Thursday, December 24, 2009

Nine Troubles

I had been eager to see Nine since the release of its trailer. Despite its harsh reviews, I still wanted to see the film. During the week, such an opportunity presented itself as I saw the film before its wide release. In fact, even after I saw the film, I couldn't understand its reviews. I had thoroughly enjoyed the film and found it to be both engaging and entertaining. I couldn't understand the critics and even called the film one of my favorites of the year... until I read Roger Ebert's review, who helped put things into perspective.

I'm not a fan of reading reviews, except when it comes to Roger Ebert, and even then, the decision to see a film is entirely my own. I was, however, in disbelief when I just read his review for Nine. The first two lines speak directly to me, as if he knows what my problem was. The following are excerpts from his review.

My problem may be that I know Fellini's 8½ too well. Your problem may be that you don't know it well enough.

I couldn't believe his words. I was all ears.

The story, recycled by Rob Marshall for Nine, involves aspects of Fellini's own life: his vagueness about screenplays and deadlines, his indifference to budgets, his womanizing, the guilt about sex instilled by his Catholic upbringing, his guilt about cheating on his wife and about bankrupting his producers. It was said that 8½ wasn't so much a confessional as an acting-out of the very problems he was having while making the film, including how to use a gigantic outdoor set he'd constructed for no clear purpose. It's a great film, some say his best. Nine, the musical "adapts" it, true enough, but doesn't feel it.

Nine is just plain adrift in its own lack of necessity. It is filled wall to wall with stars (Marion Cotillard as the wife figure, Penelope Cruz as the mistress, Judi Dench as the worrying assistant, Nicole Kidman as the muse, the sublime Sophia Loren as the mother). But that's what they are, stars, because the movie doesn't make them characters.

I can now better understand those reviews. I presume the problem lies within my own experience with cinema. I've seen once, and perhaps that was the problem. I didn't give it another viewing, despite its complexities, because I didn't feel like I was ready to go back and rewatch the film. I guess now is the time to do so.

I thought Nine was an engaging film. For once, a film was entertaining. I adored seeing the stars grace the screen, and I even sang along with the musical numbers. The problem, however, is that the film is recycling familiar material, and most importantly better, original material. I just have not been able to see why Fellini's film was so superior. I was not able to comprehend it as well as I should have, and although the film has not faded in my memory of the past year and a half, I feel obligated to go back and rewatch the film and understand why it's a better film and what it really consists of. Then, and only then, will I be able to see that any adaptation or retelling of the story will not live up to the original.

With that said, I felt like Nine didn't necessarily have to be compared to the original film. Roger Ebert states that the film "pays homage to a Broadway musical, and not Fellini at all." For that reason, I disconnected myself from Fellini's film and simply saw it on its own terms. I felt like Nine was an adaptation of a play which was inspired by Fellini's film, and not necessarily connected with any other significance. Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps I'll need a few more films and years under my belt. I haven't been watching Fellini films my entire life and haven't truly discovered his work. I think that may be the problem I was originally facing, and why the critics are all siding separate from my opinion.

It all comes down to a lack of experience, and this is how we grow.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Style of Steven Spielberg

In July 2009, all students who had been accepted to USC were required to come to the school for orientation. I had always distanced myself from the School of Cinematic Arts and had never gone inside, simply because I didn't think I deserved to do so until I had been officially accepted. I had the chance to explore parts of the building when the Critical Studies group separated to discuss our Fall 2009 classes. It was here, sitting in the Carson Television Center, that I discovered the upcoming course on Steven Spielberg. It was a film analysis course on the director's style and it had only been offered twice before, in 2002 and 2005. Our counselor told the group that Steven Spielberg himself visits the class for a Q&A. I was sold.

I didn't take the class to meet Steven Spielberg, that was an added bonus. I enrolled in the class to learn about his career. I have always viewed Steven Spielberg as a man who has influenced us all in some particular way. He has created magical worlds and we have embarked on journeys throughout his films, and I wanted to learn about all of this. It also helped that the class was being taught by one of the greatest film professors.

I stumbled across the syllabus for the course before school started. I skimmed through until I discovered what we were doing for one of the class meetings - "Q&A with Steven Spielberg" - and that's when it hit me. I was going to meet Steven Spielberg in just a couple of weeks. I went from dreaming about studying film in school to being accepted to what is arguably the best film school in the world, just days away from meeting one of the most legendary filmmakers of all time. Since then, I began wondering what I could ask Steven Spielberg. I came up with nothing. This evening would be forever memorable to everybody who dreamt about becoming a filmmaker.

The evening arrived on November 4, 2009. We walked into Norris Cinema, to our usual seats, but this time, we weren't going to learn about Steven Spielberg. Tonight, we were going to meet him, and have the opportunity to learn from him, firsthand. Over the loudspeakers, we could hear the beautiful music of E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, which is probably the first piece of music that comes to my head when I think about this man. We waited a full hour, impatiently, until we heard our professor introduce Mr. Steven Spielberg.

I can't quite begin to describe how I felt at that moment, and I think it is safe to assume that everybody probably felt the same way. There was magic in the air, and as we stood up to applaud Steven Spielberg, we could feel something magical in our hearts as well. This wasn't just a film director, this was a man who shaped our childhoods, with films like E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and a handful of others. He was responsible for starting the "blockbuster" with Jaws, and is single-handedly responsible for shaping the face of Hollywood as well.

I had the opportunity to ask Steven Spielberg my question. I stood up, reached for a microphone and told him how I felt, as best as I could in less than one minute. I told him that telling him that he has been a major influence on all our lives is an understatement. We didn't just grow up on his films, but his films became apart of our lives very early on. Every time we hear the music from his films or see E.T. and Elliott flying over the moon, these sounds and images were iconic to us. His films, ultimately, shaped our childhood and I thanked him for what he had given us. Surprisingly, my fellow classmates began applauding me, not because of my comment, but because it was true. Steven Spielberg affected our childhood, he gave us these wonderful memories and journeys, and it was an honor meeting him. It was obvious he felt touched by my words because he nodded and thanked me. I quickly remembered, however, that I forgot to introduce myself, and when I told him my name, he simply smiled and said, "Well, it's very nice to meet you this way."

An hour and half after he had entered, he had disappeared. We all sat down, speechless. The screening following could not have been a better pick, it was Schindler's List, arguably Steven Spielberg's best film and most memorable. Once the screening was over, the entire audience was silent. It was a truly wonderful evening and something I could not have imagined being apart of.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


Shervin Youssefian enters onto the stage with Borderline, his theatrical debut which focuses on memories and their function. The stage has proved to be a pleasant departure for Youssefian after his work on numerous short films. In 2002, his storytelling abilities on Color Blind were awarded the Hollywood Foreign Press Award. His characters are often isolated individuals within a personal, intimate situation. Borderline fits the bill and features an extremely capable cast, starring Kris Kjornes and Gavin Perry.

Borderline begins with Peter Slovak (Gavin Perry) who finds himself in the small town of Hippocampus. He is greeted by The Black Lump (Kris Kjornes), a cynical and at often times delusional character who is incapable of giving straight answers. As Peter questions the mysterious character, he also begins putting together a puzzle, trying to discover where he is and what he's doing there. The answers slowly begin to unravel as the truth becomes unbearable for him to handle.

Borderline is a filmmaker's take on the stage and requires a certain vision only a meticulous filmmaker like Youssefian is capable of. He keeps the characters moving utilizing the confinements of such a small stage. The Black Lump jumps and dashes across the stage while Peter hopelessly drags his head and follows along. Youssefian's ability to elicit these performances are what holds the entire production together.

It is the willingness and drive in his characters that allow the story to grow, and it is the capabilities and talents of his actors that keep the fire burning. The Black Lump is neurotic and full of insecurities but these qualities are embraced by Kjornes who becomes the character and proudly demonstrates its mannerisms. Peter's loving affection for Lydia is never doubted, even as he's ripped to pieces left questioning his own existence.

Borderline's underlying themes are also presented in a subtle manner, accompanied by concise and sharp dialogue that pierce the audience's skin. It maintains the ability to remain clever and offer questions, expecting the audience to reach into their own minds and find the answers. Overall, however, it suffers from its own philosophic values which ultimately curb the overall emotional resonance of the ending.

Shervin Youssefian offers a smart approach to analyzing the inner thoughts of a woman. What happens when we're tossed aside in someone's life and walked all over? In the case of Borderline, we're nothing but a memory, stored away until a dreadful soul enters and shares their side of the story. The story successfully puts together these memories and allows them to speak in a grueling process. The result is both alluring and magnetic - a solid effort all around. Borderline will continue its run on September 18, 19, 25 and October 2 and 3.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

An Academy Salute to Hal Ashby

In honor of Hal Ashby, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented Harold and Maude at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Los Angeles. Sid Ganis, the president of the Academy, began the evening by honoring Ashby with several of his own words. Cameron Crowe and Peter Bart hosted the event, which was preceded by a performance by Yusuf (formerly known as Cat Stevens). A panel discussion followed the performance and included Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, Diablo Cody, Jon Voight, Haskell Wexler and Yusuf.

Harold and Maude is both heartwarming and humorous, deserving of its recognition as a definitive classic which has since acquired a cult following. It tells the story of a morbid teenager, Harold (Bud Cort), who attempts to detach himself from his overbearing mother. Harold meets and forms a unique friendship with Maude (Ruth Gordon) as the two explore life and learn a little something about love.

Harold and Maude is a film often imitated by filmmakers trying to duplicate its dark humor within an existentialist drama. Its influence has inspired the likes of the Farrelly Brothers and Wes Anderson, as well as a handful of other writers and directors. Following the film, the audience was told to remain in their seats. Shortly thereafter, Bud Cort's name was announced as he stepped through the darkness and onto the stage.

It's hard to imagine Bud Cort standing in front of an audience who has just finished seeing Harold and Maude. In our minds, the film is timeless, and Cort is apart of such an imaginative world. Harold's relationship with Maude is both unique and full of affection - their story is both tragic and endearing. 38 years later, the relationship between Harold and Maude is still alive in our hearts and minds, as a new generation of moviegoers are introduced to their story.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Some Like It Hot

In honor of the film's 50th anniversary, The Jules Verne Festival and The Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation presented Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot at the Million Dollar Theater in Los Angeles. The event focused on Tony Curtis' achievements and contributions to film and Los Angeles in general. Prior to the film, Tony Curtis came onto the stage and received a very well-deserved standing ovation. Curtis began discussing his early career and spoke about his first meeting with Marilyn Monroe. Shortly thereafter, Curtis received an award for his contributions to the city of Los Angeles.

Some Like It Hot tells the story of two struggling musicians, Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (John Lemmon), who witness The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre. In fear of getting murdered themselves, they desperately try to flee the city. They quickly realize the only job that will pay their way is an all-girl band. Our lead characters hilariously become Josephine and Daphne, and plan to drop the act as soon as they arrive to Florida. Further complications prevent the plan from going through, and so begins the brilliance of one of the funniest films of all-time.

If you have ever wondered what a good director is supposed to do, this is the film to watch. For years, legends surrounded production problems of the film. Legend goes, Marilyn Monroe required 47 takes to perfect a specific line of dialogue. If that's not grueling enough, another scene required Monroe to rummage through some drawers and say "Where's the bourbon?" 40 takes later, Wilder had pasted the correct line in one of the drawers. Unfortunately, Monroe was confused which drawer contained the line, so Wilder pasted it in every drawer. 59 takes later, they finally got the shot. Amazingly, Billy Wilder makes everything look so easy, a true testament to his ability as a filmmaker.

The film plays beautifully, with 1950s sexual innuendo cleverly inserted and often times flying over the audience's head. Some Like It Hot is filled with laughs, so much so that we were unable to hear every piece of dialogue. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon brilliantly play their respective characters and display excellent chemistry throughout the film. If you have seen the film, you know about the classic line spoken at the end of the film. Being in a theater and seeing the film with 2,500 people was sensational; the entire theater erupted in laughter and applause, bringing the classic film back to life.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Grace is an emotional and psychological journey into terror as a young woman is forced to make the ultimate motherly sacrifice. The film focuses on Madeline Matheson (Jordan Ladd) who lives a natural lifestyle and is determined to deliver her child by natural birth. Madeline's husband Michael (Stephen Park) remains supportive of his wife's decisions while conflicted by his domineering mother, Vivian (Gabrielle Rose).

The story takes a drastic turn when a tragic car accident leaves Michael dead and the unborn child unresponsive. Madeline, however, makes the decision to carry her child to term. With the help of Dr. Patricia Lang (Samantha Ferris), Madeline gives birth to Grace. As Madeline holds her lifeless daughter, she miraculously wills her back to life. Over time, Madeline begins to realize that there is something unnatural about Grace as she is forced to make horrible sacrifices just to keep her daughter alive.

Grace is written and directed by first-time director Paul Solet, who makes an impressive directorial debut with his long-awaited film. Solet effectively displays his potential both as a storyteller and filmmaker with his ability to handle such delicate subject matters. Although the film falls under the horror genre, we seldom feel like we are watching such a film. Instead, Grace relies on a strong character-driven dramatic approach. Ultimately, the film deeply explores the horror genre while reinventing the craft.

While the film features multiple storylines within the main plot, it effectively creates parallels between the characters. Solet's writing style also shows maturity as the film brilliantly concentrates on mother-son relationships, which are further explored through the second half of the film. Surprisingly, the film was shot in a mere 17 days. For this reason and many others, Paul Solet is the star of the film despite the creativity energy pouring in from all angles. Grace is a fresh breath of air both for the horror genre and for filmmaking in general.

Unlike other horror films, Solet’s writing style allows the film’s characters to adapt to their respective situations. While Madeline leads a somewhat content lifestyle with her husband, her ability to transcend into paranoia displays radiance in the screenplay. While simultaneously focusing on a much deeper theme of mother-son relationships, Solet is able to pace the film in a rather compelling manner. More importantly, it is Solet’s abilities as a director to emphasize these intricate themes and allow them to develop within a horror film.

Grace has been on quite a journey since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2009. The filmmakers have traveled across the globe, from Utah and Dallas to France and Scotland, finally making their way in Los Angeles to the School of Cinematic Arts at USC. While Grace gained some additional attention after two men fainted during Sundance, there was a supposed third victim during the screening at USC. A discussion panel followed the screening and included Paul Solet along with actress Jordan Ladd, producer Adam Green, director of photography Zoran Popovic, production designer Martina Buckley and composer Austin Wintory.

Prior to the discussion, we were told Paul Solet's 30th birthday was several hours away. Solet was given a baby carriage carrying the original "Baby Grace" from his first short film, while the audience began singing "Happy Birthday." Later, Martina Buckley described Solet as a "beautiful man." I had the opportunity to speak with the director after the discussion and truly felt her description was an understatement. Paul Solet is a kind and generous man, whose creativity shines through his debut film. Grace is a film worth seeing, not only for its subtle ingenuity but also because of its labor of love. Although Solet mentioned Grace will be given a theatrical release, Anchor Bay Entertainment has officially scheduled a release date for its DVD and Blu-ray for September 15, 2009.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Reality Ends Here

In 1929, a collaboration between the University of Southern California and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences resulted in the first university in the country to offer a Bachelor of Arts degree in film. The school's founding faculty included Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, William C. DeMille, Ernst Lubitsch, Irving Thalberg, and Darryl Zanuck.

In 1939, USC alumnus A. Arnold Gillespie became the school's first Academy Award winner, which he earned for Special Effects in The Wizard of Oz. Since 1973, there has been at least one alumnus of the School of Cinematic Arts that has been nominated for an Academy Award, totaling 256 nominations and 78 wins.

In 2009, eighty years after the school was founded, I was accepted to the School of Cinematic Arts to study Critical Studies. Dreams do come true.