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Oscar Season Diary #12: How Soon Is Too Soon? Don’t Take “Big Eyes” Reactions To Heart

Stars On The Set Of "Big Eyes"

So often does Oscar season turn into a public war of tastes that we lose sight of the race that’s happening right in front of us.

The Oscar race is an ever-evolving beast. With the influence of the online community, the court of social media, and the guilds and critics circles all jockeying to push films into the race before anyone else, Oscar Season now stretches across the better part of a year where it used to fit comfortably within the confines of a few months’ time.

As early as May, just a little over two months since the Oscar telecast, we find the discussion revolving around the traditionally un-Oscary Cannes Film Festival. We can try to talk about it in an Oscar context all we want, but that festival will never be a legitimate stepping stone across the Academy pond. The ideologies of both the Oscars and Cannes force an undeniable divide; one is there for the satisfaction of studios and English-speaking audiences (namely the United States, of course), while the other is a celebration of the congregation of art, cinema, and culture along the shores of France’s finest coastline.

Still, the Oscar pundits want to do their shoving, their squeezing, their hammering of the season’s potential players into the respective boxes they’ve cut out for them–whether they fit or not. Of course, aside from Cannes, the reality is that we’ve barely scratched the surface of the festivals that matter in an Oscar context. Telluride, Toronto, and Venice are all still some time away, with slates that have yet to be announced.

And here we find ourselves squabbling about Oscar potential from all ends of the arena. Just last week, a focus group screening was held for Tim Burton’s much buzzed-about Big Eyes, a live-action biopic about the life of artist Walter Keane and his wife, Margaret. In attendence were general audience members and Oscar bloggers alike (apparently the Awards Watch crew attended).

Granted, even before we saw pictures from the set, the film’s cards were presumably aligned for awards season greatness: Tim Burton, a beloved and iconic filmmaker, has yet to win (or be nominated , for that matter) for an Oscar for a live-action film, and Big Eyes boasts a cast that features Oscar-charged talent like Christoph Waltz (two-time winner),  Danny Elfman (four-time nominee), and Bruno Delbonnel (four-time nominee).

Burton has assembled a gaggle of overdue players that, in an ideal world, sets the stage quite nicely for Oscar legacy/career awards for himself, Elfman, and Delbonnel. It’s Amy Adams’ turn in the other lead role, however, that has Oscar pundits’ hearts aflutter.

Since 2005, Adams has gone five Oscar nominations deep without a win. Her rabid online fan base is keen on 2014 being her year to finally win; whether it’s just another bout with wishful thinking (that her fans should have long grown tired of by now, as this seems to be the same story heading into every Oscar year after her second nomination in 2008 for Doubt) or a legitimate prophecy remains to be seen, but that doesn’t stop those with a voice–hidden behind the screen and typed word–from shouting praises from her end of the ring.

Awards Watch was quick to spout about guaranteed nominations for Waltz and Adams. Others chimed in with–what seemed to be–overwhelming approval for Adams’ performance. She’s been “overdue” in the eyes of her fanbase for quite some time, and while it can absolutely work in your favor when final ballots go out (and your name is on them, as happened with Kate Winslet in 2008), the art of being “overdue” has little relevance this early in the race, especially when applied to the awards season trajectories of Julianne Moore (who won Best Actress at Cannes for Maps to the Stars) and Amy Adams here.

Still, that doesn’t stop the internet age from fostering a community where self-importance breeds a necessity for anyone from an Oscar blogger to a nobody to push something–anything–into the race, but it’s simply unwise to make guarantees this early in the game.

It’s completely safe for people who’ve seen Big Eyes to speculate on nominations and gauge a film’s potential, but prophesizing a win at this point? It’s ridiculous, and it’s an increasing trend in the digital age. I’m all for using an informed perspective to gauge how well something will do at the Oscars, but with major performances by actresses who are–quite frankly–better than Amy Adams in general that haven’t been seen yet (along with the fact that we don’t even know if these buzzed-about performances will be campaigned in lead or supporting), it’s very unwise (and potentially detrimental to Adams’ awards trajectory this year) to peg her as a winner this early.

Remember how the eye of the target immediately became 12 Years a Slave when Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan in September declared it the Best Picture winner? Early praise (and such definitive statements) make the film in question both the sexiest dish for a minute, and immediately fodder for the online court to push it to the background as the “obvious” choice. Early praise is essentially helping a film on its way to front-running to instant death. This early, it’s nothing more than loudness for loudness’ sake.

Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 8.03.21 PMThe guys over at Awards Watch are borderline obsessed with their red-headed divas, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but giving them early access to an already-hyped potential vehicle for Adams’ long-awaited Oscar only runs the risk of inflating their reaction, which I guess is good press from the studio’s marketing standpoint. The problem with taking these types of early Twitter reactions seriously in the grand scheme of the race, though, is that they’re immediate, unfiltered, and squished into 140 characters, where you’re forced to talk bigger instead of talking better, and inflated again by the fanboys on forums and blogs that seek them out after the screening. Audiences and pundits are waiting for an excuse to explode with praise for a film that’s already charged with Oscar conversation, especially this early in the year. This seems to happen every time an Oscar movie is screened early. They’ll freak out and heap praise immediately because:

A) They’re excited that they’ve seen it before everyone else
B) It fills the egos of those who’ve seen it because they were able to see it before anyone else, so of course they’re going to capitalize on that esteem by inflating their reaction as a means to validate the fact that, well, they’ve seen it before anyone else

I’m not doubting Adams’ performance at all. I actually have high hopes for it, though it’s just really tough for me to take seriously the opinion of an Adams’ fanboys who were given early access to one of her films, but the excitement (and the thirst) of those who’ve seen the film already is far too real and pre-established to amount to a serious reaction or gauging of her placement in the race thus far, and preview screenings without embargoes on audience reaction are only tools to aid in the film’s publicity machine.

It’s important to pay attention to people’s reactions to these screenings as a whole, and not take the word of a few loud individuals who want to make their opinion on the film matter more than the collective. As a whole, it seems like people liked Adams’ performance. If you dig deeper, you’ll find that a good number of people actually feel that Waltz outshines her (see Oh No They Didn’t!’s review by clicking here).

The opinions of these chosen few don’t mean anything more or less than that, and a single day of screenings should, by no means, be used to say that an actress is going to win the Oscar when the landscape she’ll be competing in hasn’t even been laid out yet. It’s just irresponsible and false amplification of an untested, tiny sliver of a much larger race with fixings that have yet to fall entirely into place.

It all amount to little more than jockeying for the pole position, to being able to shout one’s own stance at Ground Zero, and our obsession with “being there” at the beginning instead of being in the moment when everything’s unfolding is turning the Oscar race into a dull screaming match between voices that don’t really matter.

As much as we’d like to gain control, to wrangle our favorites from the grasp of the studios who fuel their Oscar campaigns and steer them along the path to greatness, we lose sight of one thing: it’s all in the hands of the Academy, and we must surrender control until the time to intervene is just right. Keep the shouting to a minimum until all the pieces are in play, no?

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

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‘Edge of Tomorrow’ and the Age of the Great American Flop

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The dust has settled after the typical weekend clash; tentpole after tentpole, soaring budget after soaring budget coming for each other’s throats and the number-one slot at the box-office. Prestige is in the numbers, and it’s clear that the box-office titans of years past have little sustainable clout with the contemporary audience.

Tom Cruise is one of those hardened box-office warriors whose armor is beginning to crack. His Edge of Tomorrow, which reportedly cost around $178 million to produce, earned an estimated $29 million this past weekend, well below what a film of this caliber should be hauling in. Cruise isn’t the only megastar to fall short of expectations as of late; Johnny Depp hasn’t carried a film to more than $80 million in the U.S. since he last rode the waves of the Pirates of the Caribbean series back in 2011, and Will Smith’s After Earth earned only $60 million from American audiences just last year. It’s becoming ever-apparent that:

1)       The age of the “movie star” and box-office success going hand-in-hand is dead

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2)      The American industry is driving itself into the ground with a stacked slate of tentpoles that never have a chance for survival

There’s nothing  wrong with shifting away from individuals toward broader appeal and familiarity (with a young adult novel, a comic book, a long-standing superhero franchise, etc.)  to secure box-office success, but it’s hard to let it go nonetheless. While Depp, Smith, and Cruise—whose last film to ride past $100 million domestic without the help of pre-established series popularity (the Mission Impossible series) was 2005’s War of the Worlds—find their films doing well in overseas markets (Depp’s The Lone Ranger earned $170 million in foreign receipts, while Smith’s After Earth raked in $183 million), their domestic fall from grace isn’t due to an indifferent general public. The worldwide appeal is there.

Quality is something audiences still value; Edge of Tomorrow received near universal acclaim from critics and moviegoers alike. Warner Bros. pushed a major pre-release campaign that hinged the film’s success on good word of mouth; the studio held at least three preview screenings in many major markets over the last few weeks, and the reaction was largely positive. If you build it, they will come in droves—if it’s free, as most word of mouth screenings are.

The problem with today’s film industry is not that that the tentpoles (for the most part) are inferior works (Godzilla, Edge of Tomorrow, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are just a few examples of 2014 blockbusters with stellar critical reviews), it’s just that the industry is overcrowding its own shell and pushing itself out of every orifice.

Edge of Tomorrow never had a shot; riding between Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent last weekend and the YA adaptation The Fault in Our Stars this week, Cruise was sandwiched in between two event pictures with a much higher profile than his—which rode on his star appeal alone. Maleficent is Angelina Jolie’s first live-action turn in four years and appeals to the grossly-underrepresented female audience, and The Fault in Our Stars comes pre-packaged with an audience comprised of fans of the novel it’s based on. The market for Edge was satiated only two weeks prior with X-Men and Godzilla. In short, Cruise didn’t have a home in the crowd.

If we look back to the beginning of the blockbuster—let’s just use Jaws, for example—the films themselves were an event that rode through to success simply on being an event. From its opening on June 20, 1975 through the next 30 days of release, Jaws never made more than $7 million per weekend. Let’s jump to 1997, when Titanic—which went on to hold the record for top-grossing domestic release until Avatar in 2009–opened to $28 million in December, followed by a steady stream of weekend grosses ranging from $35 million to $1 million when it fell out of the Top 10 exactly six months later.

Sure, the blockbuster was a new concept in 1975, and the 1990s were heavy on action-oriented films, but the success of films with astronomical budgets was not entirely dependent on how top-heavy a studio could make a film. Blockbusters are becoming so frequent that they’re the norm, not the event.

So far in 2014, we’ve seen approximately 13 major blockbuster releases; that’s an average of nearly two per month thus far, though the majority of them have fallen in the summer release window. Seven films with budgets of over $100 million (some coming in at nearly $200 million) have been released since April; 5 more uber-expensive tentpoles will release from now until August. That number would have been 6, but Warner Bros. pulled Jupiter Ascending from its original July release date and re-slated it for February of next year (they cite issues with post-production and visual effects, but it seems like the studio was feeling burned from the heat of competition).

When blockbusters are released in rapid fire succession like this, there’s bound to be ones that slip through the cracks. It’s simply unwise to create an industry where bloated-budget films fail not on quality, but because they’re no longer capable of being “event” pictures because the event is now the standard.

The fact remains that we’re seeing consistently-underperforming films with budgets of over $100 million. Foreign audiences (namely Asian markets) have shaped American productions for quite some time now, but something needs to be said for the American audience becoming an afterthought.

There’s nothing that separates a film like Edge of Tomorrow or Pacific Rim—two quality productions deemed “flops” because their budgets far outweighed their American grosses—from each other or from other action-oriented an event that makes them worthier of the general audience’s dollar. Audiences would rather save their money for a brand they’re familiar with (Marvel, DC, etc.) instead of risking it on a title they have no prior relationship with.

But, as the top-heavy numbers get bigger, the studios get more ambitious and the competition gets stiffer; this would explain why May box-office hit its lowest levels since 2010; the drop-off for huge openers is part of the equation when you go bigger, harder, and faster on tiny little legs trekking up a mountain of buzzy pre-release anticipation. If we take a look at the Top 100 opening weekends of all time, 80 of them were released between 2004 and 2014, 18 of them within the last year alone. Of the Top 20, only one was released before 2006 (and it was still a superhero film, 2002’s Spider-Man). Nearly all of the contemporary top-grossing opening weekends are sequels, animated family films, superhero films or, yes, sequels to super hero films.

Again, the movie star used to be that point of familiarity. A movie star could really make something out of an adult-oriented narrative that would have found little success otherwise; now we rely on broader concepts of appeal to drive our box-office, but it’s all front-loaded. Even the front-loaded are front loaded, as The Fault in Our Stars earned nearly $25 million on its opening Friday, but dipped to $12 million and $9 million on Saturday and Sunday. In fact, since the last weekend of March when Noah premiered, every film that opened to more than $40 million (aside from Neighbors and Maleficent) dropped over 57% of their audience in their second weekend. Why? Because they don’t have room to breathe. Noah faced Captain America the week after; Spider-Man faced Godzilla 14 days after opening; Godzilla faced X-Men, X-Men faced Maleficent, and Edge of Tomorrow faltered in the wake of Angelina’s box-office reign–all within seven days of each other, respectively.

It’s no surprise, then, that films like Edge of Tomorrow aren’t reaching their audience the way blockbusters used to. It’s a film that, 15 years ago, would have waltzed past the $150 million domestic mark in three or four weekends. Cruise will be lucky if Edge limps to $80 million in North America. When the “movie star” was a business, an industry unto him or herself, films like Edge of Tomorrow were given room to spread their wings and soar. When audiences have a film like this to choose from at least once or twice a month, it’s harder for them to justify spending money on a something they’re unfamiliar with when they know they have 10 superhero flicks to catch just around the corner.

Perhaps Warner Bros. is on to something, here; the studio dumping months have turned into an ideal, wide-open space to drop big-budget films at a time when they’re all crowding toward the summer slate like never before. Just this year, their The Lego Movie soared to nearly $250 million domestic with a February release date, while the studio’s Gravity rocketed to $270 million from American markets in October of last year.

Everyone loves a good event picture here and there, but the battle for weekend supremacy and who can go bigger is a tired one, and the tentpoles aren’t going to stop. It’s hard to find a slot in the picture for gargantuan puzzle pieces, and we’ve created a crack in the armor of the titans. The implosion is imminent unless the air supply increases for those who can’t breathe.

Follow the author on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Director Ingrid Veninger Talks Women in Film, the Canadian Identity, and ‘The Animal Project’

“There’s a quote by Cassavetes…”

She trails off for only a split moment, pausing our conversation so she can skim through something (Her personal archives? Her email? I never find out) to locate it. A few shuffles here, a few seconds there, and she’s got it, reading it crisp and clear with the assertion of assurance on her side.

The only thing you need to make a film is to not be afraid of anybody or anything.

I prepare to agree and tell her how much I like the quote; it’s standard interview etiquette to flatter your interviewee, I remind myself. I open my mouth to chime in with my approval, but she continues.

“…and I love John Cassavetes, but I think to myself, ‘that’s just not me.’ I’m afraid and full of doubt. I am uncertain all the time, but I think to live and create and be in the world in spite of that or with that, through that, and being afraid and doing it anyway, being uncertain and plowing through anyway, that’s much more interesting to me.”

It’s dangerous to make assumptions with Ingrid Veninger.

She doesn’t fit into any particular box, but again, assuming she’s obligated to is a colossal misjudgment of her character.

“To me, it’s all about where I feel comfortable, because I feel comfortable on a subway full of misfits and outcasts and people from elsewhere, because people are struggling to belong but are also ok with who they are.”

But, like any filmmaker with a product on the market, Veninger has to tackle the task of making her creative, individualized, highly unique voice heard amidst a sea of what can often seem like audience indifference when the masses are used to their Spidermans and Iron Mans.

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I first saw her latest film The Animal Project, which is readying for a worldwide June 6th release on Vimeo VOD and iTunes Canada, when she brought it here (personally) last November as part of Pittsburgh’s annual Three Rivers Film Festival. I found it odd that such an accomplished international filmmaker would make a mid-sized American city like Pittsburgh a travel priority; after all, she’s helmed (written, produced, directed, or a combination of all three) 18 films, and has shown a few of them at the Toronto International Film Festival (her Modra was named one of the 10 best Canadian films at TIFF a few years back) and elsewhere abroad.

“[Film festivals] are not about the money, but they are about exposure. With each film festival comes, hopefully, a little bit of local press and a live audience that you can exchange with,” she says of her insistence upon traveling with her films from places like Santiago to Ashland. “That exchange with living people happens at film festivals, and for me it’s crucial.”

There were maybe a little over 20 people in the audience when The Animal Project screened here in Pittsburgh, and Veninger made a point to probe us with questions, but I get the sense that she would’ve delighted to speak about her work to only the projectionist and a house full of empty seats if no one at all had shown up. While the goal for anyone working in any business is to earn some sort of revenue, Veninger hopes for something much simpler.

“I just hope some cool adventures come out from all of this,” she says.

It’s clear to see that Veninger cares about her films like they’re living, breathing children that have sprung forth from her flesh and being—and she treats them accordingly, seeing it as her duty to show them off and talk about them to strangers, like a parent with a child on the honor roll every semester.

“Every time I wanted to make [The Animal Project] sparkle and shine, the film said ‘no can do’,” she says of the decision to minimize non-diegetic music within the film. “Music was just getting in the way of [the film’s tone]. Music could have tied a lot of thematic ideas together, aided in transitions, created a bigger emotional impact…but every time I explored putting music in the film, it rejected it. I had to stay out of the way of the simplicity and the bareness and the rawness because that’s the purse essence of the film. The film isn’t always going to do what you want it to do.”

I realized it then at the screening (and even more so now as I speak with her during our interview) that there’s an ever-present urgency with which she speaks about her work, and it comes through whether she’s holding a microphone thirty feet from you at a Q&A session or talking via cell phone some 400 miles away. She sometimes revisits topics we’d covered earlier in our interview, and some she felt like needed to expand upon just a bit more without a second thought. She isn’t being rude when she talks enthusiastically over me, she’s just having trouble keeping the ever-churning, gloriously enthusiastic ideas she has at bay.

When you speak with her, it’s clear that she’s focused on her words, how they’re coming out, indicating how tactfully she’s pulled from the sea of ideas that’s ever-present in her creative brain. These waters are not intimidating or fearsome, uninviting, or unnavigable; Veninger overflows with passion for her subjects, her work, her family, her craft—and at first glance it might look like she’s in over her head. That’s not the case, even in the slightest.

“It’s an exciting time to be an independent filmmaker,” she says. “We can make high quality work for very little money, and it’s really hard if you have no one championing and supporting you. You can’t do it by yourself.”

But, it’s the refined subtleties of Veninger’s films that make the struggle of being an independent filmmaker look like a breeze. She’s involved in all aspects of production on her films. She writes, she directs, and finds herself doing everything in between. She might not be able to do everything herself, but Canadian magazine Maclean’s has dubbed her the “Toronto’s reigning queen of DIY cinema” thanks to her extremely hands-on approach.

“DIY is like, doing it yourself with a village,” she says. “Film really becomes a living organism, and that’s really exciting to me…the push and pull of it, for me, is the essential practice of filmmaking, and it is a practice. You have to keep doing it. You can get out of shape really quickly. It’s a muscle.”

It’s this sort of attitude—facing the world army with a tiny village (usually a crew of 2 to 4 other people) on her side—that makes Veninger such a sensation in the independent film world. Her work feels refreshing in that it features characters you’d never see in a commercial Hollywood release.

She writes characters who are flawed, who are unabashedly themselves, who are real; but, they’re also all the more relatable for those reasons, and with The Animal Project, Veninger chooses to let them speak for themselves without much influence of the director’s hand, and the process of creating the film speaks to that.

The Animal Project is a rarity as a film and as a concept. Veninger says she knew she wanted to make a film in Toronto, where she lives, but she didn’t have any idea for a script when she set out to make the film. She contacted talent agencies throughout the city, met with 100 actors who were willing to blindly donate three months of their time to a project without a script, and whittled that group down to the final eight who appear in the film.  Once she had talent secured, she went off and wrote the script without the actors knowing who they’d be playing or what they’d be doing.

Her background as an actor (she has appeared in over 100 different projects) helped her connect with the group she’d assembled for The Animal Project, and exploring the dynamics of the unknown alongside the film’s talent was very important to her going into the film.

“It was kind of a test of faith. I wanted to take a leap into challenging myself in a different way. I wanted the creators, the actors, and the crew to take [the test] with me. If no one was with me, The Animal Project wouldn’t exist,” she says. “Some of the ideas in the film are about performance and about authenticity. Acting is about being truthful in the moment, but it’s also about lying. Actors are professional liars, and I really wanted this film to be raw in its performance. The actors are really naked up there, and being naked is a really important part of The Animal Project.”

The film is certainly a marvel for its uniqueness. There’s an ever-flowing emotional current running throughout the film, which follows a group of diverse characters as they embark on a new acting project (and bouts with self-discovery as a result) together, but that current is urgent without being pushy. Since the actors, characters, Veninger, and the audience are each jumping into this experiment together, it puts us all on the same plane. Everyone wins when they’re playing on one team, and Veninger has created a film that requires an equal amount of investment from all participants.

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“I took a leap into a process that was kind of irrational, but that I had an instinct about. The actors took a leap also, being full of fear, being quasi-trusting, and had an instinct about it being worthwhile. The characters took a similar leap in becoming part of The Animal Project, but do it and it’s irrational and it could fail and lead nowhere, but they do it. The audience is taking a leap into the film, too, as an audience watching something that’s irregular and odd and unconventional and shouldn’t really work, and hopefully it does in some way. That makes it feel original and fresh and exciting.”

Keeping things fresh and exciting might seem difficult for a director who’s seemingly played every role in front of and behind the camera. Veninger has been many things throughout the course of her career. She’s been a mother, a director, an actor, a producer, a spouse; and there are struggles that come with that. Taking time away from family wasn’t something she wants to do, so she finds ways to incorporate her personal life into her films. Her son, Jacob, has worked with her numerous times, including having a lead role in The Animal Project, while her daughter Hallie (who starred alongside Veninger in the brilliant i am a good person/i am a bad person) works as a costume designer on her mother’s features.

I love working with my family. They trust me. There’s a shorthand between us, whereas working with new people there’s always a process of ‘get to know you’ and resistance,” she says. “I respect [my kids] so much, especially working together, and then we have these amazing experiences of traveling to film festivals around the word, so it contributes to the family. My personal goal, especially as a woman, is to balance being a responsible parent, with holding a long-term relationship, and challenging myself as a filmmaker. There is a limit to how much I can push.”

It’s not like family is automatically a confine, though. Veninger is proof that a strong, creative voice can be the focus of a career. She just finds a way to meld it with her personal life, so her films become extensions of herself, and she’s not afraid to be herself in an industry that so often pretends like she–and her indie colleagues–aren’t there.

“I think [filmmaking] shares elements with being a parent. A director is a parent,” she says of sending her projects, her family, and her vision out into the world in film form. “You know, you have a kid and they want to wear something or they want to do something that is going to make them have a really tough time at school. You know if they just put on the nice little dress and wear the shiny shoes, they’ll be really accepted and loved and celebrated. When I was in Kindergarten there was some drawing assignment, and I can remember painting the sky magenta, and the teacher came by and said the sky has to be blue, and I really wanted to keep it magenta. Basically, my picture didn’t get put on the bulletin board of all the most beautiful pictures, and part of you just [tells yourself to] paint the sky blue and you’ll get on the board.”

Just don’t count on her to condone that perspective any time soon.

“In this age of bigger, stronger, faster, my impulse is to go smaller, simpler, truer,” she says of her work. “In this pace I feel like I want to slow down and retreat a little bit, making films in a very modest way for a little bit of money with a very small and tight creative group of people that I love and respect as opposed to going big or going home. That’s not my philosophy; it’s more about going inside and being as truthful as you can.”

Veninger’s earnesty is valuable. She’s not going against the grain for the sake of countering or subverting mainstream taste. In fact, she wants to connect with more people through her work instead of turning them away. There’s truly something for everyone in Veninger’s films. They’re arty and alternative, but not inaccessible, and with the Vimeo VOD release, the film will be available worldwide for everyone to consume. Casual moviegoers love for things to be easy, but the fact remains that Veninger faces an uphill battle as a female in a male-dominated field. She is proof, however, that great storytellers are women; her films are proof that female-driven narratives (with deep female characters who are agents of their own stories, mind you) exist, it’s just that the studios are reluctant to catch on.

The pUNK Films Femmes Lab

The pUNK Films Femmes Lab

“I feel like in many films I’m seeing slivers of women, but I’m rarely seeing whole women, and women are really complex. I’m interested in the nooks and the cracks and the flaws and the people that are struggling,” she says. “Women who are struggling as mothers, as creators, as partners in their world are so much more interesting to me than seeing some sort of bullshit façade of someone that has their life together and is just kind of quirky and funny and quippy and cute and really hot in bed with flawless skin and isn’t constipated.”

Veninger validates her own stories and characters within herself, so she doesn’t need it from the industry at large. She does hope, however, that English-Canadian filmmakers can one day share a unique identity on the world stage.

“French-Canadian cinema does have its identity. We see what Xavier Dolan is doing in the world, we see what Jean-Marc Vallée has done previous to Dallas Buyer Club, and now he’s exploded. Quebec also has so many incredible women filmmakers,” she says. “English Canada, I think, from the international industry’s point of view is just seen as America. I mean in Cannes I was at a round table with a sales agent and I asked her if there’s any difference from [her] perspective between an English-Canadian film and an American film, and she said no. The challenge for English-Canadian film is if an international institute is going to acquire an English film, they tend to go toward the film with movie stars or names attached as directors, and that’s what Canadian films are competing against in terms of sales. We have to be even more original and even louder about the great films we make, and we have to really start fostering the appetite for our indigenous cinema inside our country.”

These aren’t just empty words merely hoping for advancement of the medium in her country. Aside from making films, she’s also busy putting female filmmakers to work with her pUNK Films Femmes Lab, a collaborative program that involves six female writer/directors from Canada working to create six feature scripts. The program has attracted interest from Oscar-winner Melissa Leo, who ponied up $6,000 for a first look at the scripts as the lab, which has its final meeting later this year, makes headway.

It all sounds like a bit much for one person to do, no? There’s beauty in the seemingly chaotic, overwhelming way of floating from project to project with such intensity, but she finds a way. The sea of ideas might be vast, and the sea of opposition from an industry that wants to set her out in a makeshift raft of sameness or slap labels onto what she does or where she comes from might make the waters a bit choppy, but if there’s anyone in the world who doesn’t need a paddle, it’s Ingrid Veninger.

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The Animal Project will open theatrically in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Tickets here: http://tiff.net/programming/new-releases/the-animal-project

On JUNE 6th, 2014, The Animal Project will be on iTunes throughout Canada here: https://itunes.apple.com/ca/movie/the-animal-project/id871991994

….and VIMEO VOD throughout the world, excluding Canada here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/theanimalproject

Watch the trailer here: http://theanimalprojectmovie.com/#watchTra

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Oscar Season Diary #11: Will ‘Maleficent’ Shatter Angelina’s ‘Unbroken’ Year?

The Academy is all about patting itself on the back.

Its membership advocates for the individual, whittling down category after category until one soul is left standing in the carnage with a gold weapon and a bloody PR trail behind them. The Academy has its favorites, it has its darlings, and it most certainly values its opinion as the sole Gospel of popular cinema. Time and time again, we see repeat winners in the “lesser” categories (just ask Edith Head, Colleen Atwood, or Leon Shamroy), and even some in the more prominent ones (refer to Meryl Streep, Hilary Swank, and Ang Lee). Singularity is recognized. Stars and icons shine through the soupy sameness of everyone else at the Oscars.

The film industry, however, is gradually shifting away from the individual and toward the collective. Franchises and young adult adaptations have replaced movie stars as genuine box-office draws. The business has always been to make money. The masses are the target. There’s nothing wrong with that, but in an over-sharing, over-entitled society, the quality of what it means to truly be a star with massive pull rides on your shareability.

Shareability is an old creature that’s evolved into a full-fledged monster in the contemporary era. Trade publications have always attempted to bring the stars to the people, but it’s only today that the people can take control of stars by more than just speaking through dollars spent at the box-office. It’s undeniable that we’re living in the age of the “darling.” We don’t have movie stars. We have Jennifer Lawrence, whose ability to generate fodder for BuzzFeed articles and user-made, crowd-shared .gifs becomes a more valuable commodity than a powerhouse skill set. The woman is talented, but it’s our consumption of the superficial aspects of her persona that make her a consistent, comfortable, warm personality, not a movie star. The dynamism simply isn’t there.

Angelina Jolie, perhaps the last remaining titan of the box-office, is in a unique position as a star who’s pulled back from her earlier days as a tabloid spectacle yet maintains a high profile. Her latest film, Maleficent, is her first live-action role in nearly four years, and is set for release this Friday. Six months later, her sophomore directorial feature, Unbroken, will hit theaters. She has the rare pleasure of starring in a summer tentpole and directing a historical biopic that’s destined for awards season gold. She is the star and she’s in control of two separate films that have the potential to shape the rest of her career in monumental ways.

She’s proof that the public wants to consume stories by, about, and starring individual women (or maybe just starring her), though she’s built a career for herself based on her physical appeal to men. She’s never been in a Best Picture winner or nominee, though she has one Oscar under her belt (as well as one other nomination), but still her popularity within the industry is difficult to gauge. Despite her titanic star power and popularity with the masses, Angelina Jolie faces a different struggle for legitimacy in the eyes of the Academy when it comes time to recognize her work behind the lens; despite her accomplishments, she’ll be held to the standards of a fading movie star whether that’s what she is or not.

On one hand, Maleficent represents everything that’s driving the film industry into the ground. It’s a huge summer blockbuster with a bloated budget riding on the bankability of a star who was unbreakable six or seven years ago, but who’s ability to solely headline a $180 million picture on the contemporary front has yet to be proven.

We’ve watched the likes of Johnny Depp (multiple times), Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Ryan Reynolds, and Channing Tatum crash expensive films into the flop-laden abyss over the course of the past year. It’s nearly impossible for a sole individual to carry a picture these days, yet studios keep pushing the men and their guns to the forefront in the hopes that something sticks.

It seems glaringly obvious that it’s women (like Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock) who can drive a film to box-office gold on name alone. McCarthy and Bullock did it twice in one year (together with The Heat and individually with Identity Thief and Gravity, respectively). The difference with those films is that no one expected them to make as much money as they did; everyone is expecting—even banking the future of female-driven films—on whether or not Angelina Jolie can have her cake and eat it too.

The pressure is certainly on for Jolie, but her bankability isn’t the only thing at stake; her status as dynamic representative of a well-rounded industry force is as well. If Maleficent fails (let’s say by studio standards that means earning less than $40 million in the US in its first weekend), it’ll be attributed solely to her. The recent failures of big-budget films are almost unanimously attributed to their stars, even though these films exist and are pushed as star vehicles when the industry around them simply doesn’t foster a climate where the star is an entity any longer.

It’s easier to sell a franchise based on a young adult novel or a sequel to the latest Spider-Man on familiarity alone. American films capitalize on the pop culture relevance of broader entities (Marvel, DC, Godzilla, family animation, etc.) versus stars. Star personas benefit the individual, not the films as a whole.

Where does that put Angelina Jolie in terms of Oscar season? Let us not forget, box-office matters for women at the Oscars. Bridesmaids would never have found its way into the race without a gross of nearly $200 million domestic. Women have to prove themselves to Oscar voters with a set of gorgeous legs (ripe for the sexualizing) that carry them to box-office gold as well. Disney mounted a healthy campaign behind Maleficent, which crescendoed into a dull roar over the course of a year or so. It’s a film that has a firm, pre-established base of fantasy fans and Disney aficionados alike, and one that can easily rope in families (it’s rated PG) and Jolie fans (she’s the clear focus of the studio’s marketing campaign) together. 

If you’re calculating Unrboken’s potential appeal to Oscar voters, it’s a checkmark in every category. Beautiful, previously-decorated member of The Academy in the director’s chair? Yep. Written by past Oscar winners (and Academy darlings of popular adult cinema) Joel & Ethan Coen? Uh-huh. War drama with a male-driven narrative that’s based on historically-rooted, wartime events? You bet. Much like The Hurt Locker, the film is the kind of picture the Academy wants to see a woman direct; one about men overcoming obstacles in a macho-man setting. Unlike The Hurt Locker, however, its appeal is broad and (presumably) free of controversial material that would implicate any aspect of American culture (God forbid).

You simply can’t get any more Oscar-friendly than Unbroken. After the Academy pulled their version of a “radical shift” in tone for Best Picture, they’ll actively seek out something that falls in line with tradition to offset the divisiveness of 12 Years a Slave. The entire industry objectified Steve McQueen’s film as “the one about slavery,” and fixated upon its racial implications versus seeing what was underneath versus acting based on a casual glance. Unbroken is Academy meat and potatoes. It’ll be fantastic, plug-and-play, make truckloads of cash, and establish Jolie as the sole woman in a race dominated by men.

There are whispers here and there about the performances Jolie was able to get out of her cast as well. Miyavi, in particular, who plays the film’s antagonist, is receiving a great deal of pre-release buzz. Films like Unbroken, as of late, have an almost surefire chance of being recognized in the acting categories, especially when there’s a nice, meaty, showy role for an evil male character. Christoph Waltz won for his role as a Nazi officer in Inglourious Basterds, as did Forest Whitaker for playing notoriously vile Ugandan President Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Heath Ledger collected a posthumous Oscar for playing the diabolical Joker in The Dark Knight, and Javier Bardem saw gold on Oscar night for his role as a sinister hitman in No Country for Old Men. Miyavi plays Matsuhiro Watanabe, war criminal and abuser of POWs, which gives him ample opportunity to milk Oscar voters with theatrics and lots and lots of yelling.

If the performances in Unbroken are Oscar-worthy, it will only help Jolie’s case in the Best Director category. It’ll be no surprise if buzz picks up for other members of the film’s cast once the film opens, as Jolie will likely be able to connect with them as an actor herself. The film also has cinematographer Roger Deakins on board, who has an astounding 11 Oscar nominations without a single win. He’s at the point where he’s getting into the race on name alone (hence his nomination for the critically divisive, un Academy-friendly Prisoners just last year), and this could be his year to collect his career Oscar for his work on Unbroken.

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Any way you look at it, Unbroken is a glimmering piece of Oscar bait—and perhaps the smartest thing Angelina Jolie has done in her career—waiting to drop right into the Academy’s lap. The Academy will see an opportunity to help carry Jolie’s career beyond the front of the camera and into a successful one behind it into her later years. They couldn’t give themselves a more self-congratulatory pat on the back than by decorating her for Best Director or her film for Best Picture. What better way to complete their self-made circle than to turn their sexy, objectified, Oscar-winning action star into a sexy, Oscar-winning filmmaker?

It’s poised for success, but if Maleficent bursts, Unbroken will endure the barrage of shrapnel. Jolie’s second directorial effort (the first is the little-seen, poorly-received In the Land of Blood and Honey) comes plated with hater-proof armor. Unbroken is ready for the Oscar battle, but it’s not ready to withstand the stigma around the “Jolie falls short of expectations with Maleficent” type of headlines. The internet machine is waiting to pick at the carcasses of anything that unravels for any reason. Again, box-office and perceived “success” is extremely integral for women in the film industry. They’re taken seriously when they make films about men that make money, or films with broad appeal that make money. Maleficent will carve Jolie’s path to (and through) the Oscars.

It’s unfair that Jolie’s appeal to the white male Oscar voter will be predicated largely by her sex appeal, which she has distinctly tried to de-commodify as she’s deliberately pulled herself out of the spectacle of the tabloid circus; it will either help her or hurt her—especially with the Director’s branch of the Academy and the Directors Guild of America, both of whom are never kind to actors turned directors (just ask Robert Redford).

Jolie will also have to deal with the Kathryn Bigelow effect. The majority of white male Oscar voters will view Jolie’s gender as the defining characteristic of her awards season run. The “been there, done that” mentality will kick in, they’ll remember that Kathryn Bigelow was their posterchild for gender acceptance, and not feel obligated to vote for Angelina because the conquest has already been had.

As usual, Jolie has everything working in her favor at the moment, and she’s heading into the Oscar race with a powerful army of elements working in her favor. Unbroken seems painfully obvious as an early-season frontrunner for an Academy that likes to stroke its own ego. How easily, though, the perfect exterior could tumble down with one fell swoop of the American public and where they choose to place their dollars this weekend.

Whether Maleficent lives or dies and whether Unbroken sustains its potential through to Oscar night is still up in the air, but if her career has shown us anything at all it’s that she’s the star, and the conversation will be—and always been—about Angelina Jolie.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Cannes…from the Heart of an Outsider

Leila Hatami, Sofia Coppola, Jane Campion, Jeon Do-yeon, Carole Bouquet

An American boy on the sands of Cannes, France: that’s how I’d imagined myself ever since I was seven (maybe eight?) years old, yearning for transcontinental air travel and a responsible adult to accompany me to the grandest of the world’s film festivals.

It’s a rather odd dream for a child to want to travel to a small town that comes alive in the international spotlight only once a year to celebrate an art that’s far beyond his comprehension. It’s also rather selfish. What the kid in me didn’t understand was that spending thousands of dollars of your hard-earned coin to relish in the best that world cinema has to offer benefits little more than the airline, taxi service, and bellhop who carries your bags. Casual Cannes-goers ultimately mean nothing in the grand scheme of the festival circuit, where moneymaking is all that’s left for anyone in an industry that–when it comes down to the life and death of it–could disappear off the face of the earth with little more than a monetary crater in its wake.

I don’t think, in the early months of 1997, my little brain even knew who Ang Lee was. If you would’ve asked me to sit through LA Confidential or Funny Games, I’d have told you I wasn’t allowed to see R-rated movies. The understanding of film, however, is an ever-evolving entity, and Cannes fosters an appreciation for the various perspectives in film that make it such a diverse, captivating industry.

But, how characteristic of a child is it to yearn after the flashiest, most sensational aspects of something you don’t quite understand? I wanted nothing more than to be a part of the machine that makes Cannes tick. The stars are out in full red carpet glamor, the journalists buzz about, the businessmen shake hands and exchange their millions.

Of course, Cannes is all about business, too. Just today, a $20 million deal for a film was inked by Paramount for Amy Adams-starrer Story of Your Life. There are deals here and deals there, as beautiful films from the brightest artists still come with a hefty price tag.

I can now read about who purchased what or who thought what about which film in the trade papers, but the fact remains that I am now, and always have been, a Cannes outsider. The way I view Cannes is filtered through the lens of those in attendance, and the type of coverage I could  be giving from my cramped, wood-paneled bedroom only speaks to my career aspirations that may or may not come at a later date; most bloggers like me only have the luxury of covering other coverage when it comes to festivals like Cannes or Toronto or Telluride. I’m either building a foundation to get paid to write about Cannes–from Cannes– in the future, or I’m wasting my time on a ship that will never set sail. Either way, I’m not there now.

But, that’s the flaw of living in the quick-fix film industry of today. It’s all rather infantile, really. We’re told that we all matter. My desire to cover Cannes without being there is difficult, but Hollywood consistently pushes each of us up the ranks of self-importance. We’re told that our dollar is worth spending on every tentpole that comes out. We’re pushed en masse to the theater, encouraged to tweet our reactions, to wear the t-shirt, to rep the brand for free under the guise of engaging in an elite sort of fandom; though, when it comes down to it, we’re all outsiders to the heart of the industry that beats at a place like Cannes. We lose sight of that from time to time, so perhaps it’s best if some things are left to the protected, sacred mystery of exclusivity.

Though, it’s funny how in such a fast-paced, easily-accessible world, we can still feel so disconnected from something as widely-covered as the Cannes Film Festival. There’s only so much a review of the opening night film or a photo of the crowds lined up to see the day’s most buzzed-about feature can do to satiate one’s yearning to be there. It’s difficult to put your finger on just what makes the festival so alluring, but it has got to be something, because the appeal is wide.

Cannes draws celebrities, filmmakers, publicists, and businesspeople from around the globe; the jury that decides the recipient of the festival’s top prize (the Palme d’Or) this year is made up of Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, Nicolas Winding Refn, Leila Hatami, and Willem Dafoe among others; essentially a mishmash of someone from here, someone from there and everywhere in between.

The films in and out of competition represent diverse artists above all else. They have a place there because their films matter. They’re different. They’re things we haven’t seen before. They’re not bogged down with spandex, capes, and cheap romantic subplots.

There are films from established directors, and films from people we haven’t seen much from before. In that sense, Cannes makes insiders of the outsiders and places them on the same plane of presentation as the big boys, giving them a stage for the rest of us to see at some point down the line when the hoopla of the festival has withered away and all we’re left with is a remote and a subscription service with On-Demand capabilities.

It’s the job of the journalists at the festival, then, to make Cannes really mean something in the moment. We’ll all be invited to the party of opinion at some point, but these are the people who travel–sometimes on their own dime–to the waters of Southern France all for the sake of seeing, posting about, and championing films that will likely make it stateside within a few short months. These people sacrifice their sleep, sanity, and time, but it’s really a donation of all those things when you look at the big picture; world cinema–often under-appreciated in large markets like the US–is covered. It’s truly covered (in every sense of the word) by the hordes of writers who pack the screening rooms day after day and present their impressions to readers. Why? Because they’re the insiders who’ve been chosen to make it known. The prestigious torch is theirs to carry. They have a responsibility to promote the art in a climate that fosters the desire for spectacle versus creativity. They can’t afford to lose sight of the types of films that are shown at Cannes.

The journalists, while heralding films of worth, can also destroy the stragglers of the pack. Just yesterday we witnessed the downfall (more like the kick while it was already down, following a nasty dispute over final cut between Harvey Weinstein and director Olivier Dahan) of Grace of Monaco, the festival’s opening night film, which didn’t seem very Cannes-y in the first place. Still, the film’s stars (namely Nicole Kidman) and creators showed their faces, gave interviews, and upheld the tradition of a Cannes insider.

For most of us, all we’ll ever be to Cannes is someone hovering around the perimeter, holding out our basket, hoping to be thrown a few scraps here and there. We won’t show our films at special screenings, we won’t know how the sunlight hits our faces through the flash of paparazzi bulbs, how the salt air of the Mediterranean Sea wafts over the crowds waiting for the morning’s first screening. We won’t know how the wine tastes at the cafe around the corner from the best screening room. We won’t know what it’s like to be shut out of a screening because our press pass hasn’t been upgraded to “pink” from the standard “blue.”

We will always know, however, what it’s like to consume. Isn’t that the goal of it all, when you break it down? The filmmakers, the artists, the studios, the stars; each of them are vying for our consumption of their product.

We outsiders know nothing about the actual experience of Cannes, yet reap so much from it as these consumers. The kinds of films that have been shown and championed at Cannes rarely ride their glory all the way through to Oscar season, but the esteem is enough to last a lifetime. Tracking Oscar potential at Cannes is to miss the point entirely, though. Correlation is tricky to pinpoint, and it doesn’t matter. The Oscars have their ideology (and are a preservation of adult and art films in their own right), and Cannes has its own. Cannes is a celebration, a showcase, a hand on the ticker of the industry propelling world’s artists forward as they come together to say “look at what we can do,” and so we do just that. We obey, and we look on.

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I’m lucky now to be older, wiser, and more aware than my 7-year old self to know the whys, the ins, and the outs of why I want to be there in the first place: to experience that magical confluence of minds, talents, and to get swept up in the waves of collective appreciation shone from the world stage.

That’s something else I didn’t understand as a kid; the importance of Cannes across so many mediums speaks to the unison the art of cinema promotes. People spend thousands of dollars just to be there in the moment, in the magic of it all. People watch multiple movies–back to back–each day, writing about them in rented flats, cramped hotel rooms, and buzzing cafes.

People travel across oceans and trek mountains for the movies.

Though I can now experience the festival after sifting through journalist’s Instagram accounts, festival hashtags on Twitter, and hourly updates on the trade sites, I am still there secondhand, and that menas I’m not really there.

Cannes is a cloistered shell with pearls on the inside. Its mystery and allure are prestigious, and a great way to pinpoint the art we often lose track of. The exclusivity keeps the world’s eye on the prize. It elevates film to the level of the all-important instead of demeaning it to the easily-accessible. The films are challenging, complex, and fueled by creative passion from international perspectives, but at the end of the day, we’re all watching movies; alas, that’s the point–Cannes is so magical because it’s not about simply seeing a film, it’s about watching them and looking out for the ones that matter, because they often find a home there. We’ll all get that chance sooner or later.

So, as I sit here, some thousands of miles away from Cannes, I take pleasure in looking forward to upholding my end of the bargain when I buy my ticket to Foxcatcher or Maps to the Stars in a few months. It’s all about grasping the thread when it passes by, and I trust everyone at Cannes to push it in my direction.

We must trust that Cannes is one of the few remaining treasures left for world cinema. We trust that the filmmakers, artists, journalists, and insiders value the preservation of this congregation, that despite business deals and publicity, the fruit of the labor isn’t measured in such petty terms. They’re there for the art, for the treat of inclusivity, for the treat of being there when it all happens. They’d better enjoy it after all; they’ve moved across mountains and oceans to get there.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Review: ‘Godzilla’ Tips the Balance; Can Blockbusters Still Be Art?

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There’s so much ugliness in Hollywood.

We’re bombarded now, more than ever before, with the cacophonous battle cry of tentpole after tentpole, blockbuster after franchise sequel of the same formula of big-budget, effects-driven, fanboy-pandering dreck.

The American film landscape celebrates ugliness in bulk. The meaningless violence, the metallic clangs and clashes of mecha armor and explosions, the suits sitting behind it all and lapping up our hard-earned dollar; there’s simply nothing that champions beauty for beauty’s sake in mainstream cinema anymore.

Now we’re told how to think. We’re told which films are worthwhile (the ones the money is behind, the ones playing at 4,000 theaters, the ones based on an already-popular book series or graphic novel). We’ve lost the thread on adult films and what an “adult” film should be; gone are the days of anticipating a blockbuster from months in advance; we’re no longer permitted to look ahead. We’re forced to exist in the now, to gobble up Captain America while Spiderman 2 is nudging the main course out of the way on a triggered desert plate. These films are built on capitalizing on fanboy investment and returning the monstrous monetary budgets of the studios; it’s nothing more than throwing money around and watching the resulting fireworks of buzz-obsessed culture both onscreen and off. Everyone gets their kicks, but where is the art of it all going?

Godzilla should, by all means, fit in with the other effects-driven tentpoles of the year. It’s a revival of the classic series that defined spectacle for an earlier generation. It’s got a price tag hovering around $200 million. It’s got an aggressive marketing campaign even though its pre-established fanboy and casual audience appeal essentially secures ticket sales on name alone. Godzilla wouldn’t exist through the decades without the support of the same crowd that pushes the comic book films to $100 million weekend grosses.

And still, Godzilla feels refreshingly uncomplicated.

It’s a rarity for an American blockbuster to have a crescendoed artistic pulse throughout, but Godzilla’s is unwavering even in the midst of the film’s heaviest effects-driven scenes. For the most part, Godzilla is not a cacophony of Hollywood bullshit, but rather a delicately beautiful symphony of suspense that taps into a desire we’ve long been conditioned to ignore; to simply gaze upon and marvel at beauty that mystifies us instead of building up and sensationalizing our perception of spectacle.

Godzilla is a film that’s simply about what it’s about, and nothing else; in its world, the human race is careless. They struggle with each other and wage war, carelessly experiment with radiation, inadvertently create monolithic creatures who feed on it, and the earth is left with the burden of restoring order. From what the humans are able to gather, Godzilla is a product of the earth sent to eradicate the parasitic intruders (the “Muto,” which look like a cross between gargoyles, moths, and skinned-and-cooked bird of prey).

The bulk of the film is spent observing the would-be spectacle of the clashing monsters from afar. At its core, the film is merely about juxtapositions and finding a medium between the two. Godzilla and the Muto battle endlessly, though their conflicts are orchestrated with the stroke of a filmmaker who never loses sight of his film’s artistic heartbeat.

The film is peppered with characters that generally mean nothing in the grand scheme of things; there are scientists, soldiers and their wives, nurses, army generals and tourists, but we learn to appreciate the minimal presence of “character” and appreciate the scale of wonderment director Gareth Edwards taps into. He makes humans the least important element of the equation. He reduces us as an audience (as well as the characters in his film) as helpless spectators. All we can do is sit back and watch as powers larger than us have at it with our world, and it’s here that Edwards’ film hones its focus on the mystery of looking on; we’re ever transfixed by an infantile desire to see and engage with what we know so little about, and Godzilla is largely about indulging in that sense of mystery, balancing humble simplicity as we sit in awe of the grandiose scene–never outright spectacle–all around us.

Edwards’ primary strength is that he knows how to restrain himself and his material, even when that material is composed around two 400-foot monsters waging war on the streets of San Francisco. Where someone like Steven Spielberg or Zack Snyder would pull back the curtain and unveil a $200 million spectacle, Edwards meticulously draws it closed. He shrouds his monsters in smoke, in darkness, and the cover of the jungle or water. We see flits and pieces of them from time to time, their full forms only revealed well after the film’s midway point. We’re constantly learning about these creatures as we’re given doses of visuals here and there. Edwards builds a mystery, and we’re fully along for the ride. He builds tension in his scenes, cleverly deconstructing a traditional “reveal” by going back to the basics of suspense; simplicity, silence, long takes, and precise timing tied together with a thread of wit. We focus far more on the build-up than the payoff whereas typical Hollywood films kick back and relax in the mess of pure spectacle.

There’s a playfulness to the way Edwards structures his action, though. There’s a careful discretion at work, and the hand of the filmmaker functions as a companion instead of a prodding sensationalist. Edwards presents us with subjects of epic proportions and frames them gorgeously and cleverly, but reveals so little about them that all we can do is sit back and bask in the wonderment of what we’re seeing. We’re rewarded for our patience by being allowed to fantasize instead of having everything presented to us in cookie-cutter shape.

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In many ways, Godzilla is a response—almost a critique, if you will—of the state of things in Hollywood. It’s at first peculiar that Edwards’ creatures often find themselves battling amidst tourist attractions around the world. One of the Muto ravages the Las Vegas landscape, tearing through faux versions of the Eiffel Tower and Manhattan, we see them duke it out in Hawaii, destroying an airport and interrupting a beach full of lei-laden vacationers; in both locales, our focus is often placed on two small children; a boy at the airport and a girl on the beach. Edwards spends the majority of both scenes focused on the children’s faces as they watch, unsure of whether to be frightened or mystified at what they’re seeing. The adults—whether they pull levers on the slot machines or sip drinks on the beach—spend most of their time distracted, and that’s exactly how Hollywood operates; adults flock to the tentpoles weekend after weekend, fostering a culture of quick-fix fandom that’s never satiated until the next lever that’s offered is pulled, though it never quite yields a jackpot. The only ones left when the smoke clears, then, are the children who dare to explore and hang on to that sense of wonderment, and Godzilla nurtures that curious child inside us all. It’s a film that gives us beautiful images and sweeping vision at the hands of a clever filmmaker with a creative pulse beating through the veins of a film that would have otherwise been about reaffirming the status quo for the action-oriented blockbuster. Instead, Godzilla is able to find harmony amidst the bluster of pots and pans.

Throughout the film, we’re never given concrete evidence of what created Godzilla, though the film’s scientists are pre-occupied with the idea that the earth bore him as a means to restore the balance humans offset by fostering a world that allowed the Muto to exist. Godzilla is not an overtly political film, though it does do something typical Hollywood films don’t; it implicates its audience and relishes in ambiguity, seeing as Godzilla is not presented as a villain or a hero. The beast merely represents the natural order and aims to restore the balance of earth. Ultimately, he exists solely to clean up a mess that humans made. He’s generous for making things easier than they should be for humans, I can give him that, but he ultimately exists unto himself. He is not evil, he is not a saint, and he remains a mystery, and the film relies heavily on pitting the small against the big and the known against the mysterious. Is Godzilla a monster or a savior? Either way, the film’s characters should learn to regard him with respect instead of trying to understand it all. It’s much more beautiful that way, and isn’t that how we see life in general?

Hollywood tries to teach us that accessibility is earned by showing up and paying for a ticket, but it’s all really so much bigger than us. Mainstream cinema barely tries to scratch the surface of what film can be. It reduces things to simple spectacle, and films that value the art of it all have shrunk in size, confined to art house markets and box-office grosses 1/100th the size of the advertising budget for whatever superhero flick is playing this weekend. With Godzilla, Edwards challenges the idea of what a blockbuster should and can be. It’s flashy, it’s big, it’s effects-driven and expensive, but it never loses sight of the beauty that can be found in the spectacular image or that wondrous, fantastical feeling of pondering the immensity of that which we cannot control.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Of Goddesses and Monsters: The Female Body in “Under the Skin”

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Hollywood satiates the hunger for flesh.

For the better part of the past decade, the body of the woman has been both the main course (flesh on full display) and a lukewarm side-dish (the mother, the girlfriend, the “filler”).  Women are so unfairly represented in film that critiquing the system has almost become a stale art.

It takes a committed, visionary filmmaker like Jonathan Glazer—someone who knows how to treat the female body and is conscious of its treatment at the hands of other directors—to craft an entire film around the deconstruction of the sexualized image of the female body.

That’s not to say his brilliant Under the Skin doesn’t involve sex. At its core, the film is about an otherworldly being (Scarlett Johansson) traversing the streets of Scotland, luring men into its den under the pretense of sex, and harvesting their skin for sustenance. It sounds like the workings of an early Russ Meyer film; the alien assimilates into human culture, absorbs its surroundings, and regurgitates them to seduce earthly men, who willingly follow the penis wherever it might lead them. But, there’s an underlying persistence to the whole thing that forces us to confront the whats and the whys of what we’re seeing instead of indulging the side of us that has been conditioned to succumb to titillation at the sight of a disrobed Hollywood actress.

Glazer crafts his alien as if she were a child crawling, walking, and evolving through life. The alien draws upon societal structures to shape her projection of womanhood. She is drawn to expensive, attractive clothing after seeing women shopping at the mall; she splashes makeup over her face after witnessing masses of earthly women constructing a mirage of societally-coded “beauty” on their faces at a makeup counter; she learns that sex is treated like a tool for self-pleasure, self-sustenance, and self-worth, and appropriates it as a means to fit in; she sees that men respond to this image, so she zips up in a soft suit of milky skin and slinks along the streets with sexually-confident swagger.

Glazer structures his film as one of oppositions. From the get-go, we’re immediately introduced to the dichotomy between light and dark. A black screen overwhelms us as a small white dot appears at its center. It grows, evolving into the shape of what appears to be a series of planets aligned during an eclipse, then into a human eye, which eventually gives way to the images of a road, then to a stream, to the body of a dead woman, to Johansson’s alien—fully naked—stripping clothes off the dead body, placing them on her own, and assuming human form. Within minutes, we’re shown that the world is a series of opposites; light vs. dark, naked vs. clothed, earthly vs. alienesque, natural vs. constructed, sex vs. fear. None such a match is as powerful as the split Glazer wedges between the body and the allure of sex. The sight of Johansson’s naked body–that comes quite often throughout the film–recalls the faint glimmer of sexuality we’re so used to associating with the naked female form in contemporary cinema, but we sense that something’s not right. The goal for Johansson’s alien, however, is the body itself as a physical harvest versus a form of pleasure, and in that sense Glazer is able to recontextualize the naked human form.

The bulk of Glazer’s commentary on the female body in society comes from the way the alien digests our culture and the men she seduces, being that its interpretation of “normal” female behavior is to act, dress, and seduce like a sex machine. The scenes of sexuality are sensual on the surface, but we’re forced to see them as something monstrous—not necessarily because death is a certain outcome for the men the alien seduces, but because Glazer forces a disconnect between the naked human form and sex as we know it.

The alien’s body is undoubtedly “used” by the film, but the way the alien treats her body is non-sexual. She’s doing it not for the sex, not for the pleasure, and not for the sake of using sexuality as a weapon–she is not human, and therefore does not understand human sexuality the way that the men she seduces do. She’s not gaming; this is simply how she survives.

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Yes, the alien is sleek, she’s cool, she’s unaffected; her emotions aren’t human, so it’s ludicrous for us to attempt to unearth any sort of logic, reasoning, or motivation other than that it’s necessary for her existence. As a result, we must process the alien (in every sense of the word) procedure from an outsider perspective; we see sex every day and we know how it works, but Glazer instead tickles our curious fancy and probes us to question the limits of physical attraction by demystifying the constructed fantasy of the female body.

Women are generally sexualized in movies, whether they’re the girlfriend or the hot girl in high school; their bodies are conquests and possessions. But, Under the Skin views the body not as the goal, but as the bridge. The alien’s goal is not an emotional or sexual conquest, it’s merely to harvest and sustain, removing any traceable form of human connotations from the act of sex itself. There are no violent scenes in the film. We do not see the alien ripping throats out, drawing blood, or even engaging in any sort of overtly sexual contact with these men at all. Instead, Glazer wisely strips the seduction scenes of any surrounding distraction. They’re surreal, cold, and straightforward; we see two naked bodies against a black background, and the male form simply sinks into the darkness and out of frame. The body is disposable, yet charged with the implications of what we as an audience want to see happen—but are so deliberately denied—at the sight of flesh. We’re denied primal spectacles of violence and sex. The body is the body, and the body is all we get—no strings attached.

There’s a scene in the film where the alien has what can be construed as a change of heart. We see her go through the motions of seduction with a man with neurofibromatosis. He’s unsightly because our culture values a specific form of beauty, one that “deformities” do not fit in with. She speaks with him, asks him about his friends, asks him if he’s lonely, and systematically breaks the barriers a lifetime of being an outcast has built up, so much so that she’s thrown off-course by the pity she feels for him. She lets him go; beginning to understand at least some of the complexities of the human form she has taken. It’s here that she begins to sympathize with humanity. She escapes to the countryside and finds refuge with an older man who offers to help her. He gives her a coat as they walk side by side in the rain to his home. Her makeup wears off with the water, and he gives her his oversized coat, which covers her womanly curves. She attempts to eat human food—a piece of cake, in one of the film’s more obvious metaphors—but spits it out after we see it framed so lusciously next to her lips on the fork. The framing is delicious, but the taste of what we’ve been conditioned to eat (the female body as represented in film) is repulsive.

It’s here that the film’s refusal to objectify the alien’s human body becomes clear. We spend the majority of the film as mere observers. The film is not violent or sexual enough—by conventional standards, mind you—to titillate, and it never aims to be. It shows us a beautiful naked figure but does not indulge the coded desire to see that body used for sex, but for something disturbing and cruel. Glazer challenges the audience, however; does the film industry (and its audience) still view the female body in a film such as this as “sexy,” even though it’s associated—in context—with something monstrous?

A majority of audiences will say yes. They’re used to preying on the female body. They’re used to female actors being reduced to roles where the only things that are celebrated are their flesh or their ability to fill the role of a mother, a girlfriend, a sister, an appendage. Glazer’s alien is not an appendage. She is in control; she takes the form of something familiar, and turns it on its head. She forces us to question our perception of the female body, regard it with fear, confusion, and mystery; anything other than the sexual attraction we’re so used to seeing hawked by Hollywood studios. The film is not so much a triumph as a narrative, but rather as a funneling of the human form into a refreshing mold that challenges the industry around it.

Glazer peppers the film with a few scenes that show the alien looking into a compact mirror. The camera gazes into it from the alien’s perspective. We see her face, her tempting eyes, and her lipstick in its frame; it’s all a succulent dish, but under the surface we know we’re just smacking our lips. We’re not looking at an alien, we’re looking at our own painted reflection, and it’s here we realize that Glazer has created a character with big enough balls to show us the readily-consuming monster staring back from the other side of the glass.

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