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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Review of Errol Morris' Tabloid

This review originally appeared on IONCinema.

2010 DOC NYC: Errol Morris' Tabloid

Posted by Melissa Silvestri on Nov 02, 2010

Prominently featured in the inaugural edition of the DOC NYC Film Festival, documentarian Errol Morris brings his TIFF-premiered title that reminds us of the filmmaker's curiosity for the fringe characters that populate this world. Joyce McKinney is better known in England as a 1970s tabloid fixture for her bizarre involvement in kidnapping her fiancé from Mormon missionaries, and tying him to her bed to have a “proper” honeymoon. Her mixture of naiveté with a sordid past made her a juicy target for religious zealots to use her as the “devil” woman that tempts man with sin. In Tabloid, Morris looks at the strange and absurd tale of a former beauty pageant winner who broke the law all in the name of love.

2010 DOC NYC First Festival Edition

Joyce McKinney had been Miss Wyoming in the 1970s, moved to Utah, and became engaged to a pleasant young man named Kirk Anderson, who was a young Mormon planning on becoming a missionary. He disappeared without a trace in 1977, and McKinney, with the help of a private detective, found out he was in England completing the orientation of his faith into missionary work. McKinney, convinced the church was brainwashing him, set up a crack team of herself, a pilot, her friend Keith May, and bodyguards to rescue Anderson. The plan was falling apart, so McKinney resorted to May kidnapping Anderson at the church, holding him against his will in Devon, and convincing herself that she was “saving” him. Anderson escaped, and McKinney and May were arrested on kidnapping charges.

McKinney is a strange and captivating individual. On one hand, she seems completely delusional that what she did was a savior gesture, and that she and Anderson had a “romantic” weekend together while he was held against his will. She doesn’t seem completely in touch with reality, and her life afterwards was hindered by agoraphobia and an inability to have a romantic relationship with someone else after Anderson. But, she is still visibly hurt by the tabloid accusations of her being called “crazy” or demeaned for her sexy appearance, and is an intelligent woman who is vulnerable to being mocked or misunderstood. She can be unintentionally funny, referring to Morris as “Mr. Filmmaker” with a sweet charm.

The title perfectly captures the chopped-up editing of the film. Names are displayed in large, L.A. Confidential-style captions, the subjects are interviewed against blank gray walls, and news clips puncture the film constantly, giving Tabloid a speedy pace of breaking news. Tabloid never demeans its subject to the point of humiliation. Rather, it gives McKinney proper respect, while remaining objective in its view of her. Whether she can be seen as an innocent victim who thought she was saving her fiancé, or a sexpot who flouted the law in pursuit of her own delusions, remains up to the audience to decide.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Halloween Shorts Special from iTunes and Shorts International

This was originally published on Film

Halloween Shorts Special from iTunes and Shorts International

by Melissa Silvestri

iTunes is offering a special collection of Halloween Shorts, courtesy of Shorts International, available October 19th in the US, Canada, UK, and Germany. Over 25 shorts are packed with stars like Emily Blunt, Jane Lynch, Eric Roberts, and John Simm. The films are available for $1.99 each, and as a bonus, Roar, a subversive thriller starring Russell Tovey (Doctor Who) and Jodie Whittaker (St. Trinian’s), will be made free for a limited time.

Daniel Persitz’s Alex’s Halloween, starring Jane Lynch, is a playful romp in the Halloween adventure of an imaginative little boy named Alex (Robert Ochoa) who pictures himself as whatever fantasy figure he likes, be it a knight, a wizard, or a superhero. It’s reminiscent of the 90’s cartoon Bobby’s World, where a child’s imagination can conflict with real life. Lynch appears briefly as Alex’s mother, who pressures her teenage son Matt (Connor Gramme) to take Alex trick-or-treating, to his sullen displeasure. All Alex wants is to hang out with his cool older brother, who reluctantly accepts when Matt figures they can sneak candy past their mother’s health-food regime. But when Matt’s plans change otherwise, Alex’s world is shattered. The short isn’t so much about Halloween, but the relationship between brothers, and bridging the age gap. It’s a delightful short and enjoyable to watch.

Toby Spanton’s directorial debut Curiosity, on the other hand, is a terrifying nightmare. The film stars Emily Blunt (who starred in The Wolfman for which Spanton was a assistant director) and Tom Riley as a young couple who suspect that a murderer may be on the loose. Their strange suspicions prove accurate when the murderer begins to terrorize them. In just nine minutes, an ordinary couple goes from tucking-in for the night to fighting for their lives against a killer, a radical change of pace from the previous film. Curiosity paces itself with an ominous, haunting feeling, and the final tight POV shot on Blunt’s face is surely to stick in the brain.

John Simm (Life on Mars) stars in Devilwood, written and directed by Sacha Bennett, about a mysterious stranger in 1700s England, by the name of Dante (Dylan Brown). He enters a small town looking for “papers” from a local gentleman. At the same time, a beautiful young woman also arrives, named Rossetti (Kate Magowan), in search of Dante. Neither are really who they say they are, and their presence in the eyes of Gabriel (Simm) signals an arrival of the Devil. This evocative thriller won several awards, including Best Horror at the California Independent Film Festival.

Shorts International is a major short entertainment movie company, holding the largest collection of short films in the world. They also run their programs on several channels, including ShortsHD on Dish Network, ShortsTV UK, ShortsTV France, and on TTNET in Turkey. More information can be found at

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Interview with Anna Farrell, director of Twelve Ways to Sunday


By Melissa Silvestri

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

In this time of economic peril, many Americans have begun to shed frivolous spending for small but rich pleasures. With less nights of take-out or cineplex movies, they’ve learned that it’s the homemade things that count in this world. Filmmaker Anna Farrell portrays a tight-knit community in her documentary Twelve Ways to Sunday, one that always knew about the basic and organic things in life. Fixing up motorcycles, dishing up meals at the local diner, and canning fruit preserves, the people of Allegany County, New York, have always sustained through the good and bad times. Playing this Wednesday at Rooftop Films as part of their extended 2010 Summer Series in NYC (in part with IFP‘s Independent Film Week), Twelve Ways to Sunday shows that in the leanest years, people in rural America have always known how to persevere with strength and know-how, and that a different kind of wealth can be appreciated: self-sustainability, good conversation, rich stories, and getting to know your neighbors.

The beauty in Twelve Ways to Sunday is the unique and interesting cast that Farrell and co. have assembled for this film. A pastor who enjoys making peanut brittle that is hard and mixed with chocolate; Fred, a grizzled rough-talking old man who hangs out at the local diner and is friends with the co-owner, a hearty and witty young woman; an elderly couple who ride motorcycles and have tattoos, and a young woman who is an avid hunter, yet appreciates the beauty of the woods and its inhabitants.

Farrell had previously been a 2009 IFP Documentary Lab Fellow with Twelve Ways to Sunday, showcasing her film at last year’s Rooftop Films / IFP Lab Selections screening last year. She was co-director of the accompanying documentary with Opus Jazz: N.Y. Export, and has recently worked on both Tiny Furniture and Twilight.

I spoke with Farrell via email this month, in preparation for the screening.

Twelve Ways to Sunday
features many memorable characters who instantly become endearing and interesting to an audience, and with a wide diversity. How did you develop the film project?

TWTS developed out of a desire to create a multi-character portrait piece about life in rural New York. My brother [Samuel Farrell, assistant producer] and I grew up in a relatively small town upstate, but I wanted to go further out in the state to find “our town” for the film. Allegany County stood out because of its poverty levels (one of the poorest in the state) and its deer harvesting statistics (one of the highest in the state). Self-reliance is one of the defining characteristics of all of my subjects. We basically started driving west and when we found this small town, Bolivar, NY, it really felt right, and people seemed willing to give us a chance. We ended up filming in a few adjacent small towns: Bolivar, Richburg, Friendship, Cuba, Scio. The “story” then became about the people we found there.

The townspeople are very emotionally open and blunt in front of the camera, telling their stories. How did you find your subjects, and how did they come to trusting the film crew and telling their stories?

We worked hard early on to make ourselves very visible in the community—we ate at the diners, went to the harvest festivals, went to church on Sunday, went to the football games. We followed up with everyone. Most of the time we were with our subjects we were not filming—instead we were helping cook dinner, cut firewood, hiking in the woods, sharing our stories too. I think being brother and sister made us immediately accessible, people trust and understand family dynamics and we were allowed to be ourselves. In the end, the tone of the film is very intimate and very honest because the subjects were talking to someone they knew on the other side of the camera. I am really proud that we were able to maintain that trust throughout the entire process and that it reads to the audience as well.

What was the financing like for the project?

Financing this project was rather tricky. When we began fundraising, I was a 20-year-old first-time director writing and budgeting a documentary that wasn’t a social issue film, so it was difficult to attract grant money. Most of the financing came either in the form of out-of-pocket expenditures or individual and in-kind donations. IFP supported the project early on through fiscal sponsorship, which encouraged giving on many levels. NW Documentary, a non-profit in Portland, Oregon offered me an artist-in-residence position during post-production, and having an edit station, office space, and other creative minds with whom to share the process was invaluable; however, without formal funding, we had to constantly find creative ways to keep our costs low and remain patient. It was a healthy challenge.

In some filmmakers’ hands, they would present the people of Allegany County as either folky simpletons, or backwards country folk, or even look on them pitying for being working-class. Twelve Ways to Sunday does not take that pretense at all, celebrating the characters and uniqueness that the people are, and how gorgeous their home is (which is shot in wide panoramic shots). What do you think it is about the county that brings out the strength and humility in its people?

When we began filming, I was expecting to tell a story about a disappearing community. The Americana story that examines poverty and hardship and perhaps is full of romantic idealism for rural life. However, good documentary filmmaking is less about hunting down the story you have from the start and more about gathering the story as it unfolds before you. It requires patience and the ability to be surprised. What I found in Allegany County was an overwhelming sense of life, humility and self-reliance. Despite the economic depression in the area, I was met with a generosity that I had never before encountered. In the end, TWTS is more of a celebration film than anything else. I think that if you spent time in any small town you would find people that amazed you, inspired you, people that saw life if a poetic way, it’s just a matter of taking the time to get to know those folks.

Rooftop Films in NYC has been such a great showcase for independent films for the last 14 years. How did you become involved with them? Was it through IFP’s 2009 Documentary Filmmaker Lab, or did they contact you separately?

I met Mark Rosenberg, Artistic Director of Rooftop Films, last year during Independent Film Week. Rooftop hosts a preview screening of clips from that year’s Filmmaker Labs, and my trailer screened underneath the Brooklyn Bridge during that showcase. I actually gave Mark Rosenberg a jar of homemade jam (my budget marketing campaign!) that evening. I was already a big fan of what Rooftop is able to accomplish and I thought my film would find a welcome home with their programming. He checked out our rough cut through the DVD library at Independent Film Week and jumped on as an early supporter of the doc. We couldn’t be more ecstatic to be premiering with them.

On your blog, you mentioned that you became inspired by Mary to be more self-sufficient, and canned your first jar of preserves. What else did you take away from the filming, and what do you hope audiences will learn as well?

I drew much inspiration from the Foxfire book series, an anthology of oral histories that “promotes a sense of place and appreciation of local people, community, and culture as essential educational tools.” (The Foxfire Fund, Inc. Mission Statement, I am hoping that the finished film will encourage and inspire discussions about rural America as well as celebrate living people as sources of disappearing knowledge.

What projects are you currently working on now?

I am currently developing a feature documentary examining the physical and physiological effects of shift work on body and mind. It is a character-driven film that follows the life of a nurse who frequently rotates between night and day shifts. I’m also working on a script for a narrative feature. It is about a young Chinese woman who has the opportunity to immigrate to the U.S. after her sister passes away during childbirth. She moves in with her sister’s widower to help raise her newborn niece. They live in a fairly small town in (surprise) upstate New York. The film is about being a novice, new life to the world, new immigrant to a country, and new outsider in a small town. I’m really excited by both non-fiction and fiction formats, and it seems organic to want to direct in both genres.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Interview with Kings of Pastry directors D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

This story originally appeared in Filmmaker Magazine.


By Melissa Silvestri

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

D.A. Pennebaker is a legend in the world of documentary filmmaking. A pioneer in the art of cinema verite, he first made his mark with the 1967 classic Don’t Look Back, chronicling Bob Dylan’s final acoustic tour in the U.K. He met his partner (in directing and matrimony) Chris Hegedus in the 1970s, and they have co-directed nearly 30 films together since 1977, including the Oscar-nominated The War Room and the Sundance entry Their latest collaboration is Kings of Pastry, a whirlwind peek into the M.O.F. competition, a French pastry chef contest in which 16 of the world’s best pastry chefs compete by making nearly 40 different kinds of pastries, including elaborate and often fragile sugar sculptures, all to be named the Meilleur Ouvrier de France, or the Best Craftsman of France. Kings of Pastry tracks the journey of French pastry chef Jacquy Pfeiffer, a world-renowned chef who runs the French Pastry School in Chicago, and dreams of joining the ranks of his elite mentors.

But Kings of Pastry is far from a Top Chef competition, where amateurs bicker and fight with one another only to create sub-par meals and win celebrity attention. These chefs are the best and know it too. They share a sense of camaraderie and respect with each other. The way that Pennebaker and Hegedus capture this collegiality is so palpable — whenever a delicate sugar sculpture is in danger of crumbling, or a judge shoots a critical glance, tension fills the screen.

Filmmaker spoke with Pennebaker and Hegedus in their New York office earlier this month. Kings of Pastry opens at the Film Forum in New York City today.

Chris Hegedus & D.A. Pennebaker. Photo by Kit Pennebaker

Filmmaker: What was the genesis of this project?

Hegedus: Well, this project really came about because a friend of mine (Flora Lazar, co-producer) decided to move to Chicago. She went to the French Pastry School and really wanted to be a pastry chef. She told me about Jacquy Pfeiffer deciding to compete in this famous M.O.F. competition, and how his partner at the school, Sebastien [Canonne], had already competed [and won], and it just really sounded intriguing. So we flew out and met them. We met Jacquy and Sebastien. Once we heard about the competition, and the extreme nature of it, [we were] fascinated.

Pennebaker: [Jacquy] was sort of older, and he kind of had to do it. I liked him right away, and I thought, “This is the kind of person I’d like to film doing this.” So we just went to France with him and from then it was just hanging on and trying to figure out what we were doing.

Filmmaker: Was it difficult to obtain rights to film the M.O.F. competition?

Pennebaker: Well, in France, in August, nobody answers the phone. So no matter what you have in mind, you could call the police and get no answer! [laughs].

Hegedus: It was really through Sebastien, since he was already a M.O.F. and knew the organization, and had contacts there, and Jacquy knew them as well. But it was through his encouragement that we were able to contact the head people. And basically, we just had to convince them that we weren’t going to interfere, which is why at the end of each day, they would have to re-convene to see if we’d be allowed to shoot the next day [laughs]. It was a very risky situation, but they liked us.

Filmmaker: From the outside, the film seems like it would just be about a baking competition, but it really is about artisanship in general.

Hegedus: Yes, that’s basically what it is — an artisan field to an extreme degree. There are aspects in the pastry field where people start doing this elaborate artisan ornamentation to embellish their art form. And the chefs that they want at this level have to be able to do both, to cook perfectly, to be artistic to the degree of making sculptures, and make things that taste delicious, which is kind of an odd combination. Most people that work as glass sculptors don’t have to make something that tastes good [laughs].

Pennebaker: The competition between chefs here [in the U.S.] is quite different. It has to do with speed, and a certain kind of aspect of food, which is what you see on television. But at the M.O.F.s, it was like a club that you wanted to get into. You didn’t just win. A number of people got selected based on their abilities, and the rest would have to come back another time.

Filmmaker: The film keeps the audience in suspense, from the judges’ intense scrutiny to the precariousness of the fragile sugar sculptures. Was that kind of tension there while filmmaking?

Hegedus: Well, we really didn’t have any budget on this project because our access was at the last-minute. It was at a very low level, and because no one had ever been allowed permission to even look at it or film it, they were very nervous that we would do something that would cause something to break in any way. So we couldn’t use any booms or radio mikes. We basically had our cameras, no lights or anything. It was restricted filming, and by the third day, when everyone was going to be carrying their beautiful displays, they drew little boxes around each of the tables and the kitchens, and that’s where you could stand.

Pennebaker: Our camera equipment is like any home movie camera. In the competition, we didn’t do any sound, because wireless microphones would distort the readings on their little scales, which is very crucial to them. But it was a very simple kind of filming. I don’t think anybody really noticed us after the first ten minutes.

Filmmaker: Chris, you grew up with a baking legacy, between your grandfather’s tea rooms in the 1920s and making chocolates and ice creams, while your great-grandfather was a highly respected chef and cooked for the Roosevelts. Did you find a kinship with the chefs?

Hegedus: It was interesting to me because my grandfather, who came from Europe, apprenticed to a baker, and then came to the United States and created these pastry confectionary stores. But I think my real connection to the chefs is less from my grandfather, because he died before I knew him, but from my Hungarian grandmother, who was just such an exquisite chef. For me, that was interesting, because at a time when I grew up in the ’50s, cooking in America had turned away from the cooking roots of people’s families. It was the blossoming of all TV dinners and fast food. We almost lost the idea of cooking. [laughs] I did have this side of my family that was involved in this really exquisite cooking, where I would get these elaborate cakes. I never saw them anywhere else.

Filmmaker: How do you get subjects to be natural and comfortable in front of the camera?

Hegedus: I think for both people [famous and non-famous], it’s a matter of getting them to trust you. And if they see that you’re genuinely interested in what they do, that you take the time to really find out about what they do, they’ll slowly let you into their lives. But it’s a privilege, it’s not something that is given. And definitely, when things are going well, and however they envision the movie of their life, they’re happy to have you there. But when things aren’t going as planned, then it’s not the happiest moment to have you around. And I think in those moments, it’s very nice to have a partner. You feel very un-loved, you don’t know what to do, and it’s nice to have someone when you’re making a film at this point. It’s an adventure and a risk on both of our parts. I think that kind of bonds you in a certain way.

Pennebaker: The thing is, if people are uncomfortable in front of your camera, you better stop filming them. That’s why you don’t sit them down in a chair and ask them questions. It’s boring for everybody, so you try to avoid it. What you want to do is find out everything you want to know by seeing it happen. You don’t want to have them tell you about it, or have someone tell you about it. It’s kind of how documentaries began, because everybody couldn’t be there when the action took place. But if you work on it and think about it before you film, you sort of know how people are going to act, and that’s when you want to be filming. You want to be in the War Room when they win the election, not afterwards when they tell you about it.

Filmmaker: The chefs seem to hold more of a camaraderie with each other rather than a rivalry, and it was uplifting to watch. As well as the judging M.O.F.s who showed support to the contestants.

Pennebaker: Well, they all know each other. I mean, these are the best chefs in France, which is something. They were already working in restaurants that were heavy-duty, so it’s not like they’re trying to break into the [business]. They’re already there. It’s the kind of single effort on the part of a Frenchman to join a special group, like the Knights Templar. Anybody who was a Knights Templar was like the king, meaning he had access to the king. And this is back in the 1300s, and it’s prevailed, so it’s kind of like that.

Hegedus: It was incredibly supportive. I think they (the M.O.F.s) recognize that anybody who made it to that level of the competition, they’re all pretty good chefs. They know they should be part of their club, and it is an interesting club, these chefs who have the red, white, and blue collars. The idea of the M.O.F. was started 100 years ago to encourage excellence in the manual craft field, so a lot of it is about giving back. The chefs say that the hardest thing is that after you get the M.O.F., you have to be this role model for people and give back. I think that’s why the chefs came up to [the contestants] when they were having a hard time — that kind of mentoring and encouraging thing is part of what the M.O.F. is about, and I think that’s wonderful.

Filmmaker: Your documentaries have featured politics, music, and entertainment figures, like Carol Burnett, Al Franken, Bill Clinton, and Bob Dylan. Do you feel like you choose your subjects, or do they choose you?

Hegedus: I think most of our subjects come to us. Someone says, “I’d think it’d be good if you did a film about this, would you be interested?” If somebody has access, that’s the most important thing, but yes, people come to us, or hear about things that we’re interested in. When I did, I was interested in the Internet, it seemed like this Wild West in front of us, and everybody wanted to be a part of it.

Filmmaker: Your films often have your subject in the middle of a project, be it a Broadway show, an election, a concert tour, or recording an album. Do you feel these situations reveal their personality more than an interview would?

Pennebaker: If you want to know what somebody’s like, if you want to get a sense of their character, you’ve got to get them when they’re going around a corner. In an election, that’s easy, because the corner is the election, but sometimes, it’s like with [the band] The National, they want to do a concert at BAM, which would go online. I thought it sounded like a marvelous idea — I’ve never done a live concert. So we all find out something, and it was a marvelous thing to do.

Filmmaker: How has finding funding changed over the years?

Hegedus: Funding was more difficult in the beginning because getting started on a major film was expensive. A roll of film had to be processed and a print made from it. A 10-minute roll cost two hundred and fifty dollars when you finally got it out of the lab. This meant that it was often necessary to try and sell the project before beginning it, which required a script or outline. It also meant that whoever put up “front” money really owned the film and could edit it as they saw fit. Not a good arrangement for filmmakers.

Most of our funding early on was borrowed, either from friends or relations, and of course they had to be paid back so it was almost obligatory that the project be salable not to TV that had little interest in independent filmmakers, but to theatrical distributors, or in most instances to theaters as a first run self-distributed film which was very hard to carry out. You certainly didn’t get rich. Don’t Look Back and Monterey Pop were examples of this, and while they were both extremely popular and each played theatrically for well over a year it was difficult to get the theaters to pay. The film of Steve Sondheim’s Company was never sold to a network but had to be parceled out to individual stations and paid for by piecework sales to sponsors. I don’t know if the producer made much money but we certainly didn’t.

Switch now to present: A serious project like The War Room or Kings of Pastry can be started with relatively little investment other than a small video camera and the time of the actual filmmakers. A simple video camera records high quality sound and picture and can be operated by a single person. Both of those films were shot without lights or an expensive crew. Filming over long periods of time, which is almost always required, is expensive but the film generally ends up belonging to the filmmakers, and much of the money to pay for it raised through funding organizations that give tax benefits to donors instead of promising profits from subsequent distribution.

Filmmaker: What are you working on next?

Hegedus: Next project, well, we’re never quite sure what’s next until we actually pick up a camera and start to shoot, but there is some talk about doing a film with Steve Sondheim, whom I have known for some time but not really well so it offers a chance to know him better and to do a musical film which of course we would really like to do. Ask us in a couple of months and let’s see what brews. We are also following the activities at CERN and the possibilities for a film coming out of there or connected to it.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Review of Lixin Fan's Last Train Home

This review originally appeared on IONCinema

Last Train Home, the directorial debut of documentary filmmaker Lixin Fan, has had an impressive streak at the past year's major film festivals. An official selection of Sundance Film Festival, and winner at several festivals including the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, San Francisco International Film Festival, and top tier docu festival IDFA (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam), this chronicles two years in the lives of the Zhengs, a working-class Chinese family who are separated for economic reasons. The parents are two of the 130 million Chinese migrant workers who currently work in the factories of China's major cities, leaving the countryside for opportunity and economic growth. They are only allowed to go home once a year, and that is for Chinese New Year in February. But with that many workers, it is practically impossible that all will be guaranteed a train ticket home to see their families.

Fan uses a hand-held camera to capture intimate yet bleak panoramic shots of the mass hysteria that ensues when millions of people are struggling to gain a ticket, then trying to even find space on the overcrowded train. In each scene, everybody is worried that they won't be one of the lucky ones, that they will be left behind and miss the chance for a nice holiday. Spending their days and nights hunched over sewing machines in loud, congested factories, this is an escape into the comfort of home traditions. People being pushed and shoved, loaded down with luggage (often carrying quite heavy loads practically on their heads) presents a dystopian image of low-income workers in overpopulated cities with all the same dreams and hopes, but not everybody will be rewarded with a rags to riches life.

The elder Zhengs work down to their fingers sewing clothing to be sent to America. It's a sobering reality for Western audiences to see the faces behind the "Made in China" label, and how there are real people struggling to provide better lives for their children. Fan's narratives with the family members depicts a unit that is broken, emotions running high from immense guilt from the parents, to seething resentment from their teenage daughter, who lives out in the country with her grandmother and younger brother. The traditional rural life is abandoned by the young people, migrating to the cities, leaving the children and elderly folks to try to maintain farm life. City life is intensely competitive, and young adults starting at 15 quit school to assert their independence working in the factories. They're working long hours for low pay, but it's something they can call their own.

The Zheng family are split, not just by distance, but by familial strain. They are missing out on their children growing up, and their daughter is frustrated and angry at them for leaving her. She takes the risk in leaving school and going to work in the factories, despite her parents' protestations. Her stance is brave and strong, wanting to take control of her own life at 17. Tensions run high during a uncomfortably raw moment where father and daughter are at each other, hollering and snarling at one another. It not only rips through all the niceties that they've been giving each other (and the audience), but breaks the fourth wall, the threads of their family coming undone. It's a sad example of the circle of industrial life in the world, the parents who worked hard to provide a better life for their children only to see their children go the same route out of instant results instead of the long-term results of education.

Last Train Home shines a light on people who would normally not be seen in the media eye, anonymous workers who toil for hours creating clothing for consumers who don't question the distance that it traveled to their shops, and whose livelihood hangs on a factory's supply and demand. Already, these factories will have machines replace humans, increasing output, and leaving millions jobless and lost.

Zeitgeist Films releases Lixin Fan's Last Train Home on Friday, September 3rd.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Review of Emilia Menocal and Jauretsi Saizabitoria's East of Havana

This review originally appeared in Venus Zine.

'East of Havana' review

This documentary offers a rare glance into the rap scene of a younger Cuban generation

East of Havana is a fascinating documentary about contemporary rap music in Cuba. The film follows three local rappers: Magyori, Mikki, and Soandry, who are members of the rap collective El Cartel and rhapsodize about the fallen Cuban economy of the '90s and the anger it has fueled their generation (blackouts, no money, poor housing). The three are charismatic, intriguing individuals as they talk about what rap means to them and how they express their emotions and life stories in the strength and purity of their rap verse.

The three youths grew up in an impoverished part of Havana; Magyori sells her belongings and others' stuff for a daily profit, Mikki lives with his grandfather and does odd jobs, and Soandry is his parents' last remaining child; their older son left Cuba during the 1994 exodus when 33,000 Cubans fled the island to the United States, and he hasn't been able to return home since. A heartbreaking moment occurs when Soandry's older brother, living in Seattle, sees pictures of his parents and brother for the first time since he left, and the shock of seeing their aged faces breaks him down into tears.

The film was co-directed by native Cuban Jauretsi Saizabitoria, and co-produced by her longtime friend, actress Charlize Theron. The idea for the film came from a 2001 trip the two took to Cuba and a drive to show the island beyond images of Castro, Scarface, and 80-year old Buena Vista Social Club-type musicians. This film shows the inherent strength of the young generation, and their determination to change Cuba into a more economically diverse, rich nation. East of Havana is a small but unforgettable film that gives an American audience a rare eye into the everyday life of Cubans living under Castro's government.

Review of Craig Brewer's Black Snake Moan

This review originally appeared in Venus Zine.

'Black Snake Moan' review

Christina Ricci shocks and shines in her return to the big screen

This March, one of the most controversial films of 2007 premiered, after being buzzed for months about its alleged misogyny and racism. Black Snake Moan, a parable starring Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci, is a unique and individual film that, while weak in some parts, is a tour de force for Ricci';s performance as a sex-addicted Mississippi runt who is enslaved to transform under the watchful eye of Jackson'sbluesman-turned-farmer.

The selling point of the film has been the farmer's unethical way of taming the promiscuous girl of her "demons" (locking a 40-ft chain around her waist and keeping her housebound for days), but it is a drastic measure for a girl who has used sex to mask being sexually abused as a child, taking back power in an aggressive and emotionless manner. The girl, named Rae, frequently suffers fits and spells, mentally revisiting her past abuses with her current sexual situations of overtaking a man or letting a man have his way with her, practically using her as a toilet.

The film suffers by garnering a lot of unintentional laughs from the audience for what would be an intense story. The chain scenes are made to be hilarious instead of disturbing (as it would be for anyone in that situation), and Jackson's cult popularity for Pulp Fiction and Snakes on a Plane gives the audience a smug knowingness, laughing at the way he says "motherfucker"; or rolls his eyes in disbelief at another. In addition, the subplot of Rae's Iraq-bound boyfriend is unnecessary, a ploy to make Rae more sympathetic by showing her in loving coitus with her man and having him for stability in her turbulent life. The boyfriend is dead weight and Rae was enough of a fleshed-out character without him.

The glue of this film is Christina Ricci as Rae. Recovering from a career slump (her last critically-acclaimed role prior was in Monster, and in The Opposite of Sex five years before that), she reveals herself physically and emotionally naked, a feral animal ripping herself for the audience to gaze upon both in titillation and sympathy. A standout scene is her Pentecostal-like dance to the blues classic 'Stackolee,' releasing herself of her sexual demons and feeling free and exhilarated for the first time in years.

The film was directed by Craig Brewer, best known for the Oscar-winning Hustle & Flow. This continues the same style of using music to complement a Southern lifestyle, and it works superbly, enriching the film with the blues music of R.L. Burnside and Scott Bomar's raw instrumentals, and covers sung by Jackson himself, evoking the style if not the technical proficiency. The title is derived by Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1920s number, and it evokes comparisons to PJ Harveys 'Long Snake Moan.'

Black Snake Moan is a flawed piece, but the blues-numbers scenes and Christina Ricci’s performance will rivet you and get under your skin.

Review of Craig Gillespie's Lars and the Real Girl

This review originally appeared in Venus Zine.

Getting real

Ryan Gosling finds a lady friend in Lars and the Real Girl

Just as the film Lars and the Real Girl was set to be released, a British documentary premiered this year. Love Me, Love My Doll chronicled the relationships that several men have had with their Real Dolls, an 21st century upgrade of the blow-up dolls of the past. The documentary starkly presents these men as lonely, socially awkward, sad people going into great detail about their "girlfriends" and all the relationship troubles they've faced, which would seem more genuine if the girlfriend wasn't made of plastic and rubber. It could be argued that the men preferred the dolls to real women because of their being sexually attractive yet not speaking or arguing with them.

Lars and the Real Girl dramatizes a typical life of one of these men. Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) is a reserved individual living in the garage of his brother, Gus (Paul Schneider). Gus' wife Karin (Emily Mortimer) tries to engage him in going out on excursions with them, having dinner with them, and trying to draw him out of his shell. His co-worker Margo (Kelli Garner) is interested in him, but he is merely polite to her. Lars seems like a giant man-child at 27, possibly autistic and sensitive to touch. It seems like there isn't any point to socialize Lars into the world, that he is content to live alone in his garage home and pay no mind to anybody.

Several weeks later, Lars introduces his girlfriend, Bianca, to Gus and Karin. Bianca is a Real Doll, resembling Angelina Jolie. Lars gives Bianca an entire backstory (she is a Brazilian wheelchair-bound woman who wants to work as a missionary). Though it seems like Lars has completely lost his mind, his devotion to Bianca as a real person (Karin even unconsciously sets a dinner plate for Bianca upon first meeting her) touches the rest of the town, and Bianca is accepted as a new member of the community, being spoken to and cared for as if she were real. Lars' relationship with her, where he is the only one who can hear her responses, brings up comparisons to Harvey, where Jimmy Stewart joyfully speaks to an invisible six-foot-tall rabbit and his family fears him being mentally ill. The psychologist (Patricia Clarkson), tries to give therapy sessions to Lars under the guise that she is "treating" Bianca, but he keeps his emotions locked up as to whether he believes that Bianca is real or that he knows that she's just a doll.

Lars is idealistic and a bit of a fantasy, but it is an interesting movie to see how a whole town will rally around one of their own and accept somebody's odd behavior - even learning something new about themselves along the way. The audience even starts to believe in Bianca's presence as much as the townspeople do, thanks to the convincing acting, led by Ryan Gosling's childlike performance, and the compelling script, written by Nancy Oliver.

Review of Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind

This review originally appeared in Venus Zine.

Indie filmmaking in the extreme
Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind takes DIY directing to Hollywood

By Melissa Silvestri
Published: March 5th, 2008

Be Kind Rewind is the latest from music video auteur Michel Gondry, known for his childlike imagination and use of cardboard cutouts a la Where The Wild Things Are. Be Kind Rewind’s art imagery borrows from Gondry’s past videos for Björk and the Chemical Brothers, but has a DIY aesthetic that attracts the audience into the small world of Passaic, New Jersey. The audience reminisces back to the days before DVDs and Netflix, when the tattered format of VHS ruled.

The film follows Mike (Mos Def) and Jerry (Jack Black), two schmoes living day-to-day without a bright future. Jerry is an auto mechanic and lives in a trailer by the power plant. He’s the main customer at Be Kind Rewind - an old video store in a building that, though a place where Fats Waller once lived, is in danger of being demolished and replaced by a condominium, sending the video clerk Mike and his boss Fletcher (Danny Glover) into the projects.

While Fletcher is out of town, Jerry (having been electrocuted while trying to sabotage the power plant) becomes a “human magnetic field,” inadvertently erasing the films in the video store. As a last-ditch effort to appease the elderly and loyal Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow) when she wants to rent Ghostbusters, Mike and Jerry decide to re-do the film as a 20-minute abbreviated version, shot in 2 ½ hours, using vacuum cleaners on their backs, a miniature Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, and streamers to imitate the rays from the laser guns.

Their homemade recreation becomes a hit with her nephew and his friends, and they receive requests to re-do other pop-culture classics like Robocop, Driving Miss Daisy, and 2001, calling their style of film “Sweded.” For the female roles, they recruit Alma (Melonie Diaz), a bored dry-cleaning employee, who quickly grasps their enthusiasm and becomes a part of the local phenomenon.

The film drags when the video store is sued by the movie studios for copyright infringement (with Ghostbusters' Sigourney Weaver as the studios’ attorney), and the guys find themselves at a crossroads. It gets a little cheesy and Capra-esque at the end, but the majority of the film is pleasant and enjoyable.

Review of Ira Sach’s Married Life

This review originally appeared in Venus Zine.

The nuclear family?
Married Life attempts to make a social commentary, but goes sour

By Melissa Silvestri
Published: April 2nd, 2008

Ira Sach’s Married Life suffers from clichés of cheating husbands, rejected wives, and young chippies as mistresses of the married man. There is no real message of the film (‘50s “perfect” families) that hasn’t been better expressed in Far From Heaven or Douglas Sirk films. The talented leading actors endure an uninspiring, dull script that wraps itself up with no real answer, other than “they all lived happily ever after.”

Married Life begins in 1949. Harry Allen (Chris Cooper) is an ordinary suit, dreadfully unhappy with his wife of 20 years, Pat (Patricia Clarkson), and is plotting his move to leave her to marry his young mistress Kay (Rachel McAdams), who is more romantic about love than Pat. Harry confides in his best friend Richard (Pierce Brosnan), who narrates the film and is uncomfortable with Harry’s choice, which devastates Pat when she figures out his intentions though a rhetorical question he asks her. Harry also brings up the idea that a wife is making her husband a better man through their marriage, and inadvertently presenting him to a younger woman awed by his intelligence and life wisdom.

Harry is filled with guilt about hurting his wife, yet wants to start over with Kay. So he gets the idea that he should poison Pat, to allow her to die in her sleep without pain instead of being marked as a divorced woman and feeling humiliated. Meanwhile, Richard has been taking Kay out on dates and impressing her with his quick wit and not having Harry’s emotional baggage. He sees the same innocence and sweetness in Kay as Harry does, as well as a levelheaded maturity that allows her to connect with men 30 years her senior.

The film suffers because the characters are cardboard cutouts - they are forgettable and boring. The clichés of repressed suburbia are old and well-mined, as is the notion that life was only dull and stifled back in the '50s and that everything is so much more liberal and better now. Sachs and his co-writer Oren Moverman could’ve written this script in a weekend, and the lack of heart and spirit shows. It is a waste that can only be explained by having to fulfill some studio obligation and cranking out something safe but regurgitated from better films.

Review of Saul Dibb's The Duchess

This review originally appeared in Venus Zine.

The Duchess of yawn
This period drama is all corsets and no character

By Melissa Silvestri
Published: October 8th, 2008

The Duchess
is a lackluster film that seems like a shell of its self. With empty characters and a cliché repressed wife making the choice between fulfilling her duties as the duchess and living independently with a young hot liberal, it’s similar in style and execution to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Both films suffer from the same problem of pretty imagery but a weak storyline.

The Duchess
follows the path of young Georgiana Cavendish (Keira Knightley), who is betrothed to the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) in 1774. At 17, she enters a life of grand privilege and charms a large circle of literary and political figures with her witty quips and comely looks. But what looks like an interesting life is all a façade: Georgiana is unable to conceive a surviving male heir, and her husband has many affairs unabashedly. After he unknowingly destroys the only truly happy part of her life, she chooses to have an affair with a young and handsome budding politician, and is given a sharp ultimatum by her husband when she reveals this affair.

The film suffers by making a potentially interesting story dull, reducing Georgiana to some heroine of a typical bodice-ripper who discovers her hidden sexuality through hot forbidden sex with an attractive man, while being imprisoned by a much older, cold husband. The casting of Knightley doesn’t help — her girl-of-the-21st-century appeal clashes with the gravitas and old-fashioned appeal required to play a 1780s character. While she fit as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride & Prejudice because of her modern feminist attitude, she looks out of place and overwhelmed by this film.

As for the other actors, Fiennes is good and delivers the material well, and Hayley Atwell stood out as Georgiana’s troubled best friend Lady Elizabeth, who betrays her in a soul-killing scene that nearly destroys Georgiana’s heart. Dominic Cooper as the lover (who becomes the future prime minister) doesn’t have much to do but look earnest and gaze at Georgiana, then make sweet love to her.

If you like period dramas and all that goes with powdered wigs, corsets, and repressed emotions, then this film is good to watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Otherwise, don’t expect much.

Review of Fernando Meirelles' Blindness

This review originally appeared in Venus Zine.

Turning a blind eye
Blindness portrays hopelessness, but ends up just plain hopeless

By Melissa Silvestri
Published: October 21st, 2008 | 10:10pm

Blindness follows in the path of 28 Days Later and Children of Men, presenting a 2000's version of a dystopian society fallen apart in the din of madness and hopelessness. The film, based on the novel by José Saramago, begins on a strong premise: An epidemic of blindness affects the residents of an unnamed city, leading many to be quarantined and treated like lepers. Society completely falls apart.

The first victim of this epidemic is a Japanese man (Yusuke Iseya), who is struck blind while driving in traffic. He is assisted home by a wily young thief (Don McKellar), who also becomes blind. The blindness may or may not be infectious, since an eye doctor’s wife (Julianne Moore) is one of the few who does not become blind. She keeps her sight a secret, accompanying her husband (Mark Ruffalo) into a prison-turned-asylum for the newly blind, and being the den mother to all whom arrive, including a prostitute (Alice Braga), a child (Mitchell Nye), the Japanese man and his wife (Yoshino Kimura), the thief, and a myriad of other nameless characters. The film is intriguing as the doctor and his wife handle the new “patients,” giving people confidence and guidance in their strange new world of sightlessness.

The film takes a turn for the worse as more people are ushered in, leaving the prison a complete hellhole — the floor always wet, feces by the wall, random nudity and public copulating, and a stench that the audience can only imagine. A bartender (Gael García Bernal), frustrated by the doctor’s authoritarian stance over everybody, decides to take over in a radical new direction, withholding food until he can get what he wants out of people. The movie gets more depressing and dire in this second act, and is hard to sit through.

The third act seems as if the plot has lost its thread, and the characters are walking around aimlessly and confused, waiting to see if they regain their sight or not. The film could have been an interesting exercise in the epidemic of blindness affecting a whole city, but taking the “post-apocalyptic fall of society” theme and bringing the audience down in its muck is clichéd, boring, and doesn’t add anything new.

Review of Deirdree Timmons' A Wink and a Smile

This review originally appeared on Venus Zine.

Gender Bending Burlesque
A Wink and a Smile fails to live up to its burlesque tease

By Melissa Silvestri
Published: May 7th, 2009

A Wink and a Smile, currently making the rounds at US indie theaters, focuses on ten women in the Seattle area taking a six-week course in burlesque dance from professional dancer Miss Indigo Blue, culminating in a one-night-only performance. Directed by Deidree Timmons, the women’s journey is peppered by their lingering insecurities about their bodies and sexuality, and unfortunately, it's these redundant ruminations that drag the film down.

The burlesque dance classes are almost treated more as group therapy sessions, inviting the participants to reveal their self-doubts and confidence issues. After about nine out of ten women in a row speaking negatively about herself, it gets frustrating to listen to, boring, and takes the fun out of the documentary.

The highlights of the film are the performances from established stars subverting gender norms and social stereotypes, like The Shanghai Pearl twisting Asian exoticism, Waxie Moon, the sole male performer who is clearly influenced by ‘70s glam star Jobriath, Tamara the Trapeze Lady as the first to use trapeze in the burlesque scene, or one performer using herself as a canvas, being the artist, model, and audience all in one. These performers take the burlesque act and can use it to be male as female, female as male, female as male as female, or anything beyond just shaking tassels around.

A Wink and a Smile is a great effort to show how anybody with a passion and creative spirit can work within the burlesque world, but the focus on the women’s insecurities in comparison to the wildly diverse professionals exhibited makes it disjointed and split in half. The film would have benefited from editing down some of the women's segments – not necessarily to censor them, but not to keep making the same point of shyness, insecurity, or having issues with confidence or sexuality.

Review of Kathyrn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker

This review originally appeared in Venus Zine.

Kathryn Bigelow brings the trenches to your cineplex in The Hurt Locker
A visceral film about the Iraq war that is not to be missed

By Melissa Silvestri
Published: July 8th, 2009

After a seven year hiatus from feature films, director Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark, Point Break, Strange Days) is back, and The Hurt Locker is an explosive, gut-wrenchingly honest take on the current Iraq war, from the POV of three bomb techs finishing up a 38-day tour. The camera angles stay focused on their peripheral sightlines, allowing the audience to truly feel the anxiety and fear and quick action of the war scenes, as well as the brotherly intimacy between the three men.

The film centers around three bomb techs: the reckless Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), the levelheaded Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), and the nerve-ridden Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). James is brought as a replacement for a bomb squad leader who was killed, and is apathetic about his position, having a “if I die, I die” attitude. Sanborn’s patience is tested again and again as James risks the safety of his squad to disable bombs in unsafe areas of Baghdad, pushing to be the hero, even if he sacrifices himself. Eldridge is panicked about being in the war, knowing that his life is truly fragile and could be taken away from him at any moment. Together, these three men form a bond that is unstoppable, taking chances every day to fulfill their missions and disable bombs for the safety of the Iraqi civilians whom they are protecting.

What stands out about this film is that there is never a lull in the action, be it a war scene or chitchat amongst soldiers. The lead characters are charismatic and relatable, it is stripped of few clichés, has moments of humor and brevity in between the chaos, and presents, via journalist Mark Boal’s script based on his time amongst bomb squads in Iraq, an accurate portrayal of the day-to-day life of war. In one scene, James and Sanborn are positioned with their guns behind a sand hill, looking to shoot the enemy. They sit for what seems like hours at a time, not bothering to swat the flies crawling on their eyes and lips, the sand and dirt crusting on their faces, and withstanding the immense heat and boredom to take down a few men hiding in a nearby shack. It breaks the audience of their preconceived notions of combat as shooting from the trenches, and displays a scene of both tense action and drawn-out tediousness.

The Hurt Locker will stand as a classic in the war film genre, with an objective view of the war, focusing more on the soldiers’ day-to-day life than saying whether the war is right or not. The leads are phenomenal standouts, especially with Renner’s truly honest performance, and it is a treat to see Bigelow return to the big-screen with her intelligent and thought-provoking style of shooting action films with grit and substance.

Review of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds

This review originally appeared in Venus Zine.

Bested by Basterds
Quentin Tarantino brings with to the multiplex with Inglourious Basterds

By Melissa Silvestri
Published: August 28th, 2009

Six years after his last major feature (Kill Bill) Quentin Tarantino returns with Inglourious Basterds, an anachronistic, wildly inaccurate re-telling of WWII history, where Jewish fighters take bloody revenge upon the Nazis who massacred their people. Don’t expect any sentimentality or bleeding-heart moments, this film will hold you in with this layered nuance in the powerful dialogue scenes and draw you deeper into the relations between the Germans occupying France and the French citizens just barely concealing their contempt.

Contrary to the film’s advertising, Brad Pitt is not the star, but rather the marquee name to bring audiences in. More suited as a supporting actor in unusually comic roles, he lightens up the otherwise dark film with quick wit and brevity, as the charismatic leader of a squad of Jewish-American soldiers turned rogue warriors, earning a reputation as the Inglourious Basterds, men who torture and bludgeon Nazis and German soldiers to a pulp, usually leaving one alive to tell the tale, but left with a lifelong mutilation to never allow anyone to forget what they represented.

The opening scene is a stunning and mesmerizing 20-minute dialogue between a French dairy farmer and a German Nazi named Colonel Landa, played with cool insouciance by Christoph Waltz. His play on words, feigning ignorance of French, and warm smile undercut with deadly threats keeps the audience both charmed and in fear of him. The Jewish family that the farmer was hiding is massacred by the SS, save for a teenage girl, Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent), who runs for her life, Landa deciding to let her escape, assuming she’ll be caught sometime.

Three years later, Shoshanna, now living under the name Emmanuelle Mimieux, runs a movie theater in Paris, hiding her Jewish ancestry under German rule. She is just trying to live her life in peace and not be discovered, when a young German soldier (Daniel Bruhl), celebrated for his heroics, courts her repeatedly, with no luck, as she despises him and his people for obvious reasons. To her dismay, he ends up getting her theater to host the premiere of a Nazi propaganda film called Nation’s Pride, where he plays himself fighting the Italians, a la Audie Murphy. With a packed theater full of Nazis, Shoshanna realizes she can kill them all at once by burning the theater down, exacting revenge in the name of her people. Laurent delivers this fire and passion beautifully, picturing her as a Resistance heroine nearly sacrificing herself to spare horrors put upon the Jewish race.

Inglourious Basterds is marked by some of Tarantino’s trademarks: drawn out dialogue scenes, film discussions, spurts of obscene violence, a beautiful woman’s foot. However, there is something intense and more effective about the film, especially in the scenes between the French and German people. Their conversations reveal so much hidden subtlety, no distracting background music, just slowly removing layers to get to the core of a situation and feeling the mounting fear as a French Jew risks being discovered or a German actress’s role as a spy for England is uncovered. Those scenes are really the highlights of the film, as the theater audience is so quiet and still, deeply taking in these highly tense exchanges undercut with cruel wit. There is a lot of ambiguity with the characters and their actions, and it takes a lot of little “aha” moments to realize their intentions or thoughts. This film is unconventional and takes chances with presenting an alternate history of WWII, yet will be memorable for the stunning performances given by Melanie Laurent and Christoph Waltz, and the talent that Tarantino has been crafting extensive dialogue scenes that don’t always say so much on top but reveal many entendres underneath.

Cine Institute in Haiti

This piece originally appeared in Filmmaker Magazine.

Cine Institute in Haiti
by Melissa Silvestri

India has Bollywood, and Nigeria has Nollywood, two examples of international film industries that have thrived outside of Hollywood, and soon, perhaps, Haiti can be added to that list. In the port city of Jacmel, considered the cultural capital of Haiti and home to many writers, painters and poets, is the Ciné Institute, which is steadily instilling film schools in the country’s young film students.

The school had its origins as a film festival in 2004. The Festival Film Jacmel, founded by filmmaker David Belle and artist Patrick Boucard, showed international films annually for free to thousands of Haitians. After three years, the festival’s popularity spurred interest in further developing Haiti’s own film industry, and a school called the Ciné Institute was started, where young students could learn technical and creative skills involved in filmmaking, and then use these skills to earn a living, support their families, and drive local economic growth.

With a donation by Francis Ford Coppola and Paul Haggis on the advisory board, the school has imported many teachers, including screenwriter, director, journalist and editor Annie Nocenti, who teaches short filmmaking, to work with the students. After visiting Belle in Haiti, Nocenti was invited to the Cine Institute a year and a half ago. “He brought all these movies to Haiti, as many people would have only seen a few movies in their lifetime, and his dream was to put cameras in the hands of Haitians so they could tell the stories they want to tell,” she says. “People have this portrait of Haiti that it is all slums, and it's not true. I was one of the first teachers, in screenwriting, but I'm just one of many. David has been the driving force of the whole thing.”

In the past year, Nocenti’s students have completed six short films, premiered four this past June, and this September she will return to teach the current students feature screenwriting as well as short filmmaking to the 25 new fall arrivals. Of her experiences with her students, she says she tries to build trust with young people who may be naturally shy towards newcomers but enthusiastic about developing their filmmaking skills. If the Cine Institute’s project is a success, the future of Haitian film could be promising. Nocenti agrees: “Well my hope for it as a filmmaker and journalist is what looks to be a new birth of cinema, a new language.”


This piece originally appeared in Filmmaker Magazine.

By Melissa Silvestri

I was saddened to hear of the death of Vic Skolnick, an influential co-founder of Long Island’s first major art house movie theater, The Cinema Arts Center, in Huntington, N.Y. Passing away at 81 on June 10th, Skolnick, along with his wife, Charlotte Sky, founded what was originally known as the New Community Cinema in 1973. Skolnick, a teacher for twenty years at N.Y. public schools, combined his passion for history with a lifelong love of films. His ambition was to show as many diverse films as possible and educate his loyal audience in innovative cinema. The cinema went through many transformations over the years, before settling at a former elementary school in Huntington.

Skolnick made himself accessible to the audiences by making impromptu introductions before the films, telling fascinating anecdotes about the directors. With Skolnick, there was always an underlying enthusiasm to share something with an audience of fresh eyes. His intros gave the cinema a personal feel, like the founder and the audience were one and the same, with the same love for great films.

Skolnick didn’t only just show films and talk about them. The CAC was instrumental in instilling a Film Arts in Education program for local schools, screening films like El Norte and Riding the Rails for field trips of their students.. Many film festivals have run at the CAC, ranging from African films, gay and lesbian films, and Asian-American films.

Thanks to the CAC’s wide influence, future film professionals, many from Long Island, would make it big, and come to the CAC to promote their films and engage in lively discussions with the audiences. Amongst the illustrious guests have been Hal Hartley, Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, Isabella Rossellini, and Edward Burns. These guests developed long friendships with Skolnick and Sky, exchanging in a mutual appreciation of great films.

Having been a teenage volunteer at the CAC circa 2000, I felt lucky to be a small part of this theater, which gave me unlimited access to the best in independent and foreign film and an education in not only cinema the whole world beyond my suburban neighborhood. Skolnick was a true local legend, and his presence at the cinema will be surely missed, not only by his friends and family, but by the audiences who had come to regard him as a warm and benevolent presence.


This piece originally appeared in Filmmaker Magazine.

By Melissa Silvestri

Nearly three years ago this November, actress/writer/director Adrienne Shelly's life was cut short by a brutal act of violence. Her unique and indelible spirit is sorely missed, as evidenced by her most recent film, Waitress, which she wrote, directed, and co-starred in as the shy but sweet waitress named Dawn, looking for love. Since then, her husband, Andrew Ostroy, has carried on his late wife's work, through founding the Adrienne Shelly Foundation, a non-profit organization that gives support to emerging women filmmakers, and produced her script Serious Moonlight, a film starring Meg Ryan, directed by her Waitress co-star Cheryl Hines, and will be released in December.

Thanks to the efforts of Ostroy and Shelly's friends, a memorial garden honoring Shelly was unveiled on Monday, August 3rd, in Abington Square Park in Greenwich Village, where Shelly lived and worked, creating her films and raising her daughter Sophie with Ostroy.

At 9:45 am, the park quickly filled with many of Shelly's family, friends, and colleagues, including film professionals Hal Hartley, Kevin Corrigan, and Paul Rudd. Even if one did not know Shelly, they could still feel touched and moved by the effect that she had on people. I myself was introduced to her via her 1990 film Trust, having found a video copy while working as a volunteer at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, N.Y. in 1999. As the world-weary pregnant teenager Maria, Shelly projected this intriguing combination of innocence and street smarts, somebody who didn't trust the world yet still believed in love and kindness. That spirit of love, humor, and beauty made everybody want to know her, and she had an immeasureable effect on many lives.

At 10 am, Ostroy delivered a heartfelt speech honoring Shelly as a "loving daughter, sister, and a deeply devoted friend," with a "brilliant, unique voice that will live on." He continued to say that "what comes out of horror can come positive things," as the Adrienne Shelly Foundation was created with Shelly's intention to give women filmmakers the same advantages and opportunities that she worked for and enjoyed in life. Choosing the garden for her memorial was "quite fitting," as it was a place she admired, in her neighborhood home, and where she directed her film I'll Take You There in 1999.

Through her foundation, Shelly's influence and lifelong passion for films will give so much to aspiring filmmakers, a role model to be truly admired and respected. She was a truly beautiful human being, who was not only special to her friends and family, but influenced many who watched her films, knowing that she was an underrated and deeply talented artist, who understood the artistry of filmmaking and gave back to encourage other women to follow their dreams and passions in their life's work. Her spirit will live on through the foundation, her films, her loved ones, and in her young daughter, Sophie.


This interview originally appeared in Filmmaker magazine.

By Melissa Silvestri

Hell can be many things — being buried alive in the Iraqi desert, for example, or perhaps just watching your screenplay slowly disintegrate on the shelf during never-ending studio “development.” The opposite of most screenwriters, Chris Sparling knows the former but not the latter. He went directly from struggling indie director to successful Hollywood scribe when the screenplay for his horror thriller Buried was picked up, cast with a major up-and-coming star, and thrown before the cameras in just six months. And now it’s receiving its U.S. premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

Sparling made his debut feature, An Uzi at the Alamo, in 2005. He wrote, directed, acted and produced the low-budget comedy about a failed writer pledging to kill himself on his 25th birthday. The film received only minimal distribution and after making a short, Balance, Sparling decided to come up with a high-concept idea that could be shot cheaply and quickly. He remembered news reports about U.S. contractors working in Iraq and Afghanistan building bridges and houses. These aren’t the Blackwater types but “everyday folks, like truck drivers, carpenters, etc.,” Sparling says. “Over the years, many of them have been taken hostage and held for ransom. I considered the possibility of one of these individuals being buried alive and given only a very short amount of time to coordinate their own ransom. And if they’re not successful, they’re left to die right where they are.”

That ghoulish concept, echoing not only the popular Saw series but also George Sluizer’s classic psychological thriller The Vanishing, led to his script for Buried. Ryan Reynolds plays that American contractor working in Iraq and stuck in a coffin with only a cell phone and a lighter.

Although the film’s setting is a metaphorically rich one considering recent American foreign policy, Sparling says he was guided by more practical concerns. “Stealing a page from Hitchcock’s playbook,” he says, “I decided on writing a story that takes place entirely in one small location. In my case, this was inside an old, wooden coffin. From there, I needed a plausible reason why someone would be buried alive.”

To research his tale he interviewed actual contractors who worked in Iraq. “I didn’t want to tell a POV of their specific stories,” Sparlings says. “Rather, I wanted to get a sense of what it was really like over there for them. More than anything, I wanted to portray them, and the difficult job they did, accurately. I felt a certain responsibility to do this, probably the same way a documentary filmmaker would.”

After finishing the script, Sparling made a crucial decision: to step back from his previous role as a writer-director. “I decided to go out with the script as a spec,” he says. Buried was quickly picked up by producer Peter Safran, who attached Spanish director Rodrigo Cortés. “Rodrigo had an incredible vision for the film, and after watching [his Spanish film] The Contestant, I knew immediately that he was exactly the right person to direct the picture. And he was also the only director who wanted to shoot the film as it takes place in the script; that is, keeping the story inside the box for the duration of the film.”

A well-known actor had to be found to bring in investors and interest, and Ryan Reynolds (The Proposal) was quickly chosen as the hero stuck underground. “Ryan, Rodrigo and I are all repped by the same agency, so I imagine that made it a bit easier to get him the script,” says Sparling. Once he had the script, the movie happened the way movies are supposed to happen but rarely do. “We sat down at a restaurant one day in L.A. to discuss the project, and then literally, within weeks, the cameras were rolling.”

Buried was shot on a soundstage in Barcelona over a 21-day period last August. Sparling, who only knew his own no-budget productions, was surprised when he arrived in Spain to visit the shooting. “I was amazed at how big of a production it actually was in spite of the contained nature of the film,” he says. Buried’s charmed life continued when, barely four months after the start of principal photography, it was accepted to Sundance, where it will world premiere in the Midnight section.

Since Buried wrapped in September, Sparling’s been busy. He recently sold a script entitled Mercy to Gold Circle Films to be produced next year. He’ll reunite with Safran on an untitled thriller set to shoot next spring and is currently developing a script titled Falling Slowly, which will see his return to the director’s chair. And prepremiere, Buried saw its industry profile increase when its screenplay was selected in December for the prestigious “Black List” of Hollywood’s most-liked screenplays of 2009.

Of his whirlwind year, Sparling says, “I was really beginning to question if I’d ever catch my proverbial big break. I drifted away from film work and started applying for police jobs and even began the interview process with the A.T.F. It’s not that I intended on throwing in the towel, but I thought I was really going to have to restrategize my approach to… well, to life.” But Sparling is taking his current good fortune in stride. “All told, I guess I’m still waiting to see if this really is my big break,” he laughs. “But even if it turns out not to be, I’m very grateful to have a break of any kind, because, quite honestly, my hands were getting pretty damn tired from all that knocking.”

Tribeca 2010: Thorkell Hardarson and Orn Marino Adnarson's Feathered Cocaine

This review originally appeared on IONCinema.

Tribeca 2010: Thorkell Hardarson and Orn Marino Adnarson's Feathered Cocaine
by Melissa Silvestri

One of the most profitable and unusual illegal trades has been falconry. Throughout the Persian Gulf, falcons, sold for recreational hunting, can go from $25,000 to $1 million a bird, often traveling from Central Asia, and used as a status symbol for rich businessmen. Thorkell Hardarson and Orn Marino Adnarson, directors of Feathered Cocaine, center on a man who used to be in this underground trade, but now works to crack down on illegal falcon smugglers for the love of the birds.

Hari Har Singh Khalsa, born as an American named Alan Parrot, left home when he was 18 to Iran to work with falcons, eventually smuggling them and raising them for the royal court. But after many years in the trade, he sees the toll on the birds, the greed in his clients and companions, and the dirty connections between government officials and the falcon trade, and is desperately trying to eradicate this shady business.

The twist in the film is when Khalsa discovers that Osama Bin Laden is an aficionado of the birds, and decides to use that as a method of tracking down his whereabouts, but to little to no avail. That moment changes the course of the film from being about falcons to governments either supporting or being indifferent to illegal trades and terrorism, wondering just who is scratching whose back here.

Feathered Cocaine is more about politics and shady trades than it is about falcons, and it is a fascinating film about a little-known trade that works as a cover for the way business is done in the Middle East. Bold statements and harsh realities fly in the film, with the feeling that governments will always let something slide if there’s something to be gained in their favor.

Tribeca 2010: Documentary Short Film Highlights

This review originally appeared on IONCinema.

Tribeca 2010: Documentary Short Film Highlights
by Melissa Silvestri

This year at the Tribeca Film Festival showcases short films in six different "thematic" programs. Wishful Thinking is a package dominated by characters making hard decisions, while Between the Lines examines subject matter that isn’t always what it seems at first. The package Flashback, made up of six documentary shorts, explore politics, music, race, and popular culture, and give a fascinating diversity in telling these stories. I’ve selected the best in my opinion that you should look out for, should you ever come across the film or its directors.

James Cromwell is best known as an actor, particularly from Babe and The Green Mile, but he has been a lifelong activist for human rights. In the 1960s, he provided a safe house for affiliates with the Black Panthers, risking the ire of the police and his own social standing as a young white man in dangerous times. A .45 at 50th, co-directed by Joshua Bell and John Cromwell, combines Cromwell’s recollection of this tumultuous time with black & white re-enactments of his story. Cromwell had made the acquaintanceship with Elbert 'Big Man' Howard, a core member of the Black Panther Party. Cromwell worked with the Committee to Defend the Panthers, offering his parents’ apartment as a safe house while they were on vacation, and being both committed to the cause, and feeling way in over his head. The film is both sad for its subject matter, and funny in moments where Cromwell sticks out like a nerd against the militaristic black-leather clad coolness of the Panthers. His remarkable activism was very brave and admirable during a time when it was dangerous to be a civil rights supporter as a white man.

A similar hero, considered the Rosa Parks for Japanese-Americans, gets her due in Out of Infamy: Michi Nishiura Weglyn, co-directed by Sharon Yamato and Nancy Kapitanoff. Born to a Japanese-American farming family in California, Michi was a bright young woman whose family was interned in the U.S. concentration camps during WWII. After the war, she went to NYC and became a successful costume designer on "The Perry Como Show", working with the likes of Bob Hope and Lucille Ball. But she never forgot the pain and humiliation that the U.S. had inflicted onto her community. She met and married Walter Weglyn, a German Jew who survived the war via the kindertransport and hiding in Holland. The realization that Roosevelt at the time both neglected to save European Jews earlier and kept his own people in an concentration camp sparked her to write Years of Infamy, a book detailing the harsh reality of how the U.S. treated Japanese-Americans during WWII. Her book pushed the protests for reparations, which were finally given out in 1988. Michi Nishiura Neglyn was an unsung hero who combined class, brilliance, smarts, beauty, and an unforgettable character in the activism for civil rights. (See pic above).

New American Soldier, co-directed by Emma Cott and Anna Belle Peevey, looks at three of the more than 70,000 immigrant soldiers fighting today in the U.S. military. The three chronicled are a young woman from Latin America, a young man from Ghana, and a teenage boy from Mexico, all whom are trying to gain their citizenship while serving in the military. Their stories range from coming to America via a visa lottery, to crossing the border and working in the fields in Southern California. It’s a long and hard struggle, but incredibly worth it to be considered an American both for personal pride, and ensuring the economic and social safety of their families.

Hip-hop got its start in the economic warzone of the South Bronx in the 70’s and 80’s, where from absolutely nothing, a creative and vital musical source grew. White Lines & the Fever: The Death of DJ Junebug, directed by Travis Senger, is an incredible story not only about a forgotten musician who was taken too soon, but how hip-hop came from its roots to became a multi-million dollar industry. When life in the Bronx, marked by poverty and drugs and hell, was a warzone, young people would line up outside the club Disco Fever, a badass dance club where the hottest beats played and you could just forget everything outside. DJ Junebug, a young Puerto Rican kid with an insatiable love for music, provided that soundtrack for the neighborhood in the early 80’s. But Junebug’s temptation towards the easy money of selling drugs would get in the way of his DJ work, and lead to tragic consequences. This short film, in just 27 minutes, tracks the old-school world of hip-hop with the drug realities of the time, and the interviews with illustrious figures like Kurtis Blow, DJ Hollywood, and Sal Abbatiello chronicle an unforgettable time that blew up into an amazing art form.

Review of Ruba Nadda's Cairo Time

This review originally appeared on IONCinema.

Tribeca 2010: Ruba Nadda's Cairo Time
by Melissa Silvestri

Cairo Time is an unusual love story, where the main love interests maintain a platonic romance. Written and directed by Ruba Nadda, inspired by her time visiting Cairo, Cairo Time, starring Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig, flips the expected notions of an affair and focuses it on a woman’s re-discovery of herself after many years of loneliness.

Juliette (Clarkson) is visiting her husband, a UN worker, abroad in Cairo, but his work keeps him too busy to spend time with her. So in his place, he sends his former colleague Tareq (Siddig) to show her around the city and be her guide to Egyptian culture. Their friendship slowly blossoms into sweet romance, but they both uphold a genteel restraint towards anything adulterous.

Clarkson and Siddig share a charming chemistry playing like-minded souls. They are both private and elegant people, who share a sense of chivalry and elegance that is truly a joy to watch. Clarkson has an extraordinary talent for finding the understated gestures of a touch or a look, saying more with a tilt of the chin or averted eyes than words ever could.

While Cairo Time at times runs the risk of being a movie about a white woman who discovers herself in an “ethnic” culture, it rarely feels as if Juliette’s story is the only focus, or that she is the center of everything. Siddig portrays Tareq as an old-fashioned gentleman in balance to Clarkson’s kind gracefulness as Juliette. The film is a love letter to the gorgeous architecture of the city of Cairo, and its diverse and interesting people who make the city what it is.

Review of Kim Chapiron's Dog Pound

This review originally appeared on IONCinema.

Tribeca 2010: Kim Chapiron's Dog Pound
by Melissa Silvestri

Kim Chapiron, who debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival with the dark and edgy Sheitan in ’05, returns to the Festival with Dog Pound, a brutal slice of post-adolescence male aggression, and the prison cycles that encourage it. Dog Pound is difficult to watch at times for its unrelenting violence of boys against boys, but it offers a sobering argument against juvenile detention centers that unwittingly create repeat offenders, and gives a glimpse into why adult criminals may be the way they are.

Dog Pound follows three teenage boys, in for petty crimes: Angel (car theft and assault); Davis (possession of narcotics with intent to resell); and Butch (assault on a correctional officer). They’re interned in a facility in Montana where there’s not only strict rules to enforce discipline, but a class system amongst the prisoners is maintained by the guards, which only encourages a sick abuse of privileges by the favored inmates.

Grimly shot with teenage actors and in harsh lighting, the film is centered on the choices of violence and retaliation, and how easy it is, especially for teenagers who have little impulse control, to react by beating the hell out of each other in maintain power and respect. It only leads them further into the wrong decisions, being seen as “unstable” by the correctional facility, and being treated like wild dogs that need to be put down.

Dog Pound works because the dialogue is genuine, and the feeling of being cooped up and wanting to fight back is palpable for anybody. It ranks amongst Kids and Thirteen as portrayals of adolescence within a sick and messed-up society, and the audience should brace themselves for a intense powerhouse of a picture.

Interview with The Secret In Their Eyes director Juan Jose Campanella

This interview originally appeared on IONCinema.

Interview: Juan Jose Campanella (The Secret In Their Eyes)
by Melissa Silvestri

The Secret in Their Eyes, from Argentinean director Juan Jose Campanella, is a riveting murder mystery that not only was one of the biggest cinematic successes in Argentina, but also won the Academy Award for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film beating out heavyweights The White Ribbon and A Prophet.

Based off of the novel La pregunta de sus ojos, by Eduardo Sacheri, this follows the past and present lives of Benjamin Esposito (re-teaming with Ricardo Darin) a retired federal justice agent, who is obsessed with a rape/murder case from 1974 that he investigated and closed, but still feels has unanswered questions. His obsession is not just about the case, but about his unrequited love for a fellow lawyer (Soledad Villamil) and his own years of loneliness and isolation years after the case. The story blends seamlessly between the times, using a color shading to highlight the bold memories of the past and the muted realities of the present.

There is some surprising humor in the film, mostly courtesy of famed Argentinean comedian Guillermo Francella. At times, the film is quite Fincher-esque with shades of such films as Seven and Zodiac. It shares that unrelenting search for a killer, the mental toll it takes on its investigators who can’t let it go, and the years of paperwork and files that don’t lead anywhere. The Secret in Their Eyes opens April 16th, and I spoke with the Oscar-winning director recently in NYC.

Melissa Silvestri: How was the five-minute one-shot tracking shot in the stadium done?

Juan Jose Campanella: The shooting was actually not that long, it was three days. A producer once told me I can do things well, cheap, and fast, and he gave me two. (laughs) Cheap is slow, because we didn’t really have much money to make it. We were about 15 people working on it for almost nine months. So obviously not one take, from the helicopter to the bleachers, you have to have a fusion there. But it’s really invisible; they worked very hard at it.

Silvestri: And that scene was not in the book?

Campanella: It was everything I was interested in adding into the movie, which was the passion thread. Everything in the movie was the crime. It’s more than just passion, it’s perverted passion. So that’s why I wanted to find the guy, not because he left any clues or any fingerprints or DNA. So we worked with that. {On} the decision of making it in one shot; I had very little time to make the audience feel the adrenaline of that chase. I started with that convention in mind, so we had the aerial shot. We also {knew} a convention of at a certain point, you cut to the audience. So when you’re not cutting, you follow {the main characters}, and you see the audiences lean forward in their seat. It’s really effective, being so into the pictures. You’re there with them, and you’re part of the chase. Then it becomes personal, and that makes it more exciting and riveting than if we just had guys running after each other.

Silvestri: Were you surprised to get an Oscar?

Campanella: I was very relaxed; I took the nomination as an honor. And that was fine, I never thought about it. Many blogs and magazines, like Entertainment Weekly, were talking and talking, and I became a nervous wreck and couldn’t sleep anymore. And I went there thinking we were in the running, actually. Of course, I was surprised, but it didn’t take me out of the room, because a lot of people were saying that we would win. There was that week of the love there, in Argentina. It was like defeating Brazil in football. But it was bigger than you would expect. It was 1:30 in the morning when they announced it in Buenos Aires. And you could hear the screaming from the apartment. This last week was quite crazy.

Silvestri: It was the only other Argentinean film to win the Oscar Best Foreign Language Film (other than The Official Story in 1985). How did you feel about that?

Campanella: I was nominated before in 2002 with Son of the Bride. I don’t know what happened with this movie. Maybe, like in soccer, when you like the team, you push more for it. And this movie was a huge hit in Argentina; it struck a chord with it. It was the most successful in 35 years. People were so ready for it, I don’t know what would’ve happened if we hadn’t won.

Silvestri: There was a mix of humor in with the murder mystery that made it interesting and funny to watch at times.

Campanella: I don’t know how it’s worked here, but in Argentina, people laughed a lot at the movie. And the actors never played it for laughs. But when the guy scares his friend {by sneaking up on him}, usually in a film you’d usually have the guy go “Huh?” But in real life, you would jump and hit the ceiling. So the truth of that moment, going “you goddamn . . .” When someone scares me, I insult them for ten minutes! So I told Ricardo {Darin}, you just keep telling him, “Fuck you, fuck you!” I think that people relate to the real reactions of characters to what’s happening. I think that’s the only secret in it.

Silvestri: How did you balance the cinematography of the present day scenes vs. the past scenes?

Campanella: The scenes in the past had very bold colors, and muted in the present. We wanted to work the past in like when you are remembering something, you forget details, and only the bold strokes stand out. The past scenes are all coming from this guy’s memory, so it’s a very dominant, strong color. In the present, memory has no part, everything is the same, muted and de-saturated, and without any charms, in a way.

Silvestri: What was Argentina’s political atmosphere like at the time of the film, and how does it relate to the film?

Campanella: In the novel, the past respects the real time, so the crime takes places in 1968, and he escapes in 1976, {and the present-day scenes.} We couldn’t afford having eight changes of fashions and looks; it would be reducing the tension. So we decided in these two years (1974-76), these years before. Because there was a perceived threat of terrorism in Argentina, they started taking liberties one by one, until they started with death squads to eliminate terrorists, and it took the people working in the Justice system by surprise. If we had started with that dictatorship that started in 1976, everybody would know exactly what the deal with. They wouldn’t go “How could you free that guy?” They were very domesticated at that time. So we chose to show the time of democracy, before the obliterating of personal liberties began. We also thought it was more relevant to what is happening today.