Thanks to an incredibly generous welcome present from my older brother James, I was able to enjoy roughly ten days of screenings and other special events at this year's downtown festivities. A few people have inquired as to the sort of films I would be watching and the answer is, well, a little bit of everything - dramas, comedies, documentaries, blockbusters, old classics, horror, and so on (all heavily peppered with cast/crew Q&A and industry faces galore). For those aforementioned interested parties, I'll do my best to break down the movies I attended and highlight the fun stuff (giving my two cents here and there along the way)...
1. Man of Steel (advanced screening), directed by Zack Snyder
Definitely worth checking out on the big screen for the sheer spectacle alone, but its cracks start to show the more I think about it (some of them serious, very similar to my experience last summer with The Dark Knight Rises). Perhaps my initial judgement was clouded by the bells and whistles of the actual screening - seeing it ahead of time, kicking off the film festival, absurdly long line of fans (most decked out in all sorts of Superman gear) snaking around the block, the film being projected in a cathedral-sized theater with pitch perfect image/sound, and so on. I have the feeling it won't hold up as well during subsequent viewings, but as for that first one, I left with a big smile on my face.
Side note: On the street afterwards, I ran into Napoleon Dynamite. Sadly not with my car.
2. Ain't Them Bodies Saints, directed by David Lowery
More admirable than involving (at least to me), this one was all right. Lowery appeared in person (along with actors Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck), describing the movie as a "cinematic folk song" - it succeeds in that respect, mostly due to the score and cinematography.
3. Drug War, directed by Johnnie To
A largely procedural crime drama with not as much action as the above trailer implies. Not on the level of Sparrow or Exiled, but having said that, Johnnie To sure knows his way around a good shootout - the final one just about knocked my socks off.
4. Coffee Talks (Directors): Shane Black
This was no screening - I headed into the "Director Coffee Talk" knowing there would be some sort of guest giving some sort of a lecture. Turns out the guest was Mr. Shane Black (director of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3, he's also widely considered the founder of the "buddy cop" genre, having penned Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and more) and the lecture was moderated by renouned film critic Elvis Mitchell. At first, I couldn't decide whether Black's blunt and no-nonsense way of speaking made for a more interesting conversation or just made him an asshole. He ultimately won me over though, providing some pretty insightful musings on writing/the cinema-going experience overall (see video above) and never shying away from giving his opinion - for example, he hates the "home invasion" sub-genre we've seen a lot of lately and is highly critical action films' over-reliance on CGI (which came off as more than a little hypocritical, considering the special effects extravaganza that was Iron Man 3, which he claims utilized them more effectively). A highlight of the lecture came right at the beginning, when the guy introducing Black and Mitchell accidentally called Kiss Kiss Bang Bang "overrated" (he clearly meant the opposite) and failed to realize his mistake, causing a ripple of murmurs through the audience. A low point came in the hallway afterwards, when I awkwardly spoke with Mitchell while realizing I probably should've thought of something interesting to say before deciding to strike up a conversation. By the time I came up with some good talking points for Black (who had kindly hung around to chat with the fans, take pictures, and sign autographs), he was already on the elevator. Oh well, lesson learned!
5. In a World..., directed by Lake Bell
Breezy indie comedy that could've used a touch less quirk and a bit more subtlety (its "You Go Girl" feminist message is practically screamed in your face), but was otherwise solid. Writer/director/lead actress Lake Bell oozes charisma and managed to charm the living pants out of every audience member in the 30 seconds she took introducing the film (was rushed, had to catch a flight) - keep an eye on that one.
6. The New Black, directed by Yoruba Richen
Incredibly moving and emotional documentary with spot-on timing, considering the recent rulings on DOMA and Proposition 8. Here's hoping it gets a wider release.
7. Fruitvale Station, directed by Ryan Coogler
Maybe the best film I saw at the whole festival and arguably the most powerful (there wasn't a dry eye in the audience, I assure you), this was a ridiculously impressive directorial debut with a star-making performance from Michael B. Jordan (I have a feeling that rumored Human Torch role is as good as his). Although beaming with the understandable excitement of being there, 27 year old (!) Coogler held it together for the star-studded, red carpet affair (for which I was frightfully underdressed - shorts were a bad choice) - assuredly better than I would have, considering the faces present: Forest Whitaker, Octavia Spencer, Edward James Olmos, and Sidney Poitier, to name a few.
8. Two Men in Manhattan (1959), directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
The only film I saw that wasn't current, this was just so-so. Had its moments, looked great (despite the Paris studio interiors posing as NYC), smooth soundtrack, but nothing to write home about at the end of the day (although I suppose this post is technically "writing home about it" - hmmm).
9. Goodbye World, directed by Denis Hennelly
Interesting, indie spin on the "end of the world" sub-genre that uses the actual apocalypse as more of a backdrop in favor of character interactions/relationships. Enjoyable enough, but seemed to just miss the mark - occasional hiccups in the acting didn't help either (particularly when Entourage is required to cry). When asked about the film's budget during the cast/crew Q&A, Hennelly quipped that it was "less than Aquaman but more than Queens Boulevard."
10. Forev, directed by Molly Green and James Leffler
The audience ate this one right up, consistent laughter throughout. It's essentially a road movie, strengthened by the chemistry of the cast (who were basically all friends that just wanted to shoot a movie together). They all chuckled when the "casting process" was brought up during the Q&A.
11. Only God Forgives, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Wow - the verdict's still out on this one, not quite sure what to think. Drive 2 it's not (just know that going in), the film feels like a nightmare - fragmented and surreal. Absolutely gorgeous to look at, saw this in the same mammoth theater as the Fruitvale Station and Man of Steel screenings, which Woody Allen reportedly called the "best projection he's ever seen" when To Rome with Love premiered there last year. Winding Refn himself provided some killer Q&A at the end before disappearing into his after-party, which I attempted to sneak into. It did not work.
12. Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton: This Is Stones Throw Records, directed by Jeff Broadway
I was jazzed about this one from the very start and it didn't disappoint. Hip hop acts (not that that's the only genre on display here) don't seem to be as prominent in the world of documentaries (save for the occasional project, such as Michael Rapaport's Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest), which is a shame, as the story of Peanut Butter Wolf/Charizma/Stones Throw Records is touching, inspirational, and worthy of being told - kudos to Broadway for realizing this and making it all happen. When the screening and director Q&A ended, I discovered both Peanut Butter Wolf himself and Mayer Hawthorne were in the audience (the former approving of my Stones Throw shirt when exiting, which probably shouldn't have pleased me as much as it did).
13. Lesson of the Evil, directed by Takashi Miike
Just when I was certain Only God Forgives was a shoo-in for the most disturbing film at the festival, I went and saw this (leave it to Takashi Miike). Several people understandably walked out and part of me really wanted to - its relentless (almost to the point of camp) violence in the wake of tragedies such as Aurora and Sandy Hook came off as repugnant and thoroughly unnecessary. I'm not saying filmmakers shouldn't be allowed to make these sort of movies - I probably just won't be in line next time to see them.
That's it for my screenings, I'll leave you with a few additional pictures to wrap things up - hopefully I'll keep this blog running on the quasi-regular and post again soon. Otherwise, guess I'll see you in another year!