Thursday, 19 December 2013

Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug


"The Desolation of Smaug" is over two and a half hours in length, yet it doesn't feel like a complete movie. I will start with the ending which is infuriating, probably the most infuriating ending or non-ending I have ever seen. I saw this film in a large crowded theatre and at the end I heard endless groans from everyone including the kids sitting behind me who couldn't have been more than ten or eleven years old. This might've been due to the frustration of paying to see a big 3-D movie but not seeing a film that feels finished. I'm sure everyone knew going into this film that this was the second in a planned trilogy of the famed J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy novel, but they probably didn't have an idea that it was going to end with such a teasing pre-climax; in retrospect the whole film didn't amount to much and it's sort of ironic that in a movie about traveling and moving forward, we don't get very far.

"The Desolation of Smaug" or "Hobbit 2" whichever you like to call it starts off promising as it picks up where the last one left off. Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and their gang of Dwarves led by leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) escape a band of Orcs as they make their way to the mountain guarded by the infamous Dragon Smaug so Thorin can reclaim his kingdom. The vast world of Middle Earth is again brought to life vividly by Peter Jackson and his creative team, this is Jackson's fifth crack at this fantasy world afterall, so it's hard to see him muck it up too much. Along the way the group encounter a bunch of fantastical characters including a giant who can be reasoned with unless he unexpectedly changes into a bloodthirsty bear. They then cut through a murky forest that is full of creepy crawly spiders prepared to make them their dinner, afterwards they are saved but held captive by a group of elves that includes familiar face Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and a new face Tauriel (Evangaline Lily). Once Bilbo helps the group escape, they outrun the Orcs in the film's best sequence a barrel chase down wild rapids, and are again helped by a boatman (Luke Evans) to get safe passage to their destination.

There is much to admire in this film, Jackson is a visionary director along the lines of James Cameron who takes pleasure in creating whole new worlds with the best technology at his disposal. Since his first outing to Middle Earth in 2001, Jackson has helped revolutionize special effects for a new generation and part of this film's appeal is seeing all of work that paid off with the detail. The most impressive creation of all is Smaug the Dragon brought to life with the same technology it took to create that other memorable villain Gollum. Here Smaug is voiced in the menacing tone by Benedict Cumberbatch , and the reveal of him is one of the film's awe inspiring moments. But it is also here where the film has shown its hand too pre maturely and the momentum soon diminishes.

This all comes down to the question that has been asked of this new franchise since the decision to turn it into three separate films was announced; was three films necessary? Judging from what I have seen of these first two installments, I would say no, but then I suppose you have to remember that this is pretty much how movies are made these days. I'm curious as to how much of a decision Peter Jackson had in splitting "The Hobbit" into three films, or was it more the studios decision in order to have a more viable franchise on the hands? Either way, the cynic in me senses a more profit motivation rather than a creative one. I'm sure fans of the book will agree such a simple straight forward story doesn't warrant three films, but for better or worse that's what we get.

However it's because of this decision, we don't really get "The Hobbit" as it was written because this must also work as a prequel to the much larger story of "The Lord of the Rings". Hence, we are given a subplot of Gandalf going off on his own adventure to discover a deeper seeded evil behind an even bigger threat, one guess as to who that turns out to be. This little side trip along with some other added scenes that aren't in the book are part of the whole "Hobbit/Lord of the Rings" movie experience package that is now expected in a fanboy culture. It's a way to expand the universe these stories come from and has become a norm in movie franchise entertainment.

This also creates a much darker tone to the film that I'm not sure fits with the original Tolkien vision, which was about a small insignificant Hobbit who leaves his world of comfort and becomes somewhat of a reluctant hero in his pursuit of adventure. The original story included wit, which the film undercuts with some modern violence; it's been awhile since I first read "The Hobbit" but I don't remember as many Orc decapitations that are in this film. The film has been praised for its darker tone as opposed to the last one, but I much prefer that one as it had the classic scene between Bilbo and Gollum in a game of riddles that was both playful and sinister. Jackson isn't much of a man of wit and whimsy, he's a man of action and set pieces, which I suppose best suits the movie going public of today.

There is a hint of humour in the film and that mostly comes from the perfectly cast Freeman as Bilbo. Freeman isn't given much time to shine which is a cardinal sin in a film that is named after his character, but he is the movie's secret weapon. The moments Bilbo is able to show off his bravery but also his unease in frightening situations are great comic highlights, and its these brief moments of character I enjoyed the most, he proves to be an ideal counterpoint to the more sombre performance of Elijah Wood's Frodo in the earlier films. For some reason the focus of "Desolation" has to do with Armitage's King Dwarf Thorin, who reminded me too much of a smaller version of Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn. This shift of focus from the book suggests Jackson's preference of the born heroes rather than the reluctant ones personified by The Hobbit characters; suffice it to say, I much more identified with Bilbo's struggle to find his courage rather than Thorin's somewhat selfish struggle to regain his kingdom, but Jackson thinks differently.

"The Desolation of Smaug" is by no means a bad film, it's well crafted with some very visionary splendor, I want to see how the story turns out, mostly to see if Bilbo is able get more of the focus in the finale. I wish it was more cheerful and fun as it was envisioned by Tolkien, but this is Jackson's interpretation and judging by the box office it's not hurting anyone financially. Films of these kind seem more and more bereft of joy and humour, they have the habit of having a sombre almost Apocalyptic tone to them, who would of thought that a story involving Dwarves, Elves, Hobbits, Dragons, Wizards, and shape shifting giants could find a way to take itself too seriously?





Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Professor Larry Gopnik's Post-Hanukah, Pre-Christmas, Post-Schrodinger, Pre-Apocalypse SLIFL Holiday Movie Quiz



1) Favorite unsung holiday film "In Bruges"

2) Name a movie you were surprised to have liked/loved
The remake of "Carrie", I only liked it, but still.

3) Ned Sparks or Edward Everett Horton?
No contest, Horton by a mile.

4) Sam Peckinpah's Convoy-- yes or no? Regret to say I have not seen it.

5) What contemporary actor would best fit into a popular, established genre of the past
I would almost put the entire cast of "The World's End" in an Ealing comedy.

6) Favorite non-disaster movie in which bad weather is a memorable element of the film’s atmosphere I love the look of snow falling in anything from "It's a Wonderful Life", to "Fargo", to "The Shining", so I will pick those three.

7) Second favorite Luchino Visconti movie Once again I regret I have only seen one Visconti film "Senso" which is brilliant, but another director I must "get to".
"
8) What was the last movie you saw theatrically? On DVD/Blu-ray? Theatrically: "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug", DVD: "Spring Breakers"

9) Explain your reaction when someone eloquently or not-so-eloquently attacks one of your favorite movies (Question courtesy of Patrick Robbins)
I feel that there are two answers to this, one reaction would be when I am sober and one where I may have had a few. When sober I like hearing another person's opinion about movies, good or bad it's nice just to talk movies, which I don't get to do as often as I'd like. Drunk I would defend my favorite movie even after the subject would change, I would not only convince the person they are wrong, but anyone else who is within ear shot even if they agreed with me. This happened once from what I recall, apparently I was very entertaining.

10) Joan Blondell or Glenda Farrell?
Joan Blondell for being Barbara Stanwyck's pal in "Night Nurse", and Bette Davies' pal in "Three on a Match", and for singing "The Forgotten Man" in "Golddiggers of 1933".

11) Movie star of any era you’d most like to take camping Jimmy Stewart, he's just so darned likable.

12) Second favorite George Cukor movie "A Star is Born" which would probably be my number one if it weren't for that little wonderful bit of perfection that is "Holiday". "The Philadelphia Story" would be a close third.

13) Your top 10 of 2013 (feel free to elaborate!) I can't reveal my true top ten until I'm caught up with films that are currently in limited release or not available yet, but for now I will go with my top ten movie going experiences which are films I've seen in the movie theatre this year that were worth the money I paid for. THIS IS NOT MY TOP TEN
1. "Gravity"
2. "Jurassic Park" 3-D re-release
3. "Iron Man 3"
4. "The Great Gatsby"
5. "Mud"
6. "The World's End"
7. "The Grandmaster"
8. "Blue Jasmine"
9. "Before Midnight"
10."Enough Said"

I will also add the remake of "The Evil Dead", "The Lone Ranger", and "You're Next" somewhere there.

14) Name a movie you loved (or hated) upon first viewing, to which you eventually returned and had more or less the opposite reaction
A lot of Stanely Kubrick but more specifically "Dr. Strangelove" which as a young man of maybe 10 or 11 didn't understand the dark comedy aspect of the film and mainly viewed it to see the man who played Inspector Clouseau entertain me with his bumbling physical comedy, and also "2001: A Space Odyssey" which again didn't entertain me with its deliberate slow pace. I'm now older and love both films. I could almost say the same thing about "Barry Lyndon" if I didn't turn it off so early in my first viewing, but now watching it years later, I could see it becoming my favorite Kubrick. "A Clockwork Orange" is something I still debate over in my head. Also Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line".

15) Movie most in need of a deluxe Blu-ray makeover
Can somebody please save "It's a Wonderful Life" from it's oh so sweetened DVD Blu-ray extras? This is a seminal film that at its heart has some very dark ideas, and the only special feature available is a Tom Bosley hosted "making of" featurette that looks like bottom of the barrel 1980s nostalgia. It's a beloved film that deserves the same box set treatment bestowed upon "Casablanca" and "The Wizard of Oz".

16) Alain Delon or Marcello Mastroianni?
Mastroianni for his work with Fellini and Sophia Loren

17) Your favorite opening sequence, credits or no credits (provide link to clip if possible)
For sheer excitement and anticipation the opening of "Superman" which sweeps me into its comic book world in a way no other movie has, I swear I become ten years old the moment that movie begins. Woody Allen's opening credits have that familiarity to it that take me into his jazz fueled world, and I appreciate that consistent feel. "Midnight in Paris" has that opening sequence of famous Parisian hotspots with that romantic glow which may not be Allen't most famous bit of pictorials but damned if it doesn't take me to that city. I don't know...so many to count. I love the opening sequence of "The Shop Around the Corner" with just a bunch of co-workers hanging outside their department store talking, waiting for the boss to open up the store.

18) Director with the strongest run of great movies Yasujiro Ozu I can't name a bad movie made by him, and his run in the 50s until his last film "An Autumn Afternoon" is pretty much as perfect as one can get.

19) Is elitism a good/bad/necessary/inevitable aspect of being a cineaste?
I'm not sure if I consider myself an elitist, to me that word feels like I'm alienating myself in a way. What I love about movies is how they are such a popular artform and they are open to everyone to enjoy. I suppose it all comes down to taste, I like to think my tastes vary in a wide range, but just because I watch filmmakers like Ozu, Renoir, or Lubitsch shouldn't make me an elitist. If anything I would hope it would open up ways for people to enjoy new types of film they wouldn't think of normally. No I would say elitism is a bad thing, and I wouldn't want to be thought of that way.

20) Second favorite Tony Scott film "Top Gun", "Crimson Tide" would be number 1

21) Favorite movie made before you were born that you only discovered this year. Where and how did you discover it?
"The Life of Oharu" I had heard of it for years and talked about by many film critics, most recently when Roger Ebert wrote a Great Movies review about it which I believe was one of his last entries. Then criterion came out with it, and I snatched it up. It's the kind of film that destroys you, it's utterly heartbreaking, but as a film it overtook me, it held me on and did not let me go. Simply one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen.

22) Actor/actress you would most want to see in a Santa suit, traditional or skimpy
Amy Adams please and thank you.

23) Video store or streaming?
I've had headaches with streaming, and I'm always paranoid that I'm not watching the right aspect ratio all the time, so I will go with the tried and true video store.

24) Best/favorite final film by a noted director or screenwriter Ozu of course had a great one, and Robert Altman's "A Prairie Home Companion" is fitting in so many ways, but I will go with John Ford's "7 Women" which I think was his angriest film, but the ending of it says so much about going out on your own terms and being able to make a stand when everything seems to be lost. The last shot should be remembered as well as the last shot in "The Searchers" and it's Anne Bancroft's unsung masterpiece as an actress.

25) Monica Vitti or Anna Karina?
Anna, lovely Anna.

26) Name a worthy movie indulgence you’ve had to most strenuously talk friends into experiencing with you. What was the result?
Most of my friends steer clear of classic films, so I try not to stress the issue with them. I once convinced a girl I was dating once to watch "The Shop Around the Corner" with me, which she asked me to turn off ten minutes in because she couldn't stand the sound of their voices, that was something new to me. I convinced another girl to watch "Casablanca" which she politely told me she enjoyed even though she laughed through some of the melodramatic dialogue. Needless to see both of these relationships did not last.

27) The movie made by your favorite filmmaker (writer, director, et al) that you either have yet to see or are least familiar with among all the rest
There is a great gap of unreleased films by Ozu, Renoir, and Mizoguchi that I have yet to see. From Orson Welles it would be "The Trial" "Chimes at Midnight", and "Othello" which I have seen when it was released in the 90s but haven't seen it since. I have yet to see much of Howard Hawks' early period most specifically "Twentieth Century" which was also written by Ben Hecht who is a favorite writer. Woody Allen's "Another Woman", Truffaut's "Two English Girls", from Hitchcock anything post-"Marnie", John Ford's "Two Rode Together", Buster Keaton's "The Cameraman", Bunuel's "That Obscure Object of Desire", Kurosawa's "Ran". Much of Robert Altman from the 80s. Plus any early Keislowski pre-"Decalogue" stuff, that's all I can think of right now. Oh Billy Wilder's "Five Graves of Cairo".

28) Favorite horror movie that is either Christmas-oriented or has some element relating to the winter holiday season in it If "Gremlins" can be considered horror then by all means. Also "The Invisible Man" had the element of snow in it, and that was a rollicking good time.

29) Name a prop or other piece of movie memorabilia you’d most like to find with your name on it under the Christmas tree
A cigar by Groucho, or one of Fred Astaire's top hats, I know I would cherish them forever.

30) Best holiday gift the movies could give to you to carry into 2014 New releases from all the films I mentioned in question #27, and an arthouse cinema near by where I live, thank you Santa.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave


I'm not sure if "12 Years a Slave" is the first of its kind, by that I mean a sombre meditative look at slavery in the south. Of course just last year we had both "Django Unchained" and "Lincoln" address the issue in their own way, the former being a violent revenge fantasy, and the latter an insight into the political dealings of abolishing slavery. But "12 Years a Slave" is a whole different monster all together, it's a first person account of a man who lived through it and was one of the lucky ones to escape it and tell his story.

The film is based on a book by Solomon Northup (Played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the film), a free black man who was living in upstate New York when he gets tricked and kidnapped by a couple of con men and sold into slavery. We see him wake up in chains and then persecuted, flogged, and ripped from his clothes. He's smuggled onto a boat headed to New Orleans and then is sold off. This happens very near the beginning of the film, there's a certain immediacy to it that gives the whole experience a dreaded nightmare quality to it.

Solomon is then given a new slave name Platt and is put on display by slave trader Freeman (Paul Giamatti). He is bought by a sympathetic plantation owner by the name of William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is conflicted with his relationship with Solomon, yet still puts him in the hands of a maniacal plantation boss Tibeats (Paul Dano hammy as ever). After Solomon protests and fights back at Tibeats, his life is put in jeopardy, and Ford cannot guarantee his protection; he is then sold off to a much less forgiving Plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps is the kind of man who whips a slave for bringing in the lowest amount of cotton per day, yet he carries on an affair with a young black slave named Patsy (Lupita Nyong'O). For Solomon all of his experiences seem like an unending nightmare, getting worse and worse, and for us it's hard for to see any light at the end of the tunnel.

"12 Years a Slave" is the third film directed by Steve McQueen, a man who is making a name for himself as a self-assured director. I haven't seen his first two films "Hunger" and "Shame" both of which starred Fassbender, yet there is confidence and a poetic streak in the way he tells this story. McQueen relies on long tracking shots to make scenes look seamless and more of a whole, and sometimes he knows to let the camera hold on a continuous shot for a long time, knowing the images are powerful enough not to cut away.

One such image that is as powerful as anything I've seen this year is showing Solomon hanging by his neck barely able to touch the ground with his toes. McQueen keeps this a long shot as we see other slaves enter the frame each one noticing Solomon's predicament but going about their daily duties too afraid to intervene. It's a brilliant well choreographed shot that one cannot look away from.

There are quite a few moments like the one above that makes you stand and pay attention to the shocking brutality, and that's what this film does, yet it's not perfect. Surprisingly, the moments I did not find as powerful are the ones that seem to be giving the film a lot of praise. This is mostly the latter half of the movie concerning Fassbender and his relationship with Nyong'O. For her part, Nyong'O gives a great performance with two scenes that are Earth shattering one where she begs Solomon to kill her because she isn't strong enough to do it herself, and one where she is whipped for running off to get soap to wash herself with. Yet there seems to be this missing scene concerning her and Solomon, a certain kinship or trust is built among them that is done off stage. Why does Patsey ask Solomon of all people to help kill herself, why when Epps can't whip her does she prefer Solomon to do it? These were questions that were in my head that I wish we had seen.

The other is Fassbender who usually gives great performances, but here he has about as much nuance as Dano earlier in the film, that of a malicious master, and no doubt Epps was this kind of monster, Yet to me I didn't think Fassbender did anything particularly interesting with the role. I was reminded of a much more intriguing monster on film, that of Ralph Feinnes in "Schindler's List", who also carried on an affair with a woman who's race he hated, yet that performance carried more nuance for me as Feinnes was able to hide his monstrous tendencies in plain sight.

There were other moments, I was more interested in, such as the woman Solomon shares his boat ride with to New Orleans who loses her children when they are sold to a different slave owner. She wails over the loss of her children and is then punished for it, when Solomon confronts her about her uncontrollable crying, it turns into a thoughtful discussion over why she has the right to cry over her children.

But the real strength of this film lies in the performance of Ejiofor as Solomon, we sense his fear, and his frustrations, but also his willingness to not give up, which as many say is the only way to survive such an ordeal as this. When his nightmare is over, I was overcome with a kind of catharsis one should have when you follow someone into the depths of their own personal hell.

Credit should be given to McQueen for never letting the audience off the hook, he fills the film with so much dread and hopelessness, it's easy to see things ending unhappily. Early on when Solomon and other slaves are on a boat headed to be sold, there is talk between them all to over take it and get their freedom back. When one slave tries to, he is swiftly stabbed to death and thrown over shore; we know then this film isn't going to be pretty, but when was slavery every pretty?

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Movie Review: Year after Year


Going over it in my mind I've concluded that "Year after Year" is somewhat of a strange little beast of a movie. It's a musical, but it's actually unlike most musicals. There's a certain philosophical edge to it you don't normally associate with many musicals, at least I don't. It's an ambitious movie caught within the trappings of an independent budget; it contains polished Broadway sounding songs yet often shifts to scenes with raw emotion and realism. It's a film full of ideas about life; how it can be frustrating, monotonous, or just down right disappointing. It doesn't reach that point of being profound but has a genuine curiosity and need to ask such important questions. In the end the film is satisfied enough just to find a silver lining that doesn't leave you in utter despair.

"Year after Year" follows the lives of seven friends, all of whom gather every year to celebrate the birthday of their resident anti-socialite Bill (Joel Chricton). The film opens with Bill's 28th year; his friends include Todd and Rachel (Chris Cook and Elena Porter), a married couple on the verge of divorce; Peter and Laura (Andrew McKenzie and Zina Lee) a couple on the verge of getting married; Hunter (Matthew Thiel) a successful photographer, and Kate (Sarah Hemphill) who is Bill's closest friend which leads to an inevitable "will they or won't they" scenario.

Bill himself is stuck in a rut, he sees his life going nowhere, he can't commit to anything, and finds his writing talents being squandered at his job which consists of posting obituaries in the newspaper. He's even morbid enough to write his own mock obituary and have Kate read it out to him, which made me think, "what kind of guy does that?" Bill is obviously unhappy, it becomes so apparent that the question his friends ask him in a game of "Truth or Dare" is "Are you Happy?" A part of me thought that Bill is the sort of guy who kinda likes being unhappy, perhaps it's his way of getting attention, how else do you describe someone who would leave his own birthday party right in the middle of it, which is something that he does and his friends don't seem too surprised when it happens.

While Bill is trying to figure out how to live his life, his other friends aren't totally satisfied either. Todd and Rachel are becoming painfully aware that they are falling out of love with eachother, which fills the film with the most poignant moments. Peter meanwhile is hesitant to get married, while Laura can't wait for the day she gets to walk down the aisle. Hunter is the most successful of the bunch, but even he seems to be drifting. Kate shares some of the same feelings as Bill, yet unlike him, seems more willing to move on. It looks as if everyone in the film is at some sort of stale mate wondering what the next move will be, while Bill is the anomaly, he's forever stagnant.

The music in "Year after Year" is a bright spot in the film which uses it as interior monologues for the characters and a very clever way to visualize their own frustrations, worries, and observations. There are a couple of very amusing musical numbers my favorite being "Wedding Nights" which is an ode to "Grease's" own "Summer Nights". The song which actually lifts scenes from "Grease" almost verbatim is a cheeky and satirical look at getting married sung primarily by soon to be divorced Todd and Rachel. After the fun and energy that song brings, it's abruptly undercut with a shot of Rachel basically confessing part of the reason she married was a fear of being alone. It's moments like these the film does very well, completely changing tone without sacrificing the overall theme.

The film does a lot of balancing acts with its songs, from a bitter sweet duet between Todd and Rachel about their break-up, to a clever spoken word manifesto by Peter about the trials and tribulations of getting married. There is a reason for every song in the film and the lyrics by Spencer Pasman and Stephanie Ridge should be commended, they really help hold the film together in my mind. However the one character that didn't hold water for me was Hunter, I saw him as a bit shallow and underdeveloped. It didn't help that the songs he sang came off as the least memorable and his solos reminded me of cliche music videos that have rock stars throwing a hissy fit.

The performances by the unknown cast really impressed me by being able to balance the heightened emotion of the songs, but also pulling off very natural performances. Joel Chricton brings a certain gravity and pathos to Bill and fleshes out a real performance adding humour and charm, making us care about this ultimately very sad guy. As Todd and Rachel, Chris Cook and Elena Porter work well together finding moments of bitterness and sadness, I personally found their story the most touching and actually wanted to see more of them. As Kate, Sarah Hemphill gives the most grounded performance out of anyone, playing someone who doesn't have it all figured out yet but not letting that stop her; we can see her love for Bill but also the need to move on with her life. She's able to project what she's feeling through her expressions and the camera captures it beautifully.

"Year after Year" was directed with a virtuosic energy by Dustin Clark, a man who knows how to frame a shot and get the best out his actors. I mentioned how this film is like a balancing act of tone and Clark seems to be walking a tightrope keeping all these elements together. There's a confidence I found in what he does with "Year after Year" changing the tone like a jazz musician. Clark is not afraid to take chances and go all out, he's ambitious and it's here I think he would've benefited with a bigger budget and more time. There are times where "Year after Year" looks like it wants to be a big splashy Hollywood musical and it tries to hide its limitations. I applaud Clark on going that direction, and there are times he pulls it off such as the hypothetical date night sequence Bill recites to his friends, it's probably the most original sequence in the film and totally takes it in a direction you don't see coming. I was more impressed with the sense of reality Clark brings to the film, there's a grainy element in some scenes that give off a more stripped down quality to it. I was more enamored with these less flashy musical numbers particularly involving Bill and Kate on the roof than anything else. It's here I think the film finds its footing and its this approach I wish were utilized in more recent musicals I see because they are mostly worried about big production numbers rather than intimate stories.

The biggest risk the film takes is probably with its finale that I'm afraid I didn't quite buy into. Bill sort of has a "It's a Wonderful Life" epiphany that "No man is a failure who has friends" thanks to some touching quotes in his journal he got as a gift, and a montage of him and his friends throughout the years. It kind of simplifies things a little too much in my mind but I suppose the film is content with that; it would rather be an enjoyable movie showing a silver lining rather than ending on what might've been far more grim yet maybe a bit more interesting. But then again perhaps Bill should get his happy ending, like all of us, we should be aloud to move on.

In the end though "Year after Year" is one of those films full of ideas that might make you think and contemplate your own life. Not many films ask such questions these days, as a matter of fact, I was thinking of recent movies I've seen and I couldn't think of one that asked such questions. It's not perfect, but not a lot of first films are. What I see most in "Year after Year" is a whole lot of potential, and a lot of risks, it's a film that has a lot to say and it's trying to find its footing, sometimes it doesn't land on its feet but I'd rather see something that's brave enough to put itself out there then something that plays it safe.



Wednesday, 23 October 2013

A Conversation with Matt Grue


Red Deer will be hosting the premier of the feature film "Year after Year", an original musical directed by Dustin Clark and written and produced by Matt Grue. The story of "Year after Year" dates back four years ago when Matt invited some friends over to his house to have a pow wow and talk about certain things that would be influential as a blueprint for an original stage musical.

Once the play was produced on stage, Matt, who was slightly unhappy with the finished product decided to collaborate with Dustin on a filmed version of "Year after Year" which would allow them to do things with the story the theatrical production couldn't.

I've known Matt for a number of years first meeting him in theatre school and then taking the motion picture arts program with him. We were actually roommates for a couple of years in the same house that Matt had his pow wow that started the story of "Year after Year". I asked him to talk to me about his experiences with the film.


J: Now that you’re doing the premier of the movie, how are you feeling about your whole experience up to this point.

M: Ummm, wow that seems like such a loaded question. But it’s Good, I think one of the coolest thing that’s happened has been my renewal in my love of movies. I think it had gone away because I had been so theatre focused for so long., and because also we were adapting a stage musical. It wasn’t until we got into post (production) and in the editing that I started getting really invested in what film was again. I learned a lot as a writer, and as a filmmaker, I learned things that I had either forgotten about or ignored or whatever about filmmaking. I started pulling out movies I hadn’t seen in a million years, or pulling out classic films or criterion films and I had started watching movies with an old perspective that is back now for me.

I think ("Year after Year")is the movie we set out to make, and the story we wanted to tell is the story that we’re telling. It’s weird being in this time frame where we’re about to show it to people. The way I describe it is the movie is fresh out of the factory but it still needs that new paint job and the new car smell that will be added after the premier which isn’t to say it’s not finished. We still get one polish before it’s totally out of our hands but it’s scary, right now it’s still ours but that isn’t for much longer, then it will be out there and we have to accept it for what it is. It’s a lot of jumbled emotions combined with exhaustion but generally I feel really good about it.

J: So what made you want to make this movie in the first place?


M: It’s weird because that’s evolved for me a lot. I felt that at the beginning, the stage production felt incomplete for me. I knew that basically in the first run of the show that it didn’t’ work for some reason, and every night I sat in the back and was thinking “how the fuck do you fix this?” I tried tweaking scenes and rewrites but it still wasn’t solving this issue what I couldn’t identify. Then Don (Don Armstrong the film's cinematographer) said “you know this would make a great film”, that in hit me, that was the problem.

When we wrote it we decided that we were making a musical where the songs served as subtext not as plot advancement, and on stage they would sing the songs but nothing happens. On film we can go inside their heads and see what the characters are thinking and what’s provoking each song that happens in the story. Instead of doing a super expensive stage production where we could fly in sets and have big choruses it seemed that film was a way to do this. So what made me want to do it initially was a sense of closure on this story that I was so personally invested in. I also felt this responsibility to my friends a little bit to tell our story even though if you really thing about it, it seems so trivial but somehow it really resonates with people, especially those around our age. I think it’s an important story to tell, and it’s grown from there but those were the main reasons we went for it in the the beginning.

J: So you’ve been working on this story for four years.


M: Yes

J: Do you feel it’s gotten to that place where you can let it go. Is there a part of you that wishes you can tinker with it a little bit longer?

M: Dustin would answer this completely differently but I’m happy with what it is. To me the story represents a moment in time, a moment in my life where the story really resonated with me. I was asking the same questions that the film is asking and still am to some extent. In the beginning it was cathartic, I was working through my own shit in this weird universe of musical theatre which seemed like a bizarre place to work through those kinds of emotions and questions. But I think for what the film is and what the film is meant to be, I think we achieved it. As a filmmaker, I think there are always stuff that you go back to and think “Oh I wish we did this differently”. As a writer there are a lot of moments I wish I had written differently but I just didn’t have the experience to know any better. There’s always going to be things you wanna change, especially after making your first feature with a micro budget. Technically I wish we could’ve afforded the big post production facilities to get a crazy sound mix or the most intricate color done to it. We worked within our means but we fought above our weight class a lot and won. But to me it represents a moment in time and I’m content to put it out there and let it exist for what it is. Personally I hope to grow from it artistically and I hope somebody out there sees it who has the same questions and thinks “That makes sense to me, even though they’re singing right now.” I think Dustin would answer in the exact opposite. I think he’ll want to refine it until the day he dies. But I think he will get there, once he sees an audience see it and respond to it, I think he will begin the “letting go” process.

J: What was Dustin like as a director from what you observed?

M: I was on set everyday so I got to watch him and use it as an opportunity to learn. Dustin is one of those guys where…I don’t know if it was different for you, but for me growing up it seemed like only rich families had video cameras. And I don’t think of there being this huge age gap between me and Dustin, but there is because he had a video camera as a toy when he was a kid. For me it was if you had one it would be on the top shelf of your parent’s closet and you weren’t aloud anywhere near it. So Dustin’s been making movies since he was a kid where I have been sort of appreciating it and learning it more from a distance.

What amazes me about Dustin is I think he lives in a film world; he talks in real life in film terms. When he talks through a scene he’s like “we’re gonna cut to this, then the camera will move, and we’re gonna cut to this, and then the music will swell, but not swell too much.” He’s always seven steps ahead of himself, you realize very quickly that the best approach is just to trust him. He seems very scattered and all over the place and very intense and you’re like “I wonder what’s going to happen here”. Then you see the thing cut together and you see that he knew exactly what he was doing all along and it’s really brilliant. He trusted his instincts and I had to learn to trust his instincts, and at the end of the day it’s his language and he knows how to communicate stories that way so the best policy is to give him a lot of space so he doesn’t feel creatively boxed in.

Because he speaks that language, he can adapt at a moment’s notice. He can adapt on the fly all the time, and that’s by far his greatest strength , adapt on the fly and how to take something that everyone else might give up on even a tiny moment that someone might say “it doesn’t matter, it’s not significant, we’ll do the next moment better and make this one suffer”. He never lets any of that happen, every moment is so crucial to him. Until he gets the take he wants, he won’t move on, and sometimes we were good at two takes, and sometimes we were good at twenty takes, but he was not afraid to push it until he got what he wanted.

It instills a lot of confidence knowing you have someone with a vision and will more likely than not execute it. He’s just brilliant and experimental and knowing ("Year after Year") is his first crack at it is humbling. For me I’m like “Oh God I’ll never get there.” I’ve said this to him and he’s all humble and weird about it, and I don’t say this about a lot of people but I legitimately think that he’s an actual genius. He really gets it, he understands how the camera should move, he understand how lighting works. The only thing I compare it to and it’s not even that great of comparison is the way I sort of see theatre. I know how long a lighting cue should be and when it should happen and how to maximize it and with film he can do that but in a broader scope. He’s just brilliant.

J: I wanna talk a little bit about your role as a producer. What did that mean to you?

M: For me it’s different than what it probably is for a lot of people. Everyone had to wear a lot of different hats for this film and we just labeled them as something. The process at the very beginning was primarily as a writer but also as a producer as we were writing it. I was there as a creatve influence but also as a pragmatic influence to say “let’s watch how we’re doing this, and let’s work within our means."

My process was I made three budgets: an ideal budget if money wasn’t an object, a realistic budget like what is realistic number we think we could achieve in a best case scenario, and then a worst case scenario. I established each of those budgets then Dustin and I talked a great length what those meant. If we go for money, there would be a good chance they would bump Dustin as a director, they’re gonna wanna hack up the script pretty significantly and probably not involve me in that, and probably they would buy material and hire other people to make it into more of a compact 90 minute sellable movie. We looked at another budget where we could comfortably pay everyone and give ourselves enough time to really do a good job but it was still in the mid to high six figures. Then we had to ask ourselves, “Could we really raise that much money”? The worst case budget is basically that middle budget without paying anybody, which cuts it down significantly but which would mean everybody would be working for a percentage of what the film is worth. We went back and forth between those two we involved a lot of people along the way as an Executive Producer type role. WE thought maybe we would go for a big investment push where we would literally get people to invest in the movie and treat it as primarily a commercial venture, but we realized that was still going to put boundaries that we weren’t interested in. We didn’t think it was realistic and it might put the movie on the shelf for years while we tried to put that kind of money together. We also knew that once people invested their money that we would have obligations to them, so we talked more and we realized that what we want for this movie in this time in our lives is to make the movie that we want to make, and we wanna make it with people who share that same vision. We weren’t gonna get paid, we believed in the story, so we sought those kind of people to work on the film very intentionally.

The next thing I did was organize multiple fundraising avenues (special events, 24 hour short film competitions, silent auction) When all was said and done we raised roughly $7000 which was a lot for us at the time cause we finally had money to spend for the film. We had a successful Indiegogo campaign where we raised more than our goal. Our silent auction was moderately successful, but moore importantly a lot of people privately gave money to us after the fact. Then we had backers basically with the Matchbox foundation which was still behind it and two other Exectutive Producers Maureen and Wayne Gerry. They put up money at the time and resources no questions asked, so we didn’t have to give up anything. Raising the budget was the next step, and then came casting the film, which I was very much involved with, then scheduling the movie, then just managing the whole team basically. When we were shooting, I’d be off on the side working on the next day. Once we hit post it’s sort of like doing all the stuff I’m doing now like managing the media, setting up the premier, trying to get us into theatres just so we can see the movie. We hope to play in three of four theatres in the next two or three months for a week or two at a time so we can sit in the back row and see how the movie plays. It won’t hit the festival circuit until the new year so it gives us the opportunity to make some final tweaks until we leave it alone.

Now I manage the sale of the film and what the distribution strategy will be and trying to make everybody happy and cutting royalty cheques hopefully. That’s the thing, as long as this movie exists I will always be working on it. If it’s on amazon, it will always be on amazon, and even if it sells one DVD a year, that means I have to write a seven cent royalty cheques to everybody. It’s now a a permanent part of my life now. I think that’s what I do.

J: So we kinda touched a little on your writing. You wrote the original musical, did you co-write the film with Dustin?


M: I wrote the screenplay, then Dustin went and filled in the filmic blanks.

J: Do you find writing easy?

M: No not at all. It always feels like it before I start. I’m always like “This is the one”. Then you get into it and you realize you really write yourself into corners or you start going down a path cause it feels really good and then you realize that you got too far away from your actual plan and you realize this is a totally different movie now. I find it incredibly challenging because not only do I want to write a really great story but I know it’s a blueprint for everybody else to work off of. “Year after Year” was particularly challenging for me because you have to write a movie like that with such broad strokes. You have to realize that you’re trying to set up songs so a lot of your scenes are intros and outros of songs so you’re really limited as to what you can do when you want to put in your own flavor or you want some exposition so you can get some dialogue in there cause that’s what I want. As a writer I want “talk and say my words more”, but you’re really serving a purpose and that’s what I really learned with this project in particular.

It’s better to underwrite than to overwrite, typically speaking for something like this, but also don’t be afraid to make it “you”. The times I get most jacked up to write is during an episode of “The West Wing” or “The Newsroom” and I hear that Sorkin dialogue, then I wanna a write and I write and I stop and think “I suck compared to this guy”. So I’ve had to learn to not write trying to be somebody else and try to embrace who I am as a a writer. There are certain writers like John Hughes or Tarantino where you can identify their script because their voice is in it. And I learned that is what makes your movies awesome and it might mean that your audience goes from big to small but those are your movies and your stories. Just as an actor would say “it’s really hard to be yourself on stage”, it’s really hard to write yourself on a page and be honest. Lately I’ve been trying to write what makes me happy, what I think is interesting, what I think is a good time. Writing a musical is also challenging in that you have to support three other writers, you have to support the composer and the lyricists, because it’s a lot harder to write a song than to write a scene so I’d rather support them than the other way around.

J: What do you want people to come out of seeing Year after Year?


M: The reason I love the film personally is that it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I don’t think it’s a movie that has a singular focus or message. I think a lot of moments when they really sink in can mean a lot of different things. It’s got this universal quality that I know everybody says, but I really think it’s true for this. What I don’t want is people to go in and see the movie and just be impressed because we did it. I don’t want people to say “Hey it’s fuckin impressive that they made this for $25 000 in Red Deer.” I want them to enjoy the movie in some way. I don’t think it’s an Oscar contender, I think it’s one of those Netflix movies where you think “What the fuck is that” or a straight to DVD kind of a thing, but I still think there’s merit in the story . I hope the audience thinks about it afterwards, and people who are experiencing it think “Oh thank God I wasn’t alone in thinking all these things” . I want people to think “That’ was a good movie, and I don’t want my expectations to be any more than that. I just hope they have a good time with the movie, and they figure out what it means for them.

J: Do you have a favorite moment in the movie and just from making the movie?


M: This is me sort of dodging this questions but Joel’s performance on the whole. The character I latch onto the most is Joel’s character and when I go on that journey with him, I always feel that pain that he feels at the beginning when he’s struggling with questions like “Did I make a wrong decision some where” or how he’s afraid to commit to the woman he loves because he feels that being with her will make her some how less of a person or she won’t be able to reach the potential she could reach. Then getting to the point where he knows that he’s a little bit full of shit and admitting that he’s scared for the first time which I think comes out in anger for him. A moment that really means something to me is when he get’s into a big fight with his best friend on a roof, and his best friend finally calls him out on all of his shit. That idea that these problems aren’t unique to these subset of people,that they are again universal issues.

For shooting the movie it would be when we were shooting at Great Chief Park and it was the opening sequence to “Wedding Night” which is the “Grease” song. We’re on the bleachers and we have like a mile long track set up and we have the crane, and the camera, and the dolly, and the choreographer’s on set and they’re going through their dance moves, and it was a full crew day, everyone was there that day. And I remember just sitting back and you could just see the monitor and the crane sweeping down and the dolly sliding across and there’s people dancing with the music blaring and I was like “Holy fuck, we are making a musical right now. My dream is literally unfolding.”

J: So what’s next for you?

M: Dustin and I are batting around two different feature ideas, but we’re really trying to let this one go away before we get too heavily involved. But Dustin and I definitely want to work together again, we think that what we both bring to the table compliments each other. In the more immediate future, I started developing a television pilot that I’m gonna pitch at the Banff Television festival, so that’s just starting now. The idea’s there and the outline is sort of in place to put that all together. It sounds weird when you say TV and I think the stigma of it is still there for me. But TV is not what it was ten years ago, it is where real things are being done, so that idea gets me really excited. But I guess the biggest thing for me is transitioning out of theatre which is something I thought I’d never do. I remember in film school thinking “why am I in film school, film is stupid” but I think I’m going to continue with film. Another thing I really wanna do is produce, I think there are a lot of untold stories out there cause people are too afraid. They are still seeing film as this impossible dream and if Year after Year proves anything to those people it’s that you can go a long way with a little now a days . I would hate to see an amazing script collect dust because nobody had the balls to say “let’s go out and do this”.



Saturday, 19 October 2013

Movie Review: Carrie (2013)


I've never really bought "Carrie" as a horror movie; the story of Carrie White has always seemed to me far more tragic than horrific. Obviously there are the elements of horror within the story such as massacre at prom, although some others might suggest this is more of a revenge fantasy by kids who wish to lash out on their school bullies. But Carrie White isn't your typical horror movie monster, we she becomes out of control, we want to help her not hurt her.

This new film version of "Carrie" borrows a lot from the original Brian DePalma film, but it fleshes out more of the sadness to the story that made Carrie so sympathetic in the first place. As remakes go, this one doesn't try to reinvent the wheel with the story, but it does try to offer a different perspective. It should be noted that this version was directed by a woman, Kimberly Pierce who is probably best known for having directed the film "Boys Don't Cry" which earned an Oscar for that film's star Hilary Swank. Pierce doesn't go for the grandiose approach so much as DePalma did in the original, instead she draws on a more character driven story measured on nuance.

In this version we start off with a bit of an origin story, at least when it comes to the relationship with Carrie's unstable mother (played here with mixed melancholy and madness by Julianne Moore). The opening scene shows Moore alone in her bed thinking she is dying but realizing she has given birth to Carrie. For a moment it's as if she's going to kill the new born infant, but seeing it as a test from God she decides to spare her life.

Carrie then grows up and attends high school, and it's here the movie goes through a lot of the same beats as the original; we see Carrie having her period not knowing what's going on while all girls in the locker room taunt her and throwing tampons at her telling her to "plug it up". The film actually goes extra cruel with Carrie by having the main bad girl Chris (Portia Doubleday) film the situation on her Iphone and post it on Youtube. The girls are reprimanded by the gym teacher Ms. Desjardin (Judy Greer who is always pleasant to see), and Chris misses out on the prom which prompts her and her criminal boyfriend to get their revenge. Meanwhile another girl who made fun of Carrie Sun (Gabriella Wilde) feels bad for what she did and wants to make amends by getting her boyfriend to go to the prom with Carrie, which of of course won't end well for anyone.

At times there are too many scenes in the movie that evoke the original too closely, which is when it falters, whether it's meant as an homage or not, there's too much of a deja vu feeling to it. However, where the film does succeed is with its different stance on how they treat their main characters. Carrie is depicted by Chloe Grace Mortez, a very expressive child actor who isn't afraid to tap in with her dark side as she did so well in that other horror remake she was in "Let Me In". Mortez plays Carrie with a sort of insecurity and mousiness, and when she realizes her new found power of telepathy there's more of a sense of curiosity that she doesn't see so much as scary but more empowering.

As Carrie's religion obsessed mother Julianne Moore creates a chilling creation by making her feel more real. In the original, Piper Laurie played the part with a comedic flare that fit in with the operatic tone of that film, but Moore is damaging and self hating, constantly hurting herself and not being able to get over the fact that Carrie feels like more of a curse than a blessing.

Unlike the original version, the grand prom night finale differs slightly, it's not quite the bloodbath depicted in DePalma's rampage, and it feels like theirs less of a body count, watch the people who do survive and why they are spared, almost as if to say Carrie's soul wasn't lost completely, she is even given one last bit of redemption in the end, something I think would be unthinkable by DePalma's standards. Some might say that this little bit of humanity Carrie holds onto in the end would make this less of a horror film, but as I said I never really saw it as one. Carrie White feels like one of those kids who never had the chance to be normal, she was thought on her whole entire life as a joke, or a curse either by her mother or the kids at school. If there's a silver lining to the story of Carrie White, it's that you don't think of her as a monster, you may be like Sue or Ms Desjardin who wanted to help her but in the end it just wasn't enough, poor Carrie White.

Five Sympathetic Horror movie characters