Wednesday, April 30, 2014

'Mean Girls' as imagined by Lars von Trier

Today is a day of celebration and commemoration in Hollywood, as it marks the 10th anniversary of teen cult classic Mean Girls, and the 58th birthday of auteur Lars von Trier. Upon first glance, the hit film and the director may not appear to have much in common. One takes a satiric and fairly straightforward look at female dynamics in the predatory hotbed of a suburban high school, while the other practices a much more oblique form of human ribbing and doesn’t really “do” straightforward. Yet both are concerned with themes of guilt, shame, and the grey area at once separating and blurring into good and evil. Mean Girls and Lars von Trier concern themselves with our baser points of commonality in order to make a fine point about our inescapably common, in the sense of shared, humanness.

Which leads us to wonder just what Mean Girls would have looked like had von Trier brought his heavily referential Nymphomaniac method of directing to bear upon the film, one decade ago…

Mean Girls as Imagined by Lars von Trier:

We imagine a Biblical mishmash of an allegory, with Regina George (Rachel McAdams) meant to represent the fallen archangel Lucifer bent on destroying the good in simple, innocent, kind Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan). Our heroine’s first name gestures to the golf term “caddie,” or a helper, and it's no coincidence her surname is that of a fish, a reference to the famed “loaves and fishes” Bible story. (The ancient tale’s emphasis on the regeneration of materials carries sexual implications as well, furthered by a second interpretation of Cady Heron’s name: Cady could also be a play on "Caddy," a type of Volkswagen pickup truck known upon its 1980s debut in North America as the VW Rabbit Pickup Truck. Rabbits are, of course, a hyperactively procreative species.) In a neat turn of gender reversal, Cady is also an Adam figure, having been cast out of Eden, or Africa, at the beginning of the story for having given into physical temptation and attempted to kiss her childhood crush, Nfume. Later in the film, she will fall prey to temptation once again in the form of her sinfully uncharitable, possibly once again lustful?, quest to take down Regina George.

In addition to the Biblical overtones, von Trier’s Mean Girls would necessarily include a discursive
cerebral element. Regina George henchman Gretchen Wieners (Lacey Chabert) and her obsession with the supposedly British slang term “fetch,” her desperate need to make fetch a popular phrase among her peers or “make fetch happen,” aptly supplies the intellectual heft. Following the de Saussurean model of linguistic semiotics, then, the word “fetch” is used as a signifier for the abstract concept of cool or desirable, the signified. Taken together, signifier and signified form a sign. To where is this sign pointing Cady? To go fetch the desirable Regina George, of course; to bring the fallen soul back into the fold. Taking this a step further, as is the von Trier way, the fact that fetch is a British term may function as an allusion to the Revolutionary War, during which rebels rejected the fold or oversight of the British father(land). Naturally, Cady does not succeed in wholly reforming rebel Regina. This may be a comment upon the futility of her mission or, given Cady's ultimate redemption after suffering the evils that drive Regina herself, the nobility of her attempt. Take it as you will.

Still with us? Don’t worry, in von Trier’s Mean Girls, Ms. Norbury (Tina Fey) has a much larger role, accompanying Cady throughout the halls of North Shore High and commenting upon her doings in order to aid the audience in catching, at the very least, a backdraft of the many references coursing through the film. Ms. Norbury would be the Virgil figure, which is apt, as this would make high school Hell.

Anyway, having covered religion and the intellect, there must of course be an overt sexual occurrence in Mean Girls-by-way-of-von-Trier. Minor character Kevin G raps about copulating with another man’s girlfriend halfway through the film: “I’m Kevin Gnapoor/The G is silent when I sneak in your door/And make love to your woman on the bathroom floor/I don’t play it like Shaggy/You’ll know it was me/Cuz the next time you see her/She be like ‘Ohhh! Kevin G!”  A flashback would depict this scene in visceral detail: The grout-y tile of the bathroom floor beneath the girlfriend’s backside, which is leaning up against, and thus feels the full force of, the door in question when it opens to admit the wronged boyfriend. The woman’s final moan ("Ohhh! Kevin G!") would be equal parts ecstasy and pain, bliss and hurt, violence and love, an aural microcosm of the human condition which, cutting back to Kevin’s performance in the present moment, would culminate in audience applause. What does it mean? Take it as you will.

Finally, in von Trier’s Mean Girls, the film would end, as the original does not, when Regina George
gets hit by a bus. Cady would be forced to reckon with her widely perceived culpability. Students and townspeople would shun and crucify her via rumor. Though Cady comes to feel ashamed of her stint as a mean girl, eventually finding her way back to her old, kind self, the community’s reaction would drive her crazy. Literally. Like Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin, the innately kindhearted Cady would be driven to madness by the evils of the world around her. She would herself jump in front of a bus. Or into a lake. Fin.

Thus, popular reaction to Lars von Trier’s Mean Girls could easily be summarized in the phrase, “a serious downer.” Others would undoubtedly hail it as a masterpiece. Could a von Trier Mean Girls have ever come to rival the Tina Fey-Mark Waters creation? Alas, the world will never know.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Tribeca 2014 Wrap-Up

Another whirlwind 12 days have come and gone for the tireless organizers and lucky participants of the Tribeca Film Festival. This year’s slate was strong, with a mix of marquee names and neophyte filmmakers (mostly) moving audiences and critics to enthusiasm. Awards were announced Saturday, April 26, and included the below highlights:
'Zero Motivation'

Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature: Zero Motivation. Israel is the only country that requires compulsory military service from both men and women, and the latter bring drama and humor to this foreign entry. Filmmaker Talya Lavie also received the Nora Ephron Prize, or $25,000.  

Best Actor in a Narrative Feature Film: Paul Schneider, Goodbye to All That

Best Actress in a Narrative Feature Film: Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Human Capital (Italy)

Best Screenplay: The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, written (and directed) by Guillaume Nicloux (France)

Best Documentary Feature: Point and Shoot, directed by Marshall Curry

But with a lineup that included 89 feature films, not to mention countless speakers and supplementary events, the Tribeca Film Festival offered a great deal else of note. Life Partners, for instance, the movie Millennials know as the film on which Blair Waldorf and Seth Cohen met and fell in love (actors Leighton Meester and Adam Brody are now married), was among one of the most pleasant surprises of the festival. Fun and likable, the feature, which chronicles the relationship between two latter-end twentysomething girls (Meester and Gillian Jacobs) as one finds a beau and the other struggles with abandonment issues, is just as relatable as it would like to be.

Then there is the “weird Belgian film” deserving of attention. Like Life Partners, the documentary Ne Me Quitte Pas follows a pair of best friends, in this instance two latter-end middle-aged men struggling with alcoholism and family trouble. The film won the award for Best Documentary Editing, and the jury had this to say of its decision:

This year’s prize for editing celebrates a pair of filmmakers’ ability to give shape, rhythm, and even mythic beauty to a story that might have been, frankly, a sodden mess. For finding luster in the most unlikely places, the winners of this year’s prize for Best Documentary Editing goes to Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden for their bittersweet portrait of two Belgian boozers.

There is nothing messy or sodden about the documentary Tomorrow We Disappear, which takes advantage of cinema’s ability to delight the eye, and does just that. It’s a commemorative work documenting artists’ community Kathputli Colony in New Delhi, India. The Indian government is currently trying to displace the Kathputli artists (who have been living on government land for the past 50 years or so) and Disappear captures both the modern turmoil this threat creates among community members, as well as the timeless beauty of community members’ traditional art. Cinematographers Josh Cogan and Will Bisanta use the slum colony’s many shadowed, labyrinthine alleyways and brightly painted buildings to capture images as lovely as doc subject and renowned puppeteer Puran Bhatt’s hand-painted puppet of a prince.
'Tomorrow We Disappear'

The narrative feature Gabriel, helmed by writer and first-time director Lou Howe and starring MacCauley Culkin’s younger brother Rory (who, in person, with his long hair and pale skin, is Byronic) also boasts atmospheric, arresting images – the leitmotif of a reaching, leafless tree, hues of blue and brown – but for the purpose of serving more discomfiting ends.  The film, inspired by a friend of Howe’s who was diagnosed with mental illness as a teenager, tells the story of the titular schizophrenic as, come hell, high water, or the interference of his loving and concerned family, he sets off in search of a childhood crush. It’s a star-making turn for actor and director alike.

Writer Aaron Sorkin is no stranger to the star machine, having played an instrumental role in the career-making turns of Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, and Jesse Eisenberg, as well as fanning second winds for Martin Sheen and Rob Lowe. The controversial screenwriter was on hand last Monday night to discuss his legacy and assert his lack of a political agenda (something many might find difficult to believe of TV’s “The West Wing" writer). Sorkin is a voluble personality who has earned a reputation for contentiousness and pretension, but he comports himself well in person. It’s clear by the many hesitations, pauses, and qualifications of which he took advantage throughout the night he has felt the ill effects of foot-in-mouth syndrome before. But most of what he had to say – we’ve “commoditized nastiness” in popular culture; there’s nothing threatening about the current spate of quality programming on TV because “Movies are awesome. There is no war going on. Film is not going to lose to television;” and “I wasn’t trying to and am not capable of teaching a professional journalism class,” as regards his critically maligned (and recently canceled) HBO show “The Newsroom” – was hardly galling.

The most humble statement Sorkin offered will likely interest any fan, or detractor for that matter, of his distinct “Sorkinesque” style of rat-tat-tat dialogue: “I’m not sophisticated when it comes to politics, when it comes to journalism, or, as you can tell, as articulate” as the characters he writes. “When I write about something I don’t have a sophisticated understanding of, I write it phonetically.” I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone speak like the characters Sorkin writes, but I would like to.

A similar sense of tentatively optimistic ambivalence characterized my reaction to the Storyscapes demonstrations, “innovative and interactive transmedia work across genres,” which took place April 23 through 26. I experienced the Bombay Sapphire Award for Transmedia winner, Clouds, which I don’t think I fully understood but by which I was awed anyway. I viewed the project through a pair of Oculus Rift glasses, a complicated contraption that required one of the demonstrators strap it atop my head – the heavy goggles themselves first, which included a racer-back strap encircling the back of my skull, followed by a large pair of padded headphones.  I then watched a bit of Clouds the documentary, a virtual-reality experience contained entirely within the goggles that featured prominent tech talking heads speaking about tech things. But the Oculus Rift was projecting too many interesting images for me to pay much attention to what was being said. Anyway, I kept changing the speaker – by focusing your attention in the center of a circle that appeared on the edges of your vision, you could “select” another topic for the speakers to discuss. Off you would whoosh, or your sight would, down a tunnel lined with little white lights. Apparently, there was enough material for the doc to run eight hours. A map outlining the various algorithms at play and the many, many possible combinations of questions and speakers, looking like somebody unraveled the heavens and snarled the stars, offered a 2D, but no less daunting for that, look at the effort such a project requires. It was heady.

As was the somewhat similar entry not in competition, Rise. Another virtual-reality, Oculus Rift bid, Rise seemed to have more of a direct or at least obvious link with the world of entertainment. On went another pair of cumbersome goggles-and-headphones. This project was a trailer for a fictional animated crime film named Rise. The computer-generated graphics created the sense of being trapped inside a videogame.  The setting looked like a large indoor parking garage or warehouse space, while your attention was (supposed to be) focused on one figure holding a gun and another, a seated robot, tossing what looked like a small metal box into the air – a bomb, if the ticking sound effects were any indication. Neither figure moved, but the trailer was edited in such a way that, if you were to view the scene head-on, your vision revolved about them, eventually completing a full 360-degree turn during which you “moved” in closer and closer. If, like me, you felt the unnerving proximity to these two characters too unnerving, you could turn your head about and look elsewhere in the parking-garage-cum-warehouse space. The impression that I was in fact standing inside a room was so strong I felt compelled to close my eyes more than once.

Which is no way to view the future of movies. Next year, I’ll be better prepared.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Barney Frank gives a grudging thumbs-up to his bio-doc

Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank retired from office on January 3, 2013, after 32 years in the House of Representatives, and it’s become increasingly clear that no one has come close to filling the void he’s left among liberal politicians. A master debater, a blistering wit and a skilled negotiator, he brought a skill set to the art of legislating that’s not easy to replicate. His wit in particular is on full display in Compared to What: The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank, the entertaining and endearing documentary profile that had its world premiere on the closing day of the Tribeca Film Festival, followed by a Q&A with Frank and his husband Jim Ready, moderated by Alec Baldwin.
Although the film by Sheila Canavan and Michael Chandler is upbeat and largely complimentary, Frank and especially Ready were clearly not altogether sanguine about their first viewing of the doc. “It’s your life,” Frank shrugged during the Q&A, “and there are some things I would have done differently.” But he did state he was “very pleased with the general themes” of the film, praising its portrait of the struggles of gays and lesbians against societal prejudice, and its assertion that cynicism in politics is “an inappropriate answer most of the time.” But Ready flat-out objected to the film’s inclusion of the well-documented scandal that nearly ended Frank’s political career in 1989, when it was revealed that the Congressman had hired a male prostitute as his live-in driver and housekeeper and he was wrongly accused of allowing him to run a prostitution ring out of his home. Ready called the filmmakers’ decision to cover that episode “embarrassing” and “kind of rude,” apparently unfamiliar with what documentarians do—and the fact that to overlook this career crisis would have sparked a firestorm of questions about the project’s journalistic standards. Of course, Ready, who runs a business making custom awnings, isn’t accustomed to public scrutiny of the kind Frank has endured.

Though Frank spoke during the Q&A about the value of public service and the need to avoid cynicism, it’s evident that the current climate in Washington has taken a toll. At the beginning of the doc, he jokes that he knew it was time to step down when his attitude changed from “How can I help you?” to “Why are you bothering me?” And he says it’s a relief not to have to pretend to like certain people anymore.

At the age of 13, Frank dreamed of a political career but also knew he was gay, and thought the two were irreconcilable. Nonetheless, he ran for the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1972 and won, serving for eight years. And in 1980, he rose to the U.S. House of Representatives, succeeding Father Robert Drinan, who stepped down after the Pope instructed priests to leave political posts. (During the Q&A, Frank wondered what the Pope would have thought of his replacement being a homosexual.) Conscious of being part of “a despised minority,” Frank led a relatively chaste and unhappy social life until 1987, when he became the first member of Congress to voluntarily “come out of the room,” as Tip O’Neill, the wary House Speaker, hilariously phrased it. “You cannot live that way forever,” Frank reflected during the Q&A. “You cannot live holding a gun to your own head.”

Compared to What makes the case for Frank as a major gay-rights figure not just for that courageous decision, but for his outspoken stance on terrible legislative decisions like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act. (In one devilish clip, Frank jokes that the canard that same-sex unions threaten the institution of marriage sounds like “an argument made by someone in an institution.”)

The doc also spends a lot of time in the economic weeds chronicling Frank’s tenure on the House Financial Services Committee (including as chairman from 2007 to 2010) and his role in reforming financial institutions that culminated in the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010. In a pretty remarkable sign of bipartisanship that seems to have disappeared from Washington, Frank’s successor as chairman, Alabama Republican Congressman Spencer Bachus, was at the Tribeca after-party for the film to say some kind words about his friend and colleague. Compared to that, the noisy bickering on the cable news channels each night looks childish indeed. Is it any wonder this gifted statesman has retired to long-denied domestic married life?
—Kevin Lally

‘Just Before I Go:’ Roundtable with Courteney Cox & cast

The actress makes her feature-film directorial debut with the “inappropriate” dramedy.

Courteney Cox’s character on "Friends," Monica Geller, is The Organized One. She is Type A, right-brained, the glue to her best friend Rachel Green’s (Jennifer Aniston) shiny glitter. Her need to control the situation is a running joke that endures the length of the beloved sitcom’s 10-season run. And while Cox herself seems much more relaxed in person, the Monica Geller parallels are unavoidable: Both women place a premium on organization, both are very funny, and both appear to leave lasting impressions on their Friends.

Cox’s feature directorial debut Just Before I Go premiered towards the end of the Tribeca Film Festival this past Thursday. Starring Seann William Scott, Olivia Thirlby, and Garret Dillahunt, Go is
Courteney Cox
a dramedy that follows the most vanilla of nondescript everymans, Ted Morgan, as he confronts the friends and family he holds responsible for his perceived failure of a life. The title makes reference to the urgency of Morgan’s bitter bucket list: At the end of his visit to his hometown, he intends to kill himself.

It’s a dark subject treated with a light directorial touch Cox’s cast describes as more than competent. William Scott gushes, “but honestly, funniest person I’d ever met. .. I just always knew I was taken care of. It was fun.” Addressing the director herself, “Your confidence with the camera” was “awesome.”

Mackenzie Marsh seconds William Scott’s enthusiasm. Just Before I Go signaled a first for the musical theatre actress as well: The role of Morgan’s former middle-school crush, Vickie, was her first film gig. “She took a huge chance on me,” she says of Cox.  “She really let me do my thing, and when she did come to give us any direction it was so intimate.”

At one point in the often ribald comedy – throughout the interview, the word “inappropriate” is frequently tossed about  in reference to lines, scenes, ideas, undisclosed on-set bribes –  Dillahunt’s character Lucky, Ted Morgan’s brother, refers to Marsh’s character as “fatty.” The line was not in the original script.

Remembers Marsh, “Courteney was so great and sensitive, but I was like, ‘No, whatever!’ You know, [she] just pulled me aside and said, ‘Is this OK if we add the word fatty?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, let’s do that. Take that moment.’ But I just thought that was so respectful. So unnecessary, but so wonderful from the producer-director.”

The producer-director was equally laudatory of her cast, saying of William Scott upon entering the room, “Isn’t he handsome?” Describing Marsh as “amazing… so gorgeous, so talented, and so beautiful,” praising the comedic timing of actress Cleo King, calling the absent Evan Ross, who plays King’s son Romeo, “so perfect” for his role.

Though her evident humor has a caustic streak, manifested in dry understatement, sarcasm, and a well-timed jab, there’s little that is acidic about Cox. Take her relationship with ex-husband David Arquette, who makes a brief cameo as Marsh’s husband.

“I love directing him,” Cox says. “I think David is an amazing actor. He’s just so interesting. There’s so much going on in that brain at all times…And he just broke my heart,” during an emotional scene with William Scott. “It was so natural. I thought they were good together.” Cox reflects, “We have a weird relationship. He’s my bud.”

The family affair also extended to the former couple’s nine-year-old daughter, who lends her vocals to the titular song that opens and closes the film. The decision to include Coco was made “probably a week ago. Maybe two weeks ago.” It was a choice born of pragmatics as much as parental love. “I had an original thought of what I wanted” for the music, “but I couldn’t afford one song that I wanted. Not one.”

Luckily, Cox had a pair of men, each prominent in his field, to lend her some sound advice. Director Gus Van Sant suggested she add the theme from the "Odd Couple" when a scene that included an (naturally) inappropriate word failed to generate laughs during a test screening. His suggestion worked – viewers at a recent press showing chuckled right on cue.  Then there was Cox’s new beau Johnny McDaid, he of Snow Patrol fame, willing and ready to have his band record an original song or two for the soundtrack. “It really elevated the movie,” she says of McDaid’s contribution.
But the on-set experience wasn’t without its challenges.

Seann William Scott

“Oh my God, it was awful,” says William Scott when asked how he enjoyed filming the movie’s opening underwater scene. The sight of a “massive tank” full of water caused the actor to balk. “I was like, 'Dude, I can’t do this.' So we did a little bit of practicing and then I panicked. I really panicked. I was like, ‘I’m so sorry, I don’t know what we’re going to do.’ ”

He did, eventually, hop in the tank and shoot the scene – but not without a little prompting from his director.

“There was some torture going on. Sean was like, ‘I think we’re going to have to do this in more than one day.’ I was like, ‘I think not. Pull it together.’ [Laughs.] But it worked out the way we did it.”
William Scott agrees. “It looks great.”

So, what’s next on the horizon for the newly minted feature-film director?

“I have really nothing going on,” Cox says bluntly. “But I’m on the bubble. A show called 'Cougar Town.' I have no directing jobs.” She turns to the members of her cast seated beside her, and deadpans, “So thank you. I hope you guys feel great.”

'Loitering with Intent' producer Keith Kjarval talks about his Unifed Pictures slate

Keith Kjarval on Loitering with Intent, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 18.
Sam Rockwell and Marisa Tomei in Loitering with Intent.
A Tribeca Film Festival veteran, producer Keith Kjarval brought the premiere of the comedy/drama Loitering with Intent to this year's event. Directed by Adam Rapp, it stars screenwriters Michael Godere and Ivan Martin as writers who are trying to complete a script despite romantic (and other) distractions swirling around them.

A founder of Unified Pictures, Kjarval is in the enviable position of promoting two other features as well. Rudderless, actor William H. Macy's feature directing debut, is a musical drama that closed this year's Sundance Film Festival. It will be released in theaters by Samuel Goldwyn and on VOD by Paramount. And Kjarval is also a producer on Trust Me, a Starz Digital Media release that was written and directed by actor Clark Gregg. It opens on June 6 in theaters and on May 6 on VOD.

In between screenings, Kjarval met in a Tribeca hotel to talk about his career. Burly and ruddy, he is a forceful, gregarious presence, outgoing, affable, and willing to dive into any topic.

Born and raised in Chicago, Kjarval traces his interest in movies to a screening he saw as a child of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It was introduced by Michael Douglas, who spoke about the process of adapting a novel to film. Kjarval told his mother then and there that he wanted to become a producer. Entering college on a baseball scholarship, he studied theater and business, both of which would apply to his later work.
A short stint with Second City convinced Kjarval that he didn't have the passion for acting. What did drive him was the desire to find movie material and assemble creative packages around them. Choosing that material can be a drawn-out process.

"I'm very rarely pitched projects in the typical way, from agents, for example," Kjarval explains. "I read a lot, usually from trusted sources. I know writers, I know directors, I know actors, and I want to know what they are looking at. Almost every one of my films I've found that way."

Writer Matthew Jones sent Kjarval A Single Shot, a film that the producer then built "from the ground up." For Loitering with Intent, actor Sam Rockwell—who starred in A Single Shot—brought Kjarval the script. In the case of Trust Me, Kjarval was trying to find a way to work with Gregg Clark.
Over the years Kjarval has built up relationships with actors like Rockwell, who appears in both Loitering with Intent and Trust Me. "He sent me something that we're going to be working on with David Gordon Green," Kjarval says. "Sam's one of those people who make you raise your game. He has such an incredible work ethic, you find yourself working that much harder. He forces you to be prepared."

Kjarval has worked with veteran directors like David Lynch as well as first-timers like Macy. In both extremes he sees his role "first and foremost" as an extension of the director's vision. But Kjarval also says he is a "hands on" producer, someone who has to put together a business plan for each project.

"A producer has to take the film from A to Z creatively," he reasons. "Apart from the director, he's the person who knows the material best. He has to defend it, oftentimes more than the director does."

Kjarval's typical budgets range from three to eight million. Through product placement, bartering, and other arrangements, he can often make a small budget seem larger—"punch it out of my weight class, so to speak."

So with Loitering with Intent, Kjarval's goal was not just to get the film finished, but do it in a reasonable and fiscally responsible way. "Just like for Trust Me, we knew that there was just one particular price point that made sense for that film. My job there was to get Clark to agree with me."

Kjarval admits that his goals are sometimes at odds with what a director wants. "It's like a marriage, you have conversations, you explain why you feel what you do, you present different viewpoints. Logical people will come to the conclusion that one way or the other is right."

Billy Crudup (center) in Rudderless.
For Rudderless, Kjarval found himself advising Macy on how to choose an editor. "Bill is a great director, I actually think he will be a better director than actor, if you can imagine. But he had not been through that process of hiring an editor. Me, that's how I cut my teeth—finding DP's, designers, editors. So we had very in-depth talks and watched reels together and agreed on John Axelrad, who had cut James Gray's films. John understands the kind of non-'ha ha' comedy that was perfect for Rudderless."
Kjarval mentions Audiert and Terrence Malick as directors he would like to work with. If pressed, he will admit that he'd love to make a big-budget epic with someone like David Lynch.

Is there a common theme to his movies?

"I'm looking for characters who are put into moral positions, positions that make me question what I would do," he answers. "I see myself as a 'good' guy, I think we all think of ourselves as good, but through another pair of eyes we might seem completely different. I love feeling conflicted about Sam Rockwell's character in A Single Shot, whether or not I would behave the same way given that situation."

Kjarval admits that his films appeal to a certain audience, but is unwilling to pinpoint that demographic. "I guess you could say they're for people who want something different than Transformers or Avengers—not that there is anything wrong with those movies."

He also agrees that streaming movies has become a way of life, and a vital source of income for his projects. "You can't control what happens after you've been inspired to do what you do," he argues. "But I don't believe that the theatrical experience is dead. There are people like me who still go to a movie theater three or more times a week. In fact, there aren't enough great films for me to consume every year."

Kjarval sighs about the drawbacks to his job. "There are times when I have to say, 'Guys, we are not going to have enough time to get through this, we're going to have to color it in post.'

"But we all want to tell the right stories," he adds. "You know, I can get to anyone and I can get anyone to work for a price if the script is good enough."

The other sex leads ‘The Other Woman’ to weekend win

A majority female audience (75 percent) helped Cameron Diaz comedy The Other Woman take first place at the box office this weekend. The laugher debuted to $24.7 million, finally displacing Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which had reigned supreme for the past three weeks. The Captain clocked in at No. 2 with $16.05 million.

While Woman failed to match the opening-weekend success of what is still the gold standard in female comedies, Bridesmaids ($26.2 million), it nonetheless exceeded expectations. Can it hang tough against this coming weekend’s big release, The Amazing Spider-Man 2? Probably not, but a final tally north of $60 million isn’t out of the question.

Coming in just behind Captain America for the weekend’s third-place slot, Heaven is For Real enjoyed a solid sophomore outing. The faith-based offering earned an additional $13.8 million, bumping its cume to $51.9 million. The film is poised to out-earn Son of God, which took in $59.6 million, this weekend.

Experiencing a none-too-shabby downturn of 38 percent, kids’ flick Rio 2 grossed $13.7 million. The sequel’s total now stands at a little over $96 million, meaning the film should cross the $100 million mark this coming Friday-Sunday.

Brick Mansions rounded out the weekend’s top 5, earning $9.6 million from 2,647 theatres. The action movie and the late Paul Walker’s last film underperformed in comparison with other recent EuropaCorp projects, including the poorly reviewed The Family ($14 million) and the Kevin Costner vehicle 3 Days to Kill ($12.2 million). Odds are Brick Mansions’ theatrical run will be brief and end with around $25 million in total.

Outside of the top 5, Transcendence continued to suffer the effects of poor reviews and unenthusiastic word-of-mouth, experiencing a 62 percent drop to earn just $4.1 million. Like Brick Mansions, it should tally out to the tune of $25 million or so.

Finally, horror movie The Quiet Ones earned the unenviable distinction of suffering the worst debut ever for a supernatural flick screening in over 2,000 theatres. The film was a bomb, earning just $4 million. Given similarly unsuccessful titles Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones and Devil’s Due, it seems the supernatural genre has outstayed its welcome among viewers.

Rory Culkin & Lou Howe talk Tribeca premiere, 'Gabriel'

The writer-director and star chatted with us about preparation, execution and losing your cool on set.

The word “assured” is frequently – like surprising or unique, often too frequently – used to describe the well-received debut of a new director. It means the filmmaker’s first feature espouses a point of view, or demonstrates stylistic elements, that suggest a level of directorial confidence often surprisingly or uniquely elevated above the common run of first attempts. In other words, “assured” is entertainment journalism shorthand for “this guy knows what he’s doing.” For all the wear and tear it’s suffered in entertainment journalism, it is assuredly the word to describe Lou Howe’s feature debut, Gabriel.

Lou Howe
Gabriel follows the titular schizophrenic as he sets off in search of a childhood crush. Rory Culkin, younger brother of Home Alone’s Macaulay and Igby Goes Down’s Kieran (Rory played a younger version of Kieran in that film), stars. It’s a role simultaneously compelling and unnerving.

“There are a lot of movies, American movies from the ‘70s, that inspired the structure and the approach to the story,” says Howe. “Movies like The Gambler or Straight Time, where you spend a lot of time with one character and grow attached to them, and at the halfway point of the movie they start doing more and more questionable things. They both pick up this kind of suspense pace. Because you know the character so well, you’re rooting for them, even though they’re descending and doing worse and worse things. I tried to structure the movie in a similar way.”

Rather than turn upon a change at the midway mark, however, Gabriel depicts its protagonist doing questionable things from the outset. We first meet Gabriel on a charter-bus ride. He makes friends with a little girl peering out from between the seats in front of him, eventually gaining her trust by offering her candy. It’s an innocent gesture, if one most anyone familiar with current events should know better than to perform. But Gabriel appears unable to understand why the little girl’s mother grows upset when, having lost her daughter among the rows of seats, she finds her munching on Twizzlers with a stranger. In his defense, Gabriel chooses the unfortunate phrase, “We were just fucking around.”

The opening scene establishes Howe’s twofold aim: Endear Gabriel to the audience – he’s very good with the little girl – and invite the audience to question Gabriel’s state of mind, thereby setting the stage for the film’s suspense: What next?

“What drew me to [Gabriel],” says Culkin, “was the fact I didn’t know what he was going to do next. I didn’t know what he was thinking. I was constantly catching up with him.”

Says Howe, “I think the hardest thing for me always is creating authenticity. Making things feel real is much harder than I think people realize, and I’m proud of this movie in that I think it feels like real people in real places.”

The writer-director was himself inspired by real events. “The very first seed of the idea was my experience seeing a close friend diagnosed with mental illness in his late teens…Just thinking about his experience, I started writing Gabe and this whole fictional world grew out of that.”

Howe’s desire to maintain authenticity led him to seek external resources.  “The Child Mind Institute was involved earlier on, reading drafts of the script, helping me stay true to the character’s mental state.” A community center for people struggling with mental illness in New York City let the director visit and bring Culkin, who spoke with several of its patients.

However, although “we did go and meet people with mental illness and I did give Rory some books,” explains Howe, “basically as soon as possible I did try to move out of the research phase and just think about Gabe as a person and as a human being…I didn’t want Rory to get bogged down in other people’s perception of the character or how he might appear. But really just build him from the inside out.”

To that end, says Culkin, “I had to come at it like I knew better than everyone else. I was always right, Gabriel was always right. I always felt like I was doing the right thing, even if I wasn’t…It was either the person I’m interacting with is evil, they’re a bad person, or they’re just stupid. Either way, I’m better. That was the mindset.”

For all the intensity of subject matter, Howe says he “tried to maintain a relaxed atmosphere” on set. According to Culkin, he succeeded.

“Directors always lose their cool at least once, but Lou never lost his cool, and if he did, he hid it from me. I don’t know if he did. There were times where the crew and the surroundings just sort of faded to black and it was just us. I felt very protected.”

“I lost my cool privately.”

“Did you?” asks Culkin.

“A little bit. I don’t know if I fully lost it. Maybe it slipped a little.  But, you know, there were some difficult conditions, physically. It wasn’t a physically demanding movie, but we were shooting on a beach in the middle of February. There was a very windy, cold day, with an actress in a T-shirt. I forget exactly what happened, but we got her bundled and re-set to do another take, and then as soon as she took off her warming jacket, [I learned] the camera was out of film, it needed a new chip. So that was one time I remember I ran at the cameraman. Had a little private cool-loss. But in general I tried to keep things compartmentalized and not burden anyone with extra worry.”

To keep things professional, assuredly.

Friday, April 25, 2014

A Tribeca music highlight: Clark Terry keeps on keepin' on

The hot ticket I wish I had at the Tribeca Film Festival was the first public screening on April 19 of Keep on Keepin’ On, Alan Hicks’ documentary about the remarkable 93-year-old jazz trumpeter Clark Terry, since the movie was followed by a mini-concert by Herbie Hancock, Dianne Reeves, Roy Hargrove, Jon Baptiste and Terry’s protégé, Justin Kauflin. But I’m still thankful I got to see the film the next day—it’s an absolute delight, and moving and inspirational to boot.

Terry has played with the titans of jazz, performing with both the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras. His first student was a skinny 12-year-old named Quincy Jones; Miles Davis was another acolyte. Years later, Terry would leave Ellington for Jones’ newly formed ensemble. Arguably his widest exposure came as a member of the “Tonight Show” band in the 1960s; in fact, he was the first African-American staff musician hired at the National Broadcasting Company.

His style was called “the happiest sound in jazz”—he played authentic blues but still you smiled. And he perfected a mumbled form of scat singing nonsense words that tickled audiences worldwide.

Director Hicks, a drummer and a former student of Terry’s, filmed the musician from age 89 into his 90s, with particular focus on his close relationship with Kauflin, an extremely affable, blind 23-year-old pianist with an uncanny knack for picking up on Terry’s lively vocal riffs. Over the course of the film, Terry’s diabetes takes a toll, impacting his eyesight and limiting his mobility, but his spirit remains irrepressible. Meanwhile, the otherwise confident and virtuosic Kauflin struggles with his own insecurities and overthinking whenever faced with a potentially career-changing musical competition. Terry’s plainspoken advice: “If at first you don’t succeed, keep on sucking until you do suck-seed.”

The warm bond between this cheerful young man, who sincerely feels the loss of his sight is nothing compared to the hard knocks experienced by the greats of jazz, and this wise and witty musical legend is a beautiful thing to behold. Terry’s loving and supportive wife Gwen is also a strong presence in the film, and clearly a major factor in his upbeat outlook on life.

Late in the doc, Kauflin’s fortunes change when none other than Quincy Jones, Terry’s onetime pupil (and a producer of this film), visits the convalescing trumpeter. Terry has Kauflin play for Jones, the young protégé in effect auditioning for the protégé-turned-starmaker. And there’s no doubt Kauflin deserved to be on that Tribeca stage with those other jazz greats.

Keep on Keepin’ On is a long overdue biography of a music icon, but it’s something much more: a joyous and poignant tale of intergenerational nurturing.
—Kevin Lally

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Directors & star on commemorative documentary, 'Tomorrow We Disappear'

Filmmakers and former college roommates Jimmy Goldblum and Adam Weber discuss their passion-project documentary, Tomorrow We Disappear, which premiered at Tribeca last Saturday.

The Kathputli artists’ colony in western New Delhi, India, is a community riven with and composed of paradoxes. The bright cerulean walls of the area’s makeshift buildings are beautiful; they shelter
Jimmy Goldblum
slum conditions, which include poor sewage systems and an abundance of piled trash. The artists engage in centuries’ old craftwork; they also carry modern cellphones. Community members frequently bicker and become embroiled in shouting arguments, seemingly unable to reach consensus on important issues affecting the whole; community members are in almost universal accord on one issue that threatens to affect, perhaps dismantle, the whole entirely: They do not want to leave Kathputli under present conditions.
The documentary Tomorrow We Disappear follows three members of the Kathputli community throughout what has evolved into a prolonged legal battle. The Indian government is trying to displace Kathputli residents. Fifty years ago the colony’s ancestors, a group of traditionally migrant artists, settled on unpopulated government land and made camp. For half a century officials have been content to let these families domesticize the formerly untamed grounds and practice their traditional art, which includes puppetry, acrobatics, magic tricks, dance, painting, and others, largely unbothered.

So, what’s changed? A thriving metropolis, New Delhi, has grown up around Kathputli. According to Disappear co-director and producer Jimmy Goldblum, “Basically, now that there are 23 million people in a metropolitan area, they’ve reached their horizontal limit, and now need to start going vertical. So [the government] just decided to build the first skyscraper in the city.” The Indian government is working with development company Arabtec to, yes, build a skyscraper, and luxury buildings, on the land Kathputli residents have made their home.

Goldblum and his co-director and fellow producer Adam Weber are a pair of earnest Brooklynite filmmakers who have become demonstrably invested in the fate of the Kathputli artists. They call the documentary’s most prominent subject, Puran Bhatt, internationally renowned puppeteer and recipient of India’s prestigious National Award for traditional arts, a friend and family. They are insistent a great injustice is being perpetrated against Bhatt and his neighbors. The government has offered to relocate Kathputli residents to new flats in exchange for moving. They have constructed a camp of transitional homes to house the artists while construction on the flats is underway. But no one has told the Kathputli artists for how long they will be living in transitional houses, nor what, exactly, their new homes will look like on the other end. The lack of details strikes Kathputli denizens as suspicious. Until they get answers, they vow not to move.

“It’s not unreasonable,” says Weber of the artists’ demands. “It’s not like they’ll never move. Obviously, some people do say that, but before they consider moving they need to know what they’re going to get in return, how long this will be, in writing, so they can feel more comfortable.” The filmmakers have put the colony’s list of demands online. “We’re trying to make that transparent.”

Such a story rife with universal themes -- past vs. present, tradition vs. progress, art vs. commerce -- naturally found its point of entry for the two former English majors in a novel.
Says Goldblum, “A while back [Weber] recommended to me this book Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, and I finally got around to reading it about four years ago. Very late into that book the main character actually goes into a magicians’ ghetto. It was so vividly described, I really had no
Adam Weber
idea how [Rushdie] could have come up with the imagery. I was wondering if it was based on anything. So I Googled India plus magicians’ ghetto, and found a little Times of India article that they were planning on knocking down the Kathputli colony. And [Weber] and I had been looking for a long time to find a project to collaborate on, so I sent him the article, and I would say, what, like seven weeks we were probably there. It was a pretty fortuitous series of events.”

Weber agrees. “We got there and the story was happening. We fell into the lap of the story, of them getting displaced, finally, after all these years. We just kind of knew at that point it would turn into a feature doc. We came back, our first shoot, with 200 hours of footage.”
Although they interviewed “probably 15 artists at the end of the day,” Weber and Goldblum decided to structure their film around three personalities in particular: Bhatt, the puppeteer and most well-known colony inhabitant; Maya, an acrobat and one of the community’s more forward-facing minds; and Raman, a magician, soft-spoken and caught between the traditions he knows and the coming future he would rather not think about.

The directors’ interest in another book, Net of Magic, led them first to Raman. “[Magic] focuses on a magician, so we went to the colony looking for him. His name’s Naseeb. We had an interview with Naseeb, and behind him was his son, another magician, who’s just very brooding and you could tell he had a lot he wanted to say but didn’t know his place. He had a very different take on the colony. That ended up being Raman,” says Weber.
“I think the only trick in finding Puran,” Goldblum says of the puppeteer Weber calls “the most famous person in the colony,” was to “make sure you find the real one, because so many people pretend to be him. Because he’s so well respected. They’re like, ‘It’s me! I’ve won a national award!’”

In fact, all three subjects were “easy” choices. It was more difficult for the predominantly male film crew to speak with the women of the “modest, private sort of culture,” says Weber. But Maya, who doesn’t live with her father and who is one of the best acrobats in Kathputli, was different. When she was four, Maya was hit by a bus while performing in the streets of New Delhi. We never learn the specifics or extent of her injuries, but Maya’s mother tells us the accident rendered her daughter unfit for marriage.

“It’s kind of interesting,” says Goldblum, “because a lot of people have come up to us and said, ‘Could you tell us more about what that means?’ And it’s so funny because that idea is so commonplace in South Asian culture, where a mother is very, very concerned about the purity of the daughter and making sure the daughter is OK for marriage. So if you have any disease, if anything has happened to you, anything, you try to hide it because it won’t make you suitable for marriage. It’s just like breathing the air there. It’s not even a thing.”
He continues, “Whereas to us, it just seems like, are you kidding me? She’s this beautiful, talented, wonderfully perspectival human being, and it’s just so crazy” that she wouldn’t marry. Of the film’s three subject, Maya is the only one who regards moving out of Kathputli as a positive change. It’s Maya who brings our attention to the community’s poor living conditions, the trash and dirt, the pragmatic problems attenuate with living in a slum, even a slum that produces great works of art. “She just doesn’t look at the future with trepidation. She’s already gone through so much, what’s another trial to her?” Goldblum asks.
“I don’t underestimate Maya,” adds Weber, and Goldblum agrees. “If the movie helps Maya get married that would make me happy,” he says.

But the filmmakers’ agenda is broader than a marriage plot. (Although after speaking with Bhatt their ideas on love have shifted: “We’re totally on board with arranged marriages,” says Weber. “Yeah, we’re all getting arranged marriages,” Goldblum assents.) They invited Bhatt to spend several days in New York as they promoted Disappear.
Weber explains, “He’s here to support the film, but also he’s here to see if there’s something he can do, and talking to as many people as he can. And he’s especially good at it. Hopefully something will happen.”
Puran Bhatt
Towards the end of Tomorrow We Disappear Bhatt describes his ideal future for the colony and presents a picture he’s drawn. The crude, colorful rendering depicts a neighborhood-cum-tourist-center, an area where the artists would both live and invite interested outsiders to visit and learn about residents’ work.

“The issue isn’t really that we need homes,” says Bhatt, speaking through translator Grant Davis, who just so happened to be a former roommate of Weber’s, fluent in Hindi and Urdu, and in possession of an encyclopedic knowledge of Bollywood films, “it’s that we get to keep our livelihood… Our art is so deeply ingrained in the way we live. One of the really important issues is for artists that work with our hands. Someone like myself, I make puppets, beginning with a small one-foot puppet to a large 15-foot puppet. If you put me on the second floor of this building and I’m hammering away and I make all this noise, what is the person living below me going to say? They’re just going to call the police, and just say, ‘What is this guy doing? Get him out of here.’ What’s going to happen when we move to these flats, it’s not an environment in which we can work.”

Tomorrow We Disappear is itself a work of art, created for the purposes of commemorating the work and lifestyles of these artists. The film is richly photographed, with interplays of light, bright colors, still frames, and, in perhaps one of the few instances in which the effect can be called tasteful, slow-motion showcased throughout. DPs Josh Cogan and Will Bisanta were largely to thank, as were some challenging shooting conditions.

“We went during two extremely hard seasons for foreigners,” says Weber.

“For human beings,” Goldblum rejoins.
“For human beings. It was summer and winter. ..A lot of the movie is actually really beautiful because the sun was always at angle when we were shooting, because overhead it was too hot. So the movie has this diffuse light all over, the sun’s always rising or setting throughout the whole thing, and that’s because it was really hard for us to get outside.”

Yet “outside,” in open homes and meandering alleyways, is precisely where Bhatt and the rest of the Kathputli residents would like to remain.
Says Bhatt, “The question is, what’s important for us? A house, a home, a place to live, or our art. If our art gets preserved, then our home, a house, somewhere to live is just going to come out of it. If you want to give us a place to live, that’s fine. [But] build four walls for us, put us inside, lock the door -- art is finished. End of story. It’s our life. It hurts.”

Friends, fears and Facebook: Jesse Zwick on 'About Alex'

Jesse Zwick, writer and first-time director of About Alex, starring Jason Ritter, Maggie Grace, and Aubrey Plaza, sat down with us to talk ‘80s films, social-media ambivalence, and the educative benefits of trial-by-fire. About Alex made its Tribeca premiere last Thursday.
As the marketing for About Alex, which calls the movie “a Big Chill for our current social media moment,”
Aubrey Plaza and Jason Ritter
suggests, Jesse Zwick’s directorial debut bears a number of similarities to the ‘80’s ensemble drama. Both movies follow a group of former college friends over the span of a weekend. Both groups of former college friends have assembled after one friend attempts suicide. The one friend who attempts suicide in both films is named Alex (although in Zwick’s imagining, unlike The Big Chill, Alex survives.)

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a remake,” says Zwick, looking as if he would easily fit in among his cast of twenty to thirty-ish actors, dressed in the casually formal gear of a plaid button-up and khaki slacks. The Big Chill “was definitely a movie I was conscious of and I’m a fan of. When I thought about the story I was telling, it offered a structure that made sense to me, of an inciting incident that would bring a group of friends that was separated by time and space together. It bears a lot of similarities, but from that point on, I took it in a different direction… I do hope that it asks its own questions.”

Questions such as: To what degree does social media connect, distance or trick us into thinking we’re in touch? Jason Ritter plays Alex, the friend whose attempted suicide opens the movie. As he prepares for what appears to be his final act, Alex doesn’t forget to tweet. He chooses an ominous line from Romeo & Juliet: “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.” Later in the film, we learn Alex’s tweets and Facebook posts had become increasingly erratic in the period leading up to his breakdown.

“I don’t think social media is inherently bad or good. It’s a tool, like a hammer. You could kill someone with it,” but of course, that’s not what the tool is for, says Ritter, who didn’t sleep for three nights prior to Alex’s suicide scene because he wanted to be “exhausted and calm.” Social media can give you “a false sense of being in communication with somebody.” “I really have a pretty ambivalent feeling about a lot of it,” Zwick says. “I didn’t want the film to rail against something or to praise it either. It was more just a meditation on what it does qualitatively to how we interact and our friendships. I use Facebook, I use Instagram. I try to use Twitter, but it’s too overwhelming for me and I don’t do it that much.”

Aubrey Plaza’s character Sarah is comfortably at ease with social media. To her, Instagramming photos of meals and friends is as normal as sharing a meal with friends. Her nighttime bedfellow and daytime antagonist Josh (“New Girl’s” Max Greenfield) espouses the opposite view. Josh is a
Jesse Zwick and actor Nate Parker
neo-Luddite whom Greenfield describes as “more educated than anybody needs to be,” and who is writing his dissertation on the biography of the future. What will future biographies look like when the future biographer has such an abundance of tweets, posts, photos, blogs, etc., from which to cull?

It’s an interesting question, as is the one raised by Maggie Grace’s Siri when, after Sarah observes their gathering is “just like an ‘80’s movie!” Siri asks, “Why does everything always have to be like something?” Someone else chimes in, Why does everyone nowadays talk in references?

“Yeah, that was our little Meta moment where I figured we would sort of acknowledge our influences, and yes, The Big Chill was one,” says Zwick. “A lot of John Hughes teen movies from the ‘80s as well, whether it’s The Breakfast Club or 16 Candles or Say Anything, things like that.”

Unfortunately, About Alex often misses the opportunity to probe the many questions it raises. The movie lays out intriguing modern dilemmas like cards on the game table in a country house somewhere in, say, upstate New York, which is where Alex was filmed. But it doesn’t gamble by taking a firm stance.

The director says most of his attention was focused on his characters, the individual performances and maintaining emotional veracity. In this sense, About Alex succeeds, and Zwick attributes the film’s relatability to his cast, who were able to create a sense of camaraderie in what amounted to a brief period of time.

“The actors are all busy people with busy lives, and we didn’t have a lot of time to do rehearsal. But that intimacy and shared history is a very important part of the story. I think part of it was aided by our location. We were two-and-a-half hours from New York City, in this little farmhouse in the Hudson Valley. We didn’t have great cell reception, so it did sort of force everyone to be present. They all lived in these little condos, and visited each other’s places and cooked dinner with each other. [Actress Jane Levy] actually moved into Aubrey’s condo the second night because they didn’t want to be in their own condos alone in the woods, so they spent the whole time together.”

Says Zwick, “I think there was such a blur of activity on set that I focused a lot on the actors’ performances, and I think those come across really well, but I’m interested in exploring my own abilities as a visual filmmaker and moving the camera in more and interesting ways.”

One might think Zwick’s father, Ed Zwick, a renowned producer and director of, among many other films, Love & Other Drugs and Blood Diamond, would be invaluable in providing formal guidance. And while his advice on About Alex was very helpful (“We went through a couple drafts of the script where he was giving me notes, we watched some audition tapes together, we watched some cuts of the movie later, when it was done.”), Zwick says, “He ultimately said to me you just have to kind of learn by doing it. And I definitely made some mistakes along the way, but I do think it was an amazing experience for myself.”

The former writer for The New Republic is already working on the script for his next project, which he laughingly refers to as a “romance with comedic elements.”

“I’m going to say that, because it’s not necessarily a formulaic rom-com, but it does fall into that spectrum. [That’s] another genre that had an amazing run in the ‘80s that I love, that sort of has a bad name now but has a lot of good elements. I’m hoping to be a part of that.”

Catching up with the directors of Tribeca doc 'Ne Me Quitte Pas'

We recently sat down with the filmmakers behind the documentary Ne Me Quitte Pas, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last Friday.
Dutch filmmakers Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koeverden thought they wanted to make a documentary about Belgium. Then they met a Belgian named Bob, sometimes referred to by his friend Marcel as “the cowboy” because he is rarely seen without his John Wayne hat, and Bob introduced the couple to his “Tree of Life.” Or rather, he tried to. In one of Ne Me Quitte Pas’ earliest scenes, we follow Bob as he makes his way through a forest to the specific tree beneath which he would like, one day, to commit suicide. He describes his tree as he walks, explaining why it, of all the forest’s sylvan beauties, is uniquely suited to shade his final act. But when he reaches his destination, he stops. The trees in this part of the woods have all been cut down. His Tree of Life is no more. Pause for a poignant moment of reflection, of existential ache, to recalibrate this very personal rumination on mortality.
Then Bob looks up and shakes his head. Uh, no. Wrong spot. Maybe it was over there…?
Although Lubbe Bakker says she and her partner van Koeverden decided to scrap their initial documentary panorama of Belgium, a film that would have included an analysis of the country’s
Sabine Lubbe Bakker
modern culture and politics, because it was too “grand,” their final, odd product nonetheless traverses thematic ground that is no less sweeping for being more abstract. Ne Me Quitte Pas chronicles the relationship between Bob and his friend Marcel, both middle-aged alcoholics whose family problems leave them largely dependent upon one another. Theirs is a tale of friendship, denial, illness, failure, acceptance, struggle, depression, redemption, and more struggle. Their film includes poetry and bouts of blackout drunkenness. Terminally adorable children and an estranged adult son. It is often pratfall and slyly funny while at the same time, as Shakespeare would have it, tragic. The day Bob showed Lubbe Bakker and van Koeverden his Tree or Life, or failed to, the filmmakers knew they had something. They would eventually name their film for the song made famous by Belgian icon Jacques Brel in 1959: “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” or Don’t Leave Me.

The filmmakers were granted extraordinary access. They shot weeks’ worth of footage before stumbling upon the scene that would open their documentary. By the time Marcel’s wife decided to leave him – or decided to inform him she was leaving him – both were comfortable enough with the cameras that neither asked Lubbe Bakker or van Koeverden to leave the room when Marcel’s wife told her husband she was seeing another man. Marcel did not appear embarrassed to beg for sex, just one more time, just once more, please, in front of a film crew. He was the more open of the two subjects, Lubbe Bakker and van Koeverden explain, consequently providing many of the film’s more memorable moments: a bit where his drunkenness prevents him from removing his sweater for a very, very long time, and a drunken, swerving nighttime motorcycle ride that ratchets up the tension more effectively than most modern thrillers.

Many modern viewers, however, may find Ne Me Quitte Pas a difficult view. The Tribeca buzz surrounding the movie has been positive, although as Lubbe Bakker notes wryly, the general call to action goes something like, “You should see that weird Belgian film.” Like the society in which its two subjects live, Pas is slow going. “Success is the last thing from these people’s minds,” says Lubbe Bakker of the residents populating Bob and Marcel’s small, rural town. Here in New York City,
Niels van Koeverden
the hustle is a dance most of us perform unconsciously and with little grace. But in the town where Bob and Marcel live, “You wake up at 9am and have a glass of wine,” says van Koeverden. You hang around. You talk. Some days the filmmakers didn’t shoot anything; their subjects, or more accurately, Bob, didn’t feel like it. One brief scene is exemplary: an extended take of an old woman sitting in her doorway, swatting flies.  The directors say they were lucky they had great producers willing to go to bat for them when they said they needed more time, and more time.

Because they amassed so much footage, covering a lengthy period visually evident in Marcel’s changing hairstyles, the filmmakers admit they didn’t know if they had an ending when they finally decided to switch off their cameras. The narrative arc didn’t coalesce until they began to edit, and they were careful not to influence events as they were happening. Midway through the film Marcel goes to rehab and has to speak with a psychiatrist. At the time, Bob asked to see the footage of Marcel’s interview, and the filmmakers refused. At no point did they let either subject see the rushes (although Bob was the only one who asked). Though they befriended the two men, even putting Marcel’s children to bed when he was too drunk to do so, the filmmakers tried to stay far removed from the flow of occurrences itself.
When asked if they ever felt moved to intervene when they saw the extent to which Marcel’s alcoholism was affecting or even endangering him (see the aforementioned drunken motorcycle ride), Lubbe Bakker sighs and shrugs. “He would drive home drunk like that five nights a week,” she says. “That’s life.”

And yet Ne Me Quitte Pas leaves one with the impression of having viewed a fictional character study, perhaps because both Bob and more noticeably Marcel wind up having undergone changes by the end of the movie, the power dynamic of their relationship subtly shifting. When, in the editing room, they realized this change had occurred, says Lubbe Bakker, the filmmakers knew they had an ending.

Both Marcel and Bob are doing well. Following the European premiere of the film, Marcel received such positive audience feedback he decided to go back to rehab. The filmmakers say he loves the facility, playing sports and performing in plays, and doesn’t want to leave. Bob will attend the film’s premiere in Morocco in the filmmakers’ stead. They laugh at the thought of the Belgian cowboy in Africa. Explains Lubbe Bakker, Bob’s a character.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Bryan Cranston acts out at Tribeca 'Psychos We Love' panel

Walter White met the father of Nucky Thompson at the Tribeca Film Festival’s “Future of Film” panel discussion on April 22 at the School of Visual Arts Theatre in downtown Manhattan. For those not addicted to cable TV’s current Golden Age, that would be Bryan Cranston, three-time Emmy winner for his role as a high-school chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin in the much-lauded “Breaking Bad,” and Terence Winter, creator of HBO’s 1920s crime epic “Boardwalk Empire” and recent Oscar nominee as the writer of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street.

The theme of the session was “Psychos We Love,” an analysis not only of the television sociopaths the public can’t get enough of, but how psychopathic tendencies are present in highly functioning members of society including our leaders. Lending rather startling expertise was James H. Fallon, PH.D, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the University of California, Irvine; author of The Psychopath Inside…and himself a diagnosed psychopath. (More about that later.)

Moderated by ABC News’ Juju Chang, the program tended to ricochet between topics, attempting to explain the attraction of the characters created by Winter and Cranston and then veering off into Fallon-led explanations of how brain chemistry impacts personality traits.

Winter likened our fascination with movie and TV psychopaths to riding a roller coaster, experiencing a momentary thrill and surviving it, living a dangerous life vicariously through fictional characters without having to suffer the consequences. One of the best movie examples of that vicarious thrill, he feels, is young Michael Corleone’s first act of murder in The Godfather.

Cranston contended that poorly written heavies who are “just bad” aren't nearly as interesting or effective as “someone who…I’m not sure if he’s good or bad. What strikes the heart of a Nucky or Tony Soprano or my character is that there’s a mixture. It’s really what human beings are.”

The actor analyzed his now-classic Walter White persona as “a man who was given a set of circumstances that created the type of person he became. His emotional core was calloused over, and his [cancer] diagnosis exploded that core, gave him a sense of life.” Of course, that “sense of life” led him to drug dealing, deception and murder. For Cranston, the role was “catnip, what actors love.”

Cranston’s comedy chops, known from his previous incarnation as the wacky father on “Malcolm in the Middle,” came to the fore when Fallon freely admitted that a brain scan confirmed he is a borderline psychopath and that his family line includes an unusual number of killers going back to Lizzie Borden. Cranston feigned palpable discomfort and panic, and a rictus smile when facing Fallon, and circled a finger around his head (that familiar sign for “crazy”) when the doctor said he especially enjoyed one of the goriest scenes from the first season of “Breaking Bad.”

The audience gasped when Fallon quoted a colleague who said he could easily spot signs of a psychosis in a two-year-old (which prompted Cranston to imitate that child: “You don’t tell me when to use my inside voice!”) According to Fallon, it all boils down to the chemistry in our frontal lobe and the absence of empathy elements there. Fallon said he has trained himself to overcome his psychopathic tendencies by consciously choosing selfless rather than selfish acts, telling his wife, “You know, this is not from the heart.”

The discussion even extended to Cranston’s current gig, playing President Lyndon B. Johnson in the hit play All the Way. Many leaders, in Fallon’s view, possess a megalomaniacal psychosis that enables them to accomplish great things. Cranston agreed that LBJ “would do anything in his arsenal” to make things happen, and wondered whether his great domestic achievements would have been realized without those “negative” traits.

Winter, also one of the lead writers of another TV classic, “The Sopranos,” ended the session by speculating on the “reptilian brain” of the human animal. That potential for fury and vengeance is something we all share, and isn’t it lucky that we have avatars like Tony Soprano and Walter White to live out those urges for us?
—Kevin Lally