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, 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


Monday, April 15, 2013

The Heart Of Filmmaking Is Where The Home Is

Still from Ben & Grant's first film Dreams of The Wayward shot in Knoxville, TN.
  While working on pre-production for our second feature film The Days That Follow, Ben Neal and I (Grant Bromley) are constantly examining the current state of cinema around the world and in relation to our community in Knoxville, TN.  Knoxville is home to the headquarters of the Regal Entertainment Group theater chain which includes (in my opinion) the best movie theater in the South - The Regal Downtown West Cinema 8 art house - and for the first time ever will be hosting a film festival (the Knoxville Film Festival).  However, aside from facilitating several venues for film spectators, Tennessee lacks a history of producing material for the silver screen.  Hollywood is relatively 2,190 miles away from Knoxville, TN - and the state of Tennessee is known generally for the musicians that have sprung from the region and not for anything film related (unless it's on CMT).  Frankly, Tennessee is not the most film-aware state (though there really aren't any states that are more film aware than others, just people), but that doesn't matter.  At the heart of filmmaking is the art of storytelling - a native element to all art forms (and a key reason why Taylor Swift is a popular songwriter or why Edward Hopper is considered a great painter).  Stories can be told anywhere and by anyone, so the true heart of filmmaking is where you live.
  An "independent film" is simply defined as a movie that is funded and created by a means outside of traditional studio involvement.  Making a film can often be an expensive endeavor, but thanks to the digital revolution that has swept through the film industry, it has become a less expensive venture and a more tangible opportunity for non-insiders to create the stories they want to tell.
John Cassavetes working on The Killing of A Chinese Bookie (1976)
  The concept of a film being independent does not simply apply to a lack of monetary dependency, but goes hand-in-hand with the democratization of storytelling.  The freedom to shoot a film on a topic that may only cater to a niche-market, may focus more on artistry and abstract ideas, or may be too "risqué" for mainstream audiences is a major reason why independent filmmaking began (it's fun to make movies too).  American filmmaking icons such as John Cassavetes, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Gus Van Sant, Whit Stillman, The Coen Brothers, and recently Shane Carruth have paved the way and demonstrated to film students and lovers of cinema the potential for unique films created outside of a studio's grasp.  Within the world of independent cinema is a trend of honest and unique stories that often depict real-world situations and characters.  This honesty (juxtaposed against much of the movies produced out of Hollywood) is occasionally undesirable to mainstream audiences because of the lack of escapism - the money often isn't available to independent filmmakers to create large-scale pictures.  However, the result is that the stories are often more humanistic in nature - making them less of a spectacle and more of an emotionally rewarding experience.
  In 1969, Independent filmmaker John Schlesinger won the Academy Award for best picture for his film Midnight Cowboy - an NC-17 drama about a male prostitute (Jon Voight).  A story like this was atypical at the time (and is still an edgy piece today), but it's a perfect example of the many facets of independent filmmaking.  It's an art film that features some of the more marginal corners of society, but its story-based content makes the protagonist's journey more colorful and true.
  Looking at independent films from a distance, the mainstream movie audience could easily misinterpret the intent of these movies as "dirty" and unnecessarily immoral - when in reality, there are so many life lessons to be learned from these works.  Recently, Nashville native Harmony Korine's latest film Spring Breakers was released theatrically across the nation.  The film is marketed as one would imagine a film with that title would be - sex, drugs, and parties - when in reality, the film is an indictment of that culture.  Yes, many independent films indulge in content of that nature - and some have good intentions and others have bad intentions, but the same can said of contemporary Hollywood films.
  For now, Ben and I aren't making films about male prostitutes (nor do we currently intend to), but there is so much untapped potential in our hometown of Knoxville, TN for serious films to be made.  It's easy for the South to get underestimated for story potential - and a lot of times the talent that doesn't migrate to Hollywood isn't as respected.  It's almost expected that films made in Tennessee will only be about farm life and romanticize the South - which a lot of films made here are about that kind of stuff, but they don't have to be.
  During the summer of 2012, Ben Neal and I co-directed and produced our first feature film entitled Dreams of The Wayward in Knoxville, TN.  Dreams of The Wayward follows Luke, a high school graduate who has been out of school for over a year and doesn't intend on going to college.  When his parents get onto him about setting goals for his future, he decides to hit the streets to escape from the obligations of adult life, but he winds up getting himself beat up and all of his things are stolen.  He's too ashamed to return home, so he continues wandering until he accidentally runs into the guys who beat him up and seeks revenge upon them.  
  We had made short films before, but approaching a feature film was a different kind of beast.  The process was a challenge on several fronts: naturally, it's a long-time struggle and commitment to create a singular film, making a feature-length film is a process that is not a perfect science, you don't know that you can make a feature film until you actually finish it, and until you finish the film there are no guarantees that the film will "work" until it's been edited together (in addition to all the struggles with financing and the logistics of actually shooting).  We are currently trying to submit our film into film festivals (the festival submission process being a learning experience all by itself), but while we are waiting we are already preparing for our second feature film, The Days That Follow, which will begin shooting in Knoxville this July
  Making our first feature was an incredible learning experience, but now that we're moving onto our next film, the slate is clean as we approach a new story and try to bring it to life as well.  Knoxville is our home - in the same way that Portland, Oregon was Gus Van Sant's home when he made his debut film Mala Noche in 1986 or how Austin, Texas was Richard Linklater's with It's Impossible To Learn How To Plow By Reading Books (1988) or Slacker (1991).  Will our new film work?  We hope so, but we honestly don't know - it's all a risk... Naturally, a risk worth taking. 

Photo of John Cassavetes: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/2683-cassavetes-at-work
Info on Dreams of The Wayward: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2329110/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

10 Interviews With Film Directors (pt. 2)

Here's the second installment of my ongoing list of interviews with film directors.  These are wonderful tools for film students (or people interested in cinema) for getting into the mind of these great filmmakers.

1.  Woody Allen - In this interview, Woody Allen discusses the work of Ingmar Bergman and its influence upon his own work and life.

2.  Ingmar Bergman - A 40 minute audio recording of a Q&A lecture by Ingmar Bergman at the American Film Institute (AFI) about directing actors, the reason why he makes films on certain topics, the role of the camera within a film, and much more.

3.  François Truffaut and Roman Polanski - This clip of an interview on Bernard Pivot's show Apostrophe highlights the dual nature of Truffaut - the filmmaker and the critic.  Majority of this is devoted to Truffaut's celebrated writings on Alfred Hitchcock, but Polanski and Truffaut clash a bit as Pivot attempts to describe Hitchcock as the opposite of Polanski (this clip out of its context makes this an odd exchange, but I'm pretty sure it would be just as uncomfortable with the rest of the interview too).

4.  Jean-Luc Godard and Fritz Lang - This is a spectacular hour long conversation conducted by Godard with German director Fritz Lang.  Similar to fellow Cahier du Cinema writer Truffaut's famous interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, Godard discusses the role of the filmmaker and the work of a man he admires.  The discussion really begins at the 6:09 mark and is a piece of gold!  [The English subtitles can be turned on by selecting the "cc" button in the Youtube player.]

5.  Paul Thomas Anderson - An insightful discussion with PTA hosted by John Horn of the Los Angeles Times.  Great questions concerning PTA's writing process from concept to production.

6.  Michael Haneke - Primarily a discussion concerning Haneke's 2012 Palme d'Or winner Amour, this DP/30 interview gets some great responses from the film director.

7.  Wim Wenders - A fascinating walk through the career of German filmmaker Wim Wenders leading up to his most recent film Pina at the 49th NYFF.  It's wonderful to hear Wenders discuss how he fell in love with film.

8.  Martin Scorsese - This is a fun career retrospective with Martin Scorsese on Inside The Actors Studio.

9.  Alejandro González Iñárritu - In this 2010 BFI Masterclass with Alejandro González Iñárritu, Iñárritu discusses his film Biutiful and his previous work (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel).  It's great to hear a film director speak on collaboration, and his discussion concerning special affects vs. special effects is wonderful.  

10.  Wes Anderson - Wes Anderson and his long-time cinematographer Bob Yeoman discuss the origin of Anderson's visual style, shooting on 16mm film for Moonrise Kingdom, and his lack of technical know-how concerning film equipment amongst many other things in this 45 minute discussion at Famufest in Prague.  To quote director Jacques Audiard, "I am not a technician," and it is wonderful to hear that Wes Anderson is also not a technician with "grip knowledge".


Saturday, April 13, 2013

10 Interviews With Film Directors (pt. 1)

  I'm a bit of an interview junkie - if it's with a filmmaker that I admire, I'll probably watch it.  As an aspiring film director myself, hearing the thought processes of other directors is always helpful.  Here are 10 interviews and press conferences that I enjoy and have taken some knowledge from to apply to my own work.

1.  Abbas Kiarostami - Masterclass Q&A session at the 2010 Estoril Film Festival for his film Certified Copy as well as the current path of his filmmaking career.

2.  Pedro Almodóvar - Forum at the NYFF '11 concerning his film The Skin I Live In.

3.  Nicolas Winding Refn - DP/30 interview with Refn on the topic of the entire production of his 2011 film Drive.

4.  Jean-Luc Godard - The Dick Cavett Show in 1980 in which Cavett discusses cinema with Godard and discusses his (then) new film Every Man For Himself.
Part 1  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=93HCeGy6vzk
Part 2  Sadly, part 2 was removed by the owner.
Part 3  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAsUE1qNgMs 
Part 4,5,6  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rBFRZ-PLL-s

5.  Martin Scorsese - An interview from 1993 on The Charlie Rose Show with Rose and Scorsese discussing Fellini's influence on Scorsese's work and cinema in general.
Part 1  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5SNpgW0PWrM
Part 2  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pIpd72ix_E

6.  Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach - A 90 minute discussion between Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach at the New York Public Library (NYPL) in 2009 in promotion of their film Fantastic Mr. Fox [the conversation begins at the 2:30 mark].

7.  John Cassavetes (and company) - A brief conversation about his film Opening Night (1978) that gradually escalates into an indictment of the modern TV era and the landscape of the American movie-going world.  It's wonderful to see Cassavete's passion for his own unique work and praise for his cast members/actors.

8.  Whit Stillman - An intensive interview conducted by The Seventh Art in 2012 with Whit Stillman as they go through his filmography and discuss the origins of his work.  [For more of their interviews with filmmakers, you can check out The Seventh Art at: http://www.theseventhart.org/main/]

9.  The Coen Brothers and Noah Baumbach - This is a pretty cool interview conducted by Noah Baumbach with The Coen Brothers at a Film Society .  It's nice to hear a filmmaker interview another filmmaker(s).

10.  Lars von Trier - This interview concerns the formation of Lars von Trier's Europe Trilogy (The Element of Crime, Epidemic, and Europa).  [Be sure to turn on the English subtitles on Youtube for this interview (as it is in Danish) by selecting the "cc" button.]
Part 1  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uVUnZjnqzvg
Part 2  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jt61P-xyQeI
Part 3  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uSC60PuF-14


Friday, April 12, 2013

Film Review: "To The Wonder" (2013) by Terrence Malick 2.3/5

  Coming off the heels of his 2011 Palme d'Or winner The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick's latest film To The Wonder is just as mysterious but poorly executed.  The hallmarks of Malick's work are all present, but it almost feels like another director making a film in the style of Terrence Malick.  
  Starring Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, and Javier Bardem, To The Wonder follows the romantic relations between Affleck and a French woman (played by Kurylenko) as they decide to move to America together with her 10 year old daughter.  Affleck is like a father to the daughter of the woman he loves, but he refuses to marry her - and as a result, their relationship suffers.  Kurylenko and her daughter begin to feel like outsiders as they lack friends and seem to have a language barrier, so they return to France without Affleck.  While Affleck is on his own, he runs into an old flame played by Rachel McAdams and their relationship begins to rekindle.  Meanwhile, Javier Bardem, the soul-searching priest in the area, is trying to find God in the world around him, but is feeling lost as he fails to see the love of Christ in his daily life.
  The problem with this film is a true sense of aimlessness.  To The Wonder isn't particularly confusing, but it is tiresome in its form and lifeless in its plot.  The film is semi-autobiographical, with Malick being the Ben Affleck character, but it's a shame that this connection doesn't foster a more energetic look at life.  It would be easy to compare Malick's latest film (on plot alone) to Roberto Rossellini's masterpiece Journey To Italy (1954), but the form of the film renders the plot meaningless.  Journey To Italy follows a British couple as they go on a vacation to Italy.  Majority of Rossellini's film follows the wife as she goes to museums by herself and looks at art that informs her on her dissolving marriage - which is, at a distance, very similar to the plot of To The Wonder.  Javier Bardem's wing of the film is almost entirely out of place - excluding his voiceover concerning loving your spouse as Christ loved the Church.  However, Bardem's portion of the film is the most interesting and captivating as it harkens back to the powerful soul-searching that The Tree of Life presented, but without being a self-remake on Malick's part.  At the same time, it is easy to compare Bardem's story to Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light (1961), which is entirely about a priest who is disturbed by the world around him as he experiences God's silence.
  Many of the performances in the film feel dishonest at times as emotions propel themselves into the physical realm of acting.  Similar performances were briefly seen in The Tree of Life, and seem to be the product of actors being told not to speak.  At one point, Ben Affleck is at a swimming pool with his wife and is blatantly staring at another woman while Olga silently tries to get his attention.  Again, in another scene Ben Affleck is helping Olga move boxes into their new home and they look completely lost - as people on a movie set who don't know what they're supposed to be doing sometimes do.
  Throughout To The Wonder, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki captures the essence of a Malick film - but over and over again - to the point that everything feels the same.  The camera gives us very few emotional peaks, because the cinematography is constantly peaking and flaunting at times.  The film does, however, have a powerful sense of verisimilitude - even more so than The Tree of Life - and part of this is due to the use of only natural lighting.  There were no lights on set, just normal lights at locations (lamps etc) or the Sun.  Particularly following The Tree of Life, there was a sense in my mind that Malick was borrowing from the Dogme 95 movement with the jump cuts he would use in the same fashion as that of Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier or Thomas Vinterberg.  To The Wonder, on a technical standpoint, almost verifies this homage of form as the camera is almost never on a tripod and no lights were used on set (two of the rules of the Dogme 95 movement).  The film even begins with the quality of a Dogme 95 movie as the first images are from the perspective of Ben Affleck's character's SD hand-cam.  Similar to The Tree of Life, Malick's usage of jump-cuts to enhance performances feels very Dogme 95-esque.  Going back to the dishonest performances throughout the film, this may be Malick's attempt to borrow a directing style from Lars von Trier who had his actors in Melancholia do whatever they wanted for a few scenes - but Trier managed to capture honesty and authenticity with this technique (specifically in the wedding reception scene).
  It is interesting that To The Wonder defies, in several ways, the image that I had formed of what a Malick film could be.  It begins with grainy standard definition hand-cam footage (the exact opposite of what is generally expected from a Malick film), the first lines of dialogue (and nearly the entire film) are in French, and the film takes place in the modern world.  Characters use laptops and Skype with one another - a digital world that seems like the antithesis of Malick.  Perhaps the digital movement is the antithesis of Malick and he is making a statement about our lack of connection with the world - even though we are told that technology brings us closer to one another.  
  As I began, this is a mysterious film, but it is ambitious regardless of its flaws.  The story clearly came together in the editing room - which is remarkable, but it often shows.  In the closing credits, at one point it says that unused footage from The Tree of Life was used in this film - which only enhances the spur-of-the-moment vibe to this production.  This is a very idiosyncratic film from a very idiosyncratic man, but it has its rewards within its enigmas.

My ranking: 2.3/5
IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1595656/