Sunday, June 27, 2010

How to Make a Movie, Volume I

'Winter's Bone' (2010)

I’m interrupting my summer movie-ing series to introduce yet another what I hope to be ongoing series of posts entitled “How to Make a Movie.”  Now, as you might have guessed, I’ve never actually made a movie.  One might think that as such, I’m unqualified to instruct others on the issue.  One would be correct.  Nevertheless, as I sat in my theatre seat last night watching Sundance sensation Winter’s Bone, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “this is such a good movie…why can’t more films be like this?  It’s not that hard.”

See, there was nothing spectacular about this movie.  I don’t expect AVATAR-like graphics in every film; just like I don’t expect drama with the emotional impact of Schindler’s List, or acting performances rivaling Marlon Brando, or a script as good as Pulp Fiction, or even production design as good as The Lord of the Rings…you get the point.  Those things come around once a generation, and Winter’s Bone is none of those things.  What it is, is a harrowing, adventurous, bleak, and airtight piece of film-making that is beautiful in its simplicity, effortless in its delivery, and every bit as chilling as its title suggests.  None of these things require anyone named Spielberg or Cameron to pull it off.  So here is what we can learn from Winter’s Bone about How to Make a Movie:

Lesson #1:  Start With a Halfway Original Idea

A poor Missouri teenage girl residing in the Ozarks looks after her two younger siblings and psychologically ill mother while her father is in prison.  “The Law” comes looking for her father who has jumped bail after putting the family’s house up for bond.  Girl assures the Sheriff she will find her father, dead or alive, so that she doesn’t lose her house or her family. 

Lesson #2: Hire a Director Who Knows What She Wants

In this case, Debra Manik, who I feel has a bright future ahead of her after this film.  This film has an identity; it has a feel; the storytelling, pacing, and every action or word spoken by any character reflects this identity.  Nothing feels awkward or out of place.  There is nothing exceptionally visionary or savant-like going on here; just a director who spent time figuring out what she wanted and executing.  Are you starting to get the picture?  

Lesson #3:  Pay Attention to Detail

The poverty-stricken community is strewn with stripped 30-year old trucks sitting on the lawn; lawn mowers that might have run at one point sit idly on the grass with weeds surrounding the wheels; the characters all look as though they have seen better days, with the clothes they wear indicating they probably got them from Salvation Army; an elderly woman sings folk-ified hymns in the background during pickin’ and grinnin’ time at a birthday party; our main character, a teenage girl, sleeps on a waterbed; a piece of great dialogue, “Never ask for what should be offered”, has meaning and weight behind it; it’s not just a throwaway line.

I could go on, but I’ve made my point.  It’s hard to know sometimes whether A-list directors are too ignorant on how to make a movie, or if it’s the production companies that are too gutless to make them.  Whatever it is, Winter’s Bone proves them wrong.  This isn’t an art-house film, or anything that main-stream audiences couldn’t enjoy.  Sometimes it just takes a halfway original idea, or a director who knows what she wants, or a little attention paid to detail, to make a film great.  

Monday, June 21, 2010

Summer Movie-ing, Part III

Goal #3: Decide the Ultimate Internal Debate:

2004 or 2007?

In case you haven’t noticed already, I’m a big picture guy when it comes to movies.  Obviously I like watching/analyzing/discussing/over-analyzing/being a snob about/contemplating movies, but it doesn’t stop there: I want to know how they fit into the bigger realm; how they compare with other movies that particular year or decade, how it compares with other films from the particular director, how and why it does or doesn’t resonate with pop culture, and what the movie indicates about the current social/political outlook.  This is why I’m intrigued by film awards—not because the “best” films always win, but because they represent a broader picture of what was going on that particular year, based on the factors I laid out above. 

Back in December when I was putting myself through hell to figure out my top 10 movies of the 2000’s (which, by the way, I have edited slightly, but more on that later), I was trying to decide which year out of the decade was the best for film: 2004 or 2007.  I realize this particular goal may seem kind of trivial to you—but trust me—cosmic filmdom forces hang in the balance upon proper analyzation and resolution of this question…so bear with me while I list the films from each year that I consider to be great:


Finding Neverland
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Hotel Rwanda
The Aviator
The Incredibles
Garden State
Kill Bill 2


No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood
Into the Wild
Michael Clayton
The Diving Bell and Butterfly
Sweeney Todd
Eastern Promises
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Gone Baby Gone
Lars and the Real Girl

Okay, at first glance, 2007 has the upper hand.  My quest to decide this debate will involve watching some of these films that I’ve only seen once, which, as you may have guessed, is only a few of these.  Hopefully I'll have some sort of divine intervention to give me clarity on the whole issue.

Other than that, I’m going to keep watching some old films (see: summer movie-ing goal #1), and keep being the worst kind of INCEPTION fanboy (summer movie-ing goal #2).  And on that note, get a load of THIS:

Beautiful, isn't it?  I may have to name my daughter Marion.  

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Summer Movie-ing, Part II

Goal #2: Become the Biggest INCEPTION fanboy of all-time.  

If you read my top-10 ½ of the decade list, you know that I am a huge Neo[i] fan (The Dark Knight, Memento).   Well, his new movie, starring Leo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Cillian Murphy, Michael Cain, and Ken Wantanabe opens July 16th.  By the way, I almost peed on myself while typing the names in the last sentence.  Anyway, it is my goal to be the biggest, most-annoying fanboy you have ever seen, rivaling Star Wars and Lord of the Rings fanboys.  A couple of weeks ago, during the series finale of LOST,  which I was watching with some friends, we had the show DVR’d and we were fast forwarding through the commercials, only when the INCEPTION trailer came on I yelped and demanded we watch the entire commercial.  This is just a taste of what you can expect from me in the coming weeks.  By the way, any paragraph referencing both Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and LOST may indicate the level of nerdiness you are dealing with.   

Why do I want to be a fanboy?  You mean, other than the fact that I had higher expectations than almost any movie ever when I walked into The Dark Knight, and yet, they were surpassed?  Other than the fact that Neo made my #4 and #5 movies of the last decade?  Listen, I am the king of lowered expectations.  Expectations make the movie: raise them too high, and disappointment is inevitable; keep them low, and even if the movie isn’t anything too write home about, it at least wasn’t the complete waste of two hours that you thought it would be.  But a director can only make so many A+, entertaining, cerebral, and visually stunning films before you just have to throw your hands up, blow your lunch money on a jumbo popcorn and coke, plop down in your $15 IMAX seat and expect greatness.  And you know what, we deserve that…we deserve to raise our expectations to new heights. 

So really this fits in with my summer movie-ing goals perfectly: summer movie-ing is about reliving those late-night sleepovers with friends, throwing back 8 mountain dews and watching Happy Gilmore, Varsity Blues or Fight Club; summer movie-ing is about begging your 18-year old sister to buy your ticket to rated-R The Blair Witch Project, and pleading with your mom to get you the little kid-size movie-meal tray before the multiplex premiere of The Lion King.  My goal to be the biggest INCEPTION fanboy of all time is largely a channeling of my youth—my desire to be wowed and awed and surprised.  Neo, if anyone, is the man that can do this.

[i] For present and future reference, "Neo" is the pseudonym I have bestowed on the almighty director Christopher Nolan.  The only explanation for his greatness is that he was sent into our world to change cinema forever.  Amen.