Tuesday, April 30, 2013

SFIFF: Steven Soderbergh's State of Cinema Address Takes On Studios, Calls Out Online Piracy

Steven Soderbergh, the director of such diverse films as Oceans 11-13, Out of Sight, Che, Bubble, Magic Mike, and Behind the Candelabra, announced his impending retirement first in 2011. Then he kind of took it back and said it was just a sabbatical. Since then, he's directed four more films, and has once again stated that that's that.

Every year, the San Francisco International Film Festival invites "a well-known public figure to talk about the intersecting worlds of contemporary cinema and visual arts, culture and society, images and ideas." Past speakers have included Jonathan Lethem, Walter Murch, and Brad Bird. This year, Soderbergh took the stage to give a 45 minute talk that, while not a direct discussion of his "retirement," did pretty much serve as one long explanation for why he would want to walk away.

Key take-away: the movie business blows.

He tossed out a lot of numbers during the talk, mostly centered on film costs--but not the costs you'd think would be the issue. The money spent to make the movies seems to be less of a factor to studios than what's spent to distribute them. Since the basic cost to distribute a movie is the same regardless of production price, studios are more likely to spend that $60 million on a huge tent pole release that is almost guaranteed huge box office than on a smaller, riskier movie.

He also spoke about "cinema" versus "movies," which, the way he puts it, almost sounds like "auteurs" versus "studios," and why art will always be a human need: we've always needed to tell stories.

And while he didn't talk much about alternative distribution of films (something he was actually one of the first directors to try, with his simultaneous release of Bubble in theaters and On Demand), he did acknowledge that movies face stiff competition from television these days, and made no bones about calling online piracy out as theft.

You can hear the entire talk below. It's well worth a listen, if only for his final tip to future filmmakers on how to pitch a movie.

SFIFF: You're Next

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Saturday's late night screening of the horror movie You're Next was an evening filled with tension for a couple of reasons. First, while it was scheduled to start at 11:30pm, it actually didn't start until about midnight. Anxious waiting! In the meantime, some of the cast and the film's director were posing for pictures, along with a trio of girls wearing very creepy animal masks. Spooky!

Once we filed in to the theater--girls in masks included--I became even more anxious for the movie to start. The garage at the Kabuki closes at 1:30am, and since the movie is just a tad over 90 minutes long, it meant I'd be cutting it real close if I stayed for the whole thing. Real tense!

But stay I did, and I gotta say, the underlying tension I was feeling about having my car locked up overnight before I could get to it actually kind of added to the intense experience of the movie, in a good way.

You may have heard some buzz about You're Next from other festival showings. It killed at Toronto and SXSW, got a special write up in Entertainment Weekly, and yet, for over two years, it couldn't find a distributor. Director Adam Wingard was at the SFIFF to introduce the movie, and he said that finally, they had found one in Lionsgate, and the movie will get a wide release on August 23rd.

The movie is pure "mumblegore," which is to say, a hybrid of mumblecore and horror. The director is also an actor, and I instantly recognized him and several other cast members from the (terrible) mumblecore comedy Autoerotic. Ti West, director of one of my favorite recent horror movies, House of the Devil--another movie I'd classify as mumblegore mainly because of the presence of mumblcore mainstay Greta Gerwig-- also appears in the movie as a boyfriend.

The film is in the "home invasion" genre of horror, ala Funny Games and The Strangers, with a simple plot set-up: Four siblings, and their romantic partners, gather together at the family's vacation home to celebrate the 35th wedding anniversary of their parents. Before long, they are under attack, and have to fight off some masked villains (yes, that's what the animals masks were about), with one member of the group leading the charge.

It's a truly great entry into the genre and it had the audience screaming, laughing--it's wickedly funny--and cheering throughout. But what really makes it stand out is how it does some things you ALWAYS wish would happen in a horror movie, but never do, and offers up one of the greatest horror heroines since Ripley and her flamethrower-wielding turn in Aliens.

It also knows and respects the genre. Look close and you'll see references to Carrie, the original Night of the Living Dead, Rear Window, The Shining, and Re-Animator, (Barbara Crampton, star of that 1980s classic, has a role in this). There are probably a few more I missed, which is fine by me, as that just gives me an excuse to see it again.

I also want to see it again because I had to leave during the credits, and I'm one of those crazies who always has to stay to the very end of a movie; you never know when a director will leave a little something extra for those diehards there.

And while I DID get my car, (barely), I had to miss the post-film Q&A, which featured director Adam Wingard, and actors Barbara Crampton and If there's anyone out there who saw it, tell us about it in the comments!


Saturday, April 27, 2013

SFIFF: Much Ado About Nothing

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

When I was in high school, I took a Shakespeare class, and we read about six plays. After we finished a play, the teacher would screen a movie version. He would take votes as to which version we wanted to watch, and when it came to The Tempest, I suggested we watch Forbidden Planet. He had never actually heard of it, but agreed to screen it for us.

And when it was finished, he was kind of pissed.

That wasn't a faithful adaption! What was I thinking? He made me write an essay explaining every connection between the film and the play, and I am proud to say, I got a B+. (And frankly, I think he was just trying to save some face by not giving me an A.)

I bring this up because when it comes to adaptations of Shakespeare, I still prefer more..."modern" takes on the Bard. And I mean really modern; the kind that doesn't use the original text as much as general plot. Which is why I found it surprising how enjoyable I found Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing to be.

The basic story behind its production is that it was filmed (in lovely black-and-white) in about two weeks at Joss Whedon's house in Santa Monica, featuring many from his usual cadre of talent, including Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg, Fran Kranz, Tom Lenk, and Nathan Fillion, (who, by far, gives the funniest performance in the film).

While it is set in modern day, the movie's dialogue comes strictly from the play (more or less). This can take a little getting used to at first, but eventually, as tends to be the case with Shakespeare, you adjust, and it makes perfect and delightful sense. Yes, this is a Shakespeare adaption both I and my former English teacher would approve of.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Woefully Thin: To The Wonder

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Coming out of the latest Terence Malick film, I realized it may be the only Malick movie thus far that can be perfectly summed up in a mere tweet's worth of words:

To the Wonder is two hours of a manic pixie girl twirling around with diaphanous scarves in her hands. Also: Fields of wheat.

I saw the film on April Fools' Day, and being that Malick has normally waited many years between movies, and those he has released of late have been epically long, I was sure this 114-minute event was just an elaborate April Fools prank. Alas, as laughable as the movie was at the time, it's no joke.

Malick had mesmerized me in the past, and for a while, he was one of my favorite directors. I can still watch Badlands and Days of Heaven any time they're on, and never get bored. When I saw The Thin Red Line, (at the Coronet, may it rest in peace), I was completely hooked, and would have gladly sat through three more hours of it.

But when The New World came out, I felt him falter. He was treading familiar ground--oh, those fields of wheat!--but all that beauty was beginning to feel hollow.

I'm not a huge fan of his last film, The Tree of Life, but I did feel like he was at least mixing in some new things with his usual meditations on the human condition. Instead of wheat, we got dinosaurs.

But To the Wonder is like a parody of Malick, and has all the emotional depth of your average perfume commercial.

Behind all the gauzy scarves and fields of wheat is a woefully thin story:

Neil (Ben Affleck) and Mariana (Olga Kurylenko) are in love. Neil is American, and Marina is French. She has a pre-teen daughter named Tatiana. They roam around France. They move to Oklahoma. Neil's job involves gathering test tubes of water and soil samples. Marina is...French.

Neil won't marry her. She moves back to France. Neil reconnects with a former flame, Jane, (Rachel McAdams), who is blonde, owns a ranch, and is a tad religious. Marina writes and tells Neil she's lonely and wants to come back. He agrees, breaks it with the blonde, and marries Marina.

Things don't work out.

Oh, and there's a Catholic priest, (Javier Bardem), who wanders around, visiting poor parishioners in their homes, though rarely getting up the nerve to actually knock on their doors and go inside. He wrestles with his faith.

There is hardly any dialogue in the movie, and poor Ben Affleck has, maybe, six lines in the whole thing. Instead, the Marina character, in voiceover, and in French, does the majority of the speaking. It includes lines like, "What is this love that loves us?," and, "Newborn. I open my eyes. I melt," lines that, because they are spoken in French, sound a lot more poetic than the actually are.

I can understand placing undeveloped characters into a love story. By doing so, the characters represent something bigger than their story. They represent: Love, with a capital L.

And yes, Ben Affleck's woefully silent and stilted Man is likely very much like an ex-boyfriend many have in their back pocket. But the Woman. The twirling Woman---god how she constantly twirls, through fields of wheat, across muddy shores, down the aisles of Oklahoma supermarkets--is not a woman any sane person would want to know, let alone be.

Running around in grassy plains during the magic hour is not a relationship. It's beautiful backdrop. The Malick of Days of Heaven knew this. To the Wonder is the first of his films to be fully set in modern times, and perhaps that's part of the problem. Characters in his other films had the weight of history backing them. But To the Wonder is filled with modern ciphers.

It goes without saying that the movie is gorgeous. It's not like Malick is suddenly going to NOT make fields of wheat look amazing. And the people in it are gorgeous too. But you can't fall in true love with a person who is simply beautiful, and nothing else. And the same holds true for movies.