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Peter saw his first movie when he was just a little boy, and has never gotten over that experience.

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Movie City: Manhattan

Posted September 29, 2008

Shot from/of <i>Manhattan</i>

Shot from/of Manhattan

In “Movie City,” each month we focus on how film and geography intersect. We started off with John Waters giving us the low down on movie theaters in his hometown of Baltimore. And recently novelist and the writer/producer of The Wire (which also takes place in Baltimore) George Pelecanos talked to us about why there are no films about the real Washington DC (his hometown). This week over at New York Magazine, Editor Adam Moss sat down with Woody Allen to discuss the city of Allen's dreams––Manhattan.

One thing he picks up on is how quickly New York is changing and what that means to films shot here: “There are times where I’d finish a movie, like Everyone Says I Love You, and five places in the movie would be gone before it came out. Le Cirque would be gone. The bookstore on Madison Avenue would be gone. I couldn’t keep up with the rate of change…”

The interview, which is part of New York Magazine’s 40th Anniversary issue also includes a wonderful slideshow/story on the “New York Actor,” a group that covers the field from Robert DeNiro and Laureen Bacall to Liev Schreiber, S. Epatha Merkerson, and, of course, Sylvia Miles.

 

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Preston Sturges solves the Economic Crisis

Posted September 26, 2008

The connection between film narrative and political campaigns is all but inescapable. The only real issue is what film (or filmmaker) you relate to. Is George Bush the high-flying “Mission Accomplished” hero of Tony Scott’s Top Gun? Or does Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove more often come to mind? To me, recent political events, namely the nomination of Sarah Palin, seem right out of a Preston Sturges movie. Indeed you could see the whole comedy kick off with Levi Johnston, Briston Palin’s unexpected husband-to-be, being woken up in the middle of the night, tripping over his grizzly-bear floor rug, to get a phone call telling him to get on a plane to Minneapolis-Saint Paul tout de suite.

Clearly I was not alone in this sentiment. Jim Emerson, the founding editor of RogerEbert.com, recently demonstrated Sturges’ financial acumen in selected scenes from his 1937-scripted comedy (directed by Mitchell Leisen) Easy Living on “Scannners::blog”.

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Five Picked for Focus' Africa First Program

Posted September 24, 2008

Focus Features announced the five filmmakers who will be awarded $10,000.00 a piece for their African First Program. There are three women and two men from four different African countries. From South Africa, Jan-Hendrik Beetge and Jenna Bass; from Rwanda, Edouard Bamporiki; From Senegal, Dyana Gaye; and from Kenya, Wanuri Kahiu. Congratulations.

Focus CEO James Schamus applauded both the winners and other participants: “Given the response to our program, there was no shortage of new talent to choose from. The final five have great stories to tell that are original in every respect, but what was even more impressive were the scores and scores of other strong projects we were unfortunately not able to help – this time.” Kisha Imani Cameron, who supervised the Africa First program, added, “I’m so pleased that we found diverse finalists from all over continental Africa.”

Each of the recipients will use the money to create a short film based on their submitted proposal. The five films will be:

  • Long Coat (Edouard Bamporiki) a drama about a young Hutu coming to terms with Rwanda’s and his own family’s past;
  • The Tunnel (Jenna Bass), a 1980s-set story centering around a 10-year-old girl’s quest;
  • The Abyss Boys (Jan-Hendrik Beetge): a thriller about an illegal trade in a small fishing town;
  • N’Dar [Saint Louis Blues] (Dyana Gaye): a musical about public transportation;
  • Pumzi [Breath] (Wanuri Kahiu): a futuristic sci-fi tale.

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Fall is for Film

Posted September 23, 2008

Halloween in <i>Meet Me in St Louis</i>

Halloween in Meet Me in St Louis

For those of us who live in the Northwest, the weather has been as confused as the financial markets––chilly one day, overheated the next, and scary the day after that. Now the weather has settled down into the cool, brisk feel of autumn. Just cool enough in the morning to make you realize your t-shirt is not enough. And with that autumnal smell that tells you winter is on the way. Christopher Campbell at SproutBlog kindly is helping us get ready for sweaters and meat stews by offering his “10 Movie Scenes To Put You in an Autumn Mood.”

Quite rightly the number 2 and 3 remember Douglas Sirk, whose cinematic style perfectly fit the changing of the seasons. Number two on the list is Todd Haynes’ scene from Far From Heaven [which is a Focus Feature as well] in which Cathy and Raymond walk among the falling leaves, which Campbell acknowledges “goes back to Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows opening. His 3rd choice is, of course, another Douglas Sirk film, Written on the Wind, whose intro sequence of Robert Stack speeding through the Texas landscape and its little cyclones of spinning leaves says all we need to know about the characters.

In addition to his excellent list there are two other films worth remembering. The lyrical, scary scene of Halloween from Meet Me in St Louis where the kids all in costumes surround a bon fire on the street. Director Vincente Minnelli, proving next to Sirk to be one of cinema’s great colorists, manages to evoke both the Norman Rockwell-esque pleasure of a neighborhood holiday and the terrifying, primordial forces that lurk beneath it. The other, while not specifically about the fall, is all about the spirit of the season––Robert Aldrich’s Autumn Leaves with Joan Crawford as a more than middle-aged woman who finds happiness with a man whom she soon learns belongs in an institution. A creepy, sensational tale as only Crawford and Aldrich can deliver with that wonderfu spiraling sentimental song “Autumn Leaves." In fact the film's name was changed to take advantage of the song's popularity.

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Critical Thinking

Posted September 22, 2008

A while back we asked Phillip Lopate, the editor of the Library of America’s wonderful volume American Movie Critics, which fondly remembers the history of film criticism and film critics, to give a historical assessment of the film critic as a profession. It turns out that the power and the glory (as well of the paycheck) of the film critic has never been a fact of life, but rather a recent career opportunity. This month the British film mag Sight and Sound has picked up the discussion with their special issue “Who Needs Critics.”

In his introduction, Nick James reviews the sad history of the Critic—yes, Critic with a capital “C”––and the fact it s/he don’t get no respect:

"Pity the poor professional critic, but of course hardly anyone does. Critics have long been the villains of the arts, loathed (usually) by the talent, and mistrusted by the public. Think of their depictions in cinema; the urbane schemer Addison DeWitt in All About Eve, or cold Waldo Lydecker in Otto Preminger's Laura. Prissy droppers of vitriol they may be, but at least they loom large. Who now makes films featuring critics - and why should they?"

While James keeps his focus on the British species, his piece amply demonstrates that the fate of the Critic raise important questions about fate of our culture and our self-governance through letters.

Much more positive is the accompanying piece “Critics on Critics” in which current Sight and Sound critics pay tribute to those discerning minds that have influenced them. The list, that stretches from Plato to David Thomson, and the critics’ explanation about why these thinkers matter provides a provocative and inspiring piece.

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Jun Ichikawa, 1948 - 2008

Posted September 19, 2008

Jun Ichikawa

Jun Ichikawa

Japanese director Jun Ichikawa died today. He had collapsed while eating lunch, but died before he could be saved. Ichikawa came to film from making television ads. But his aesthetic had little to do with that asectic was more classic and formal than commercial. Clearly a successor of Ozu, Ichikawa unfurled his quiet dramas with precision and compassion. His most celebrated work in American is 2004 Tony Takitani, a elegant portrait of grief based a Haruki Murakami short story. The film was nominated for a 2006 Independent Spirit Award, as well festival award internationally, including a special jury prize at Locarno. He was busy editing his most recent film buy a suit at the time of his death.

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On The Set of Coraline

Posted September 15, 2008

Coraline in front of her home

Coraline in front of her home

The production of Henry Selick’s stop-motion animation adventure Coraline is in many ways as miraculous as the fantasy it dramatizes. In the massive Laika Animation Studio in Portland, OR, animators from all around the world are molding, painting, scraping, welding and trimming bits and pieces of this and that together to create a complete universe for Coraline and her friends. And then once the sets are dressed, the characters placed, the expressions tweaked, the animators light and shoot it. On a good day, a week of work produces a few seconds of film. To get a sense of what all this hard work looks like, check out David Strick’s “Hollywood Backlot” where he provides a slide show tour of the Coraline set.

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Burn After Reading Number One

Posted September 15, 2008

Brad Pitt in <em>Burn After Reading</em>

Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading

The Coen Brothers’ new film Burn After Reading broke records across the board this weekend. Not only did it come in number one at the box office with a $19.4 million haul, but the spy comedy marked personal bests for Focus Features and the Coen Brothers. This was the highest opening weekend for the Coen Brothers, who last year won four Oscars for their drama No Country for Old Men. Indeed “Burn After Reading,” came in $7 million ahead of their previous biggest opening film, The Ladykillers. With a stellar ensemble cast including Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and John Malkovich, Burn After Reading captured the public’s imagination as well as tickling its funny bone. The head of Focus distribution Jack Foley told Variety, "I can’t say enough about this weekend. It really broke the doldrums, and it was great to lead the pack. It was our biggest opening ever, and for the Coens. I don’t think we’ve ever had a No. 1 picture before."

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Toronto Day Five

Posted September 10, 2008

Mondays at film festivals always feel like a Carpenters’ song. The weekend guests have gone home for the weekend. The tabloid photographers up here to catch a snap of Burn After Reading’s Brad Pitt have moved on to greener photographic pastures. The entourages have exited. And by Monday journalists have started to sum up the festival. Owen Gleiberman at Entertainment Weekly announces: “It's official: The Toronto Film Festival and the Academy Awards have broken up. Or, at least, they're engaging in a trial separation. From this critic's perspective, that's a good thing.” EW’s verdict was confirmed by many other festival veterans, although not always with the same conclusion. Most critics have pointed out that distributors seem to be keeping their Oscar bait out of Toronto, but not all have seen the silver lining – the return of Toronto as a cinephile festival. For myself, that is what makes Toronto so great––the eclectic surprises, the unheard of directors, the disastrous bombs.

Il Divo

Il Divo

Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo chronicles the rise of Giulio Andreotti, the unlikely politician who withstood seven different governments from 1946 and made the Christian Democratics the ruling party of Italian politics. Veteran actor Toni Servillo delivers an transformative performance, creating the man as an imploded figure of power. Servillo uses Andreotti’s serious physical disability to create a figured coiled stiffly up into himself, moving slowly, but definitively, pulling all power like a black hole deep in himself. Riding the waves of history, from the rocky 60s, the terror of the Red Brigade and the murder of the kidnapped Aldo Moro (a death that haunts Andreotti), the reactionary 90s, even his arrests, convictions, releases for Mafia connections, Andreotti’s blank face and hunched physique seem as eternal as the city he loves.

A very different biography comes in Nick Oceano’s Pedro, the biopic of Pedro Zamora, the Cuban-born, gay, AIDS activist who won the hearts of many when he appeared on the second season of MTV’s “The Real World.” Produced by filmmakers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, and written by Dustin Lance Black (who also penned the upcoming Focus Feature Milk), Pedro is an intimate biography of a man that all of America was made to believe they were intimate with. Indeed there is something odd of a fictional biopic about a character from the real world. “The Real World,” which did more to redefine the meaning of “real” since French psychoanalysis, purported to show us the truth in a highly fictionalized way; now fiction must be called on to show us the real truth. But the real power of the film, especially for those who remember the first Pedro, comes at the end, when we realize that despite the fact that Pedro Zamora died so long ago, the AIDS crisis is still very much with us.

Valentino: The Last Emperor

Valentino: The Last Emperor

Strangely somewhere between Pedro and Il Divo comes Matt Tyrnauer’s Valentino: The Last Emperor, the documentary about the gay Italian fashion giant who for over 45 years only needed one name. Like many of the recent fashion bios––David Teboul ‘s Yves Saint Laurent: 5, Avenue Marceau, 75116 Paris, Robert Guerra and Eila Hershon’s Chanel Chanel, or Douglas Keeve’s Unzipped––the documentary is equal parts biography, fashion lesson, satire, and panegyric. Interestingly, Valentino: The Last Emperor is as much about Giancarlo Giammetti, Valentino’s lover, business partner, and constant shadow, as it is about the designer. The film is also strangely a monster movie. Towards the end we realize that an entire industry, a cultural history, and the legacy of fashion designer are about to be devoured whole by a massive corporation. As such, even as the film exalts Valentino it eulogizes the death of Couture.

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Toronto Day Four

Posted September 09, 2008

Every Little Step

Every Little Step

One of my favorite things is to ride the elevators of the fancier hotels--The Four Seasons, Hotel Intercontinental, or Park Hyatt--if just to eavesdrop on the conversations. Any number of young, handsome men poured tightly into immaculate black Prada suits whisper the names that will roll by on the credits of the films I'll see this week. It is not so much the gossip I love--although I love good festival dish--as feeling the vast subterranean economic engine that hums just beneath a festival like this. Every now and then, in an elevator or in a hotel hallway, or getting into a taxi, one sees evidence of the army of corporate, regional and personal publicists, agents and managers, acquisition and production executives, party and event planners, marketing teams, etc. The massive and covert operations that are attached to the festival produce in many--or at least in me--a sense of awe and anxiety, a fear that there is always something more interesting, important and influential happening somewhere else. All of this baggage, while necessary, makes the simple creative pleasure of just putting on a show seem downright naïve.

But two very different films here pay tribute to the pains and pleasures of performance. James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo documentary Every Little Step chronicles the casting process behind restaging the 2006 revival of A Chorus Line, a musical about casting a musical. The original musical came from chorographer/director Michael Bennett who in the early 70s gathered 20 or so dancers in a room with a big jug of red wine and a reel-to-reel tape recorder and asked them to talk about themselves. Even then he knew the show would be called A Chorus Line, and it would be work-shopped from the real stories and people around him. The documentary, which follows the men and women trying out of the revival, not only know the musical, they all feel it is in some ways their own story. The film falls into that noble tradition of documentaries covering the theatrical process, most notably Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker 1997 Moon Over Broadway. The weird meta quality of the characters trying out for characters whose stories could be their own makes the pain and pleasures of the performers auditioning all the more poignant. One of the most remarkable moments comes not from a character who has hung in there month after month, call back after call back, but from a single audition for the role of Paul, the kid in A Chorus Line who relates how his family found him doing drag at the Jewel Box Revue one night. After auditioning hundreds of possible Pauls, the producers are introduced to a kid who delivers a performance that makes the search for Paul no longer unnecessary. It is like watching magic on stage, suddenly out of nowhere, exactly the right actor.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Kevin Smith also remembers the pure joy of putting on a show in his comedy Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Best friends and fellow slackers Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks have fallen on hard times with no clue how to come up with the money to pay not only the rent, but also the water, electrical and heat that has been turned off. The answer comes to them at their high school reunion when Banks' high school crush, Bobby Long (Brandon Routh of Superman) shows up with his boyfriend (Justin Long), both of whom are superstars of the gay porn world. Eventually they decide they too can make tons of money by having sex with strangers and getting others to do the same thing in front of camera. Utterly filthy and deeply endearing, Porno turns into both a traditional love story and stirring anthem to the ennobling effect of creativity. The rag-tag team of mall rats that Zack and Miri gather to be their cast and crew find that the pleasure of performance gives them a self-worth they had never known. As well as finding a porn talent within they never knew they had.

Three Blind Mice

Three Blind Mice

Once you start thinking of performance and theatricality, you began to see it in every character and every film. The complicated role of an informant pretending to be something to his friends and families other than what he is. Kari Skogland's Fifty Dead Men Walking recalls the true-life story of Martin McGartland (Jim Sturgess), a small-time con man recruited by British intelligence to learn about bombs and assassinations of the IRA before they happen. It was a performance of truly life-altering proportions. And then there is the performance of deceit, as in Adrian Sitaru's Hooked, the Romanian Dogma-styled drama of a couple having an affair who accidentally hit a street prostitute on a country road. Thinking she is dead, the couple tries to dump the body in the woods when their supposedly dead girl suddenly wakes up. What to do? Deliver an inept performance as a happy couple on a picnic who have just found the body. And in the traditional of sailors on leave--think On the Town meets The Last Detail--there is the costumed and institutional performance of the military man. Australian talent Matthew Newton (who also wrote and stars the film) dramatizes the one night misadventures of three sailors on the eve of being shipped off to Iraq in Three Blind Mice. This is a theatrical tour de force as two of the sailors take off to find the third whom they fear is deserting. Of course, as the night slowly turns into dawn, the real story, and the characters behind it, turn out to be completely different than what you expect. And once again, while costumes can help actors find characters, the uniform does not make the man.

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