2013: Overhyped & Underrated

Spring is coming!

This was a great year for films, television programs, webisodes, shorts. I saw a ton of great material, either streaming online or at festivals. I didn’t go to mainstream film screenings as much as in years past. I also watched a lot of day-and-date programming at home.

I have mixed feelings about streaming. The quality is still pretty terrible to my eye. Just pop a BluRay or ordinary DVD into the player (if you can still find the remote), hit play, and you’ll see what I mean. Wow – blacks that look black as opposed to milky gray. No dropped frames. No noise in the image.

On the other hand, the quality issues tend to melt away when weighed against the convenience of watching films right away. And it’s also given me the opportunity to watch some more obscure or older films in a low pressure way (hey, it was part of the subscription, so if I don’t like it I can just hit stop). I’ve also developed the (possibly) bad habit of binge-watching tv.

It sounds like I’ve finally caught up with 2009, right? Well, that’s interesting in and of itself, isn’t it? Streaming has become so ubiquitous that to talk about it seems weird. It’s an interesting example of what O.B. Hardison called “disappearing” – when something becomes thoroughly integrated into the mainstream culture, it disappears. No one talks about jump-cuts, nonlinear narratives, stereo, widescreen, color, or even CGI (yes, we talk about it, but it’s no longer a “gee won’t this be great one day” thing) anymore. But those were each revolutionary techniques/technologies when they first came out, whose impact is still resonating in how we make and watch movies today.

On the other hand – and maybe this is a side-effect of getting older – I see a lot of things that seem ‘new’ that really aren’t. I’ve been online since 1985, first on BBSes and then on bitnet. The social experience is nothing new to me. Streaming is a like a return to the VHS era, when we recorded shows and films and then binged-watched them at parties.

In film this past year, we also saw a lot of things that seemed new that weren’t. Stanley Donen and Vincent Minelli would have liked the color scheme of Spring Breakers even if they felt nothing for the subject matter (though the film does recall one of Keanu Reeves’ first films, River’s Edge). The Place Beyond the Pines and Prisoners feel similar to films made during the ‘New Hollywood’ years (late 60s-early 70s), especially in terms of the acting style, pacing and themes. And don’t get me started on Lars Van Triers. Tarkovsky, Tarr, Bergman, Goddard, and others were pushing the language of film long before he showed up, and were doing it in more interesting ways.

This is not to say I didn’t like Place… and Prisoners; on the contrary I thought they both were amazing films, and daring each in different ways. But they weren’t necessarily new. That’s okay though. I liked Elysium too, even though it’s a fancier version of Metropolis. It’s good to rework and reexamine themes from time to time; sometimes the remakes/reboots can actually become their own, fresh creations (Batman Begins is a good example, leading to The Dark Knight). I think though that it’s become harder to make anything genuinely new. The endless stream of reboots, while nothing new for Hollywood (The Wizard of Oz with Judy Garland, Christmas Carol with Alastair Sims, Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday, were all remakes), does seem to be getting more circular and self-sustaining. Independent filmmakers who want to do something a little different are having a harder go of getting wider recognition for their work than during the ’90s.

Anyway, enough rambling. Here’s my annual Overhyped and Underrated list for 2013. Keep in mind that the overrated films weren’t necessarily terrible, just overpraised or praised for the wrong reasons. And the underrated films weren’t necessarily fantastic, but were more deserving of praise than they received. But first, a quick look at my favorite indie films of this past year. One of the things they all had in common was that they were ambitious, had a lot of heart, and weren’t afraid to mix genres and expectations around.

FAVORITE FESTIVAL FEATURES

Lonely Boy (dir. Dale Fabrigar): A film about a young man suffering from debilitating schizophrenia? When I heard about this and about the fact that it was playing at 9am at the Phoenix Film Festival, I was like “hell I think I’ll skip it.” I’m SO GLAD I DIDN’T. This is a fantastic film – funny, serious, heartwarming, heartbreaking, stylish, beautiful, gritty. It’s like five films in one. Go see it! http://www.lonelyboyfilm.com/ – it’s playing in film festivals and will be coming out sometime this year.

Channeling (dir. Drew Thomas): This is a very stylish, quick-moving sci-fi thriller. The main conceit is that there’s a device that looks like a contact lens that allows you to ‘stream your life.’ Sounds great, except when big money’s involved, things go haywire. People vie for sponsorship dollars on their channels, doing more and more outrageous things for increased viewership. But when one of the self-made ‘stars’ gets killed, his older brother decides to investigate – and finds himself in a deep web of crime, corruption, and celebrity gone haywire.

Found. (dir. Scott Schirmer): OMFG. This is a fantastic horror film, a coming of age story, a meditation on the relationship between real and film violence, a family drama… all in one movie. What does a young kid do when he finds out his brother is a serial killer? What does he love his brother? How did he get that way? Does he have that in him as well? This is an movie that’s not gratuitous (though it is gory), that takes its time with its characters, that’s beautiful to look at. Foundmovie.net

The Invoking (dir. Jeremy Berg): Saying this is a horror film doesn’t really do it justice. The premise sounds familiar – four friends go to a remote rural property that one of them, Sarah, inherited from her estranged family. She doesn’t remember much about the place, and what she does remember isn’t good. But then something really interesting happens – the film begins to creep you out by what it doesn’t show you but only suggests. When Sarah starts seeing things, is she remembering events, participating in them, making them up, or doing something completely new? Is the place haunted on some level, or is she? It eschews simple jump scare tactics for a more thoughtful, under-the-skin approach, and it pays off big-time. The Invoking‘s Official Site.

Leaving DC (dir. Josh Criss): The found footage genre is ridiculous in many ways – why not just put the damn camera down, right? But here it totally works. A consultant with OCD moves out of Washington DC, and starts sending ‘video diaries’ of his new life in a remote dreamhouse in the woods back to his friends in his old OCD support group. Now that he’s finally clear of the city and the distractions, he can work from home! Except that something in the woods seems to be seriously screwing with him at night. Is it some side effect of his meds? Is it a projection of his anxiety? Is it some local kids screwing with the new guy? Or something else? Over the course of the film you see the poor man disintegrate, while trying as best he can to make sense of what’s going on.

Menschen (dir. Sarah Lotfi). This is a short film, unlike the others. But I can’t wait for the feature-length version. It’s the story of an Austrian captain who ‘inherits’ a boy with severe Downs syndrome, while trying to keep what’s left of his company alive at the end of World War II. Instead of doing the expected thing – killing the boy – he takes him under his wing instead. It’s a great film, made for peanuts, and shows what a talent Sarah is. Menschenthemovie.

OVERHYPED

Gravity: What? What’s wrong with you, Arthur? You love space, you love the lead actors, you love ‘2001’, you love Cuaron? What’s not to love about this film? Well, I give it credit for giving me an amazing experience – there were moments during the film when I was literally on the edge of my seat, gasping for air or feeling like I was tumbling out of control. And it was great to see a film give the finger to Hollywood – an action film carried by a leading woman over 40! BUT, the story just… wasn’t there. It’s almost like a thrill ride or a video game. I like playing video games and going on thrill rides. And the movie succeeds on that level. But I expected more from the folks who’ve done such fine work in the past, injecting political commentary, meditations on life and existence, and even humor into what could have been “average” fare.

Star Trek: Into Darkness Some good action scenes, but a completely generic mess of fan-service slop plus plot holes, lens flares, and a weird attitude towards violence. It glorifies violence in every shot (look at those people getting sucked into space! Look at that beautifully-rendered crash) while declaiming it in wooden speeches.

12 Years a Slave – but not for the film itself. This is a film that I think has been massively misunderstood by critics, who either have dismissed it as ‘cold’ or have fallen all over themselves in what I can only think of as some form of guilt. What it truly is is a beautifully nuanced look at how our society (both past and present) makes us complicit in slavery at every level. Slavery invades Solomon’s body first, but then it takes his mind and his soul. Like Polanski’s The Pianist, it’s only by virtue of sheer luck that he survives.

The Way Way Back: A fun, feel-good movie. But nothing super-special. If anything, it almost felt like a by-the-numbers reworking of earlier coming-of-age films. Again, that’s okay, but I guess I expected something… more.

About Time: This did get a lot of grief from critics, but it was also overhyped in some circles. The big problem I had is that… nothing happens. A film about time weirdness should have something happening, right? Some tragedy or another? The cast was lovely, and I will happily watch Bill Nighy in just about anything, but this felt like a second draft of an outline for a film rather than a film.

UNDERRATED

12 Years A Slave – What? Well, here’s the thing. A surprisingly large number of critics gave this film a hard time for being ‘too clinical.’ Others suggested it was ‘too stiff.’ To me, that’s its main strength. Instead of going for a gauzy, designed-to-death Spielberg schmaltzfest, the film steps back a bit and lets the subject speak for itself. The best moments in the film are the quietest, when we see the sometimes large, sometimes subtle changes slavery is making in Solomon’s psyche.

Elysium – Critics picked on this one for all sorts of crazy reasons. The one I most frequently encountered was that the film wasn’t subtle. WTF? Did they SEE District 9? What, exactly, was subtle about the mech fight at the end of that film, complete with a flying pig? Subtlety isn’t Blomkampf’s strong suit. Blowing up shit while delivering a balls-out indictment of a corrupt and unjust system is what he’s good at, and that’s exactly what we got here. And why do critics always so easily put down films that talk about class issues, exactly? I could’ve copied and pasted reviews of In Time into those of Elysium.

Europa Report – This is a great sci-fi film, and actually makes good use of the found footage conceit. It’s a post-mission analysis of a corporate-sponsored manned trip to Europa, what the crew found there, and how fucked up the mission got at various stages. Most of the footage comes from on-board ship or spacesuit cameras, plus interviews shot before and after the mission. Did I mention that it’s meticulously researched? It’s tense, interesting to watch, beautiful to look at, and cost the lunch money of Gravity, while also managing to deliver a more complex story. The worst thing about the film is that it came out the same year as Gravity.

Prisoners – this is an amazingly tense, dark thriller that should have gotten a MUCH bigger boost than it did. I really don’t want to spoil it for you.

Pacific Rim – this is not the second coming of cinema. But it’s the first time that a heavily-CGI-based action film got me excited in a long time. The globe-spanning message was great (we have to stick together to overcome this) plus the crackling fight scenes were just wonderful.

To The Wonder – a LOT of critics hated this film, and I can understand why. The Olga Kurylenko’s manic-pixie girlfriend act gets a little old after a while. But it’s an amazing film nonetheless – a depiction of the emotional life, with all the plot drained out. In a sense, it’s the kind of film you really have to be the right state to appreciate. Your emotions will interact with those of the film’s characters in ways that are largely invisible when watching a more conventional film.

The Place Beyond the Pines – Great film. You think it’s going to be a heist movie, then it turns into a smalltown-corruption story, then it becomes a coming-of-age drama, then a multi-generational saga. It’s so many things, packed into one film, that you want to applaud the sheer audacity of it. I can forgive the done-to-death Ryan Gosling blue-collar performance (I think he’s got a closet full of them at this point).

There’s a lot more to talk about, but this article is already too freaking long, so let’s move on to 2014 and a better year for everyone, everywhere!

Phoenix Film Festival!

Standing under the poster at the party pavilion.

The last six months have been rather wonderful. To date, we’ve traveled to four film festivals (Shriekfest, Eerie, Nevermore, and now Phoenix/IHSFF), and each experience has been a positive one. We’ve been treated well by the organizers and staff, met some great fans and filmmakers, and seen some terrific films. Phoenix was no exception.

DAY 1:

The festival itself takes place in three separate spaces, that are part of a large (huge, actually) strip-mall. The Harkins Plaza cinema is a multiplex – and very well maintained, with good seats, tasty popcorn, and decent-sized theaters. The ticket office is located a short walk away, and the main event space – the “Party Pavillion” – is in another event hall at the mall. Several vendors and companies rented tables in the Pavillion. They also ran events and kept a bar going. On Sunday, a miniature version of the local Comic Con occupied the space. Having a central hang-out is a great thing – it lets filmmakers and audience members connect more easily, and provides some space for the occasional chill-out.

1PM: EDUCATIONAL PANEL

At 1pm I was on an education panel, talking to about a hundred high school students about independent filmmaking. This was a lot of fun. I had no idea what to expect. Fortunately, I was in great company – Leya Taylor, the DP and producer of Found., Alev Aydin, star/writer/producer of Lonely Boy, Ben Shelton, writer/director of Waking…, and Gerry Santos (producer) and Drew Thomas (writer/director) of Channeling. The event, organized by Bob Marquis, was really focused. The students asked some really good questions. We talked about preproduction, coming up with creative solutions to budgetary problems, and the “glory and grit” of independent filmmaking. Scott Schirmer, director of Found., recorded some of it – you can find it here.

Found.

Then it was off to see a film I’d been wanting to see since meeting Scott, Leya and some of the team down at Nevermore – Found. This film is great. Our hero is a twelve-year-old boy, who’s being bullied at school and trying hard to figure out who he is. Oh, and his older brother is a serial killer. It’s a coming of age story, a meditation on the nature of horror and sexuality, and a family drama, all wrapped up in one disturbing package. Winning performances, great cinematography, solid writing – and they made it for $8000, with a tiny crew. This film is tearing up the festival circuit, and deservedly so. It won the Best Horror Feature at Phoenix!

Then I wandered over to the Party Pavilion, met up with the great folks from Sader Ridge – and hung out with them and walked the vendor booths. There were some pretty cool folks there, setting up shop, including the Arizona Film and Media Coalition (azfilmandmedia.org), who are fighting the good fight to keep production in Arizona; the Phoenix chapter of the IFP, who are doing a great job of putting educational events together (ifpphx.org); and the local Screen Actors Guild chapter.

Sader Ridge

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to check out Sader Ridge while at the festival, but Matt Medisch (writer/producer) and Jeremy Berg (writer/director) gave me a screening copy, which I watched later. This is a really terrific film! It’s also one of the more unsettling psychological horror stories I’ve seen in a long while. When Samantha inherits a house from the family she never really knew, she takes a trip to inspect it and the surrounding property. But as soon as she arrives her memories start coming back to her – or are they hallucinations? Her friends start acting strangely – or is she witnessing normal 20-something jealousy? As her sanity starts to unravel, she has to figure out what’s real and what’s not, and where this trip down memory lane is leading her. It’s done really well, with an emphasis on building tension. The film features some really strong performances, and beautiful cinematography, music and sound design. It’s also having good luck on the festival circuit.

After checking into the hotel, freshening up a bit, and grabbing a quick bite of *delicious* Mexican at Filiberto’s, it was off to the Friday night screening of Found In Time. The film got a good reception, and the audience asked some great questions afterward.

DAY 2: Lonely Boy

I managed to drag my ass out of bed early for the 9am screening of Lonely Boy, and I was very glad I did. This is a wonderful film. Written and starring Alev Aydin, directed by Dale Fabrigar, and produced by Alev and Troy Daniel Smith, this was a beautiful portrait of Frank, a man who’s trying to date while in the middle of job, family, and psychological crises – he has schizophrenia. This film somehow threads the needle – it portrays Frank, the lonely boy, as a real human being, and not just as an object of horror, ridicule or slapstick humor. The performances, editing, music, direction – it was all totally there. Good stuff.

Channeling

Suddenly it was time for Channeling, a really terrific sci-fi/thriller written/directed by Drew Thomas, and produced by Laila Ansari, Gerry Santos, Thomas, Kelly Andrea Rubin (co-producer), and Kip Brown (post producer). This is a “near-future” sci-fi film that combines a lot of different genres, and does it well. The “gimmick” is an EyeCast, a camera that works like a contact lens – it affixes itself to your eye – and livestreams what you see to the world. The more radical things you do, the larger your follower stats. A lot of eyecasters want to get sponsorship. But how far would you go to get it? When one “bad” brother is killed while EyeCasting (an accident that might really be a murder), his older sibling comes home and assumes his identity, to try and figure out who did it and why. Good performances, a really slick (in a good way) look, and a compelling story make this is a really enjoyable film.

Shorts!

I took a break from features to check out some shorts, and was suitably impressed. A few standouts: Life on the River, by Chris Remerowski, was terrific. On the surface it’s a gritty drama about two homeless people who end up camping out by a river, which becomes a kind of sanctuary for them. But who are they? Where did they come from? The twist is too smart to reveal here. The cast is really good and the music is haunting.

Menschen also gets a special shout-out. It was written and directed by Sarah Lotfi, whose last short The Last Bogatyr was a national finalist for the Student Academy Awards. Menschen follows an Austrian captain who’s trying to keep his remaining troops alive at the end of World War II. Desperate for shelter and recooperation, they occupy a farm. A woman and her developmentally disabled son live in the house. After a raid by partisans, the boy loses his mother. The captain, to everyone’s surprise, takes the son under his wing, and takes him with the troops. This has to be one of the most unusual World War II films I’ve ever seen, and it really works. It’s touching without being maudlin, and feels very curent despite being a period piece. And it looks damn more expensive than it cost, thanks to some very sharp technical and producing work.

After a delicious dinner at the local diner with the Found. and Sader Ridge crew, I caught Errors of the Human Body. It was a very good film, but it didn’t really draw me in. The basic idea is that a famous, but now disgraced, American cancer researcher ends up working in Germany, invited by his former grad student (and crush) to work on an exciting new tissue regeneration project. But there are other folks at the lab with less benign motives, and our hero is fighting the inner demons from his past.

After seeing the film I was able to catch up with the Channeling team a little more and talk about the film and their work. Then it was off to bed.

DAY 3: Found in Time Again and Panels

The last screening of Found In Time, at 11:55am on Sunday, sold out! The crowd was very generous and had some terrific questions. The projection was noticeably better as well – I was told later that the bulb in the other room was a bit old (it’s amazing how much of a difference these things make).

Then it was off to check out the panel discussions. First up was the “Writing Horror” panel, which featured Scott Schirmer and Leya Taylor from Found., Matt Medisch from Sader Ridge, David Pruett, director of the Dark Carnival International Film Festival, and Tara-Nicole Azarian, who at the age of fourteen has directed several award-winning horror shorts. They had some really good advice on writing horror, working on a budget, how to make it compelling and scary (instead of merely gory), and why it’s such a good genre to work in. Check out the YouTube video of the panel.

I was on a panel with Gerry Santos from Channeling and Professor Carl Varnado from Scottsdale Community College, moderated by sci-fi writer, Sci-Fi Programming director, and cool guy Mike Stackpole, on world building. This was a LOT of fun, as we dished about sci-fi films that “got it right,” those that “got it wrong,” how to build a believable world on a budget, and other topics.

There was much more to this trip – friendships started, conversations had, food eaten – but that’s all I can fit in one blog entry. The staff at the Phoenix Film Festival were just awesome, and they made us all feel very welcome. This is one of the key things about festivals – if the staff is cool, then everyone else is too. All the filmmakers I met were generous with their time, answering a ton of questions from me (where did you shoot/what did you shoot on/how long did it take you to post/etc.). I can’t say enough good things about the experience, so I’ll just stop now. Until the next festival!