Saturday, March 31, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Hope is a Powerful Thing                     
by Mark Dispenza

The line between vision and insanity can be a fine one, as Dr. Alfred Jones, a drab government fisheries expert played by Ewan McGregor, discovers in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

When Dr. Jones first receives a call from Harriet (Emily Blunt), he believes her client's idea to build a dam and introduce fly-fishing to the arid country of Yemen to be totally absurd, and he informs her of that in the most direct manner possible.  Harriet's client, Sheik Muhammed (Amr Waked), has become enamored of fishing for salmon in the streams that border his estate in the UK.  He dreams of introducing the cold water fish to his home in the desert by constructing an elaborate waterworks and shipping 10,000 salmon there to spawn.

Despite his better judgement, Dr. Jones is compelled to cooperate when the UK Prime Minister's office, desperate for a feel-good story from the Middle East to counteract war news from Afghanistan and Iraq, hears of the plan and decides the project is the positive diversion they're looking for.  Kristen Scott Thomas is priceless as the Prime Minister's press secretary, who has yet to encounter a situation she can't spin to the Prime Minister's advantage.  Thomas plays her part as a caricature of the typical government press secretary and shines in the role, earning most of the laughs in the film.

Kristin Scott Thomas

I will classify this film as "light comedy," although honestly, it often seemed as if the filmmakers couldn't decide if they wanted to go for the laugh or go for the cry, and most of the scenes carry one or the other of those tones.  The end result is cathartic, which is what most great dramatic stories aspire to be.  The bottom line is that it somehow all works and winds up as a very entertaining story.

Part of the credit goes to the outstanding cast.  McGregor's understated humor works well against Blunt's emotional energy, and the two of them have great on-screen chemistry.  Waked's stately dignity and optimism smooths over the rough edges, and Thomas is a force unto herself.

Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was directed by Lasse Hallstrom, who was Oscar-nominated for Chocolat and whose other credits include What's Eating Gilbert Grape and The Cider House Rules.  The screenplay was written by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) from the novel by Paul Torday.

The story is about the power of hope and vision in the most dire of circumstances.  Dr. Jones will discover that Sheik Muhammed is not so mad after all, and his crazy project is part of an even greater plan.  It will also also inspire him to leave his own mediocre life behind and reach for something better and a whole lot more satisfying in life and in love.

Sometimes vision comes in a moment of inspiration, and sometimes you have to go look for it.

Saturday, March 24, 2012


A Battle of Blood                                

by Zac Sanford

A battle of wits and egos brew as two professors, both from the Hebrew University, struggle for acclaim and recognition for their years of work and passion in the realm of the Talmud.

Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba) has made it his life's work to find the differences within the Talmud, as they've been translated and passed down between the generations. He locks himself away for hours on end, headphones on to block out the world, and digs in deep. This isn't just an everyday hobby for him.  The lonesome curmudgeon spent thirty years researching, planting his stake within the academic world as the greatest researcher of the Talmud. The problem is, shortly before his work was to be published, Professor Grossman (Micah Lewensohn) published the same findings, taking away a decade's worth of work and acclaim. On top of it all, Grossman was honored with the Israel Prize for his work, leaving Eliezer with only a small footnote from his mentor.

But that wasn't the worst day of his life. That day came when his son, Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi), was granted entry into the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. Deep within his soul you can feel the bitterness and the rivalry that has been brewing for years. Eliezer takes his studies seriously, while his son has become a bit of a pop-culture icon within the Talmudic research circles. He's charismatic, boisterous and knows a thing or two about the subject. They are polarizing in every aspect of their lives--the way they research, how they present their findings, and how they both receive the accolades bestowed upon them. It is only the Talmud and their blood that they have in common, or so writer-director Joseph Cedar would like you to believe.

When the tides turn and Eliezer is notified that he's been awarded this year's Israel Prize, the bitter resentment of being overlooked for years quickly vanishes. There is only one issue.  The call was made in error. It wasn't meant for the elder Professor, but instead for the heavily lauded son. Uriel begs Grossman and the rest of the nominating committee to rethink their nomination, as it would break his father's heart.

The film spirals into a world of bitter rivalries and egos in academia. The constant struggle between father and son isn't only between the two professors, but Uriel feels his own son is struggling to secure his own destiny by wasting away in front of the television. The amount of Eliezer that shines through Uriel is subtle at times, but in the end, will he be just like his father?

It would be easy for Footnote to fall into heavy levels of dramatic tension. Cedar is able to break the deep levels of emotion with a smattering of comical elements that don't feel out of place. Neither does the constant shift of storytelling devices, including the narrator or the juxtaposed titles on screen that break the film up into several different chapters.

Footnote won the award for the best screenplay at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and was recently nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2012 Oscars.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

South by Southwest Film Festival

On the Edge at SXSW                        
by Mark Dispenza

There were years of anticipation, and when the moment finally came, I saw stars.  It was adventurous, exciting and just a little disappointing.  It was over too soon and left me wanting more.  I'll never forget my first time.  Yes, it's true.  Indie Film Guru is no longer a SXSW virgin.

The City of Austin, Texas, closes out every winter with a massive downtown party billed as the most cutting edge indie film, interactive and music festival in the world.  After my experience there this past week, I can assure you they do not make that boast lightly.

The crowd at SXSW skews considerably younger than the audience you'll find at most other festivals, and I have no doubt that is how they get away with screening films that straddle the fine line of what might be considered humorous, sexy, important or even tasteful at other festivals.  Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it falls below the line.  Even so, there's something to be said for the democratic fearlessness of SXSW programmers.  Without them, would US audiences have been introduced to such amazing gems as Attack the Block, one of my favorite films of 2011?

ATB was included in the line-up of midnight movies that most often jockey for the B-movie label with loads of gore, revenge killing, geek tech, college boy humor and sex.  Four of the "Midnighters"  from this year's festival have already landed US distributors, including the bloody revenge movies, Girls Against Boys and The Aggression Scale, Intruders, and Iron Sky, the unlikely tale of Nazis returning to attack Earth after 75 years hiding out on the Moon.

There's lots to love about SXSW besides its indomitable indie film and music spirit.  If you're a filmmaker looking to be the first to incorporate new technology to enhance the narrative of your movie, there's no better place to learn about it than SXSW.  Technology developers and marketers mix with filmmakers on the panels.  This year I learned about HTML5, a new technology that will render the most modern documentary techniques obsolete within 3-5 years.  It's being compared to the introduction of the montage to film nearly a century ago, a technique that enabled stories to speed up the narrative by transcending the restrictions of real time.

Prepare to be amazed and this is just the rough beginning.  Here are some early stage HTML5 interactive demos:

     *  Enter your home address and watch it become part of The Wilderness Downtown music video.

     *  The One Millionth Tower interactive film project

With over 200 films to choose from, I don't claim to have seen all of the best of SXSW, but here are a few of my favorites from the US premieres at SXSW 2012...

Killer Joe:  Imagine that the Cohen brothers got together with Quentin Tarantino and Elmore Leonard one night, got roaring drunk, and decided to write the craziest and most outrageous screenplay they could possibly imagine, and then submit it to their agents solely as a joke.  But the laugh's on them.  When they sober up the next morning, each is told by an excited agent that their screenplay has already sold and been greenlit.  If you can imagine that, you can arrive at some remote idea of what Killer Joe is like.  Billed as a sick and twisted Texas trailer park murder mystery, it's a case of truth in advertising.  From the sick and twisted minds of writer Tracy Letts and director William Friedkin, this film is irreverent and highly entertaining.  

Thale:  I bypassed that other, more hyped cabin in the woods thriller, Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon's The Cabin in the Woods, to see this Norwegian film, and I believe I made the right choice.  After the body of a long dead old man is found in a remote cabin, two men are left behind to clean up the mess.  They discover a secret underground bunker and a very weird young woman who can't speak.  One of them finds a large, amputated tail stored in a refrigerator and comes to believe it belongs to the strange resident.  Based on tapes and lab notes left behind by the old man, they begin to suspect that she is a huldra, a forest creature of Norwegian mythology.  As they try to solve her mystery, someone or something that terrifies the young woman tries to break in and all three find themselves under siege.  A clever story is enhanced by wonderful actors and a character-driven script.  

Black Pond:  A rather boring and ordinary English family suddenly find themselves at the center of a tabloid frenzy after it was discovered that they quietly buried a man who had been a guest in their home without notifying authorities.  This dark comedy explores themes of longing and alienation in an irreverent, touching and comedic style that will lead you to love its quirky characters in spite of their weirdness.  A first film completed on a shoestring budget, it was nominated for a BAFTA Award as an Outstanding Debut Film.  

Starlet: A ditzy young woman (Dree Hemingway) finds $10,000 in a thermos she buys at a garage sale and becomes curious about the former owner, an 85-year-old woman named Sadie.  The pair become unlikely friends, challenged by new revelations that unfold throughout the film.  This is a beautiful story about the complexity of human relationships, and how people go about getting what they need through their bonds with one another.  Besedka Johnson is brilliant as a first-time actress in the role of Sadie.  

King Kelly:  Writer-director Andrew Neel (Darkon) shot this film entirely by iPhone video, and the quality is more impressive than you probably imagine.  Kelly is a teen who earns money by stripping and masturbating for her loyal Internet followers.  After her ex-boyfriend repossesses his car from her, she finds herself and her best friend on an odyssey to track him down to retrieve the drugs she had stored for a dealer in the trunk. As the night goes on, things spiral out of control, until they reach an explosive conclusion that will destroy her life and the lives of everyone around her.  The audience laughter throughout the beginning of this film turned to gasps of horror by the end--an effective indictment of narcissistic youth in today's permissive environment.  

Silent House

A Single Shot of Terror                  

by Zac Sanford

The girl in peril story is told from a different point-of-view in Silent House.  

What's familiar is the twisted tale of terror about a girl who is alone, stuck and secluded, as some evil force tries to terrorize her. It isn't the story that is the gem within Silent House, but the way co-directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (the same team behind the indie thriller Open Water) tell it as a single take. While Hitchcock was limited to the length of film within a magazine, technology now allows the filmmakers to extend shots and find even more clever ways to hide those sneaky little edits.

From the beginning, Kentis and Lau show off their flare in a crane shot of Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) on the dock at a lake. From there the camera pans down and follows her to meet her father, John (Adam Trese), who has taken her to the old family house to spend the weekend cleaning it up and repairing it with her uncle, Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens), so they can sell it. The home is no longer useful, and instead of dealing with the non-stop problem of pests and squatters, why not put it up on the market.

After a brief encounter with her former friend, Sophie (Julia Taylor Ross), whom she doesn't even remember, Sarah is left with just her father as Peter drives off into town. Since the house is old, floors creak and other noises come from all different directions. The house is only lit by the lanterns and flashlights, as the power has long been shut off and the windows have been boarded up to keep out the undesirables.

As with all horror films, something happens and suddenly Sarah is separated from her father. The camera work is perfected by allowing you to travel along with her as she creeps around the house, trying to find him. But the tension builds and she senses she is no longer alone. She peaks around a corner, and as the camera goes with her, we are limited only to her viewpoint.

And since the family didn't want anyone getting in, claustrophobia builds as Sarah tries to find her way out of the house and to safety. Not since The Descent have I felt so much tension. The limited amount of light and tight spaces make the big screen feel so small.

Elizabeth Olsen is a star in the making. After her stint in the highly-praised Martha Marcy May Marlene in 2011, Silent House is another showcase for the young actress, who should easily step out of the shadow of her sisters. She must carefully tread through the house, first in a journey to find her father, then just as quickly she must shift gears and convey pure tension and terror without the use of dialogue. She must stay as quiet as possible to avoid detection by her pursuer, as her chest heaves with each labored, silent breath.

While the script is light on story, it is the performance and camera work that will keep the viewer on the edge of their seat. Most of the story is lightly layered throughout the film and only hinted at, leaving the viewer to make their own assumptions. The film loses some of its luster in the final five minutes as the filmmakers try to tie together all the subtle clues previously laid out to the viewers. The problem is, the twist that it tries to take has been seen before, and because of the single-shot conceit, some viewers may leave scratching their heads at what they just saw.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, March 2, 2012


The Soul of an Artist                             
by Mark Dispenza

Stunning visuals and a uniquely original approach to storytelling underscore Pina, an artistic triumph that is setting new standards in documentary filmmaking.

Shortlisted in the category of Best Documentary at the 2012 Oscars, Pina is a work of cinematic genius by prolific German writer/director Wim Wenders (Buena Vista Social Club, Wings of Desire). It began as a documentary about famed German modern dance choreographer, Pina Bausch, but became a tribute film when its subject unexpectedly died of cancer just as production was getting underway.

Currently in release in the USA, Pina is being screened in 3D, rare for documentaries about the arts but incredibly effective.  The film features elaborately choreographed dance performances staged in locales ranging from stage sets to stunning natural vistas and urban architecture.  Natural elements like earth and water were common in Bausch productions and added to the overall effect of her stagings, which often dealt with themes of loneliness and alienation.

The 3D effect is much more than a gimmick.  It brings the viewer so close to the dancers that you can see and feel their emotions and every intricacy of their movements.  It is a monumental achievement in establishing intimacy between artist and audience.

There is very little of Pina herself on the screen, and the film has been taken to task by critics, even those who loved it, for its paucity of tangible insight into the choreographer or her technique. I believe they missed the point.

Bausch was not a tyrannical genius who foisted her own sensibilities on the many accomplished dancers she worked with over the years.  Her true genius was in the way she facilitated the awakening of a dancer's own innate talent.  Throughout the film dancers spoke about how she challenged them with simple instructions that sounded more like riddles than teachings.  "Make me afraid," she tells one dancer before he takes the stage.

She didn't tell her dancers what to do.  She made them discover it for themselves--an awakening of one's own inner muse.  The lack of exposition is not a weakness of Wenders' film.  He shows us who she was by recreating her style as the narrative structure of his film.

Little known in this country outside the dance world, Bausch has been a powerful influence on artists in other mediums, including film.  Spanish director Pedro Almodovar credits her influence on All About My Mother and Talk to Her on the Sadler's Wells Theater tribute page to Bausch.  

The 3D version of this film is a must-see.  Don't miss it when it arrives soon in a theater near you.

"What are we longing for?  Where does all this yearning come from?"
- Pina Bausch, 1940-2009