Thursday, September 23, 2010

Filmmakers Amp Up Screening of ROCK SCHOOL

Producer Sheena Joyce and director Don Argott rocked the house at last night’s screening of Rock School, their 2005 Sundance hit about Philadelphia’s original Paul Green School of Rock. The husband-wife filmmaking team’s first documentary feature focuses on Paul Green, the foul-mouthed (but effective) teacher of a group of remarkable nine- to seventeen-year-old musicians who more than do justice to the music of Frank Zappa and Black Sabbath.

Filmmakers Sheena Joyce and Don Argott sign BMFI's autograph book after the screening of Rock School.

This screening kicked off our four-film series celebrating the contributions that Bryn Mawr College alumnae have made to film in honor of Bryn Mawr College’s 125th Anniversary.

Bryn Mawr College president Jane Dammen McAuliffe introduced Sheena Joyce, class of 1998, before the screening, and both Sheena and Don answered audience questions afterwards. Keep reading for selections from the Q&A!
Q: How did the project come about?
Don Argott: The project took shape because I had a production company with another partner. We had always planned on doing a feature, but mostly we had been doing commercial work and corporate videos. He wanted to go to LA, but I had no interest in going there. After the company dissolved, I wanted to do something creative to remind myself why I was in the business. I was out walking when I saw a poster for the Paul Green School of Rock. It had this cartoony type and caught my attention. This was back in 2002, before everything was online, and so I didn’t have a lot of information to go on, but I dug around a little. Finally, I looked up his number in the phone book and gave him a call. I told him I’d like to do a documentary about him, without ever having met him. He said, “All I ask is that you take it seriously and do it for real.” (Apparently VH1 had been in talks about doing something but then backed out, so he was a little protective.) There was something about our first meeting and we hit it off; it helped that I am a musician, too. Two days later, I was there with my camera, and stayed there for the next nine months filming. Sheena quit her job at the film office and came on as a full-time producer on the project.
Sheena Joyce: I was working at the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, the area's film commission, which acts as a free producer to visiting productions. I wanted to do whatever I could to encourage Don, and I offered to help him with this new project. It started at night and on weekends, but eventually, I got so involved, I quit my job, and we formed 9.14 Pictures together.

Q: What’s Paul Green doing now?
DA: He used this opportunity with the kids to build from there. As we were in post-production he opened up a school in New Jersey and one in Downingtown and used the marketing push from the film to franchise. Now there are 48 franchises across the country. He sold off the company and lives in New York now. He's still involved in music, though, and has a new venture called Studio House.

Q: What was it like seeing the movie again on the big screen?
DA: This is the first time we’ve seen the movie in five years, since it came out. It was amazing seeing the film again. It put me back in the spot of where we were then. I forgot how funny it was! It was so nice to revisit it. It brought back a lot of memories.

Q: What other features have you done?
SJ: After this we did Two Days in April, where we followed four college football players as they entered the NFL draft. The project was funded by Netflix and the film is available on Netflix. We followed that up with The Art of the Steal, about the Barnes Foundation’s move from Merion, which was featured at the Toronto Film Festival and released nationally this year. It is now on DVD and will be on Showtime in October. Currently we have four documentaries we’re working on in various stages of production.

Q: This was your first film. How has your approach to filmmaking changed since, if at all?
DA: We cut our teeth on this thing, we were so naïve. We thought, “No one listens to Frank Zappa anymore, it’ll be easy to get the music rights.” $250,000 later… Rock School was like getting our Ph.D. in filmmaking.
SJ: It was trial by fire, but the real work begins when you sell it. You have to make it “deliverable”—get clearances, photo licenses, releases, music licenses. I would say that our procedures have changed, but our filmmaking hasn’t changed. We still try to bring a rock and roll sensibility to whatever we do—even The Art of the Steal opens with a cover of a Black Sabbath song done by a jazz trio called The Bad Plus.
Jane Dammen McAuliffe, Bryn Mawr College's President, joined BMFI's Juliet Goodfriend (seated)
to welcome filmmaker Sheena Joyce, Bryn Mawr College '98.

The Celebrating Bryn Mawr College Film Series continues with three additional screenings, starting with Christopher Strong, starring Katharine Hepburn '28, which will feature a talk about the famous alum's influence on cinema by Bryn Mawr College film studies professor Dr. Homay King. Then filmmaker Susan Koch '76 will introduce and discuss her documentary about the Homeless World Cup, Kicking It. The series concludes with the return of Sarah Schenck '87 to Bryn Mawr Film Institute to screen and discuss her first feature film as producer, Virgin, starring Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men) and Robin Wright.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Toronto International Film Festival 2010: Juliet Goodfriend's Notes

This year was a watershed for Toronto, with the opening of the gorgeous Bell Light Box, the first six stories of a new high rise with five state of the art theaters, three galleries for film art, a reference library, more than two restaurants of high quality, conference and education rooms, and a shop—all dedicated to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Every square inch is named to recognize a donor, and the whole thing is a gorgeous and uplifting tribute to film!

The industry and press screenings, which I attended, were split between the Bell Light Box and the horribly noisy, gaudy, mall-like Scotia Bank metroplex, a contrast that made the new venue even more desirable. Both were within three blocks of my hotel and I actually never ventured farther.

I clocked over 70 or 80 hours watching films and have about 35 notches on my belt (which I tightened somewhat, since there was no time for eating much). Even so, there were many "must sees" that I missed.

The "themes" this year? Several films dealt with families recovering from or dealing with the aftermath of ghastly actions done to or by their children/siblings, including Rabbit Hole (child is run over and killed), Beautiful Boy (child becomes a mass murderer), Aftershock (children caught in the 1976 earthquake of Tangshan, China), and Conviction (sister defends her brother who is accused and convicted of murder). The two post-Holocaust films I saw (The Debt and Sarah's Key) dealt with its aftermath and the impact on families of exposing a "truth". And, to be expected, the documentaries all tangle with “truth,” often in connection with family ties (Tabloid, Client 9), leaving the viewer wondering which part of what they saw was fact and which fiction. But I leave it to the critics to expound further on themes.

Let me add, however, that, as in the past several years, blood is abundant. But it had a different character at this year's festival, i.e. more clinical and less often from gun-violence: surgical blood, body parts/function, and vomit. Blood poured forth from incisions, amputations (127 Hours), and gouge wounds (Black Swan). In Three, by Tom Tykwer, a good film, we were treated to the surgical excision of a testicle from shaving prep to the gland dropping into the tray! We were also introduced to home dialysis, though it was not shocking (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives). Curiously, almost every film I saw had a vomiting sequence! Why? How does propelling the contents of the stomach propel the narrative? And did I mention defecation? That body function was also not ignored by the directors. It has been added to urination as key streams in most films. What is the director saying by putting a character on the toilet or displaying the gushing contents of the stomach?

These perverse memories will fade, I hope, as the residue of some really fine storytelling and beautiful cinematography lingers. At least I hope so. In fact, too much will fade, too soon, except for those great films we are able to show at BMFI. And there will be many, I promise.

Below is the list of films I saw, categorized as "Miss-able," "Interesting, but not for BMFI", and "Will Try to Get This for BMFI". I also list some that I missed but others said were terrific.

Will Try to Get This for BMFI

127 Hours (Danny Boyle, USA)
The most memorable film I saw, this one rises above its fact-based storyline—it follows the plight of a young outdoorsman (James Franco) stuck in a canyon crevasse who must amputate his arm to escape—with verve and visual style. 127 Hours’ score, scenery, spirit, and sensitivity immerse one in the experience as only a great film can do.

L'Amour Fou (Pierre Thoretton, France)
No doubt here that this documentary captures truthfully the life and accomplishments of Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Berge, through their art and furnishings collection. If you liked Valentino, you’ll like this!

Another Year (Mike Leigh, UK)
One of the best, for sure, this poignant film deeply and tenderly observes a couple’s life over the course of a year, contrasting their warm marriage with the empty or unhappy lives of friends and family.

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, USA)
To soak up Tchaikovsky and backstage ballet for 103 minutes is my idea of great entertainment, even if the Tchaikovsky is “adapted” and Natalie Portman is no Margot Fonteyn. Reminiscent of The Red Shoes, this film’s ballerina doesn’t have a chance against her fantasies, an overbearing and seductive ballet-master, jealous dancers, and her ballet-mama, a breed well known in the hallways of ballet schools everywhere. It is a gorgeous film that pits the White Swan against the Black Swan.

Client 9: The Rise And Fall Of Eliot Spitzer (Alex Gibney, USA)
A terrific documentary about the tragic (to my mind) downfall of New York’s Governor Eliot Spitzer. Shown to be a victim of the Wall Street tycoons whose practices he tried to correct, Spitzer himself explains what he can about his weaknesses and assumes responsibility for his “downfall.” However, it looks like his moral weaknesses were minor compared with those of arrogant state legislators and investment bankers. Such a sad tale, especially for Spitzer and his wife.

Cool It (Ondi Timoner, USA)
A response to An Inconvenient Truth, this documentary about Bjorn Lomborg (author of The Skeptical Environmentalist) raises interesting questions about the “value” of various means of combating global warming and places them in contrast to other imperatives on which the same funds could be spent. Interesting and possibly controversial.

Conviction (Tony Goldwyn, USA)
An earnest, true, and improbable story about an uneducated Boston woman (Hilary Swank) who goes all the way through college and law school in order to defend her brother (Sam Rockwell), convicted of murder. Good enough.

The Debt (John Madden, UK)
An excellent thriller, this Nazi-hunting film features Helen Mirren leading a good cast. After years of torment following the botched capture of a concentration camp surgeon, three former Israeli Mossad agents get a second chance. Again, it is the impact of the truth on her family that drives Mirren’s character and deepens our interest in this film of international intrigue.

The Illusionist (L’Illusionniste) (Sylvain Chomet, UK)
The most beautiful film of the festival, this is a work of great art that brings to life an unproduced script by Jacques Tati using hand-painted animation. It is a magical piece about the limits of magic and imagination, of innocence, and the bond of dreams unfulfilled. There is even a self-reflective moment when the character Tatischeff (Tati’s real name) views Mon Oncle at the cinema. A bit boring, but anyone who loves visual art will wallow happily in its beauty.

Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, UK)
An adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian novel, this film does not feel like science fiction. It is so naturally acted that its characters and 20th century setting are utterly believable… until you realize they are not. The film does not make explicit moral comments about its content, but viewers are invited to, for sure!

Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell, USA)
A fine film about a couple trying to recover and save their marriage after their son is killed by a sweet kid driving a bit too fast. Nicole Kidman plays the wife who cannot move on after this event; we ache for her even as she becomes obsessed with the teenage driver.

Sarah's Key (Elle s'appelait Sarah) (Gilles Paquet-Brenner, France)
No quarrels with this, except the utterly predictable ending. Kristin Scott Thomas is believably anguished as she realizes that her in-laws’ apartment was one from which a Jewish family was evicted during the Nazi occupation of Paris, beginning her obsession with its former tenants. Her exposure of the truth and its effect on her husband and his family structure the tale.

Tabloid (Errol Morris, USA)
A doc that makes you laugh at the saddest, craziest revelations about a beauty queen with a high IQ and an absurd history. Another take on truth and lies and the media’s construction of both, this is a hoot, even if one feels sad for the nutty lady.

Tamara Drewe (Stephen Frears, UK)
A very well-made film and one of the few comedies I saw, Tamara Drewe was thoroughly enjoyable, though not “great”. Set in the English countryside mostly at a writer’s retreat, the film includes a range of characters and comic situations to catch and hold one’s interest: impudent teenage girls and their ghastly pranks, an arrogant, successful writer and his much-wronged wife, a struggling and nerdy academic, and a herd of cows that… no, I won’t spoil it.

The Trip (Michael Winterbottom, UK)
The best comedy and one of my favorite films of the fest, this movie brings together Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, both remarkable comics and actors, on a trip through the Lake District with stops at the best inns and restaurants. It is apparently mostly improvised. I laughed so hard I had an asthma attack! Brilliant, as they say. I wish I had understood all the Brit-only allusions.

Interesting, but not for BMFI

Aftershock (Tang Shan Da Di Zhen) (Feng Xiaogang, China)
Aptly described as an epic, this film recreates the horrible Tang Shen earthquake of 1976 in which 240,000 were killed. Indeed, it is dedicated to them, but goes on to show documentary footage from the recent Cheng Du quake. At its heart the film deals with family issues, especially poignant to the Chinese: favoring sons over daughters. It is heart-rending and the earthquake scenes and footage are not for the faint of heart.

Beautiful Boy (Shawn Ku, USA)
Parents try to cope with the aftermath of their 18-year-old son committing mass murder. This is tough material and fairly well done.

Casino Jack (George Hickenlooper, Canada)
Kevin Spacey plays Jack Abramoff well, but the movie is not sure if it is a comedy or a tragedy. As with most historical fiction, it does not announce its deviations from the fact, but I admit it kept my interest.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, USA)
The caves of Chauvet in 3D! This is a Herzog travelogue about an area twice as old as Lascaux. The art and anthropological paleontology are more exciting than the 3D, but that technology reveals the contours of these remarkable caves as 2D could not. Everything Herzog does is worth seeing, including this, in whatever dimension you find it.

Confessions (Kokuhaku) (Tetsuya Nakashima, Japan)
This film proved to me that wearing uniforms, even in socially-considerate Japan, will not make nice kids out of destructive middle school bullies. The teacher’s vindictiveness after these kids murder her child drives the movie’s plot and morality. Gadzooks, it was a film that made me want to call my kids and tell them to pull the grandchildren out of school to keep them from evil!

I Wish I Knew (Hai Shang Chuan Qi) (Jia Zhangke, China/The Netherlands)
A personalized history of Shanghai from the 1930s to now with many excursions into the history of Chinese film, this is too long and too slow to capture most viewers, but it contains many interesting scenes of China over the past 70 years. The film is all told through interviews with mostly elderly Shanghainese whose indomitable spirits are so inspiring. For those with an interest in China, this is worth sitting through.

Mamma Gogo (Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, Iceland)
A self-revealing satire about Icelandic film and finance industries that form the backdrop for an odd homage to his recently deceased mother. The narrative is held together by his mother’s steep decline into dementia, even as Iceland’s economy does much the same.

Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, USA)
Very dry, dour, and slow, so I left.

Norwegian Wood (Noruwei No Mori) (Tran Anh Hung, Japan)
I did not see enough of it to comment, but it looked promising.

Special Treatment (Sans queue ni tête) (Jeanne Labrune, France/Luxembourg/Belgium)
Isabelle Huppert shows her verve and acting style in this odd film that pits psychoanalysis against prostitution as therapies for bourgeois angst. A very funny premise.

Three (Drei) (Tom Tykwer, Germany)
The director of Run Lola Run, Tykwer has put together an entertaining love triangle—first a wife and then her husband fall in love with the same man. It has some very funny plot twists, clever cinematography, and for probably the first time in the history of narrative feature film, the surgical excision of a testicle! I would show it, but who would come see it?

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Lung Boonmee Raluek Chat)
(Apichatpong Weerasethakul, UK/Thailand/France/Germany/Spain)
This prize winner left me wondering “Why?” What was it about and why did it win? Yes, it has a gentle touch and a lyrical spirit, but is it worth the prizes it got in Venice and Cannes? Someone help me.


Curling (Denis Côté, Canada)
Character transformation through the very odd game of curling? Well maybe for Canadians, but not for me.

Everything Must Go (Dan Rush, USA)
I didn’t see enough of this to comment, but Will Ferrell does “sad” at least as well as he does “funny”. However, I wonder why he is shown peeing and then wiping the drips from the toilet? Are we meant to think he is caring? Oh well, at least he did not vomit during the footage I viewed.

It's Kind of a Funny Story (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, USA)
This film totally missed its potential to be really funny and clever and therefore it is rather painful, despite some good acting. If nothing else were showing, you might go see it.

Last Night (Missy Tadjedin, France/USA)
I did not make it through the end, but many folk liked it.

Miral (Julian Schnabel, UK/Israel/France)
A monumental disappointment! Following The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which won numerous international awards, this film shows that Julian Schnabel can make really bad movies, too. Often filmed out of focus with a palsied, hand-held camera, it is visually unwatchable. The script is clumsy, pedantic, and one-sided.

Passion Play (Mitch Glazer, USA)
The question on everyone’s lips as they left this film, even before it was over, was “How did this film get made and why was it admitted to TIFF?” It is pretty dreadful. Mickey Rourke, Megan Fox, and Bill Murray don’t save it; the premise is ridiculous. It offered me some time to nap.

What's Wrong with Virginia (Dustin Lance Black, USA)
Nothing nice about this flick, not the characters nor their actions. Okay if you are in the mood for a downer about religious crackpots in the guise of the law who take sexual advantage of the mentally ill! If this is small-town America, keep me in the cities, Lord!

Movies I wish I had seen:


Inside Job

The King’s Speech

Little White Lies



Monday, September 20, 2010

A Day for Peace


Ever since creatures balanced themselves on two legs and discovered blunt instruments, humans have committed violence on each other, whether individually, in groups, in warfare or in many forms of savagery. Could homo sapiens ever mature to the point where peace, even temporary peace, is possible?

You can believe it after seeing British filmmaker Jeremy Gilley’s film The Day After Peace, shown around the world on September 21 (and locally at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute and the Colonial Theater in Phoenixville). The film is only one facet of the worldwide phenomenon known as Peace One Day, which has curiously been less visible in the United States than in Europe, Asia, or Africa.

Gilley convinced the United Kingdom and Costa Rica to propose a United Nations resolution, urging international non-violence on the day the UN had symbolically chosen in 1981. UN’s Secretary General Kofi Annan was highly enthused about the project, preparing the formal announcement of approval by all 192 nations of the General Assembly. Unfortunately, it was scheduled for ….. 10 am on September 11, 2001.

During the following years of global rancor, Gilley traveled to many countries, wrote to all Nobel peace recipients and achieved minor agreements and tentative covenants. He even scored a meeting with the Dalai Lama, who said that “whether in our lifetime or not, we must make the effort.”

In a bitter failure, some in the League of Arab States dismissed his idea only because he had met with Nobelist and Israeli Shimon Peres---though Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had refused to see him. But Gilley continued to ask the impossible, refining a trait that eventually began to be rewarded.

Many diverse groups around the world began to participate in related educational activities and sports. Ice cream mavens Ben and Jerry funded 70 detailed activity plans, allowing teachers from grades six to 12 to involve students in projects emphasizing tolerance, understanding and non-violence.

Though he had received support from many major personalities, including tenor Luciano Pavarotti, Gilley realized that he needed the help of famous names to widen awareness of Peace One Day. The film shows a nervous Gilley meeting actress Angelina Jolie, who first expresses a wish that worthy projects wouldn’t need celebrities. She then immediately calls her agent to block the evening of September 20, and to schedule an early end to her shooting on that day to publicize showing of the film.

One of the film’s astounding sequences is Gilley’s friendly meeting with actor Jude Law. Gilley mentions an upcoming visit to Afghanistan, and is stunned when Law asks the dates. Eventually, Law spends eight days with Gilley in remote Afghan villages, and the result is a signed pact from the Taliban leader promising no attacks toward humanitarian aid on Peace Day. Thanks to that window of safety, UNICEF workers poured in and vaccinated over a million children on that one day.

Gilley also took advantage of the overwhelming international popularity of football, the most played game in the world. The program called “One Day One Goal” supports hundreds of games all over the world on that day, with players who are normally adversaries or separated socially sharing a common experience. Competitors Puma and Adidas have both agreed to support this program in supplying equipment.

Local schools all over the country are involved in this day of unity; for instance, Germantown Friends School, with a dedication of community involvement, has invited youngsters from public and neighboring schools, plus kids from the Police Athletic League, to play together at their four fields on Tuesday. The YouTube video of “One Day One Goal” is a stunner, with the finale of the short clip showing football players celebrating in all UN countries.

A wealth of Peace One Day websites and YouTube videos demonstrate an embrace of many different facets of the September 21 celebration. One example is Jane Goodall, a UN peace ambassador and famed naturalist, who is involved with environmental problems with her Roots & Shoots program.

Eventually, it comes down to this: If one person with a dream of hope for the world can make such a huge global difference, and touch that many people, could a world of non-conflict really be possible?

If there can be Peace One Day, why not peace… one day?

Tom Di Nardo is a free-lance writer in Philadelphia.

Bryn Mawr Film Institute will be showing The Day After Peace tomorrow, Tuesday, September 21 at 5:00 pm.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

This Week at BMFI

Things have been busy at BMFI! Check out the schedule for the coming week:

Opening this week for limited screenings is Winter's Bone, the heart-wrenching drama about modern life in the Ozark Mountains based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell and directed by emerging talent Debra Granik. Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky and Mao's Last Dancer will continue at BMFI another week.

Experience Gotterdammerung, the final opera in Wagner's epic Ring cycle, on the big screen on Wednesday, September 15 at 7:00 pm or Sunday, September 19 at 1:00 pm. These HD presentations kick off BMFI's Fall Opera Series and conclude the Ring cycle as performed by the Catalan performance troupe La Fura dels Baus in Valencia, Spain.

See The Day After Peace on Tuesday, September 21 at 5:00 pm. Jeremy Gilley's documentary about his struggle to effect world peace for just one day a year will be shown in honor of the International Day of Peace. Admission to this inspirational film is FREE for BMFI members.

Get some industry insight from local producer and Bryn Mawr College alum Sheena Joyce at a screening of her charming 2005 documentary Rock School on Wednesday, September 22 at 7:30 pm. This screening is the first in a four-film series celebrating Bryn Mawr College's 125th Anniversary.

Attend a fascinating conversation, moderated by WHYY's Elisabeth Perez-Luna, with former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt as she recounts her shocking true story about being kidnapped and held hostage for six-and-a-half years. Celebrating the release of Betancourt's new memoir, this event on Thursday, September 23 at 7:30 pm will also feature a screening of the award-winning 2003 documentary The Kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt.

To get more out of our programming and your favorite movies, sign up for our exciting new Film Courses and our fall season of Talk Cinema! Hurry--our Film History Discussion Group: 1945-Present begins Monday, September 20, and the One Day Seminar: Cinema of the 1960s takes place on Saturday, September 25.

Coming soon:
Lebanon, an unflinching look at the 1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israeli forces culled from director Samuel Moaz's firsthand experiences as an Israeli solider in the conflict, will start a run at BMFI in the coming weeks. Stay tuned for more information about daily moderated discussions that will accompany selected screenings of this gripping film.

We'll see you at the movies!