Thursday, November 30, 2006

FILMMAKING Alistair MacLean

About a month ago, maybe more, my buddy Matt Levinthal asked me if I wanted to direct a short film. Two friends of his, Meredith Binder and Ian Stone, had written and were producing a script that they were going to star in but didn't also want to direct. Their first director had to pull out for medical reasons, and I was the next obvious choice. After all, it's a Jewish conversion comedy and I grew up Lutheran in the WASPy Chicago suburbs.

The movie is called "Alistair MacLean: Y'did Nefesh," and no, it's not about the Scottish author who wrote The Guns of Navarone. It's about a booksmart guy who needs to find his y'did nefesh, his "Jewish soul." We've been rehearsing, we've been fine-tuning the script, and we've been filling out the crew. The movie starts shooting mid-December and I'll keep you updated.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

FILM re:Volver

Caught the new Pedro Almodóvar movie this last weekend. Enjoyed it. Some people know how to photograph Penelope Cruz right, and Pedro is one of them.

What struck me in watching Volver (loose translation: To Return) is that Almodóvar may be the most gentle and is probably the best Hitchcock acolyte working today. M. Night Shamyalan has gotten a lot of attention for his cameos and cinematic quoting of the old master, but Almodóvar does a much better job in one very important area: Music.

The only time Shyamalan got the music right was in the opening credits of Signs, where the text combined with a Bernard Herrmann-styled theme to create suspense where there previously was none (I think it was Signs, but maybe it was Unbreakable). Almodóvar gets the Hitchcockian music right throughout Volver. When Cruz finds the dead body and decides not to go to the authorities, the music kicks in to both root her on and warn us that she’s doing something wrong and may get caught at any moment. And then the doorbell rings. She answers the door with blood on her neck (not her own). She blames the blood on “female trouble,” which pulls the movie back into Almodóvar’s other notable genre, which is the female-oriented Sirkian melodrama (for lack of a better term).

That brings up my one criticism of the film. Those two genres don’t really fit together very well here. It’s great to see his women bonding and dealing with the returning mother (one "return"). It is also fun to see how the crime (and the history of the crimes that preceded the crime) also come back (the other "returns"). But they are very different movies. They’re both good movies, however, so I’ll cut him some slack.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Introductions and Influential Movies

I was sort of dreading this first post. There's an internal pressure to sum things up, to "set the tone" for the whole blog, to get it right. Screw that. But I will play one of those introductory games that you get every now and again on blogs.

The game? "What movie changed everything in how you looked at films?"

For me that would be PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. I suppose I should credit the Medved brothers for making me aware of it in their GOLDEN TURKEY AWARDS book, but whatever the reason, my friend Brian White taped it when it played late night on Channel 9 in Chicago. And we watched it. Sure, it was "bad" compared to empty polish of most commercial releases -- this was, after all, the '80s, when producers and packaged films ruled the roost, and everybody wanted to make their films "in the style of Spielberg" -- but there was something so surreal and watchable about this Edward D. Wood, Jr. masterpiece. We started by laughing at the movie, but after repeated viewings I started to suspect we were laughing with it.

We loved it, starting with the way Criswell bends time in his framing monologue, moving from "Future events such as these" to asking "Who's to say these things didn't take place?" (Forgive me for paraphrasing.) I remember questioning the bad day-for-night utilized in the stock footage driving sequences when they traveled to and from the cemetery, counting the days that passed if it wasn't really supposed to be night.

Along with the wonderfully twisted exposition, I think it was spotting the shadows of the tombstones on the studio's wall that was nothing short of a revelation. Here we could see that this was a set, that the actors were just playing along, that this was a created and obviously fictional reality. This is when I first saw how deconstructing a film could make it richer. We watched that movie dozens of times on crappy VHS, fast-forwarding over commercials. Each time the movie got richer.

People like to say PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE is an accidental masterpiece. I like to think of it as an intentional masterpiece. Even if every bit of evidence points to Ed Wood being just as bumbling and driven as Johnny Depp played him in Tim Burton's endearing ED WOOD, I like to imagine Wood had complete control. I mean, can you imagine anybody making that movie on purpose? That, to me, would be a complete genius.

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