Interview: Brett Haley, dir. THE NEW YEAR

– Despite a devastating technical malfunction that nearly upended the whole interview, I was able to speak with Mr. Haley at length about his superb debut feature, THE NEW YEAR. I want to thank Mr. Haley for his generous, time, insight, and patience.

GLENN HEATH JR.: In terms of debut films, THE NEW YEAR stands out because it avoids making a first impression through genre and sensationalism. Instead, it’s about the nuanced transition of a very special woman. Why was this theme so important to you when presenting your first film?

BRETT HALEY: I think it was really important to me to avoid narrative cliché and stereotype, so I didn’t necessarily start off avoiding genre. I just set out to tell a very specific story that I was passionate about. For whatever reason, this story about a girl who’s stuck but destined for so much more, was really important to me. Elizabeth Kennedy, my co-writer and I were just trying to be honest to that character.

GHJ: Can you talk about the genesis about coming up with the idea and writing the script and what you were trying to achieve with it as a character study?

BH: I got the idea from a train ride. I was working on THE ROAD at the time and I was on a train from New York City to Philadelphia and I saw this bowling alley out the window in the middle of nowhere. And this idea just struck me about this girl who works at a bowling alley, who works the shoes and has never bowled before and her first time she rolls a 300, a perfect game. And then I thought of the bowling center in my hometown Pensacola FL, Cordova Lanes, and I thought about shooting it at home. That brought me to the idea of a girl coming back home, and then that gave me the idea of her father having cancer. So it all hit me at once. I called Elizabeth about the idea and she started writing, she wrote the first 10 pgs, then we went back and forth like that on the whole script. Continue reading

Interview: John Kastner, dir. LIFE WITH MURDER

– John Kastner joined me for a great conversation after introducing his staggering documentary LIFE WITH MURDER for the last time at the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival. We discussed at great length his thematic interests, the evolution of documentary, and the complex human conflicts at the heart of his film.

GLENN HEATH JR.: I wanted to begin talking about how you got into making documentaries and what specifically drew you to making non-fiction films.

JOHN KASTNER: I was a professional actor from the time I was 8 years old and that’s all I ever wanted to be. I wanted to be Sir. Laurence Olivier. I was doing a lot of acting and when I was 18, I got a call asking if I would be interested in substituting in an associate producer’s job in television for Screen Gems. I did this for three months as a lark and the guy I worked with was a very big American producer who decided I was a producer/director and not an actor. I wasn’t that interested but I drifted into it. I did every kind of television – quiz shows, children’s shows, comedies. I was in front of the camera, hosting, acting, and directing, writing. Then the best thing of all I got hired by the Current Affairs department of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation doing documentaries and discovered the drama of the real life was in many ways was even better than the drama I had spent my life doing as an actor.

GHJ: How did you first get involved with LIFE WITH MURDER and your subjects, The Jenkins Family? What dramatic elements interested you as a filmmaker?

JK: I’ve done a lot of films about criminals over the past 25 years and I’m fascinated with the personal relationships of criminals, with their families, girlfriends, and so on. I made a film in the mid 1980’s called THE LIFER AND THR LADY, one called PRISON MOTHER, PRISON DAUGHTER, and one called ROMANCE WITH THE RAPIST. I was in the middle of making a film at the same prison that LIFE WAS MURDER was set, in the same unit, with the same prison guard. That one was called MONSTER IN THE FAMILY and it was the opposite of LIFE WITH MURDER. It’s about a guy who gets no support from his family and his mother leads a national campaign against him. While I was making this film, Mason Jenkins was in the same unit and appeared in a little cameo role. I got to know him but wasn’t interested in his story because at that time his case was under appeal and you couldn’t discuss it anyways. But I got to know him and his parents, and then I heard rumblings through the grape vine that Mason was telling people he knew more about what had happened the night his sister was murdered. So I began talking with him in early 2008, and I said to him, listen why don’t we do a film about this. I had known him and the family since 2005 so all the relationships had been set up. It was one of those remarkable things where we rolled from one story on to the next.
Continue reading

Interview: Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, dirs. THE TWO ESCOBARS

– I had the opportunity to interview directors Jeff and Michael Zimbalist after a screening of their latest documentary THE TWO ESCOBARS at the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival. Here’s our conversation covering among other things the complexities of non-fiction storytelling, the negative stereotypes hounding modern-day Colombia, and how family, soccer, and filmmaking overlap.

GLENN HEATH JR.: Can you briefly describe your background/experiences with Colombia before making THE TWO ESCOBARS? How, if at all, did your vision of the country and its people change throughout the course of the production?

JEFF AND MICHAEL: After finishing FAVELA RISING in Brazil, (Jeff) connected with (Michael), who had been living in Mexico running a theatre company, and we decided to work together on a film project. A Colombian friend had told us about the recent massacre in the self-proclaimed “Peace Community” in the Urabá region of Colombia. Having an ongoing interest in inspirational stories of communities coming together and producing innovative and sustainable models of development, we were intrigued by the Peace Community and appalled to learn about the recent atrocities. Soon thereafter, we traveled to Colombia and met with a number of the key figures involved in the founding of the community and the outgoing struggle for justice in the region.

While developing THE SCRIBE OF URABÁ (the story of the Peace Community in Urabá), we were approached by ESPN Films, who had just launched the 30 for 30 Anniversary Series: 30 documentary films by 30 different filmmakers, each focusing on an event illustrating the interaction of sports and society in the last 30 years. We connected with a friend, Nick Sprague, a former soccer player and longtime fan of the Colombian National Team, and the original concept behind THE TWO ESCOBARS was formed. Continue reading

LAFF: Day #8

June 25, 2010

I’ve had a great run here at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and I’d especially like to thank Doug Jones and his wonderful staff of programmers and volunteers for running the festival with seamless precision. After 21 films, 3 interviews, and host of  late nights, I’m ready to head home to the friendly confines of San Diego, CA. But first, 2 final reviews from my last day at the festival. And thanks to all of you readers out there. Without you, I’d be screaming into the wind.

ANIMAL KINGDOM (dir. David Michôd, 2010)

The buzz couldn’t be hotter for Australian David Michôd’s debut feature, which had a great run at Sundance and now here at the LAFF. Still, I can’t fully endorse this sometimes enthralling pressure cooker of a gangster film. While calculating and cunning, the film is far too plodding to sustain the tense momentum it desires so badly, and at times it gets completely stuck in a thick narrative mud.

Animal Kindgom charts the experiences of 17-year old J (Josh) (James Frecheville) who moves in with his volatile extended family of criminal uncles after his mother overdoses. J immediately gets consumed by their operations, and Michôd uses the metaphorical title early and often to create a rigid universe where creatures of all kinds are led to slaughter. The first act of Animal Kingdom fuses the murderous actions of the Melbourne Robbery Squad with the brothers’ genuine need to transcend their reputations and go straight. The result is a devastating introduction to the overlapping moral ambiguity occurring on each side of the law, and during these sequences Animal Kingdom lives up to its reputation.

But while technically impressive and tonally gripping, Michôd’s film returns to the well too many times. The film repeats actions and plot devices until each character becomes a hollow representation rather than an actual complex entity. During the pointless voice-over narration and endless slow-motion sequences, Michôd tips his referential hand of genre influences far too obviously. While the film shows a great eye for camera movement and blocking, the unfocused pacing scatters characters and scenarios at the drop of dime. The meandering script slowly falls apart as each character comes into full bloody focus, ultimately descending into free fall throughout the climax. With Animal Kingdom, its kinetic virtues are outweighed by a crushing sense of familiarity and banality. Ironically enough, it doesn’t go far enough into the complexities of these lions and lambs to make a lasting impact.

NIGHT CATCHES US (dir. Tanya Hamilton, 2010)

My last film at the 2010 LAFF, Tanya Hamilton’s Night Catches Us, was another hot ticket due to its reputation from previous festivals. Anchored by two electric lead performances from the always great Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington, Night Catches Us intricately details a specific social space attempting to transcend the past while dealing with traumatic land mines still wreaking havoc. So the textures of location take on a special meaning and tension, connecting character with symbolism in nicely subtle ways.

Set completely in a Philadelphia neighborhood circa 1976, Hamilton uncovers the personal artifacts and relationships linking the now distant memory of The Black Panther movement and a tangible disillusionment for the future. Mackie plays Marcus, a disgraced ex-panther who returns home for his father’s funeral and gets re-entrenched in the local scene, connecting again with his old friend Patricia (Washington). But Hamilton focuses on how these characters traverse physical and mental spaces, disavowing “action” for long conversations between people longing for a connection. There’s much to admire here, especially the acting and the dynamic musical score by The Roots.

But the detailed construction of this specific time and place occasionally gets overwhelmed by the predictability of the plot, the pandering stoicism of certain characters, and the easy villainy of others. Also, Hamilton doesn’t fully explore the relationship between Marcus and Patricia’s curious daughter Iris (Jamara Griffin), who consistently mines the past for clues to her upbringing. Sadly, the adult world seems to be more important than a child’s perspective, and this choice keeps Night Catches Us from being a great film. Still, the overall passion of Hamilton’s direction shines through the actor’s faces in offhand looks of reflection, and these images speak volumes about the film’s soulful attention to key redemptive moments.

LAFF: Day #6

June 23, 2010

My Los Angeles adventure continues, most notably the moment my interview with The New Year director Brett Haley experienced a catastrophic technical error in the 11th hour. Fortunately, Mr. Haley was kind enough to spend more time with me and the result was an engaging interview about independent film, performance, and the subtleties of great screenwriting. I’ll have that transcribed in the coming week. As for the festival, two interesting films couldn’t prepare me for my short-lived late night screening of The Wolf Knife, a competition film so ridiculously amateurish I had to walk out after only thirty minutes. And this coming from a critic who never walks out of films. Anyways, let’s try and forget that debacle and get to the movies that matter.

EVERYDAY SUNSHINE: THE STORY OF FISHBONE (dirs. Lev Anderson, Chris Metzler, 2010)

The first half of this entertaining documentary on the “famous but not rich” music fusion group Fishbone is a dynamic history lesson on two decades of Los Angeles music culture. The filmmakers introduce the six key members of the original band through a great montage of 2-D animation, archival footage, and telling interviews. The group’s diverse personalties are juxtaposed with a shifting analysis on racism, musical genres, and the rigid corporate approach to selling art to mass audiences.

The film succeeds at showing how Fishbone and their kinetic live performances influenced so many bands (Red Hot Chili Peppers, No Doubt, Circle Jerks, Jane’s Addiction), ultimately revealing a number of stylistic and business factors explaining why the band never made it big despite being adored by its followers.

Unfortunately, the second half of Everyday Sunshine pushes the narrative to a familiar rise and fall arc, where the band disintegrates due to ego, doubt, and the dreaded creative differences. The descent of Fishbone becomes far less interesting than their unique rise to legendary status. But each member of the band, most notably crazed genius frontman Angelo Moore and reserved bassist Norwood Fischer (the artistic forces still driving the band to this day), get a forum to tell their strange and layered story. Everyday Sunshine unveils a neglected overlap between the often violent and racist history of Los Angeles and the revolutionary music that provided the key voice for battling against mainstream conformity.

KATALIN VARGA (dir. Peter Strickland, 2009)

Variety critic Robert Koehler presented Katalin Varga as a part of the FILMS THAT GOT AWAY sidebar, and it turned out to be an exemplary programming decision. The debut film from Brit Peter Strickland, Katalin Varga is a revenge film of great weight and depth, using it’s concise narrative to focus on the seeping menace undercutting every scene.

The titular character (played by Hilda Pater) sets off in a cart with her 10 year old son Orban (Nobert Tanko) after a destructive secret comes to light banishing them from their village. Once on the sparse roads of Romania, Katalin’s mission of vengeance becomes incredibly focused, and Strickland slowly unveils her intentions with keen attention to detail.

Shot on location in the hauntingly majestic Carpathian Mountains, Katalin Varga uses a rhythm of audio tones to foreshadow both the trauma’s of the past the inevitable violence to come. This eerie score of contrasting sounds merge with the Strickland’s use of long lenses to film the epic countryside. The result is a film obsessed with both mood and character ambiguity, revenge and counter-revenge.

At just 82 minutes long, Katalin Varga manages to discover a woman’s broken soul on the verge of redemption, and the epic conflict of conscious residing just beneath each character’s deceptive facade. Stirring in every respect, Katalin Varga charts the rocky terrain of emotional sacrifice and physical violence, showing in tragic detail how they inevitably overlap.

– Two more days to go, then back to reality. Three more films tomorrow, including Claire Denis’ White Material, so stay tuned.

LAFF: Day #5

June 22, 2010

A welcome conversation with a fellow InRO writer, a chance meeting with master director Charles Burnett, and a host of interesting films added to an already rewarding festival schedule. Life is good. Now, three new reviews.

THE NEW YEAR (dir. Brett Haley, 2010)

Most debut films concern themselves with the exterior exploration of human relationships, the dimensions of genre, or the sensationalism of conflicts. Brett Haley’s first film The New Year inverts this expectation, walking side-by-side with incredibly complex souls experiencing subtle yet crucial moments of transition. Shot on a super-low budget over two weeks on location in Pensacola, Florida, The New Year harkens back to the honest human interactions of early John Sayles films, highlighting a specific physical region while discovering the rhythm of interior emotional calibrations directly connecting persona and space.

Sunny (Trieste Kelly Dunn), an intelligent, vibrant young woman who works tirelessly at a local bowling “center”, rests at the heart of The New Year. Two years removed from leaving college early to care for her Cancer-stricken father, Sunny is stuck in a potent emotional malaise. She has nightmares about wardrobes full of rotting teeth, worries about her degenerating patriarch, and seems to be losing any chance of realizing fading long-term goals. But Sunny’s relationships with coworkers, family, and friends lighten her worry, and these glowing dialogue sequences are the soul of the film. When an old high school “nemesis” named Isaac returns home complicating Sunny’s relationship with her kind boyfriend Neal, The New Year takes on complicated layers of depth.

Decisions of all kinds define Haley’s film, but the many divergent answers are always out of reach, just beyond the next shifting human interaction. As Sunny’s life slowly moves toward a definitive crossroads, Trieste Kelly Dunn’s performance evokes a range of different conflicts through subtle glances, clever quips, and delicate smiles. It’s a brilliant turn by this young actress, and it proves the emergence of someone deft at traversing the often cliched landscape of the modern woman with a devout attention to detail and nuance. The rest of Haley’s fine cast brings texture and weight to the human mosaic on display.

Connecting the beauty of performance and plot is Haley and Elizabeth Kennedy’s perfectly rendered screenplay. Each character has a singular impact on The New Year, and even the most surface-level incarnations are anchored by one or two moments of pure honesty and purpose.  In the end, “The New Year” turns brilliantly reflective, drifting through Sunny’s existence with a calm dedication to the connections and disconnections life throws our way. The actual reasoning behind Sunny’s difficult resolutions are not the point. It’s the fact she confronts them in the first place with such personal feeling that makes The New Year a lasting piece of American Cinema, and its filmmakers exciting new voices in the medium.

PARADE (dir. Isao Yukisada, 2010)

A long line of passing ciphers criss-crossing through modern day Tokyo, all floating down a deceptively dark undercurrent of repression. Pairs of young men and women share a cramped apartment, and director Isao Yukisada gradually follows each as they experience disappointment, elation, and finally discombobulation. There’s a deep longing for camaraderie here, but as described by one of the space’s inhabitants, it’s more chat-room than confessional. These characters are happy just hanging out, and disavow any mention of conflict or doubt.

Maybe most interestedly, Parade becomes a series of voyeuristic moments of one character uncovering something horribly destructive about another. And the following silence/inaction really defines the film as an interesting commentary on the fleeting connections our modern technological world produces. But the individual moments are more impacting than the sum of the film’s parts. During the “shocking” twist ending, Yukisada pulls out all the stops to bring Lynchian horror to the final reveal. It’s just the last of many ambitious pieces of a strange cinematic vision, yet the puzzle never fully becomes clear, and we’re left with a distinctly incomplete picture of ignorance as bliss.

R (dirs. Michael Noer, Tobias Lindholm, 2010)

Set in the oldest Danish Prison, R falls into many narrative traps plaguing most Prison films. Yet the sparse, incredibly realized fragmentation of the locale and the many strong performances elevate the film beyond cliche. The titular “R” refers to a fresh inmate named Rune, who quickly gets consumed by the entrenched toughs living on his ward. The opening bit of violence quickly introduces Rune and the audience to the brutality which will be leveled throughout. When Rune meets Rashid, his Arabic equivalent, directors Michael Noer and Tobias Lindholm reveal some devastating parallels between men in the grips of mental and physical entrapment.

As Rune, Pilou Asbaek brings a palpable desperation to every scene, and Noer and Lindholm’s fluid hand-held camera stalks him through the dank interiors and gloomy prison yard. Even though R doesn’t instill the surreal horror of the recent French hit A Prophet it’s bare-bones approach gives the narrative a much more textured interpretation of prison life. Hope, no matter how small and fleeting, doesn’t provide lasting relief from the violent erosion occurring behind every closed door.  R ends with a crushing comeuppance that finally links Rune and Rashid forever, not as friends or enemies, but as victims of the same institutional destruction.