Side by Side is the riveting new documentary written and directed by Christopher Kenneally about the advent of digital filmmaking and its growing popularity over celluloid.  It’s a must see for anyone interested in filmmaking; who is making films; or who just likes film period. 

It’s narrated by Keanu Reeves in a bit more of an energetic voice that one usually hears from him (there’s nary a “whoa, dude” in sight).  I’m not sure why he made the film, but I’m glad he did and it’s one of his best performances.  Reeves takes us on a journey of the history of digital, from its early days  of development in the 1960’s to the present day where digital’s presence is felt in almost every nook and cranny of filmmaking and in almost every movie, whether made on celluloid or not.  

The movie’s basic thesis is that we are on the precipice of a new era of filmmaking, and the movie is very convincing in sharing the palpable excitement people have in using this new technology.  One of the key historical moments is the movie Festen (The Celebration) made in 1998 under the Dogma 95 doctrine of taking a more immediate and realistic approach to a film’s subject matter.  It was one of the first films made using a digital approach and when Danny Boyle saw it, it was like Ingrid Bergman’s response to seeing a movie by Roberto Rossellini—he had never seen anything like it before, but he just had to be involved in some way and thus he made 28 Days Later.  Soon more and more people jumped on the bandwagon, especially as the technology just kept improving and growing, like that scene in the Buster Keaton movie Seven Chances where a rock rolling down a hill becomes two rocks, then three, then an avalanche.   Festen was my favorite movie of 1998, but I had no idea it had the potential of being the Citizen Kane of its generation.

Half of the documentary is a series of talking head interviews of various generations, the old timers and the up and coming bucks.   For some, digital is like the Blob, just growing bigger and bigger as it engulfs every movie along its way.  For others, it’s like the pods from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, taking over while no one was looking and resulting in a less human and emotional product.   The other half of the film is a narrated history of digital, not just in cinematography, but also in editing and special effects, and how it all works.  This part may feel a bit dry a times (a friend of mine called it just a tad too industrial), and I can’t disagree with that. 

But if there is anything really wrong with the structure, it’s that the movie is divided into sections and as one section would end, the talking heads became more and more (to paraphrase Shakespeare) “O brave new world that has such filmmaking possibilities in it” backed up by inspirational music.   Every time this happened, one swore the movie was over; but no, it just kept on going and going and going like the Energizer Bunny. 

But I didn’t care.  It’s a thrilling and challenging film making one excited about what may be waiting on the cinematic horizon.  It will not all be good, of course.  If anyone can make a movie (as one talking head said, the advent of digital is the democratization of making films), then the number of bad movies will probably increase, at least for awhile (since as yet another talking head told us, there is no real tastemaker right now).  But if anyone can make a movie, then talented people (as Lena Dunham, writer/ director of Tiny Furniture and Girls, countered) who would never have been able to break into the industry before, now have almost no barriers to creating their art.

There were some filmmaker holdouts.   For many, mainly those who were previously entrenched in the earlier method of making films, it’s a march or die situation, and most seemed to have not only joined the ranks of the new, they are also discovering the advantages of the new technology.  But others come across as Luddites, feeling that digital can never equal the greatness of celluloid and that by using digital, filmmakers and technicians are lowering the standard of an art form.  One would like to sympathize with people like David Fincher and Christopher Nolan.  The only problem is that they both came across as middle aged counterparts of those curmudgeons Clint Eastwood now plays all the time.   And in the end, this is where films are going.  One can man the barricades all one wants, but it’s only a matter of time before the barbarians break down the gates.


Cosmopolis is a “where to begin” film…where to begin…yes, where to begin.  Well, I suppose that in the end all one can do is be as honest as possible and say, as much as it saddens me since it was written and directed by idiosyncratic and ambitious filmmaker David Cronenberg, that Cosmopolis is…terrible, just terrible, a misfire from beginning to end, with almost no redeeming value whatsoever.   At the same time, I could never take my eyes off the screen.  Was it because I was hoping that it would all turn into something, anything?  Was it because I was watching a train wreck in slow motion?  Was it because I was in shock over the idea that so much talent had been put to use for a movie that was so obviously not working and no one seems to know it?  I don’t know.  But I just couldn’t look away.

The story revolves around twenty-eight year old billionaire Eric Packer who decides to take his state of the art limo (if state of the art means a vehicle normally used in futuristic sci-fi films) to get a haircut, an Odyssey like journey made more difficult by the city being confronted by Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and a visit from the president.   The movie probably gets off to a weak start by leaving out a key event, an opening scene where the audience is informed that Packer is hemorrhaging all his money, a scene which would give context to almost all of his actions, especially his primary one of wanting to get a short back and sides (rather, we have to read between the lines to get this, rarely the best choice in a screenplay).   Instead, we are told there may be a threat on Packer’s life, something that gives the story no context at all.  

At the same time, it’s doubtful that such a scene would have ultimately helped much since the movie is mostly a series of pax de deuxs in which people have intellectual conversations in highly stylized language that makes anything anyone says sounds like they’re speaking Klingon.   The rest of it revolves around Packer having sex (with an art dealer fuck buddy; one of his body guards; and his doctor who gives him a prostrate exam that nearly gives him an orgasm).  Oh, yes, he also occasionally runs into his wife where he spends time asking her when they are going to have sex again.  And the majority of it happens in the back of his four wheeled penteconter which crawls at such a snail’s pace, it looks like it’s going backwards at times (Ulysses got home in less time than it takes Packer to get to his barbershop). 

My hats are off to all of the actors—well, most of them.  Filled with such stellar performers as Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton and Paul Giamatti, they’re so devoted to their characters, they actually had me convinced at times they new what their lines meant, though I still question whether they did.

But then there’s Robert Pattinson, who plays the callow Packer.  Where to begin.  Yes, where to begin.  First, in full disclosure, I have never been able to get through a Twilight film.  I even consider it one of those movies whose damage is far greater than anyone suspects.  Because of the franchise’s success, we are going to be burdened with film after film in which the leads are given to Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, who just don’t have the heft or ability to carry them off (I call it the Love Story curse).   Pattinson mumbles through most of his lines (it worked for Marlon Brando, but not so much here), never once convincing in his role.  Though it’s easy to understand why he was cast as a vampire in those other films (every time you look at his mouth, you swear he has fangs for teeth), his casting here may be a bit more puzzling.

In the end, the best performance is given by the limo Packer rides in.  It’s a sleek black number (at least on the inside—so slimming, you know), with a leather throne, couch, computers, television, fully stocked and fully lit bars, and a urinal.  It slowly gets covered by graffiti and dented up along the way, which means it also has the most fully developed character arc as well.


Why is it that when I watch a rom com with Jennifer Aniston, Katherine Heigel, and Sandra Bullock, nine times out of ten, I could care less who is in love with who or even if anybody ever falls in love with anyone else, yet when I watched the delightful and surprising Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same, I was very much caught up in whether the two heroines, Jane (a somewhat full figured, lonely lesbian) and Zoinx (a bald headed other worldly creature out of a bad 1950’s sci-fi b-movie), would manage to get together by the time the movie was over? 

Codependent Lesbian… begins on another planet that is having global warming problems caused not by greenhouse emissions, but by the release of positive emotions (stay with me on this one).  These positive emotions leave the body and poke holes in the ozone layer (negative emotions have no effect whatsoever).  The planetary counsel has decided that all citizens who fall in love need to be sent to earth so that they can fall in love there and have their heart broken (as always happens to anybody who falls in love on our planet), so that when they return, they will never fall in love again and will not release positive emotions.  But problems arise when Jane does not break Zoinx’s heart and true love refuses to go away.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. Well, maybe I don’t, but it’s probably something along the line of, “you’ve got to be kidding me.”  But no, I’m not.  That is the basic plot.  The screenplay is based on a play and one can detect the wild, campy, off the rails movement that took place off- and off- off- Broadway starting in the 1960’s and was made famous by the two Charles, Ludlam and Busch, with such plays as The Mystery of Irma Vep, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and other outgrowths of the Theater of the Ridiculous. 

The movie itself, written and directed by Madeleine Olnek, is amateurish and obviously a first film, but like such films that formed the rise of indies in the late 1980’s and 90’s (like Sex, Lies and Videotape, Clerks and The Living End), what it lacks in professionalism, it makes up for with wit, cleverness, a need to make lemon out of lemonades and a passion to do something that the filmmaker believes in.  The performances by Lisa Haas (as the lonely “plain” Jane) and Susan Ziegler (as Zoinx) are fun and the two actors are quite captivating.  It was often filmed geurilla style on the streets and in the restaurants of New York and since it was the Big Apple, none of the passerbys ever thought twice at the odd looking aliens and their even odder goings on.  And it’s backed by some of the worse special effects since the films of Ed Wood. 

The result is a romantic comedy that puts studio formulaic movies to shame and is the sort of thing one wishes more indie filmmakers would do.


The Imposter is a WTF film, one of those truth is stranger than fiction and you have to see this to believe it, movie.  For those who have seen The Changeling with Angela Jolie, you’ve already experienced a story that has some of the aspects of this one, though this one is even more WTF than that one, because the motivations of the characters involved are so much clearer in Jolie’s movie than the one here.

In Spain, a teenager claiming to be a sixteen year old American taken from his home three years earlier is discovered by the police.  He eventually identifies himself as Nicholas, who disappeared from the San Antonio home of mother Beverly Dollarhide a few years earlier.  He’s returned to his home and everyone welcomes him with open arms as if he were the prodigal.  The problem is that he wasn’t Nicholas; and not just wasn’t, but ludicrously wasn’t.  He wasn’t sixteen, he was twenty-three.  He didn’t have the same color eyes.  He wasn’t even Spanish.  His real name is Frederic Bourdin, a French citizen who had already spent much of his life pretending to be someone else.  How he got away with this and why people were convinced and/or allowed him to get away with it makes up the bulk of the movie. 

In essence Frederic is a sociopath, though not the violent psychopath kind that one usually sees in movies and police procedurals (most sociopaths are relatively harmless and, after all, without them, we probably wouldn’t have any actors or politicians).  But if he wasn’t who he claimed to be, then why did people believe it and, perhaps more importantly, what happened to the real Nathanial (to this date, he has never been heard from)?  And as Nathanial’s stories became more and more unbelievable and ridiculous, why did everyone just double down and believe him even more?

This documentary is directed by Bart Layton in the Errol Morris style: close ups against grey backgrounds or in natural surroundings (minus the unflattering light Morris often uses) as well as recreated scenes, resulting in some of the most striking, if not at times eerie, moments where the actor playing Frederic as the “sixteen” year old mouths the words and body language of the older Frederic as he talks to the camera. 

The film is a fascinating study of human nature, not because of the questions it answers, but because of the questions it doesn’t.  Layton creates almost as much tensions and suspense here as in any Hollywood studio film about super heroes.  You watch it and just keep going, WTF, WTF.

I don’t believe artists in the U.S. realize just how terrified the government is of artists who have something to say.  In the new documentary by Alison Klayman, Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry, the title character, the internationally renown Chinese artist and provocateur, made his reputation not just by creating beautiful sculptures and art installations, but by throwing it and his life in the government’s face. 

Ai Wei Wei, for most of his adult life, managed to create his art with little interference from the government (unlike friend and poet Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize while imprisoned for speaking out against the authorities).  Part of the opening up of the Chinese culture in the 1970’s, Ai Wei Wei didn’t let that stop him from taking J’accuse stances against those in control.  Perhaps his most moving was a response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.  A number of very young school girls died, but the government refused to release a list of names or even a death toll.  Ai Wei Wei sent a number of volunteers to the surrounding areas to talk to the families and gather the names themselves and then he listed them on his blog.  When his blog was shut down, he took to Twitter. 

Ai Wei Wei finally proved too much for the government (especially over his constant legal pursuit against the police over being struck by one of them in an angry confrontation—an attack that led to an operation when he started having constant headaches).  He was picked up and disappeared for a number of months.  When released, the man who once had a Santa Clause waistline, was now holding up his pants with his hands, an uncertainty in his face at being forbidden to speak to the media, instructions he followed for awhile, but then there he was, giving an interview to the BBC.  

The movie, uplifting and inspiring, is a must see.    It’s an amazing character of a man who is a remarkably still and serene point in an often ridiculously turning world, while at the same time, bristles as any son does when an overbearing mother comes to visit.  The more I watched it, the more all I could think was that I just don’t believe artists in the U.S. realize just how terrified the government is of artists who have something to say. 


My next column about observations I’ve had while reading scripts for contests this year will be short and can be summed up by the cliché: where are the police when you need them. So many times I read screenplays where people are threatened, abducted, attacked, mugged, robbed, see something going on, stumble over a dead body, wake up next to a dead body (fill in the blank here), etc. and they don’t call the police, not because they don’t have a reason not to, but because if they did, the plot wouldn’t work out the way the author needs it to.  You really need to have a very strong and convincing reason for people not to contact the authorities for it to get past a reader the vast majority of time (we read a lot of screenplays and the more we run across scripts with this sort of plot turn, the more likely we’re going to recommend one that doesn’t have that plot turn).   
Connected to this are scripts where bad guys are killing people, causing mass destruction, having wild chase scenes and shoot outs, and the police never show up, even late, or take the remotest interest.  Again, you have to have a very good reason for this. 
When questioned why a writer does this, they often will say that “it’s just the genre”.  Remember this very carefully: if you say that you are doing something based solely on genre expectations, nine times out of ten, that is code for cliché and lack of imagination.  Add to this that more often than naught, it shows one doesn’t have a good grasp of the genre.  And if a character is doing something based on genre expectation, that means that the character is doing something because he knows he’s a character in a screenplay.