Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Down And Dirty

It's time once again for the annual running commentary on a night of screenings.

This is something I've stolen from literary agent blogs (and that's books, not screenplays).  From time-to-time one of them will open their query letters and comment on each one without revealing the author, title, or any details of the submission.  It's a lot of fun, and can be very educational, so I thought I'd do the same thing with festival submissions, so here we go.

Thanks to Easter, we had a shortened screening session and delivered pizza.  Once everyone was gathered, we split into our two rooms and the shorts began.

First up was a period piece with amazing production value and a true life topic that hasn't been done to death.  Kudos on both.  The dialogue was a little stiff, and I wished the director had given one of my favorite notes, "no individual line is important, so relax."  Some of the cast played every beat as if it were life or death, and most of the time it was just plain life – which is good.  But this wasn't a death blow to the film.  It was fun to see a DWF alumni show up on screen, especially since he was good and the movie was good.  Nothing sucks more than having to pass on an alumni's movie – which we do a lot.  I did not pass on this film, and the feeling in the room makes me think they will be getting a second round letter soon.

Our next movie was a short doc, which I always find curious.  Who are they making these movies for?  Sure, a 40-50 minute doc could play on TV, and a feature doc might find distribution – especially online, as they are becoming more and more popular.  But what does one do with a 10-15 minute doc? 

My questions were quickly answered as this story was about a group of people who don't care about such things.  They make art for the joy of doing it, and the joy that it might bring any individual who happens to come across it.  I found it delightful, and appreciated the friendly slap-in-the-face for thinking so commercially.  Los Angeles will do that to a person.

The note I wrote for the next submission was, "This movie is both bad and stupid.  You can't be both."  By bad, I mean it was technically below any kind of artistic standard.  The sound was off.  The dialogue was stiff and so were the actors.  I thought some of the ideas were clever, but poorly executed.  The whole thing became a mess and our room envied the cackles of laughter that poor out from behind the closed door of the other.

The next film was good.  Not great, but solid.  It seemed to present us with characters, knowing that we would assume certain things about them, then throw that back in our faces – in a fun way.  It was very clever, and certainly nothing I'd ever seen before, which is saying a lot as I have been doing this for over a decade. 

Somewhere about here we took a break for hot cookies, which might help our Twitter followers figure out my post a few days ago.  I think there was apple pie this time, too.  Damn Leslee!  Just when I was losing weight.

The next film was so bad is sucked the life out of all of us.  There are some actors ... who can only seem to say ... a handful of words at a time.  No matter what the scene, they speak the same amount of words, and take the same length pauses between each phrase.  All but one of the cast members in this film had that problem, and the one that didn't wasn't old enough to see a PG-13 movie, so there's hope for the future.  Added to the community theatre acting rhythm, the lead had that "I'm talking so softly that, if I weren't wearing a mic no one could hear me at all," thing going.  Acting sometimes is like singing.  Almost anyone can sing well at a whisper, and some people make a good living putting a microphone within their one inch audible range.  But when these people have to actually do the work of a trained artist, they don't have the chops.  None of us were fooled.

As for the bad phrasing problem – actors, please watch JamesWhitmore's work.  He, better than any other modern actor, could turn stilted – sometimes downright bad – writing into warm butter.  If you can find his sense of immediacy, you'll pop off the screen.

Speaking of popping off the screen, we had a family story that did just that.  Last week I talked about "drama must be earned," well this film is a lesson in how to do that.  It had a sense of humor, yet was serious.  The characters were complex.  You could like them and hate them at the same time – just like family.  The actors were all fantastic, especially the kids.  The story moved at a perfect pace, and at no time did I feel like there was a camera, or director, showing me how clever they could be, which always achieves the opposite.  Mazel tov.

Finally, we had a short that billed itself as a drama, but was really a dark comedy.   There was a little bit too much Tarantino, hipper-than-thou dialogue about nothing at the beginning, but not enough to kill it.  They did a bit from one of my favorite Terry Gilliam films, which fit, so not a big deal.  I would have liked to hear a little more of the filmmaker's voice apart from the homage, but the acting was good, as was the story and filmmaking skills.  The end made me write a note I usually put on movies I don't like, "filmmaker need therapy."  In this case, I put it on one I did.

And that's it.  We all grabbed some features to take home while chatting with the folks from the other room about what was good, what wasn't, and the typical blah-blah-blah.

There you have it.  As behind-the-scenes as you can get.   Now get back to making movies.

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