Sunday, June 30, 2013

Screening Jake the Cinephile

On Friday, June 14th, I premiered the final cut of my new film Jake the Cinephile to my friends and professors at the Tisch School of the Arts, alongside Jordan Fein's film White Carpet and Nicole Cobb's film Athanasia's Waltz, both of which I worked on as Assistant Director. It was such an honor to screen my movies alongside two great films by two of my friends, and we were very lucky to have a large crowd come out to see the pictures. By the way, check out the second trailer for Jake the Cinephile below.

Jake the Cinephile Trailer #2 from Jack Kyser on Vimeo.

The feedback on Jake the Cinephile has been overwhelmingly positive, and I have been so moved to hear that many people are connecting with this character. My professor Laszlo Santha, who has always been a champion of my work, wrote that the film had "way above average confidence in every department," and he truly enjoyed the film, complementing my acting and directing. He found some faults with the second half of the film, but still felt "the first ten minutes [were] delightful," and the casting of my "love interest worked very well."

Professor John Belton, Professor of English and Film at Rutgers University, the respected author of five books including Widescreen Cinema and American Cinema/American Culture, and the recipient of a 2005-2006 Guggenheim Fellowship, wrote the following:

"The film got to me because it looks at the borderline between the pleasure of a purely private experience and the innate desire to share that experience with another. There is love of the movies that can be utopian and perfect (Mystic River) and we'd like our other relationships to be that perfect too. You are not afraid to take your character to painful places - to push utopian ideals of perfection to a messy space of lived experience. (I recall the elation I've often felt after watching a film and then walking out into the street and becoming overwhelmed by depression.) So, yes, you did take yourself to where the wild things are."

In addition, Professor Belton invited me to screen Jake the Cinephile for his Introduction to Film class at Rutgers University in the fall.

My friend Grant Rosenmeyer (The Royal Tenenbaums) wrote that he loved the film - that "it was even better than the script," and "Ben's cinematography was gorgeous, the story was clear, [the] direction spot on" and "the Scorsese references bled through with such affection and passion, and yet it was so unflinchingly you." Grant also wrote that he believes that there is a feature film to be made with this character, something even more along the lines of Taxi Driver.

"Cinema for Jake is not even a love anymore, it's an addiction," Grant wrote. "And like an addict, he's chasing the high he can't achieve. That high - the perfect moviegoing experience - is just a mirage, a placeholder for something more in his life: love, acceptance, a sense of belonging or intimacy that can finally defeat his fear of abandonment. We can see he needs love, but can he see it? By the end of the movie does he find love, or does he fuck it up the way he does in the short, but worse?" 

Additionally, my Advanced Production professor Yemane Demissie invited me to screen Jake the Cinephile for his Sight and Sound: Film class at NYU last week, and it was such a fulfilling and rewarding experience. His students really empathized strongly with the character and the material, connecting with Jake throughout the entire film - even when he is yelling angrily at Elizabeth, as they felt his pain and frustration so deeply. It was very exciting sharing the film with them. 

Many students remarked that they knew someone exactly like Jake - in fact, one student said she had seen people in the Cinema Studies department at NYU behave like Jake when trying to watch a movie in their theater. As film students, they remarked that they particularly enjoyed and understood the material. One student said that he knows a film is doing its job if it can make him feel every bit as uncomfortable as the character in the film, and this movie made him feel incredibly uncomfortable throughout. Another student told me he felt so strongly about everything Jake said, especially when he puts his heart out there to Elizabeth on her apartment stoop. 

The students had many different interpretations of the ending - one student said she thought the last shot, in which Jake stares at his reflection in the television screen, was hopeful, as he's finally watching a movie at home and not blowing up or starting the movie over again. She felt that the character did change over the course of the film - the climatic blow-up is probably the event that makes Jake finally examine his behavior and change. Another student interpreted the ending very differently - he felt that Jake was more imprisoned and alone than ever by the picture's end, and all of his horrible experiences and frustrations are represented by this small, crappy television in his bedroom, where he's forced to stare at him own reflection. This student realized, after Elizabeth points it out, that Jake has likely never had a "perfect experience" at a movie before, and that becomes clear at the end when he watches a movie alone on his crappy TV, which is the source of all of his frustration. 

Yemane asked me to address to use of popular music in the film, particularly the meaning of "I Am A Rock" by Simon & Garfunkel at the end of the movie. The song, Yemane believed, is meant to be taken literally, but also perhaps ironically, too. We discussed some of the other music in the film, as well, including "Sweet Dreams (Of You)" by Patsy Cline.

We discussed how you make a rather unlikeable or difficult character likable or relatable (the key, Yemane thinks, is to show their vulnerability). One student said it was difficult to dislike Jake because there's never anything malicious about his behavior - he is simply fighting for the things he loves, even when Jake berates Elizabeth and yells at her. We have these private moments in the film with Jake, such as when he's walking on the city streets, or alone in his bedroom at the end, and we get a profound sense of his deep loneliness and vulnerability. 

I was also happy to hear that my film incorporated elements of nearly every exercise the students are given in the Sight and Sound: Film course, including music, voiceover, three-point lighting, offscreen sound, parallel action and special effects lighting. 

More than anything, Yemane commended me for making such a bold movie that revealed so much about me, and it was a joy screening the film for his class.

I have received so many other kind comments from friends and professors who enjoyed the film (including one of my fellow Advanced Production students, the great filmmaker Eduardo Lecuona, who gave me the very kind shout-out on Twitter to the right). My friend and former Austin High School administrator Dan Fuchs also wrote that Jake the Cinephile is "both funny and troubling; Kyser is not afraid to laugh at himself, while simultaneously shining a light on the alienation many feel as we search for perfection in an imperfect world." The film "speaks to that part of all film lovers that longs for that mythical bygone time when going to movies could be a 'perfect experience.'"

Aside from my article on the passing of Roger Ebert and writing about some outstanding new films, I have not updated this blog in some time, and I am eager to share details about my final semester at NYU, shooting my senior thesis film You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory in April and many other events from the past few months. Before I close this article, however, I want to pay tribute to the wonderful Professor Geoff Erb, who passed away earlier this month. He was a champion of my work, inviting my crew and me to screen The Wheels for his freshman class last year, and asking me to be a part of his Advanced Television Production class my senior year. He was a great person and teacher, and I am so sad to hear of his passing. Professor Erb was the Cinematographer for Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, shooting over 130 episodes of the series. 

I was also very devastated to read of James Gandolfini's passing. What an extraordinary actor, who just last year delivered three of his best performances in Zero Dark Thirty, Not Fade Away and Killing Them Softly. He blew me away onstage in God of Carnage on Broadway in 2009, and I was lucky enough to meet him after the show. With his mesmerizing and natural performances in The Man Who Wasn't There, Where the Wild Things Are, Get Shorty, In the Loop and, of course, The Sopranos, he was one of the finest actors around. Just a few days after his death, Bruce Springsteen performed a beautiful tribute to Gandolfini by playing the entire Born to Run album live

The beginning to this summer involved a great deal of preparation for Jake the Cinephile, as Bobb finished his brilliant sound design for the movie, and we worked on mix sessions for the film at Tisch in the days leading up to the screening. Earlier in the semester, Bobb held an ADR session with Bethany McHugh, who plays Elizabeth in the film, and me, where we re-recorded some of our lines. 

In February, my film The Wheels opened Screening #2 of NYU's New Visions and Voices Intermediate Film Festival, screening at the Tisch School of the Arts along with several other films. I did not get to attend the screening, as I was heading out for the second weekend of my friend Morgan Ingari's senior thesis film shoot in Boston. I also took some time to finally mail out the beautiful poster Ben Dewey designed for The Wheels to IndieGoGo contributors. That film was completed more than one year ago, but better to send the posters out late than never! 

Finally, my film With Love, Marty - from my sophomore year of college - is now public on Vimeo, having screened at the 2011 Big Apple Film Festival, the Emerging Filmmakers Series in Rochester, New York and the 2012 World Music and Independent Film Festival in Washington D.C. You can watch it now!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Film Reviews - Frances Ha, Stories We Tell and To the Wonder

Spoiler warning for all three films reviewed below.

Frances Ha

As soon as Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha ended, my friend Mike Cheslik turned to me and said it was his favorite film of the year. I have to agree, although Jeff Nichols’ Mud and Ramin Bahrani’s At Any Price are up there for me, too. I saw this film at the perfect time in my life. It’s amazing to me how many movies can inspire maybe only a few thoughts or feelings, and then one dense eighty-six minute film like Frances Ha can address so many of my anxieties and fears in such an artful and graceful way. This is the loveliest and most delightful film I’ve seen in a long time. What follows are our collective thoughts on the film, including many aspects of the film Mike noticed and admired. 

We both watched the movie nodding and smiling throughout, recognizing our own behavior in Frances, the wonderful lead character played by Greta Gerwig, an aimless and good-hearted post-graduate young woman moving from address to address in New York City, dealing with the changing nature of her relationship with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) and struggling to make her way into a dance company.

Where to start with what this movie gets right? There’s not a central romance in Frances Ha - we’re not given a lead character who is constantly successful in relationships. Frances is one of the most refreshingly honest and unconfident characters in a long time, apologizing for how she’s speaking while she’s still speaking and always openly critical of herself. Characters in films rarely talk like this or behave this way.

When Frances goes out to dinner with another, more successful dancer in her company, Rachel (Grace Gummer) and some of Rachel’s friends, someone describes Sophie as incredibly smart and brilliant. Frances laughs at this, pointing out that, having lived with Sophie, she isn’t really smarter or more brilliant than anyone else. Immediately, Frances feels guilty for saying this, and apologizes for talking poorly about her best friend. And you get the sense that Frances – one of the sweetest and most genuine characters in recent years – is going to spend the rest of the evening thinking about how she badmouthed Sophie, when the others probably won’t give it a second thought.

This moment is so wonderful because Baumbach and Gerwig let Frances express a common annoyance – when perhaps you know a friend well and someone starts going on and on about how “brilliant” and “smart” that friend is (when you know that there’s not necessarily an extraordinary brilliance behind your friend’s exterior) – and then immediately Frances becomes conscious of her own badmouthing and apologizes.

Baumbach and Gerwig take it a step further, though. Although we’re meant to see Frances as the awkward character at the dinner party making constant social faux pas, the filmmakers later give room for Rachel to tell an off-color joke that does not go over well at all with anyone. “Yes!” Mike shouted after the movie. The film allows for all of its characters to have social faux pas! How often do you see a movie that allows for so many of its characters to be, you know, human beings? Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret does it exceptionally well, but there aren’t many other great examples.

There’s a beautiful speech that Frances gives at the same party, in which she explains that what she desperately wants from a relationship is that feeling you have when you’re at a party, and you look across the room at your significant other. As you make eye contact with your partner, there’s a shared moment of contentment between both of you, the knowledge that you’re together even when you’re on opposite sides of the room. It’s the most moving and beautiful moment in the film. At the end, when the movie honestly and realistically fulfills that wish for Frances in a way I didn’t expect, tears came to my eyes. I felt as if Baumbach and Gerwig created a female version of the lead character in my senior thesis film You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory.

The music in the film is something else, too – I can’t explain why, but somehow Every 1’s a Winner by Hot Chocolate perfectly captures that ephemeral feeling of visiting a foreign place randomly and, instead of actually seeing the sights, just sleeping in and being alone with oneself. The section of Frances Ha in which Frances travels to Paris articulates that loneliness as well as any movie since Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003). David Bowie’s Modern Love is also well-used in sections of the film.

Frances Ha is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in some time, but the hurt that Frances experiences is still there beneath the humor – there’s a wonderful scene early on in the film where Frances knows she is overstaying her welcome at her new friends Benji and Lev’s apartment, but she can’t bring herself to leave, because the night isn’t over and she still hasn’t found the happiness she wants.

As much as I love The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Greenberg (2010), I think Frances Ha might be Noah Baumbach's best work yet. 

Stories We Tell 

Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell is one of the most amazing movies of the year. The film asks so many questions about how we document the past. For instance, by cutting together several interviews with different people and offering varying perspectives on an event or relationship, are you effectively getting a larger picture of what really happened? Or are you building a watered-down, generalized version of the story, when it might be more effective to simply hear an unfiltered testimony from one person who experienced it firsthand?

I ask this question because, of all the fascinating characters in this film, I was most intrigued by Harry Gulkin, who is revealed to be Polley’s biological father midway through the picture. Polley’s late mother, Diane Polley, had an affair with Harry while performing in a play, but the love affair was kept a secret from Polley’s family.

In an attempt to shed light on the identity of her biological father and the mysteries of her mother’s past, Polley asks Harry if he is comfortable participating in a project that includes testimony from the surviving members of her family. Harry says that he is not. He believes that his love affair with Diane is his and Diane’s story to tell, and because Diane has passed away, he should tell it alone. His resistance to others telling pieces of the story makes sense – he worries that by cutting up interviews with members of Sarah’s family into a two-hour movie offering everyone’s varying perspectives, Sarah will not be receiving a singular truth.

Instead, he worries she’s mashing up a general idea of the whole affair, rather than giving one unfiltered testimony from someone who experienced it firsthand. To really experience how it was, the story has to be told by the directly involved parties – otherwise, you’re just grabbing bits from other people’s testimonies, offering a kind of hodgepodge of the experience, watered down by everyone's differing opinions.

Polley defends herself by saying that the film is about the whole nature of storytelling, and she wants to capture the memory of her mother and the contradictions that arise in everyone’s stories when trying to recall the past. We’re all unreliable narrators, in one sense or another. Harry replies that he may misremember some things, but he does not lie. It’s tough, because although I think the number of voices and opinions in this picture gives me a greater understanding of this fascinating story, I have to agree with Harry - but it's not a notion I had ever considered before seeing this film. 

Watching Stories We Tell, I again marveled at how Polley’s movie allows each person to be so complex – even though I surely do not understand all there is to understand about these people. One interviewee in the film says that she felt Diane confessed everything to her and felt like she understood every intimate detail of Diane's experience. But as it turns out, Diane was only revealing half of what was really going on, never mentioning her affair with Harry.

There’s part of me that longs to make a documentary about my own family in this vein, although I worry it wouldn’t be nearly as fascinating as the story Polley presents here. Each of her family members are so open and honest about their mistakes. Harry mentions at one point that when he was younger, he wanted there to be witnesses to his relationship with Diane to confirm that it happened. By watching Stories We Tell, we are all now those witnesses.

To the Wonder

Everything I loved about The Tree of Life (2011) is amplified in Terrence Malick’s new film To The Wonder. Don’t mistake the film for having an absence of narrative – rather, there’s an absence of narrative identification. We’re given access to beautifully private moments with characters, and very little access to any kind of plot development that would be the concern of most other filmmakers.

Both The Tree of Life and To the Wonder offer the viewer a rare creative opportunity to bring our own meaning and understanding to events and encounters that are sometimes left unclarified by the filmmaker. Watching the film, I felt more engaged than I have been with any movie in the past few months, because I was constantly being presented with familiar imagery – the suburbs of rural America, of fast-food drive-thrus, of grocery store aisles that seem enormously large – and I felt the presence of these places, and felt deeply what they might mean for the characters.

Malick’s movies are treasures because he opens them up to you. They are full of his theology and beliefs, but open enough for yours and mine, too. Watching one of his films is such an individualistic experience. In an age where most movies aim to have the same effect on mass audiences of people, how cool is that?

I didn’t hear Ben Affleck speak very much in this film, but that’s perfectly okay, because I felt so much watching him – not just his face, but his body language. His Neil is such a strong, silent character, and yet I felt I understood multitudes about him.

When Neil and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) fight with each other at a Sonic drive-thru, I observed Neil’s quiet desperation and sensed Marina’s deep sadness, and I found I didn’t need a word of dialogue. I needed the openness Malick gave me to experience this scene in my own world, with his characters in my mind, bringing to the scene a whole host of personal experiences at fast-food drive-thrus. I believe, in the end, you feel what Malick intends in a given scene (I feel Olga’s isolation from the other neighbors in the small town, for instance). But Malick allows me to feel it in my own way.  

To the Wonder is the first non-period Malick piece and, unsurprisingly, he finds the beauty in small-town Oklahoma, on the sides of the road alongside shopping malls, inside of Laundromats. When I visit the film for a second time, I’m interested to pay closer attention to the sections of the film involving Javier Bardem’s Father Quintana, who, like Marina, seems to wander alone in the American Midwest while longing for his home in Europe.

Frances Ha, Stories We Tell and To the Wonder are three of the year's best films. 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Film Review - Mud

The best film of the year so far is Mud, the new film from director Jeff Nichols, who has established himself as one of the best and most original American directors with Mud and his previous film, Take Shelter.

Tye Sheridan, who was outstanding in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, stars as Ellis, a fourteen year-old boy who lives on a houseboat in small-town Arkansas with his mother and father, who are going through a divorce. While sneaking out to a nearby island on the Mississippi River, Ellis and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) come across a mysterious hermit named Mud (Matthew McConaughey), who is living on the edge of town in a boat stuck in the top of a tree.

Hiding from the law, Mud asks Ellis and Neckbone to help him find and win back the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who still lives in the town. Meanwhile, Ellis falls in love and gets his heart broken for the first time with a girl at school. There’s a scene in this film in which the young girl rejects Ellis and he learns that he cannot always wear his heart on his sleeve that reminded me of a scene from one of my own films.

But even as all semblances of true love are falling apart around him – nearly all of the film’s characters have either irretrievably fallen into the spell of love, or have been hurt so badly that they advise against it at all costs – Ellis puts his hope in the love between Mud and Juniper.

The cast is extraordinary, with outstanding supporting performances from Witherspoon, Sam Shepard and Michael Shannon, and Nichols has such an excellent control of atmosphere and place. When Ellis sits in the back of his father’s pick-up truck as he drives through town, I feel like I know this town, having seen such critical and formative parts of Ellis’ life occur in the various locations they pass.

If you want a real Gatsby-like character in a film this summer, look no further than McConaughey’s Mud, who attempts again and again to recapture his lost romance. By the end of the film, Mud and Ellis are forced to wake up from their romantic daydreams. In one of the closing scenes, Ellis moves into a new neighborhood and reluctantly nods at a few girls in their summer clothes, perhaps a little wiser about the realities of love. It’s a small and beautiful closing moment in an extraordinary film.