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Category: Sharkey on Film

Sharkey on Film: Anyone worried about the future of film ... read this now

March 11, 2010 |  2:00 pm


For anyone worried about the creative future of film, you can rest easy if LACMA's recent showcase of young directors is any indication. For a first taste, check out the night's winner, Kirsten Lepore's "Sweet Dreams."

The ninth annual Young Directors Night, held over the weekend, was hosted by Muse, the museum's organization for younger art patrons, and I was lucky enough to be a part of the judging panel, along with independent filmmaker and USC professor Pablo Frasconi and Ian Birnie, LACMA's creative curator of film. I knew it was going to be a great night as the seats of Bing Theater began to fill, a love of film, its artistry and its promise proving far more powerful that the rain that was soaking the city.

Though the submissions ran into the thousands, Muse curators settled on six, eclectic in style and rich in talent. Of the six directors featured, five were women, which felt absolutely right for an event that took place on the eve of the Academy Awards, a night that would see Kathryn Bigelow become the first woman to win an Oscar for directing her Iraqi war drama, "The Hurt Locker."

The shorts included narrative films that ranged from a journey inside a teenager's head as he navigated first love lost (with a lot of comic irony) in Eddie O'Keefe's "Sun Sessions" (turns out his was the most romantic of the bunch) to Devon Chivvis' "Dance With Me," capturing the spirit of swing dance and the 50-year romance of Pierre and Violette sparked all those years ago by Pierre's smooth moves.

 Yu Gu came with her beautiful and poignant narrative/documentary, "A Moth in Spring," the night's runner-up favorite, in which the repression that drove her artist-father to move the family to Vancouver from China tried to crush her too as she returned to the art school where he had taught and she was born. Yu was clever about dealing with the ways in which her plans were derailed -- the clash with authorities was incorporated and ultimately the film became very different than the one that she had planned.

Overnight_Stay_1 Animation served up its own vast landscape of stories and styles with Daniela Sherer's exquisite and remarkable "Overnight Stay/Ubernachtung," whose line drawings and moving brush strokes of color came to emotional life for a memory poem of a night in Krakow when a 17-year-old Jewish girl experienced fear and kindness in the midst of WWII. That teenager is Sherer's grandmother, and the film is dedicated to her.

"Sweet Dreams," which won the night based on a tally of the judge and audience votes, is a remarkably unexpected and absolutely hysterical stop-motion piece. Lepore follows the adventures of a cupcake that travels to distant shores. The sweet stuff's sugar-cube boat is battered by seas, and that's just the start of this life-changing (flour-sifting?) journey. All I can say is that anyone who can make a gourd look sexy is someone to pay attention to.

And then there was "Lintscape," Caitlin Craggs' very clever, very short short on the perils of killer lint; yes, you read that right. I've suspected the stuff was lethal for years ...

-- Film critic Betsy Sharkey

Images, from top: A scene from "Sweet Dreams," by Kirsten Lepore; "Overnight Stay/Ubernachtung,"  Daniela Sherer

Sharkey on Sundance: Catch 'Daddy Longlegs'

January 24, 2010 |  9:46 am

The notion of daddy longlegs, those comical spiders that look like they're wobbling around on stilts and are feared for a deadly bite of mythological proportions (an old wives' tale), turns out to capture the essence of the cynical charm of filmmaking brothers Benny and Josh Safdie's joint effort on "Daddy Longlegs."

The film stars a wonderful Ronald Bronstein as the dad you crave as a kid, still without a handle on "adult" responsibility, and the ex you absolutely fear, as if he might misplace the kids at any moment. At times, Lenny (Bronstein) comes close.

But mostly "Daddy Longlegs" is a heartwarmingly poignant look at the plight of a single dad trying to fill his two weeks with the kids each year with enough memories to last them through the other 50. They are his life, they complicate his life, which he has a hard time keeping up with when he's solo.

The entire film rests on the relationship between Bronstein and the kids, a real find in brothers Sage and Frey Ranaldo, who show a remarkable emotional range as Lenny's wild adventures dissolve them into giggles, and his difficulty with the basics -- like showing up on time -- turn out to be early/hard lessons they absorb with soulful eyes.

The Safdies have said "Daddy Longlegs" is loosely based on adventures with their own dad, and the film is indeed a window on how a creative life might be shaped. Lenny is about freedom and not being limited by the rules. He will make you love him and hate him, and in Bronstein's hands, you'll never forget him.

-- Film critic Betsy Sharkey

Photo: Frey Ranaldo as Frey, left, Ronald Bronstein as Lenny and Sage Ranaldo as Sage in "Daddy Longlegs." Photo credit: IFC Films

Sharkey on Sundance: Punk saviors

January 24, 2010 |  8:33 am

If there is a collective vision emerging out of the films in the Sundance dramatic competition it is this: The punks will save you. 

Profane, tattooed, with dark eyes and darker lives, all a little crazy, in some cases a lot crazy, living on society’s margins – in three of the festival’s contenders, these rebels come into the lives of ordinary folks and proceed to turn things upside down in ways that heal whatever ails them.

While the films work to greater and lesser degrees, it’s the narrative stream that makes it worth exploring since Sundance has a way of picking up on new creative thought streams bubbling up in the film world before they become widespread. So consider this a glimpse at the future.

Kristen-stewart-welcome-to-the-rileys-2 Let's start with two films that premiered Saturday, “Welcome to the Rileys,” starring James Gandolfini, Kristen Stewart and Melissa Leo, and Mark Ruffalo’s directing debut, “Sympathy for Delicious.”
“The Rileys” marks the feature directing debut of Jake Scott, who comes out of a creative thought stream of his own with father Ridley Scott and uncle Tony. Leo and Gandolfini play a Louisiana couple, Doug and Lois, whose teenage daughter was killed in a car accident. They have not done well with the grieving and now four years in, Leo’s character can’t leave the house and Gandolfini's is mourning another loss, this time his mistress felled by a heart attack.

A trip to New Orleans changes all that. Kristen Stewart is a teenage runaway, paying her way stripping and hooking when Doug stumbles across her. In a flash, his midlife crisis turns into a mission – if he couldn’t save his daughter, maybe he can save someone else's – and then the hard-as-nails young stripper turns out to be a catalyst for changing his.

Jake Scott has been shooting commercials (the starting point for dad and uncle as well) for a while, so he brings a polish to the work, and Gandolfini remains one of the most interesting actors to watch today. Stewart, what with the vampires and a turn as Joan Jett in "The Runaways" coming later today, is turning into a force on her own.

Meanwhile out west on the mean streets of L.A., Ruffalo is a priest ministering to the homeless and that includes a wheelchair-bound DJ dubbed Delicious, a scratcher extraordinaire now unemployed and living in his car after a freak accident left him paralyzed from the waist down.

Christopher Thornton, the film’s screenwriter and star who himself was paralyzed at 25 in a rock-climbing accident, is the film’s dark savior with Orlando Bloom and Juliette Lewis as the main rock star sinners. Turns out there’s nothing that will broaden the rocker crowds quite like spontaneous healing, even when the guy doing it looks like he could have played with Metallica. Like a lot of actors when they try their hand at directing, Ruffalo lets his actors, including himself, ramble on, but the underlying story of faith, hope and disillusionment is nevertheless a compelling one.

Finally, director Spencer Susser’s “Hesher” is the darkest of the bunch, with baby-faced Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an insane, homeless druggie with a giant finger flipping off the world tattooed on his back, Jesus hair and a messiah complex. Hesher literally moves himself in with a family so destroyed by a car accident they're not really paying attention. He sets about saving them by wreaking havoc thanks to a bad temper with a very short fuse – a sort of no pain, no gain approach with cars set on fire, noses clipped off, houses destroyed, and that’s on a good day.

The central issue though is the same, that we the people have lost our way and are in search of someone to guide us out of the morass and the mess. And the message running through all three films is the same too, that the rebels, the misfits, the outcasts will be the ones to save a desperately floundering mainstream America. It feels like the surface-scratching beginnings of a significant conversation, still raw and evolving, but a beginning, one we're likely to look back on years from now and say it all started at Sundance 2010.

-- Film critic Betsy Sharkey

Photo: Kristen Stewart in "Welcome to the Rileys." Credit: Argonaut Pictures.

Sharkey on Sundance: 'Please Give' Keener and crew a hand

January 22, 2010 |  9:34 pm

Catherine Keener What’s better than a movie featuring Catherine Keener, whose performances tend to feel as if they’ve been sculpted out of clay -- so earthy, so authentic, you forget you’re not just eavesdropping on whatever life she happens to be occupying at the moment?

That would have to be “Please Give,” a little gem of a movie from writer/director Nicole Holofcener, which pairs Keener with the equally exceptional Oliver Platt, who can make nothing much look like something special without even trying.

Here he doesn’t have to, because Holofcener, whose film premiered to a packed and appreciative crowd Friday night at Sundance, has created a funny, poignant observation on their lives as part of a circle of ordinary people who would never spend a moment together if a hallway in a New York apartment house didn’t force shared space on its occupants.

The acting collective of this film, beyond Keener and Platt’s liberal and conflicted couple Kate and Alex, includes Sarah Steele as daughter Abby, who is not going gently through the teen years; Amanda Peet, as beautiful as ever, as a serial tanner, very brown and very seductive to Platt; and the truly under-appreciated Rebecca Hall, who always gives more than she is asked, and that is usually to play the recessive gene. You might remember her as uptight Vicky to Scarlett Johansson’s lush Cristina and Penelope Cruz’s crazed Maria Elena in Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” In “Please Give,” she’s Rebecca, the dutiful granddaughter and the patient sister to Peet’s Mary.

The film takes only a small slice of time in their lives -- just long enough for Mary and Alex to have an affair, Rebecca to fall in love, Kate to fall apart and Abby to grow up, a little -- but it is enough. "Please Give" is a lovely bit of humanity that Holofcener has given us, suffused with humor, irony, love, disappointments and tears -- kind of like life.

-- Betsy Sharkey, film critic

Photo: Catherine Keener. Credit: Peter Kramer / Associated Press

Sharkey on Sundance: In defense of 'Howl'

January 22, 2010 |  9:06 am


We’re not even 24 hours into Sundance John Cooper-style and you can already hear the banshee wail of disaster that lifted into the snowy night air after “Howl’s” screening Thursday on the festival’s opening night.

It’s the Greek chorus effect, all those voices scrambling over each other to be the first to call for a suppression of the rebellion Cooper promised, and I would argue, delivered with a Mike Tyson gut punch, which left people winded, then windy.

Last year they were chanting that Sundance had become too commercial, had gotten away from its indie roots. So you might think when the festival sets the table with a tough, challenging, artistically experimental film, it would not be hit with a tidal wave of criticism.  But it has been.

Are the Greeks and the banshees right? In a word, no.

In “Howl”, writer/directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have taken on the inherently esoteric task of examining the Allen Ginsberg poem that became a force field of controversy in the country’s ‘50s-era obscenity debates and tried to shape it into a cinematic tale.

Not an easy subject and far from perfect in its execution. But there are moments of soaring brilliance, with an elegant performance by James Franco as Ginsberg that should redefine his career. The filmmakers use an unusual narrative form, circling back through complex passages of Howl again and again as they unravel its meaning, create context.

We hear snatches of the poem in the smoky clubs where Ginsberg first read it, set like music to animation with Franco’s voice-over providing the melody, and again in the courtroom as attorneys – Jon Hamm for the defense, David Strathairn for the prosecution -- battle it out.

There is no small irony in the fact that the discussion on the screen is the same developing off-screen – does Howl/”Howl” have artistic merit? It seems many in the crowd would have agreed with Strathairn, who found Ginsberg’s approach bothersome, tedious. Was this word really necessary? he kept asking.

“Howl” is not easy, and not commercial, but is it necessary? Absolutely. It is a tiny tributary of a movie, far from those churning mainstream waters, and quintessentially so, which seems exactly the creative stream that Sundance in its 26th year is supposed to be fording.

--Betsy Sharkey, film critic

Caption: James Franco in a scene from "Howl." Credit: JoJo Whilden/AP           


Photos: Sundance sightings

'Howl' premiere launches 'rebellion'

'Hesher's' popularity leads to ... volleyball?

Sharkey on Film: James Franco and Sundance fever

December 23, 2009 |  4:24 pm


For all you Franco-philes out there...

Caught James Franco hosting "Saturday Night Live" over the weekend and it put me in a Sundance frame of mind. Why, you ask? Simple. His movie "Howl" hits on the first day of the film festival, Jan. 21. Franco stars as famed cultural provocateur Allen Ginsberg, whose poem "Howl" was at the center of an obscenity trial years ago.

"Howl's" writer-directors, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, have long made hot topics and history their mainline as the creative team on 1995's "The Celluloid Closet," about cinema's portrayal of gays, and as the producers of "Sex in '69," a documentary about the sexual revolution, among others.

Now back to "Howl" and the subject of obscenity. Just wondering what the film will be rated...

But until then, here's Franco's monologue from "SNL."

  -- Betsy Sharkey

Photo of James Franco from the trailer for "Pineapple Express" from Columbia Pictures


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