Archive for February, 2012
YP Quincy’s Big Dam Film Festival
Last Saturday marked YP Quincy’s 7th annual Big Dam Film Festival, arguably the best one yet.
I’m taking a brief reprieve from my standard film review to look back at what makes the BDFF such a unique event. A combination of efforts from local filmmakers and a diverse collection of short films seemed to resonate with the audience – especially this year. The art of the short film is much different from your standard Hollywood film. More liberties – and risks – can be taken in a short film, yet there are challenges abound with a scant 5-15 minute window to craft a gripping narrative.
The short film lends itself perfectly to the film festival setting. A short is not long enough to stand on its own as an evening’s source of entertainment, but can be a key part of a larger collection of films meant to inspire, provoke thought and curiosity, and generally entertain an audience. A good festival should provide entertainment, cultural enrichment, and a social atmosphere. It’s a process to organize, but essentially breaks down to putting a group of curious film enthusiasts in a room, showing some quality films, and providing a forum for them to discuss. The script — as they might say in Hollywood — writes itself.
There were two themes that occurred organically among this year’s film selections. A powerful use of sound and a creative lack of dialogue. The film that won Best of Show this year is “Signs” from director Patrick Hughes. The film shows the unique beginnings of a romantic relationship between two strangers in a sterile, corporate landscape. It does contain some dialogue, though none spoken between the two main characters. Hughes does a great job building anticipation and even works in a twist towards the end. “Signs” can be seen at SIGNS.
Last year’s Best in Show winner Pardis Parker (“Afghan”) submitted another film this year, “The Dance.” Described as a silent film, “The Dance” has zero dialogue, relying on the soundtrack and the acting of Parker and Evany Rosen to drive the narrative. I loved the unique office setting splashed with pastel colors that echoes the seemingly endless optimism of Alex, the film’s protagonist. “The Dance” received third place in the Best of Show voting this year.
“Table 7” is a brilliant concept that relies heavily on dialogue. Deep underneath a Chinese restaurant is a group of individuals that listen in on conversations occurring above them in order to create the perfect fortune to slip into the cookies. “Table 7” probably offers the most impressive set design of all the BDFF entries and filmmaker Marko Slavnic does a brilliant job of juxtaposing the two unique locations. There’s a classic “Aha!” moment towards the end when you finally realize what’s happening. You can view “Table 7” at Table 7 — short film.
The evening also featured a Q&A with local Filmmakers Chris & Victoria Kelley of Table 16 Productions. The Kelley’s are putting the finishing touches on their second feature-length film, “Villainy for the Lonely” and premiered a teaser clip from the film at the festival. During the Q&A they discussed the importance of local filmmakers, the DSLR camera movement in independent filmmaking, and some of the motivations behind one of the characters in the upcoming film. To see a trailer for “Villainy for the Lonely” or to learn more about the film, visit www.table16.com. The Kelley’s also entered “Double Back” – a creative music video shot in downtown Quincy that also lacks dialogue and leaves you with more questions than answers.
I had the pleasure of premiering my latest short film “Die Insel” at this year’s festival. The film documents a 1974 noetic science experiment in Crivitz, Wisconsin that went horribly wrong. Part of the film was shot at Quincy’s Quinsippi Island, and I had fun uncovering the creepier parts of the island. Afterwards a few people asked me if the film’s events really happened. Part of the fun of filmmaking is creating verisimilitude where your audience isn’t quite sure what to think. I’ll let you decide for yourself — you can view “Die Insel” at http://youtu.be/oEsh3NsuwHs.
If you missed out on this year’s Big Dam Film Festival, I highly suggest you make plans now to attend next year. While the Internet is a fantastic place to find some terrific short films, there’s nothing like seeing them on the big screen. You also can’t duplicate the social setting, and The State Room is a fantastic venue for the evening, given its former life as a theatre. If you did attend this year’s festival and have suggestions for next year’s event, you can find them on Facebook. Local filmmakers are always encouraged to submit to the festival, which is meant to celebrate local talent as much as filmmakers around the world.
REVIEW: ‘In Time’
Always a sucker for big budget sci-fi thrillers, I’ve been anxiously awaiting the release of “In Time” on DVD. The Justin Timberlake vehicle features a unique concept where time is a commodity and apparently very scarce. The film took a beating from critics but was somewhat successful at the box office, earning $142 million worldwide. Were the critics correct in their assessment of the film (they sometimes take themselves a bit too serious), or do the ticket sales speak for themselves?
In the year 2161, humans are genetically programmed to stop aging at the age of 25, where they are given one year to live. Time becomes a physical thing that can be transferred from person to person, and the clock starts ticking at 25. Society is divided among the haves and have nots – who has the time and who doesn’t. The rich live in time zones and enjoy extravagant lives with decades of time available, while the poor live day to day in ghettos, scraping to get enough time to survive another twenty four hours. When Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) is accused of stealing a century worth of time from another man, the investigation threatens to bring down the entire class system where money, not time, is the currency.
It seem as if writer and director Andrew Niccol came up with a great concept for a film and then rushed it through production, rather than take time to hone the script, set design, casting and overall direction of the film. It feels like they basically cast Justin Timberlake in the lead, came up with a few snarky one-liners, and shot the film. “In Time” ends up being an interesting idea gone wrong due in part to terrible dialogue, bad acting, and a weak storyline. There’s so much to critique so I’ll break it down by category:
The Plot: The film’s exposition explains how we got to the point where humans are born with a built-in timer on their foream and stop aging at age 25 with an omniscient narrator telling us there isn’t enough time to explain – therefore we never know how we actually got to this point. Even a short explanation might add exponentially to understanding and appreciating the film’s concept.
The Setting: Apparently in 150 years, everything is going to look like the 1920s. The set design of the ghetto of Dayton often times looks like depression era New York. For some reason, the only crime is committed by one rouge group of thugs who drive around like prohibition era gangsters, stealing time from those who flaunt it. For a city filled with millions of poor desperate people, things are quite civilized.
The Weak Story: Writer/Director/Producer Andrew Niccol had so much to work with here, but ignored it all in favor of Timberlake and Sydfried’s action sequences and make-out sessions. I watched the film with my wife, who turned to me after someone in the film gave up time for a cup of coffee and said “I wouldn’t be wasting my time on coffee!” It parallels what we currently do every day but in a different light – indulging in smoking, caffeine, bad food – all things we know will likely take time off our lives, but choose to do anyway. It’s no different in the film, but the moral conundrums are never examined in-depth. It appears as if the scene is there only to reiterate that time is the new currency, not money.
The Acting: Perhaps this could be the fault of the script, which does everyone involved no favors with flat characters and zero backstories (though often teased). Saying that Amanda Seyfried’s acting is wooden is an insult to anyone who every played “The tree” in a grade school production. Timberlake does his best to make Will Salas sympathetic, but with no quality backstory or supporting characters, you just don’t connect with him. Likewise for the Timekeeper character (Cillian Murphy, “Batman Begins”). You keep waiting for his story to play a major role in the film’s climax, only to get a thin, meaningless explanation. Don’t get me started on Will’s ability to win “fights” for time that consist of who has their forearm facing up whilst engaged in a handshake-like grip. His secret weapon of waiting for his opponent to look at his remaining seconds only to catch him off guard is reminiscent of Sylvester Stallone’s cheesy thumb-switch thingy in the arm wrestling flick “Over the Top.” The only thing missing was JT flipping his cap around backwards.
There are a few redeeming qualities of the film, if you look hard enough. Phrases such as “cost of living” and “Time Share” take on a whole new meaning in the context of time as currency, and they are playfully littered throughout the film. The play on time zones is interesting as well. If you think about it, we conceivably lose time when moving east through time zones – and in the film they have to pay to move from zone to zone. It’s another contextual dual meaning that is fun to wrap your head around.
The failure of “In Time” may have been Andrew Niccol biting off more than he could chew. Credited as writer, director and producer, the film would certainly have benefited from additional hands in the proverbial cookie jar during pre-production. I would love to see how different this film would look if someone such as Alex Proyas (“I, Robot”) took the helm as director. Though he hit a home run 15 years ago when he wrote and directed “Gattaca” Niccol doesn’t come anywhere close to recapturing that same magic with “In Time.”
REVIEW: ‘Big Miracle’ part heartfelt family drama, part social commentary
I’m a bit of a softy when it comes to cinema, so of course I was excited about this week’s release of “Big Miracle.” The film is based on the book “Freeing the Whales” and inspired by the true story of three gray whales trapped in Alaskan ice in 1988. Although it appears as a heartfelt family drama on the surface, the film has a deeper level of social commentary that might be lost on its target audience.
In 1988, reporter Adam Carlson (John Krasinski, TV’s “The Office”) discovers a family of three gray whales trapped in the ice in Point Barrow, Alaska. When his story makes the national news, the mass media descends upon the tiny outpost to capture the drama as it unfolds. Pressure to save the whales mounts as Greenpeace, oil companies, and even the president get involved with the rescue. In a last ditch effort, the native Inupiat partner with outsiders in a race against time to free the whales before they die in an icy Alaskan tomb.
While the story is engrossing, the film is perhaps a tad busier than it needs to be. Director Ken Kwapis (“The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”) uses the film’s exposition to introduce practically the entire cast. Unfortunately we don’t always know who those characters are until later in the film when they serve a useful purpose, creating an unnecessary whip-around at the early stages of the movie. The plot is a collection of peaks and valleys, as the film has several lulls throughout before reaching a slow build near the end of the second act.
Though we don’t necessarily need to meet them all at once, the cast of “Big Miracle” is great. John Krasinski is perfect as an underachieving TV reporter. Not surprising, Kwapis has directed several episodes of “The Office” and therefore very familiar with Krasinski’s similar character, Jim Halpert. I don’t know if any actress is more suited to play Greenpeace Activist Rachel Kramer than Drew Barrymore. Ted Danson is a pleasant surprise as Big Oil CEO J.W. McGraw.
The film takes a surreptitious look beyond the trapped whales to make some snarky social commentary. As outsiders invade the tiny village of Point Barrow, natives attempt to capitalize on the tragedy by increasing prices on everything — the only hotel charges $500 a night and the only restaurant — a Mexican restaurant “Amigos” – charges upwards of $20 for a burrito. Even the young Inupiat get in on the action, charging $20 for pieces of cardboard for the media to stand on while out on the ice.
The drama unfolds at the end of President Ronald Reagan’s second term as Vice President George Bush makes his own bid for the White House. This is the Greenpeace ace in the hole, as they threaten to blame the Reagan administration for killing the whales if the government fails to get involved. An all-too-real scene unfolds where Greenpeace strong arms the government and oil executives into helping save the whales with political threats.
The media plays a big role in saving the whales, but also takes a subtextual beating (did I just invent a new word?). The media is portrayed as heartless, condescending ratings-hounds who care more about promotions than the story itself. While there may be some truth in this (the credits feature a reporter chasing “the shot” as the whales make their desperate attempt to free themselves from the ice), there is also the fact that without the media capturing the attention of the country, the whales in this tale become Inupiat food.
I did not get a chance to read the book, but I’m curious to know if it matches the tone of the film. While “Big Miracle” is a heartwarming story, it almost serves as two separate narratives – one about the whale rescue and another rife with cynical social commentary that may not be appropriate for the film’s overall theme. The theatre was full of children and I’m sure the messages, though told in a humorous fashion, went right over their heads.
The focus of “Big Miracle” should have remained on the desperate and heroic efforts to help free the whales, not so much on the dirty details behind the scenes. Much like last week’s film “Invincible” stay tuned during the credits for some great actual news footage from the 1988 events. And for a neat look at one of the many inspirational stories in the film, visit http://www.de-icer.com . The company is featured as a key component of the rescue in the film, and their current home page features a three part video about the rescue in documentary form.