About Grant

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New York, NY, United States
Film director and screenwriter. Cinephile since birth. Director of DREAMS OF THE WAYWARD (2013). Film Studies MA student at Columbia University.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Top 10 Films of 2013

2013 was a year of cinematic excess (a topic that I'll be covering in an upcoming essay) - the line between style and substance was blurred by popular contemporary auteurs and cinematic legends.  Similarly, their stylistic excess in 2013 was often in conjunction with films about greed, success, and overall excess.  Personally, I found 2013 to have a shortage of great films, but there were a select few that managed to really impress.

1.  The Wolf Of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)
2.  American Hustle (David O. Russell)
3.  Nebraska (Alexander Payne)
4.  Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)
5.  Blue Is The Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche)
6.  12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen)
7.  Inside Llewyn Davis (The Coen Brothers)
8.  I'm So Excited (Pedro Almodóvar)
9.  Bastards (Claire Denis)
10.  Upstream Color (Shane Carruth)

Honorable mention:
Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)

Most disappointing:
To The Wonder (Terrence Malick)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Film Review: "Bastards [aka Les salauds]" (2013) by Claire Denis 4/5

     The first twenty minutes of Claire Denis' latest film Bastards (2013) is enigmatic as a seemingly constant flow of unfamiliar faces and circumstances arise.  The narrative is simplistic in its complexity, it lacks flash and emotional attachment (regardless of the content), and the visual style of the film lacks those qualities as well.  As Bastards progresses, the film only goes further and further into the realm of the depraved, and the filmmaker seems to go with it as well.
     The brother-in-law of Marco Silvestri (Vincent Lindon) has committed suicide after the financial collapse of the shoe business he inherited from his wife's father, so Marco quits his job as a navy captain so that he can help his sister and her teenage daughter get through this troubling time.  To further help his family, Marco also hopes to find (and possibly kill) the man responsible for the financial collapse of the company - a wealthy elderly man named Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor).  Upon arriving at his new flat, which is in the same building as Laporte, Marco meets Laporte's young and beautiful wife (Chiara Mastroianni) and they begin to romantically gravitate towards one another.  All of these actions and encounters are mysterious, but they all prove to Marco that he can't trust anyone.
     What's brilliant and fresh about this film is its detachment from emotion, and brutal honesty.  The dialogue in Bastards, particularly from the character Marco, is only the bare essentials - there's little room for verbal flourishes in this dark dramatic-thriller.  Visually, the film possesses that same honesty as characters live and breathe as normal humans - there is very little that feels staged or simulated, which is special and exciting.  In the same way, there are some very graphic and disturbing moments that take place on the screen - and in one case, a moment that is visually hinted at that is so horrifying that we hope to never see it but end up being forced to endure it.  However, the absolute final scene of the film is troubling in a few different ways (I won't give away what happens), but it feels unnecessarily provocative in comparison to the subdued and matter-of-fact stylings of all the scenes that lead up to it - even the music is different.  
     To accent this dark and brooding thriller is crisp digital photography (this being Claire Denis' first film to shoot digitally).  There is no sign in quality that this is the case, but the film appears as though only natural and available light was used, but this particular style enhances the raw nature of the screenplay (co-written by Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau).  Some of the dialogue feels clunky at times (though it may have been a strange subtitle translation that might take some looking into by its US distributor Sundance Selects), but beyond that the dialogue and moments between Marco and Laporte's wife are mesmerizing in their authenticity.
     Though Bastards has its imperfections, it's a breath of wicked fresh air that has been lacking from cinema this year.  The core set of characters are like grounded versions of people you would encounter in a David Lynch  film, and it's that real-life quality that makes them (and the situations) even more frightening.

My ranking: 4/5 stars


Friday, October 11, 2013

Film Review: "Gravity" (2013) by Alfonso Cuarón 3/5

  Following the success of his 2006 dystopian thriller Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity (2013) is his first feature film in seven years.  Children of Men was dark, brooding, and shocking with its visceral realism and technical perfection.  The camera dollied through broken buildings (and other real environments) as they were being shelled by tanks, and (at times) these shots were over 7 minutes long.  Gravity has a similar approach to conveying the intensity and reality of what is seen on the screen, but the end result is much less effective.
  Starring Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone and George Clooney as Commander Matt Kowalski, Gravity begins with a 17 minute shot that starts as a wide as the Hubble Space Telescope and Explorer approach the camera to reveal Dr. Stone, Kowalski, and a third astronaut as they float in space performing maintenance on the telescope.  A few minutes pass to establish - through dialogue - that Dr. Stone is new to the shuttle crew, but almost instantly the film picks up speed as trouble approaches.  Debris from a recently destroyed Russian satellite is drifting at high speeds in their direction.  Unfortunately, there isn't enough time for the crew to seek shelter, and the debris kills the third astronaut and launches Dr. Stone away from the shuttle.  Tumbling through space, she is separated from Commander Kowalski and the two now have to persevere to travel to the International Space Station before oxygen runs out or the orbiting debris makes its way back around.
  In theory, this should be an exciting film (and it often is), but there is no emotional pay off.  The dialogue in Gravity (written by father-son team Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón) lacks depth (it possibly lacks gravity too).  Whatever emotional weight or baggage the characters may have is verbally expressed - even as they struggle to conserve oxygen.  For a film that is as visually dazzling as this, the visual element of the cast's performances are weakened by the contrived and unnecessary dialogue that begs for audience sympathy.  Additionally, the plot becomes a cause and effect (one thing after another) cycle as the surviving crew continuously has to struggle with small problems that keep stacking upon each other as the film progresses.
  Furthermore, though the CGI special effects are impressive, there is still a lack of tangibility.  The greater crime, however, is the way in which the camera moves.  It's interesting to make us (the audience) feel as though we are weightless, but the majesty of outer space is completely lost as a result of the CGI and handheld aesthetic.  Prior to Gravity, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki had shot Terrence Malik's masterpiece The Tree of Life (2011) which featured some of the most breathtaking space photography in film history (next to Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey).  The steady handheld experience in Gravity was unique (and certainly enhanced the 3D aesthetic and interaction with the audience), but if it was going to be like that, the whole film should have been a single continuous shot.
  Yes, it is impressive to watch a continuous shot run for 17 minutes, but since Gravity essentially runs in real-time the film could have severely benefited from being a single 90 minute shot (similar to Aleksandr Sokurov's 2002 film Russian Ark).  Following the 17 minute opening shot, every cut from one shot to the next (particularly the first one) is extremely painful - almost sloppy.  It disrupts the rhythm and made me question why the first 17 minutes needed to be one shot at all.  With Gravity being as CGI oriented as it is, it shouldn't have been a problem (and would have actually worked with the way that the narrative plays out) to have the entire film play out as a continuous fluid camera movement.  The cinematography, at its worst, occasionally felt like a video game as it transitioned between an over the shoulder from behind Bullock into a POV in which we truly do become her.  This particular trick was tiring as it recurred and cheapened the entire film - thus establishing that in every facet of Gravity there is no room for subtlety.  The lack of subtlety is only solidified by the frivolous soundtrack composed by Steven Price.
  Though the film is narratively and visually flawed, I cannot deny the quality of the imagery and the several thrills that Cuarón throws our way (or hurtles towards the camera lens).  NASA is a wonderful program, and a film  like this will hopefully inspire young people to look to the stars for adventure and answers to the state of humankind.  However, if you're looking for thought provoking answers and the meaning of life in Gravity, definitely stick with 2001: A Space Odyssey.

My ranking 3/5


Saturday, September 28, 2013

The 2013 Knoxville Film Festival Premiere of "Dreams Of The Wayward"

Ben Neal and I (Grant Bromley) had a great turnout for the September 21, 2013 Knoxville Film Festival premiere of Dreams of The Wayward - our first feature film.  A big thanks to everyone who attended the screening and the panel we were on called "So, You Want To Make A Feature?" - we had a great time getting to share this experience with you.
If you saw the film (or would like to learn about it and see the trailer), check out our IMDb page and give us a rating: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2329110/?ref_=rvi_tt

Here are a few pictures from the premiere festivities.
Ben Neal and Grant Douglas Bromley at the VIP event on September 19th.
Grant Bromley, Mark McIntyre, and Ben Neal at the Dreams of The Wayward premiere.
Grant Bromley and Ben Neal anticipating the Dreams of The Wayward premiere.
Q&A after the screening moderated by Keith McDaniel (left) with Grant Bromley, Ben Neal, and Erich Rettstadt (director of the short musical State Debate).
Dylan Baker (Todd Solondz' 1998 film Happiness) posing with Grant Bromley and Ben Neal.
[Top photo courtesy of the Knoxville Film Festival].

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Making A Feature Film - The Making of "Dreams of The Wayward"

     Last February (2012), Ben Neal and I (Grant Bromley) decided to direct our first feature film.  It was a daunting proposal, but something that we felt was important to do (particularly while we were still in school).  The  list of who, what, when, where, why, and how questions was long, but that's what filmmaking is all about - problem solving.  Approaching it like any other project, we began a nine month process of starting and completing a feature-length drama titled Dreams of The Wayward while teaching ourselves how to make and manage a film of this scale.  There were plenty of obstacles and complications along the way, but we found our way around them and made the film that we originally set out to make - with no compromises.  
     Ben and I were both 19 years old and in our second semester of freshman year at Watkins College of Art, Design, and Film in Nashville, TN - though we hadn't actually taken any hands-on film courses at the school yet, we felt that we were ready to do something big.  During the summer of 2010, Ben and I met at the Tennessee Governor's School For The Arts at MTSU (a month-long summer program for high school students) where we were both studying film and became great friends.  The trust that we gained at the Governor's School in each other and in our own abilities was essential to the success or failure of making Dreams of The Wayward two years later.  When we returned to our hometown of Knoxville, TN following our time at the Governor's School, we began to work on several treatments for short films and features that we would like to make together.  One of those short scripts, titled Son, became the blueprint for Dreams of The Wayward.  As we approached and began college in Nashville, the two of us would watch hundreds of films a year and listen to director commentary tracks, but other than that, there was very little actual information on the best way to go about making a first film.  We found that watching and studying the careers of first-time directors - specifically the directors from the past 20 years - was invaluable for demonstrating the potential of a first directorial effort.  Examining the early work of the current contemporary generation of filmmakers allowed for us to look at the filmmaking process under similar technological and economic circumstances.  Even before the American independent film boom of the 1990s, there were still certain distinctive qualities that marked the success of a film director - the most important characteristic being that they didn't wait for the opportunity to make a film, they simply did it.  In our case, by the time that we were ready to make our first feature-length film, cost-efficient technology was easily at our disposal which made the decision even easier.  Without the rise of digital cinema, Dreams of The Wayward could not exist - the cost of photochemical film would have been too high, and our experience with the medium was non-existent.
     The decision to make a feature film, in general, was a response to our frustration with the youthful success of film directors like Steven Soderbergh - who made his first film Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) without attending film school.  Ben and I would spend long nights after class joking and dreaming aloud about how amazing it would be to make a film that was of a theatrical length (roughly 70 minutes minimum).  Finally, the joking stopped and we began talking more seriously about the prospect of actually making a feature film.  On February 4, 2012, I began adapting the short script that Ben and I had written a year earlier (Son) into a feature length screenplay.  Why did we choose Son?  Three simple reasons:
  1. It was actually feasible on a production level (nothing seemed too difficult or too expensive).
  2. The protagonist of the script was 19 years old... so were we (I could act in the film to save us from having to get someone else to commit without pay).
  3. (Most importantly) It was a project that we actually cared about and would be proud of as our first film.
     During my writing period, I would only fill Ben in on certain things I was writing if I questioned that we could actually do it - we agreed that he was not allowed to read the script in its entirety until it had gone through a second draft to ensure that it was being read with fresh eyes.  On February 23, I completed the first draft of the script - there were no dreams, it was just a normal coming of age story.  By the 29th of February, the script had the qualities that gave the film its title and I presented Ben a 54 page draft of the script (it was always a short script, primarily because of the lack of dialogue, but we instantly knew it was the correct length to reach the 90 minute mark).  After Ben completed reading the script, he went through it with suggestions for changes and questions about my intent - this entire meeting was recorded for our personal records.
     Once we both agreed on the script, all of the pre-production began.  Script breakdown sheets were filled out, storyboards were drawn, and the script pages were lined.  However, the means to make this film (money) was becoming a concern.  We knew that we could comfortable make Dreams of The Wayward for $5,000 - but it felt too high, particularly when we began looking into Kickstarter's policy if we didn't reach our budgetary goal.  We went through the script and wrote down all the equipment we would need and came up with the number $2,500 (the bare-minimum that could still allow for us to have snacks for cast and crew every day).  We set up our Kickstarter profile for the film on March 27, 2012 with a 30 day funding period to reach (or exceed) our budgetary goal.  It was daring, but after 30 days of putting ourselves at the mercy of our generous friends, we ended up raising $2,798.  We had 22 investors in total - only 1 of which was someone that Ben and I had never met before.  http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/184641394/dreams-of-the-wayward
     When the funding period ended on April 26, 2012, we were fully prepared to begin shooting.  We had spoken to several of our friends back in Knoxville about serving as an occasional crew member (none of our crew was constant - it was always changing since none of them were actual grips or film guys in general), and we had negotiated with some of our other friends to have a slightly larger level of commitment by serving as an actor in the film.  Mark McIntyre (Sam) was essential to the success or failure of the film - while writing the script, I knew that Mark looked the part and could have the intensity required to play a drug-dealer-turned-good.  Likewise, Doug Robertson (Dad) was typecast (not only because he could potentially pass as my father in public, but he was my Sunday school teacher through high school and had a fatherly quality that would resonate well on screen).
     As far as locations were concerned, we knew enough people in town to talk ourselves into being able to film nearly anywhere that we wanted.  In the case of Sam's apartment though, we struggled to find a friend that had an apartment living condition that would allow for us to film (too many of our friends had too many roommates to allow for 4 weeks of successful filming).  The answer to this problem was found through a friend of one of our assistant directors, Wes Barrett, who was able to lock the location for us (and even get us a key).
(Right to left) Doug Robertson, Ben Neal, Grant Bromley, and Mark McIntyre posing on set.
     When we returned to Knoxville, the following weekend (May 12, 2012) we kicked off principal photography by shooting all of Doug and Sheri Robertson's scenes in a single weekend.  The final scene that we shot with Doug Robertson was also Mark McIntyre's first scene (which happens to be the only scene in the film in which the three main protagonists are all on screen together).  Upon completing Doug Robertson's scenes, Ben and I were able to work around my work schedule during the week to film scenes that only required myself (Luke), and then on the weekends we would film with Mark to accommodate his work schedule.  It was difficult on several levels - we didn't always have access to the apartment (because it is someone's home) and didn't want to leave a trace that we had been there at the end of each day of shooting, so set decoration and camera set-ups had to be scheduled into our day before our actors would arrive, and as a result, we rarely had rehearsal time (so in some cases, Mark and I were learning our lines right before Ben would call "action").
     Being both a co-director and the lead actor was a strange thing.  As a director, I knew that I was controlling myself and trying to achieve the correct tone for the performance of each scene, but I needed Ben to keep me in check since I can't see myself.  I'm sure that with Ben being both a co-director and cinematographer that he felt a similar pressure and self-discipline within both crafts.  We never had a an assistant camera man to pull focus, so he was constantly in charge of everything on the camera rig (and our film was predominantly hand-held, so that he was able to consistently pull off having each shot's subject in focus is admirable).
     In total, there were 8 weeks of principal photography - during the final 2 weeks, Ben and I began going through all the footage we had up to that point and selected our favorite takes of each shot.  Ben was our media manager - after every day of shooting, Ben would download the footage from the Canon t3i SD card and backup all of our files onto a separate hard-drive.  His organizational skills with the production files made the early editing process a simple task.  When shooting finally wrapped on June 30th, we were finally able to breathe, but we wanted to have the film completed by the end of summer so we edited until we had our first rough cut of the feature on July 12, 2012.  The 86 minute rough cut was pretty far along since we edited both visual and audio elements simultaneously - we even had the soundtrack that my sister Danae Bromley performed and composed already synched.  In the editing room (Ben's basement), we took a scene by scene approach from beginning to end so that we could watch and listen to the film as it unfolded - listening to the film was just as important so that we could find the natural cutting points and transitions between scenes (not just the obvious visual cues).  Our assistant director, Wes Barrett, was one of the people we entrusted to watch the rough-cut and to then give feedback to us about what he had just seen - it was awkward at times as the film was too long and was still rough around the edges.  In that particular cut, we had a "twist ending" triggered through a reveal - it didn't work.  Why didn't it?  It wasn't a reveal to the characters - only to the audience, and it wasn't a major twist either.  The problem was that we wrote the script to have it as a reveal, so we had no coverage to piece together a straight ending.
      Editing truly is the second directing - we wound up cutting 3 minutes from the film and adjusted the ending to be more straightforward simply by adding a line in ADR.  At 83 minutes, the film was completed on September 17, 2012 - or so we thought.  We began sending DVD screeners of the film to 6 festivals (we could only afford to send to 7 different festivals after we received an additional $700 contribution to cover submission fees from one of our executive producers).  By Christmas we had been rejected by 2 film festivals, and by April, we had been rejected by all 6.  
Still of the Knoxville skyline from the feature film Dreams of The Wayward.
     "If a film gets made but never gets seen, does it really exist?" - That phrase began to resonate in our minds and we began to feel embarrassed that our friends trusted us to make a film and we couldn't get it to show anywhere - it was like their money had disappeared on our watch.  By summer of 2013, Ben and I were already working on pre-production for our second feature film when we decided to re-cut Dreams of The Wayward.  We went through the film with essentially fresh eyes (it had been nearly a year since principal photography concluded), and we had no desire to hold our film as something precious.  If the new cut didn't work, we wouldn't care too much since we had nothing to lose - we would always have the files for the previous cut, so we were safe to meddle with it further.  Together, Ben and I removed an additional 3 minutes, but we then added a brand new scene that lasts about a minute - the film was 81 minutes long.  The edit was tight and rhythmic, and we were confident that we had finally found the film we had originally set out to make.
     Getting rejected by film festivals was tough, but getting accepted by the 2013 Knoxville Film Festival was amazing - it made everything worth it and helped us feel that we were truly on the right track.  Being a college student with a part-time job while trying to balance filmmaking is a difficult undertaking (as any profession is), but making it into a film festival was the reward for our hard work.  The film will have it's festival premiere in competition at the Regal Downtown West Cinema 8 on September 21, 2013 at 2:45 PM and will be followed by a Q&A with me and Ben.  Tickets can be purchased for $10 here: http://www.knoxvillefilmfestival.com/product/film-block-11/
     Currently, we're still in pre-production on our second film entitled Knoxville Stories, but hopefully we'll get it rolling soon.  On top of that, we're in pre-production on two other feature films as well.

For further reading, here is an interview conducted by Wendy Smith with myself and Ben Neal (published on August 26, 2013 in the Karns/Hardin Valley Shopper News) concerning how we got into filmmaking, directing Dreams of The Wayward, and the current state of contemporary cinema. http://issuu.com/shoppernews/docs/karns_hv_shopper_news_082613?e=2310464%2F4584735
Ben Neal and Grant Bromley discuss filmmaking in the Knoxville area newspaper.
To see the trailer and learn more about the film, visit our IMDb page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2329110/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Pistol Duel Scene from Buñuel's "Belle de jour" (1967)

     This particular scene is one of the many dreams that Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) has during the course of Belle de jour - one of Luis Buñuel's many masterpieces during his late French period.
     The dolly movements in this particular scene are stunning.  The camera dollies out to follow both men as they get to their dueling mark, and then after the shots have been fired, the camera dollies in on Séverine to reveal that one of the bullets hit her in the head.  As the camera approaches her, the sound of the ocean accents the scene and further establishes the dream-like quality of the scene.
[For higher quality/resolution, you can also watch this scene here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sE3Num4JycE]

Friday, June 14, 2013

Film Analysis: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s "Still Walking" (2008)

  Like a film by Yasujiro Ozu, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 2008 film Still Walking is a patient family drama with a lot of heart.  The compositions are often precisely composed and contain minimal movement as the camera observes daily life and conversation.  Perhaps most comparable to Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), Still Walking follows Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) and Yukari (Yui Natsukawa) - a married couple - and their son Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka) during a twenty-four hour annual visit to Ryota’s parents' home to remember the passing of his older brother who died saving another man.  Yukari was a widow who had given birth to Atsushi with her previous husband before marrying Ryota, and this particular trip is their first time to visit Ryota’s parents as a family.  Still Walking is a film about gender roles in Japanese society, generational gaps and differences, and - in broad terms - life itself.
  Kore-eda’s Still Walking opens with several topics of concern within Japanese cinema and society - one of which being gender roles.  The opening shot is a close-up of some carrots being skinned by an old woman (Ryota’s mother) and other vegetables are being cut by her daughter.  The pace of this scene is quick as they rapidly skin their food and talk about the recipe that they are currently preparing.  When the daughter hears her father walking down the hall past the kitchen, she asks him to go get some milk from the store and he doesn’t respond.  She calls for him again, but her mother then tells her, “He doesn’t want to be seen by the neighbors with a grocery bag.”  The following scene is of the father as he walks - with his cane in hand - through his neighborhood.  Distant and static, the camera never wavers as he passes in silence from camera right to camera left through each shot.  Before Ryota and his wife and step-son arrive, his mother talks to Ryota’s sister about how disgraceful it is that Ryota married a “used model”.  Her rationality is that Ryota’s wife lost her husband rather than choosing to leave him, so it is greatly disappointing to them that Ryota would marry into that.  Ryota’s mother and father (the father to a lesser extent) that the spirits of the dead are still among us, so Ryota’s wife is essentially engaged in infidelity since her previous husband is dead.  What Ryota’s parents don’t know (and never find out) is that Ryota is currently unemployed - something that he urges his wife and step-son not to reveal to them.  To Ryota, not having a job is emasculating in the same way that Toshiro Mifune’s character in Kurosawa’s 1949 film Stray Dog is essentially castrated as a cop when he loses his gun.  Though his parents never find out about his lack of employment, it’s implied that his parents would think poorly of him - specifically when the man that Ryota’s brother died to save comes over for his annual visit.  When he leaves, Ryota’s father calls the man a piece of trash and junk because he doesn’t have a job which greatly offends Ryota.  “Don’t talk about people like that in front of my son,” says Ryota as he struggles to earn his step-son’s approval.  Even though Ryota does not want to be affected by his father’s world view, simply by being a Japanese man who is unemployed, Ryota struggles with his sense of honor and self-worth within his patriarchal home.  The only time during the film that the camera is handheld is when the mother becomes filled with joy at the thought that a butterfly that has entered her home is in fact the spirit of her deceased son.  The camera rocks and pans to follow the butterfly from her perspective as it lands on their memorial to their son.  Her joyous inner-woman is celebrated in these camera movements - a stark difference in comparison to the rigid camera that photographs the male experience in Still Walking.
  As much as Still Walking is a film about gender roles in Japanese society, it is just as much a film about generational gaps.  Ryota and his family are introduced on a train as they travel to arrive at his parent’s home.  His step-son, Atsushi, is playing on his Gameboy (a scene reminiscent of the kids in Tokyo Story who were disrespectful to their family - making it a universal family setup).  While Atsushi is playing on his Gameboy, Ryota is complaining to his wife about having to see his parents for a full twenty-four hours.  He even goes as far as suggesting that his wife fake “an emergency PTA school meeting” so that they can hop back on the train home as soon as possible.  Other than his shame of not having a job, his key excuse for not wanting to be with his parents is that there is never anything to talk about.  However, when they arrive at his parent’s home, talking is about all they actually do.  Ryota’s life has changed considerably since they last saw him, and their disapproval of him marrying a widow certainly plays a factor in their discussions as the generational gap seems to stare them all in the face.    Still Walking seems to begin expressing that children and their values are fluid and constantly in flux, compared to adults who are often solidified in their beliefs and convictions.  After they have their family dinner, Kore-eda cuts to a shot of the Sun setting against the Japanese skyline as it begins to set across the horizon.  This image feels like a reference to Nagisa Oshima’s 1960 film The Sun’s Burial - which is a film almost entirely about the fear of future generations and events.  The Sun’s Burial is an odd point of comparison for Still Walking as it is greatly different in tone and style, but when Ryota’s parents begin talking about music, the use of diegetic and non-diegetic music begins to show itself as a potential connection to Oshima’s rebellious film.  Throughout both The Sun’s Burial and Still Walking there is an original soundtrack that is primarily on an acoustic guitar.  Both guitar scores sound very solemn and seem to convey the end of life or a the end of a generation.  Within both of these films is similar diegetic music (music coming from a source of music within the scene) such as a club in The Sun’s Burial or a record player in Still Walking.  The context of the music is different, but the effect is quite telling in both film.  In The Sun’s Burial, the club music is contemporary and is a piece of a dying generation (the Sun Tribe) where as the actual soundtrack is implying the future of this generation.  In Still Walking, the diegetic music is a piece of the past (it’s even considered silly by the mother’s son Ryota) as the mother and father recollect their past life.  That it is their past life is only reinforced by the slow guitar soundtrack.
Capturing the small details of life in his well-crafted screenplay, Kore-eda creates a portrait of a family gathering comparable many of our American Thanksgiving dinners.  Highlighting the innocence of children in the presence of their grandparents, Still Walking has an authenticity to it that makes the characters feel like much more than “characters” - they are a mirror.  The things that children learn about their parents from their grandparents is experienced in Still Walking as it is in reality.  We hear stories of the things that our parents were into as children and the things that we want to be, but merely in little chunks, just as Atsushi learns that Ryota once wanted to be a doctor so that he could be just like his dad.  Ryota is ashamed of his past desire to be like his father, but when he is reminded that he is supposed to be the family heir, he lightens up as he realizes that his father approves of him.  Still Walking paints a picture of life, but every great painting of life is really a painting of death.  Though this is a family drama, it has subtle elements of a revenge story.  The young man that was saved by Ryota’s brother is essentially being psychologically tortured by Ryota’s parents to atone for the death of their son.  They want him to come back every year on the anniversary of their son’s death just so that he doesn’t forget that he is alive because someone died for him.  Ryota’s mother specifically insists that she would rather get bad karma for making the man feel obligated to come to their home every year then to let him slide by.  It’s a quiet vengeance that is found within us all, not the cinematic bloody tale of revenge that frequents the silver screen.  Still Walking is almost a still life of human emotion, with the soul of the characters being exemplary of “the cinema of flourishes” that David Bordwell described Japanese cinema to be.
Still Walking is perhaps best categorized as a stylistic descendent of the films of Ozu and Mizoguchi, and as a result it has also been made with the history of the Japanese culture and cinema in the background.  Kore-eda has molded an emotional slice of life that resonates with the canon of film history.  Taking the history of generational angst from Oshima and fusing it with the emasculation of the Japanese population in Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, Still Walking manages to portray three different layers of generational disconnect while making each one individually distinct (and yet clearly the same).  Life keeps on going and generations will continue disagreeing, but in the end we’re all of the same kind.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

25 "Unconventional" Christian and Faith-Driven Films

Here is a list of 25 films that deal with Christianity and faith in unique ways - in part because they are written and directed by artistic filmmakers.  These films challenge Christians and non-believers to examine their faith and encourage soul searching with their grandiose themes and intimate character studies.  Some of these films are not the most family friendly, but they deal with topics pertinent to Christianity.  Many Biblical accounts present us with people who do sinful and wicked things, but those things were written so that it may be learned from - and the same can be said of the follies that may or may not be within these films.

1.  The Seventh Seal (1957) by Ingmar Bergman

2.  Winter Light (1963) by Ingmar Bergman

3.  Stalker (1979) by Andrei Tarkovsky

4.  The Sacrifice (1986) by Andrei Tarkovsky

5.  The Tree of Life (2011) by Terrence Malick

6.  Signs (2005) by M. Night Shyamalan

7.  The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) by Martin Scorsese

8.  Hard Eight (1997) by Paul Thomas Anderson

9.  There Will Be Blood (2007) by Paul Thomas Anderson

10.  The Master (2012) by Paul Thomas Anderson

11.  It's A Wonderful Life (1946) by Frank Capra

12.  Black Narcissus (1947) by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

13.  In A Better World (2010) by Susanne Bier

14.  Interiors (1978) by Woody Allen

15.  Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) by Woody Allen

16.  Crimes And Misdemeanors (1989) by Woody Allen

17.  21 Grams (2003) by Alejandro González Iñárritu

18.  Breaking The Waves (1996) by Lars von Trier

19.  The Son (2002) by The Dardenne Brothers

20.  Taste of Cherry (1997) by Abbas Kiarostami

21.  Eternity and A Day (1998) by Theo Angelopoulos

22.  The Gospel According To St. Matthew (1964) by Pier Paolo Pasolini

23.  Au hasard Balthazar (1966) by Robert Bresson

24.  The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) by Carl Dreyer

25.  Ordet (1954) by Carl Dreyer

Other films to see:  
Carl Dreyer's Day Of Wrath (1943)
Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thieves (1948)
Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (1982)
Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973)
Andrei Tarkovsky's The Mirror (1975)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Art of Film: Andrei Tarkovsky's "The Mirror" (1975)

     “The cinema is only a hundred years old,” stated Francis Ford Coppola, “and there are [already] so many great masterpieces.”  Narrative filmmaking is a combination of every art prior to the invention of the motion picture.  Everything from drawing and painting to writing and fashion play a pivotal role in filmmaking as they established the approach that filmmakers apply to successfully capture and present their work.  One of the greatest artists in the history of cinema is the late Soviet-Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky.  His films defied traditional cinematic conventions by acknowledging the artistic nature of film.  Astounding in scale and remarkable in form, the films of Tarkovsky are a masterful example of an artist who observed the world around him.  Tarkovsky was praised internationally for the poetic nature of his films, but it was Tarkovsky’s most poetic film, The Mirror (1975), which would be heavily scrutinized by the Soviet Union and ultimately banned from a wide release.  Though the film was banned, The Mirror reflects the life of Andrei Tarkovsky, the reality of life in the Soviet Union, and is a key example of a work that exhibits the tenants of modern cinema.
Released exclusively in Russia during March of 1975, Andrei Tarkovsky’s fourth feature film The Mirror was banned by the Soviet Union from premiering at Cannes due to the highly expressive nature of the film.  In a non-linear presentation, The Mirror seems at first to be portraying the memories and visions of the narrator as he lays on his deathbed, but it quickly becomes clear that the film is pushing deeper.  Alternating between black and white, color, and sepia tinted film; apparitions of various natures are portrayed on the screen.  Vintage newsreel footage of Soviet soldiers marching through Lake Sivash and victoriously parading the streets of Berlin begin to separate the narrative scenes making the scope and message of the film only more perplexing (Tarkovsky 130).  The camera drifts through time and various locations revealing the every-day juxtaposed against the unexplainable.  Is it the Holy Spirit or merely entropy that moves the events on the screen?
Emotive cinematography had been previously present in many European films, most notably perfected following Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957).  Using the cinematography as an extension to the narrative unfolding on the screen drastically altered the way that emotion could be conveyed in cinema.  Whether it was the tracking shot on the beach at the end of François Truffaut’s 1959 film The 400 Blows, or the highly geographic gaze of the camera in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960); a highly personal feeling of alienation and isolation is successfully being conveyed.  Heavily influenced by the rise of modern existential writings by the likes of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, the camera became a weapon for conveying the indescribable in human life and a vessel for projecting emotion.  The rise of the existential also allowed for the more painterly aspects in filmmaking to shine.  Framing shots and composing camera movements for aesthetic purposes (rather than the traditional functional purposes) enabled filmmaking to be interpreted more clearly as a work of art.  Tarkovsky brought camera artistry to the forefront of The Mirror (and his entire filmmaking career) as it relied upon strong imagery to compensate for the narrative’s often indiscernible qualities.  
Within the film, Tarkovsky features one of his regular motifs which presents an art history book being perused.  The child turning the pages of the book stops on the image of 
Leonardo da Vinci’s “Self-Portrait” and progresses through many of his other works.  The mundane act of looking at art seems most appropriate in Tarkovsky’s most artistically directed film, and it almost feels as if Tarkovsky is asking for The Mirror to be viewed as a substantial work of art by comparing his own work to that of the Renaissance master.  Artistically, Tarkovsky’s fourth film presents the world as though it were a painting.  Constantly revealing hints of realism, The Mirror expresses artistic liberties in both technical and visual forms that engage and invite the viewer to interpret the content of the film.  Even as The Mirror cuts from black and white to color and then seamlessly transitions into slow motion, the viewer accepts what is being presented because of the atmosphere that the cinematography conveys within the context of the film. 
Keeping the film grounded, through a spellbinding voice-over, is the recited poetry of Arseny Tarkovsky (Andrei Tarkovsky’s father).  Arseny’s poetry establishes a tone that allows for viewers to interpret the enigmatic imagery before them while enhancing the literary qualities of the film.  The impact of fictional works of literature upon film is essentially the difference between narrative filmmaking existing or being a short-lived gimmick that would have ended in 1895.  Two years prior to The Mirror’s completion, Terrence Malick’s 1973 debut film Badlands was released.  Featuring a William Faulkner stylized voice-over delivered by Sissy Spacek, Badlands seems to live in multiple realms of artistry.  Visually the film is just as poetic as the three previous films released by Tarkovsky, but Badlands is uniquely Terrence Malick’s as it depicts childlike innocence in the American south.  Similarly, Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness - entitled Apocalypse Now (1979) - uses voice-over to accentuate the atmosphere of warfare, justify mirage-like imagery, and elevate the film to a literary standard.
Within Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, the role of literature in Soviet Russian society is challenged.  The character Natalia (Margarita Terekhova) claims to be in love with a writer named “Dostoyevsky”.  In response to Natalia revealing her affections for this writer, the narrator replies, “he has no talent, doesn’t write a thing.”  In that moment of dialogue, the narrator has transitioned from being Andrei Tarkovsky and is briefly the voice of the USSR.  As revealed in Tarkovsky’s book on film theory, Sculpting In Time, Dostoyevsky was a light in the dark for Russian artists during the reign of communism. “But art must transcend as well as observe; its role is to bring spiritual vision to bear on reality: as did Dostoyevsky, the first to have given inspired utterance to the incipient disease of the age (Tarkovsky 49),” wrote Tarkovsky.  Rhetoric of that nature within a film like The Mirror was all that was needed to effectively ban a masterwork of its caliber.
In the Soviet Union, the tenants of socialist realism were still being closely observed, so the films of Andrei Tarkovsky (specifically The Mirror) were a far cry from the standard.  Capturing the life of the people as realistically as possible without artistic embellishment was the goal of socialist realism, but Tarkovsky’s world view was drastically different from that of the nation he lived in (Britanica).  With a strong history of Russian cinema heroes like Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein, Tarkovsky brought into his films elements that neither artists acknowledged within their respective works.  Tarkovsky’s The Mirror is a film about life and faith rather than a film solely about life in the Soviet Union.  Discussing the inevitable death of an ill man (the narrator) through various actual stories from Andrei Tarkovsky’s childhood, it would be difficult for a film of this topic to avoid pondering upon the afterlife.  Had Tarkovsky abided by the rules of socialist realism, The Mirror would be a traditional narrative film that would be more cinéma verité than visually poetic; ridding the film of all of its unique qualities.  Dziga Vertov captured the Soviet world around him within his most notable documentary The Man With The Movie Camera (1929), and Sergei Eisenstein established standards for how films are edited and made, but neither artist expressed visionary poetry that defied regulation.  Vertov and Eisenstein were film pioneers - and artists of structure - who would enable every filmmaker beyond their work to elaborate upon the art and development of film, but successfully expanding upon the art-form was near impossible with socialist realism enforced.
Inspired by his older contemporaries, Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson, it becomes clear how The Mirror came to be.  Tarkovsky, though younger than Bergman and Bresson, earned both of their respect and through Bergman he found one of his greatest international supporters:
My discovery of Tarkovsky's first film was like a miracle.  I felt encouraged and stimulated: someone was expressing what I had always wanted to say without knowing how.  Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.  (Bergman 73)
With Tarkovsky’s full potential being limited by the Soviet Union, particularly in comparison to Sweden’s Bergman, The Mirror not only discusses the oppression of great artists and thinkers, but it also dwells upon Tarkovsky’s own status as an oppressed Russian.  Though the narrator’s face is never seen, his bedridden body (from the chest down) is seen near the conclusion of the film.  The actor who physically played the dying narrator was the director Andrei Tarkovsky himself.  Tarkovsky depicts his inevitable death in a similar fashion to the 1651 memento mori painting “Vanitas” by David Bailly.  Through Tarkovsky’s memories, a portrait is painted of the boy he once was, and through his narration is a depiction of the man he is now.  His loved ones surround the narrator at his deathbed, but everything in the world around him will progress and move on after his impending death.
Though the scope of Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror is seemingly immeasurable, the level of artistry exhibited within the film is undeniable.  Adapting the progress in film from the past eighty years, Tarkovsky managed to create his own masterpiece while under the ever-watchful eye of his homeland.  Declaring film as art, The Mirror is a bold work which exudes the principles of classical artistry while reinterpreting the boundaries of narrative filmmaking.  Defying the boundaries and regulations placed before all artists by the Soviet Union, The Mirror is a film that acknowledges the existence of the USSR but represents this knowledge as a piece of a highly personal narrative.  The Mirror relies upon active interpretation and self-evaluation, and it is with the film’s mystique that Tarkovsky’s work is never irrelevant and that The Mirror lives on.

Works Cited
Bergman, Ingmar. The Magic Lantern: An Autobiography. Viking, 1988. Print
“Socialist Realism." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia 
Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 07 Mar. 2012. www.britannica.com
Tarkovsky, Andrei. Sculpting In Time. Berlin: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1986. Print.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Film Review: "Spring Breakers" (2013) by Harmony Korine 3/5

  Based upon the title alone, Spring Breakers could easily be perceived to be a teen-comedy in the vein of an "unrated" National Lampoon flick, when in reality it's almost an indictment of spring break and the uninhibited party culture.  Directed by Harmony Korine (the infamous director of the 1997 film Gummo), Spring Breakers follows four girls (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Rachel Korine, and Ashley Benson) as they go on a spring break adventure that goes bad.  Furthermore, this is Korine's modern interpretation of the American dream and The Great Gatsby.
  Selena Gomez plays Faith, a young and seemingly innocent girl of faith who is introduced as a church-going college student.  Her church pals encourage Faith not to go on spring break with her friends because they will lead her astray and they warn her to "pray hardcore".  Faith gets with her non-church pals Brit (Ashley Benson), Cotty (Rachel Korine), and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) to deliberate on their spring break plans - but they find that they don't have enough money between them to do anything.  Without Faith's knowledge, the three of them head to a store with squirt guns and hammers and successfully rob the place - their money problem is solved!  They regroup with Faith and show her all the money they acquired and hit the road for spring break.  The beach parties are wild and gratuitous, the drug use is excessive, and the girls are lovin' it.  At one of the beach parties, a rap show begins introducing the gangster rapper Alien (James Franco).  When the four girls get arrested in a hotel for drug use, it's Alien who bails them out - and that's when the film truly begins.
  The first three minutes of the film are extremely over-the-top with topless girls, beer chugging, and spring break partying.  The screen then cuts to black, and then cuts to a college campus - it's calm and peaceful.  A teacher can be heard in voice over speaking to a class about "the second reconstruction" and the Civil Rights movements.  Then we see a group of college students at a church group praying and singing - the transition from the first 3 minutes to this is jarring and successfully introduces the idea that this isn't going to be an ordinary spring break Girls Gone Wild flick (aka: "Girls With Low Self-Esteem").  The plot, at times, is intangible as it cuts back and forth between the past, the present, and the future - this doesn't make the film indiscernible though (an important clarification).  Korine stated at the Toronto International Film Festival that he wanted for the film's editing style to be similar to music - this is reflected in reoccurring visuals and sounds that go throughout the entire film.    
  Visually, the film is very aesthetically pleasing and unique.  It's a neon-landscape that reflects the drug-use of the protagonists and harkens back to Gaspar Noé's 2009 film Enter The Void.  For starters, its visual resemblance to Enter The Void is no coincidence as both films have the same cinematographer - Benoît Debie (who was brought onto Spring Breakers because of his work on Noé's film).  Each scene seems to have a unique color that could be used to visually differentiate any given scene from another (neon blue, neon pink, deep blue, dark green etc).
  The score for the film was composed by electronic artist Skrillex and film composer Cliff Martinez - an interesting, but not far-fetched, collaboration.  Cliff Martinez is best known for his 1989 soundtrack to Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies, and Videotape and more recently the 2011 film Drive by Nicolas Winding Refn.  Ranging from dub-step to the ethereal tones that Martinez is known for, the music is very effective at conveying the tone of the film and carrying us through this non-linear film.
  This truly is a film that seems more concerned with concept than actual plot.  At one point, Alien is showing the girls his home and says, "This is the American dream.  This is my dream!"  He then opens one of his bedroom drawers and exclaims, "I got shorts! Every color!"  This is a very odd reference to The Great Gatsby, but this slight reference really opens the film up for interpretation.  The Great Gatsby is all about the American dream, and in this film Alien is Jay Gatsby.  Alien has everything, but he doesn't have love - just like Jay Gatsby who has shirts in every color but can't have Daisy.  Similarly, Alien has acquired his wealth in a dishonest fashion just like Jay Gatsby (both have also changed their names).  Interestingly, there are several scenes in Spring Breakers that suggest topics covered within The Great Gatsby including racism.  With the teacher's voice over at the beginning concerning the Civil Rights movement and the reconstruction after the Civil War, there's a feeling when Faith gets uncomfortable around Alien's friends (who are all black and potentially gangsters) that there is a fear of the culture that she is surrounded by.  In The Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan expresses, "We [Nordics] have produced all things that go to make civilization – oh, science and art, and all that."  Regardless of the intentions of Korine or the character Faith, these elements can all be drawn from as points of reference.  By the end of the film, the two girls who end up staying are probably fulfilling the role of Nick Carraway (the narrator of ...Gatsby), as they assimilate themselves into Alien's world and truly care for him.  In a way, Alien and Gatsby's fates are similar as they are destroyed by the men who made them successful in an attempt to win the hearts of the women they love.  Perhaps the otherworldly color scheme and lighting of the film is harkening to the green light at the end of the East Egg.
  Though The Great Gatsby references are interesting, they don't particularly save the film for me.  Even though Korine's intention of making spring break look disgusting and immoral is achieved, it's almost overkill.  It's so vulgar at times, that within the context of what we're shown, I question the R rating that this film received as this is truly NC-17 material.  I have no quip with NC-17 films (an odd majority of my favorite films are rated NC-17), but this really is a sickening film at times.  Aside from the content, there are some wonderful performances from Franco and Gomez, and the fast-paced hallucinatory style of the film makes Spring Breakers an interesting experience.  I didn't particularly find the film amusing when it was trying to be funny, but I found the visceral violence and debauchery to be very effective.  The concept of the film is great, and the visual execution is superb, but its lack of a legitimate narrative is concerning.

My ranking 3/5