[Editor's Note: the post below appeared yesterday at The Huffington Post.]

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From "And While We Were Here."

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By Govindini Murty. It’s a welcome development to see more women directors emerging in the indie film scene and it’s my hope that this will soon translate into more women directing studio features, as well. We all know the statistics: the most recent studies reveal that women only direct 5% of the top 100 studio features – and yet in the indie film world, they direct 18% of the narrative features and 39% of the documentaries.

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One indie woman director whose work I’ve enjoyed in recent years is Kat Coiro. Coiro’s latest film, the stylish, Italy-set romantic drama And While We Were Here, opens this weekend in select theaters and is also available on VOD. The film stars Kate Bosworth, Iddo Goldberg, and Jamie Blackley and features a voice-over by the great Claire Bloom.

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Shot on location in beautiful southern Italy, And While We Were Here tells the tale of a neglected wife, Jane (Bosworth), who falls for a bohemian American youth, Caleb (Blackley), when her emotionally-remote viola player husband Leonord (Goldberg) is invited to perform in a concert in Naples.

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The film is the latest in a tradition of stories about travelers whose lives are transformed by Italy. Bosworth and Goldberg give strong, sensitive performances as the troubled couple Jane and Leonard, while Blackley is disarmingly amusing as the Dionysian youth who disrupts everyone’s carefully ordered lives. Bloom (Jane’s Grandma Eves) provides a poignant voice-over commentary through tape-recorded interviews that recount her loves and losses during WWII.

I caught And While We Were Here at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2012 and had the chance to chat with Kat Coiro a few months later at the LA Film Festival where she was screening her charming short film Departure Date. A romantic comedy starring Nicky Whelan and Ben Feldman, Departure Date (see photo below) is the first film shot and edited entirely at 35,000 feet – an innovative effort made possible by Virgin Produced and highly worth viewing the next time you’re on Virgin Airlines.


Director Kat Coiro filming "Departure Date."

Coiro and I talked at the LA Film Festival about the importance of emotional honesty in storytelling, the joys of poetry, and the importance of creating films that honor brilliant women both past and present. The interview has been edited for length.

GM: I noticed in Departure Date and also in And While We Were Here that there’s a real romanticism to these films, that they breathe with a heartfelt, poetic spirit. What draws you to these sorts of stories?

KC: I appreciate simplicity and I find that creativity often flourishes within the constraints of doing these very small projects in a very short time – and making them something people can relate to. So I wrote both of these stories knowing I had to keep them very simple and I didn’t have time to get very flashy. You strip it down to what people enjoy: which is human connection, relationships, character-driven pieces. Continue reading »

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By Joe Bendel. How can folks get up every day and go to work in book publishing? I ask myself that very question about five times a week. Yet despite frequent doomsday forecasts, the industry lumbers on. Perhaps e-books will be either the deliverance or the destruction of the business, but for now they are a mid-sized Schumpeterian disruption. Vivienne Roumani takes stock of what it all means in her documentary Out of Print, which screened as part of the Tribeca Talks post-screening discussion series at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

At the heart of OOP and Ben Lewis’s thematically related Google and the World Brain lies the question whether the digitization of knowledge is a democratizing or monopolistic endeavor. The jury is still out, but in the case of the big G, you really have to wonder. Roumani touches on the Google settlement, but if there is a corporate bogeyman in OOP, it is Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, at least when she talks to Authors’ Guild president Scott Turow.

Is the giant e-tailer cheapening the value of e-books through its pricing and merchandizing? Turow certainly has thoughts on the matter. As an interview subject, Turow is an intelligent and authoritative figure. For his part, Bezos seems to be trying to humanize his image, which is a shrewd long-term strategy, in marked contrast to the deafening silence from Google in Lewis’s doc. Indeed, Roumani gained entrée to a number of highly influential market leaders and thinkers, even including the late great Ray Bradbury (appearing primarily as an expert on libraries, but adding unspoken significance to the discussion as the author of Fahrenheit 451).

There are a number of issues raised by the film that were largely glossed over by the post-screening experts, such as the fundamental issue of storage. As Roumani points out, DVDs and hard drives have a life expectancy that can be measured in years, not decades. Simply assuming someone will figure out something more lasting is not a great strategy. Yet for the filmmaker and at least  a few of her fellow panelists, the effect of the digital revolution on reading habits is even more significant. Some seriously wonder whether the majority of kids today will have sufficient interest and attention to read a full book from the beginning to the end.

Roumani nicely balances prognostications of doom and gloom with optimism for the shape of things to come. At fifty-five minutes, Out of Print is a well paced and organized overview of an industry in flux and the wider resulting social and cultural implications. It is a handy primer, but Google and the World Brain remains a more in-depth and pointed examination of the same fundamental issues. Given its timeliness, it should draw considerable interest on the festival circuit and merits public broadcast consideration.


Posted on April 30th, 2013 at 1:18pm.

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By Joe Bendel. To the lazy news media, the sight of damaged photographs randomly scattered by the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami merely functioned as convenient visual shorthand for the enormity of it all. However, some Japanese photographers and volunteers recognized in them an opportunity to serve and comfort instead. Nathanael Carton documents the efforts of Project Salvage Memory to find, restore, and return lost family photos in the short film Recollections, which screens this Thursday at the San Francisco International Film Festival, following hard on the heels of its run at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

The images say it all. The scarred remembrances of once vibrant family lives are heartbreaking to behold. Carton nimbly walks a fine line, capturing their devastating emotional resonance without feeling ghoulishly exploitative. Indeed, the real heart of the film involves the (primarily young) volunteers who set out to console those grieving loved ones. It might have started as a simple gesture, but the Project has since recovered over 75,000 photos.

Clearly the restitution process has tremendous significance for the survivors. Obviously the photographs facilitate closure, particularly as the focal point for funerals and subsequent memorial services. Yet not surprisingly, the Project founder Carton interviews is unflaggingly modest when speaking of his work.

At just under thirteen minutes, Recollections is an informative but moving quietly film. Highly recommended, Carton’s acutely sensitive documentary was one of the best shorts at this year’s Tribeca. For those in the Bay Area, it also screens this Thursday (5/2) as part of the Shorts 1 programming block at the 2013 SFIFF.


Posted on April 30th, 2013 at 1:17pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Clint Eastwood often argues that jazz and westerns are America’s two great indigenous art forms. Inadvertently, he thereby makes a strong case that he is one of America’s most preeminent artists. Tribute was paid to the actor-director-composer at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival over the weekend with the world premiere of film critic and biographer Richard Schickel’s Eastwood Directs: The Untold Story, followed by a special Tribeca Talks interview with Eastwood conducted by Darren Aronofsky (see a clip above).

Eastwood Directs will be included in Warner Brothers’ upcoming Clint Eastwood 40-Film Collection on DVD and the similarly titled 20-Film Collection on Blu-ray. It will also air on TCM. As one might expect, it combines talking head interviews with brief film snippets from Warner’s Eastwood library – and it is hard to begrudge the film’s hagiographic treatment of an icon like Eastwood. Clearly he is a serious figure if he attracts commentary from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Brian Grazer, and Meryl Streep. It is also especially nice to see Gene Hackman reminiscing about the film Unforgiven. Someone like Eastwood ought to find a part interesting enough to get Hackman back in the game.

Directs largely focuses on Eastwood’s special talent for directing his fellow actors, giving considerable attention to his big Oscar winners, for obvious reasons. There are some nice stories and testimonials, especially from Streep, his co-star in Bridges of Madison County. While Schickel does not spend much time on Bird, he still covers Eastwood’s longstanding passion and support for jazz in reasonable detail. Though not exactly a jazz film per se, Play Misty for Me gets its due, even though it is not a Warner property (the picture of Eastwood with Erroll Garner is a nice touch).

In fact, Misty provided one of the more telling anecdotes during Eastwood’s post-screening conversation with Aronofsky. When asked about technology, Eastwood (who still prefers film but is resigned to digital’s inevitability) spoke of his brief use of “instant replay” capabilities on his directorial debut, but quickly banished it from the set when he saw the cast and crew obsessing over it.

In Eastwood Directs, Scorsese identifies Eastwood as the living link between old school Hollywood and the modern age. It is easy to see what he’s getting at. Unfortunately, Aronofsky’s skills as an interviewer did not match the insights of Shickel’s interview subjects. However, Eastwood did his best to fit anecdotes to the broad, open-ended questions and generally just offered up his gravelly-voiced Zen master-blues piano player persona to the appreciative audience.

There is something truly American about self-reinvention – and again, this is something Eastwood exemplifies. From Rawhide through the Leone westerns and critically underappreciated Dirty Harry films to his Cannes and Oscar celebrated films as a director, Eastwood has charted an independent course, while remaining within the studio system and maintaining his popular appeal. Recommended for his fans, Eastwood Directs will be included on Warner Brothers’ collections releasing June 3 and will run on TCM May 30th. The Eastwood interview is also available for streaming for those unable to attend the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival in-person.


Posted on April 29th, 2013 at 3:20pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Evidently, vampirism is supposed to be an old boys’ club. Eleanor and her sister Clara are certainly not boys. At least they are old, though they hardly look it. Immortality is a strange existence for them in Byzantium, Neil Jordan’s return to the world of the undead, which screens as a Spotlight selection of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

For two hundred years, Eleanor has been a mixed up teenager. She routinely writes the story she is forbidden from telling, casting her words to the wind. Eleanor also drinks human blood to survive, but she only “takes” those who are ready and willing to go. She was whisked away from her orphanage and turned eternal by her “guardian” Clara. Ever since, they have not-lived on the run, eluding a cabal of vampires who never sanctioned either woman joining their ranks.

Clara does not have Eleanor’s scruples. She is a survivor, typically falling back on her old profession—the oldest one. At least she finds a decent enough chap to shack up with in Noel. He happens to have a vacant hotel they can use as a base of operations—the Byzantium. Despite Clara’s insistence on secrecy, Eleanor feels increasingly compelled to share her story, which is a dangerous proposition.

Adapted by Moira Buffini from her stage play A Vampire Story, Byzantium offer some intriguing twists on the familiar vampire mythos (the hat tips to Byron and Polidori are also nice touches). Yet this version is driven by the telling of the tale, which establishes quite a compelling fairy tale vibe. Jordan masterfully handles the flashbacks, while maintaining the eerie mood. He also deftly incorporates music into key scenes. There is an elegant lushness to Byzantium, much in the tradition of Jordan’s previous supernatural films and the better Hammer Horror productions.

Somehow, Saoirse Ronan projects both teen angst and world-weary resignation. It is a rather soulful portrayal of the soulless. A fully committed Gemma Arterton impressively vamps it up in every way possible as Clara. Sam Riley adds a Twilishness as the mysterious vampire Darvell (revisiting the seaside locale of Brighton Rock) with Thure Lindhardt (from Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal) and Uri Gavriel (the blind prisoner of the pit in Dark Knight Rises) bringing some global genre cred in supporting roles.

By supernatural genre standards, Byzantium is unusually engaging on an emotional level. It is a stylish production, bolstered by some evocative sets and locations. Highly recommended for those who prefer their vampire films moody and brooding rather than gory, Byzantium screened over the weekend at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.


Posted on April 29th, 2013 at 3:19pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Considering China’s rapid economic expansion, is it any wonder that its contemporary arts scene shares the same global ambitions of its manufacturing sector? In fact, multi-millionaire artist Wang Guangyi is already an industry unto himself. For his part, Liu Gang has high hopes and heaps of potential. Documentary filmmaker Mika Mattila follows the two artists and their shows over a three year period in Chimeras, which screens during both this year’s Hot Docs and San Francisco International Film Festivals.

Wang Guangyi does not have Ai Weiwei’s name recognition outside China, but he sells like Gerhard Richter to his nouveau riche countrymen. Yet, there are still opportunities for an unknown like Liu Gang to mount his first one-man show in a prestigious gallery space. It seems the former art student is well on his to joining the elite, until his follow-up show is less enthusiastically received.

Not surprisingly, both artists wrestle with the baggage of China’s recent history and issues of globalization. Wang Guangyi freely mixes Communist iconography with consumerist imagery for an ambiguously ironic effect. When it comes to ideology, the senior artist seems deliberately cagey, aside from his explicit rejection of western aesthetic standards. Frankly, he remembers the Cultural Revolution fondly, because school was canceled. Still, he readily admits in retrospect great atrocities were also committed at the time (which to his credit, Mattila forthrightly illustrates with dramatic archival stills).

Young Liu Gang also clearly criticizes commercial impulses in his work, noting with some regret how China’s gallery system is almost entirely based on the Western model. Yet, it is when he proposes a series of works inspired by China’s One Child policy, the once welcoming establishment sort of freaks.

Mattila captures this dichotomy reflected in contemporary Chinese culture and commerce solely through direct observation. There is a lot of messy reality in the film, as well as some intriguing art. While ostensibly focused on the two artists and their oeuvre, the ghosts of history haunt the margins of the film in strange and unexpected ways.

Intelligently assembled by Mattila and his editor Mikko Sippola, Chimeras (not a great title, but so be it) opens a fascinating window into an underreported sector of China. Recommended for China watchers and for those who follow the international art scene, Chimeras screens Thursday (5/2) up north at Hot Docs and Saturday (5/4), Sunday (5/5), and the following Tuesday (5/7) out west at the San Francisco International Film Festival.


Posted on April 29th, 2013 at 3:18pm.

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