March 31, 2009

Why Linklater's 1980 Will Totally Rule

[While I'm away at AFI Dallas for a panel, Vadim Rizov pinch-hits with a re-assessment of Richard Linklater's later career, or as I threatened to headline the piece: "Richard's Link-Latter Career." - AH]

dazed and confusedLast Friday, reported that at a benefit screening of Dazed And Confused, writer-director Richard Linklater said he was working on "a sort of spiritual sequel" to the film, using none of the same characters, but a similar approach to frosh stumbling through a first weekend at college in 1980. If you're a fan of Dazed (and I am, to the point of fetishism), this is good news: though Dazed has definitively replaced American Graffiti as the template for the "one coming-of-age night" genre, no one's really gotten it right since. (Can't Hardly Wait got closest, and it's basically a cartoon.)

It's easy to be cynical about why Linklater's making this movie at this particular moment. He's sitting on two movies that aren't theater-bound. It's no real surprise that his documentary profile of University of Texas coach Augie Garrido, Inning By Inning: A Portrait of a Coach, is going straight-to-DVD after being shown on ESPN; the arthouse crowd doesn't typically do sports movies, no matter how warmly intended or who's making them. But who could've guessed Me And Orson Welles would still be distributor-less half a year after its Toronto premiere, demographic-baiting star Zac Efron and all? It gets worse: in the years since the undeniable critical and commercial success of School of Rock, Linklater's worked on a rejected HBO pilot, a Bad News Bears remake that underperformed commercially and critically, a cult movie (A Scanner Darkly) that failed to justify its budget, and a didactic lecture-film (Fast Food Nation) that came and went virtually unnoticed. This is not the way one of '90s indie cinema's icons should be heading; Linklater would appear to no longer be at the vanguard of American film, a status that once went unquestioned.

linklater on fast food setThat's the direst version of events, yet it's safe to say that it's not even remotely close to capturing the reasons a Dazed "spiritual sequel" will be interesting: Linklater won't give us the same amiably non-dramatic comedy with the bad vibes only faintly hinted at. That's because Linklater's made a remarkable transition in his work of late, and almost no one has noticed. People used to obsess over how the word "plotless" could've been invented for Linklater; his aversion for strong narrative beats seemed almost as strong as his aversion to real conflict or villains. But then A Scanner Darkly actually had a strong, paranoid dystopian framework requiring conventional pacing and revelations Linklater previously seemed incapable of or uninterested in. Fast Food Nation also built to a meaningful climax while experimenting with deliberate narrative entropy (Greg Kinnear, ostensibly the main character, disappears halfway through).

What we have is a filmmaker who, after years of rejecting conventional narrative tools and building his own, has suddenly shown he's actually quite apt at using those tools if he feels like it. The essential Linklater theme hasn't changed at all: one person (or group of people) struggles to achieve individuality in an environment actively or passively hostile to that kind of self-definition. It's the urge which drives Slacker, makes Pink such a pissed-off iconoclast for nothing in Dazed And Confused, and pushes Jack Black in School of Rock; above all, it's actively turned into a system-vs.-individual plot in Scanner. (Before Sunrise/Sunset doesn't really fit here, but more on that in a moment.) But the nature of the protagonists has changed dramatically. Once they were fundamentally amiable; their relentless triviality was all they asked to stand for. Something's flipped: along with his new interest in strong narrative, the stakes in Scanner and Fast Food Nation couldn't have been higher. It's become a matter of importance not just to stand apart, but to actively stand in opposition to something (malevolent corporations, give or take). Linklater's filmmaking has become unexpectedly if vaguely politicized, in a way that goes beyond a simplistic response to the Dubya era from an orthodox Austin liberal.

before sunriseThat's why the Dazed sequel seems like it's going to be its own, considerably different film, "spiritual" kin or no: there's a darkness in Linklater's tone to contend with now. For starters, it's set in 1980 on the cusp of the Reagan Revolution, and we know how Linklater feels about that: cue Marisa Ribisi's easy punchline from Dazed on the "every other decade" theory ("The 70s obviously suck. Maybe the '80s will totally rule."). It's impossible, too, to imagine Linklater characters thriving in the '80s, unless maybe they were somewhere down in Athens, Georgia trying to jump-start indie rock. And then there's the small issue of Linklater's genre-hopping: he's second only to Steven Soderbergh in his willingness to try anything once—and only once. His tone is basically comic, and he's far from the conspicuous stylist Soderbergh loves to be (with a few exceptions, he prefers technical self-effacement); still, he's traveled over every kind of plot without retreading himself yet.

In this regard, comparisons to the remarkable Before diptych might be useful. The first film, while charming, fell for its own swooning romanticism, ignoring the fact that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy were a horribly incompatible couple, no matter how cute they seemed in the moment. The movie took their fumbling, tentative courtship at face value. Before Sunset has an entirely different agenda, even if it's structurally similar: it demands that you sit through an hour of people obliquely talking around what's on their minds before they actually address the issues that've been bugging them for the last nine years. The joy isn't in what's onscreen, by and large; it's in the tension between what the audience knows the characters are thinking and what they're able to permit themselves. It's this commitment to obliqueness—both structurally and character-wise—that's risen up in Linklater's work, even as he's made more concessions to traditional narrative than ever. It's the complete opposite to the utterly disingenuous, open cast of Dazed and Confused. What we're probably looking forward to is the moodier, broodier B-side—which doesn't mean it'll be a dark night of the soul, just perhaps a bumpier ride.

Posted by ahillis at 3:08 PM | Comments (4)

March 29, 2009

Will Blurb For Food

Anonymous critic will blurb for food. Ever the struggling freelance writer, I have been known to scan Craigslist for odd little gigs during my leaner months, which does occasionally yield some quick, easy money. Just this afternoon, I stumbled upon this hilariously pathetic, "negotiable" pitch under the quite-clickable heading Attention Film Critics (Los Angeles):
"Hi. We just finished a film and need to buy a one sentence quote from someone who calls himself a film critic. Thanks."

Now, in my relatively brief tenure as a full-time journalist, I've had my share of unprofessional favors asked of me, including one that permanently estranged a years-long camaraderie because I refused to watch a friend-of-a-friend's movie with the explicit purpose of giving a pullquote for their forthcoming DVD. Yet while I laugh at the above posting because it was clearly instigated by a filmmaker who doesn't understand the professional position of a critic, I half-worry that an unscrupulous somebody might just take that person up on the offer. On the other hand, perhaps it's a positive sign for critics, that our opinions still hold a monetary value.

Posted by ahillis at 11:16 AM | Comments (5)

March 27, 2009

FILM OF THE WEEK & PODCAST: Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani)

Ramin Bahrani, writer-director of GOODBYE SOLO

Goodbye Solo
Directed by Ramin Bahrani
2008, 91 Minutes, U.S.A.

As recently discussed in A.O. Scott's piece on the American indie scene's current wave of "neo-neo realism," Goodbye Solo, the latest cultural-outsider drama from rising Iranian-American auteur Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop, Man Push Cart), is far more riveting in its funny-sad humanism than it might sound on the page:

"On the lonely roads of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, two men forge an improbable friendship that will change both of their lives forever. Solo is a Senegalese cab driver working to provide a better life for his young family. William is a tough Southern good ol' boy with a lifetime of regrets. One man's American dream is just beginning, while the other's is quickly winding down. But despite their differences, both men soon realize they need each other more than either is willing to admit. Through this unlikely but unforgettable friendship, Goodbye Solo deftly explores the passing of a generation as well as the rapidly changing face of America."

Sitting down to discuss the film before its theatrical release, Bahrani and I discussed A.O. Scott's piece, his unusual working method with co-star (and former Elvis buddy, songwriter and bodyguard) Red West, and the dear belated friend he dedicated his tale of kindred spirits to.

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Goodbye Solo opens today in New York and Chicago. For more info, visit the official site.

Posted by ahillis at 10:03 AM | Comments (1)

March 25, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: The Last Metro

The Last Metro
The Last Metro (Le Dernier Métro)
Directed by François Truffaut
1980, 131 minutes, In French with English subtitles

Truffaut's romantic anti-war melodrama, a gently personal-political ode to theatre and life under the German occupation of France, is perhaps the most slickly populist work of his career. Luminously bathed in a nostalgic warmth—all rosy reds and smoky chocolates—by cinematographer extraordinaire Nestor Almendros, it's a luxurious production set in despairing times. As WWII rages on in 1942, Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennent), the Jewish director and owner of the Théâtre Montmarte, hides out in the cellar while his Gentile wife and beloved actress Marion (Catherine Deneuve) juggles rehearsals and administering to their struggling business. A new play is being staged, and former Grand Guigol actor Bernard Granger (Gérard Depardieu) has been cast as the new leading man, an incorrigible horndog who moonlights as a radical for the Resistance.

The Last MetroThe stagehand and designers and supporting talents are exactly that—supporting talents—to the film's subdued love triangle between Marion, her brash co-star, and her hermetic hubby who impotently hears all through a floorboard duct. (The photo up top, a pivotal if fleeting moment after a successful opening night, only teases at any sort of release to what is a palpable sexual tension.) It's curious why Truffaut and co-scenarist Suzanne Schiffman restricted their milieu to this theater since Lucas's isolation clearly parallels the repressed, physically divided country (even illustrated in a bifurcated map onscreen), the redundancy ultimately limiting the film's chances to be as emotionally impactful as others set in this time and place. Still, even as I pretentiously proclaim this lesser Truffaut, The Last Metro satisfies as a glossy, tenderly witty entertainment.

The Last MetroWhat I've most been thinking about since finally catching up with this film is one single character, Daxiat (Jean-Louis Richard). As pictured at right being publicly pushed around by Bernard, the film's most villainous character (beyond, you know, the Nazis) is this anti-Semetic drama critic, who vengefully spews out a damning review of the Montmarte's new production because of his bigoted loathing of Lucas and gay director Jean-Loup Cottins (Jean Poiret). Under German rule, Daxiat's ideology (one of the few explicably defined in the film) is given more power, his words now weightier, which made me wonder if former critic Truffaut was secretly commenting on what he saw as an unwelcome sea change amongst these professionals, or if it simply made sense dramatically to have this character be one more oppressive foil to an artist's livelihood. As Steven Soderbergh commented to me recently, casting my man Glenn Kenny as a hostile critic in The Girlfriend Experience wasn't meant to be interpreted as a veiled annoyance toward reviewers, but who knows? What would Anton Ego think, or Lord Dargis, perhaps?

Posted by ahillis at 3:57 PM | Comments (3)

March 23, 2009

SXSW '09: Films of the Week

Drag Me to HellIt was great, but I was ready to come home. That's the title of Kris Swanberg's debut feature, and also how my body felt after 10 days in Austin, where the late nights, early mornings, too much free beer (is there such a thing?), delicious yet heavy-in-the-gut Mexican food and noisy rock shows clearly took its toll on your intrepid reporter. Far more tireless was seemingly omnipresent festival producer Janet Pierson, whose inaugural year confirmed my optimistic predictions, that aside from a few conspicuous enhancements (at least for press: shuttle buses, reserved tickets, and a screener library), the proverbial boat was not rocked, her transition seamless, and the hiccups nominal. 'Twas a fine year experientially, but what about the films?

Between the beginning of the year and the end of the fest, I can officially weigh in on 31 of the features that screened at SXSW. Sundance leftovers like Moon, Adventureland, Humpday, Burma VJ, You Wont Miss Me, and We Live in Public still taste great when reheated by the Austin sun, and Sam Raimi's first horror movie in years, Drag Me to Hell (soon to be released, but screening here to a packed crowd as a polished-enough work print), was, as my colleague Scott Foundas whispered to me in the exiting aisle, "pure pleasure." A throwback to his Army of Darkness days—rife with camp dialogue, demon-possessed innocents, bodily goo, Looney Toons violence, and enough Dutch angles to warrant watching while leaning on someone's shoulder—Raimi's gypsy curse flick probably won't win over new fans, almost as if designed to be a love letter-cum-apology to the fanboys who still hound him to direct Evil Dead 4.

Speaking of anticipated follow-ups, Universal teased two lucky audiences with 22 minutes from Sacha Baron Cohen's new gotcha comedy Brüno, comprised of three extended scenes, plus SXSW-specific intros in which Cohen messed with Texas and sent up his real-life British persona. Okay, so Borat's naked man-on-man tussle and conference streaking may be a tough act to top, but wait'll you see the hilariously ugly response of a mixed martial-arts arena crowd when Cohen's gay Austrian fashion journo reunites with his lover as the faux-hetero host of "Straight Dave's Man Slammin' Max Out." Not three years after that wicked Kazakhstani nearly had me peeing on the floor from laughter, it's happening again.

St. NickBut enough about that studio fare! Without a doubt, the best film at SXSW 2009 was writer-director David Lowery's lovely, lived-in, slow-burning debut feature St. Nick. Front-loaded with very little dialogue, the trade-ins are lushly photographed vignettes and sensory textures (my god, why can't more young filmmakers pay as much attention to film grammar, or craft their diegetic sound design this purposefully?) that reveal themselves methodically, pensively: the rustic Texas landscape in autumn, a hidden majesty from somewhere in Badlands country. A resourceful little boy and girl (real-life siblings Tucker and Savanna Sears, compelling presences both) break into and co-opt a dilapidated old house as their own. The wood stove is lit, a necessary exhaust pipe mounted, his braces fixed with a pair of pliers and a mirror, lettuce for sandwiches curiously sniffed before their crispness savored, and weighted traps set should any adults come looking for these adolescent drifters. Yet no one comes right away, or could it be that these kids live in a world where only they exist? Lowery's film adeptly taps into the child's-eye perspective of underage survival similarly found in Treeless Mountain, Nobody Knows, or Children of Invention, but here it isn't just about naturalism, but the detached dreamlike mystery of watching or recalling these events as a grown-up. When the girl bicycles to a park and naïvely crashes a birthday party, the screams of piñata-bashing brats are primal, even terrorizing, as is the stampede of cattle ranchers who later chase our pipsqueak heroes through the fields they've trespassed on. Their vulnerability is palpable, but Lowery wisely chooses to neither romanticize nor make tragic the lives of runaways; it's the surreal disconnect between youth and maturity that colors St. Nick's magic. If it were only shot on film, not HD, this one would be a far more dangerous contender on the indie awards and fest circuit.

Among the narrative features, also noteworthy was Make-Out With Violence, from the unrelated collective known as the Deagol Brothers. An awesomely gonzo amalgamation of John Hughes coming-of-ager, painterly Terrence Malick evocation of Americana, George Romero zombie horror and Sundance-friendly indie rock, this impressionistic, silly-scary genre buster doesn't get much deeper than midnight entertainment, but what else do you need during that one crazy summer when your ex-girlfriend came back to life and you kept her locked in the bathroom? And if you now think you've seen or heard it all in zombie cinema, The Tracey Fragments director Bruce McDonald's Pontypool still proves unexpectedly refreshing. Dedicated to an unusually minimal viewpoint (inside a radio station, where grizzled shockjock Stephen McHattie and his producer almost never see the swarming horde) and an infection caused by semiotics (I will say no more!), this one's a smart, dementedly funny crowd-pleaser for the post-grad set.

45365On the documentary stage, jury prize winner 45365 really does deserve the category's highest praise—now if only its zip-code title were as easy to remember as 90210. Co-directed, edited and scrumptiously shot by brothers Turner and Bill Ross, this insightful, witty collage of caught moments in their small hometown of Sidney, OH is charmingly untethered by traditional plot and portrait arcs; in an age where most docs are grafted over by pop narratives for greater suspense, drama or momentum, 45365 works specifically because of its wonderfully curated aimlessness. Amongst the little leaguers and barbers and demolition derby racers and trick-or-treaters, a police officer convinces a citizen that his cable TV lines weren't maliciously cut, and maybe when the picture went out, he should've called his cable company first. A classic-rock DJ argues with a caller about whether a Who song is about a dildo or an accordion. Local impersonator Elvis Jr. sings his heart out to an outdoor crowd, while someone pokes the drooping tarp above to keep it from collapsing under the rain. How the brothers Ross convinced their friends, family and neighbors to be completely at ease and unconscious of their cameras would be an impressive feat on its own, but their formal photographic rigor comes off relaxed, too. With two of the only major throughlines looming—a judge's re-election campaign and a high school football team's big game—45365's beautifully unexpected ending would seem like an anti-surprise if it weren't the most honest, humanist choice for the rhythms set up before. These first-time filmmakers are true talents to watch, and hopefully they can pull off a second feature without the aid of a supportive town who watched the Ross boys grow up.

Doc runners-up include the compelling, but truly divisive Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be the Same, perhaps the most stunningly photographed documentary I've seen in years. Afterschool (also here at SXSW) and Wild Combination cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes' directorial debut follows conceptual artist and entitled jerk Enright as he travels from Brooklyn to his girlfriend's family's Redwoods cabin to waste thousands of dollars' worth of gallery funds on his cheap, trashy provocations (defecating on an outdoor stage in low-rent Matthew Barney grotesqueries, jumping rope while repeatedly yelling "Fuck you, you piece of shit"). He's a delusional sham and horrible to everyone around him, and yet, there's something curiously watchable about his self-destructive narcissism. Perhaps it's because Lipes has secretly made a creatively condescending doc, a project far more artful than anything Enright literally craps out in front of us, as if Lars von Trier's The Idiots had been remade with reality-TV stars who weren't in on the joke.

Best Worst MovieMaybe Enright's success could also explain how Troll 2, now widely considered the Plan 9 From Outer Space for the Facebook generation, has been playing to sold-out midnight crowds across North America some two decades after it was unleashed on the world. (There have been homemade video games, "Trollympics" events, soldiers in Iraq screening it for one another, even an homage in Guitar Hero 2). Cheerfully investigating this particular phenomenon as well as how cult classics find their fawning audiences in general, Best Worst Movie was directed by the notorious film's child star Michael Stephenson, now grown-up and amused to track down its participants. Alabama dentist and affable co-star George Hardy loves to recite for fans his strangest zinger ("You can't piss on hospitality!"), Italian director Claudio Fragasso shows complex feelings about the touring revival of his "parable" and the audiences who laugh at both the intentionally and unintentionally funny bits, and writer Rossella Drudi seriously still demands the film is a "ferocious analysis of today's society." Funny as hell, Stephenson's film is also focused enough to understand that cult success has its limitations, as his 15-minute clock ticks away.

Though I missed two of the doc features that were buzzed about—Winnebago Man and Trust Us, This Is All Made Up—I'll have my chance next week at the Sarasota Film Festival, which I'll be covering for an extended weekend. My deepest gratitude to the SXSW staff, filmmakers and community who made my job easier, and see you for an early morning dip in Barton Springs next March.

Posted by ahillis at 11:17 PM | Comments (2)

March 20, 2009

SXSW '09 PODCAST: Anna Faris

Anna Faris, OBSERVE AND REPORT [As my annual Austin adventure finally comes to an end tomorrow, I leave you with one last podcast. Stay tuned for my SXSW "Films of the Week" reviews later this weekend on Monday.]

Quickly becoming one of the go-to heroines of screen comedy, Anna Faris (Smiley Face, The House Bunny) handily and hilariously steals each of her scenes in writer-director Jody Hill's Observe and Report, which screened as the centerpiece film at SXSW. Like others who have pointed out the similarities, it really does play like the comic analogue to Taxi Driver, its disturbing "jokes" provoking mostly nervous laughter, with a doozy of a punchline. From the fest synopsis:

At the Forest Ridge Mall, head of security Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) patrols his jurisdiction with an iron fist. The master of his domain, he combats skateboarders, shoplifters and the occasional unruly customer while dreaming of the day when he can swap his flashlight for a badge and a gun. Ronnie's delusions of grandeur are put to the test when the mall is struck by a flasher. Driven by his personal duty to protect and serve the mall and its patrons, Ronnie seizes the opportunity to showcase his underappreciated law enforcement talents on a grand scale, hoping his solution of this crime will earn him a coveted spot at the police academy and the heart of his elusive dream girl Brandi (Anna Faris), the hot make-up counter clerk who won't give him the time of day. But his single-minded pursuit of glory launches a turf war with the equally competitive Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) of the Conway Police, and Ronnie is confronted with the challenge of not only catching the flasher, but getting him before the real cops do.

On the pool patio at the Four Seasons hotel in Austin, I sat down with Faris to chat about the losers she loves, how her friends and family disagree with the moviegoing masses, and whether she'd let me take her out for Texas barbecue.

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Observe and Report opens in U.S. theaters on April 10. For more info, visit the official site.

Posted by ahillis at 11:48 AM | Comments (2)

March 18, 2009

Natasha Richardson, 1963-2009.

natasha_richardson.jpg The utterly tragic and sudden death of Natasha Richardson left us all stunned today. My heart goes out to her talented and heartbroken family (the Richardsons, the Redgraves, the Neesons). There are plenty of fine obituaries now making their way out across the air/cyberwaves, but wanted to point to Edward Copeland's appreciation:

"The first notice I took of Natasha Richardson was in one of her earliest films, Paul Schrader's Patty Hearst in 1988. The film itself is one of those I like to call a brilliant mess. It was flawed, yet somehow perfect and a great deal of its perfection came from Richardson's performance in the title role."

More from Marc Peyser on Newsweek's Pop Vox blog: "Natasha Richardson may be the nicest actor I ever interviewed." Many more observations and remembrances posted at IFC Daily, and a new critical appreciation from EW's Lisa Schwarzbaum.

It's probably a bit hard to watch at the moment, but seeing Richardson with her mum in Evening recently takes on added poignancy as I think of it again. (By the way, Patty Hearst is inexplicably not available on DVD. Hope that changes.)

Feel free to post your own recollections here in the comments. --craig phillips

Posted by cphillips at 9:11 PM | Comments (11)

SXSW '09 PODCAST: Wavy Gravy and Michelle Esrick

Wavy Gravy, SAINT MISBEHAVIN' If you only know Wavy Gravy as a delicious ice cream flavor, or as that guy who warned the Woodstock crowd to beware the bad acid circulating, then you really should check out director Michelle Esrick's genuinely uplifting new portrait of the beatnik-cum-activist (and more!) in Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie, screening at this year's SXSW:

Saint Misbehavin' reveals the true story of cultural phenomenon Wavy Gravy -- a man whose commitment to making the world a better place has never wavered. We experience the impact one person can have and connect to the hope that each one of us can make a difference while keeping our sense of humor. Wavy Gravy is known as the MC of the Woodstock Festival, a hippie icon, clown, and even a Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor. In Saint Misbehavin', we meet a true servant to humanity who carries his message through humor, compassion and a song he sings, called "Basic Human Needs." Weaving together intimate verite footage, reflections from an array of cultural and counter-cultural peers, and never-before-seen archival footage, the film tells a story that is bigger than the man himself.

Though I had never walked into an interview with the disclaimer question, "Are you allergic to incense smoke?", that one wasn't too surprising as my chat with Wavy G. and Esrick also featured a one-stringed instrument, a propeller hat, a clown nose, and bubbles being blown.

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie screens again in Austin on March 21 (click here for SXSW screening info). For more info, visit the official site.

Posted by ahillis at 2:38 PM

March 17, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: Dodes'ka-den


Review by Vadim Rizov (The Village Voice, The House Next Door).

1970's Dodes'ka-den stands alone and damned in film history as the rare film whose failure drove its director to attempt suicide. Unprecedented in Akira Kurosawa's career up to that point (its failure guaranteed no similar offerings), Dodes'ka-den was horrendously received in Japan; Kurosawa responded by slashing himself over 30 times with a razor. He survived; the film's reputation didn't. Criterion's issue of the film offers a chance at redemption. Safe to say the film won't be canonically integrated anytime soon — it's fairly turgid — but also rewarding viewing for Kurosawa devotees. There's nothing else like it in his canon.

Dodes'ka-den unfolds in a bombed-out trash heap on the outskirts of Tokyo just after the war (a piece of information I would've never sussed out without the ever-invaluable Criterion essay supplements). Debris stretches in every direction; the scale of the disaster (and the set) put me in mind of another huge failure with a big set, Jacques Tati's Playtime. Kurosawa begins inside the house of Rokkuchan (Yoshitaka Zushi); while his mother (Kin Sugai) prays to Buddha, he joins her inside the room, praying for his mother to be less stupid. There are tears in her eyes, but not because he's cruel: he's actually the literally retarded one, operating an imaginary trolley with complete conviction, marveling at the dolts that almost get run over. The inside of their house is like a chapel designed by kindergarteners: bright crayon drawings of trolleys fill up the panes, and sunlight blows them out. It's poverty as outsider pop art.

Indeed, Dodes'ka-den is best known for its color, which is truly, luridly dazzling (especially when Kurosawa introduces blatantly artificial colored sky sets that look like leftovers from Kwaidan; he'd use them for the rest of his career, the only directly salvageable thing from this film). There's a particularly terrific moment of rainfall on the lake, with the studio-controlled rain micro-changing its falling patterns, creating fantastic patterns on the water's surface. More ominously, there's a moment when mute Katsuko (Tomoko Yamikazi) is raped by her uncle on a bed of fake red roses, splayed out against its ad-hoc bedding (an image that presumably seared itself into Alan Ball's head).

At its worst, Dodes'ka-den suggests filmed theater: characters enter in theatrical silence, perform some "business," then get down to the hard work of long, showy exchanges. (This is a film of many characters, most of whom don't get their full due.) Yet that clash between theater's blatant artifice and film's subtler kind suggests another tension, one that Kurosawa would exploit in his later work the more static his camera became: the role of theatricality and ritual, and what happens when emotions becomes too intense and rupture that surface. Dodes'ka-den is showy, but it points the way to Kurosawa's later discipline in exploiting the gap between stylized ritual and emotion. For that alone it's worth a look; you can actually logically get to Kagemusha from here.

Criterion's DVD has the colors in perfect shape and the usual primer essays. The original trailer is here, but there's not much of value in it. There's also a 2003 documentary from the Toho Masterworks series, which is pretty dull — talking head, still, talking head, still — but full of valuable information, like reminding us that one of the reasons Kurosawa went five years between Red Beard and this was his attempt to make Runaway Train, which later became a basic-cable Jon Voight staple. (It's also punctuated by really ominous synths that sound like "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?") -- vadim rizov

Posted by cphillips at 12:42 PM | Comments (3)

March 16, 2009

SXSW '09 PODCAST: Ondi Timoner

Ondi Timoner, WE LIVE IN PUBLIC Ondi Timoner (DiG!) won her second Sundance Grand Jury Prize this year for We Live in Public, her compelling new doc screening at SXSW:

On the 40th anniversary of the Internet, We Live in Public tells the story of the effect the web is having on our society as seen through the eyes of 'the greatest Internet pioneer you've never heard of,' visionary Josh Harris. Award-winning director Ondi Timoner documented his tumultuous life for more than a decade, to create a riveting, cautionary tale of what to expect as the virtual world inevitably takes control of our lives. Josh Harris, often called the 'Warhol of the Web' through the infamous boom of the '90s, founded, the first Internet television network and created his vision of the future, an underground bunker in NYC where 100 people lived together on camera for 30 days over the millennium.

In Austin for her screenings, Timoner chatted with me mostly about Harris, from where her philosophies differ from his regarding mankind's desire for fame, to why she believes he's a footnote in history.

To listen to the podcast, click here.

We Live in Public screens in Austin on March 17 and 18 (click here for SXSW screening info). For more info, visit the official site.

Posted by ahillis at 5:00 PM

March 15, 2009

SXSW '09: Under the Radar

Until the Light Takes UsTwo quick tips for you, Team Austin: Though it's not officially a part of SXSW, a most excellent documentary called Until the Light Takes Us will have a one-time screening at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar this Thursday night (3/19) at 11:55pm. Shooting over two years in Oslo, filmmakers Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites artfully investigate the music and real-life mayhem behind the Norwegian black death metal scene, which I wrote up as an LA Weekly Critic's Pick during last fall's AFI fest. Tickets will go fast, folks, so sign up now for all your murder and church burnings.

EggshellsBut back on the SXSW front, and with full disclosure... Watchmaker/ Benten is working behind the scenes on Tobe Hooper's rarely-screened 1969 directorial debut, Eggshells (his only feature before the infamy of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), which screens as part of the fest on Tuesday. Austin Chronicle co-founder and SXSW godfather Louis Black wrote lovingly about the film in this week's issue, and again, with only one screening at the Alamo South Lamar, you know what to do, fellow filmgoers.

Posted by ahillis at 1:22 PM

March 14, 2009

SXSW '09 PODCAST: Alex Jones

Alex Jones, NEW WORLD ORDER Impassioned radio host and documentary filmmaker Alex Jones (see also: his official site) would be easy to dismiss as a crackpot if his angry philosophies—on what he might call our totalitarian world government and regularly corroded civil liberties—weren't so eloquently dispatched. As even his Wikipedia entry details, Jones has been labeled a conspiracy theorist by the mainstream media, so it will be interesting to hear what the uninitiated will think about him after seeing Darkon filmmakers Luke Meyer's and Andrew Neel's new doc feature New World Order, premiering at SXSW:
New World Order is a documentary about conspiracy theorists. The film is a behind the scenes look at the underground anti-globalist movement. This growing movement targets the annual Bilderberg conference, and the 9/11 attacks as focal points in the alleged global conspiracy.

Alex Jones, a celebrity radio host, and underground cult hero, is the main character of the film. The film chronicles Alex (of Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly), and four other conspiracy theorists, on their ceaseless quests to expose the 'massive global conspiracy' that they believe threatens the future of humanity.

Riding shotgun with Jones as he drove around Austin in his specially outfitted vehicle—bullhorn speakers mounted up top to better reach the masses—I mostly stayed out of his way, as he didn't see me so much an interviewer as simply one more uninformed listener who needed to hear his sermon.

To listen to the podcast, click here.

New World Order screens again in Austin on March 17. For more info, visit the official site.

Posted by ahillis at 11:57 AM | Comments (5)

March 13, 2009

FILM OF THE WEEK: Tokyo Sonata

tokyo_sonata2.jpgWhile Aaron Hillis drowns under a sea of guacamole and Alex Jones bullhorn rants, er, that is, prepares for his first SXSW dispatches from Austin, Vadim Rizov (The Village Voice, The House Next Door), writes about the latest Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, Tokyo Sonata, which opens in New York today before spreading across the country.

Selective and erratic distribution of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's work has given American audiences a distorted impression of him as a genre tinkerer, but the atmospheric horror duo of Cure and Pulse is far from all he has to offer. Genres don't really fascinate Kurosawa so much as imposing his own aesthetic on whatever material's at hand: rigorously unnerving framing (symmetrical frames that are just slightly off), sudden left-field plot developments and a sense of weird gravity pervading even the most trivial moment. If that approach makes a ghost story like Pulse way more effective than your standard shocker, it's bizarre that Kurosawa hasn't yet taken his approach and applied it to a traditional drama to give it the juice so often sorely lacking. Now he has.

Tokyo Sonata begins with Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa), recently fired from his middle-manager job. Rather than tell his family, he dresses up every day and searches for work; eventually, he kind of gives up and just hangs out in a park with a bunch of other fired middle-managers, all milling around in their suits while eating free porridge. At home, wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) floats into the anomie of denial, eldest son Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) joins the American army (don't ask; social criticism isn't Kurosawa's strong point) and youngest Kenji (Kai Inowaki) sneaks behind his father's back to take piano lessons.

Two-thirds of the way in, Tokyo Sonata is a nicely observed low-key drama just unnerving enough to keep you on edge: Kurosawa's framing is always a bit cluttered and claustrophobic, and his willingness to sit and watch for a little too long makes it seem like violent disaster is always just on the verge of breaking out. And then suddenly it does and all hell breaks out. Just when it seems like Kurosawa's reigned in the schizophrenic eccentricities that only make sense to him (the same ones that can make a movie like Bright Future almost incomprehensible), there's a development I won't spoil that turns the movie into something it shouldn't be. Original screenwriter Max Mannix is pissed: in an e-mail interview with Edward Champion, he could barely reign in his annoyance. "The original screenplay that I wrote didn’t ask the audience to trust me here and there, then suspend belief when it was convenient for me," he fumed. "There were, in my opinion, some pretty bizarre story threads in the film."

There's a point to Kurosawa's approach though, and not an inconsiderable one: Mannix, in his interview, stresses his desire to hew to the Ozu side of things. Kurosawa, quite reasonably, doesn't want to fall into the potentially boring trap of easy humanism: like the ending of There Will Be Blood, what should happen (a fight, some brooding, a reconciliation) isn't enough of a challenge for him, so he does it his way. There's a finale that's still heartbreaking in its portrait of a family coming together, but Kurosawa's examining the same thing as the similarly predicated Time Out: how losing your work can destroy your personality and tear a family apart when the material things once taken for granted disappear and leave you with a suddenly untenable network of relationships. I wish Kurosawa would find a way of expressing himself other than willful eccentricity, but there's no denying his typically formidable craft and how effective this film is despite the fact that it tears itself apart for half-an-hour. Tokyo Sonata is finally deeply moving, either despite or because of the unusual path it takes to get there.

Posted by cphillips at 11:52 AM

March 12, 2009

PODCAST: SXSW 2009 Preview

Sixth Street in Austin during SXSW

Tomorrow night, a swarm of filmmakers, journalists and locals in Austin, TX will be a-twitter (and probably just on Twitter) as the 2009 South by Southwest Film Festival kicks off. A raucous good time for all, SXSW is perhaps the best American fest to discover talented, up-and-coming filmmakers, who don't need 10 million bucks and household names to pack theaters with excitable crowds. Stay tuned this next week for capsule reviews and podcasts from deep in the heart of you know where.

Just before we both skip town to bask in the Austin sunshine, editor Alison Willmore and I discuss what it is that defines the SXSW experience, the films we're eagerly anticipating, and what we think about the community in its first year of "post-mumblecore" cinema (for which, while eating my words in an earlier post, I did actually update my illustrated chart).

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Posted by ahillis at 11:23 AM

March 11, 2009

It takes a... Village Barbershop.

Co-winner of the Audience Award at the Cinequest Film Festival, The Village Barbershop is one of those little indie films you can't help but root for. Variety's Dennis Harvey wrote: "Feeling as crustily comfortable as its titular environ, Village Barbershop is an old-hat story -- curmudgeon grudgingly takes in brash youth, with eventual life-enhancing benefits for both. But in this case, the old hat is well worn, and debuting writer-director Chris Ford has blown most of the dust off. Result is a cannily low-key charmer."

It stars John Ratzenberg (still most famous for his long-running role as Cliff Claven on Cheers, but who has also made quite a career out of doing fine voice work for many Pixar features) as that curmudgeon, a small-town haircutter whose melancholy, and rigid, life is altered when a woman shows up looking for a job as his other barber. The film was shot in Reno and Northern California and looks quite good given it's small budget.

In an interview now up on GreenCine, filmmaker Ford, lead actress Shelly Cole, and supporting actor Amos Glick (who plays Ratzenberg's Scrooge-ish landlord) were each quite candid about the trials and rewards of making a "small" film like Village Barbershop.

Posted by cphillips at 12:04 PM

March 10, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: Rachel Getting Married

Rachel Getting Married
Rachel Getting Married
Directed by Jonathan Demme
2008, 113 minutes, USA
Sony Pictures Classics

I would never expect everyone to embrace a film I feel passionately about, so while I happen to think Rachel Getting Married—a raw-nerved, humanist dramedy about a dysfunctional Connecticut clan who can't be as magnanimous as they think they are because they haven't dealt with a familial tragedy—was the best American film released theatrically last year, I'm not rattled that some found it shrill, or slight, or messy. (Though I think those dismissive words address the characters' behavior, not the film itself.) Beyond its awards-season snubs (including director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Jenny Lumet), there shouldn't be fear of neglect for a film that clearly had its champions, and I'm even amused that it's powerful enough to rile its haters into wasting their time on a Facebook anti-fansite.

Rachel Getting Married Now, this may speak more to those who have already seen the film, but I won't spoil anything here. What deeply bothers me about some of the scathing snark I've heard from viewers concerns the liberalness of the characters, right down to the blissful multi-cultural wedding festivities that make up the buzzing bulk of the film's back half. "We don't doubt for a second that we're watching a bunch of virtuous, good-hearted people who will manage to work out all of their problems, live happily ever after, and vote for Obama," decried Scott Foundas after seeing the film in Toronto, and Anthony Lane takes the same unfairly detached approach, which speaks volumes more about either of their personal biases and outlooks than it does the film itself:

"The wedding party is the ultimate guide to Demme's benign vision: the groom is black, the bride is white, she and her bridesmaids are dressed in saris, nobody so much as mentions race, and the officiating priest is played by Demme’s cousin, Father Robert Castle, about whom he made a fine film, Cousin Bobby, in 1992. I don’t know if there were any Republican voters involved in this movie, but, if so, it must have been a lonely time. Just imagine if the rest of the crew found out: they would pin you down and sing to you until you changed your mind."

Jonathan DemmeWithin the context of this family—in which Bill Irwin plays a musician who knew and worked with all these cats from way back when, including yes, the husband-to-be's father—why can't they live with color-blindness, instead of making reference to the "black" groom and the "white" bride? These characters were once children who played together. I'll even step in with a personal take, as someone with an African-American stepmother and step-siblings, and say that it's quite possible that maybe it isn't a big deal THAT NEEDS TO BE CONSTANTLY ADDRESSED. If the diversity says anything about these characters, it's that their liberalism isn't false, but a mask they fall back on to maintain their passive-aggressiveness towards what they don't want to confront. The family believes their boho sensibilities make them flawlessly open-minded, when in truth, the elephant in the room (said familial tragedy) still rears its trunk; their shared domestic flaw is that they push all of their anger, bitterness, blame, guilt and sorrows onto Anne Hathaway's drug-rehabbed scapegoat—which makes sense, as she is the perpetual fuck-up who can't get out of her own way. Why is the movie being judged for its multi-culti sanguinity when it's the characters' defined backgrounds (jazz/world musicians!) that make "Jews in saris" an honest, naturalistic sight? The ever-sharp Michael Sicinski, also sensing how divisively this film has been received, says it far better than me:

"Some critics have mocked the film's wedding scenes as hipster fantasies or manqué Obama rallies. But this is simply insulting. Is it really so obscene to want to harness the power of the cinema for an extended, even 'indulgent,' representation of people coming together, finding unity despite pain, battling their way through to rapprochement? There are passages in Rachel Getting Married that open themselves up to cynicism and, to my eyes, flip it the bird."

Rachel Getting Married does not have a happy ending, its pains are never alleviated, and the family unit may never heal; but they get by, as do most screwed-up families who love even their blackest of sheep. If audiences are too jaded to recognize the genuine tenderness hiding under the surface hysteria (especially since some of these same people defended The Squid and the Whale from the detractors who called it "smug" when they really meant the characters were), then they deserve my middle finger, too.

Posted by ahillis at 2:45 PM | Comments (18)

March 6, 2009

FILM OF THE WEEK: Frontier of Dawn

Frontier of Dawn

Frontier of Dawn (La Frontière de l'aube)
Directed by Philippe Garrel
2008, 106 minutes, France

Three stateside theatrical releases of Philippe Garrel films in as many years—could there be a big snowball fight going down in hell? The still criminally underrepresented post-New Wave auteur's follow-up to 2005's Regular Lovers again features his handsome, hawk-schnozzed son Louis Garrel, the grainy black-and-white cinematography of William Lubtchansky (though here more warmly, lusciously exposed), and a brooding romantic discord between past and present. Garrel the younger stars as François, a suave photographer on assignment to shoot rising starlet Carole (Laura Smet), and from her smirky smiles gazed upon by Garrel's camera (or rather, the Garrels'), it's but two blinks before their affair blossoms and intensifies as if their lives depended on each other's love. In a tragically real sense, that's true.

Frontier of Dawn Their disarmingly beautiful faces and bodies intimately fill the frame in largely drawn-out takes, with relatively minimal movement as if they were closer to the character's still photography than the motion picture kind. The score seems misplaced from classic suspense or horror, all violins and pianos striking sharp, stark, blatantly foreshadowing notes. Perhaps those who heckled the film at Cannes last year dismissed this all as pretentious navel gazing, but it's a bold approach to attempt conveying the ache of absolute love. In the early stages, the passion Carole and François share is palpable (if at first, mutually uneven) in just their conversations: they question and dissect and inexplicably talk circles around trust, respect, and the impermanence of their fling: "We mustn't say we love each other," Carole demands. It's revealed that she's married to an actor who is gigging away in Hollywood, and even if François were just a placeholder until her husband's return, she's not just prone to erratic behavior—she's coming undone. Flirting with other men, drinking to excess, but still so obsessively intoxicated on her lover's desire that she begins to lose him, Carole's side of the tale ends a little after the film's halfway mark. Her institutionalization, electroshock therapy and self-destructive choices have forced François down a new path.

Frontier of Dawn A year later, he meets the no-less-stunning Eve (Clémentine Poidatz), a fragile little thing who is—for a change of pace—sane, and thus far duller than Carole. François seems resigned to settling, or as his friend better nails it, "tormented by conventional happiness." Eve learns she's pregnant, François meets her dad and stepmom, the possibilities of marriage are discussed, and yet there she is, Carole, haunting him within his mirror reflection. Is she literally a phantasm from beyond, come back to egg him into suicide so that they may be together, or more realistically, is this his subconscious projecting the guilt he has for abandoning her? In either case, her pull is still strong enough to drive him to the brink, and such an expressionist conceit feels appropriately sinister, frightening, and unashamedly absurd as the effects of romantic loneliness can be. If love is a fatalistic monster that can devour our souls, why do we rarely try defending ourselves from it?

Frontier of Dawn opens today in New York at BAMcinématek in their "Focus on IFC Films" series. For showtimes and more info, visit the official BAM site.

Posted by ahillis at 8:00 PM

March 5, 2009

PODCAST: Watchmen

Jackie Earl Haley in WATCHMEN

Has summer blockbuster season really started in March? Not really, but you might think otherwise given how much attention (marketing, merchandising, etc.) has been given to director Zack Snyder's mega-expensive, mega-long adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen—their seminal '80s graphic novel that deconstructed the mythos and morality of the comic-book superhero, along with the language of cinema and the great American novel itself.

My dear friends and fellow film bloggers Glenn Kenny and Andrew Grant sat down with me at a Brooklyn bar/restaurant to "pubcast" our thoughts on the film. One of us decries "avant-garde masterpiece," one of us liked it so-so, and one of us thought it was tedious, but you'll just have to hear for yourself.

To listen to the podcast, click here.
[SPOILERS AHEAD! But really, you've had over 20 years to read the book.]

Posted by ahillis at 2:02 PM

March 4, 2009

R.I.P. Horton Foote

Sadly, on the heels of my post on screenwriting, comes news that playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote has passed away.

From The New York Times:


Horton Foote, who chronicled America’s wistful odyssey through the 20th century in plays and films mostly set in a small town in Texas and left a literary legacy as one of the country’s foremost storytellers, died in Hartford, Conn., on Wednesday. He was 92, said his daughter, Hallie Foote.
In a body of work for which he won the Pulitzer Prize and two Oscars, Mr. Foote was known as a writer’s writer, an author who never abandoned his vision or altered his simple, homespun style even when Broadway and Hollywood temporarily turned their backs on him.

In screenplays for such movies as “Tender Mercies,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Trip to Bountiful,” and in plays like “The Young Man From Atlanta” and his nine-play cycle “Orphans’ Home,” Mr. Foote depicted the way ordinary people shoulder the ordinary burdens of life, finding drama in the resilience by which they carry on in the face of change, economic hardship, disappointment, loss and death. His work earned him a Pulitzer Prize and two Academy Awards.

More from Edward Copeland.

Posted by cphillips at 3:19 PM

Original $creenplay By

Guest post by Craig Phillips, GreenCine editor at and struggling screenwriter.

Trying to sell an original spec script in today's market is a real challenge. Even before the economy went Apocalyptic, Hollywood studios were increasingly gun shy about committing to anything without an existing franchise behind it -- a book or magazine article is preferable to anything created solely out of writer's imagination, for instance. Yes, the idea that unoriginal properties are preferable to originals is not exactly something from the book of revelations. But what's a poor scribe to do?


As a sometime screenwriter myself, who has optioned a couple of scripts but never hit paydirt with that big sale, yet alone had one finally converted into that end goal -- you know, a film -- I obviously have some personal investment in learning as much as I can about the marketplace for scripts. To make my own long story short, I optioned an original script several years ago to a Hollywood producer (whom I found online; more on that soon). Even this "original script" was inspired by real-life incidents and anecdotes, around WWII, and required a great deal of research. Much of it was entirely made up or fictionalized, but we still tried to sell it as "based on real events". Eventually we hooked up with an established and well-regarded director, who is not exactly box office gold, but has artistic integrity. Well, artistic integrity and an original spec didn't even get us a cup of coffee (which is about all I could buy with the money I got off this independent option), and several years later, several option renewals later, I finally let the option expire as the project seemed basically DOA, or DITW (dead in the water). To paraphrase Alvy Singer, a script project is like a relationship that is like a shark, it has to keep moving or it dies. Well one dead shark spec script later, I started from scratch.

Fortunately we deliberately hadn't pitched the project all over town so it's not yet at the point of "old" and it's possible someone else could find it and embrace it. Not likely but possible. But from this experience and my more recent efforts to try to jump start it again taught me that while odds are most definitively stacked against an unestablished writer without the rights to a franchise, things aren't entirely hopeless. Dire yes but not impossible.

Let's backtrack for a moment, though -- what is the market like right now?

I do find it a bit amusing that people get all worked up about things like the Land of the Lost remake, as if the original were a sacred text. I grew up watching it, and have nostalgic pangs for it, but that doesn't make it a work of genius that shalt not be touched. (Sure, they could have re-done it less as a comedy and more as a serious suspense film, but Will Ferrell's starring in it killed that I'm sure.) Still, there is something undeniably distressing for those of us who are continually striving to write original screenplays, to see the percentage of projects given green lights that are franchises -- remakes, sequels, or based on books.

Following up on an earlier post here from Aaron, "Bottomless Barrels," on the ludicrous number of proposed remakes floating around out there (as well as adaptations that defy logical response -- Candy Land?), I took a look at some of the top theatrical releases now playing, out this week or soon:

  • The Last House on the Left (remake),
  • Race to Witch Mountain (this one's a sequel and a remake!),
  • Watchmen (based on graphic novel),
  • Madea Goes to Jail (sequel/franchise; film gets a whopping 2.7 rating on IMDB),
  • Slumdog Millionaire (based on a book),
  • Taken (original script! ...that smells like Euro-Death Wish),
  • He's Just Not That Into You (based loosely on a book),
  • Confessions of a Shopaholic (based on a book),
  • The Horsemen (original script, though there's some Biblical inspiration and a bit of Se7en in it)
  • X Men Origins: Wolverine (prequel/franchise),
  • Knowing (original, first pitched by novelist Ryne Pearson; had quite a few writers take a whack at it, including Richard Kelly before it went to eventual director Alex Proyas)
  • It's of course from the independent and foreign side that we get a healthier number of films based on original ideas, such as Everlasting Moments, Sunshine Cleaning (original script by Megan Holley), or Matt Aselton and Adam Nagata's Gigantic.

    (But, hey, even foreign films are apparently not immune to franchise-itis: 12 is a modern, Russian reworking of 12 Angry Men.)

    Some of the Hollywood films coming out that are indeed original scripts had the additional safety in having an established writer-director behind it, as in Duplicity (Oscar-nominated scriptwriter Tony Gilroy), I Love You, Man (John Hamburg, Safe Men, Undeclared, etc), or Greg Mottola's Adventureland -- an original script but probably helped see the light of day based on Mottola's track record, most notably having directed the superhit, Superbad.

    The reliance on previously existing properties is certainly understandable, given the tenuous economy, with every executive in Hollywood no doubt fearing for their jobs and not wanting to take chances.

    The heyday of the spec payday was probably the 80s and 90s, the apex of which might have been Shane Black's "The Last Boy Scout," which sold for $1.75 million. Look at this NY Times article from 1990 which not only mentions Black's sale but a number of other highly paid scripts that either didn't see the light of day ("City of Darkness"' plot sounds familiar, but it's not The Last Action Hero.)


    And yet the death of the spec script market is clearly premature.

    For instance... From Hollywood Reporter, Tuesday: "Alex Litvak and Michael Finch are going medieval. The scribes have sold their original screenplay Medieval to New Regency Pictures, who picked it up in a bidding environment. No producers are attached. While Regency or Fox, with whom Regency has a distribution deal, would not comment on the sales figure, sources say it was $800,000 against $1.6 million, a colossal payday not seen in some time in the spec market. The script's story line plays like The Dirty Dozen in the age of castle, plagues and serfs."

    The following is advice I've gotten from a few different agents and producers, most of them on the independent side but with Hollywood experience, too.

  • Have a project that can be pitched in simplistic, marketable terms, even if there's more complexity to it. The above project has that built-in "a medieval Dirty Dozen" way of categorizing it that makes it more sellable.

  • Use contests as a way to get both feedback and, if you win, another way to sell it to an agent.

  • Use online sites like and TriggerStreet to get feedback and sell your wares to people looking for just what you're selling. (But don't use these solely.)

  • Consider making a short film, or at least writing a short script and finding someone to direct it with or for you. A successfully made short film can now be much more of a calling card for both writers and directors, with an increasing number of online markets available as a virtual screening room. If these become popular online, that adds to your power. Which also leads to another suggestion:

  • Make your own damned film! Seriously, someone told me this once as a playful suggestion, and hey, if you can raise several million dollars or whatever the budget would be, more power to you.

  • Write a play and try to get it produced and/or acted out, so you can hear your dialogue and learn from your inevitable mistakes. The problem with a lot of screenplays these days, especially (I'm told) comedies, is that they are written by people who have never heard their stuff read aloud nor have any experience writing for or working with actors.

  • Write like hell, as much as you can, and expect that it will take many, many drafts before your script doesn't suck. Most scripts you like that you see up on the screen went through numerous drafts before getting close to their final state. Which is why you should write something you believe in, care about, rather than just something you think will sell, because you're going to have to spend a lot of time with it and if you end up hating it so will everyone else who has to read it.

  • Also, especially if you're writing comedy, team up with a likeminded soul -- most of the best comedies (or at least ones that are selling) are written by a team. You'll notice a lot of comedies and animated films are credited to more than one writer. Teamwork pays for ensemble pieces and most kinds of comedies.

  • As script reader myself for a few different studios over the years, I can attest to the fact that there are many bad scripts out there (I've certainly written a few of them). I definitely got sick of reading them. Readers have a pile up to the ceiling of scripts to get through and as you've heard a thousand times if they're not into it within a few pages will gladly toss it aside. Do not send in your script until you believe in it and think it's really good. And even then, get feedback from people you trust first because it still may not be very good.

    And what about franchises, existing properties? Should a writer look into acquiring the rights to a book, for instance, as a vehicle for adaptation? l'm going through this right now, looking at a Sci-FI book from decades ago that is fairly obscure but I think would make an existing movie. Even though it's not famous, it's regarded enough, and it's a book, that it would already rank ahead of any spec script I wrote.

    Still, there's the rigamarole of buying the rights to it. Sometimes rights can be acquired fairly cheaply, if a relationship between writers, or writer and the owner of the book's rights, can be established, and if agreement can be reached as far as payments. But I'm still learning about this. If someone out there has more experience with acquisition, do tell.

    Meanwhile, keep hope alive. For every Fast and the Furious sequel and TV sitcom-into-movie, there's an original idea that catches someone's attention, catches on and then catches fire.


    Posted by cphillips at 2:24 PM | Comments (5)
  • March 3, 2009

    DVD OF THE WEEK: Treasures IV


    Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film, 1947-1986
    27 Various Directors
    2009, 312 minutes, U.S.A.
    National Film Preservation Foundation / Image

    What is it about that word "avant-garde" that scares away viewers into thinking "pretentious twaddle" or worse? In a world impressed with middle-of-the-road entertainments and flavors du jour, the fourth edition of the National Film Preservation Foundation's continuing celebration, historical document and survey of adventurous scientists of American cinema should be an event to sit up for. (Actually, fine, this is home video: sit back, fellow cinephiles). Collected over two discs, this smartly curated (if still incomplete) and handsomely transferred set features 26 films never-before-seen with such attention to quality, along with new music from John Zorn and a 70-page booklet, introduced by Martin Scorsese. As a New Yorker, I was especially drawn to the downtown Manhattan scenesters of yore (Shirley Clarke, Ken Jacobs, et al.), including these two gems:

    Chumlum (Ron Rice, 1964) - Rice's work isn't as well known as that of his contemporaries, and this lovely psychedelic 23-minute daydream was my introduction to his work. Filmed in Rice's loft while friend Jack Smith and his Flaming Creatures brethren screened rushes, the film is basically an in-camera superimposed series of rhythmic flourishes, in a light pastel palette of flesh, flowers and flowing fabrics. A mustachioed, shirtless Smith, wearing a sand dollar around his neck and a peculiar headdress (pretty much everyone is dressed with an Arabian exoticism) plays ringleader to a politely orgiastic rolling-around of his collaborators. Scored to original Velvet Underground drummer Angus Maclise's jangly cimbalom (a concert hammer dulcimer favored by Hungarian gypsies), the resulting juxtaposition of sights, sounds and interpretative dancing is discordant in the moment, and yet hazily sweet and compelling. Just don't let Terry Richardson see this, or he'll get the wrong ideas for a project with his shallow hipster clan.

    I, an Actress I, An Actress (George Kuchar, 1977) - One more reason for me to get excited about the upcoming SXSW doc It Came From Kuchar, this 9-minute, high-contrast B&W, faux-Hollywood screen test from brother George—as recorded with students in the last 10 minutes of a class he was teaching—plays with the line between sincerity and sincere camp. A young ingénue, standing in front of a blackboard on which is written "Keep funky," auditions for a director (Kuchar himself), who never seems able to convey what it is that he wants out of her performance. "When I cheat, it's not for sex," the actress tries to perform, but always seems on the verge of laughing, especially as Kuchar deadpans a feminine posture and voice in trying to tell her "exactly" what he wants. The comedy is in the momentum, as the dialogue never stops, even after each take, and by the time our aspiring star must play a dramatic scene to a cloth-draped post sporting a wig, the ridiculousness of learning acting as a skill comes easy.

    Posted by ahillis at 2:29 PM | Comments (2)