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AFI REVIEW: Pearblossom Hwy

on Monday, Nov. 12th

The title of director Mike Ott and his co-writer and star Atsuko Okatsuka’s film is a reference to California’s State Route 138. There’s a loneliness to the territory that 138 cuts through that is reflected in the lives of Ott and Okatsuka’s characters who are themselves drawn in part, as the lore goes, from the cast’s own lives.

Okatsuka plays the nearly eponymously named Atsuko Sakamoto, known as Anna to her American friends. Anna is a Japanese immigrant, a shade of the outsider drawn to others on the fringes of the small town society she’s found herself in with her aunt and uncle. We discover quickly that– at great risk– Anna is prostituting herself. The money she earns, it seems, she intends to use to return to Japan to see her ailing grandmother. At least that’s the logic that her own statements suggest, even as it becomes increasingly clear that Anna seeks any kind of escape she can find.

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AFI INTERVIEW: Writer-Director Drew Denny

on Thursday, Nov. 8th

It seems like at AFI Fest I have an interview that just eclipses every other interview of the year. Last time out it was my discussion with Panos Cosmatos, director of Beyond The Black Rainbow. This year it was with performance artist and filmmaker Drew Denny, whose deeply personal The Most Fun I Ever Had With My Pants On surprised and delighted me.

Truth be told I nearly skipped watching the film. The words “performance artist” remain incredibly loaded for me. Flashbacks to incomprehensible, humorously earnest college productions are sparked by that phrase. Yet so too are memories of seeing Miranda July practice her craft.

Denny’s film debut– which I’ll call Pants On for short– has something in common with July’s The Future. Both were drawn from performance art pieces. In the case of Pants On the performance was a work that centered on a recent, dark episode in Denny’s life. (more…)

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Director Nacho Vigalondo Unearths The Romantic Soul of the Modern Nerd

on Monday, Dec. 5th

One of my favorite films at this year’s AFI Fest was Extraterrestrial (see our review), a farcical romantic comedy with a science fiction twist from Spanish writer-director Nacho Vigalondo. The film, along with the director’s cult hit debut Timecrimes, has established Vigalondo as the creator of very smart, very human genre films which use a geeky cinematic idiom to smash language barriers and reveal the romantic soul of the modern nerd.

Vigalondo himself embodies these twin polarities. At the festival he was known for his energy and wit during Q&A sessions, and for the gusto with which he tackled the karaoke at an after-hours party. Question and answer sessions can be dreadful things, but Vigalondo brought a nerdy verve to one session when he broke out the stash of graphic novels he had snuck off to buy during the screening. Like Quentin Tarantino, he’s the kind of filmmaker who is as entertaining to watch as the films he makes.

***

Noah Nelson: You manage to meld such humanity with your nerd interests — time travel and alien incursions. How does that alchemy come about?

Nacho Vigalondo: These kinds of questions are very lovely to hear, because they include a flattering and precise description of your work, but they are pretty difficult to answer, because from the point of view of the writer/director it´s not so easy to depict a process that it´s not so self conscious.  I just waned to tell something that I felt was personal and sincere, but at the same time I wanted it to be enjoyable and surprising to anyone. That’s it. If the result feels like a post-nerd comedy it could be because I’m a post-nerd (I hope this horrible “post-nerd” term never gets used again).

NN: When did you first get into science fiction and comic books?

NV: I´ve been into real science fiction since my college years. When I say real, I mean the literature. Don’t get me wrong, but Sci-Fi never shined on the movies as much as in the books. If you are looking for Sci-Fi movie masterpieces, you may find there are not that many, not as with horror, crime, drama or comedy. I opened my eyes when I started reading Philip K. Dick. Some of my short films are an explicit tribute to him. You can find my Code 7 trilogy with English subtitles on YouTube.

With comic books, it is different. I’ve been into comic books all my life.

NN: What freedoms does making genre films give you? Do you find there are limitations that you might not face making a “regular” comedy or drama?

NV: For me genre devices like time travel in my first film, or an alien invasion in this one, are tools that help you get to the point faster, without giving too much explanation. Like in pop music. Everyone knows the rules already, so you can reach faster the core of the thing. For example, in Timecrimes the main character faces himself in 15 minutes, because of time travel. If you try to reach this profound situation through a drama you would end up doing 7 years in Tibet or Dances with Wolves.

NN: You managed to make these really rich science fiction films at a small scale, what aspirations for big budget Hollywood films do you have, if any?

NV: I’m trying both, just in case. My next projects are a studio-budgeted script I wrote with the awesome Mark Millar (creator of Wanted and Kick Ass) called Supercrooks, about a supervillain heist, and a techno-thriller called Windows, kind of “Rear Window” for the Internet era. But in case these big films take too much time, [I'm] sure I´ll make another little post-nerd fantasy.

***

Extraterrestrial should see wider release in the United States next year.

Special thanks to AFI Fest 2011 Presented by Audi for the chance to see the film and speak with the director.

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Indie Film Wits: Alex Ross Perry & Carlen Altman of ‘The Color Wheel’

on Thursday, Nov. 17th

Alex Ross Perry and Carlen Altman are the creative forces behind The Color Wheel, a favorite on the film festival circuit (read our review) for the high speed, high grade chemistry between the two. Perry and Altman play a brother and sister that on the surface can’t stand each other, but deep down are the only people who truly understand each other.

It’s a quick-witted road comedy with some dark, daring twists born from a feeling of disconnection with the world as it is. We talked to Perry and Atman, co-writers and co-stars (Perry directed) at this year’s AFI Fest in Los Angeles.

Noah Nelson: A lot of the choices you make set up this world of alienation. When did you know that you wanted to make a movie that was so much about that?

Carlen Altman: I guess we knew from the beginning that we wanted to write where the main characters are alienated based on us as real people feeling alienated from people growing up. I spend a lot of time on Facebook as does… I don’t want to speak on your behalf…

Alex Ross Perry:  That’s something we talked about. There’s nothing of that in the movie, but the characters start off not having seen each other, or being aware of what other people are up to. We talked about how depressing it is because of the internet having to know what all these people that you’ve known your entire life are doing with their lives.

CA: And like how a lot of them have big dreams and they’re doing something really different from what you imagined them doing, and how I guess, in real life, we feel like were trying to hold on to a sense of not giving up… it sounds so cliche… but it’s like our dreams. So I guess the character of JR (Altman) is supposed to represent a more exaggerated us kind of clinging on to what we want to do creatively. Which is kind of, at least for me, kinda vague… JR’s character. Whereas the real world people are what we imagine Colin (Perry) and the other people around her kind of like cartoonish versions of the real world. So that was like a top priority for us expressing alienation.

NN: There’s nothing but 1980’s technology in the film. You give her a digital watch, there are pay phones, and no one is on cell phones. The film has this throughly modern sensibility but almost no sign that we’re living right now. When did that idea come about?

ARP: We didn’t give her that watch; I think that is Carlen’s watch. It is my watch as well.

[Carlen laughs.]

NN: It’s just organic.

CA: Yeah.

ARP: We don’t have that meticulous of production design meetings. We just kinda wore our own watches. But I have no creative relations with anything that is technologically modern and I don’t think that you need that. 99% of books and movies you’ve ever seen don’t have that stuff in it, and therefore it seems easy for me to picture a complete thing without any of those trappings.

Alex Ross Perry, director, co-writer, and co-star of The Color Wheel. Photo courtesy AFI Fest.

I just have no relationship with that. There’s nothing that I find interesting about being glued to a cell phone. I think that’s very stressful and very ugly. I’ve seen the movies about the people who need to check their email all the time. It would have been easy to make my character the type of person who’s just like ‘Oh I’ve got this work thing’ but that’s… I’ve seen that before and it just doesn’t really look like anything. I think it would have conflicted with how everything else in the movie looked. I think that shooting on like digital video and making it black and white is like you’re making a joke. But I also  think that shooting the way we did [on 16mm film] and putting laptops and cell phones in it also would have looked like a joke.

CA: I agree.

ARP: That would have exposed the visual palate of the film as just having been –

CA: A choice.

ARP: Yeah, just a flip decision that’s at odds with the content. So everything had to unite under the same umbrella of meaning. None of that stuff would have fit in the tone of the story.

NN: You guys have this great banter. I was conscious of that about 20 minutes into the film, that I could just listen to these two talk to each other for the next six hours. What was your writing process?

CA: We would meet up and talk about what we wanted to do and Alex would go home and write dialogue based on that. And then I guess I would look over it and say ‘I don’t think JR would say that, she’d say this… blah blah blah’.

ARP: And then we’d just be sitting there reading the scenes and in the middle would be like ‘Well, these lines, the way we’re saying them, don’t really sound like anything, so let’s just draw an ‘X’ through that and we’ll come up with something else to get us from the beginning of this interaction to the end of it.’ We just did that a lot and it was just a lot of talking about it — two or three hour sessions a couple of times a week.

Eventually it just became very particular. Everything else kind of just got like the block that gets chipped into the carving. It just started as this thing that was nothing; which is like ‘whatever’ type of dialogue. Which is what the first draft of the script would reflect and by the end it was this very idiosyncratic, very personal and very tailored by both of us to things that we felt like we could and would say. Or wanted to say.

That’s the other thing just: ‘Well I really want to deliver this line’. That’s like an an easy way to write if the two people who are doing this are saying 90% of the dialogue in this movie. So I want to say this and I want you to set me up so I can say this joke. It just kind of emerged. It really didn’t seem that unique when we were doing it.

CA: Also I don’t have any siblings… well I have a half sister who lives in Mexico who I’ve met five times TMI. I think that in terms of that I tried to channel what I imagine a brother and sister of a certain age would say. And like I said [at the AFI Q&A] perhaps seemingly jokingly watching the Gilmore Girls, the way daughter and the mother talk. Not that that was my muse. But just I guess in terms of the rhythm of speech I tried to imagine what a brother and sister would…

NN: Actually Gilmore Girls made sense to me because famously that television show would have 60 or 70 page scripts –

CA: Yeah.

NN: — for like a 42 minute shows and they’d have to deliver it at this speed —

CA: Yeah

NN: — in order to get all the lines out. And it creates that –

CA: That rhythm, yeah.

ARP: Our script was like 105 pages ultimately. I mean, the first cut of the film was like 98 minutes but still it was longer than one page per minute. I think that the draft that we shot was just over a 100 pages maybe.

NN: Oh my gosh.

ARP: But stuff like the diner scene, and the motel scene towards the beginning, is really fast cutting there. That stuff is way shorter than it was as written. And, also, we cut out beginnings and ends of those scenes. Maybe it would have been 100 minute movie if we left everything in it.

NN: I can’t remember the exact, there was one cut that made me laugh and I think it was the clothing…

ARP: Just one.

NN: No. No.

[Carlen giggles.]

NN: That I can remember consciously being ‘That’s a beautiful cut’ when you say ‘I’m not gonna change my clothes’ and then boom you’re in the clothing store.

ARP: People think that’s a mistake.

NN: What?

ARP: People think uniformly that’s some really bad editing error. And it was really hard to figure out the right part of which word to put that cut so that people wouldn’t think that was a mistake. But to me that’s just a Simpsons joke and always makes me laugh… that type of thing. My first movie was full of cuts like that and I don’t think that anyone could ever look at those and think that there a mistake. But people are watching a movie that’s made by young people and are looking for errors. I think that’s a pretty funny joke and it’s written like that.

NN: What’s next?

ARP: I’ve done two movies where I’m asking my friends from high school for 2000 dollar checks every couple of weeks and I can’t …doing a third one like that would be really unpleasant.

The one thing I would have killed for on this would have been to have had three days of reshoots. That would have been so great. Just to have edited the movie and been like this scene and that scene need to be reshot and we need to add a scene here that we didn’t have before. There’s just no way that would have been financially possible, or even logistically possible, because everything we had to do would have been in another city. So that would have been $5,000 expense to shoot for three more days, and that never would have been possible.

That’s a type of filmmaking I’m excited to mature past.

The Color Wheel directed by Alex Ross Perry, written by Perry and Carlen Altman. The film screened as part of AFI Fest 2011 presented by Audi.

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Journey ‘Beyond The Black Rainbow’ with Director Panos Cosmatos

on Tuesday, Nov. 15th

One thing that makes a genre fan a genre fan — whether you call them a geek, nerd, or otaku — is their unique capacity to fall completely in love with a creative work. Be it film, game, or comic book, the object of devotion overwhelms the nervous system and transports the imagination of the fan into another realm.

This is what happened to me while watching Panos Cosmatos’ Beyond The Black Rainbow (read our review) at AFI Fest last week. So it was with great joy that I discovered that Cosmatos is a kindred spirit, a fellow geek whose fascinations span the range of midnight movies, 70’s sci-fi, the occult, and the depths of the human psyche.

The nature of Cosmatos’ film, which in many ways is the quintessential midnight movie, means that it is limited in its appeal. Yet the audience it is destined to attract — cinephiles and genre hounds — are already beginning to rally to its dark banners.  No less than the reigning king of the geeks, director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim) has professed his fascination with the film on Twitter.

To set the scene properly for the interview that follows, I’m going to share with you the director’s statement on Beyond The Black Rainbow, Cosmatos’ glorious freakout film that conjures up a modernist nightmare world out of the remnants of the pop culture of his childhood. The story is of a seemingly demonic psychotherapist named Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers) and his lone patient: an apparently psychic girl named Elena (Eva Allen) who has deep ties to Nyle’s mysterious past.

I wasn’t allowed to watch R-rated films when I was a kid, but when we’d go to the video store in the corner, a mom and pop shop called Video Attic, I’d obsessively look at all the horror movie video tapes. I was mesmerized by the lurid box covers and the vivid descriptions on the back. So I’d imagine, in great detail, my own versions of these movies without ever having seen them. That was one of the key inspirations for the film. The idea of making one of those imagined movies.

The mood of the film is my memory of how the late 70s and early 80s felt to me. Both the reality and the fantasy world of the pop culture i would immerse myself in. I think in making it I was trying to grasp something intangible. It’s a nostalgic movie, but it’s a poisoned nostalgia.

After a couple of informal chats at festival mixers and on Twitter about our shared love of genre films, Cosmatos and I sat for a formal interview.

Noah Nelson: You call it a “poisoned nostalgia” in the press notes.

Panos Cosmatos: Nostalgia by definition is looking through the past through rose-colored glasses so this is looking through the past through more of an acerbic lens.

NN: I liked this idea of you standing in the video store dreaming up what these lurid video boxes might be.

PC: After my father passed away I got kinda nostalgic for my childhood and my past, so I started watching all the films I was into back then in a much more emotional way, I would say. But I realized I wanted to make a film that was about the past, but I didn’t want to make a film that glorified it or looked at it in a purely nostalgic way but in a much darker way.

NN: Were you in psychotherapy as a kid?

PC: Not as a kid. I did go into therapy after my father died… for a while. Not with a psychiatrist but a psychologist.

My mother had died in 1997 and I hadn’t at all dealt with that. I completely just compartmentalized it and not dealt with the grief at all. So when my father died it compounded. I realized that if I didn’t deal with [his death], it would really [screw] me up, so I just went into therapy.

NN: Was your therapist then part of the inspiration for the sinister Barry Nyle in the film?

PC: Maybe. My therapist was actually a really mellow Buddhist guy that I really got along with. But I’m always drawing inspiration from wherever and I think that experience of going to therapy made its way into the script because of that. But it’s not at all a reflection of the reality of it.

NN: Well and there’s something to really calm Buddhist people that sometimes you think they’re actually-

PC: Sociopaths?

NN: Yeah. No. Absolutely.

PC: I think every therapist — in general a lot of them — have a strange side to them.

[Ed Note: Cosmatos’  immersion in film was deeper than video store love. His late father, the director George P. Cosmatos made such films as Rambo: First Blood Part II and Tombstone. Still, it was the work of other 80s era directors that inspired him to pursue the craft.]

PC: The two movies that made me want to make — realize in a very crystal way — that I wanted to make movies was seeing Evil Dead 2 and After Hours back to back. And I think it was the really dynamic, exaggerated use of camera and sound in those films that made me sort of, clicked in my mind “that’s what a director does.” The potential of the director.

Now as I’ve gotten older, and a lot of time has gone by since then, for a while there I wanted to just make Evil Dead 2. That was kinda what I wanted to make when I was younger, when I was a teenager. Over the years I’ve kinda drifted away from that and also in the meantime it seems like every guy and his mother made their version of Evil Dead 2.

NN: Yeah.

PC: Weaker and weaker versions. So I just completely lost interest in doing that kind of film. I think its just the dynamic cinematic style of them. The very exaggerated artificial camera moves.

NN: There’s so much of the 60’s freak-out movie stuff and that super modernist use of color.

PC: What I had in my mind in a very universal way, I don’t think I articulated this to anybody, maybe the DP. I was just thinking about Michael Mann a lot of the time while I was shooting it.

NN: Oh God, Red Dragon.

PC: Manhunter.

NN: Manhunter.  [Here I’m an idiot. Red Dragon was the Thomas Harris book that Manhunter was drawn from. Brian Cox plays Hannibal Lecter. It was remade by Brett Ratner with Anthony Hopkins in the role he made famous. In my defense I read the book before I saw either film.]

PC: Manhunter. The Keep. Even his newer films like Heat and Miami Vice. Were actually sort of in my mind at certain times.

NN: But the hallways in Manhunter, and the hallways in here, there’s a lot of resonance.

PC: I just wanted to make something that… I think that Michael Mann is an incredibly modernist filmmaker and I wanted to have the sort of overall omniscience of the film be as modern as possible. That’s why I was thinking about him.

NN: Now when did you come to the decision to mic Michael Rogers so close. Because that texture…

PC: Yup.

NN: … you get out of him was completely unnerving…

PC: Yup.

NN: …and it sets the tone beautifully.

PC: That might have been a happy accident. In that, you know, that room in particular had a lot of reverb in it because of the materials. So we had this raw audio and when me and Eric were mixing the movie he sort of suggested maybe me should soften it. We tried softening it but it completely lost its impact, so we decided to keep it crisp and it was a lot more unnerving that way. It’s just the sort of thing that came out in the process.

NN: I guess a related question in my mind. Why go from the 4:3 aspect ratio that starts the film to Cinemascope?

PC: I don’t think I would ever make a movie that’s not Cinemascope. I just like it. It’s the most cinematic aspect ratio. I just like the feel of it. It’s the most photographic.

NN: But the decision to start in one format, to have a complete prologue…

PC: I think the inspiration for that was the opening of The Road Warrior which starts in 4:3 and then blows up into Cinemascope. It’s one of my favorite openings to a film ever. I don’t think I consciously did it, but it probably went to the back of my mind because I’ve probably seen that film more than any other film.

I liked the idea of starting a film with a prologue that sort of explains the world, and then having it blow up and be like “now its a movie”. Now you’re watching the full movie.

[Ed Note: At key points in the film Cosmatos draws on occult imagery to illustrate the depths to which Nyle’s mind and soul have become twisted by his experiences.]

PC: I’ve always been fascinated by the occult to a certain extent. I wouldn’t say that I’m obsessive about it or anything like that.

For me the occult stuff came probably from the 60s generation. The baby boomers attempting to find spiritually and also drifting into strange occult and darker areas. Sort of corrupting their ideals.

NN: At the end Nyle becomes, for lack of a better term, a demon. Is this… are you pessimistic about humanity?

PC: I think maybe I’m just sort of expressing a cynical attitude towards the baby boomers more than humanity in general.

NN: I think I spent most of the 90s ranting about that generation and how they failed us miserably.

PC: I think they can take a little criticism, you know?

NN: They were spoiled and got away with murder…

PC: Lord knows they criticize us enough.

***

When Beyond The Black Rainbow begins to infect art houses with it’s unique brand of poisoned nostalgia next year a whole new generation of otaku is destined to be spawned.

Beyond The Black Rainbow, written and directed by Panos Cosmatos screened as part of the AFI Fest 2011 presented by Audi.

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[Review] Werner Herzog Looks ‘Into The Abyss’ of the Death Penalty

on Friday, Nov. 11th

Do we have a better documentarian than Werner Herzog right now?

Into The Abyss, Herzog’s clinical look at the death penalty through the lens of one horrific triple murder in Texas may not be awe inspiring as Grizzly Man or Encounters at the End of the World, but awe isn’t the director’s goal here. In his introduction to the film this week at an AFI Fest screening, Herzog implored the audience to not think of Into The Abyss as an anti-death penalty film. While the director makes his own position known — he doesn’t believe that any human being should be executed — the film is an act of true journalistic restraint.

Seemingly alone among filmmakers, Herzog watches humanity with a scientist’s dispassionate eye. He lays out the facts of the murders — there was Sandra Stotler, her son Adam, and his friend Jeremy Richardson in Conroe, Texas — like a surgeon. Herzog creates what feels like a balanced portrait of Michael Perry, the young man who was executed on July 1st, 2010  for his part in the crime, and his accomplice Jason Burkett  who is serving a life sentence. Herzog lets his subjects — the daughter of Stotler who lost what was left of her family, a sheriff’s deputy who worked the case, locals who knew both victims and perpetrators and the two convicted men — tell their stories direct. He refrains from adding a voiceover to stitch the narrative together, making his voice present only to question his subjects.

In a film filled with moving moments, perhaps the most devastating is the testimony of Fred Allen. Allen was captain of Texas’ death row tie-down team for years until the execution of Karla Faye Tucker — the first woman put to death by the state in 135 years — shook him to the core. In just a few short minutes the toll of having shepherded scores of people through their last moments on earth, and then dealing with their mortal remains, is made clear.

Yet at the same time Herzog does not turn away from the details of the senseless crime. While the director would likely shy away from ascribing the word “evil” to describe the events, it’s hard not to think in those terms. Three people lost their lives over a sports car. The interview with Perry reveals a man who has compartmentalized what he’s done in a way only a sociopath can muster. There is something broken there that does not elicit pity, but primal disgust.

The act of filmmaking is an inherently manipulative act. What the filmmaker choses to show — and selects for omission — sets the terms of what the audience is allowed to think and feel about the material as presented. What Herzog manages here is a feat that all television journalists should be required to watch. He makes a case against the death penalty while simultaneously making it very clear as to why executions are still practiced.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment Herzog makes here is in the economy of storytelling. In the Q&A after the AFI screening the director revealed that the movie — with a running time of 107 minutes — was assembled out of just around eight hours worth of footage. With only one exception, Herzog had met the interviewees for the first and only time while filming them, some for as little as 20 minutes. It is a near supernatural feat of investigative journalism that Herzog is able to (at least appear to) lay bear the heart of his subjects in such a short period of time.

By staring Into The Abyss Werner Herzog has delivered another existential affirmation of the sanctity and fragility of life. This is necessary viewing.

Into The Abyss. Directed by Werner Herzog screened as part of AFI Fest presented by Audi and opens in limited release today.

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Director Joshua Marston Talks ‘The Forgiveness of Blood’

on Friday, Nov. 11th

Director Joshua Marston’s The Forgiveness of Blood (whose first feature was the award winning Maria Full of Grace) takes audiences inside the life of an Albanian family living under the shadow of a blood feud.

“I was fascinated that this was still going on in present day Albania where there is Facebook and cellphones,” says Marston, “living side by side with this very old tradition.”

The film focuses on Nick, a teenager on the cusp of manhood whose entire life is shaken apart when an old family rivalry culminates in his father taking part in the killing of one of their neighbors.

While Nick’s father goes into hiding the rest of the family holes up in their house, attempting to honor the loss that the other family has suffered according the dictates of the Albanian oral tradition of the Kanun. The ambiguities of what the family needs need to do to honor the debt of blood provides the underpinning of this incredibly tense film. After the initial transgression there is a palpable sense that at any moment Nick could be shot — just for standing too close to an open window.

“Part of the challenge of the situation is that there are no hard and fast concrete rules,” says Marston. “One of the things that causes people to remain inside their houses is not simply out of self preservation for fear that the other family might try to come and kill them, but also out of a form of respect to say effectively ‘I know that my crazy cousin killed your brother, so we’re not gonna walk around and force you to look at us in the street.’ It’s a form of penance, basically.”

The variable nature of the feuds led to strange situations during Marston’s time researching the tradition in Albania.

“I had a family that wouldn’t even speak to me because they didn’t want word to get back to the other family and the other family to believe that they were in some way profiting from their circumstances. It was that extreme. They didn’t even want a foreigner visiting the house. On the opposite end of the spectrum I visited a family that said ‘You know we can come and go as we please. The other family hasn’t told us that we have to stay in the house. They said ‘if you leave the house we’ll kill you’.”

One thing that is agreed upon in the tradition is that women and children are off limits in a blood feud. In The Forgiveness of Blood, this means that while Nick — who is arguably still a child, but close enough to manhood to become a target — has to stay inside the house, his sister takes on the family bread delivery route that her father abandoned when he went into hiding.

“So here you have this story about this antiquated set of circumstances, where the family is locked inside the house because of these old fashioned norms; and yet it creates this incredibly ‘modern’ situation whereby a young girl is afforded the liberty to go out and have a job and roam around freely. Of course it’s not quite that because she’s stared at, and intimidated and threatened. She has to give up going to school and having the future that she otherwise would have. It’s that contradiction. That constant grey clouds silver lining situation that makes it an interesting story for me. That was one of the things that attracted me to go make the movie.”

None of which would have worked without the incredibly strong performances of Marston’s young cast. Both Tristan Halilaj as Nick and Sindi Laçej as his sister Rudina give the kind of performances that teenage American actors wish they could conjure up. Finding his two leads was the biggest challenge the director faced on the project.

“We saw over three thousand kids over the course of several months,” says Marston. “There’s no guarantee that you’re going to find someone at the end of the day. And we just got lucky. I mean it was a lot of hard work. When the kid who plays the main character came in it was quite immediate. He was incredibly charismatic and very entertaining and could really tell a story. Then, about a month and a half later, we met the girl who plays his sister and they hit if off great and were immediately doing great improvisations together.”

Marston marshals the strong performances with masterful acting to create one of the tensest dramas in years. When The Forgiveness of Blood reaches theaters next year it will give audiences an opportunity to experience a feat of cinematic world building as impressive as any genre film, made all the more powerful thanks to its basis in reality.

The Forgiveness of Blood. Directed by Joshua Marston, written by Marston and Andamion Murataj. The film screened as part of the AFI Fest 2011 presented by Audi.

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Jeff, Who Lives At Home [AFI Fest Review]

on Wednesday, Nov. 9th

Before we talk about the new, studio-backed effort “Jeff, Who Lives At Home” from indie auteurs The Duplass Brothers, we need to talk about M. Night Shyamalan. Specifically about the Mel Gibson vehicle “Signs.” It’s important because that movie plays a big role in the philosophy of the duo’s lead character Jeff (Jason Segel), who as the film’s title implies, lives at home. Specifically, in his mother’s basement.

When we meet Jeff for the first time he’s dictating into a handheld recorder about “Signs.” How the theme of that movie was how every small element led to the one “perfect moment” at the end of the film when Joaquin Phoenix smashes the hell out of some water glasses and in so doing repels an alien invasion.

That movie was about a man who had lost his faith in the divine, only to have it restored by a mystical string of coincidences. It was the first M. Night Shyamalan film I hated for its story (even if I found the actual experience rather thrilling). After I had calmed down from the visceral scares that film offered I became increasingly angry about the cheap trick that Shyamalan had used. He was trying to prove the existence of God– of an underlying order to the universe– through the structure of his screenplay.

The problem being that a screenplay is in the hands of a writer, and the complexities therein are wholly intentional and easily subject to manipulation. Life is far messier, and while there have been plenty of films that explore the same territory, in the final analysis Shyamalan wasn’t up to the task. As transparent as his ploy was it failed to work as evidence for, or a sly critique of, the divine. It was too closed a system. With hindsight we’ve learned that “the man who heard voices” only listened to the clever ones a few times.

Which is a long way of saying that an opening monologue about “Signs” made me incredibly nervous. Was this going to be a deconstruction of the idea of a synchronicity driven plot? An affirmation of stoner zen? Mumblecore musings on life?

Thankfully “Jeff, Who Lives At Home” manages to be something a lot more human than that.

Segel’s Jeff is spurred into semi-action by a wrong number that is looking for “Kevin,” while his brother Pat (Ed Helms) is kicking off an early mid-life crisis with his wife Linda (Judy Grier). At first Jeff is content to puzzle out the mystery of “Kevin” by generating anagrams, but once charged with the quest of getting some wood glue from the Home Depot by his mother (Susan Sarandon), he follows appearances of the name Kevin as if it were his own personal oracle.

What follows next are a series of accidents– happy and otherwise– that move us towards a rather improbable conclusion justified by what happens on the road. Excellent acting from the veteran comic ensemble is paired with the Duplass’ brothers Aptowian knack for hitting character beats in a natural way. If anything this film feels like early Apatow with a less jokey bent. That the film’s cast is headlined by one of Judd Apatow’s star pupils might have something to do with that.

It wouldn’t be right to call out any one actor as being a standout. The entire cast works together to create mildly comically distorted versions of very recognizable people– the wayward manchild, the husband who’s chased after the wrong things, the lovelorn widow, the frustrated wife– that makes the coincidences that drive the plot appear to come as much out of the character’s hearts as they do the Duplass brothers’ brains.

The print I saw was headed by a Paramount and not a Paramount Vantage logo, signaling perhaps that the studio has enough faith in the project to bump up its profile from their specialty division to the main line. Perhaps they are counting on the already popular Segel being a superstar in the wake of The Muppets later this month. If so, Jeff, Who Lives At Home could be the chance for the former mainstays of mumblecore to become the vanguard of Hollywood comedy.

BONUS: There’s also fun little shots for those versed in the tradition of augury– with Jeff looking up to the sky at one point to see a wayward bird before declaring that he and Pat have gone off-track. Is it a sly reference to the ancient tradition that used the flight patterns of birds to divine fortunes? Or just a neat little synchronicity of its own?

“Jeff, Who Lives At Home”, written and directed by The Duplass Brothers screened this week as part of the AFI Fest 2011 presented by Audi. The film is slated for released on March 2nd, 2012.

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The Dish & The Spoon’s Alison Bagnall [AFI FEST]

on Wednesday, Nov. 9th

Read our review of The Dish & The Spoon.

Alison Bagnall, director and co-writer of The Dish & The Spoon, hadn’t made a feature in eight years. Raising her two children took priority.

“I was actually going to get out of filmmaking because I found it rather … hum… a little bit unfulfilling.” Bagnall says that her previous feature made in 2003, “wasn’t really that fun to make. It was starting to feel like a very expensive hobby, and when you have kids you can’t afford the luxury of a very expensive hobby.”

Bagnall first emerged as the co-writer of the seminal Buffalo ’66 in 1999, but an appearance in Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig’s 2008 feature Nights and Weekends lured her back into filmmaking.

“It was after doing the cameo in the Joe Swanberg movie that I actually got excited about doing a movie again. Because on the Joe Swanberg movie there was no crew. There was just a cameraman. Like with the microphone and the boom, Greta held the boom with the microphone on it or else they taped it to a chest of drawers with duct tape when there was no one to hold it. So I got really excited about not having a crew around.”

She also got excited about working with Gerwig, the prolific indie actress.

“I was instantly smitten, as are most people who meet Greta. Male and female, that’s pretty natural, a pretty common reaction to meeting Greta.” Bagnall asked Gerwig if she’d like to co-develop a script.  “We spent a year writing a screenplay together, but it was for a different movie. So we were putting that whole movie together, but then that movie very precipitously… it didn’t fall apart but it got pushed. It didn’t happen but only a month before we were supposed to shoot it. But I had already been given a certain amount of money to make a movie with Greta Gerwig in it by this little group of investors in Chicago. So I still needed to make a movie with Greta.”

Gerwig was about to become incredibly busy in the wake of her turn in Noah Bambach’s  Greenberg, so Bagnall raced into action.

“I had to make a movie with her fairly quickly so I wanted to build a movie around her and this young British actor who had come to audition for the other movie we were writing. I really got interested in that boy, Olly Alexander, from the moment I laid eyes on him really. First from seeing his photograph on the internet, then meeting him in person. ‘Oh my gosh this boy is so exciting and amazing.’ I wanted to put those two actors in a movie together. I just wanted to create a movie where people could spend an hour and half with those two people. And I built the movie for them.”

That desire pays off for Bagnall and audiences alike, as Gerwig and Alexander have a bittersweet chemistry that makes The Dish & The Spoon a moving and humorous exploration of betrayal. In one memorable sequence, Gerwig’s character Rose dresses up Alexander’s unnamed boy in women’s clothes and pretends to pick him up.

“It started out I think because when I met Olly, he’s a little bit… he has a strong feminine quality. He’s a little bit girlish. Not really because he’s very masculine too, but there’s something about him that’s delicate and feminine. I was just thinking: ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to put make up on him and dress him up like a girl?’ Then it just started growing: I think she should completely dress him up as a girl and she dresses up as a man, but I didn’t know why.

“I had been told by this good friend (his story of) this crazy ex-girlfriend who always liked to play-act things, ‘Okay lets go into that bar and you pretend you don’t know me and you try to pick me up,’ and they were like living together. So he said ‘OK’ and she’d go and he had to chat her up and see if he could pick her up. I liked that idea of them pretending not to know each other and picking each other up. But again I just put it in the script without knowing why.”

Yet Gerwig needed to know why, and when pressed for a reason, Bagnall found one for her actress.

“I don’t know if it was actually true but it was something to say so that she could hopefully work with it. I said I think the reason you dress him up like a girl and kind of molest him is when when people go through betrayals– in my experience– one tends to feel very powerless. You feel like if you could have just stopped it or done something to alter the course of events, but you weren’t there and you didn’t know it was happening and now…

“She’s reenacting what she imagines her husband did, and it’s a way of taking the power back. Taking control back by being the master of the situation. Like walking through what she thinks her husband did with this other woman and doing it herself.

“So that made sense to Greta and that was something she was able to act. And then she took it a step further and made it much darker. Because initially I thought that she picks him up and they really start making out, but then she’s not able to go through with it. But Greta did a completely different thing and used it as an attack.

“She afterwards said that she felt like she was in so much pain that she wanted to inflict pain on someone else. She felt shed been hurt, and in fact this was right after Greta had shot Greenberg and there’s a line in Greenberg that goes: ‘Hurt people hurt people’. I think that really struck her and when she played that character in Greenberg she was so walked over and trodden on. She was, like, punched on for that whole movie… So she did that role but after the movie, after Greenberg, was over she felt kinda angry. She was angry and she wanted to get back at someone.”

It’s a fantastic, funny, and uncomfortable scene at the heart of the movie, and the process that led to it reveals Bagnall’s approach to making the picture.

“I was really consciously making this movie in an unconscious way. I wanted to work from a very instinctual level. Make creative decisions on gut instinct and not really think things through too much.

“I think sometimes it’s very hard not to imitate things other people have done. It’s hard not to try to be clever. It’s hard to not try to impress. It’s harder to just trust your instincts and just be kind of in touch with your belly. With what your belly’s saying. It’s also hard to say ‘I don’t know’. So I was trying to be very comfortable in this movie saying ‘I don’t know why this should be in the film but I feel it should be there so let’s shoot it.’ Other people were free to make those suggestions too. When Greta or Olly felt strongly about certain things narratively: ‘Well I just don’t think my character would do this or I feel my character should do that now.’ So we’d just completely change it if they felt really strongly about it.”

That instinctual process led to even more fun, as her co-writer Andrew Lewis suggested she check out Dogfish Head brewery (a Turnstyle favorite) when he learned that she intended to shoot in Delaware. A relationship with the brewery would get around the need to have fake labels on all the beer that Gerwig’s Rose drinks during the film.

“I decided to go on the brewery tour and while I was on the tour– we were in the room of the massive 5000 gallon fermenting vessels, the 50 foot high things– and one of the staff just turned on this little spigot and all this beer started flowing out. She filled up a cup and just drank out of the cup to taste how the beer was doing. I thought ‘Oh wouldn’t that be cool if the characters could go on a beer tour and sneak away and kind of like frolic in the brewery.”

Dogfish Head was game. The brewery’s founder Sam Calagione even has a small cameo in the film.

“They let us in on a Sunday when the staff wasn’t there and I said ‘Would it be okay if they drank out of a spigot of one of the vessels’ because I thought [Sam] would say no. He was like ‘Yeah, sure sure! we’ll just wipe it off afterwards and sterilize it.’ They really let us have the run of the place.”

The journey Gerwig’s Rose takes during the film leads towards an emotional catharsis, and it would seem the journey of making the film was a creative catharsis for Bagnall.

“I just wanted to make it kind of like a kid makes a painting. You know, kids’ artwork can have this purity to it because they’re not aware of technique. They’re not trying to be impressive or clever. There’s just kind of this innocence to children’s art. We lose that as  adults. I was just trying to get back to that myself.”

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The Dish & The Spoon [AFI Fest Review]

on Monday, Nov. 7th

There’s something to be said for a great title. It can frame coincidence, giving shape to the audience’s expectations. The title Alison Bagnall gives to her second feature– The Dish & The Spoon-- brings to mind the nursery rhyme “Hey Diddle Diddle” in which the dish runs away with the spoon.

The film stars indie mainstay Greta Gerwig as Rose, who from the first frame of the film is channeling what feels like every pent up ounce of betrayal born hurt she has in her body. Something like the keening of a banshee opens the film as Gerwig speeds her dumpy car through a tunnel, fleeing a disintegrating marriage. There are moments in the first reel of the film where Gerwig takes the emotional volume up to eleven, a potentially dangerous indulgence that manages to pay off by the end, as we come to understand the character fully.

Rose is the film’s beautiful and understandably a little crazy Dish, reeling from the revelation that her husband has cheated. Her first stop is a connivence store where she picks up the better part of a six pack of Dogfish Head–proving that she has great taste– using the change scraped together from her car’s ashtray: proving she is completely unprepared for what has happened. Well, that and the fact that she’s buying the beer in her pajamas. The store clerk, and the audience, can’t help but root for her to get through this. We’ve all been Rose at some point.

Beer acquired she goes to ground in an old WWII watchtower on a deserted-for-winter Delaware beach only to find a shivering British boy (Olly Alexander) who is running away from heartbreak of his own. Dish has met Spoon and now the two should proceed to run away together. Instead Rose isn’t ready to let go of her pain and anger quite yet, and she gets the boy wrapped up in her impulses. One moment she’s pursuing the woman her husband cheated with on the brewery tour at Dogfish Head, the next she’s opening up to the lost teen in her parent’s dim beach house.

In less capable hands than Bagnall, and with actors less attuned to each other than Gerwig and Alexander, The Dish & The Spoon could be an awkward and uncomfortable journey. Instead we have a funny, warm and touching unlikely romance that is about how much we need people and how we’re both rewarded and challenged for being honest with our emotions.

Gerwig’s Rose is quirky with a capital “Q”, but her performance is not a put-on or a sketch comedy act. There’s an uncomfortable level of honesty as Rose’s moods turn on a dime. There is some ambiguity as to whether Rose is disturbed or merely driven over the edge by her husband’s betrayal. She is the kind of outsider who elicits strong emotional reactions from the people–especially the men– in her life, which we get to see through the boy’s eyes. I keep calling him “the boy” because we never do learn his name. It’s not something the film draws attention to, but is telling nonetheless as this is very much Rose’s story.

During the course of the film I fell in love with both characters, as Bagnall establishes a sweet, junior high kind of romance between these two wounded souls. The film’s gray, wintery palette sets a visual tone for the film that keeps us grounded in the sense of loss and betrayal, yet this film is very much about the opposite. As Bagnall told me in an interview (which we’ll have up early this coming week), the story is about how sometimes what should be the worst times of your life wind up, in retrospect, being the best.

No other film comes to mind that embraces the truth that a catharsis can actually be a lot of fun. Sure there will be great big messy tears, but there’s also usually a fair amount of drinking and ill advised flights of fancy. Possibly all at the same time.

American independent film is going through a renaissance right now, and The Dish & The Spoon is one of the great lights of this era. We have to hope that audiences discover this film so that we get to see Bagnall run away with Gerwig and Alexander again soon.

The Dish & The Spoon, directed by Alison Bagnall, written by Andrew Lewis and Alison Bagnall (with additional material by Olly Alexander and Greta Gerwig). Exhibited as part of the AFI Fest 2011 presented by Audi.

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Corey McCall with the video game controller that measures the level of excitement in the player. Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

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