The first full year at The Seventh Row has been a big one, with coverage of Sundance, Cannes, The San Francisco International Film Festival, and the Toronto International Film Festival. Here’s a look at the best film posts at The Seventh Row in 2014, which includes both reviews and interviews.
I took my first stab at reviewing “Boyhood” at Sundance in January, and though it was a decent piece, I still wasn’t able to put my finger on how the film works its magic. After seeing it three times, I reviewed it in July, and I think the piece captures how much I love it, why it was so personal to me, and why it made me feel all the feelings it did. Here’s an excerpt from the review:
“When Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is about twelve, the last traces of baby fat still present, he spends a weekend camping and swimming with his father, Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke), who gives him some advice about how to talk to girls: “You have to ask them lots of questions, and then you have to listen, and actually be interested in the answers.” One moment they’re packing up camp, and the next, Mason is walking and talking with a girl (Evie Thompson) from school, following this advice, only he’s shot up and slimmed down, and it’s a year later. By the next year, he’ll be in the backseat of a car with her, making out. He grows up in the blink of an eye.”
2. Interview: Director Frederick Wiseman talks “National Gallery,” his editing process, and directing theatre
In November, I had the rare opportunity to sit down with documentary master Frederick Wiseman to talk about his latest film “National Gallery.” Highlights included: why he chose to shoot the paintings in the frame in “National Gallery,” how he told the story of narrative paintings in film terms, which of his films he would recommend watching first as an introduction to his work, how he edits his films, and how being a documentary director makes him uniquely equipped to direct theatre. Here’s an excerpt on why there are no panning shots in “National Gallery”:
“There are no panning shots, because I don’t like panning shots. But there are lots of, in some of the story paintings, like Holbein’s “The Ambassadors,” you see closeups of different parts of the paintings. I cut those close-ups to be linked to what the guide was saying about the painting. But at the same time, you’re both seeing the whole painting, but you’re seeing the painting in serial form, which is different from the way you look at a painting in a gallery. But [it’s] similar to the way you look at a sequence in a movie, or read a chapter of a novel, or the whole novel.”
“Throughout, Östlund pushes all the events just to the edge of absurdity, to find the comedy in an uncomfortable situation. It’s a tough balancing act between getting us to engage emotionally with the characters – and we can’t help but be heartbroken when we see the two siblings holding each other, crying, after a big fight between their parents – and to look at them from enough distance that we can laugh at their misfortune.
The long takes with still, carefully composed shots help, especially as there are never any close-ups. We’re always kept at a physical distance from the characters. But this also means that multiple characters are often in frame simultaneously – a necessity if you’re not going to move the camera – which gives us a ton of information about the relationships and alliances between them, as well as fueling much of the comedy.”
4. Interview: Director Damien Chazelle talks jazz drumming, the bubble of big band jazz, and the genesis of “Whiplash”
As one of the few film critics who are also serious jazz fans, I stuck to fairly technical questions for Chazelle about his jazz drumming drama “Whiplash.” I discovered that the conflict between teacher and student arose from the natural conflict that exists between the drummer and the conductor of a jazz big band, and that like me, Chazelle didn’t think that Andrew (Miles Teller) had raw talent. He’s quite articulate about his work, and how he achieved what he was going for, but I think what he was going for is a big part of the problem with the film. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:
“The irony is, because there’s more people in a big band, than [in] a combo, I always felt more isolated in a big band than in a combo. There is more of a dialogue, an intimate dialogue, that happens in small combos. I think, also, it’s because of the role the conductor plays. When you have a big band, suddenly there’s an authority structure, at least in a school setting, where the conductor is not like Count Basie, who’s playing the piano and also somewhat leading the band. It’s not Buddy Rich who’s playing the drums and somewhat conducting the band, as well. Literally, there is a person who only conducts. So that creates this authority structure that immediately brings to mind stuff like, authoritarian structures, brings to mind the army – things that have nothing to do with music, nothing to do with jazz.”
Much to my surprise, I was one of the only critics to complain about the lack of diversity in the cast of the all-white “The F Word,” which rings false for a film about yuppies in the proudly multicultural downtown Toronto. Nevertheless, the film is charming and makes Toronto look great, and you can certainly sense my longing for the city as a Toronto-born ex-pat.
“With its warm colour palette of bright reds, greens, and blues, “The F Word” – or “What If” as its been retitled for its US release – brings the same romanticism to Toronto that so many films before it have devoted to Manhattan. The twenty-something hipsters of “The F Word” spend their afternoons on Queen West, frequent diners in the East End (notably George St Diner), catch movies at The Royal in Little Italy, play ping pong at Spin Toronto, and get married on the Toronto Islands. Toronto hasn’t looked this good on film since Atom Egoyan’s “Chloe,” but most of that was shot within a two-block radius. Dowse’s canvas is broader, and even more impressively, largely geographically accurate and specific. …
Yet, for a film that purports to be the Toronto as Toronto romantic comedy (at last!), there’s something very wrong with the fact that the entire cast is white. I mean, does anyone in Toronto have exclusively white friends? Except maybe white supremacists? Toronto prides itself on its multiculturalism, and you’d have to try hard to avoid it. Inter-racial romantic relationships are often the norm, and at minimum, Wallace and Chantry, both educated downtown yuppies, should be expected to have some people-of-colour friends, but they don’t.”
The review explains how my work as a PhD Candidate in Industrial Engineering (where I build computer models) made me more forgiving of the film’s many flaws as it’s one of the few STEM-related films of the year that is both actually about the work and gets most of the science right. Here’s an excerpt from the review:
“There’s a crucial moment in “The Imitation Game,” the new biopic about Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) cracking the unbreakable German Enigma Code during World War II, when the code-cracking gang at Bletchley Park realises that the Germans end their dispatches with the phrase “Heil Hitler.” This Eureka moment emerges from an offhand comment, but if you’ve ever written a line of code, you’ll understand just how profoundly it changes the playing field — and just how exciting that feeling of finally solving the problem is.
I’m pretty sure the reason I was practically pumping my fist in the air at this point is because I’ve written lots of code. I understood that they’d just developed their first meaningful algorithm. A scientific revolution in computing just happened, and I understood why this made it possible to crack the impossible code. Although the film lays out early on the difficulty of the task, and we get to see just how quickly the machine figures things out with this new information, the inner-workings of what’s really happened is only subtly portrayed. If you haven’t coded, you’ll have to go by the suddenly fast-moving, swiveling camera, and the energy with which the entire cast starts running from place to place, to understand that excitement is in the air — something big just happened. You might feel a little manipulated, too.”
7. Interview: Eddie Redmayne talks Stephen Hawking, preparing for the role, and shooting out of order
I interviewed Redmayne about the very technical aspects of preparing for his role in “The Theory of Everything” and found out that film may be more of an actor’s medium than we may have thought. A huge amount of preparation, doing both inside-out and outside-in work went into this performance. Here’s an excerpt from the interview about how he dealt with playing Hawking at his most physically immobile:
“What’s interesting is that the mobility restrictions sound passive, but actually it was reactive, because it’s not like your muscles just stop here. Actually, they end up in these…The most exhausting part of the filming process was at the most physically immobile, because you’re not just sitting inactively, you’re actually pulling in, and you’re, all of these muscles [points to face] are sort of tense. And you’re activating muscles that you don’t normally use. So things like breath, how quickly you’re breathing, how quickly you’re blinking. So actually it becomes much more…
What I found interesting about it, particularly on film, because the camera is so close, is that all of that energy is coming out to here. On film, you’re always taught, when you’re starting out, do nothing — the camera sees. But what’s interesting is, if you actually take any of those shots, when he’s at his most immobile, you’ll see that it’s more physically extreme, as in, like, more is happening, than you’ll ever normally see on screen.
So it looks sort of still, but actually, it’s the most…So what it took me was really looking at Stephen in documentary, and in the mirror, and having the, I suppose, the confidence to go, “no, you’ve got to go further here.” It’s not about pulling back. It’s about pushing forward.”
It’s a review in which I get very personal about the profound impact Ebert’s work had on me even at an early age, and how this complex portrait of him in Steve James’s doc is a reminder of just why we love movies.
“I grew up watching “Siskel and Ebert and The Movies.” It was a weekly ritual in my house, helping us decide what to see that weekend. The show struck something deep, and inspired me to start writing film reviews at a very young age: I was in grade 6 and I started my own magazine. It was through their television show that Siskel and Ebert became the world’s most powerful and influential film critics.
Ebert had been working at the Chicago Sun Times part time while he pursued a PhD in English, when its film critic retired, and he was appointed his successor. At the time, critics were often interchangeable: at the Chicago Tribune, they wrote under the nom de plume “Mae Tinee” (matinee). Of course, he was one of the people that changed all that, following in the footsteps of Pauline Kael: unfortunately, the debt he owes her, including the degree to which he was influenced by her, is not handled well in the film.”
As a diehard fan of the books, I get into why this third installment of The Hunger Games series is less effective than the previous ones and than the book itself. Here’s an excerpt from the review:
“In “Mockingjay: Part 1,” the latest installment of “The Hunger Games” films, director Francis Lawrence has us spend a lot of time staring at hover crafts – taking off, flying, landing, sitting inert – and very little time observing character beats — even though they’ve split the final book into two installments. Then again, the films have always been more interested in action, in Katniss’s (Jennifer Lawrence) hero arc, than in the depth of the trauma that comes with it.
The films tell a straightforward story, losing most of the nuances about personal mythology and coping with unbearable pain that made the books exceptional. There are glimpses of something more complex in some of the film’s best and most haunting scenes. But this adaptation never hits the emotional peaks “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” did. That’s partly because the previous films excised important events that become even more important in “Mockingjay,” and it’s partly because of the screenwriters’ (Danny Strong and Peter Craig) decision to expand the plot and action and continue to elide the scenes that most served character development.”
I’m most proud of the “Gossip Girl” reference in my lede, but it’s also one of my best pieces of festival coverage. Here’s an excerpt from the review:
“The lads of The Riot Club – an exclusive club for 10 of Oxford University’s richest and brightest young men – make Chuck Bass (“Gossip Girl”), at his rapiest, look like a prince. And this is a guy who traded the love of his life for a hotel before sleeping with his barely consenting step-sister. Like Chuck Bass, these boys were raised in the lap of luxury and privilege. As they say in Britain, they’re posh, which comes with special customs, accents, and terminology.
They dress in tailored suits, live on large estates, take dinner in tuxedoes as if they’re still living in “Downton Abbey,” and acquire status through family income, titles, and a prestigious high school alma mater: Eton (where Tom Hiddleston went) is the most prestigious, but those who attended Westminster or even Harrow (Benedict Cumberbatch’s alma mater) are also granted a seat at the table. And they have so much pocket cash that they can casually dispose of a Lamborghini should someone vomit in it. Their customs may be outdated, but make no mistake, the film is set in the present day, where a text message can wreak havoc.”