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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.

Interview with Untitled director Jonathan Parker

This interview originally appeared on IONCinema.

Interview: Jonathan Parker (Untitled)
By Melissa Silvestri

Director Jonathan Parker (Bartleby, The Californians) returns with a film focused on the contemporary art and music scenes of New York City, and how artists maintain passion for a creation that may be more miss than hit. Inspired by his own experiences as a musician and art collector, (Untitled) stars Adam Goldberg as frustrated contemporary classical composer Adrian, whose shows are sparsely attended while his artist brother Josh (Eion Bailey) draws rave reviews for his gallery work. The bridge between them is Chelsea art gallerist Madeleine (Marley Shelton), who both supports Josh’s work and begins a love affair with Adrian out of a shared love for music and art. In it lies an intelligent humor that doesn’t make a joke out of its protagonists, but treats them with dignity and class in being thoughtful artists. It’s a broad look on how artists handle the unpredictable tastes of crowds and try to balance playing to their audience while staying true to their artistic passions.

I was plagued by tape recorder problems during my meet up with Parker in Manhattan, so here is a concise and to the point transcription of our conversation.

Melissa Silvestri: How did you and writer/producer Catherine di Napoli come up with the story?

Jonathan Parker: I was a musician for a long time, and always played in a variety of bands, and there were people with difficult personalities in music, so it was always in the back of my mind, and so we started with that, and then we created the antithesis, this guy with a sunny disposition and didn’t have any of these problems in the creative world, so after researching the art world and talking to a lot of art gallery people and artists, we came up with this character whose work is sold out of the back room, but who wants a show in the front room of the gallery, he doesn’t understand the distinction.

I’ve been involved in the art world through parents and kids and relatives, and do a little collecting myself, of kind of obscure work. I go to a lot of shows, and art markets and auctions, and it’s just interesting noticing the people who are buying art and collecting art, and their mixed motivations. It just seemed like a nice comic setup to have these two brothers, bringing together these two contemporary artists.

MS: Why did you choose to focus on a contemporary music composer?

JP: With classical music, and contemporary classical music, as opposed to all other forms of music, there’s a seriousness and a high-mindedness to that world that doesn’t exist in the rest of those music worlds, that I think sets up this comic dichotomy where you’re very serious about what you’re doing, but what you’re doing can often look kind of funny.

MS: What kind of research did you do to prepare a portrayal of the contemporary art scene, both music and in visual art?

JP: Well, in music, I have a lot of firsthand experience, but also I’ve attended a number of concerts, and had a long interview with the composer David Lang, who gave me a ton of background information, and he’s more than just the guy who wrote the score for the film, he became kind of a consultant, and the spirit behind the music side of the story. As for the art, I met with gallery owners and artists, and went on studio visits with the gallery owners. Also having collected some art myself, I had talked to auction house people as a collector, and they’re trying to sell you art, so you get a different perspective.

MS: Your family is very much involved in the art scene. How has there been a familial draw towards visual arts, and how has that influenced Untitled?

JP: I would say so. I grew up with that, my parents have an art collection, my mother has been an artist for a long time, and still is, to that extent, but when my son got interested in it, it was actually kind of in the beginning of writing this script because I started going to a lot of contemporary galleries with him, and he became very knowledgeable about it, so it kind of filled out that very contemporary side of it for me, and I just began to make friends with some gallery people and some artists, of various types, some conceptual artists, and some artists who are more like how the brother is in the movie, doing more decorative work.

MS: There is a theme of being really passionate about something, despite it seeming absurd to others, like Adrian with his music or Madeleine with the art she promotes. Do you identify personally with that?

JP: Oh sure, yeah. I think anybody who pursues a creative endeavor, when the product is idiosyncratic, then you’re always going to run into that basic dilemma that is in the bottom of the film story which is, “OK, I’m passionately pursuing this thing that nobody responds to.” Those who are committed don’t care what the response is, and those who are more uncertain about themselves are obviously much more swayed by response or lack of. But I think it’s a pretty classic dilemma that that has a really good comic setup, and I just think it’s something that a lot of people respond to, I think that no matter what you’re doing, that if there’s a creative side to it and people are always balancing what they have to do for a living with what they want to do as a true passion, it’s very rare when those two things sync up to the exact same activity.

MS: How did David Lang get involved?

JP: Well, I knew David from college, we went to Stanford together, I was a percussionist, and he was writing music back then, and I’d get called to play on his compositions. I just periodically had kept hearing about him over the years, he did work for the Santa Fe Opera, and my mother actually met David at a dinner there, so I kept hearing about him periodically over the years, and when it came to this story, I really loved his music, and I really wanted to have him be able to use some of his music in the movie, and as it developed, once he read the script and got into it a little more, he really wanted to do all of the music in the movie. So it made it a little bigger job that he actually thought it was going to be (laughs).

MS: Do you feel that he identified with Adrian a lot?

JP: Well, I think he identified with Adrian, and as I was getting background information from him – David’s a guy who knows a lot about music and his attitude about it is fresh, and I’m a big fan of his music, I just think he’s an amazing composer. I just thought it was nice that while he was working on the score he picked up the Pulitzer Prize (for The Little Match Stick Girl).

MS: Who did he spend a lot of time with to understand Adrian and the music?

JP: Initially what we did, I wanted the actors to know what it looked like to perform this music, so I had them come to the recording session that David was doing, which was just the music that was performed on camera by the actors, so that was the beginning of his involvement there, And after that, the composer’s not someone who’s gonna be on the set at all, but he worked with Lawson White, who played Seth, so he did the whole score basically.

Review of Frederick Wiseman's La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet

This review originally appeared on IONCinema.

Wiseman's La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet

By Melissa Silvestri

The prolific documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman's new film, will have a two-week engagement at Film Forum in NYC, and it is a stunning display of some of the best dancers and choreographers in the world training at one of the world's greatest ballet companies. Wiseman's film career has spanned more than 40 years, and here he is returning to familiar territory, having done the 1995 documentary Ballet, a profile of the American Ballet Theatre's preparation for a European tour. In this film, Wiseman takes us inside the studios where dancers painstakingly take direction in great detail from choreographers while rehearsing seven ballets to perform for a major gala coming up. It's a wonder to watch masters undulate their bodies in controlled yet freeing ways, and adding contemporary influences to traditional classical ballet.

Wiseman chooses to both highlight the performers and the administration, and it colors the film, showing the business side of running such a seemingly glamorous organization. The artistic director, Brigitte Lefevre, a former principal dancer, devotes her life's work to representing the organization as one of the finest companies in the world, as well as watching out for her dancers; to a young ballerina wanting career advice, she simply tells her "One can gain a lot by studying the star dancers at rehearsal and in performance." Watching La Danse, you get the sense of how stressful it is to be a dancer, to constantly take criticism from choreographers and re-do the same moves until they are pleased. Or the precise work that goes into creating costumes by hand, sewing dresses or glueing gems on a jacket. Wiseman, without narration, allows the film to speak for itself as a beautiful tribute to the hard work and artistry of the ballet world, onstage and backstage.

The film begins with rehearsals for the ballets and ends with excerpts of their final performances, illuminated by lights and music and costumes. Two particular examples stick out: La Maison de Bernada, a ballet choreographed by Mats Ek based on a Lorca play where several women in black dresses move in syncopantic motions around a table and letting out occasional screams in pain for the death of their father or husband, and the absolutely gripping Le Songe de Medee, choreographed by Angelin Preljocaj, where Medea, portrayed by Emilie Cozette in a chilling display of human agony, practically rips herself apart as she murders her children, destroying them and herself in the process. These segments draw you into the brilliant power of ballet, more than just pas de bourrees and entrechats.

The film is a gorgeous masterpiece, albeit for two flaws. One, there should be captions identifying the dances and performers, which would allow the audience to better remember what exquisite pieces they just watched, instead of being at a blank and later forgetting. Also, it runs long at 158 minutes, and seemed to be fairly lengthy for a film about a ballet company. While there is so much great footage to be shown, it felt extraneous and long towards the last half hour. That being said, La Danse takes you into a rarefied and high-class world where some of the finest artists in the world train hard for their craft to present breathtakingly beautiful performances of unbelieveable proportions.

Interview with Prodigal Sons Director Kimberly Reed

This interview originally appeared on Women and Hollywood.

Interview with Kimberly Reed, Director of Prodigal Sons by Melissa Silvestri

Kimberly Reed’s documentary, Prodigal Sons, has been a long time in the making. Growing up life seemed so perfect. She was born as Paul McKerrow, the high school quarterback, one of the most popular guys in school. But inside, Paul felt conflicted about his gender identity. So after high school, he moved to San Francisco and experimented with living as a woman, before making the full transition to life as a woman. This change served as a major aggravation to her brother Marc, who struggled for years as the adopted son. Marc’s resulting mental instability from a brain injury at 21 only exasperated his idealization of the past and Paul’s life from twenty-five years ago.

Living as a successful editor and filmmaker in S.F. and New York, she returned to her hometown of Helena, MT for her high school reunion, and a re-connection with Marc. The film is intense, raw, and gives the audience an open intimacy into the lives of Marc and Kimberly, and finding that they have more in common than they originally thought. Prodigal Sons opens Friday, February 26 in NYC.

How did you come to recording your journey and making a narrative comparing yours and your brother’s lives?

I had recently transitioned, this is probably about sixteen or seventeen years ago, I’m walking down the street in San Francisco, and I see somebody who I used to work with. And I went up and had that sort of shocking thing of like, “Hey, it’s me,” not wanting to be nosy. And it was a dear friend, his name was Bob Hawk, we worked at Film Arts Foundation in San Francisco, supporting independent film and artists. And we’ve been in touch ever since then; he’s an executive producer on the film. But a couple of weeks after that, he kept saying, “you have to make a film about this.” And at the time, I was like “No, no, I’m not going to talk about this, this is not going to happen.” But both of us knew there was going to be a time when it was going to happen. So fast-forward to 2005, when I finally get up the nerve to go to my high school reunion, he was the first person I called. So in a lot of ways, the journey to make this film goes back there. In other ways, the journey to make this film starts with that decision to go to the high school reunion, which I think triggered a lot of other things.

How did people in your family adapt to being filmed? Did they request that somethings not be filmed?

Well, first of all, my dad was always shooting, so I think everyone was already used to the camera. I took on that mantle, and I was always shooting family gatherings, which I think was my way of assessing a lot of that stuff. I was more comfortable behind the camera. But also I think it was just how I processed the world, when I would get upset or melancholy, I would go out and shoot films, that’s what I would always do. The family was always used to me running around with a camera so at the reunion when we were going to shoot it, it was like, “OK.” I never had to convince anyone. I’m really lucky that I have a family that’s very trusting. The D.P., John Keitel was good at sinking into the scene and disappearing, he’s a vérité shooter, and that really helped a lot.

I was really struck when you said that your brother wanted the identity that you were trying to be rid of. Do you think that his short-term memory loss emphasized the past much more?

I think so. He’s not building new memories, because he has short-term memory loss, so in a lot of ways, he’s much more comfortable holding onto the past. And of course, the irony is that it’s the past I want to get rid of.

Why do you think Marc kept bringing up your male past it seems as if he didn’t want to let you forget it?

There’s also this thing that, “If he idealizes this person that I used to be,” which I think a lot of people did, and then I turn on my back on that, saying “I don’t want to be any part of that, that’s not important to me,” people see that as an affront, or an insult. And if you’re aspiring to anything and what somebody says it’s not worth aspiring to, it messes with your head.

Were you and Marc able to find a parallel experience in both having mixed identities?

I think so. I think in a lot of ways – both Mark and I are kind of outcasts, me because of my gender and Marc because of his head injury and mental illness and being adopted. We’re both kind of outsiders, and I think we can relate to each other because of that. The reason that I hesitate to use that word is because if you watch the film, it’s not too long before you’re in a position when, instead of thinking, “Whoa, I’m seeing the point of view from this outsider,” you kind of forget about that, you’re kind of along for the ride. And it’s important for me to have audiences be in the position of the outsider, and then kind of forget that they’re the outsider. You can create a lot of compassion for people that you never imagined you would seeing the world through their eyes.

You had said that you had changed your social security number, driver’s license, and all government traces of being Paul. What was that experience like, of completing changing not only your personal identity but your government identity as well?

That stuff is such a drag. It’s hard enough to do it on a personal level, but to have this whole legal apparatus that you have to work through is just discouraging. And it doesn’t have to be as hard as it is. There’s a lot of situations with passports and I.D.s where it’s assumed that you’re going to be treated like a felon. On the other hand, it is very important, and it’s a symbolic transformation, you’re very excited when that first I.D. shows up in the mail, they got the name right, they got the gender right, all of that. It can be very exciting, too.

Your mother has this incredible strength that I truly admired. She’s accepted you as her daughter, she did not indulge Marc when he got angry, and recently she’s had to be the sole parent. Can you talk more about her?

She’s amazing. Sometimes people look at my transition and say, “wow, that was hard,” or “that took a lot of courage.” I think that having the example of my mother helped me through a lot of that. Just making this film was a really hard thing, putting that story out there. But my mom has been great and she’s been nothing but 100% supportive the entire time. I really felt with the film, it shows some really difficult moments with our family falling apart in some ways. It gets built back up but you just wonder, what is going to happen here? Of course as a filmmaker, as a family member, I was very concerned about if it was it okay for me to depict our family coming apart at the seams. The two things that really motivated me are, one, Marc wanted his story told. It’s part of him, it’s really difficult, he has a lot of challenges, but he wants that story told. The other thing is that I knew that if I could keep the camera rolling, that even if there were really difficult and challenging periods, that if we stuck with it, the love in my family would show. And not this sort of simple, Disney Hallmark love, but the love that is really hard. And that’s the love that really goes on with families. It’s really hard, but you have to go on and buck up and have a lot of faith in your family members. And I think my mom embodies that for me. And my dad was incredible in that respect as well.

Interview with Araya Director Margot Benacerraf

This interview had been previously posted on Women & Hollywood and IONCinema, in different forms.

Interview with Araya Director Margot Benacerraf
by Melissa Silvestri

The Venezuelan director Margot Benacerraf may have only made two films, the 1950s documentaries Reveron and Araya, but her efforts in supporting great Latin American cinema over the past 45 years as the head of various film institutes and organizations have earned her the respect and honors as a pioneer female director in an era where there were few other female directors, save for Ida Lupino and Agnes Varda.

Largely forgotten due to lack of distribution, Araya was stunningly restored for its 50th anniversary, and re-released by Milestone films. It is running this month at the IFC Center in NYC. Joining the ranks of other lost documentary classics like I Am Cuba and Killer of Sheep, Araya is a hidden gem that was not only an early documentary, but subverted its format to be more of a narrative film and successfully blend reality and drama together. There is no doubt that it was a brilliantly innovative piece of work in 1959, since it shared the top prize with Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Araya, rather than being dry, follows the style of poetic realism, using a classic film score, staged scenes, established characters, and a direction to display the rare and beautiful world of Araya, a land on the cusp of industrialization, where families are connected through the many generations who have worked for over 450 years. Benacerraf displays a masterful eye for balancing truth with cinematic narrative. She gained the trust of the island’s families and was able to tell the story of a land hard and tough, yet with blinding white beauty in its salt pyramids. It showed the strength and grace the people’s work routines, and the love and respect shared amongst the families.

I got a chance to interview Benacerraf via email this week about her filming of Araya, her early years in Paris as a filmmaker, and the scene of female filmmakers in the 1950s.

Melissa Silvestri: Araya seems to be from another time and place altogether, pastoral communities separated from the mass market industry of the mainstream world, an environment that seems to be growing rarer due to increased industrialization and people moving into cities. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on that, if you believe such communities can still thrive without disappearing altogether due to pressures from the mainstream world.

Margot Benacerraf: There shouldn’t be many isolated communities left, and even if there are still any left, they would find it very difficult to resist the exterior pressures of the mainstream world. In any case, it is about, and it will always be about, asking to take into account the human problem before those very violent changes, with all that they bear. In the case of Araya, at the end of the film, I couldn’t give it a conclusion before the arrival of the machines because precisely as I was filming on a horse a world that was disappearing, another was beginning. I only had left raising a question with evident anguish because what I had observed nobody else considered to be a human problem. Unfortunately time would vindicate me. Not everything has been beneficial for the people of Araya.

MS: Was it difficult to gain the trust of the salt miners, or were they naturally at ease in front of a camera?

MB: No, because I went several times before shooting to share their lives, and become familiar to each other. So when I start shooting they didn’t run away and they accepted willingly and patiently the directions I gave them. They had never seen cameras around and they didn’t know exactly what it was all about. They just trust me. And think that every shot in the film is directed!

MS: Post WWII, there was a large boom in young filmmakers who came from all over the world, and creating these innovative films that gave a fresh modernity to filmmaking, whether making social or political statements, or bringing a poetic realism in with nonprofessional actors. You had studied in Paris, and I wanted to know what was it like to have been a part of that environment, and if you saw a great change from the previous generation.

MB: It was very significant to see how in the Cannes Festival of 1959 we matched up without knowing each other and without pre-established agreements with Truffaut and Alain Resnais. We were filmmakers eager to express ourselves differently so we were using new methods of production and looking for new forms to connect with the audience, and that’s why that Festival was so important. One can say that the eruption of the New Wave with all its investment and revolutionary marquee in that prestigious and classic Festival marked a before and after in filmmaking that without a doubt influenced the following generations.

MS: Were there other women directing at the time you made Araya?

MB: Very few. In the 50s, in France, there was Nicole Vedrés, Yannick Bellon, Agnes Varda, in the United States, there was Maya Deren and Shirley Clarke, and in Mexico, Matilde Landeta.

MS: What was it like to be a female director at a time where there were hardly any other women’s voices out there?

MB: I can’t say that being a woman has made my work difficult. I suffered the general conditions of a country where it was very difficult of make films. In the Venezuela of those times the filmmaking trade was practically unknown. In 1951, when I made my first film “Reverón” it was the only case of a female filmmaker. Later, 2 or 2 male filmmakers came more at the end of the 50s, but the difficulties were continuing to be the same for everyone.

MS:Since Latin American cinema is so broad and widespread across many different countries, is there a specific style or genre that you’re attracted to, either as a viewer or a supporter through your work in the cinema?

MB: What is known in literature as “the marvelous reality” or as “magical realism”, of those who Gabriel García Márquez and Alejo Carpentier are the most well-known exponents, and its parallelism in film especially attracts me. I recognize in that vision and in that form of expression one of the more interesting paths and big possibilities for the development of Latin American film.