Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Genre Snacking

Recent headlines seem to be dominated by gerunds. From phone hacking to gender swapping, from lip smacking to safe cracking, gerunds seem to be making a comeback. So let me describe what constitutes cinematic genre snacking.

A film critic experiences genre snacking by viewing a variety of movies that represent different types of filmmaking.  From documentary to narrative and mumblecore, from home movies to silent film and animation, genre snacking is the cinematic equivalent of dining at a tapas restaurant.

Genre snacking is also an easy way to unite several films that have absolutely nothing in common and put them in a single column. It's also a great way to justify the cheap and tacky thrills of watching something like this clip from Mega Python vs. Gatoroid:

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Earlier this month I had a chance to attend a screening of General Satellite Corporation's production of Giselle in 3D (as performed by the Mariinsky Ballet in its famous home in St. Petersburg, Russia). Because this was basically a 3D taping of an actual stage performance, there was no chance it could be anywhere as horrific as Andrei Konchalovsky's appalling Nutcracker in 3D (2010).

The promotional blurb for the film claimed that the 3D process would give viewers the best seat in the house.  While 3D certainly helped add a sense of depth to the stage picture in certain moments, during other parts of the film its presence was barely felt.  The experience did, however, bring to mind many personal memories.

When I started attending ballet during my college years, I was often seated in the upper balcony of the New York City Center, the Fourth and Fifth Rings of the New York State Theatre, and the Family Circle of the Metropolitan Opera House as I watched performances by the Royal Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, the Feld Ballets/NYNew York City Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre. I spent most of that time squinting through a pair of 10x50 binoculars that weighed nearly two pounds.

The contrast between what I was able to see through those binoculars and what I was able to see on a large screen this month was nothing short of miraculous. Another reason the sheer size of the 3D visual was such a luxury was that, over the past 20 years. I've had three surgeries on my left eye (in addition to a cataract extraction from my right eye). If reading small print has become nearly impossible, after all these years the intense satisfaction of being able to watch classical ballet on a full-sized movie screen is hard to describe.

I have always adored Adolph Adam's romantic score for Giselle and was frankly astonished at how well I remembered the music after all these years. Natalia Osipova's Giselle and Leonid Sarafanov's Albrecht were a joy to watch. Here's the trailer:

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There are some who might consider Giselle in 3D to be pure documentary. However, soon to be screened at the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is Tomer Heymann's latest film, The Queen Has No Crown, which is a strange hybrid of documentary film mixed with old 8-mm and 16-mm home movies. Heymann's film chronicles several generations of his family, starting with his grandfather's decision to flee Germany in the 1930s. Among the characters the audience sees at different phases of their lives are:
  • Tomer, an Israeli filmmaker who is now openly gay.
  • Zvi, Tomer's father, whose brother was apparently gay and committed suicide (although this is not mentioned in the film).
  • Noa, Tomer's mother, a force to be reckoned with who is bereft that three of her five sons (Ofer, Alon, and Erez) have chosen to live in America.
  • Erez #1, Tomer's twin brother, who wishes Tomer would stop wasting his time making "silly films" and produce more Jewish children. Erez considers his gay brother to be "biologically useless."
  • Erez #2, Tomer's first lover, who eventually breaks up with the filmmaker, which triggers a period of depression.
  • Barak, Tomer's younger brother who, as his business partner, now co-produces his films.
  • Tomer's new Lebanese friend from Dallas (an openly gay Arab who feels more in common with Tomer than he could with any of his more traditional relatives back in Lebanon).
Poster art for The Queen Has No Crown

At the heart of The Queen Has No Crown is the loss of power suffered by Tomer's mother (a fierce Jewish matriarch) and the state of Israel which, in addition to its political upheaval, is trying to cope with an emerging population of openly gay Israelis. To his credit, Heymann shows an uncanny talent for capturing those raw moments of familial vulnerability when a relative's neediness becomes painfully obvious.

In the following 25-minute interview (that was taped at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival for the Teddy Awards), Heymann describes the impact The Queen Has No Crown has had on his family, his friends, and total strangers. It's one of the more candid and fascinating interviews with an openly gay filmmaker who discusses the struggle as a documentarian to keep certain parts of his life offscreen.

In some ways, I found the above interview more interesting than Heymann's film. The trailer which follows is also far more poetic than the feeling one gets from watching so much footage from Heymann's home movies.

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If one peered into the crystal ball, there's a pretty good chance that Terri would seem predestined to sweep the 2012 Independent Spirit Awards.  This poignant new indie film (written by Patrick Dewitt and directed by Azazel Jacobs) captures a painful period of adolescence with remarkable clarity and simplicity. Its small ensemble of unhappy misfits includes:
  • Terri (Jacob Wysocki), an obese teenager who is constantly being teased and bullied at school.
  • James (Creed Bratton), Terri's uncle and sole guardian. James is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease and, though barely a teenager, Terri has already been forced to take on the responsibilities of  a caretaker.
  • Chad (Bridger Zadina), one of Terri's more sullen classmates who, in addition to being a chronic troublemaker, is a skinny hypersexual teenager suffering from trichotillomania.
  • Heather Miles (Olivia Crocicchia), the pretty blonde classmate who wants to hang onto her virginity.
  • Dirty Jack (Justin Prentice), the popular jock who keeps trying to get into Heather's pants.
As Terri's director, Azazel Jacobs, notes:
“The film expresses adolescence in a way that is very recognizable to me. It’s not about a kid who becomes comfortable with himself and starts wearing PJs to school. Terri is someone who is already so comfortable with the fact that he’s never going to be cool that he might as well be comfortable physically by wearing pajamas."

DeWitt's script neatly juxtaposes the anguish of a handful of high school students who can barely figure out how to cope with their day-to-day misery with the misfortunes of three faculty members (who are in as much need of guidance as their students). The frustrated adults who cross Terri's path include:
If the role of Mr. Fitzgerald seems tailor-made to John C. Reilly's talents, his participation in the project is largely due to the fact that his wife, Alison Dickey, is one of the film's co-producers. As Reilly recalls:

"The script reminded me of all the hilarious and ultimately not that helpful guidance counselors I’ve met in my life. I like that there was that relationship between Mr. Fitzgerald and Terri in the film. I also loved the vulnerability that both characters show to each other. When the film starts out, Fitzgerald is very much in the leadership position, but by the end you realize he’s a pretty flawed human being as well. It’s interesting to see that kind of journey in a character.
I remember certain teachers and counselors fondly because, even if they didn’t give me the most amazing advice, it was important to have a grownup who is not your parent take an interest in your life. My high school guidance counselor, Mr. Fitzsimmons, didn’t solve any particular problems for me, but it was just great to have a conversation for 20 minutes or half an hour where the most important thing was my problems and my life.”

While audiences have come to regard Reilly as a great character actor, they'll be surprised by Wysocki's solid screen debut as Terri, the school's sad sack. As Wysocki states: “When I first read the script, I thought, I have this issue and so does everybody else. You don’t have to be a fat kid to not fit in.”

An extremely poignant film, Terri is not the kind of movie you want to spoil for your friends by leaking too many details. It's a modest film that stands very nicely on its own. Here's the trailer:

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During the recent San Francisco Silent Film Festival numerous shorts were screened before a worshipful audience One of my favorites was part of the Wild and Weird program that was recently released by Flicker Alley (with accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra). Directed by and starring Ernest Serva√®s, here's 1912's Artheme Swallows His Clarinet:

Among the numerous "orphan films" curated by Dan Streible for this year's festival was this Tribune-American Dream Picture from 1924 gem made by a Bay area filmmaker. Although there is no sound accompanying the following video clip, it's worth watching for the laughs as well as all the vintage automobiles:

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