Saturday, August 20, 2011

Still Waters Run Deep

The Future                                                                         

     Understated in its brilliance, The Future is a touching and imaginative exploration of the human condition in an era of diminished expectations. 
     This is the second feature film written and directed by Miranda July.  Her first film,  Me and You and Everyone We Know, swept multiple film festival audience favorite awards in 2005.  By her own admission she is a performance artist and short story writer first, and those artistic sensibilities give The Future its unique perspective. 
     As the story opens, Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) are a 30-something couple who have lived together for some time and are beginning to realize that their lives have not reached the pinnacle of career and financial success where they imagined they would be.  They decide to push the issue by quitting their nowhere jobs, turning off the Internet and adopting a stray cat.  This is not just any cat.  Paw Paw, as they call him, is in poor condition and may not live even six months.  On the other hand, with a little loving care, he can live another five years, the vet tells them.  When the couple arrives to pick him up, they are told that he needs to remain in the vet's care for 30 more days before he will be ready to go home with them. 
     The wait turns into a period of anxiety, particularly for Sophie, as the couple is left with another 30 days to contemplate what their life will be like when they bring Paw Paw home and what the future will hold for them all.  As Jason searches for a fulfilling new job, Sophie begins to worry that she is living the wrong life and seeks escape through an affair with a successful, older man.  She moves out of the simple apartment she shares with Jason and into the beautiful suburban home of new paramour, Marshall (David Warshofsky), as Jason faces the terrifying prospect of life without Sophie. 
     Interludes of fantasy provide insight into the inner conflict taking place within both Sophie and Jason.  The film is narrated by Paw Paw (the voice of July), as the cat impatiently awaits his imagined better future with the adopting couple.  When Sophie moves in with Marshall, Shirtie, a security blanket of sorts that Sophie has carried with her since childhood, follows her under its own power to her new home, despite everything she does to leave it behind.  Jason seeks the wisdom of the Moon and has conversations with his celestial mentor that lead him to the realization of his own personal power. 

Miranda July

     I was surprised by just how much I love this film, and I realize that it is very likely to be on my top 10 list for 2011.  Why the surprise?  This is a low-budget film with no big stars.  Its principle actors, July and Linklater, are relatively soft-spoken and have none of the power screen presence one expects from leads in an exceptional film like this one, yet both are charismatic in a very understated way.  In an age of fast cuts, the scenes are long and contemplative, focusing on visual elements with very limited dialogue.  There is no real action, and even the break-up scene is low-key, without the shouting and clever insults that one finds in the typical Hollywood film.  Most movies of this type put me to sleep, but definitely not this one. 
     Like the proverbial deep lake, this film has an abundance of life below its serene surface.  This is a story created by someone who is obviously a keen observer of human nature and knows how to present it to audiences using a perspective that is fresh, touching and entertaining.  The dialogue is sparse and bereft of clever lines, yet it is exceptionally well-written, complementing the visuals and infused with subtext that speaks volumes without the need for long discourse.  In sum this film has the finished appearance of a project that resulted from considerable effort and attention to every detail.  It is truly a work of art and a fitting showcase for July's considerable talent. 
     Incidently July is also the wife of Mike Mills, who wrote and directed Beginners, another exceptional American independent film released this year.  The two met when they both debuted at Sundance in 2005.  With such incredible talent under one roof, it blows my mind to imagine what the conversations must be like in that household. 
     The Future is currently in theatrical release across the United States. 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Voice of the Innocent

The Man Who Will Come                                                 
L'uomo che verrĂ 

     Giorgio Diritti's cinematic masterpiece, The Man Who Will Come (L'uomo che verra), gives voice to the ordinary people who are the real victims of war.  It iis a dramatization of events leading to the Marzabotto massacre of World War II, during which 770 Italian civilians--mostly women, children and elderly--were executed by the Nazi SS
     In the winter of 1943, an Italian family in a rural area near Bologna struggles to endure the deprivation and injustice of a war forced on them by Italian fascists and their German allies.  8-year-old Martina (Greta Zuccheri Montanari) has refused to talk since the death of her infant brother a few years before, and now she eagerly anticipates the birth of a new sibling as family activity centers around her pregnant mother, Lena (Maya Sansa). 

Claudio Casadio & Maya Sansa

     As the war draws closer, life becomes increasingly difficult.  The occupying Germans, who were previously little more than a nuisance, are more and more nervous as the Allied forces draw closer and emboldened Italian partisans step up their attacks.  On a night in September 1944, Martina's baby brother is finally born, just as the SS unleashes a horrific reprisal against civilians they suspect are supporting the partisans. 
     Like City of Life and Death, The Man Who Will Come is a moving and powerful indictment of war that gives voice to the innocent people whose lives have been stolen by the political agendas of others.  In his director's statement, Diritti said that "representing through film the events of Marzabotto means keeping man's conscience alive and alert, and also educating present and future generations in order that in some future tomorrow another ideology does not deform the meaning of life by annihilating the human conscience."

Greta Zuccheri Montanari

    The child, Martina, is representative of the people who live on the land where war is fought.  She is an innocent who  loses her voice at the beginning of the conflict, and she will not regain it until those who wage war are gone.  Most of the story is seen through her eyes in an impressive performance by a child actor. Italian veterans Alba Rohrwacher and Claudio Casadio round out a fine cast. 
     The Man Who Will Come won three David di Donatello Awards (the Italian Oscar) in 2010, including Best Film.  As of this date it has not obtained USA distribution, so do reserve it on your Netflix queue. 
     To see a trailer for this film with English subtitles, please visit this link from the San Francisco International Film Festival

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Future is Now


     I have seen the future of American independent film and it's called Bellflower.  Evan Glodell's no-budget feature debut is a precursor of the new paradigm in indie filmmaking. 
     As Hollywood concentrates more and more on event films based on tried-and-true properties enhanced by 3-D digital effects and other sensory gimmicks, independently created and produced films are being knocked out of the cineplexes and into a shrinking number of art houses. Irrepressible indie filmmakers are seeking new ways to be seen and heard, leading the way in innovation through the use of streaming media, social media, crowd funding, and new breakthroughs yet to be seen.
     During our interview in May, filmmaker John Sayles predicted that indie films in the future will be made by "film bums," people who have the compelling drive to make film but do not have access to conventional sources of finance and distribution.  Their projects will be completed with the support of friends motivated entirely by passion, and their process will be fueled by ingenuity in place of the resources they lack the money to buy. 
     Broke-ass Evan Glodell is the poster child for this new generation of filmmaker.  His process for the creation of Bellflower took over 8 years from script to screen.  Instead of digital effects, the gadgets and props were invented and handmade by Glodell and crew, including the actual cameras used to film the project (see Coatwolf Model II), as well as the Medusa car and the flame-thrower.  It took Glodell 90 long days of trial and error to film Bellflower, something that would have taken an experienced filmmaker only 2-3 weeks to accomplish.  During the Q&A at the Los Angeles premiere, Glodell talked about the lack of funding that plagued the project, as well as the constant fear of being one technical glitch away from complete failure over the months and years that led up to completion of the project. 
     It was not even a foregone conclusion that he would spend the money to enter Sundance, but it was indeed fortunate that he rolled that dice, given the subsequent attention he received for Bellflower, instead of a possible alternate future in which nobody but those who were involved in the project would ever get to see the completed film. 

Jessie Wiseman & Evan Glodell

    During the opening minutes of Bellflower, I began to wonder why I actually paid to see the sold-out premiere screening at the Los Angeles Nuart.  The production quality was unexceptional, the story and shot choices appeared amateurish, and the part-scripted/ part-improved dialogue sounded like speeches in which all the "ums" and "ahs" had been left in.  I actually toyed with the idea of walking out of the film. 
     That would have been a huge mistake.  A few minutes more and you could not have pried me out of that seat with a crowbar. 
     Bellflower is the story of Woodrow (Glodell), a young man whose subsistence existence is made tolerable by a scheme hatched with best friend, Aiden (Tyler Dawson), to build a flame-throwing muscle car called the Medusa.  Inspired by The Road Warrior, they dream of a post-apocalyptic world in which the Medusa will give them the power to rule over the surviving minions of the desert. Woodrow imagines that he is the Humungus, the powerful leader of his desert tribe, a man who does as he pleases and answers to no one. 
     Then Woodrow meets Milly (Jessie Wiseman) and falls completely in love with her, but Milly has her own issues, and she warns Woodrow not to fall in love with her, because she is destined to break his heart.  Of course, Woodrow follows his heart and not his rational mind, and Milly does exactly what she warned him she would do, sending him into a downward spiral that wrecks both of their lives and the lives of those closest to them.  The romantic break-up escalates from emotional pain to violence, building to an inevitable cataclysmic conclusion. 

     When it comes right down to it, none of this film's technical flaws, amateurish values or quality issues amount to anything in light of its compelling storyline.  The emotional power comes from Glodell's own devastating romantic break-up years ago, and writing the first draft of the script was his emotional catharsis.  His is the irrepressible voice of the indie filmmaker that appreciative audiences at Sundance and SXSW, and currently in theaters in Los Angeles and New York, are hearing loud and clear. 
     Glodell's story draws on the shared experience of young love and heartbreak, something most members of the audience understand intimately well.  They readily identify with Woodrow's heartbreak, pain and desire for vengeance, Milly's almost cold-hearted fear of intimacy, or the collateral damage they inflict on their best friends, Aiden and Courtney (Rebekah Brandes).  We all recognize the gap between the Humungus, the invincible being we desire to be, and the complex reality of emotional pain and anguish that really defines who we are.  The actors did a wonderful job of bringing that emotional angst alive in their characters. 
     There was no red carpet at the no-budget Los Angeles premiere.  In fact there was no carpet outside the theater at all, although it seemed that every member of the cast and crew was in attendance--dressed in Target and Ross street clothes instead of expensive designer creations.  There was no security in evidence--certainly not the off-duty police or highly-trained men-in-black one often sees at red carpet premieres. 
     I was pleasantly surprised to find my old friend, Emily Lu, present as the Bellflower publicist.  She is now part of Brigade Marketing, a recently formed Hollywood public relations and marketing firm with the ambitious mission to pioneer new film marketing models for the digital age. 
     As film goers from the Nuart poured out of the theater following the Q&A at the film's conclusion, Glodell pulled the Medusa car up front for a full-on demonstration of the car's working flame-thrower for the enthusiastic crowd.  As the Medusa belched flame high into the air on busy Santa Monica Blvd., I waited for what I thought would be the inevitable arrival of LA's finest to shut down the show and send everyone home.  They didn't appear while I was there. 

     The part of me that is a trained, professional risk manager was appalled by the apparently uncontrolled mob scene, including the spectacle of poor 5-foot-nothing Emily frantically pressing the crowd back onto the sidewalk, out of the busy street and away from the flame-belching car, with the help of a few good Samaritans who came to the rescue. 
     As I stood there at the front of the crowd, nearly choking on the fumes from burning fuel, I felt like a kid again.  I had the same big smile everyone else had at that moment.  It smelled like indie spirit.