Month: February 2014

A Little Local Flavor

James Cosmo in The Golden Scallop (2013, J. Laraja)

James Cosmo in The Golden Scallop (2013, J. Laraja)

This Saturday, March 1, the Woods Hole Film Festival‘s “Dinner & a Movie” screening series features the film The Golden Scallop, a mockumentary made by and about Cape Cod people. This past summer, I interviewed Cape Cod’s own director Joseph Laraja about the film for a feature in Provincetown Magazine. Here is that article reprinted below, which you can also find on the Magazine’s website here.

It’s not often that films are shot on Cape Cod. Rarer still are those that actually deal with some aspect of the reality of living here, as opposed to the fantasy. This past June, The Provincetown International Film Festival brought us one such film, By Way of Home, which beautifully tackled the problem of youth feeling stuck here. That dark reality is being screened for audiences at the Woods Hole Film Festival this year, but another film screening there looks at the more comic side of life on the Cape.

The Golden Scallop was shot on the Cape, largely in Wellfleet, a town that has its fair share of fried clam shacks, particularly along Route 6. Additional footage was also shot in Brewster and Orleans. The premise of the film is that every year for the past 40 years, there has been a Golden Scallop Competition for the best fried fish on the Cape. Three establishments enter the competition: The Caped Cod, a restaurant owned by a husband and wife who seem more focused on customer service offered by young girls in skimpy uniforms than they are in their food; The Happy Hooker, whose owner is a previous champion but now relies on his beleaguered daughter and the cook who’s secretly in love with her to compete; and a pair of brothers who sell their fried seafood out of a parking lot. It is shot in the mockumentary style of The Office or any one of Christopher Guest’s films (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, etc.)

“We’re definitely not poking fun at, but rather celebrating,” director Joseph Laraja says when asked if the characters in the film are a response to any behind-the-scenes experiences he’s had at Cape restaurants. “It’s definitely an inspiration, but not any exact characters,” he says, adding that all three filmmakers worked at a lot of places and enjoyed their work for the most part. He even names one restaurant he particularly enjoyed working at, The Friendly Fisherman in Eastham, where he says you can still get the best lobster roll on the Cape.

“All summer jobs leave a lasting impression because of all the tourists that come to the Cape,” Laraja says. But from his teenage years on he always wanted to make movies. He even worked for a time at one the Cape’s very few production companies, Paraclete Video Productions in Brewster.

The cast and crew are largely made up of up and comers, anchored by veteran character actor James Cosmo who starred in Trainspotting, Narnia, Braveheart, and numerous other films and television programs.

Laraja directed The Golden Scallop with two fellow Cape Codders, Michael Boisvert (producer) and Kevin Harrigan (writer) under the auspices of their production company Grandview Productions. All three had their fair share of experiences working in restaurants and other tourist-oriented businesses while growing up here. And while the Cape may not exactly be Hollywood East, the production found a swell of support here, raising almost their entire budget locally.

This is not the trio’s first foray into filmmaking, although it is their first feature. At the 2010 Provincetown International Film Festival, their short film Come on Down, about the employees of a bait and tackle shop, won the HBO Audience Award. Laraja says they are continuing to work together in Los Angeles and while their next project is not specifically set on the Cape, they are considering shooting it here because of the incredible support of the Cape Cod community.

“We’re really proud of this, our first feature,” Laraja says. “We couldn’t have done it without all the support from home, from the people of Cape Cod.”

For screening details, visit the Woods Hole Film Festival or check out its entry in the Upcoming Events on the right side of this page.

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A Different Kind of Romance

Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze's Her (2013)

Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013)

In Spike Jonze’s new film Her, which he wrote and directed, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a depressed professional letter writer living in the not so distant future. In the midst of a breakup with his wife, Theodore’s life is in flux. His apartment features lots of space and empty shelves; he kills time playing videogames featuring foul-mouthed characters who berate him; and he mopes about in a state of apathy, simply going through the motions of life. Then he updates his computer to a new operating system named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and they fall in love.

Much has been made of this uncanny romance between a man and his computer system, but while Jonze’s plot is ripe for opening up a discussion about the limits of human beings vs. the limits of technology, or about the dilemma we now face as a society overly dependent upon technology, it would be a real stretch to say that’s what Her is ultimately about. In Jonze’s hands, this is a story about what it means–and what it has always meant–to be human.

The near-future world in which Her takes place is very much like today, and there isn’t any scathing critique of our tech-obsessed culture. It is merely the setting. In fact, when Theodore makes a great reveal about his relationship with Samantha to his friend and neighbor Amy (Amy Adams), she barely bats an eye, having developed her own deep friendship with her OS since leaving her husband. It’s as though dating and falling in love with your computer’s operating system is only a slight deviation from the norm, neither perverse nor even eccentric. Theodore and Samantha even go on double dates with Theodore’s boss (Chris Pratt) and his live girlfriend. The more provocative issue is about how human beings continue to struggle with expressing ourselves to each other. We can and often do share intimate details with the great void of the Internet via so-called “social networking” sites, but how do we communicate offline? We’re still stuck in the same human-to-human dynamic that Jonze has always shown as awkward and difficult.

This point is made marvelously clear in Theodore’s profession as a personal letter writer, writing beautiful love letters, congratulatory notes, and familial communiques for the less creative masses who no longer even know how to write a letter to their wives, grandmothers, or children. Like in Jonze’s 2002 film Adaptation, our hero is a writer, sensitive and capable of revealing emotions through the written word. But where Adaptation, which was written by Charlie Kaufman, has a distinctly misanthropic undertone (as does their other collaboration, Being John Malkovich), Jonze’s own scripts are more hopeful, with leads who are outsiders, not totally comfortable with who they are, but also considerate to a fault–people who just mean well. Theodore is doing the best that he can, as is Samantha, who, in her own computerized way, is just learning how to be more human.

What makes Jonze so unique and singular as a writer/director is his attention to the ways in which human beings communicate. It’s easy to get carried away with the quirkiness factor and discuss Her as unique for the human/computer love affair at the center of the plot, but to do so is to miss the overriding themes of this, and I’d argue all of Jonze’s feature films so far: the ways in which love causes us excruciating joy and devastating pain in equal measure; and the awkward process of growing (up) as human beings, emotionally, physically, and intellectually.

Other Jonzian touches evident here are in the way he gives us characters who, as offbeat as they are, appear almost mundane against the even greater absurdity of the people and society surrounding them. For example, in Her, Theodore calls a service that connects people for an intimate phone-sex encounter. As their dirty talk progresses, the woman on the other end reveals a fetish involving dead cats, making Theodore seem incredibly normal by contrast.

I am a great admirer of Jonze as a director, and everything about Her maintains those feelings, but I am even more impressed with him as a writer with each film he writes. Although widely misunderstood as a badly made children’s film, his previous film Where the Wild Things Are was perhaps the best written film about the experience of childhood, written for adults. This is why Maurice Sendak fully endorsed the film even as it took major liberties with his sparsely written original children’s story. Her is a continuation of this type of work for Jonze, exploring the vulnerabilities of the human experience in a fresh, compassionate way.

Oscar Thoughts: This is my pick for Best Original Screenplay.

Revisiting Blue Jasmine

Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, a Sony Pictures Classics release

Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, a Sony Pictures Classics release

I just wanted to post here a review I wrote for Provincetown Magazine when Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine came out last year. My Oscar Thoughts on this one? Cate Blanchett deserves the Best Actress award.

Enjoy (or visit the original review here)….

For many fans of Woody Allen, each new film brings with it the promise of his past brilliance and the threat of his resting on his laurels, as he has on occasion. A filmmaker as prolific as Allen simply cannot always make a masterpiece. But with his latest effort, Blue Jasmine, starring Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Sally Hawkins, and Andrew Dice Clay, Allen gives us another insightful, character-driven film.

Blanchett turns in a powerful, at times very funny portrayal of Jasmine, a woman who once had everything money could buy and lost it when her wealthy husband Hal (Baldwin) was charged with unspecified financial crimes à la Bernie Madoff. She decides to reinvent herself by calling on her sister Ginger (Hawkins), who lives a working-class life in San Francisco that is the antithesis of everything Jasmine values. When Jasmine moves in, she disrupts her sister’s plans to marry local mechanic Chili (Bobby Cannavale), telling her she deserves better than the “losers” she’s attracted to. Meanwhile, Jasmine struggles to find herself in the absence of a man to take care of her.

As with most Allen films, Blue Jasmine features a great ensemble cast (also including Peter Sarsgaard and Louis C.K., among others), but it is Blanchett’s performance that really makes the film, along with the incredible lines Allen has written for her. She embodies the desperation all of the characters feel to some degree, while also managing to deliver hilarious lines with the complete lack of self-awareness that is intrinsic to this character.

As always, Allen excels here at giving us terribly flawed characters whom we want to follow as they try to work their ways out of the holes they’ve dug themselves into. Jasmine is a snob, an elitist, and someone who is not honest with herself, but she is also fragile–given to talking to herself, addicted to Xanax, and an alcoholic. Her whole world has crumbled in the wake of her husband’s misdeeds. (In this way, the film deals with the terrible consequences of so-called white-collar crime, as well.) But as the film progresses, we see that she also suffers from tremendous guilt for the role she may have played in hurting the people around her. In a strange way, we want her to find her way out of this darkness, even though we know she probably won’t.

Blue Jasmine is another creative success for Allen, with its darkly humorous writing and a startlingly moving performance from Blanchett.

The Biopic Syndrome

dallasbuyersclub

Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club

Since the beginning of cinema, the relationship between movies and truth has been a complicated but essential one. One of the earliest impulses the inventors of the medium had was to document reality for the sake of documentation–the Lumiere Brothers’ actualités are prime examples: Workers Leaving a Factory, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, etc. These films were novel because they captured something on film for an audience who wasn’t actually present at the time these minor events took place.

Jump forward several years and Hollywood’s love of movies that are “based on a true story” or that center on a beloved real-life celebrity or an infamous dictator, etc., is well known. One of the latest to emerge from this style is Jean-Marc Valée’s Dallas Buyers Club, starring Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof, a real-life Texas man who contracted HIV in 1985 and turned his misfortune into a crusade, opening a “buyers club” for others with HIV who were eager to try experimental treatments not yet approved by the FDA. A profile of Woodroof was written in 1992 for Dallas Life Magazine, if you want the facts of this incredible story, but the film adds additional components and removes others in order to make a more specific point about the AIDS epidemic and the homophobia that existed at that time, as well as examining the widely held idea that the FDA’s caution at the time was for nefarious reasons having to do with drug company profits as opposed to concern for Americans suffering from AIDS.

One of the film’s most successful embellishments is the addition of the transgender character Rayon, played by Jared Leto. A major point of the film is that Woodroof is not gay and is in fact homophobic himself until he meets Rayon and other HIV-postiive gay and transgender people. This part of the film’s overall strategy, demonstrating Woodroof’s machismo and homophobia, feels a little overdone, but it is mitigated by Leto’s incredible performance. I only wish the filmmakers had spent more time with Rayon. In fact, one of the most moving scenes in the film is when Rayon goes to visit her father. The interaction is painful, tense, and says more about the insidious homophobia that infects people–so much that they disown their children– than anything else in the movie. At the same time, the scene is also an example of where Dallas Buyers Club and many true-to-life films fail…in the editing.

In that scene, there is no time to feel for Rayon and her father and the loss they each experience because it immediately cuts back to the main action. This is something that I have often noticed about films that are “based on a true story”; there is an insipid need to cram all of the important details in, making the editing choices more about efficient use of time and less about crafting the temporal space of the movie. Many biopics use this same editing strategy: Ray, W., Milk, and Frost/Nixon are all good examples. The problem arises when the script calls for too much reality to be compressed into a reasonable length of time for a movie. You simply cannot tell a life story in its entirety in 120 minutes or less, and even trying to tell a large part of a particularly active life in that time frame is an impossibility. Let me revise that – you can tell such stories in that time frame, but you shouldn’t.

Life is not a narrative arc. It happens over a series of moments that are only interrelated in a complex web constructed over the years, these connections rarely apparent until seen in hindsight. The connections are not singular either. No one’s life has just one meaning and the meaning of one’s life is neither simple nor compact enough to be summarized. It’s a better strategy to look at a moment in a life or one thread than to aim for comprehensiveness.

Perhaps with the recent  spate of excellence on the small screen, we may start to see biopic serials; just as we respond to fictional life stories with Mad Men and Breaking Bad, we might just be ready for real life stories (dramatically embellished of course), told episodically, the way life is actually structured.

Oscar Thoughts: Dallas Buyers Club is nominated for four Academy Awards. It’s my pick for Best Supporting Actor, Jared Leto.