Friday, July 25, 2014

Screening You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory, A First Feature Screenplay and Summer Movies

On Thursday, May 29th, I screened my senior thesis film You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory for the first time, alongside the new movies from two other incredibly talented filmmakers and friends, Morgan Ingari and Catie Stickels. The event, which we held in one of Tisch's larger screening rooms, was outstanding. I was thrilled to have cast members Mike Wesolowski, Mary Goggin, Matthew Vitticore and Zachary Gamble attend the premiere.

I don't believe I've shared either of the two trailers for You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory on this blog. Thank you so much to Benjamin Dewey and Bobb Barito for their brilliant color and sound on both trailers. Here they are:

In the weeks leading up to the screening, I met with colorist and visual effects artist Benjamin Dewey for several final color and visual effects meetings. The movie received a masterful sound design by Bobb Barito in April, and after a few days of sound mixing and ADR re-recording, we recorded a great original score for the film by my classmate Ari Selinger in early May.

The movie now has its own IMDB page, and if you're interested in seeing stills from the film, please click here! The first DVDs of the movie have been sent out to our IndieGoGo contributors. Of course, the only drawback to have so many wonderful contributors is that I can't send the DVDs out to everyone at once. But be on the lookout for the final film in the mail, contributors!

Also, check out the acting reel of a great actress, Mary Goggin, who stars in You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory. I'm so proud to have the film featured in her reel.

In June, I screened the film for my professor Yemane Demissie's summer Sight and Sound: Film class, where I received some truly wonderful notes. They seemed very taken with the idea behind the movie and the lead character Charlie's ideas about memory and having a witness.

One student remarked that the character of Charlie seemed like it was written for actor Mike Wesolowski. Another asked if I had written Charlie's bizarre Jack Nicholson impression specifically for Mike, as it seemed like such a specific idea, and was so well-suited to Mike's personality. In fact, that impression was in the script from the very beginning, but they're correct that Mike is so convincing as the character that the impression seems like something something we might have developed in a rehearsal.

Many others praised the casting, the directing of the two lead actors and the use of music in the movie (particularly when Charlie rocks out to Bob Dylan in his room). We also discussed the use of New York as a setting. Even though we live in the city, the students felt New York is rarely used as well as it is here. More than a few people remarked that the apartment scenes, in addition to feeling very 'New York-y,' helped illustrate the closeness of this mother and son, living together cramped in their tiny apartment. Another person said they loved the way the movie began with quiet, dark city streets, and then ended with big and bright Times Square.

Yemane asked the class how I was able to generate empathy for a character who superficially does not 'deserve' to be liked. One person remarked that the character's confessions generate empathy for him. Charlie is very aware of what he's doing wrong, but the fact that he confesses his mistakes to his mother helps the audience empathize with him. Another said that we also understand him through the mother - her acceptance of him, even when she's telling him to leave, helps us have patience with him.

Yemane also asked the class to discuss the bravery involved in writing a screenplay like this, a piece that delves so deeply into seemingly personal territory. He also commented on the film's depiction of awkwardness. Most movies show awkwardness in a degrading or comical way, Yemane said, but my movie aims to show us awkwardness in a genuine and forthright way.

I went on to discuss the casting and script-writing processes with the class. Near the end of the discussion, Yemane asked his teaching assistant to replay one of my favorite moments from the movie, when Charlie stands alone in his apartment hallway calling out after his mother. Yemane pointed toward this moment as a great example of using off-screen sound to capture a character's loneliness. We hear the mother turn on the television in the other room, slam the door and then all sound goes out completely. Three small things, all added in post-production. Of course, a large amount of the credit here belongs to Bobb Barito. Someone else commented that they thought the sound of Charlie's voice was excellent, as he seemed so much louder than everyone else, which added to the idea that he's alone and reaching out. I was honored to get such great feedback from Yemane and his students.

In late March, I held a wonderful first reading of my feature screenplay at NYU. I was over the moon about the notes I received from my peers - it was a mammoth 166-page draft, and everyone was so generous to come out and stay for what ended up being nearly a three-hour reading. I finished the first (admittedly not great) draft of my feature screenplay earlier this year, and I can only hope it gets shorter and better from here. I certainly have a lot of fantastic notes with which to work.

In April, I'm simultaneously excited and disappointed to say that my film Jake the Cinephile was under close consideration by the Cinéfondation Selection Committee of the 67th Cannes Film Festival. The film made it to the final round of consideration to the Cinéfondation, but was unfortunately not selected for the festival. Although it would have been incredible to screen the film at Cannes, I'm still very proud that my wonderful crew and I were able to make a movie that got pretty darn close.

Jake the Cinephile screened on Wednesday, April 16th at Anthology Film Archives in New York City as part of the NewFilmmakers New York series. It was not only a great crowd and a very receptive audience at NewFilmmakers New York, but it was by far the largest screen on which I've ever had one of my films screen. Before the screening, I joined the other filmmakers in my section at the front of the theater for a brief introduction to the movies. To view pictures from the screening, please click here.

Additionally, here is an article from Broadway World about the New Filmmaker New York Short Film Series on April 16th with information about Jake the Cinephile.

In May, I had the honor of working on my friend Eliza McNitt's amazing short film for TEDMED as Assistant Director. The movie stars the incredible Adepero Oduye (12 Years A Slave, Pariah) and it's titled Play Is Not A Waste of Time. We had a great shoot on a soundstage in Brooklyn, and you can view the film online right here.

In June, I saw some excellent live stage performances, including Robert Wilson's surreal production of The Old Woman at BAM starring Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov, and a revival of Eugene Ionesco's The Killer at Theatre for a New Audience, which was one the most amazing stage productions I've seen in a long time. The extraordinary Michael Shannon starred in the production - it was my first time seeing him perform onstage, and he's just as electrifying as he is onscreen.

I also saw a performance of Alan Ayckbourn's A Small Family Business via National Theatre Live at NYU's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, which was a wonderful opportunity to revisit the world of Ayckbourn (I've performed a monologue from A Small Family Business frequently in the past, including for my college acting auditions and for my performance in Third North's Ultra Violet Live talent competition, where I won second place my freshman year). I attended the event with two dear friends, both of whom acted with me in Austin High School's 2007 UIL One-Act Play production of Ayckbourn's Round and Round the Garden. It's still my favorite play in which I've performed (I've been in it on two different occasions - in high school, I played Norman, and then five years later, at NYU, I played Reg).

If you're interested in watching Tisch New Theatre's 2012 production of Round and Round the Garden, the whole show is now online:

Speaking of plays, I don't think I ever mentioned that in March of 2013, I saw two amazing Broadway productions. It was incredibly exciting to see Tom Hanks in Nora Ephron's Lucky Guy. in which he gave an incredible performance. I met Hanks after the show, which was beyond cool. He told me to make the picture I took with him my "prof pic," and I'm inclined to agree with the great man. As you may remember, Hanks and Paul Greengrass gave us one heck of a movie last October (not to mention Hanks's extraordinary work in John Lee Hancock's Saving Mr. Banks as Walt Disney last year).

I also had the chance to meet Lucky Guy costar Christopher McDonald (1996's Happy Gilmore, 2000's Requiem for a Dream, 2005's Broken Flowers) after the performance.

The same weekend, I saw Lyle Kessler's Orphans on Broadway, starring Alec Baldwin, Ben Foster and Tom Strurridge. They all gave outstanding performances in this very powerful play, which seemed like something in which I'd love to perform some day (perhaps with my high school theatre director Billy Dragoo, who visited New York a few months ago with his wife Annie Dragoo, who was also one of my wonderful theatre directors). We've long talked about doing a play together, and something like Orphans (with a third young actor) would be incredible.

At the Tony Awards last year, I'm still not sure how Baldwin and Al Pacino weren't nominated for Orphans and the revival of Glengarry Glen Ross, respectively. But it was very cool to see Cicely Tyson thank Hallie Foote, Van Ramsey and Michael Wilson in her acceptance speech for Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful. And it was excellent to watch the Tony Awards get handed out in the same space in which I graduated two weeks before the ceremony (Radio City Music Hall).

I posted my reviews of Richard Linklater's Boyhood and Steve James's Life Itself earlier this month, but they aren't the only great pictures that have come out this year.

Clint Eastwood's Jersey Boys, released back in June, is another riveting Eastwood picture that deserves a lot more praise than it's receiving (not unlike Eastwood's other recent films, all of which I think are very under-appreciated - J. Edgar, Hereafter and Invictus). Richard Brody wrote a fascinating article about Jersey Boys, and it's one of the few pieces that actually tries to understand what Eastwood is doing with the material. Here's another good article on Eastwood from Variety about both Jersey Boys and Eastwood's upcoming American Sniper, as well as an interview with Eastwood. Eastwood has long been one of my favorite filmmakers and biggest influences, and I feel people aren't taking notice of his risks as a director after his indisputably masterful run of Mystic River (2003), Million Dollar Baby (2004) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006).

Doug Liman's Edge of Tomorrow is still the most fun and thrilling movie of the summer, with a real movie star giving a great performance in the lead. Remember when we got legitimately incredible summer movies like Minority Report (2002), Collateral (2004) and War of the Worlds (2005)? Tom Cruise is back to the rescue with Edge of Tomorrow. It's the only blockbuster of the summer (besides Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) that can claim to be a great movie.

Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves has more tension in any one of its scenes than most other thrillers have in their entire running length (there are now two masterful films titled Night Moves, after Arthur Penn's 1975 thriller starring Gene Hackman). Plus, the movie features another great performance from the brilliant Peter Sarsgaard. And I love that Jon Favreau's well-received Chef uses Austin as an actual location. Guero's, Franklin Barbecue and the 360 Bridge all make appearances, and that seems in keeping with the movie's low-key and inviting warmth. I'm thrilled it's become such a popular film.

I saw James Gray's masterpiece The Immigrant back in October at the New York Film Festival, though the movie was not released theatrically until May. It will undoubtedly be near the top of my end-of-the-year top ten list - it's one of the most extraordinary American films in many years. I saw the film again at a pre-screening at BAM, followed by a Q&A with Gray, and for a third time earlier this week, and the picture never fails to move me to tears. I think something about the movie's morals - perhaps Eva's sense of morality and struggle with whether or not she deserves happiness - touches me deeply.

Here's a beautiful piece from Ain't Them Bodies Saints director David Lowery on remembering The Immigrant, plus an interview with James Gray from Film Comment. Plus, the fantastic news that the brilliant Joaquin Phoenix will be starring in Woody Allen's next film. On a more tragic note, the outstanding Ric Menello, who co-wrote The Immigrant and Gray's masterful Two Lovers (2009), passed away last year.

David Gordon Green's Joe overflows with memorable characters and energy in every single scene, almost like a Robert Altman film. It's everything I love about Gordon Green's Prince Avalanche from last year, Jeff Nichols's Mud and Mike Figgis's Leaving Las Vegas (1995) rolled into one great film, with a masterful performance by Nicolas Cage. Here's an astonishing article from the Austin Chronicle about Gary Poulter, one of the stars of Joe, who tragically passed away shortly after shooting the movie.

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, which I saw back in April, is out-of-this-world and unlike any movie I've ever seen. It's fantastic to see new movies like Under the Skin and Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida (also one of the best movies of the year) that know how to use silence. Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer is the summer action movie audiences deserve, and John Carney's Begin Again charmed me the same way his Once did seven years ago, with the always-outstanding Mark Ruffalo doing great work. Paul Haggis's Third Person trusts its audience to let it takes it time. With more movies for adults like it, we'll have better audiences.

It's not a new movie, but I saw William Friedkin's Sorcerer (1977) at Film Forum last month, and that picture is a sight to behold. I'm so glad this movie is being rediscovered, because it's a masterpiece.

Boyhood remains the greatest cinematic achievement of the year - Linklater is on fire. I saw his Before Midnight last year at the Angelika Film Center with Aziz Ansari sitting behind me. I don't know what was more beautiful - the film, or him. I saw that film three times theatrically, and it's astounding what Linklater achieves (as I'm about to embark on shooting a new movie that takes place entirely in a hotel room, I am particularly inspired by the second half of Before Midnight, which has ingenious blocking and use of space in a hotel room occupied by Jesse and Celine). Finally, here's a beautiful message from Jesse and Celine, courtesy of the Alamo Drafthouse.

There have been a number of great artists who have passed away this year, including Eli Wallach, one of the great film actors (from 1966's The Good, The Bad and The Ugly to 2010's The Ghost Writer); Gordon Willis, the cinematographer of many of the greatest films ever made (including 1972's The Godfather and 1979's Manhattan); actor Bob Hoskins, who was so brilliant in Mermaids (1990), Nixon (1995), Hollywoodland (2006), Michael (1996) and Brazil (1985) - and there are still so many of his performances I need to see; the great filmmaker Paul Mazursky (1978's An Unmarried Woman, 1986's Down and Out in Beverly Hills); singer Jerry Vale, who appeared in Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995); and film critic Jay Carr.

Until my next blog post, where I hope to continue playing catch-up on the past year-and-a-half!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Boyhood and Life Itself - Two of the Finest Films I Have Ever Seen

Richard Linklater has made a version of all of the movies I could ever hope to make, and more. He’s made the joyous backstage theatre drama (Me & Orson Welles), the best romance in recent movie history (the Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight trilogy), the story of the last day of school at an Austin high school (Dazed and Confused) and a dark comedy that explores the peculiarities of East Texas and its local flavor (Bernie).

With Boyhood, his twelve-years-in-the-making portrait of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age six to eighteen, Linklater has made his best movie, a masterful epic that brings to mind Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), both in its ambition and in its Texas setting. Roger Ebert wrote in his review of The Tree of Life that he didn’t “know when a film has connected more immediately with [his] own personal experience.” I suspect many people will feel this way about Boyhood, too.

Oh, how this film will resonate for those who grew up in Texas. Linklater gets everything right – the recitation of the Texas pledge in public schools, the sound of white winged doves calling out over suburban neighborhoods, the Bible given to you at a certain age with your name engraved on the cover. 

Near the end of the film, as she’s sending her son off to college, Mason’s mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), says, “I just thought there’d be more, you know?” And that’s when the power of the movie hit me.

Though the movie has been lauded for its incredible twelve-year shoot, the greatest achievement of Boyhood is that you don’t really notice the characters (and actors) aging. The movie is so entertaining, the transitions so seamless, and the characters such a genuine pleasure to hang out with, that you lose sight of the fact that they’re growing up and maturing right before your eyes. By not focusing on overly dramatic or seminal moments that other filmmakers might make the focus of their coming-of-age films, Linklater gives the whole movie such a hang-out feeling that the trick is not thinking about the time. And I thought there’d be more. But that’s how it happens. It’s all over too soon, and perhaps the power of the movie doesn’t even fully register until you realize it’s all over.

In the first half of this film, Mason is pulled in many different directions, with adults offering out various ways through life. It’s not until about midway through Boyhood that Mason really emerges and develops a voice. That’s not an arc we see much in cinema, particularly with so much emphasis placed on active characters. But how are we formed? Aren’t we all slowly molded by the world around us? Much of our childhood is spent not thinking about the future and not making active decisions. We’re certainly not thinking about what we’re doing as part of some larger life structure.

Many of the major character changes take place off-screen. The movie is not unlike Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret (2011) in this respect, where characters are allowed to leave a scene and have lives outside the movie. I think of Mason’s father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) growing from freewheeling dad in one section of the movie to a slightly more conservative and mature man entering his second marriage a bit later. We see how this change must have taken place. To witness the change itself is not necessary.

The actors in Boyhood are extraordinary, and you’d be hard-pressed to argue that any other film performances this year are really comparable to what Arquette, Coltrane, Hawke and Lorelei Linklater achieve in this movie. In particular, I’d like to see Hawke at the very least get nominated for an Academy Award for his performance – he’s an absolutely fantastic actor, extraordinary in everything from Linklater’s films to Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007) to Training Day (2001).

As Linklater says in an interview, “At some point, you’re no longer growing up, you’re aging. But no one can pinpoint that moment exactly.” I can’t wait to see Boyhood again to see if I can pinpoint exactly where it happens, but I have a feeling I’ll be taken away on Mason’s journey once again and forget about that question altogether, enjoying my time with wonderfully real people.

I’ve had my own boyhood with Mr. Linklater (see the picture to the left). I don’t mean to say he has any idea who I am, but by growing up in Austin and being interested in film, I (along with many others) feel a certain kinship with him.

He is our resident auteur, and more. He’s the friendly patron of the arts, the man sitting behind me at Hyde Park Theatre’s production of Killer Joe. He's the guy enthusiastically talking with cinephiles in between the Summer Classic Film Series screenings of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990) at the Paramount Theatre. He came to Waterloo Video to sign the newly released Criterion DVD of Slacker back in 2004, and I have my copy proudly placed atop my DVD collection. “To Jack – all the best. Rick Linklater.”

I’ve never been more proud to come from the city of Linklater. The Texas auteurs – Linklater, Terrence Malick, Wes Anderson, David Gordon Green – are responsible for many of the best films of the last few years. Boyhood is certainly the best picture of this year, and I can only hope that by this time next year, we’ll be referring to Linklater as an Academy Award-winning director.

Special Note: In one of the scenes filmed at Austin High School, you can see the 2009 UIL One-Act Play State Champions banner hanging over the Preas Theater (for our production of Over the River and Through the Woods, in which I was one of the six actors). We didn’t just win State – we made it into a Linklater movie! Watch the Boyhood featurette that shows some of the filming at Austin High. And here's a great interview with Linklater - on Boyhood, Bernie and Texas.

How Richard Linklater made me a better film critic

Slacker Geography, 25 Years Later

Life Itself (Steve James)

I often walk out of movies and struggle to articulate the effect they have on me. Roger Ebert was a master at this. He always had a perfect turn of phrase to capture exactly what a certain movie felt like. Who else could write something like, “I was almost hugging myself while I watched it” of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (2000)? I think of that quote every time I watch Almost Famous, because that’s exactly how the movie makes you feel.

On the opening night of Steve James’s new documentary about Ebert, Life Itself, I was moved to tears, just as I had been the first time I saw the movie in January. Walking out of Austin’s Violet Crown Cinema and seeing the peaceful Austin skyline before me, a banner poster of Boyhood proudly draped over the cinema, I was touched by a tinge of sadness.

Partially because this journey isn’t yet over. Many of us left have yet to enjoy our heyday. Some of us never get there. Roger Ebert did, and the morning after he passes away in Life Itself, Steve James shows us a Chicago infused with sunlight and purpose. Forty years ago, there was Ebert, part of the very fabric of that city, informing the lives of its people. And now, he’s gone.

This is to say I don’t know how to articulate exactly how I felt looking out at the city skyline after this movie ended. Certainly, I was overcome with sadness, knowing that Ebert is gone and not coming back. But I was also filled with joy, knowing that a city – in his case, Chicago – could contain a man such as this, who stood for the right things and whose writing guided so many people to see pictures they may never have seen otherwise.

The film’s score plays an integral role in this magnificent feeling. The music by Joshua Abrams hits a feeling somewhere between triumphant and mournful. There’s something truly grand about it – as soon as you hear it, it just feels right. It’s the score a life like this deserves. With the aid of that score, those final shots of trains running through Chicago the morning after Ebert’s death give the movie an almost transcendental power. This movie embodies such a specific feeling and attitude toward a man, his life and the city in which he lived.

Watching Life Itself, I understood, in a way, what people mean when they say death is a beautiful thing. The movie’s celebration of life and reconciliation with death took me aback. When I saw the film for the first time in January, I was focused on how well the movie illustrates Mr. Ebert’s impact on cinema and his relationships with many of the filmmakers he championed. But I may have missed the fearless quality of the movie to look at something deeper, going into the unknown and ultimately coming to peace with Ebert’s passing. I felt Ebert’s bravery more this time.

I’ve not seen a movie that treats death with such forthrightness since Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007), at least in the sense that death is accepted in both films and shown for what it is.

During one section of the movie, Ebert’s friend Bill Nack recites the last page of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby by heart, and perhaps that’s as good a way as any to reconcile this thing that happens to all of us in the end. Life Itself is one of the best films I’ve seen, not simply because it captures what made Ebert so important and influential to the film community, but because it’s one of the few movies that’s left me with a profound impression about what it means to face death.

So, reflecting after the movie, I thought about this ether space – the space between the old world, where Ebert was alive and influenced how I thought of cinema, and this new world, where recent movies seem almost out-of-balance without his writing and guiding them to their proper alignment. As Ebert goes, so does a whole way of living, a whole time and place for me.  He is more than a part of my childhood. He is sort of the leader, along with Martin Scorsese, of everything I hold sacred and thrilling in movies.

And here was this new city in front of me, full of life and those who may never know what kind of man was here for a time and informed the way we feel and react.

"And it took me years to understand that that’s who I am. And Roger knew that.” - Martin Scorsese

The best films of 2014, at the half-way point.

1. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
2. Life Itself (Steve James)
3. The Immigrant (James Gray)
4. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
5. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
6. Noah (Darren Aronofsky)
7. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski)
8. Joe (David Gordon Green)
9. Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)
10. Jersey Boys (Clint Eastwood)

With Begin Again, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Edge of Tomorrow, Snowpiercer, Enemy, Muppets Most Wanted and The Lego Movie very close behind. And, of course, Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq, which I'm not including due to my closeness to the movie (but it is truly one of the finest films).