The Big Bearl Lake International Film Festival

I just got back from my first film festival and it was a blast.  I was more than just an audience member, I was a screener (meaning I watched submissions to help decide if they belonged in the festival), I worked on the data base with the programming coordinator and I worked the festival as a Q & A moderator.  I think the most rewarding part of all of this was being able to meet the film makers of the films I liked and tell them how much I loved their movie.  I promise you, I only did this when it was true and I didn’t get to do it for all of the ones I liked either. 

Independent film is such an interesting gray area.  The big wigs in Hollywood always want to be the ones who discover the next Diablo Cody, or whoever, but often don’t take risks on good independants without named stars.  Which is odd, because the very definition of an idependant film usually means that it was made without big named stars.  There seems to be an every diminishing middle ground between big budget Hollywood pictures and undistributed independent films. 

The motto of the organization Film Independent is “Story Matters”, because it does.  That is what independent films without people you recognize are all about, the story.  This is one of the reasons going to a film festival can be so fun, you get to see wonderful films that you otherwise may never have the chance to see.  The short movies can be the most fun at a festival because there really are very few places to see them otherwise.  Film Festival movies are not of a lower quality than what you might see in a regular theater, as you might fear.  Many of the films you see in the theater started out at a film festival.  If you like to be entertained by good stories, both long and short, a film festival is something you should attend because they need audiences just as much as they need film makers. 

I would like to mention some of my favorites if I may.

Limbo Lounge directed and written by Tom Pankratz
Stuck in Limbo after a fatal acciendent, a charming conman attempts to earn his horns, by corrupting an innocent soul on Earth.

An original idea well executed, what more could a movie ask for?  Distribution.  This is a fun and poinient story with the tag line: “How Low Will You Go?”  Such a fun double meaning.  All of the elements came together in this movie, nothing felt forced.  This was Pankratz first feature film, although you would never guess that watching it.  If you can catch a screening of Limbo Lounge anywhere, do and if you know any distributors, this film deserves a shot.  Only drawback? The Limbo Rock song will be stuck in your head for days.

Solitary written by Greg Derochie and Charles Scalfani, directed by Greg Derochie
An agoraphobic woman is trapped inside her house and thinks that her husband and psychiatrist are trying to drive her insane.

Billed as a thriller/mystery that has you hooked from the beginning trying to figure out what is really going on.  Nothing is what it seems, an illusion that is sometimes hard to create without losing your audience, but is done elegantly by Derochie and company.  Well paced and just the right length, another movie that needs to be seen.

Cast Me If You Can written by Atshushi Ogata and Akane Shiratori, directed by Atsushi Ogata
trailer: (in Japanese without subtitles, but you can get the idea of the tone and look of the film)
Hiroshi, an actor who always plays supporting roles and lives in the shadow of his famous playwright father, struggles daily to climb out of his marginalized existence.  One day Hiroshi’s luck changes.  He meets his muse Aya, falls in love and learns to play the lead in his own life.

Although my trailer above doesn’t have subtitltes, the movie does.  This is a fun, lighthearted story that keeps you smiling.  In the Q&A after the film festival viewing, Atshushi Ogata, the director, told us of a little casting joke that those of us not familiar with Japanese cinema wouldn’t have gotten without his explaining.  The actor playing the lead Hiroshi, the eternal supporting actor, really is famous as a supporting actor in Japan.  His supporting cast in this movie are mostly actors known for playing leads in Japan.  Ogata’s playful spirit comes through on the screen and it is a really fun movie.

Earthwork written and directed by Chris Ordal
Earthwork is the true story of real life crop artist Stan Herd who plants his unique, rural art in New York City with the help of a group of homeless characters on a plot of land owned by Donald Trump.

This was one of the first features that I screened and I was really blown away by how visually uplifting it was from the opening credits to the end.  It stars John Hawkes, one of the most genuine indepentent movie actors around.  Though this film does have some recognizable actors in it, (Hawkes and James McDaniel of NYPD Blue) it is still an independent film.  Earthwork is a good uplifting story and a very well made film.

Next blog entry: documentaries.


Going the Distance::Sweet, Real and Kinda Dirty.

I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised at how crude some of the conversations were in Going the Distance.  I sat in a theater on a Wednesday afternoon with one other person in that gigantic room with me and she and I were laughing our butts off at some of the dialogue.  It had a sense of reality in those conversations that is often lacking in other movies and I think that is why it was so funny.  I think that men who get dragged to this movie will still have something to enjoy.

Justin Long is too adorable for words and at one point Drew Barrymore actually looked like her five-year-old self in E.T.  Drew did none of her cutesy acting – she even told a guy in a bar to suck her dick!  There was a scene where Drew is asking Justin different questions about his life and it felt improved because his answers were so witty and her laugh was so genuine.  Both characters had an obsession with the video game Centipede, my favorite video game of all time, so the movie won me over pretty early on.  I liked that she was really into the video game because  to me  THAT is realism.  I hate romantic comedies when the woman is so girly and uptight that she has no grit or resemblence to any women I know. 

I don’t know if Drew and Justin are still dating or not (she refuses to talk about it and I think that is a good idea) but if they are, I’d like to congratulate them on maintaining chemistry on screen too.  So many real life couples try to work together and the movie is a dud because of the lack of sexual tension on screen.  They had plenty of chemistry and these two are characters that you are genuinely rooting for by the end of the movie.  The script (First timer Geoff LaTulippe) and direction (Nanette Burstein, On The Ropes) were both right on the money, it was well paced and witty.  My only complaint was the phone sex scene.  Their forced difficulty reminded me of one of those infomercials trying to get you to by the special pasta strainer pot with lid because pooring the water out of the pot is just so hard.  They could have floated the idea that phone sex still isn’t real sex, but it’s honeslty not that complicated. 

They didn’t skirt the issues of the long distance thing, as it’s often called.  There is always an added pressure to the relationship of which one of us is going to give up our life that we build in our city to come and resent you in yours?  It’s practically a no win situation.  The bottom line is that if you move to your mate to make the relationship work, it will most certainly die.   Unless you have no life where you are and that was not true of either character.  The rumor on IMdb is that Geoff LaTulippe is a friend of the producer David Neustadter and based his script on a long distance relationship David had with a girlfriend.  If that is true, it explains why it seemed so realistic, except for the fake tan scene.  Nothing about that seemed realistic to me.  Few people in San Francisco have a tan or care about a tan and Justin Long is not that pale.

All of the supporting roles were just perfect; Christina Appelgate as Drew’s uptight sister was very believable, Jim Gaffigan as Christina Appelgate’s husband was good, although I love me some Gaffigan and would have liked to see him more.  I also love Jason Sudeikis and he and his mustache did not disappoint.  Several comedians and comedic actors made cameos: Kristen Schaal (Flight of the Conchords), Mike Birbiglia (if you don’t know his standup, YouTube him, you won’t be disappointed), Rob Riggle (The Daily Show), and Ron Livingston (Office Space).  I think you have to like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, or at least have seen it, to enjoy Charlie Day – he is very crude and an acquired taste.  Oh yeah and he’s really funny,  I think it’s his scratchy voice that does it.

The music was good, although it really had to be because Justin Long’s character worked at a record label.  They featured a real band called The Boxer Rebellion who I really liked.  I recommend checking them out.  Their album “Union” was recently voted Best Alternative Album of 2009 by the editors of iTunes and  awarded Best Men In Black by SPIN (according to Wikipeida).

Another movie that will not change your life, but is a very enjoyable 2 hours.

You Have The Right To Remain Entertained

Crime dramas are some of the highest rated and most popular shows.  Some of the most enduring shows of all time are about crime and the catching of criminals.  Murder She Wrote re-launched Angela Lansbury’s career.  Hill Street Blues made Stephen Bochco a household name (until he did Cop Rock).  LA Law put actors like Jimmy Smits, Corbin Bernsen and Harry Hamlin on the map.  Law and Order, one of the most bare bones looks at the legal system in action, is the longest running show ever.  Not just the longest running crime show, it’s the longest running show of any kind.  After 23 seasons Law and Order decided to lay down its gavel and gun much to the chagrin of the fans who would have gladly sat through another 23 seasons.  It was a respectable show with stories “ripped from the headlines” making each episode riveting and adding a “you can’t make this stuff up” kind of reality.  It had the unique distinction of being both a cop show and a courtroom drama filled with cameos from our favorite actors over the years. 

So why is our culture so obsessed with crime?  More importantly what about crime do we as a society seem to find so interesting and ultimately entertaining?  There doesn’t even seem to be a solid trend as to which side of the law we like our entertainment to be on.  We are both interested in criminals and the institutions that catch them.  Audiences love seeing characters in television shows getting away with things (House, The Sopranos, Lie to Me, Burn Notice, White Collar, Heroes, Lost, Weeds, Rescue Me, Supernatural, Breaking Bad) and also love likable characters serving justice to the wrong doers (Law and Order, The Wire, NCIS, CSI: all of them, NYPD Blue, Boston Legal, Psych, White Collar, The X-Files-sort of, Ghost Whisperer, Medium).  This isn’t even a recent trend.  Westerns, which were all the rage when tv dramas first started, are all about the law and justice. 

The one of the answers is really simple.  Crime stories lend themselves to story writing perfectly.  They involve a mystery to be solved (a problem) and an organization that focuses on nothing else (a solution).  It has a perfect arc built in.  All that is needed is some characterization and a clever crime.  A lot of these shows have a sub-plot that involves the characters’ personal lives that give an arc to the entire season.

The other answer is that it is satisfying to identify with both criminal and law enforcement.  It seems a common motivation to get away with whatever you can even if only on a small level (speeding, lying, and goofing off at work) by a large portion of our country’s residents.  We also love the satisfaction we feel knowing the “bad guy” is behind bars.  That’s why Lifetime movies are so popular; they are full of vindication for the victims.  Either side of this coin gives us something to cheer for.  And although real life is full of unsolved crimes (we even have shows dedicated to them – reality shows) you will rarely see this in your weekly drama.  Fiction needs to have an ending even if it is trying to emulate life as realistically as it can.  We want realism, just not that much.

When in Rome:: Could Have Been Great

When I saw Twilight: New Moon with my neice, we saw a preview for When in Rome.  We both thought it looked really funny.  She saw it before I did and I asked her what she thought.  “It was okay, not as good as I expected,” was her reply.  I still decided to give it a chance as a rental.  At first I thought, “what’s she talking about, this is really funny.”  And then I started to see what she was talking about. 

The premise is really a good one: what would happen if you took wishing coins OUT of the famous “Foutain of Love” in Rome, instead of tossing them in?  It starts out good, Kristen Bell is adorable and believable as a type A, workaholic with incredibly bad luck.  She seems to be the new it comedy girl and I loved her in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.  I’m not usually a Josh Duhamel fan because I think he tends to be a little too cool for school, if you know what I mean.  However, he was a charming clutz in this and I really loved him doing slapstick.

Now I know this kind of movie isn’t meant to be realistic in any fashion, but there still needs to be a semblance of realism to make it watchable.  If we don’t have a little bit of reality sprinkled over the top of romantic comedies then they are hard to follow.  My first complaint wasn’t a movie ruiner, but was a complaint of missed opportunity.  She pulls four coins from the fountain and they all belonged to men.  Really?  Are so many men throwing coins into the Fountain of Love in Rome that all four random coins she would grab are from men?  I think it would have made for an interesting scene or two if one of them was a straight woman who was very confused by her feelings.  They still could have kept it very “G” rated. 

I thought that the over the top men she did fall in love with were pretty funny, (Will Arnett – Arrested Development, Dax Shepard – Let’s Go to Prison, Jon Heder – Napoleon Dynamite and Danny DiVito – who doesn’t know Danny DiVito?) for the most part, but some of their antics were a little dumb and some were so unrealistic that it takes you right out of the movie.  Will Arnett’s character paints a giant nude of her on the side of a building.  Did he get a permit for that?  Not to mention that all he would get through was about five brush strokes before the cops would arrest him.  He later claims that he isn’t really an artist, really?  All of his drawings of Ms. Bell look amazingly like her, is he really that unaware of what art is like?

Jon Heder’s magician character was so funny as were his tricks.  I do believe he was making fun of Criss Angel and was dead on.  There is even an homage to Napoleon Dynamite, but I don’t want to ruin it for anybody.  If have seen Napole0n Dynamite, you’ll know what it is.

There is also a date that Josh Duhamel and Kristen Bell go on that almost is a good premise.  It’s a restaurant where you eat entirely in the dark.  I couldn’t help but wonder why this New York restaurant (that, I know, doesn’t really exist) didn’t take more precautions to keep people from touching other people and breaking things.  How did it stay in business more than a night after being so poorly planned out?  Kristen Schaal from Flight of the Conchords was very funny as their hostess with nightvision goggles, but this scene was short and it’s location seemed pointless other than to have a lot of akward moments.

Okay, so up to this point in the movie I can forgive the lack of realism, but now comes the bad writing and I can’t forgive that.  It had three climaxes.  Kristen Bell is convinced three times that she pulled Josh Duhamel’s coin out of the fountain and tries to run away from him three times (one of the times is because she misunderstands a kiss).  It’s excessive and annoying.  If her realization about taking a chance on love came a little more organically then maybe the writers wouldn’t have resorted to false endings.  I can think of several things that could have saved this movie, I just wish that the writers had also thought of them.  It really could have been a cute and funny romantic comedy, but it wasn’t.