Monday, April 30, 2012

The Tri-Co Film Festival's Premiere: A Q&A with Erica Cho

The first-ever Tri-Co Film Festival, which will feature films created by the students at Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore Colleges, debuts this Wednesday at BMFI. We interviewed Erica Cho, a Visiting Assistant Professor of Film Production at Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore Colleges and the festival organizer. Keep reading for her insights into this celebration of student work.

What made you decide to create the Tri-Co Film Festival? Why now?
This is an exciting moment for film production at the Tri-Colleges. We’re seeing increasing student demand for production courses, and the beginnings of formal collaborations between the colleges in course offerings and faculty hires to address this demand. Because I was hired to teach production at both Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr, I’ve gotten to see how much the students can benefit from each other across colleges. Making films is inherently collaborative, and because there is a mix of Tri-Co students in each class, they’re already working together on each others’ projects; in class, I regularly screen work from the other campus, so this festival in a way formalizes ongoing exchanges. I’m hoping this inaugural festival will start a tradition of showcasing the diversity of student projects under the tutelage of all the film teachers, including Louis Massiah at Swarthmore and Vicky Funari at Haverford. Production has traditionally been underrepresented within the Tri-Co, and I see a need to continue to support and build in this area. My aim is to foster the study and making of film—the most socially relevant art of our age—and to create more connections between film production and the fine arts. Because I’ve been an active film festival programmer outside the college context for many years, I also want to use my experience and skills to help students gain a taste of participating in a festival and give them a chance to take their work and that of their peers seriously.

Who are the judges?
I invited independent film curator Chi-hui Yang to judge the festival submissions given his experience in many different film and art contexts. He’s worked as the Director of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, a non-profit, independent festival committed to social change, community building, and nurturing the work of young filmmakers.  He also programs for mainstream, establishment media like Comcast, as well as for the Flaherty Film Seminar and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. So he’s someone who has experience adjudicating non-traditional films, narrative, documentary—a whole range of work.

What do the winners receive?
We’ll be giving out awards in Best Senior Film, Best Coursework Film, with the possibility of Honorable Mentions.

As the organizer, what do you hope the student filmmakers get from the experience?
I hope that the festival will encourage students to improve their craft, to take pride in the excellent work they’ve already done, and to begin to think of themselves as filmmakers who have something to contribute to broader audiences—beyond their individual classrooms or campuses. A festival format can also create an atmosphere of constructive competition and of challenging students to take responsibility for the images they are making and circulating. There is of course the question of building community and audiences across colleges—to give students, faculty, staff, and folks in the community to participate and appreciate student films and the issues they address. Finally, I hope to encourage students to consider future work and careers in not only filmmaking, but in programming and curating. The Tri-Colleges have real strengths in the humanities and in film studies, through the leadership of professors like Patricia White, Homay King, Nguyen Tan Hoang, Bob Rehak, and Sunka Simon—and I think that our students have the critical training to fill a real need for smart, progressive, independent practitioners in the industry.

Can you give us a taste of the kinds of films we can look forward to seeing on Wednesday?
There will be seven senior films featured and ten short pieces by other students who have made films as part of their pre-senior coursework. The competition was stiff—only ten out of 36 undergraduate coursework submissions were chosen. This year there will be mostly documentary and narrative films, one animation, and a few experimental pieces. Among the interesting themes that have emerged in this year’s 36 coursework submissions and seven senior productions are: the question of human intimacy in a digital age; queer and transgender identity explorations; and global perspectives on environmental change and labor issues.
Thanks, Erica! For more information about the program and to buy tickets, please click here, or you can visit the official Tri-Co Film Festival Vimeo page to see some of the submitted student work.

Friday, April 27, 2012

SECRETARY: Ten Years of Hard Work and Rough Play

Tonight, BMFI will screen Steven Shainberg's Secretary as part of "The Late Show" film series. Our Programming Intern, Dan Santelli, takes a look at this indie hit, its roots in classical Hollywood, and the film's treatment of sadomasochism.

Secretary: Ten Years of Hard Work and Rough Play
By Dan Santelli, BMFI Programming Intern

In 2002, director Steven Shainberg’s Secretary, which will be screened tonight as part of BMFI’s "The Late Show" series, served up a steamy romance between actors James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal in the form of an office relationship propelled by sadomasochism. What begins simply as routine spanking sessions for Miss Gyllenhaal’s typing errors becomes complicated when romantic attraction affects both of them.

While some audiences may understandably perceive such material as crass, Secretary’s approach is much livelier and, dare I say, funnier than one would likely expect. With a narrative structure resembling the classic Hollywood romances of the 50s and 60s, Secretary is more traditional than most of the indie features that were on the market at the time. The injection of sadomasochism is perhaps the only subject matter that would potentially turn off anyone over the age of 18 from seeing this surprisingly delightful romp.

If anything, screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, who adapted Mary Gaitskill’s short story, and director Steven Shainberg deserve nods and acclaims for their successful attempt to rework old material and present in a manner making it appear fresh. Furthermore, their courage to take a subversive risk at a time when the American film industry played it safe due to post-9/11 anxieties is brave and daring.

Maggie Gyllenhaal's character, Lee Holloway, performs her daily morning routine in Secretary.
Secretary was certainly not the first feature film to dabble in the realm of BDSM. One would have to go back to the pictures of glamour actresses Louise Brookes and Marlene Dietrich to view the first screen representations. In films such as Josef Von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel and G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, Miss Dietrich and Miss Brooks infused a heightened level of sexual suggestiveness and female dominance. With the help of costumes and signature poses, both actresses gained notoriety for their vampish performances, which paved the road for future filmmakers and talent to explore the depths of perverse sexuality.

Louise Brooks, playing her infamous Lulu character, breaks taboos with her vampish performance in Pandora's Box.
Secretary is notable for being one of the very few pictures that presents sadomasochism in a positive light to reach mass audiences. The two central characters, Mr. Grey (Spader) and Lee Holloway (Gyllenhaal), do have their personal problems, but these don’t overshadow the pleasure and delight the two receive from their sessions, which is the movie’s central focus from the second act onward. Even highly tauted classics such as David Lynch’s surreal 1986 film Blue Velvet can be interpreted as portraying the sadomasochistic love triangle between Kyle Maclachlan, Dennis Hopper, and Isabella Rossellini in a less-than-positive light. In addition, forgotten gems like William Friedkin’s criminally neglected 1980 film Cruising, a mystery-thriller with Al Pacino’s rookie cop going undercover as a gay man in heavy leather bars and searching for a psychopathic killer targeting the gay men, has a vision of sadomasochistic behavior that some may find problematic and others will find flat-out offensive.

Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini (top) in  Blue Velvet and Al Pacino (bottom) in Cruising, two films featuring transgressive depictions of onscreen S&M.

Even more surprising is the genuinely warm critical and commercial reception Secretary received upon its release. Film critic Manohla Dargis lovingly emphasized Secretary’s light-hearted nature: “For all the dolorous trim, Secretary is a genial romance that maintains a surprisingly buoyant tone throughout, notwithstanding some of the writers' sporadic dips into pop Freudianism.” Movieline film critic Stephanie Zacharek confirms the film’s positive depiction of sadomasochism with this laudatory praise:
“Mr. Shainberg has a wry and wicked sense of humor, but he takes the emotional pain of these characters seriously. This isn't a movie about the dark side of S&M; it's about sexual compassion, a way of recognizing that one person's minor kink may be another person's lifeline.”
Even in 2012, the Hollywood studio system’s refusal to produce projects dealing with controversial and “taboo” sexual subject matter remains problematic. Sure, there have been breakthroughs for the homosexual community with Ang Lee’s Oscar favorite Brokeback Mountain and the Wachowski Brothers’ overlooked Bound (still their best and most enjoyable feature to date). In terms of perverse sexual behavior, Hollywood is more inclined to suggest and subvert the topic than to deal with it overtly. In an age where the studios, more often than not, continue to play it safe, Secretary holds up surprisingly well after ten years and signifies itself as one of the defining independent statements of the 2000s. More importantly, it’s a bold statement, preferring to be honest and open about its subject matter while never forgetting to be unabashedly romantic.

Mr. Grey (James Spader) and Lee meet with a potential client in Secretary.
Secretary will be playing at Bryn Mawr Film Institute tonight at 11:30pm. Please note: the film is rated R by the MPAA for "strong sexuality, some nudity, depiction of behavioral disorders, and language".

Dan Santelli is a senior at Temple University pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Film and Media Arts. A lifelong cineaste, his favorite films (in no particular order) include Leon: the Professional, The Night of the Hunter, Touch of Evil, Blue Velvet, Brazil, Apocalypse Now, Dressed To Kill (1980), Halloween, and Les Yeux Sans Visage.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Valerie Temple: Why I Love NINE TO FIVE

Tonight's screening of Nine to Five is in honor of Administrative Professionals Day and will feature free coffee and a sing-along to the movie's iconic theme song! Our programmer, Valerie Temple, tells us why she loves the classic comedy.

Why I Love Nine to Five
By Valerie Temple, Programming Manager, BMFI

Who hasn’t wanted to get even with the boss, especially one as dastardly as “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” Franklin M. Hart, Jr. in Nine to Five? Played with gleeful villainy by Dabney Coleman, Mr. Hart is the World’s Worst Boss – stealing ideas from co-workers with one hand and giving unwelcome pats on the bottom with the other.

Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda play three pink collar workers who take on their sexist boss (Dabney Coleman) in Nine to Five. What a way to make a living!

Even before I worked in an office, I felt for the poor, tormented employees of Consolidated Companies who had to put up with his near-constant sliminess and cheered when a trio of office underlings (frumpy Jane Fonda, feisty Lily Tomlin, and foxy Dolly Parton) took matters into their own hands and put Mr. Hart on a forced “vacation”. Granted, tying him up with S&M gear might have been a little extreme, but you can’t say he didn’t have it coming!

Inspired by Judy Bernly (Jane Fonda) in Nine to Five, Valerie Temple pulled off this vintage late '70s suit in honor of our screening.
This hysterical comedy of pink collar revenge never gets old, but it might be a little sweeter ("Skinny and Sweet"?) experienced on the big screen at BMFI.

Valerie Temple is the Programming Manager at Bryn Mawr Film Institute. She has an M.F.A. in Film Production from Boston University and thinks she's very funny. (Her words.)

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Dardennes + De France: A Look at THE KID WITH A BIKE

Today The Kid with a Bike, the latest award-winning feature film by the Dardenne Brothers, arrives at BMFI. Our Programming Intern Dan Santelli takes a look at the Dardennes, their filmography, and The Kid with a Bike's stunning lead actress, Cecile De France.

The Dardennes + De France: A Look at The Kid with a Bike
By Dan Santelli, BMFI Programming Intern

With over thirty years of filmmaking under their belts, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, known in auteurist circles as “The Dardenne Brothers”, emerge once again with their much acclaimed The Kid with a Bike (Le Gamin au velo).

Starring Belgian actress Cecile De France (best known to Americans for her work in Clint Eastwood's Hereafter), The Kid with a Bike is about a young boy (Thomas Doret) and his budding friendship with Samantha (De France), who agrees to become a weekend foster parent for him after he is abandoned by his father.

While their latest effort continues their work of realist cinema, The Kid with a Bike is perhaps more approachable, with a screenplay influenced by the structure of classic fairy tales. Garnering the Grand Prix at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, the Dardenne’s sixth narrative feature reworks several themes and ideas from the films of Italian Neo-realist director Vittorio De Sica, particularly his 1946 masterwork Bicycle Thieves.

Of course, the Dardenne Brothers are not the sole reasons for the success of their pictures. Much credit is due to their consummate professionalism in working with actors. Through extended rehearsal periods prior to the production phase, the Dardennes possess an inherent gift for drawing accomplished performances from their cast, who are often non-professionals.

Cecile De France and Thomas Doret star in the Dardennes Brothers' latest film, The Kid with a Bike.

Miss De France, with her bright, wide smile and striking versatility, has emerged as one of the great undiscovered European treasures of recent years. Having only played supporting roles in two American features (Disney’s 2004 Around the World in 80 Days and the aforementioned Hereafter), she’s remained under the radar here while establishing herself as a major talent in the French and Belgian film industry. In The Kid with a Bike, Miss De France has shed her expressive acting style in favor of a more minimalist approach. In a recent interview, Miss De France stated that “restraint is much more a part of my range now. I want to continue to create and invent, but learning how not to do so was such a rich experience.”

Filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne got their start in documentary films.
With an eye for naturalism and a punctual sense of authenticity throughout their previous works, the Dardenne’s prominence in America has only been confined to hardcore cinephiles and elite film critics. American film critic J. Hoberman raves:
“The Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have a style and set of interests that are as instantly recognizable as those of any filmmakers in the world…The remarkable thing about the Dardennes—who made documentaries for two decades, years before going fictional—is their visceral single-mindedness. Each of their movies is an odyssey (toward grace?) through a world that could hardly seem more drably material.”
Their films have twice earned the Palme D’Or, the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize, for the rapturous L’Enfant and the unsentimental majesty of Rosetta. With the imminent US release of what is perhaps their most accessible feature to date, audiences get a chance to discover at the back catalogue and uncover the magic surrounding these two talented filmic artists.

Want to see more films from the Dardennes Brothers and The Kid with a Bike's leading lady? Keep reading for my favorites.

L’Enfant (d. The Dardenne Brothers, 2005)

Living off their welfare checks, young lovers Sonia and Bruno find themselves strapped for cash when Sonia gets pregnant. Once Sonia has given birth, Bruno promptly sells the baby to the black market in exchange for money. Shocked by his actions, Sonia turns him away, forcing Bruno to seek out and discover what happened to the baby. Despite its dismally sounding plot, L’Enfant (The Child) is far from depressing and exhibits some of the Dardenne’s most audacious filmmaking.

Shot in and around the industrial town of Seraing, the rough hand-held camerawork establishes a haunting sense of place as Bruno scrounges around, in hopes of righting his terrible wrongdoing. The Dardenne’s direct for a sense of immediacy and their experience in documentary lingers throughout.

Most filmmakers who make the jump from documentary to fiction adopt conventional narrative techniques. However, one of the things that sets the Dardennes apart is how they arrive, at times, in the middle of a scene, a nod to the limitations and sensibility of documentary filmmaking. By doing so, they miss whatever initiated or built up the scene and stay with the characters for a few seconds longer than most narrative directors would before cutting away to the next scene.

The Dardennes won their second Palme D’Or at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival with this feature, but it failed to find an audience in the States, causing L’Enfant to fade into obscurity. Seek it out and you’ll discover one of the great foreign films of the last ten years.

Also recommended by the Dardenne Brothers: Rosetta (1999) and The Son (2002).

High Tension (Haute Tension) (d. Alexandre Aja, 2003)

Cecile De France stars in the stylish horror film High Tension.

Prior to her work with the Dardennes and Eastwood, Miss De France turned in a mostly silent but compelling physical performance as college student Marie in genre filmmaker Alexandre Aja’s extravagantly stylish and hyper-violent Euro-slasher High Tension. Quoting his favorite 1980s slashers throughout, Aja’s execution is superlatively imaginative at defamiliarizing clichéd material, while maintaining a consistent tone of unremitting dread.

What begins as a quiet weekend away in the country with her college friend, Alex (Maiwenn Le Besco), turns into bloody catastrophe as a corpulent truck driver systematically disposes of Alex’s family before taking Alex hostage. Now, it’s up to Marie to save Alex…but is everything as it seems?

High Tension, while not entirely original and rather thin on plot, is meticulously directed, almost to the level of an art film, has three extended suspense set pieces guaranteed to frighten and horrify audience members, and successfully breathes life into a dying genre. It comes highly recommended for those who appreciate visceral cinema and horror movies, but I strongly caution those who are repelled by blood.

If for nothing else, High Tension is a superior achievement of sustained visual storytelling (there can’t be more than fifteen minutes of interspersed dialogue) and defines what film critic Pauline Kael used to refer to as "great trash".

For those not in the mood for De France’s bloody turn, these two delightful comedies featuring Miss De France provide wonderful alternatives: L’Auberge Espagnole (d. Cédric Klapisch, 2002) and Russian Dolls (d. Cédric Klapisch, 2005).

Dan Santelli is a senior at Temple University pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Film and Media Arts. A lifelong cineaste, his favorite films (in no particular order) include Leon: the Professional, The Night of the Hunter, Touch of Evil, Blue Velvet, Brazil, Apocalypse Now, Dressed To Kill (1980), Halloween, and Les Yeux Sans Visage.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Cache of Art is No Desert Mirage

On Thursday, April 5, BMFI welcomed filmmaker Amanda Pope to talk about her documentary The Desert of Forbidden Art. BMFI guest blogger Diane Mina Weltman shares her thoughts about the film and Q&A.

Cache of Art is No Desert Mirage
By Diane Mina Weltman, BMFI Guest Blogger

"The work of art is the scream of freedom” 

This quote opens the documentary The Desert of Forbidden Art, which was recently screened at BMFI, and prepared the audience for one man’s persistent outcry in the name of artistic freedom.

Igor Savitsky’s indefatigable efforts to collect, display, and celebrate artwork long forgotten comprises half of the fascinating film. The other half focuses on the unlikely location where the 40,000 pieces of art are currently held and cements the case for the type of colossal impact a solitary soul can make in the world.

Amanda Pope, who along with Tchavdar Georgiev wrote and directed the film, attended the screening to take questions and share about the six year film production experience. Amanda’s delivery revealed a passion that stands alongside the efforts of Savitsky, who is the film’s main subject and whose determination helped save art that would have been literally buried in the sands of time. “When you start these things, you have no idea what the voyage will be like,” Amanda revealed about the twists in circumstances in making the film in parts of Karakalpakstan (Uzbekistan's desert northwestern republic) and Moscow.

Filmmaker Amanda Pope with BMFI President Juliet Goodfriend at the screening of The Desert of Forbidden Art
Igor Savitsky spent much of his life salvaging art, also traveling on an uncharted voyage.

In the 1930s Stalinist Russia, a cadre of artists sought the furthest Southern outpost of the Soviet Union to live and paint with some artistic freedom. These avant garde painters discovered an exotic part of central Asia in which bright color and beautiful intricate designs were commonplace—a far cry from the tightly controlled Socialist Realist message of happy laborers condoned by the government.

Fearing for their lives and livelihoods, the artists either destroyed or hid their vivid paintings in attics, under beds; anywhere out of sight from government eyes. Savitsky, who worked as a painter on a 1950s archaeological dig in Uzbekistan, became aware of the artworks’ existence and began saving what he found. So undervalued were these works that locals referred to him as the ‘garbage man’ who collected the seemingly worthless items. Savitsky’s own unrealized success as a painter motivated him to save what he saw as remarkable representations of this desert land.

"Head" by Lyubov Popova, courtesy of the Savitsky Collection.

Though Savitsky’s primary motivation was his rabid desire to save art, seeing the poverty in which the artists’ families lived moved him to make good on paying them over time, even though he did not know where he would get the money. He literally helped keep people from starving. He fought human suffering and honored his debt to his fellow Russians, all the while doggedly preserving the work and building the Nukus Museum in Karakalpakstan to store and display all of it.

In compiling background about Savitsky, Amanda repeatedly heard about how he helped the artists’ widows who were starving. “He [Savitsky] was beloved and deserves to be honored,” she said with resolve. Savitsky’s zeal was uncompromising and apparently irresistible even to a local government boss who helped direct funds to build the museum housing the works. The irony that the oppressive, controlling government funded the museum was not lost on Amanda. “I am very attracted to projects that seem impossible,” she said. In this way, it seems she and Savitsky (who died in 1984) share similar verve.

"Crimson Autumn" by Ural Tansykbaev, courtesy of the Savitsky Collection.

Not only does the desert climate threaten the Nukus Museum contents today with ever-present oppressive heat and sand storms in remote Karakalpakstan, but a changing political climate in the region also challenges the museum’s purpose. Amanda sees the film’s mission as one way to get the word out about the treasured museum. “It is difficult to get support [for the museum] because no one knows about these artists,” Amanda explained. “It’s challenging to stay in Nukus—it’s not like staying in Paris and studying at the Sorbonne.”

Since its release in 2010, the film, according to Amanda, has been received with enthusiasm and some wonder, given that these unseen works were destined for oblivion. “The film is about recognizing those special cultural treasures that exist all over the world,” Amanda offered thoughtfully.

Filmmakers Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev on location
In the film Savitsky is quoted as saying, “The art surrounds us like air.” It is the filmmakers’ hope that, just like air, worldwide support will provide the Nukus Museum with the needed oxygen to continue keeping its contents alive, just as Savitsky intended.

Diane Mina Weltman is a BMFI member who enjoys attending performing and visual arts events and writing about them. Check out her blog, A Subject for Consideration.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Sundance: The Best and Worst of What I Saw

Sundance is in January, right? True, but our programmer Valerie Temple's reviews of the films she saw over her six days at the Sundance Film Festival are just as valid now as they were when snow was on the ground. Enjoy the festival time capsule!

The Best and Worst of What I Saw at Sundance
By Valerie Temple, BMFI Programming Manager

This year I went to Sundance, saw 24 films in six days, and somehow lived to tell the tale. I tried my hardest to see everything that sounded intriguing but, with more than a hundred films screening, it was inevitable that I would miss out on some good ones. I’m still upset that I got shut out of Bachelorette, for example.

But I did get to see some fantastic films and here I've helpfully broken down the movies I saw into nine handy categories that illustrate the running themes I noticed at the festival. Enjoy!

Best of the Fest:
Beasts of the Southern Wild (d. Benh Zeitlin)
The most-buzzed about film at Sundance this year, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a remarkable achievement and totally deserving of its Grand Jury Award. This allegorical film about an intrepid six-year-old girl (played by incredible nonactor Quvenzhané Wallis) who lives with her mysteriously ailing father in a remote Delta community known only as “The Bathtub.” As they prepare for the apopcalyptic day when The Bathtub will be destroyed by rising waters, the film mixes in folkloric elements to create a truly unique work. Many of the films I saw this year skewed mainstream, but this film is a perfect example of why Sundance exists: To showcase important work made with an independent spirit.

These were terrible:
I arrived at the festival with the naïve belief that any film screened at Sundance would at least be watchable. Boy, was I wrong.

Filly Brown (d. Youssef Delara, Michael D. Olmos)
Gina Rodriguez is likable as would-be rapper Filly Brown, but this movie is just too cheesy to take seriously. With more melodramatic subplots than a telenovela, the film relies on stock characters (Drug-addicted Mom in Jail! Sleazy Record Producer! Mean White Lady!) and clichés instead of introducing us to any humans with anything resembling realistic motivations. The clunky dialogue also made for some unintentional laughs (“Why are you so insensitive, homes?”). The movie seems well intentioned, but it just didn’t work. Also, the music isn't any good.

The First Time (d. Jon Kasdan)
Ugh. I could not stop rolling my eyes at the dialogue in this treacly mess about two teenagers who meet, talk, and then (spoiler alert!) get together. That’s it. That’s all that happens. Playing out like a boring one-act play, the two leads endlessly jaw on about their problems with the opposite sex but they are far too attractive for any of this to ever make sense. I’ve never, ever met any teens who were so annoyingly wistful as the ones in this movie. It came as no surprise to find out that writer/director Jon Kasdan has a few episodes of Dawson’s Creek to his credit because the film takes the hyper-articulate nattering from that show and crams it into an artlessly framed John Hughes imitation. Given that the filmmaker’s dad is director Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat, The Big Chill) and his brother is TV producer/director Jake Kasdan (Freaks and Geeks, New Girl), I’m thinking nepotism had a hand in getting this subpar film into Sundance.

Middle of the Road:
These two movies were solid, well-made films. They just weren’t favorites.

Middle of Nowhere (d. Ava DuVernay)
Tyler Perry should watch this movie before he attempts something like For Colored Girls again. This is how to tell a serious story for the African-American community without embarrassing yourself. Perry instinctually shoots for the lowest common denominator while this story of a loyal wife biding her time as her husband serves out a prison sentence aimed for something much more—and mostly succeeded.

2 Days in New York d. Julie Delpy)
Fans of Julie Delpy’s 2 Days in Paris should be excited because this is essentially the same movie, except Chris Rock is now playing the boyfriend instead of Adam Goldberg. Delpy’s brand of quirky humor sometimes works, but the scenes (and there are more than one!) of Chris Rock talking/doing stand-up to a cardboard cutout of Obama are cringe worthy and already dated.

Excellent Foreign Films:

Wish You Were Here (d. Kieran Darcy-Smith)
Four beautiful Australians take a holiday to Cambodia and one doesn’t come back in this film, my first of the festival, that could be best described as a dramatic take of The Hangover. The stunning location cinematography impressed and the complex narrative structure ensured a powerfully shocking climax scene.

Where Do We Go Now? (d. Nadine Labaki)
I never thought I would describe a musical comedy about Lebanese religious in-fighting as “crowd pleasing,” but Where Do We Go Now? was one of the most enjoyable films I saw at the festival. Although the concept was unusual, the disparate elements (light comedy, tender romance, political drama) blended well into a unique whole.

Madrid, 1987 (d. David Trueba)
A luscious young student and her gnarly old professor get stuck in a bathroom overnight – naked! What follows is boring, erotic, then boring AND erotic. Although solidly made, this film was just too heavy on dialogue and light on action to hold my attention.

Teddy Bear (d. Mads Matthiesen)
I loved this weird Danish drama about a 38-year-old bodybuilder who is so dominated by his tiny, scary mother that he lacks any ability to talk to the opposite sex. That is, until he takes a trip to Thailand because love seems easier to find there. Like Wish You Were Here, this film exposes the seedy underbelly of vacationing in a foreign country.

Good movies about thirtysomethings:

Hello I Must Be Going (d. Todd Louiso)
Since debuting opposite Kate Winslet in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, Melanie Lynskey has had a tougher time breaking through in Hollywood than her ridiculously famous co-star. She’s a recognizable face, but mainly for filling the Joan Cusack, best-friend role in middling movies (Coyote Ugly, Sweet Home Alabama) and being the best part of a crappy television show ("Two and a Half Men"). But that may change once people see her fantastic work as the lead in Hello I Must Be Going, a great film about a 35-year-old woman who is completely directionless after a divorce and has to move in with her parents. She spends her days wandering around the house in the same t-shirt and no pants and seems adrift since leaving her cozy life with her husband. When she starts an unexpected relationship with a 19 year old, it’s somehow sweet and not creepy. Blythe Danner is just perfect as her mother.

Celeste and Jesse Forever (d. Lee Toland Krieger)
Rashida Jones co-wrote and stars in Celeste and Jesse Forever, another favorite of mine from the festival. The story about a divorcing couple who want to stay best friends even as they pursue other people made me think about every breakup I’ve ever had, but in a good way. Equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, it's a sharply written movie that shows off Jones' comedic range. Also, it's nice to see Andy Samberg actually act.

Smashed (d. James Ponsoldt)   
Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul are a young, married couple who love being drunk because it’s so much fun. But after a series of embarrassing and scary drunk escapades, Winstead decides to sober up, which puts a strain on the relationship. The film is refreshingly accessible, especially when compared to other films in the addiction canon, such as the bleak Leaving Las Vegas or preachy 28 Days. This is a couple you know and a story that might hit close to home. Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman have small but memorable roles.

Keep the Lights On (d. Ira Sachs)
Documentary filmmaker Erik and closeted lawyer Paul meet-cute through a casual encounter phone line (it was 1998, folks!) and what follows is an intensely personal, super-honest film that chronicles the dizzying high-highs and depressing low-lows of a decade-long relationship, one additionally complicated by crack addiction. I wish I could have seen the entire film, but I left early in order to catch a screening of The Comedy. As you’ll read below, that was an error in judgement.

Say No to Hipsters:
I didn’t see I Am Not a Hipster (because the title alone makes my skin crawl), but I got my fill of stylish disaffection with these two bile-inducing films.

The Comedy (d. Rick Alverson)
Tim Heidecker’s fat, aging hipster is possibly the most hateful character ever committed to celluloid. He’s an entitled jerk who doesn’t take anything seriously and acts like a giant asshole to everyone except his friends, who are also doughy, unshaven layabouts. Instead of a plot there are loose, unconnected scenes that feel more like sketch ideas (“Tim Bullies a Cab Driver Into Letting Him Drive,” “Tim Talks to Some Black People,” “Tim and Friends Go to a Catholic Church and Mess Around with the Holy Water and Climb on the Pews,” etc. etc.), all of which contain at least one good joke, but then drag on for excruciating lengths of time. It was a brutal viewing experience, and a lot of people couldn’t take it. At least a third of the audience walked out of my screening—the most walk-outs I saw during the entire festival. I wouldn’t recommend it, but it's probably destined to be one of those films that everyone will see just to talk about it.

Nobody Walks (d. Ry Russo-Young)
Apparently, nobody is walking in this film because they're all too busy having sex with Olivia Thirlby. She comes to town, sporting that disfiguring haircut that every beautiful girl seems to get post-college, and tries to work on the sound design for her art film about bugs (oh brother!), but can’t get any work done because every guy she encounters wants to have her and she always goes for it because there are no consequences in this world. There’s even a vaguely unsettling nighttime scene where a six-year-old boy in a sleep t-shirt takes her by the hand and makes her walk him back to his bedroom. I wanted to like this film—mostly because I feel bad that John Krasinski has never been in a good movie—but, save for the beautiful cinematography, I hated everything from the characters names (Kolt and Martine being the worst offenders) to the film’s subtly offensive attitude about women and sex. Lena Dunham co-wrote the screenplay, but she left out the heart and humor that I enjoyed in Tiny Furniture.

Good documentaries:

Searching for Sugar Man (d. Malik Bendjelloul)
After releasing two do-nothing albums in the U.S. in the 1970s, enigmatic singer-songwriter Rodriguez went on to become bigger than Elvis in South Africa. This musical detective story about the search for the mysterious musician is fascinating, but mostly what I enjoyed about this worthy doc is Rodriguez's amazing music. If you're not familiar with it, think of a pleasing blend of Bob Dylan and Smokey Robinson—do yourself a favor and download his songs “Sugar Man” and “I Wonder” right now.

West of Memphis (d. Amy Berg)
Although I haven’t seen any of the Paradise Lost movies, this look at the West Memphis 3’s fight for freedom, produced by husband-and-wife team Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, seems comprehensive and zips along, despite its bulky two-hour-plus length. However, WM3-er Damien Echols and his wife Lorri Davis were also producers, so don’t expect a completely unbiased account. But Amy Berg’s adroit direction makes great use of the many interviews they scored with key players in the case.

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (d. Matthew Akers)
This beautifully shot documentary offers a thorough history of the famous performance artist, as well as a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at her recent retrospective and much talked about new piece at MOMA last spring. I wish the filmmakers would have opted against including the scene where James Franco sat for the artist, but it was gratifying when an oblivious spectator asked him, “So, are you an actor?”

Finding North (d. Kristi Jacobson, Lori Silverbush)
This Tom Colicchio-produced documentary about hunger in America is in the slickly competent vein of Waiting for Superman and Food, Inc.--it’s well-researched and well-produced, but fails to leave a lasting impression.

Sundance It-Boy, Mark Webber:
Move over Michael Cera, there’s a new non-threatening boy in town! With three movies at Sundance this year, it looks like Snow Day's Mark Webber will be playing the guy you root for in every movie you want to see next year.

Save the Date (d. Michael Mohan)
Lizzy Caplan plays a commitment-phobe artist (her drawings in the movie were done by Jeffrey Brown) who hooks up with Mark Webber immediately after dumping Geoffrey Arend (y’know, that lucky guy who married Christina Hendricks). Alison Brie of Community plays her sister, who tries to be supportive, but is distracted by her upcoming wedding to Martin Starr. Since I adore everyone in this cast, it’s almost guaranteed that I would like this movie. But I must admit that Lizzy Caplan’s near-constant mugging and silly-talk did eventually wear thin.

For a Good Time, Call… (d. Jamie Travis)
Perpetual scene-stealer Ari Gaynor (remember her from when she was hilarious in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist?) finally gets a lead role in this playfully raunchy film about two former enemies, now roommates, who start a phone-sex operation out of their NYC apartment. Lauren Miller, who co-wrote the film and is Seth Rogen's wife, is fine as the prissy girl who (literally) finds her voice in phone sex, but it's Gaynor’s big, brassy performance that makes this lady-centric flick a real must-see. Mark Webber and his scruff play Gaynor’s love interest, a dude she met during an, ahem, business call. Aww!

The End of Love (d. Mark Webber)
This Mark Webber fellow has quite the work ethic. In addition to Save the Date and For a Good Time, Call…, he also wrote, directed and starred in The End of Love, one of my favorite movies at Sundance this year. It's a poignant, semi-autobiographical drama about an aspiring actor living in Hollywood and grappling with single fatherhood, and Webber has added a dose of realism to it by casting his own infant son as his co-star. The two year old’s performance is revelatory (no joke) and unlike any I have ever seen before, probably because he’s not really acting. The way the camera captures these secret moments between a father and son is truly affecting.

Rock stars are depressing:

This Must Be the Place (d. Paolo Sorrentino)
Predictably, a movie in which Sean Penn hunts for Nazis while wearing Robert Smith drag is a big old mess. Penn’s falsetto performance quickly becomes grating and nothing quite gels in this quirk-filled collection of missteps.

For Ellen (d. So Yong Kim)
Paul Dano’s aspiring rock star is of the unpopular variety, all silver rings and heavy metal posturing. While initially interesting, Dano’s character is given a thinly developed story about his feeble attempts to get to know his young daughter before he loses parental rights once his divorce is finalized. What follows is a litany of long takes where nothing much happens, including an excruciating scene where the below-average child actor very slowly picks out a new toy at a store. Trust me, it’s boring. This is the most disappointing movie I saw.

Valerie Temple is the Programming Manager at Bryn Mawr Film Institute. She has an M.F.A. in Film Production from Boston University and thinks she's very funny. (Her words.)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

BMFI's Oscar Party

By Devin Wachs, Public Relations Manager, BMFI

Sunday, February 26 might seem a world away now that blossoms are on the trees, but the time has moved quickly at BMFI with the roll out of our spring events. I hope that you'll forgive us for the delay in posting these photos from our Oscar Party.

Over 230 guests enjoyed BMFI's fourth annual Oscar Party, which featured the Academy Awards broadcast larger-than-life on the big screen. In addition to the live simulcast of the Oscars, the event included a silent auction and a gourmet buffet dinner from JPM Catering & Events that was paired with complimentary beer selections from Victory Brewing Company. The evening was sponsored by the Delaware Valley Audi Dealers and all proceeds benefited BMFI.

We appreciate the support of our sponsors, auction donors, guests, volunteers, and staff--thank you for helping to bring a little bit of Hollywood to Bryn Mawr.

BMFI President Juliet Goodfriend dressed in Oscar gold for the theater's fourth annual Oscar Party fundraiser. Photo by Alexis Mayer.

Oscar Party guests browse the silent auction items in BMFI's arcade. Photo by Alexis Mayer.

Delaware Valley Audi Dealers sponsored BMFI's Oscar Party. Audi's Laura Zieske and Michael and Lauren Walsh of Wynnewood show off their red carpet style. Photo by Joel Perlish.

BMFI's Valerie Temple and Andrew Douglas were psyched for their night as emcees. Photo by Alexis Mayer.

Our volunteers are all-stars! Frequent volunteer Jack Rutkowski, one of the evening's bartenders, pours a glass of wine for a guest. Photo by Joel Perlish.  

We hosted a raffle to win a five-night stay at an apartment in Paris. Volunteer Sara Douglas poses with the raffle display at the Oscar Party. The drawing was held on March 12, BMFI's seventh anniversary. Photo by Alexis Mayer.

Volunteer Barbara Murray of String Variations graciously provided lovely music in the arcade. Guests in the upstairs Multimedia Room enjoyed a live guitar duo. Photo by Joel Perlish.

We encouraged guests to dress in their red carpet best or come in costumes inspired by the nominated films. Gladys Saldana dressed in this vintage outfit as a tribute to Best Picture winner The Artist. Photo by Joel Perlish.

Elana Starr, the winner of BMFI's Oscar Party contest, brought her husband, Larry. Her beret is also a "nod" to the French The Artist. Photo by Joel Perlish.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Video Round Up: Werner Herzog, Rogue Director

Tonight at 8:30 pm BMFI is hosting a screening of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, preceded by a talk by author Ben Taylor (Apocalypse on the Set: Nine Disastrous Film Productions) at 7:30 pm.

This round-up of clips and fun facts celebrates Werner Herzog's eccentricities and the creative genius (or mad man?) who pushed through all of the many production difficulties on set to create Fitzcarraldo.

Now to YouTube!

Fitzcarraldo Fun Facts:
Werner Herzog's 1983 award-winner chronicles the journey of a man whose obsession with opera leads him to try to drag a steamship over a peninsula in search of the riches on the other side.

Herzog originally sought to cast Jack Nicholson as Fitzcarraldo. He began shooting with Jason Robards as Fitzcarraldo and Mick Jagger as his sidekick, Wilbur. (This character was excised when Jagger had to drop out.) Robards became very ill and was forced to leave by order of doctors. It was then that Kinski was brought in to play the titular character.
See clips of Robards and Jagger in Fitzcarraldo.

Herzog philosophizes on the “obscenity of the jungle” and difficulties of living while directing Fitzcarraldo in Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams.

Herzog was the only director to have worked professionally with Klaus Kinski more than once.
One of Klaus Kinski’s daily raving fights from the Fitzcarraldo. [Warning: foul language.]

Bonus: Herzog plays a recorded fight between him and Kinski from the set of Aguirre and talks about his relationship with the actor.

Herzog and Kinski shooting the infamous scene of Fitzcarraldo’s steamship sailing through river rapids. No stunts, no special effects. It's all real and very deadly.

And here are some miscellaneous (and bizarre) Herzog links:

Les Blank’s short documentary Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, in which Herzog literally eats his shoe.

Herzog is shot while being interviewed by film critic and scholar Mark Kermode.

Herzog saved Joaquin Phoenix from a car crash in early 2006. When Herzog noticed that car’s gas line was leaking, he removed the cigarette lighter from Phoenix’s hand as he was about to light a cigarette.
Herzog talks about the time he saved Joaquin Phoenix’s life after Phoenix crashed his car.

Author Ben Taylor talks FITZCARRALDO

In anticipation of tonight's screening of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, BMFI Programming Intern Dan Santelli caught up with Ben Taylor, author of Apocalpse on the Set: Nine Disastrous Film Productions, via email with some questions about the famously disastrous production.

Ben will be giving a one-hour introductory talk about the 1983 film at 7:30 pm. Keep reading for a sneak peek.

What motivated you to write Apocalypse on the Set?

The real motivation for writing the book was to explore and put to paper the incredible stories behind these pictures. Some were well known, others not, but the real events behind each really reads like its own story full of difficulty, failure, success, heroes and villains. The challenges of filmmaking are so unique. It seemed that taking a look at the process, as seen through these nine films, would really illuminate just how difficult it can be. The business of feature film production is a rare one in that it sits at the intersection of art, money, and ego. These nine stories all have their own cast of very real characters and present their own unusual problems but they each share the same theme of perseverance and struggle. As a result, each was a story worth telling.

You talk about the production history of movies such as Apocalypse Now, Heaven’s Gate, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and Waterworld. What led you to incorporate Fitzcarraldo into your book?

Fitzcarraldo was an easy and natural selection for inclusion in the book because the story of the production was one that included nearly every problem that can be encountered on a film shoot. There was the lead actor Klaus Kinski, who was at best recalcitrant and at worst insane. There was the boldly ambitious director, [Werner] Herzog, who was devoutly committed to an impossible vision. There was the harsh, distant environment of the jungle in which they filmed. There were furious locals threatening death and indigenous species that were no less lethal. Fitzcarraldo can be seen as a compendium of all the problems experienced in all the other pictures discussed in the book.

One of Herzog’s frequent collaborators during this time in his career was actor Klaus Kinski. How did Kinski’s involvement affect the already troubled nature of the project?

Klaus Kinski (in white) was so reviled on set that the natives actually offered to kill him for Herzog. Later, Herzog said that he was sorry he did not accept the offer.

Kinski was a major player in the drama that unfurled during the shoot. It’s almost as if the punishing heat and other intangible challenges of the picture took on a physical form in the shape of Kinski. It is difficult to understand just where the character ends and where the real man behind him begins. Were his on-set rants really genuine emotion or was this his own esoteric method for inhabiting the role of the no less bizarre character he was hired to play? His later autobiography, All I Need is Love, is full of hateful language about Herzog that the director later explained was all for show and in fact a collaboration on their part. Kinski was an undeniable asset to the finished product, but the emotional cost of having him on set amid so many other problems was great. Though at times he seems mad, it is also apparent that there are few others that could endure such a picture from beginning to end.

Herzog required his crew to haul a steamship across land, like the character in the film, without the use of special effects. What do you think was more troublesome, Kinski or the steamship?

The steamship seemed to become the epicenter of all the other problems. The task of hoisting the ship brought delays, and the delays brought frustrations, which in turn brought short tempers and an extended stay in the jungle. These things led to Kinski’s erratic and insane behavior which only brought the director and cast closer to a breaking point. The steamship seemed to provide just the fodder necessary for Kinski to feel justified in his hysterics, and so I believe the ship, at the center of the shoot, was the most troublesome aspect of the shoot.

This steamship was transported across this mountain by the crew without the use of special effects because of Herzog's dedication to what he calls "ecstatic truth".

What particular problem(s) of Fitzcarraldo’s production phase make it unique when compared to the problems of other disastrous productions?

In all the other shoots explored in the book you will not find one with a more difficult personality than Kinski’s. This is one essential difference that makes the picture so unique when compared to the other films discussed. Additionally there is a distinct feeling that the production of Fitzcarraldo is one that was very much untethered from the traditional studio system and thus it was controlled more locally, from its location in the jungle. Having the production and the decision making simultaneously based in the jungle seems to have invited a deteriorated method of thinking. There were no rational minds sitting in air-conditioned offices. The decisions dictating the shoot were made by the same man who believed it was feasible to hoist a steam ship over a mountain. The production resembles a prison where the incarcerated become the rulers.

Thanks, Ben!

Have some questions of your own? Ask Ben tonight at his talk, which begins at 7:30 pm, before the 8:30 pm film screening.

Monday, April 2, 2012

THE DESTINY OF LESSER ANIMALS: A Life Changed, A Life Improved

If you missed filmmaker Deron Albright and actor/screenwriter Yao B. Nunoo's Q&A after last Tuesday's screening of The Destiny of Lesser Animals, BMFI guest blogger Diane Mina Weltman gives her take on the African crime drama and the Q&A that followed.

The Destiny of Lesser Animals: A Life Changed, A Life Improved
By Diane Mina Weltman, BMFI Guest Blogger

While it proves the premise that two wrongs don’t make a right, the film The Destiny of Lesser Animals offers layered dilemmas among its few characters and draws the audience into events where souls are won and lost by slim ethical decisions.

Set in Ghana, the film follows a police inspector, Boniface Koomsin (played by Yao B. Nunoo), who is desperate to retrieve his stolen passport but is equally uneasy about its counterfeit origins being discovered. (He saved money for ten years to purchase the passport so he could return to the US where he had previously lived.) He decides to report that his gun has been stolen so he can attach himself to an alternate investigation which can lead him to the passport thief.

Ghana’s gritty, dense urban areas and its winding rural towns give the film a colorful, yet dusty ambience in which Koomsin seeks justice and, as with most quests, unearths more about his true intentions in the process.

Director and producer Deron Albright—a St. Joseph’s University faculty member—calls the Philadelphia-area home. He lived in Ghana with his family while he researched and ultimately produced the film. He attended the recent screening at BMFI and fielded audience questions with the film’s star and screenwriter, Yao. The film is Deron’s feature directorial debut, but one of several collaborations with Yao, who recently experienced a very personal debut when he became a new father several days before BMFI's screening.

The Destiny of Lesser Animals filmmaker Deron Albright and actor/writer Yao B. Nunoo posed in the theater after the Q&A

Asked about the process of filmmaking in Ghana, where the friends first met, Deron commented that, “my visions of Africa began with conversations with Yao and it has been an evolution ever since.” Both men sought to create a film that told a universal story and happened to be set in Ghana.

Deron said that he saw The Destiny of Lesser Animals as offering a “refreshing change” from the enormous attention the Kony 2012 video has received. “This film is a preemptive response to the video,” he added thoughtfully. “People are comfortable with a certain narrative with a film about Africa,” Deron noted. “This film moves it in another direction because it is very issue-driven.” The film was “not designed to provide easy answers, but to engender questions.”

Because it was shot on location, each background conveys social messages about poverty and the role of one’s environment. The story also addresses what Deron referred to as Africa’s “brain drain”. As African citizens leave to live and work elsewhere, “it is almost assumed not if you’re going to leave, but when.” The character of Boniface, who had tasted life in the US and even found love there, is fixated on returning. His passion evolves, often painfully, into acceptance as his fierce urge to escape Ghana morphs into a desire to nurture his birth country.

Regarding the issue of national “brain drain,” Yao stated, “It is not something that people consciously talk about, but it’s something that happens.” He added, “When you tell a story you have an obligation to focus it exactly to a message, so we chose the topic and then make subtle mention of others.”

One of actor/writer Yao B. Nunoo's favorite scenes in the film features Xolasie Mawuenyega as a beggar girl.
Asked about their favorite parts in the film, Yao noted the scenes where Boniface and a beggar girl interact. “She is introduced (into the film) at a point that gives you (the audience) a nice breathing space.” Boniface and another officer uncover the violent, merciless path of the thief, and fall short in capturing him. When he faces the beggar girl’s haunting, innocent gaze, it gives him respite from the horror around him and forces him to consider how he can influence this child’s poverty-riddled life for the better.

Deron noted the scenes between Boniface and his uncle, an elderly fisherman (played by Sandy Arkhurst), as his favorite. “I really love his performance in those scenes.” Life’s purpose plays into the conversations between the two men, and one standout exchange ends with the uncle gently reminding Boniface about carefully choosing his direction saying, “As the sun rises and sets, we are meant to grow, not diminish.” These scenes with the uncle provide the film’s conscience as Boniface’s single-minded focus gradually widens. The seaside setting is a visual reminder of the world that lies beyond the Ghana coast, with the ocean’s ebb and flow moderating conversations between a patient uncle and a restless nephew.

Deron expressed his deep gratitude to those who worked on the film, stating, “One of the most heartwarming things is finding a team to work with, and many worked for no pay.” Many local family members and friends attended BMFI’s screening, providing stateside support in full.

Gratified by the consistent warm reception the film has received, Deron is especially pleased with its appeal to all ages in Ghana. “Thirteen and fourteen year olds came to see this film,” he said, “It is a universal story of the character (Yao) trying to do something.” Yao added the film appeals to an essential human yearning, citing, “In Ghana, so many people are hungry for a reflection of self.”

Diane Mina Weltman is a BMFI member who enjoys attending performing and visual arts events and writing about them. Check out her blog, A Subject for Consideration.