cobe, Eddie, Tio and others committed in the past (and given the environments in which they came of age, it’s hard to blame them), they have more than made up for it with the work they are doing now. These are the kinds of people who deserve a Noble Peace Prize.

My kudos to James and his crew for making yet another riveting and moving film. In fact, the film is so powerful that it has even led Rahm Emanuel to allocate funding for CeaseFire, in spite of the reservations that some police officers have about working with ex-felons. The statistics apparently validate the effectiveness of this program, as Gregg Bernstein, Baltimore State’s Attorney, told us at the screening (since he was the one leading the Q&A). I’m sure it’s not a cure-all, and the program doesn’t address the roots of crime (which isn’t its purpose), but anything that prevents further violence is a net positive, as far as I’m concerned. So see the film, if you can, and spread the word.

The Fitzgerald Family Christmas (Edward Burns, 2012)

As with all other Edward Burns films I have seen, this movie had lots of clumsy bits. The writing was also hardly filled with scintillating bits of dialogue. And yet . . . there were moments of genuine feeling here, and better performances than I was expecting. By the end of the film, when the family decides to reconcile for Christmas, I actually found myself with a tear in my eye. But then . . . Burns had to almost ruin it with an ill-conceived and badly executed ending dinner scene, in which he tried to make a bad modern arrangement of “Veni Veni Emmanuel” do the emotional heavy lifting for him. Oh, well. That flub does not take away from what works, earlier.

If you like family dramas, enhanced with ethnic specificity, then you might just really enjoy the picture. Think My Big Fat Greek Wedding meets In America, and be grateful that Burns has come a long way, as both a director and actor, since The Brothers McMullen and She’s the One. He’s appealing, most of the other actors are appealing, and if you can ignore the missteps, you’ll emerge after 110 minutes feeling pretty good.

A final note: this is a film that you can either choose to see in theaters, or watch on Video-on-Demand (VOD). As such, it is a potential harbinger of distribution models to come (though not the first film to try this out). Choose your platform, and see which you prefer.

Monsieur Lazhar (Philippe Falardeau, 2011)

An Oscar™ nominee for 2011 Best Foreign Film, Monsieur Lazhar is an effective and moving drama about an Algerian immigrant in Québec, struggling to overcome a deep personal loss, who copes with it by becoming a teacher in a school where the students must deal with their own serious tragedy: the in-school suicide of their previous teacher. Like many films about non-conformist educators who strive to reach out to their pupils and confront bureaucracies that stymie them – Dead Poets Society and Les choristes among them – Monsieur Lazhar has, at its center, an extremely appealing and charismatic protagonists, in this case played by the very affecting Mohamed Fellag.

I loved this movie for about two thirds of its approximately 90 minutes. But then, towards the end, when I realized just how irresponsible the titular character’s behavior actually is – I’ll avoid major plot spoilers here – the film lost some of my good will. True, the director remains neutral, to some degree, and avoids judging anyone, but I was nevertheless disappointed that we hadn’t spent more time trying to understand Bachir Lazhar’s motivations (even just 5 more minutes), After all, when a mature adult works out his issues through the medium of working with children, those actions have extremely large and reverberating consequences.

I didn’t mind the complexities of the story and the lack of simple answers – in fact, I embraced them and was grateful for them, since so often American films avoid these kinds of nuances – but I wished that we, the audience, were allowed just a little more of a cathartic release at the end. I appreciated the final hug between Lazhar and his star pupil (played by the precocious Sophie Nélisse), and maybe that was enough (as was her own final moment with her classmate Simon, played with just the right amount of bravado and vulnerability by Emilien Néron). I just know that I was left in want of a slightly more satisfying conclusion. Perhaps, over time, I will come to a more charitable interpretation of the ending. For now, however, I was left wanting more, and left thinking that Monsieur Lazhar had gotten off easy. A film like 2008’s Entre les murs does a better job, in my mind, of confronting the teacher and holding him accountable.

I still think it’s a film worth watching, if for no other reason than to enjoy 60 minutes of great cinema, and to enjoy some fine performances by the lead adult and the two leading children.

Alex, Ruby and the Coming Apocalypse

As the year 2012 approaches its end – but as the world, hopefully, does not – I am trying to catch up on the films I missed earlier, as well as watching the current ones in the theatre.

And speaking of my reviews of films, don’t forget the events of the summer that prompted my graphomania – feel free to read those reviews, some of which I’ll summarize when I wrap up the films of the year, in January.

Today’s blog entry covers two movies I just watched on DVD, and one that I (would rather not have) just watched at Bengies Drive-In. If you have never been to Bengies, I recommend checking it out, since the experience is fun, even if the movie is terrible. This weekend marks the end of its screening season, and the theater will reopen next year, when warmer weather returns.

Let’s start with Alex Cross, then, which was what I chose to see on Friday. Why. you may ask, since the reviews have been uniformly terrible?  Simple, dear reader!  I had already seen Wreck-It Ralph and Argo, the two other films playing that night, and though I liked both of them, I wanted to see something new. <sigh>

This poster is the best part of the movie . . .

This is, quite simply, one of the worst movies I have ever seen. I was mystified, actually, since it was directed by Rob Cohen, who at least knows his way around a camera, having made Daylight, xXx, and The Fast and the Furious, none of which are brilliant, but all of which are quite watchable and entertaining. I’m not sure what happened here, unless it turns out that Tyler Perry was secretly directing, with Rob Cohen as the puppet. Then I would get it. Or maybe Cohen just couldn’t get over the horrible miscasting of Perry in the title role. If only Idris Elba had not quit the role, the film might have had a chance. As it is, the specter of Perry’s overwhelming and constant mediocrity dooms the film from the get-go.

But it’s not just Perry who is bad. Edward Burns as the sidekick is excruciating, yet even he seems competent next to Matthew Fox as the psychopath bad guy. Still, none of these actors, had they brought their A-game (Perry, however, has no A-game), could have overcome the horrors of the script, filled with shallow characterizations and painful dialogue (or no dialogue, since so much of what the actors say sounds like the result of amateur on-the-spot improv – maybe they had nothing to work with).

One final note – watching the film, I was convinced that it had been shot (badly) on a digital format, perhaps at 30 or more frames per second, since it has that kind of unpleasant fluidity of motion that we don’t see in the filmic image, yet when I looked up the tech specs, I saw that it had been on 35mm. Which begs the question, why would one shoot on film and then do something in post that gives it a (bad) video feel? Then again, why would one make this film in the first place?

And now, on to the two films I watched yesterday on DVD.

In this Pygmalion-like tale, penned by Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of Elia), who also plays the titular character, Paul Dano conjures up his dream girl from the depths of his depressive imagination. When she turns out to have a will of her own, he writes her into submission, until finally, like any good author, he sets her free to enjoy the world and for the world to enjoy. At the end, he meets her once more, on equal terms (since her memory was re-set when he liberated her), and they . . . to be continued.

This was an enjoyable enough film, with an appealing performance from Zoe Kazan. Since she and Dano are a real-life couple, they have a relaxed and believable rapport with one another. As the author, Dano pushes the neurotic qualities of his character a bit too far, however, and it is difficult to root for him, since he’s such a wet blanket. Fortunately for the film, his brother is played by the extremely capable and always fun Chris Messina, who livens up the story with his grounded and funny performance.

The script manages to be both predictable and inventive, and there were scenes that I genuinely enjoyed, such as when Ruby first appears in the flesh, and when Dano and Messina test her existence by writing changes in her behavior. But once the novelty wears, we are faced with the fact that the main protagonist is just not that interesting. He’s a writer with writer’s block, a therapist, and mother issues. Get over yourself, dude.

The directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, whose previous film, Little Miss Sunshine, I adored, here do their best with the occasionally limited script, and sometimes succeed, sometimes don’t.

Oh, there’s also a cute dog.

I really wanted to like this film more than I did, since I often enjoy Steve Carell. Then again, I frequently do not enjoy Keira Knightley, though I do not loathe her. With a good script, the woman-who-looks-like-a-piranha can win me over. Unfortunately, this is not a great script. Nor is this middling script that well directed. The film has its moments of appeal, but overall it’s just kind of . . . present. If you want to see a better film – with a similar vibe – about the end of the world, check out Don McKellar’s 1998 Last Night (not to be confused with a 2010 film of the same title starring . . . Keira Knightley!).

Lorene Scafaria wrote Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which was lightweight but enjoyable. Maybe that’s her thing, and she should avoid reaching for greater meaning . . . and failing. Or maybe she shouldn’t direct. In any case, with this film, she shows an inability to handle the whimsy that would make the gloom and doom more palatable (again, see Last Night, above, for a film that succeeds where this one fails).

The most egregious failure of the movie is the handling of the central romance between Carell and Knightley, which does not convince. They may say that they love each other, as the firestorm consumes the planet, and Keira’s chin may jut out (her specialty) as the tears flow, but the final moment is unearned, since the actors never connect, both through lack of chemistry and lack of character development. As I wrote, above, I enjoy Carell, but I am beginning to worry that he has but one shtick in his dramatic roles: the mooning puppy-eyed depressive. It worked in Little Miss Sunshine and in Dan in Real Life, but it’s beginning to get old.

What does work in this film are the opening moments of set-up and a few crazy scenes along the way (including Friendsy’s Restaurant), as well as the reconciliation between father (Martin Sheen) and son (Carell) that caught me unawares.  And – as in the previous film – this film has a cute dog, as well, which always helps.

Sex and Intimacy Powerful Bedfellows Can Make: A Review of “The Sessions”

Whoops! I forgot that I had seen this a few weeks ago on a visit to NYC for my Mom’s birthday, and left it out of my recent reviews. So here goes:

This is such a sweet, good-natured movie about appealing characters going through emotionally and physically uplifting moments . . . what’s not to like? I will admit that the film has a few almost-sacharine touches that mar its perfection, but like Helen Hunt’s magnificent middle-aged body, The Sessions remains beautiful in spite of the flaws.

At its center is a powerful performance by John Hawkes as Mark O’Brien, the virginal polio survivor who has managed to scratch out a decent living as a poet and journalist in spite of being immobile and largely confined to an iron lung. I first noticed John Hawkes in Me and You and Everyone We Know, where I found his off-beat presence a major plus in a film that redefined “twee” and then took it to the dark side. I then saw him in “Deadwood,” “Lost,” Winter’s Bone, and Higher Ground, and my admiration grew. Here, he does what Mathieu Amalric did in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, only without the advantage of the flashback scenes in which he could establish character as a fully functioning individual. I am simply in awe of the magnificence of Hawkes’s ability to project this much charisma from a gurney.

But he is not alone. Helen Hunt, as his sex surrogate, projects such warmth and humanity – and courage as an actress, since she is nude so much of the time – that it would be hard for even the most prudish viewer to object to the nature of her ministrations. As William H. Macy – excellent as the liberal priest who advises O’Brien – says, and which could be the mantra of the film, “I think God is going to give you a free pass on this one.” As an Atheist, I add, “Amen.”

As a final note, I just want to praise the supporting cast – Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Adam Arkin, Rhea Perlman, Robin Weigert, and Ming Lo among them – for bringing the rest of the characters to vibrant life, and giving the late Mr. O’Brien the testament he deserves.

“Argo,” “Looper,” and “Take This Waltz”

As I rush to watch as many of the films released this fall, as well as films I missed earlier in the year, in order to be ready for my next appearance on the Midday with Dan Rodricks show – on WYPR, 88.1FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station – I’ll keep on posting my thoughts on each movie on this blog.

Following Ben Affleck’s excellent directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, in 2007, I had high hopes for the work to follow. As an actor, Affleck had never wowed me. He was possessed of some (small) screen presence, limited range, and a certain vague likeability that occasionally made up for the irritation caused by seeing an unqualified man promoted to movie star status. But then came The Town, which was all atmosphere and no substance, and which featured Affleck himself at the center. While there was some very good work behind the camera (Affleck does seem to have a solid understanding of the fundamentals of shot construction), and some very good work in front of the camera (Blake Lively, for instance), Affleck as actor was unable to distinguish dourness from sincerity. So my initial hopes were tempered.

And now here is Argo, my favorite film of the fall season, and one of my favorite films of the year. It again features Affleck at the center, but he has wisely chosen to underplay his role, and let others bring the drama and the intensity (and the comedy). I have read many reviews that praise the film, though some point out that many of the more tense thriller moments of the film never happened in real life. I suppose that matters, since part of the appeal of the film is that it is based on the real-life 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, when 6 lucky Americans escaped to the Canadian ambassador’s residence and were then miraculously spirited out of Iran by the CIA. But while I, too, was disappointed to find out that the final moments of the actual escape were far less dramatic than their cinematic adaptation, I nevertheless am in awe of Affleck’s skill as a director of actors and camera. With confidence and panache, he pulls off a brilliant espionage tale that is not only set in the 1970s, but looks as if it were actually shot in the 1970s, as well. I think the movie would have been even better had another actor played the Affleck role, but otherwise the film is nearly flawless.

Most time travel movies suffer from the unsolvable conundrum of how the actions of a character from the future, in the cinematic present, would most undoubtedly negate that character’s own existence. Marty McFly’s meddling with his parents’ relationship in 1955, in Back to the Future, should have completely changed the 1985 future/present. Instead, when he returns to the life he left, he is the same, with the same siblings, in the same house, even though his father and mother are completely transformed. This is unlikely – if not virtually impossible – yet we go along with it because we have had such a good time watching a superbly crafted movie that wins us over with its humor, drama and suspense.

Rian Johnson’s terrific Looper, falls into this kind of category. Its plot does not hold up to close scrutiny – what time travel movie’s plot does?!? – but the script is so wildly inventive, and the atmosphere and performances so strong, that our disbelief is willingly suspended for the duration of the ride. As in Brick – the only work of his I had previously seen – writer/director Johnson displays a masterful command of script, camera and actors that envelops us in enough fully realized details to keep us from comprehending just how much he has bamboozled us into believing this unbelievable story. It helps that he sells the impossibility up front, in an amazing sequence where the character played by Paul Dano’s future self disintegrates in front of our eyes. Once you buy that as a viable plot contrivance, you’re on board for the rest. Johnson also wisely chooses to have Bruce Willis’s character attack the complexities and silliness of time travel head on in a confrontation with his younger self, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. And so, the flaws of the genre dispensed with, we are ready for the rest of the film.

And what a film it is! Lush in color and rich in verbiage, Looper features a trio of outstanding performances from the three main actors: Willis, Gordon-Levitt, and Emily Blunt. Ah, Emily Blunt … she is fast becoming my favorite actress of her generation. Like Cate Blanchett, 14 years her senior, Blunt can take any role and invest it with such honest emotional intensity that I am convinced that I would most happily sit in a movie theater and watch her sniff glue for three hours. From her breakout role in The Devil Wears Prada to her tour-de-force lead in The Young Victoria to her gloriously romantic and sexy pairing with Matt Damon in The Adjustment Bureau (another film where one must suspend disbelief, and where she is the main reason one is so willing to do so), Blunt has proven herself to be … simply sublime. Watching her, as a fiercely protective single mom, confront Gordon-Levitt and Willis, is like watching a tiger fighting off velociraptors. And when the tiger subsequently chooses to seduce a velociraptor, even better.

Still, the ending leaves a few too many of those pesky time travel questions hanging, and a certain major character’s offscreen death bothered me just a bit too much, which is why I ultimately like the film a whole hell of a lot, but don’t absolutely love it.

Until the last 25 minutes or so, I found this film to be nearly perfect. I enjoyed the interplay between Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen, Michelle Williams and Luke Kirby, and Michelle Williams and Sarah Silverman. I enjoyed the story, about a young married woman who falls in love with her neighbor in spite of the fact that she loves her husband. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship and still been deeply attracted to someone else will find the subtle details of the film touching and believable.

Sarah Polley has proven herself, yet again, to be a director of consummate skill. I loved her debut feature, Away from Her, about a 60-ish man coping with his wife’s early onset dementia. In this film, Polley has lost none of her talent for working with actors, and makes even Seth Rogen – whom I have always found annoying – appealing.

She has a lovely ending at 90 minutes, as A.O. Scott of the New York Times noted in his review, but chooses to continue the film for a final 25 minutes that reduces the ultimate power of her story. I thought the sex montage was unnecessary, and I found her actual ending depressing. I understand what she was going for (“new things become old,” as a character says earlier in the film), but I thought the earlier ebullience pointed to a lovelier conclusion. Oh, well, such is life and such is art. I look forward to her next film, nonetheless.

Enough with the Reboot: Just Make a Damn Bond Film! (Thoughts on “Skyfall”)

First off, let me just say that Skyfall, the new James Bond film, directed by Sam Mendes, is a very good action film. Unlike the previous installation in the series, Quantum of Solace (2008, Marc Forster), this movie does not feature any egregiously unrealistic stunts like that film’s unforgivable parachute sequence. Both women, or “Bond girls,” played by Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe, are both lovely and strong, and Javier Bardem makes an excellent Bond villain. Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw are welcome additions to the cast, and Judi Dench and Daniel Craig both invest their roles with their customary intensity. So no complaints there. This is an excellent thriller, and the script even allows for a few touches of humor, which had been sorely missing from the first two Craig 007 films.

However, I am beginning to get annoyed at the tack that Eon Productions – the company founded by Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman in 1961, now run by Broccoli’s daughter Barbara and stepson Michael Wilson – has been taking with the past three films. I enjoyed the recalibration of the series in Casino Royale (2006, Martin Campbell), and thought it was an interesting touch to begin Quantum of Solace exactly where Casino Royale had ended, but I am now officially registering my displeasure that the filmmakers cannot just settle down and make one Daniel Craig film without any rebooting of the story and characters. In other words, I want what Bond fans have always wanted: a cracking good story with drama, suspense and humor, told with oodles of style, which doesn’t cause me to groan in agony at too many bad jokes or suspend my disbelief at implausible stunts. This is how the series began with the first 4 Sean Connery films – Dr. NoFrom Russia with LoveGoldfinger, and Thunderball – and over the years it has strayed and lost its way (the Roger Moore years were the worst), occasionally rediscovered its balance, albeit with some problems (Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan), and yet has always tried to remain true to the original appeal of the character. James Bond is a very talented super-spy, occasionally physically and emotionally vulnerable, yet ultimately successful because he is most loyal to his mission (and country) and his sense of style rather than to any one lover or friend.

I am sure there are plenty of people who will disagree, and more power to them. Any long-running series needs to adapt to the times and evolve. I like the depth of feeling with which Craig imbues his Bond. But at some point I have to ask – why James Bond? At times, these past three films have felt more like a spy version of Christopher Nolan’s take on the Batman character. Skyfall even gives Bond a past, showing us his ancestral home, telling us more about his lost parents than (I think) we need to know, and even giving us Albert Finney as an Alfred-like butler sidekick. I have to admit that I liked my Bond somewhat of a cypher. Is this really the only way forward? Although GoldenEye (1995, Martin Campbell) was not perfect, I enjoyed how the filmmakers addressed the need for change head-on – in the brilliant initial confrontation between Judi Dench as M and Pierce Brosnan as Bond – while nevertheless maintaining the tropes of the series. The Daniel Craig films have gleefully discarded these tropes, foregoing the opening gun barrel sequence and only occasionally allowing Bond’s signature introductory phrase, Bond … James Bond.” At which point, I ask, why bother even calling him James Bond? Why not simply kill Bond off, and have a new spy take his place? What’s that you say, people wouldn’t be interested? Ah – but then, why are those who are interested so interested in the first place? Because they like what the Bond films represent – action, style, and sex, served with just enough wit to make it all hang together, and a recognizable universe in which the service takes place. And they like the continuity, from Dr. No to the present. Mess with that continuity, and you really mess with the series.

And that is what ultimately bothers me the most with the past three films. Prior to Daniel Craig, each Bond actor changeover had – realistically or not – simply placed the new actor in the role, and proceeded as if the universe had had no interruption. From Casino Royale to Skyfall, we have seen the opposite approach. This is a re-boot, albeit with some holdovers from the previous films (such as Judi Dench). It is as if the previous stories did not exist. We meet Craig in Casino Royale just as he is being promoted to “00” status, rather than in mid-mission as a man who is already established as 007.  I can see the appeal – new actor, new incarnation of role – and I can see how the novelty of this approach re-energized a flagging series. The last Brosnan Bond, Die Another Day (2002, Lee Tamahori), was pretty miserable, after all.  But I am curious as to why the producers felt the need to reboot, rather than just recalibrate.

But no matter – so be it. I enjoyed Casino Royale for what it was: like Skyfall (and unlike Quantum of Solace), a great action thriller. At some point, though, I have been hoping that Eon Productions would finish establishing Craig as Bond and get on with the business of . . . fun. With all of this rebooting of the series from scratch (we even get a new Moneypenny – complete with her own origin story – in this latest film), we have been missing much of what made the Bond series so successful to begin with – a joy in the joie de vivre of being a sexy spy who kills bad guys, wears nice clothes, and desires – and is desired by – hot women (some of whom rival Bond in their toughness). When will we get less intense seriousness and just be able to enjoy an escapist spy thriller? Or are we condemned to watch The Dark Spy Rises from now on? Again, why Bond? Why not, I don’t know, “Prince . . . Jack Prince?” Because the aesthetic of the series – and its welcome tropes – are what bring us back for more each time, and have brought us back for over 50 years. It’s 007, not 00? . . .

Film Reviews from October 20 to November 5

Here are some recent film reviews of mine. More to follow throughout the month.

Lincoln (2012, Steven Spielberg)

I liked Lincoln more than I disliked it, but the film is far from perfect. To start with, it is about 30 minutes too long, and you really begin to feel that extra half hour at the end. Then, there are the usual Spielberg moments of overly sentimentalized drama, where true sincerity is marred by unnecessarily elegiac music, or by excessive underlining of the subtext with push-ins to characters whose presence serves merely to tell us what we already know. But the bedrock of this movie is a truly fine (and often understated) performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, whose choice to have his Lincoln speak in a high register did not bother me at all. I had thought, from the trailers, that this would be a problem, but after the first 5 minutes of watching him, I had forgotten all about my initial reservations.

So – see the film for Day-Lewis, if for nothing or no one else. There are a lot of other actors in the film, however, and seeing so many people you know in false whiskers and wigs can actually be distracting. I think the film would have been better served with fewer celebrity cameos. Still, many of them are fun to watch. My favorite was James Spader.

In spite of finding the use of music distracting, at times, one of the things I liked a lot about the film was the fact that, initially, there is so little music. For quite a while, there is almost no non-diegetic score, and we are left alone with the characters as they discuss matters political and personal.

I also like the very literate script by Tony Kushner. There is virtually no physical action in this film: it is all about the nature of how politicians get things done, and how they get things done is often by talking. I was amazed at how engrossed I was by the words (until that two hour mark – the magic moment when films either declare that – YES! they can be that long – or go downhill). Watching Day-Lewis incarnate a Kushner-penned Lincoln-as-raconteur was a delight. The pleasure that writer, director and actor clearly had in staging the many moments where Lincoln tells rambling anecdotes – and in showing how those anecdotes helped define him as a beloved man and leader – is quite infectious.

So – for me – it is a very mixed bag, with the positive nevertheless outweighing the negative. And compared to the last Lincoln film I saw – Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – it’s a masterpiece.

The Big Picture (2012, Eric Lartigau)

This is entertaining enough, if ultimately a little disappointing as a thriller. There are too many plot holes for it to completely work – too much disbelief needs to be suspended. That said, the lead performances are all very strong, and there remains the question of whether or not this SHOULD be looked at as a thriller. In a Hollywood director’s hands, it might have had more adrenaline, but it would most likely have lacked the metaphysical side that ultimately is the film’s greatest appeal. What defines us? What do we want? What happens when we self-abnegate? The film grapples with these questions, and has a conclusion that is all open and no end.

Wreck-it Ralph (2012, Rich Moore)

This was great fun, if also a bit formulaic in that Disney way: the hero doesn’t like his life; he leaves to find himself; he makes mistakes along the way that threaten his world and the world of others; he finds his way and rights all wrongs; he ends up back where he was, after having wrought change that makes others appreciate him more and lets him appreciate what he has. That said, the details surrounding the formula aree fresh and well designed. Anyone whose misspent youth involved far too many hours in the arcade will love the concept. Parents will probably like it more than kids, but kids won’t be bored, either. And it is a welcome reprieve from such mind-numbing sequels of the animal variety (Ice Age, Madagascar, etc.). To top it all off, the voice talent is excellent. I don’t give it 5 stars because, well, there is that formula . . .

Flight (2012, Robert Zemeckis)

First of all, let’s be clear that this is an extremely well made film with a top-notch cast that delivers the goods, performance-wise. Robert Zemeckis, the director, has always been able to handle both the technical and artistic (and commercial!) side of highly complex storytelling, and Flight shows that he has lost nothing in the 12 years he just spent wallowing in the motion capture universe. But one’s reaction to the film will depend on a number of factors, not the least of which is how the movie lives up to one’s expectations.

It is not necessarily the fault of the director or the screenwriter that the movie’s trailers advertise a very different kind of movie than what we get. I, for one, was not expecting a Leaving Las Vegas-like exploration of alcholism (and other addictions), but that is what we get. The airplane crash drama is incidental: this is a movie about self-destructive behavior, failed attempts at recovery, and eventual redemption. Denzel Washington – who, in spite of Time Magazine choosing Daniel Day-Lewis as the greatest actor of his generation is, in my opinion, the actual greatest actor of his generation – is magnificent. Still, I did not enjoy the experience of watching him drink and drug and be unrepentant for over 2 hours. That may be just my problem, but if you’re looking for a taut thriller about the politics of how governmental institutions handle investigations into major accidents (which is what I thought I was going to see), you will be very disappointed. Forewarned is forearmed.

Haywire (2012, Steven Soderbergh)

To those of you who have seen the documentary Side by Side, in which Steven Soderbergh takes such a triumphalist stance in favor of new digital technologies over the former glories of film, I hold this film up as Exhibit A for the defense. While Soderbergh has proven himself time and again as a master artist and technician, in this film he is neither. It is the latter failing that is most shocking, as even when Soderbergh has made such stylistically off-putting films as Bubble and, to some degree, The Limey, he has nevertheless demonstrated a strong command of the technologies at hand.

Here, however, he shows that even a film shot on a RED camera can be ugly, with blown-out white pixels, and display a terribly designed color palette. To top it all off, the sound recording often seems as if it was being done with a single boom mic that is too far away from the actors. The real problems with the film lie not with its technical failures, though, but rather with its silly underdeveloped script and even less developed characters. It doesn’t help that almost none of the actors are giving watchable performances. It seems as if Soderbergh – who operates the camera on his own projects – was too preoccupied with creating putrid visuals to focus on the talent.

Ironically, the best actor in the film is actually the novice, Gina Carano. According to her, her voice was “tweaked” in post-production. Well, whether it was or not, she nevertheless possesses a fine screen presence, and is the only one not chewing up scenery. I liked her, and she is the reason the film gets two stars, rather than just one. The problems with this film do not lie with the digital technologies – there are plenty of lovely films shot on the RED – but in the apparent lack of any workable aesthetic sensibility behind the camera.

So Soderbergh, before you start talking about the death of film, why not spend a few moments reminding yourself that what really counts is storytelling and craft, regardless of medium. The new does not necessarily guarantee good work, and your triumphalism may be blinding you to that which is important: good filmmaking.

Black Narcissus (1947, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)

As someone who hated The Red Shoes, finding it to be grotesque where it should have been exhilarating, I was very pleasantly caught off guard by this film. I have always liked Deborah Kerr, so I knew there would be at least something pleasant in the film for me, but I was not prepared for how much I enjoyed the use of color, made even more extraordinary by the fact that the film was made in 1947, when color cinematography was still in its infancy. The great Jack Cardiff’s work helps make this movie a near-masterpiece.

I only call it a “near-masterpiece” since there are some of the usual European colonial attitudes, including the use of English Jean Simmons in quasi-blackface, that generally kick me out of these kinds of stories. But overall the film is beautiful, and quite moving in its portrayal of women whose lives have left them little choice but to persevere in demanding and often unrewarding work, and to find what dignity they can in that choice. The sexual hysteria of the previously-unknown-to-me Kathleen Byron was a nice extra, especially when she comes storming out of the chapel with that red dress and her hair all askew. Yikes!

Film Is Dead – Long Live Film!

Today’s Midday with Dan Rodricks show – on WYPR, 88.1 FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station – Linda DeLibero (Associate Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University) and I discussed the demise (or premature demise?) of the film format (but not of cinema).  We paid special attention to the recent documentary Side by Side, produced and narrated by Keanu Reeves, and directed by Chris Kenneally (who  joined us for a bit, from Brooklyn, via phone). It was a great and lively discussion on a timely topic. If you missed the show, you can listen to it here: Midday with Dan Rodricks: 2012.11.02_Is Film Dead

I thought I would share some of the research and notes from my prepping for this show and for the October 14 Cinema Sundays screening of Side by Side that I presented.

A.  This film came about as a result of conversations between Keanu Reeves and Christopher Kenneally on the set of the 2010 film Henry’s Crime, which Keanu Reeves produced and starred in, and on which Christopher Kenneally was the post-production supervisor. A post-production supervisor is in charge of the entire workflow process from media acquisition to final output of the final cut. Kenneally had directed one short and one documentary feature before this, but he and Reeves shared a passion for the changing nature of their field, and so they embarked on this project together. Keanu Reeves lent the project stature and his presence made it easy to secure interviews with the big filmmakers out there, and Kenneally brought years of post-production expertise to the table to write and shape the story. {Source = https://tribecafilm.com/stories/side-by-side-director}

B.  Producer’s statement: “In 2009, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE won the academy award for best cinematography. It was a point of inflection for our industry. For the first time, the award for cinematography went to a movie shot almost entirely digitally and not on film. Over the last decade movies shot, edited and distributed digitally have become an acceptable alternative to a photochemical process with over one hundred years of history. At this moment in time, the digital world and the photochemical world exist side by side in the movie industry–from image capture to visual effects to color correction to exhibition. The master cinematographers and directors are now crafting work in both mediums.

I have seen this quiet revolution unfold in front of me on sets, in edit rooms and post- production facilities and on screens around the world. With that in mind I have embarked on a major documentary project directed by Chris Kenneally to explore how this change will impact motion pictures and the way stories are conceived, created and experienced. I am producing the documentary and have hands-on involvement both behind and in front of the camera. The goal is to examine the worlds of film and digital cinema as they exist side by side.

The documentary will investigate the history, process and workflow of both digital and photochemical film creation. We aim to show what artists and filmmakers have been able to accomplish with both film and digital and how their needs and innovations have helped push filmmaking in new directions. Interviews with directors, cinematographers, colorists, scientists, engineers and artists will reveal their experiences and feelings about working with film and digital, where we are now, how we got here and what the future may bring…” {Source = Side by Side Press Kit}

C.  From CreativeCow.net (“The Mazgazine for Media Professionals in Film, Broadcast & Production”), 2011, in article “Film Fading to Black,” by Debra Kaufman: ” While the debate has raged over whether or not film is dead, ARRI, Panavision and Aaton have quietly ceased production of film cameras within the last year to focus exclusively on design and manufacture of digital cameras. That’s right: someone, somewhere in the world is now holding the last film camera ever to roll off the line.”

D.  From Variety, Feb. 4, 2012, in article “Film survives amid digital world,” by  Karen Idelson: ” While the switch to digital production in the movie industry has been much ballyhooed — and indeed, both Panavision and Arri have stopped manufacturing film cameras — it could easily still be decades, if at all, before film is a medium of the past.

Indeed, the industry’s digital changeover has been dramatic in areas like episodic television, but bigger-budget studio films have been slow to follow the trend. Johnathon Amayo, VP of production and post-production for Moviola Digital, believes the percentage of movies shot on film currently ranges between 50% and 70%, since many established helmers still insist on using film to get a certain look for their project. Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder, among others, have persisted with film for various projects for aesthetic reasons. Snyder and d.p. Larry Fong pushed to shoot “300” on film to get the painterly, grainy look they felt would mirror the feeling of the comicbook that inspired the movie.”

E. From Scientific American, Nov. 18, 2011, in article “Digital Movies to Replace Film by 2015,” by Samantha Murphy: “The standard 35 mm film we’re all used to seeing in movie theaters will be replaced worldwide by digital technology in the next few years, and the hit blockbuster film “Avatar” is to blame for the shift, according to a new report.

A report from the IHS Screen Digest Cinema Intelligence Service said that 35 mm film, which has been the dominant projection format in movie theaters for more than 120 years, is nearing the end of its life, as the majority of cinema screens in the U.S. are expected to go digital in 2012.

In fact, IHS expects 35 mm will be replaced by digital technology globally by 2015, the report said. By the end of 2012, 35 mm film in movie theaters is expected to decline to 37 percent on a global scale, which is a dramatic decline from 68 percent of global cinema screens in 2010.”

F. That same IHS Screen Digest reports that 35mm prints will cease being produced in US by end of 2013, according to June 9, 2012 article in ArsTechnica, “Celluloid no more: distribution of film to cease by 2013 in the US,” by Megan Geuss

G.  From me, Chris Reed: This film spells out something that has been very much on my mind of late, thanks to the many hours I have to spend thinking of how to devise a curriculum at Stevenson that best address the challenges of media production and media education in the 21st Century. We are seeing a strong and inexorable shift away from the primary creative moment of image creation happening in production to it happening in post-production. How you capture the image is now less important that what you do with it aftewards, in whatever editing or coloring or special effects program you happen to be working. I recommend watching the extensive BLU-RAY extras for films like Avatar and Girl with a Dragon Tattoo.

H.  To enjoy this film, you do not have to be a filmmaker or an expert in film processes, because it has enough explanatory information in it for the layperson, but you do have to PAY ATTENTION – this is not a good film during which to turn to your neighbor and ask questions, or you might miss essential info – so don’t talk, don’t text, don’t take calls, and stay focused!  🙂

Some Media Shot Digitally

I.  with the ARRI Alexa

A.  Feature Films:

1.  The Avengers

2.  The Dictator

3.  Drive

4.  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

5.  Hugo

6.  Life of Pi

7.  21 Jump Street

8.  Young Adult

B.  Television:

1.  “Blue Bloods” (also below, under RED)

2.  “Californication

3.  “Desperate Housewives

4.  “Downton Abbey

5.  “Game of Thrones

6.  “Girls

7.  “Happy Endings

8.  “Homeland

9.  “Sons of Anarchy

10.  “Supernatural

11.  “Teen Wolf

II.  with the RED

A.  Feature Films:

1.  Beginners

2.  Che

3.  District 9

4.  Fair Game

5.  The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo

6.  The Hobbit

7.  Inside Job

8.  The Muppets

9.  Prometheus

10.  The Secret in Their Eyes

11.  The Social Network

12.  Winter’s Bone

B.  Television:

1.  “Blue Bloods” (also above, under ARRI Alexa)

2.  “ER

3.  “House of Cards

4.  “Justified

5.  “The Mob Doctor

6.  “Pretty Little Liars

7.  “Southland

III. with DSLR (Digital single-lens reflex) cameras

A.  Fantastic Mr. Fox (Nikon D3)

B.  For Lovers Only (Canon 5D Mark II)

C.  Tiny Furniture (Canon 7D)

Film lovers take heart, however, as directors like Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg are still shooting their movies, such as The Dark Knight Rises and Lincoln, on actual film . . .

Thanks for reading and thanks for listening!