Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: A Year of Controversy & Innovation

By Mark Dispenza & Zac Sanford

2011 was an exciting year for independent film, as filmmakers broke new ground, and the marketing and distribution model for the indie world began a seismic shift away from brick-and-mortar theaters and into downloadable formats that will ultimately make them more accessible to audiences worldwide.

Like the years before it, 2012 will begin with the first US screenings of exciting new films at venues like Palm Springs, Sundance and Santa Barbara.  We'll be wowed by the new work of the masters, and we'll feel the rush of excitement from being among the first to see groundbreaking new talent emerge onto the scene.

At the same time, there will be the usual rush of awards and retrospectives for the films that moved us in the previous year.  In that vein, Indie Film Guru is pleased to share with you our favorite films of 2011.  We don't claim that these were the best films, or that we even saw all of the most deserving foreign and American independent films, as there are now thousands of them.  Even among the most generous reviewers, so-called "best lists" are subjective, so we'll just call this what it is.

Here they are--the top five favorite films, by categories of American Independent and Foreign, of contributors Mark Dispenza and Zac Sanford from the year 2011:

AMERICAN INDEPENDENTS                                                                                 

Mark's Favorites

1.  The Descendants (Alexander Payne) - Like we said, it's about "love, loss and doing the right thing," and figuring out how to raise two independent girls as a single male parent.  George Clooney and Shailene Woodley shine as a father and daughter coming to terms with the loss of a wife and mother, and discovering, as she lay dying, who she really was in life.

2.  Beginners (Mike Mills) - A father at the end of his life, and a son who's afraid of living his, discover that it's never too late to open your heart to love in this funny and poignant story about wounded souls who learn to heal themselves.  Mills broke new ground with actor Ewan McGregor in bringing an introverted character to vibrant life.

3.  Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen) - It's been a long time since I listed a Woody Allen film in my top five and audiences apparently agree.  Midnight in Paris was Allen's highest-grossing film of all time and topped the box office for American indies in 2011.  Not as heavy on social commentary as Allen's more recent films, it was nonetheless a smart and delightful romantic romp through Paris the way we imagine it was and want it to be.

4.  Amigo (John Sayles) - Chances are you missed this latest gem from the master of American indie film, because Sayles practically carried the video from theater to theater himself in a case of distribution the hard way.   Get it on download.  Joel Torre delivers the goods as a head man fighting for the survival of his village, caught between clueless American occupiers and the guerrilla fighters who oppose them during the Philippine-American war.  The players may look different, but in every war they're the same.

5.  Win Win (Tom McCarthy) - In tough economic times an attorney (Paul Giamatti) makes some bad choices to get by, and ultimately has to own up to the unintended consequences his actions bring down on the people he loves most, especially the troubled and gifted teen his family takes in. This is truly a story for our times.

Zac's Favorites

1. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)  - Many will find this film oddly paced, too violent or tonally all over the place, but as a total package it works for me on each of those levels. From the opening chase in downtown LA to the relationship between Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan, and the violence that goes over the top, this is one of the few films of the year that has the rewatchable factor that so many films lack these days.

2. The Descendants (Alexander Payne) – In the hands of any other writer/director, The Descendants could have easily veered off into the land of melodrama. Payne, along with co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, walk the fine line of a father struggling to connect with his daughters as his wife lies in a coma following an accident. Not only must George Clooney deal with drastic life changes, but he also must confront the man who was sleeping with his wife, all the while trying to handle the extended family’s pending sale of ancestral land.

3. 50/50 (Jonathan Levine) – Based on the real life experience of screenwriter Will Reiser50/50 delivers a wonderful balance of comedy and drama as Joseph Gordon-Levitt deals with his cancer diagnosis. While most twenty-somethings are concerned with the beginnings of a career, starting a family and looking forward to many years still to be, Adam must deal with the fifty-fifty shot he’s given at surviving into the next year.

4. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick) – Melancholia and The Tree of Life are probably two of the most polarizing films of the year within the film community. While Melancholia bored me to tears, and I didn’t care one iota about the outcome for the characters, The Tree of Life gave me the exact opposite
reaction. I was transfixed by the opening shots, the voiceover delivered in a melancholic whisper, the breathtaking “creation” segment (yes, even with the dinosaurs), to the ending. Did I understand it all? No, but I will give the film a second look to grasp the deeper message that Malick was trying to deliver.

5. Like Crazy (Drake Doremus) – Coming-of-age stories are a dime a dozen, but the characters, their actions and the voyeuristic feel of the direction made this film stand above any of the genre's predecessors from this year.  Doremus’ first film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, and its star, Felicity Jones, was honored with the Grand Prize Award for Acting in her star-making performance.


Mark's Favorites

1.  Attack the Block (UK, Joe Cornish) - Teens in the hood battle invading alien monsters in this funny, scary and downright excellent cross-genre mash-up. You're starting to see this film on a lot of critics' best lists for 2011, and you're probably wondering how you missed it.  This was another case of a small-budget film getting lost amid the big buck promotional extravagances of Hollywood's summer offensive, but it's destined to become a classic in its second life on DVD and download.  Be the first on your block to get a piece of the action.  Believe!

2.  The Artist (France/Belgium, Michel Hazanavicius) - Silence has never been so golden in this wonderfully entertaining tribute to the bygone era of Hollywood before talkies, and a timely story about a once successful man facing career obsolescence and economic ruin.  Trust me on this.  Even if you hate reading subtitles, you'll love this film.  There's a reason you're hearing a lot more about it as awards season gets underway.

3.  Melancholia (Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany, Lars von Trier)  - A triumph of the surreal that must be seen on the big screen to gain a full appreciation of its beauty, Melancholia was arguably the most polarizing film of 2011.  Since its debut at Cannes, filmgoers have been divided into two groups--one that loves Melancholia and the other that loves The Tree of Life--and never the twain shall meet.  See Zac's list if you doubt.

4.  Submarine (UK, Richard Ayoade) - An amusing coming-of-age story about a teen's first love, Submarine is really an adult film about the challenge of sustaining love over the long haul and in trying times.  You'll laugh.  You'll see yourself in it... and that's really the point of it.

5.  Tyrannosaur (UK, Paddy Considine) - This directorial debut by an accomplished British actor is a raw and unflinching look at a social problem that defies boundaries.  Peter Mullan and Olivia Colman turn in riveting performances as a violent and self-destructive man who gets an unexpected chance at redemption from a woman battling her own demons.  Note the word "raw." This is not a film for the squeamish.

Zac's Favorites

1. We Need to Talk About Kevin (UK, Lynne Ramsay) – Ramsay’s first film in nine years, an adaptation of a novel by the same name, is sure to have its fans and detractors. In an award-worthy performance, Tilda Swinton deals with emotional struggle after her son goes on a wild killing spree at the local high school. But it is Ramsey’s use of non-linear storytelling and expertly paced directing that makes this one of the top films of the year.

2. Attack the Block (UK, Joe Cornish) – Attack the Block doesn’t follow the Hollywood mantra of taking the first ten to fifteen minutes to set up the characters before anything happens. From the beginning our characters are thrown into the storm of an alien invasion. Instead of running away, they decide to protect their block by any and all means necessary. The stakes are constantly ramping up, no character is safe, and we learn the back-story of each of the characters as the film moves along.  And these aren’t your normal aliens, but black-haired beasts with blue, glowing teeth. Attack the Block is a fun ride from beginning to end, even if you can’t understand the British teen slang thrown around by the boys from the block.

3. The Artist (France/Belgium, Michel Hazanavicius) – In the day and age of explosions, fast-paced action and quick cuts in the editing, it was a breath of fresh air to be taken back to the golden age of cinema. Hazanavicius’ love letter to film deals with the major shift in the industry when the talkies first gained traction, sending many of the famous silent stars to the unemployment line. Even without the use of dialogue, the stars of the film are able to radiate and hold the audience’s attention from beginning to end, and the score swells and dips in all the right places.

4. Submarine (UK, Richard Ayoade) – If I had to put my foreign films and indie films on the same list, Submarine would end up higher than Like Crazy.  While Like Crazy covers the post-adolescent years of love, Submarine delves into what most would consider the more simple times of high school. Ayoade’s coming-of-age dramedy puts Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) in that awkward stage between being a child and becoming an adult. He covers a perfect range of optimism, mixed with the angst-filled snark, every teenager goes through.

5. I Saw the Devil (South Korea, directed by Jee-woon Kim/written by Hoon-jung Park) – A cat and mouse film that sends a secret agent on the trail of a serial killer after his wife becomes the latest victim.  Kim’s Korean revenge film allows his main character to walk the fine line between good and evil, as he inflicts pain upon the man who killed his wife, only to let him go free until the next round of revenge is unleashed. Just like Dexter, the moral question of what is right and wrong should create much debate among those who watch it.

That's a wrap for 2011!  

We at Indie Film Guru wish you much happiness and joy in 2012 
and a very indie new year.  

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Margin Call

Now on DVD:                                                                                                                         
As Wall Street's Universe Collapses      
by Lisa Pease

What would you do if you had knowledge of imminent catastrophe and no power to stop it? That was the question that inspired the new film Margin Call from writer/director J.C. Chandor.

Based on the financial crisis of 2008, the film is a tightly paced, highly suspenseful look at the first 36 hours of a meltdown from the viewpoint of a few key people in a Lehman Brothers-like investment firm. The damage has already been done, and there’s no way to reverse it. The characters are faced with Hobsian choices that leave little room for moral concerns.

Indeed, that’s the fascination with the film. While some have decried it, claiming that it makes the Wall Street crooks who stole our money sympathetic characters, that’s not what I saw at all. I had no sympathy for any of them, but I found them fascinating, nonetheless.

Here are a group of people who have uncritically bought into a way of life destined for failure, and suddenly that failure is upon them. How will they deal? What will they do? What can they do?

During the course of the escalating-by-the-minute meltdown, each character finds out, in his or her own way, what they are — and are not — made of.

The story opens with the layoffs of a large number of people in the firm. It’s a scene that unnervingly takes us all back to those first few weeks after the financial crisis.  When Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a 19-year veteran of the firm, is cut (with a paltry six-month’s severance for his 19 years), he leaves a warning and a thumb drive of data with one of his junior associates and warns him to “be careful.”

Something is terribly wrong, and Eric hasn’t quite figured it out yet.

Zachary Quinto

His bright younger associate Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) pulls up the model, tweaks a few numbers, and suddenly sees the future is already here, and it looks bad from every angle. One by one, superiors are brought in to deal with the crisis, played by actors Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, Simon Baker, and ultimately Jeremy Irons.

You know these people. You’ve worked with some of them. In a few broad strokes, you see the uptight manager, the handsome if shallow braniac, the quiet genius, the get-by-on-his-charm kid, the company man, the disconnected man at the top who readily admits he didn’t get there because of his brains, and more. That the characters seem so specific despite the lack of background data in the script is a tribute to the talents of a brilliant cast.

Jeremy Irons

I think we all want to better understand what happened. How could the system get so broken so quickly? In that sense, the movie offers little direct information. This is not history or documentary.

What this is, however, is sheer drama. I truly felt glued to the screen. My thoughts never wandered, a rarity in the movie theater these days. I really wanted to know, at every second, what would happen next. Of course, we all know what happens, eventually. But watching these people in the moment was incredibly compelling.

Kevin Spacey

Kevin Spacey is particularly interesting as Sam Rogers, the head of the trading group that is going to have to do the most to deal with the coming crisis. He’s torn by the results of past choices that leave him only two choices--both wrong. We learn over the course of the film just how much his devotion has cost him.

After viewing the film, I was reminded of Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, in which he demonstrates that short-term thinking and, particularly, cultures in which the elite separate themselves too far from the working class, lead inevitably to disaster and collapse of any given society.

The real issue is not how to deal with crises as they arise, but to see them coming and change course early enough to entirely avert them. When the elite are more closely tied to the workers, they feel the pain sooner and make appropriate course corrections. The further the elite get from the workers, the more insulated they are, preventing them from seeing genuine problems until it’s too late to solve them.

Margin Call reminds of the importance of our decisions in a given moment and to look a little further down the road to the long term.

Margin Call is now available on DVD and VOD.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel

The “King of B’s” Gets the A-List Treatment
by Zac Sanford

After over sixty years and almost four hundred films, Roger Corman may be one of the most influential filmmakers to grace the silver screen. But it isn’t necessarily his own films that have given him the title. Nor is it the honorary Oscar bestowed upon him in 2009 by the Academy. Instead, it is the countless filmmakers and stars that he has had a hand in influencing over his long career.

In Alex Stapleton’s documentary, Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, the filmmaker’s prolific career is remembered by those who he helped give their first big break in Tinsletown. Martin Scorsese waxes poetic about Boxcar Bertha from his state of the art screening room. Ron Howard recounts his experiences with Grand Theft Auto while taking a casual stroll. Peter Bogdanovich, who got his start in Corman’s exploitation films The Wild Angels and The Trip, claims the filmmaker was always ahead of the curve. But it is the intimate interview with Jack Nicholson, hired by Roger when no one else would cast him, that shows the most heart, even bringing the A-list actor to tears.

While many of these filmmakers and actors went on to bigger, and many would say better projects over the years, one must wonder why Roger never achieved the critical acclaim of his peers. The film touches on the subject of his passion for film, and one of the most ambitious projects of his career, The Intruder. Shot in 1962 and starring a young William Shatner, The Intruder dealt with the racial tensions of the South at the beginning of desegregation in the school system. But the film was a failure at the box office, and one of the only films Roger claims to have ever lost money on in his long-standing career. If it had been a success, who knows what trajectory Corman’s career would have taken, but he quickly settled back into his B-film shtick.

Through Roger’s career, the many shifts and changes of the industry are well documented. From the campy sci-fi films of the 50s, to the exploitation flicks of the 60s and 70s, followed by the summer blockbuster taking over the multiplex in the late 70s and early 80s, Roger found a way to succeed and persevere. When filmmakers like Antonioni and Fellini could no longer find American distributors, Corman’s New World Pictures stepped in to give them domestic distribution.

The quality of his films may have never given him the respect he deserves, but those who were influenced by his indie sensibilities have entertained us many times over. Those who currently work with Roger on his latest SyFy opus may end up becoming the next Scorsese or De Niro, so I plead to you Mr. Corman, never stop making films.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

My Week with Marilyn

The Other Side of Marilyn                     
by Zac Sanford

Michelle Williams seamlessly slips into the role of former sex-symbol Marilyn Monroe with ease and comfort. It is a natural and layered performance.  One can sit back and forget that they are watching an actor play a part, but instead Marilyn brought back to life from the past. Williams covers a huge emotional plane, from bright-eyed and focused to insecure and co-dependent, shifting on a dime.

While Williams is great as Marilyn, this isn’t just her story. Partially over-shadowed is a coming-of-age story about a boy, his first job and his first love. Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) is the “My” referred to in the title, and the film is loosely based on his two memoirs about his time working on the production of The Prince and the Showgirl. As luck would have it, Colin’s family was friends with Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and his current wife, Vivien Leigh (Julie Ormond). Sir Olivier hires the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Clark to work as his third director’s assistant, or in other words, a glorified errand boy.

Before the first frame is shot, Olivier is at war with Ms. Monroe. During a table read, Marilyn is unsure of her motivation and can’t find the truth of her character. Instead of taking advice from the director, she confides in her sole confidant, Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), the wife of the late acting guru Lee Strasberg. The two have opposing views on how to get to the truth and Laurence doesn’t like having a second director on the set.

Once the film starts rolling, it isn’t Marilyn’s own ego that further alienates her from the director and some of the cast and crew, but her insecurity in her ability to deliver a great performance. She is constantly late to set and flubbing lines. But when she’s on, she shines. She radiates on screen, showing the modern day audience why she’s been able to stand the test of time.

During production of The Prince and the Showgirl, Marilyn was accompanied by her third husband, the playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott). While they’ve only been married a short time, the honeymoon phase is already over, which sends Miller high-tailing it back to the States to be with his kids. He professes in his writing that he can’t stand the constant mood shifts perpetuated by her cocktail of prescription pills and insecurity. He, like many other men of the time, was in love with the idea of Marilyn, not who she was below the surface.

Alone and deeply insecure, Marilyn confides in Colin. He becomes her one true ally as they spend a week together away from the set and any obligations. Colin’s puppy-dog love for her is apparent from the beginning, but he’s forewarned to keep his feelings at bay. Marilyn knows she will end up hurting him like so many other men in her past. During this week we find out who Marilyn really is, what makes her tick and a little of what makes her aim for perfection. During a rendezvous out on the town, she sees some adoring fans and asks “should I be her,” before turning on the charm of Marilyn and posing for pictures in a typical Monroe pose.

While the week is short, the film opens up the audience to a side many have never seen. While most biopics are bogged down by an over-encompassing look from birth to death, the shortened window into the star’s life is refreshing. Williams shines above the rest of the cast in her portrayal of the title character, but she isn’t alone. Branagh is great, even if he does jump into a caricature at times in the film. The rest of the cast is filled with notable British actors Judi Dench, Toby Jones and Emma Watson.


The Beast Within                                  
by Mark Dispenza

The terrible consequences of uncontrolled rage and abuse are presented in vivid detail in Tyrannosaur, British actor Paddy Considine's debut feature as writer-director.

Not since Lee Tomahori's brilliant depiction of domestic violence within New Zealand's Maori community in Once Were Warriors has a film so effectively captured the complex emotional interplay of perpetrator and victim that is a universal human experience transcendent of culture.  This is an impressive debut behind the camera for an actor who has achieved considerable international acclaim for his roles in films such as In America, Cinderella Man and The Bourne Ultimatum.

Actor Peter Mullan captures both the horror and the humanity of Joseph, a self-destructive man prone to outbursts of cruelty and violence.  On the run following an altercation in a bar, during which he severely beats a young man, Joseph ducks into a Christian charity shop managed by Hannah, played by Olivia Colman.

Despite his obvious ferocity, Hannah reaches out to Joseph and offers to help him.  In typical fashion Joseph cruelly rebuffs her, but later he finds himself drawn to her and returns.  Perhaps it's her apparent lack of fear despite her own vulnerability, or perhaps it's her simple act of kindness that draws him.  But soon enough it's revealed that there is another dynamic in play here.

Olivia Colman and Peter Mullan

Hannah lives in terror of returning home every evening to her abusive husband, James (Eddie Marsan).  As her meetings with Joseph become more frequent, Hannah is unable to hide the scars and black eyes James inflicts on her.  Her encounter with Joseph was fortuitous, as both of them have reached rock bottom and resolved to conquer their demons.  As they draw ever closer, they discover that there is no greater tormentor than the one that lies within themselves.  

Be warned that this is not an easy film to watch, as its depiction of cruelty and violence is raw and unflinching.  In the first minute of the film, Joseph beats to death his faithful dog for the simple act of barking too loudly.  One may grow to sympathize with Joseph and root for him to find salvation with Hannah, but the film never allows us to forget the terrible cruelty he has inflicted on others, and hints at even worse atrocities in his past, particularly those against his beloved and now deceased wife.  

Ultimately this is a story about the trans-formative power of love and its ability to tame even the most terrible of beasts.  

Tyrannosaur won a World Cinema Directing Award for Considine at Sundance and Special Jury Prizes for actors Mullan and Colman.  It went into limited release in the USA on November 20.