Saturday, December 21, 2013

Weekly Film Quote

"It’s a melancholy comic fable about the here and now, thinly disguised as an outlandish vision of the there and later." - A. A. Dowd, in the review of the film HER

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Frankenstein, the Action Hero!

Judging by its box-office receipts, everyone went to see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire in the past two weeks. If so, that loud noise you heard from outside the cinema during the previews was the sound of Mary Shelley turning over in her grave.

Behold, the trailer for I, Frankenstein!

Frankenstein, the action-hero.

Really? Is this the evolution of the-bottom-dollar-justifies-it-all mentality? Have Hollywood executives drunk on heady commercial projections from business models, not felt the slightest tinge of remorse in converting Shelley's self-loathing, tortured monster (guilt-ridden as much by his physical grotesqueness as the terror he notices in the eyes of those who see him) - into a muscled, leaping-into-the-air-with-fiery-explosions-behind-him action hero caricature?

It is one thing to plunder the graves of film, television and written classics (and sometimes not-quite-classics) to remake/re-boot/re-whatever a new version for current moviegoers. But it is quite another to bludgeon an early work of seminal literary relevance (in this case, horror) into a jaw-droppingly banal action trope. Watch Frankenstein beat up droves of CGI alien creatures. Watch Frankenstein demonstrate martial arts prowess mid-air, his cape fluttering with expensive art direction. Watch Frankenstein break chains and leap onto roofs of speeding subway trains [Watch also, by the way, Bill Nighy sheepishly pick up a paycheck]. Watch Frankenstein stare into the eyes of his female love interest as things burn in the background. Having made good use of his annual 24-Hour Fitness membership, this Frankenstein is clearly not one to be tortured by his physical grotesqueness. This is Frankenstein by way of recent physically beefed-up cinematic avatars of literary brothers Sherlock Holmes and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer.

I am quite aware of just how righteously indignant I sound. But I would be thrilled to discover that I have been abjectly wrong on this: that this trailer does the actual film shameful disservice, and that come February we will be surprised to watch a clever and entertaining movie. Until then forgive me while I snicker every time I watch this trailer.

Weekly Film Quote

"A great movie is a movie I cannot bear the thought of never seeing again" - Derek Malcolm (The Guardian)

ENOUGH SAID: The Films Are Alright

[This article originally appeared on]

Several years ago, Nicole Holofcener directed a film called LOVELY AND AMAZING, criminally unknown to many, but beloved by those who saw it. It’s too bad that Holofcener already used that title, since it would have been apt for her latest film, ENOUGH SAID. The new film is both lovely and amazing.

Holofcener is a wonderful aberration in the world of cinema. Her movies are talky, inwardly drawn, and almost always centered on a thirty- to forty-something female character (or many such female characters). Stand-ins for what Holofcener wants to say about the world - about how we live, and how we interact with each other - one can sense that the lead characters have matured with the director through successive films. This should tell you then that her films do not exactly set the box-office ablaze. Which might change with her latest offering; it will surely be her most profitable venture. Holofcener has always had a knack for good writing, and with ENOUGH SAID she (intentionally?) moves about as mainstream with her storytelling as she ever has. Couple that with some particularly on the nose casting, and you get a warm pudding of a film. You would have to be a Grinch to resist its charms.

This time, the lead character is a masseuse, Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who is trying to navigate post-divorce life with the hallmark embarrassments and despairs that are characteristic of this filmmaker’s work. Struggling with both professional and personal impediments, she forges a friendship with an impossibly self-assured woman who appears to have it all (played by Holofcener mainstay Catherine Keener who is as usual fine here, although I can’t help thinking that with a bigger budget, Cate Blanchett might have been hired for this role). Eva also tentatively starts what might be a romantic connection with the laid-back, affable Albert (James Gandolfini, in one of his final film roles). Each has grown daughters from prior marriages. And individual careers. And each is of that age when a person knows who they are, and have settled into the shape of their adult personality, not willing to alter it for another person. Willfully allowing their separate worlds to collide will have its implications.

It is curious that many longtime Holofcener champions as well as those unfamiliar with her work have complained that this movie is reminiscent of a sitcom. Were it that every television sitcom were this perceptively written, finely acted, and tethered to the very grounded realities of day-to-day living.

Publicity still from ENOUGH SAIDThe genius of this film - and I don’t use the word ‘genius’ lightly - is in the casting. Whoever thought to bring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini together - not exactly an obvious pairing - must have had the hand of cinematic gods on their shoulder. These two are magic. And one cannot help be wistful knowing that we will never see them act together again. Plus the movie adds further evidence to the theory that every film is bettered by the presence of Toni Collette.

I have long been part of the militant minority that has been singing loud the praises of Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Is there another actor working in film or television right now that does better reaction shots? Her facial reactions are Film School class good. There is something right with the world when a stellar television actor gets to headline a film. There has been some surprisingly nasty reaction, thankfully from a minority, to Luis-Dreyfus’ performance in this film; those not recognizing the wit in her acting will be awfully late to the party. With her lauded turns on HBO’S VEEP and the underrated, now cancelled show NEW ADVENTURES OF OLD CHRISTINE (with which this film shares much of its sensibility), Louis-Dreyfus’ star is on the rise. And one oddly resents sharing a personally known secret treasure with the rest of the world.

And what is one to say of James Gandolfini. That someone thought to consider him as a male romantic lead is cause for celebration. That he utterly pulls it off - using every facet of his dog-eared, scrappy, warmly intelligent persona to full effect - comes as a surprise; it shouldn’t have, but it does. That film cameras will never focus upon Gandolfini again is reason for considerable sadness.

There’s a scene early in the movie where Albert drops Eva outside her home at the end of their first date. In lesser hands their lines would have come off as silly or worse cheesy. But to watch Gandolfini and Louis-Dreyfus make that dialog sing is to know the value of good actors.

This film reminded me, in its modern, urban, everyday sensibility of the movie THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT. Like that film, ENOUGH SAID pulls off one sleight of hand after another in fleshing out, with remarkable skill – and efficiency – so many relationships: mothers and daughters, ex-wives and ex-husbands, employers and maids, confidantes and confessors. All of it works.

One may get the impression that the film is overly serious; this is hardly the case. Even as it has an understated gentleness to its rhythm, and an underlying wiseness lurking underneath, the film is mostly genuinely funny on a minute-by-minute basis. The movie’s singular strength though may be in the ease with which it demonstrates the need for, and the great difficulty in, practicing acceptance in any relationship. About how what might seem an unbearably annoying trait to one individual may be endearingly charming to another.

A.O. Scott in the New York Times called this film a minor miracle and I can see why. It is the sort of unshowy, unfussy, and uncommonly well-written film that rarely gets made these days.

MY STOLEN REVOLUTION: smiling through the unthinkable

[This originally appeared on]

At first obvious judgment, the documentary MY STOLEN REVOLUTION  may seem a feminist rebuke to Iran's troubling recent history with crimes against women.  But this film, at times a little rough around the edges, is also about other things. It is foremost a love-letter from the filmmaker to her brother. And the entire film is also in many ways her attempt at the exorcism of guilt.

In our routine dealings with the world, we interact with countless strangers: people in whom we may invest attention only for the short term, and others we may outright ignore. But, this film asks: how many of the strangers we encounter on a daily basis harbor histories of the unbearable, the unthinkable?

The filmmaker (Nahid Persson) a former student activist in Iran, who belonged to a liberal counter-establishment revolutionary organization in her youth, managed to leave the country just barely before the government started to crack down on members of the group. Now living in the United States and watching the recent resurgence of violent student-led protests in Iran more than three decades later, she is driven to reach out to the other members of her original radical group. This leads her to travel around the world to reconnect with these individuals, who like her, have settled into mostly quiet, domestic lives. It is surprising how unremarkable and ordinary the eventual destination can be for a path that started out with an unquenchable revolutionary fervor. As she meets these other women, they begin to recount, in frank detail, their experiences in the Iranian prison system after getting arrested in their youth, a fate the filmmaker narrowly escaped. The weight of her guilt becomes more evident when it is revealed that her younger brother, recruited into the revolutionary group for barely a month, was subsequently arrested and suffered the worst of outcomes. Unlike her, his fate did not allow for fleeing Iran prior to imprisonment.

All documentaries carry the burden of being truthful even as we know that the presence of a camera in front of a person fundamentally alters their behavior. This film presents several filmed interactions between individuals that couldn't possibly be entirely authentic. How could a lack of spontaneity and an inevitable rehearsed-ness not have crept in with the best of intentions.  But ultimately the film transcends those concerns and manages to pack an emotional wallop because it has the good fortune to have as its subject, these women of remarkable strength. Whose ideological passions, burning still after all these years, cut through the limitations of the documentarian's camera.

Weeks after having seen this film, what has stayed with me is this. It is the smiling face of one of the women: a face of uncommon peace that against all odds retained a calm grace even when recounting particularly horrific transgressions at the hands of Iranian prison guards. The five women who speak candidly to the camera in this film have all made peace with their past lives. How is it conceivable that individuals who have been through the unspeakable can have their future lives not irreversibly haunted by those experiences? How can bitterness not poison everything that follows for those who survive the horrific. Every person who makes it through a holocaust, who has been a political prisoner, who has been victim to military human rights violations, who has seen genocide first hand -  must have had to grapple with this. MY STOLEN REVOLUTION gains most power when demonstrating the seemingly insaturable human capacity for mending after surviving what would seem a wholly destructive experience.

'My Stolen Revolution' was screened at the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival and is awaiting distribution.

Interview with Destin Daniel Cretton, director of SHORT TERM 12

[This article originally appeared on]

People expect differently from films these days.

At some point (when did it happen?) films became an extension of the amusement park experience - with audiences wanting each consecutive film to be even bigger, capable of instilling more awe, more spectacle. Something to take them by the shoulders and shake them; a visceral physical experience. This is of course one thing film can be.

But we have stopped expecting what earlier generations did from films. We have stopped expecting a film to be a fully rounded emotional experience. One that makes us simultaneously reflect on the inequities of life and be happy with our own condition. I mean the sort of experience filmgoers must have had when they went to the cinemas to watch IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE or CASABLANCA or SINGING IN THE RAIN or CITYLIGHTS. That emotional purity has gone entirely missing from modern cinema. Sentimentality has become a pejorative cinematic ideal. But sentimentality when well-earned and done with authenticity can make for the most potent of film experiences. And this is what makes SHORT TERM 12 an exceptional achievement.  It is the rare film that can claim possession of that emotionally purity. Set in a facility for foster care adolescents and the young employees who work there, this film could have wallowed in pious sanctimony at every step. Instead it takes every one of those tricky situations and makes them honest and grounded as the film builds to great power.

So there was understandale apprehension when Rashmi and I got the opportunity to sit down and talk with Destin Daniel Cretton, the director of SHORT TERM 12; how does one maintain objectivity when meeting with the creator of a film you admire so much? We tried.

Below are excerpts from the interview with Destin Daniel Cretton and Ron Najor a producer of the film.

Director Dustin Daniel Cretton and lead actor John
Gallagher Jr at the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival
Destin: So (amongst the three Moviewallas) who didn’t like our movie and who did?
Rashmi: This is the problem because we all loved it. And we are not just saying that. So we do want to say congratulations. Yazdi’s so moved he can’t even speak at the minute.
Yazdi: Let me try. We always mention that the best movies for us are the ones which have that perfect trifecta of great writing, great directing and great acting. And very often you have two but not all three of those (components) and this film….oh man.
Destin: thanks.

Rashmi: I want to start by saying that we watched the short (on which this film is based). Can you talk about going from a short to a feature
Destin: Initially when I started writing the feature I was keeping all the same characters from the short. But I couldn’t even start; I couldn’t even put a sentence down. It just felt…it felt uninspired. And it also just felt boring to me, because I felt like I was retelling the same thing. And as soon as I decided to change the main character to a female supervisor, it became a whole new challenge and a whole new story; everything kind of opened up. For me it’s like the difference between going from writing something the way that I thought it’s supposed to be done and writing something that felt fun and felt fresh and real and new. Because I never wrote the short planning to turn it into a feature. Everything that I have done so far has been a way to try something I haven’t tried before. And so this was totally that. It was to stretch myself and explore other parts of this world that I wasn’t able to do in the short.

Rashmi: And Ron, did you have any involvement in the short or did you come into the feature?
Ron: I came into this feature but we had done a previous feature called I’M NOT A HIPSTER. So we sort of had a working relationship and they asked me to be a part of the feature version of SHORT TERM 12.

Rashmi: What were some of the challenges you faced in producing this movie
Ron: The casting part for us was one of the most challenging. It’s partially because with independent filmmaking, it’s a sort of tedious thing (where) once you get financed you then have this really short timeline for finding all the right people. So that was kind of nerve-wracking on our end. And just a bunch of different obvious things (including) the basic budgetary things. But overall it was a pretty lovely shoot; we had just all the right people. It was a lot of people from our I’M NOT A HIPSTER shoot. So there was a wonderful short-hand.

Rashmi: Which is probably comforting I guess.
Destin: I think it was necessary for my sanity to have good friends around.

Yazdi: Can we talk about the casting for a minute? Because for me much of the movie stands on the particular characteristics of the Grace character. It’s all about her. And until I saw the movie I didn’t realize how many people I knew like her who are so open and communicative and just phenomenal at their jobs but then they go home, and they are completely closed off and they are not communicative. Was she written with somebody in mind? And then how did you go about finding the right fit (for Grace)?
Destin: Grace is a combination of a lot of inspirations. Two of my supervisors when I was working at a similar place were young female supervisors who the few times that I saw them outside of work, were very shy. One of them was very small in frame, she was just a petite girl and did not seem like she could be the supervisor of anything (laughter). But when she stepped on to that floor, it was like she just went into character. It was so bizarre, she was one of the best supervisors that I have worked with. She really demanded respect from the kids, but also respected the kids. And was an enforcer of rules. But also didn’t treat the kids like they were lesser human beings. And there was something that was just so impressive to me. But also made me wonder: what is she like outside…because I did not know her personally, but it made me wonder, what is she like in other parts of her life?
Grace is inspired too by other people that I know. But also Grace is inspired by me. I have that tendency. There are certain situations when it is so easy for me to be open and honest and allow myself to be vulnerable and then there are other situations where I am like....I am not telling now, and nobody gets in. And she is definitely a way for me to explore things that I wrestle with as well.

Rashmi: And how long did it take you to write the feature?
Destin: 2009 was when I started writing the feature. And I got through one draft. And then was introduced to Asher Goldstein; he has kind of been a producer on this project from Day One. He is with a company called Traction Media and he came on board and read that draft and was the first person to say I want to do this with you. And so together we started reworking. He (started) giving me notes on that draft. There was one pretty drastic rewrite from that point; most of that rewrite was just simplifications, it was trying to combine characters so there weren’t so many story lines going on. And that was at the end of 2009. We finished another draft over the course of a few months and in 2010 that new draft won the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship which was a huge stamp of approval for the movie. I don’t know if you are familiar with that. Once a year they give out five fellowships based on screenplay submissions to writers.

Yazdi: And it’s nationwide?
Destin: Yeah, its worldwide. But it is given out by the Academy Of Motion Pictures. And then two things happen. One you get money. At that time it was 30,000 dollars, now it is 35,000 dollars. But you are also accepted into this community of just wonderful people. All these writers, the list of past Nicholl winners is pretty wonderful and it’s a very inspiring thing to happen. It’s just crazy that that happened, I still can’t believe it . But (after) that fellowship we still weren’t able to get funding for SHORT TERM 12. But that fellowship allowed me to write another screenplay which ended up being I’M NOT A HIPSTER. And I wrote that specifically to be able to do it on our own if we couldn’t get funding for SHORT TERM 12. And.....we didn’t get funding for SHORT TERM 12. So we shot I’M NOT A HIPSTER and I used a lot of the money that they gave me and put that into the pot along with Ron who put money in the pot. And Ron’s uncle put money in the pot. And then that premiered at Sundance and then that was a huge reason we ended up getting funding for SHORT TERM 12.

Yazdi: I’m sorry I keep coming back to the cast, because I just can’t get past it. I think that if there is any justice in the world, Brie Larson will get end-of-year awards recognition.
Destin: I’m with you.

Rashmi : She is phenomenal.
Yazdi: She is devastating. How did you find her? Of course she has been doing a lot of television, and you mentioned there was a very narrow period of time to look for somebody - and even John Gallagher Jr, who plays Mason - they are perfect for their roles. Did you look for long or did you happen to get lucky? And how did you know you had found them?
Destin: There was a lot of luck, but we didn’t just pick somebody.

Brie Larson in publicity still for SHORT TERM 12
There were specific things about Brie that initially excited me. Just from looking at her reel. Her ability to transform from character to character even when she is playing little bit roles, she’s just like a completely different person. Whether she’s doing comedy or drama, she is always acting from her gut. She’s performing from this thing that is just happening in the moment. So many times she will be reading lines that I know were scripted, but it just doesn’t feel scripted. So that was very exciting to me. And then what sealed the deal was that we did a Skype call. It wasn’t an audition, it was just a conversation and she was actually on the set of THE SPECTACULAR NOW (at the time). And she had read the script. She had told me that she had signed up to volunteer at some group homes already because she was so excited about the idea. And I was obviously really impressed by that. Later she told me that she had been denied by all those people (laughter). So she actually did not get to volunteer but it was still impressive that she was that passionate about it. And in a good way she can be very obsessive, and she goes for it. And she started researching as much as she could about the subject. As a director you cannot ask for anything more than an actor who loves the project and the character so much that they become the expert on that character. And also she is just smart, she got the character. And then there’s something just intrinsically about her that felt like Grace. When she would stop and I could watch her brain ticking behind her eyes as she is thinking about something, and it felt like Grace.

Rashmi: She is a great actress and she has done great work, but I think the range that you were able to get from her - and the depth - to affect an audience so deeply that we feel that we know this character. That’s not easy. What do you do to really pull that out of them?
Yazdi: It’s the script.
Destin:  It’s everything, It’s the environment that everyone helps create on set.  A lot of the scenes that people really connect with Grace on, we shot later. It took a little time to create an environment where everyone felt really safe. Safe to be themselves and safe to mess up. And know that no one’s going to jump on them. So then that makes them more daring, makes them try things that they have never tried before. And I think the moments when everybody started to thrive more and more were just a few days - when they realized this is a safe place to play. So I think that had a lot to do with it. I don’t know… the wonderful thing about Brie is that she is kind of fearless. Nobody is a hundred percent but the best thing you can ask from an actor is to just like go for it and mess up really bad. And not care and do it again as opposed to just trying safe things that they know that they can do really well. And Brie was just going for it, and it was great.

Rashmi: And the kids, some of the kids are younger. Was it the first performance for some of them?
Destin: Close to. Alex Calloway had acted before….but this was his first film. Keith Stanfield, it’s his first feature too.

Yazdi: Ah, I loved that Marcus character
Ron: He was the only one who came from the original short film.

Yazdi: I love his character. Different people communicate differently and that’s how he finds his way to communicate. We talk abstractly about art helping us. And here is an example of art literally helping him speak his mind. This kind of stuff is very hard to do. It can come off inauthentic. It is a fine line to walk and stay on the right side.
Destin: It was a frightening movie to direct. Because there are probably like 30 scenes in this movie that could have just thrown the train off the rails if something was too melodramatic, or pushed too far in that direction.

Rashmi: And you are flirting with some interesting issues as well. You are kind of saying I am showing you what the situation is but I am not going to say whether I am for this or against this. I think the film does a nice job of not manipulating the audience. How much did you have to pull back with the pen?
Destin: We had to pull back a lot with everything. I mean we pulled…I overshot. I shot a lot of things that I knew was not going to make the cut.

Rashmi: DVD special!
Destin: Yeah, there’s actually going to be half an hour’s worth of material. But I think everything about this movie was trying to see how much we can take away from it. In terms of  stripping down the music. In the editing. See how much we can take away from it and…still allow audiences to feel.

It’s still a movie. I wanted it to be a movie. It’s not supposed to just be emulating non-fiction. It’s a story that has things that happen that I wanted to happen. Like I wanted to watch Grace just beat the shit out of a car.  I wanted her to have that.

Rashmi: I was (thinking I) want to do that.
Destin: That’s obviously fiction mixed in…there’s definitely an emotional ride that’s happening. So I wanted people to enjoy this ride. But we also didn’t want to be yanking people around. We found the more we took out the better the experience it was for people. By taking, I mean taking out our blatant fingerprints, if that makes sense.

Yazdi: I wanted to ask about the Mason character. He seemed to me a very realistic embodiment of stability. The kind of rock that everybody wishes they had to lean on. It’s very easy in movies to have characters which are mean or have an obvious motivation to behave poorly, but to have a character who displays decency and who is well intentioned, that calls for skill.

Some of my favorite scenes are the ones with his family. Was his family specifically written to be different? He is obviously from a different heritage, but yet they are so accepting. And I loved that little part of the movie.
Destin: I do too. I do too.

I see the Grace character as kind of the thing that I struggle with. And I see Mason as the person that I want to be more like.

Mason was created out of trying to figure out who Grace would allow to be in her life. Because she throws everyone away. Mason is persistent but he is also very non-threatening. He is really supportive, like annoyingly supporting. But he is also just so goofy and not cool that it makes sense that Grace would feel safe around him.
And it was very important for me to show that scene; it’s a small scene but I think it is one of the most important scenes in the movie. Where he gives that speech when his parents come out. We see an example of the system working extremely well. Which has nothing to do with the system; it has to do with those people, because there are good people working in every system figuring out a way to do it. To me that scene just represents so much of what I know is possible in the world. The good things that humans are capable of doing happen in that scene. Just like color doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter what your ethnicity is or what your traditions are. Its just acceptance of human beings having fun together.