Category: indie film

Consumption: 2017

logan-casino2

I make this list every year, for fun and as a reference. As always, it only reflects things seen for the first time. “POLTERGEIST on TV, 14th viewing” doesn’t make the list. Nor do films not viewed in their entirety, for example, Guy Ritchie’s THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E, which got ejected from the Blu-Ray player after 15 minutes. I’d never seen Henry Cavill in anything before but he seems to emit some kind of anti-charisma particle.

I didn’t bother making a numbered best-of list this year. But if I had, LOGAN would be at the top. It’s perfect. Damn you James Mangold, for making me cry at your Wolverine movie.

Some of my other favorite releases of 2017 include THE BEGUILED, COCO, ATOMIC BLONDE, THOR: RAGANOK, and THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES. Of course, DUNKIRK was impressive – but cold, as is Christopher Nolan’s way. MOTHER! is a movie, alright. Darren Aronofsky swings for the fences. And whatever you think of the film, Jennifer Lawrence and Michelle Pfieffer were very good. The BLADE RUNNER sequel was amazing, and very nearly great: only Jared Leto’s messianic super-villain seemed out of place, like a character from a different, dumber movie. THE LAST JEDI: wonderful, about 50% of the time. The compelling Rey/Kylo/Luke storyline almost makes up for how they couldn’t find anything interesting for Poe, Finn, or Rose to do. (Yeah I get that the casino plot is a critique of capitalism and arms dealers and yes intellectually that’s interesting for a Star Wars movie but dramatically it was a big bag of nothing and visually it looked cheap & reminded me of the prequels and like this sentence that movie is too long.)

Linked titles take you to my review, or more info on the film.

MOVIES ON THE BIG SCREEN
Manchester by the Sea
Elle
La-La Land
Logan
Get Out
Life
Pollyanna
Colossal
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (live from the Old Vic)*
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
Baby Driver
The Beguiled
Dunkirk
Atomic Blonde
Dave Made A Maze
Dawson City: Frozen Time
The Big Sick
mother!
Blade Runner 2049
Spoor (Pokot)
Suburbicon
Thor: Ragnarok
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Lady Bird
Coco  (saw it January ’18)

MOVIES ON THE SMALL SCREEN
The Jungle Book (2016)
The Nice Guys
Shadow of a Doubt
Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them
The Handmaiden
The Trip (Steve Coogan, not Dennis Hopper)
Back To The Future III
Eat Pray Love
The Meyerowitz Stories
Hidden Figures
Passengers
Bullitt
The Godfather (pretty good! why didn’t anyone tell me about this flick sooner?)
Personal Shopper

TELEVISION
Travelers
Westworld
Orphan Black
Modern Family
Incorporated
New Girl
The Good Place
The Expanse
Supergirl
Better Things
Game of Thrones
Girls
Mom
Downward Dog
I Love Dick
Last Mom Standing
The Orville
Star Trek: Discovery
POV: What Tomorrow Brings
Big Little Lies
Abstract: The Art of Design

BOOKS and OTHER READING
Other People’s Trades – Primo Levi
Broken Frontier (graphic novel) – Various
Lightspeed Magazine – Various
A whole bunch of screenplays

*I am calling this a movie. I saw it at a movie theater. Harry Potter guy was in it. It counts.

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John’s 2017 Productivity Report

 

Splat

This cartoon by Jules Feiffer first came to my attention via Stewart Stern, a wise and lovely man who knew a thing or two about writing AND writer’s block.

2017 Goal #1: Finish my feature screenplay spec BARTENDER OF THE YEAR and submit it to the Nicholl Fellowship in April.

Goal achieved? NO

Not only did I blow past the Nicholl Fellowship and every other contest deadline this past year, I am nicely on-track to miss a bunch of 2018 deadlines too. I’m currently 100+ pages into a terrible, no good, very bad first draft. Writers sometimes call the first draft the “vomit draft,” the goal being getting it done, not making it good. But rather than a full-throated purge, progress on BARTENDER OF THE YEAR has advanced in a series of minuscule puke-belches.

BARTENDER is a comedy-drama about a popular local mixologist who runs for office in his small town. It’s also my challenge to myself to write a movie outside my comfort zone: one with no science fiction elements or high-concept gimmicks to propel the story. And it’s propulsion, sure enough, that has been lacking. In my darkest moments of plotting this thing I’m convinced I know nothing about writing, human nature, normal human speech, or how the everyday affairs of human beings are conducted. I feel as if I’m bluffing my way through everything.

And then other days… it’s better. A lot better. Experience has taught me the only way out is through. Push, work, WRITE until the work becomes the thing that occupies your mind instead of the fear.

 

Goal #2: Search for material

Goal achieved? YES

Itching to get a project into prep, this year I decided to put on my producer hat and start looking for screenplays. I didn’t find anything I wanted to option, but I made the effort and read a pile of scripts. (I’m still itchy. If you’re interested in sending me something, please read this to learn more.)

 

Goal #3: AFX training

Goal achieved? NO

This year I bought myself a nifty (and pricey) new MacBook with the intention of updating my knowledge of Adobe After Effects. The ability to create pro-level motion graphics and visual effects “in-house” would hugely expand the range of projects I can execute DIY-style. And, it’s never a bad thing to have more marketable skills. But I had an ambitious list of goals for 2017 and something had to give, so this one resides on the back-burner. I needed a new computer anyway, honey. Really.

 

Goal #4. Take a beginning improv class

Goal achieved? YES

Every Monday for 10 weeks this past year I stood up with a group of strangers, playing silly improv games with them and making up scenes on the spot. I said and did the first stupid-ass thing that came into my mind. Something different, to maybe blow some cobwebs out of the brain. Not as embarrassing as anticipated. Signing up for the intermediate class in January.

 

Goal #5. Other writing

Goal achieved? YES

OK, admittedly “other writing” is a pretty nebulous goal, so it’s easy to call this one a win. I did work on things besides BARTENDER OF THE YEAR in 2017… and even finished some of them.  For instance, an 8-page short called FROG, which I’m pretty happy with. It’s a two-hander about a disabled intern who befriends the super-intelligent frog she meets one night in a university computer lab. It was written expressly for the Jameson First Shot contest and if it had won, the script would have been produced with actor Dominic West providing the voice of the frog. Alas, that didn’t happen, but FROG did quarter-final in the ScreenCraft Short Screenplay contest in September.

Screen Shot 2017-12-30 at 1.38.29 PM

context is everything

One of the best writing experiences I had this past year happened at the day job, imagine that: Armstrong Creates, the agency I’ve worked at for mumble-mumble years now. I’m a generalist there, which means I might be retouching photos one day and cooking up an ad campaign the next. When a client (a manufacturer of corks for the wine industry) decided they wanted a concepts for a promotional video, I whipped up a script for a comedy sketch that takes place entirely inside a wine bottle. The wine and the cork are personified (think the Fruit of the Loom guys), best buddies who’ve grown very close over the years as the wine ages. They even sing a duet together. Like so many concepts, this pitch never made it out of the conference room. Too bad: I think it would have turned out well. Would have been an absolute blast to shoot, too. Given that, what exactly made this a good writing experience? Well, I got paid, for one thing. But more to the point: starting from zero I cranked out a completed script – one I was really happy with – in the matter of a couple of hours. It was exhilarating, and a welcome reminder that I don’t really need inspiration. I just need a deadline. So sure, my concept got rejected, but I went home happy that day. And the experience helped me shake off the torpor I’d been fighting much of the year.

Back at home and re-energized, I finally wrote up a first draft of ANAESTHESIA, another short film idea that I’d been kicking around for too many years. I’m also compiling notes for a new feature script, the one I’ll write once BARTENDER is in the bag. I don’t know the title yet. But it’s a sci-fi comedy about an alien invasion. Yeah, back to the comfort zone. I gotta be me, I guess.

 

Dotty

Dotty lives in a rest home and needs some help using her phone. Take ten minutes and watch this touching film from New Zealanders Mick Andrews and Brett O’Gorman. It’s one of the best shorts I’ve seen lately: one perfect scene, that is also a complete story.

DOTTY from Brett and Mick on Vimeo.

6 tweets about COLOSSAL

COLOSSAL poster

  1. Given COLOSSAL’s fun premise, the film that unfolds is not quite the romp you might expect.‬
  2. COLOSSAL puts Kaiju monsters & indie-film slackers into a genre blender. Like many smoothies the result is a bit lumpy & faintly sour
  3. The lumps: Characters poorly defined. Plot threads meander. Some end abruptly and add little. Even the monster origin story is half-baked.
  4. The sour: characters aren’t typical indiefilm losers. Not clever/charismatic enough. The range is more like “pathetic” to “pathological”
  5. Premise pulls you through the rough patches, even as COLOSSAL turns darker. One scene evokes mass carnage without showing a drop of blood.
  6. And as stakes rise, COLOSSAL rallies. The film deploys its cleverest notion near the end, delivering a satisfying resolution.

I’m @giantspecks on Twitter. Occasionally Yelling About Movies #YabtM with my friends. Come say hi. Or yell back!

Consumption: 2016

Hell Or High Water posterI’ve kept an annual list of films, TV and books every year since 2014. This year I’m going to add a ranked list of my favorite films of 2016 as well. My list is better than all the other “top 10” lists, because… mine goes to eleven.

1. Hell Or High Water
2. Manchester By The Sea
3. Moonlight
4. Arrival
5. American Honey
6. Certain Women
7. Deadpool
8. Toni Erdmann
9. Don’t Think Twice
10. Zootopia
11. Moana

The above ranking obviously doesn’t include pictures I haven’t seen yet, and that’s a list of its own that includes THE HANDMAIDEN, SILENCE, SING STREET, PATERSON, HIDDEN FIGURES, FENCES, and JACKIE. I’m working on it.

Below is a complete list of everything I saw in 2016. As always, the list only reflects things seen for the very first time. If I came across JAWS or GROUNDHOG DAY or YOU’VE GOT MAIL already in progress on TV and sat there like a zombie through ’til the end, well, that’s not considered worthy of note. What is worthy of note: ZOOLANDER 2 is so very, very bad it makes you feel stupid for having liked the first one. THE LOBSTER is the other movie I regret having made the effort to go see in the theater. I’ll give it points for originality, I guess. Then I’ll take those points back for being a miserable, cruel, misbegotten thing.

Linked titles will take you to either my review or more information on a particular film.

MOVIES ON THE BIG SCREEN
Room
Hail, Caesar!
Anomalisa
Creed
Zoolander 2
Deadpool
My Name Is Doris
Don’t Think Twice
The Lobster
Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words
Star Trek Beyond
Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie
Pete’s Dragon (2016)
Hell Or High Water
Toni Erdmann
American Honey
Arrival
Certain Women
Moana
Moonlight
Rogue One
20th Century Women

MOVIES ON THE SMALL SCREEN
What We Do In The Shadows
Spotlight
Amira & Sam
Today’s Special
Prisoners
Captain America: The First Avenger
Shaun The Sheep Movie
The Libeled Lady
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Amy
Jodorowsky’s Dune
Zootopia
Jack Reacher
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels
The Visitor
Finding Dory
Sicario
Lassie Come Home
Chappie
The Shop Around The Corner
Swiss Army Man

TELEVISION
Orphan Black
Togetherness (RIP)
Archer
Modern Family
New Girl
Jessica Jones
The Expanse
Supergirl
The Mindy Project
Odd Mom Out
Moone Boy
Stranger Things
Mike Birbiglia: My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend
Better Things
The Good Place
Game of Thrones
Girls
Westworld

BOOKS and OTHER READING
Devotion – Dani Shapiro
60 or so screenplays for the Austin Film Festival competition

Less

I’ve long favored films that feature smart, articulate characters battering each other with words. I like screwball comedies. I like Judd Apatow. I adore BROADCAST NEWS and I’m a sucker for an Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk.

It’s not hard to understand the hegemony of dialogue-driven, plot-heavy films. Movies begin with screenplays, and screenplays come from writers. But to proceed from the written word can push a visual medium towards acting like literature. Or radio theater.

These days, I’m finding myself more exhilarated by films that act like something else. Movies that move less, and linger more. Where characters may follow smaller dramatic arcs, but they are more finely observed. Films like Barry Jenkins’ MOONLIGHT, Andrea Arnold’s FISH TANK (or last year’s AMERICAN HONEY), and Kelly Reichardt’s CERTAIN WOMEN.

Lily Gladstone in Kelly Reichardt's CERTAIN WOMEN

Lily Gladstone in Kelly Reichardt’s CERTAIN WOMEN

I will admit to some see-sawing in my seat during CERTAIN WOMEN. The film teetered on the line for me at times, probably crossing it during Michelle Williams’ arid little segment. But then Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone came along and more than redeemed things. Their silent horseback ride may be the most sublime thing that happened at the movies last year.

AMERICAN HONEY is probably an hour too long, and it doesn’t have an ending. But I kind of loved it. Even if at some points I felt like I was trapped in that van with those kids. Road trips require patience, and a taste for staring out the window just watching things go by. Your mileage no doubt may vary. But really, any film unspools as a collaboration between the filmmaker and you, the viewer. The less that happens onscreen, the more time there is to ponder what does. The question is, how much work do you want to do? How active a collaborator do you want to be?

In the past year I’ve also been catching up with the work of the late Chantal Akerman. After JEANNE DIELMAN (3 hrs 45!) and JE TU IL ELLE, I’m thinking Akerman may have gone too far toward rarefaction. With her long, static takes and prolonged silences, her narratives advance in such tiny increments they sometimes feel like a dare. I watched both films in a state of amazement, commingled with boredom and antagonism.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels

Enduring a three-minute shot of woman’s back as she scrubbed a bathtub, I  wondered if I’d be a hopeless philistine if I called bullshit and turned the damned thing off (I didn’t, and made it all the way to the meager, if startling, climax of JEANNE DIELMAN). Akerman’s films are like homeopathy, there’s so little there. And like homeopathy, if you feel like they are working, it’s probably all in your mind.


I’m John Harden. I also write and direct. I’m on Twitter as @giantspecks, sometimes Yelling About Movies with my friends. Come say hi. Or yell back! #YabtM

Charlie Kaufman is sad

Poor Charlie Kaufman. I’m feeling absolutely everything in his recent interview for IndieWIRE. It’s called Charlie Kaufman Reflects On His Career: ‘I Feel Like I F*cking Blew It.’ and with a title like that, I expect you’ll feel compelled to click too. For those of you who don’t, here’s a summary of his bummery:

In 2008, coming off the success of three brilliantly original films for which he wrote the screenplays, Kaufman took on the role of director for SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK. And the film lost money. His second and latest film, ANOMALISA, has done just about as well – that is to say, not well at all.

In the interview, rather than trying to put a happy face on things, he explicitly airs his anxieties. Which, it seems to me, is a perfectly Charlie Kaufman thing to do. It also seems to me Kaufman mistook his hot streak for his new normal. No disparagement is intended: that’s one of those things that can only be evident in retrospect.

439-anomalisa-charlie-kaufman

ANOMALISA

But it’s also not hard to diagnose his doldrums: BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND each had measured amounts of melancholy, always tempered with sweetness and delight. The two films he’s since directed have retained all the inventiveness of his past work, but minus most of the fun. ANOMALISA is pretty bleak, and SYNECDOCHE is downright morbid. And that’s coming from someone who liked it.

So maybe he needs a creative course correction. Or just some fresh air and exercise, and a movie title you can pronounce. I find it hard to believe his career is over. There are natural cycles: you’re hot; you’re not. Better to have been hot, with the chance of heating up again, right? Me, I’ve been aspiring to be Charlie Kaufman (or at least someone in his general vicinity) much of my adult life.

So I sympathize with the creative angst, but then again… count yer blessings, Chuck. And that journalist interviewing you is right: all you need is one success and your doldrums will be over.

That goes for you and me both.