Tag Archive: Film

  1. Keepin' it Reel: The Yale Student Film Festival

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    A sleeping man, nestled in white sheets, stirs awake.

    Suddenly, the sun rises. Winter covers a lake. A man applies powder to the exposed skin of his neck. A buttery opens for business; cellophane flutters in the wind; a girl and a guy sit on a bench. A girl and a guy jog through a forest. There’s writing, wrestling, talking, staring, floating, fighting, riding, waiting, waking, sailing; there’s disappearing.

    These are only glimpses from a rapid-fire supercut of the 21 films in this weekend’s first annual Yale Student Film Festival, posted on the festival’s Facebook event page. Three days long, the festival commences on Friday, March 27 and will last until Sunday afternoon.

    You’ll need an invite to attend the opening remarks by Bruce Cohen ’83, the Academy Award-winning producer of “American Beauty” (1999) and “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012). Anyone, however, can stop by the Whitney Humanities Center for Saturday’s lineup, featuring a dizzying array of films, divided into three hour-long screening blocks.

    “The festival is about Yale at large,” Festival Coordinator Travis Gonzalez ’16 said. Indeed, Yale alumni, graduate students and current undergraduates created all of the festival’s projects.

    Beyond the screenings, other offerings include a production workshop with Cohen and a roundtable discussion during which audience members can talk with filmmakers and learn about movie-making. In addition, filmmakers who chose to enter their works into competition for prizes will receive constructive feedback from a panel of judges.

    “What both the audience and the filmmakers are going to get out of this is the realization that the filmmaking community is diverse, and it’s present, and it’s something that’s very easy to be a part of,” Yale Film Alliance President Dara Eliacin ’15 said.

    * * *

    The Yale Student Film Festival is a student-run effort — something that makes it particularly forward-thinking, according to Digital Media Center for the Arts Technical Specialist Louisa de Cossy.

    The festival’s origins date back to the genesis of the Yale Film Alliance last April, Gonzalez explained. Within the past year, film production on campus has undergone major changes, set into motion by student filmmakers like Gonzalez and Eliacin.

    According to Eliacin, students were having trouble meeting other filmmakers with whom they could work on projects. Realizing that they needed support from the University administration in order to make any progress, Eliacin reached out to Associate Dean for the Arts Susan Cahan.

    Chief among students’ concerns were a lack of cohesion and resources. Although campus film organizations did exist at that point, such as Bulldog Productions — led by Gonzalez — and the Yale Film Society, such groups were never totally in conversation with one another. Aside from being disparate, the filmmaking scene also faced perceptions of insularity and inaccessibility.

    The Yale Film Alliance emerged out of meetings between filmmakers and the Yale College Dean’s Office, pulling these clusters together into a centralized entity. De Cossy describes the YFA as a hub of creativity, where movie-minded people can collaborate, share resources and talk about film. In some ways, de Cossy said, it serves a similar function as the Yale Drama Coalition, the umbrella organization for Yale’s theater community.

    In addition, for the first time this year, prospective filmmakers can choose to concentrate in filmmaking in the Art Department. Previously, their only option was the production track within the Film & Media Studies major, which is more grounded in history and theory than in practice.

    And then, of course, there’s the film festival. When they convened, the filmmakers bounced around several ideas: a festival was one of them. At the time, however, it seemed a far-off possibility.

    “We had never dreamed at that point that it would actually happen within a year, but it’s happening now, and that’s exciting,” Eliacin said.

    * * *

    The DMCA aims to facilitate learning and equipment access for students involved in the digital arts — film production ranks among these. As the center’s technical specialist, de Cossy has helped the festival’s filmmakers figure out the best way to deliver their projects. She believes that an event like this one can be particularly invaluable for students.

    “When you’re in the edit booth and you look at your work, that’s one thing,” she said. “But when it’s a festival, and your film is up there for your peers, community, and strangers to see, you get an incredible read from the audience.”

    That’s not to say that films are never shown on campus – just last month, Bulldog Productions held their seasonal showcase. But as things stand, many campus screenings tend to have limited audiences. Although Eliacin’s friends know that she’s constantly working on films, they don’t always get to attend cast-and-crew screenings. According to Eliacin, a goal of the festival is the consolidation of these isolated screenings into a single event, meant for a wider Yale community.

    Some of the participating filmmakers are far from new to the festival scene; but even for them, a student event at Yale has its perks.

    Eliacin cites the example of Daniel Matyas ’16, one of the festival’s participants and director of “Ready.” Matyas went alone to South by Southwest, an annual film and music festival in Austin, Texas, where he presented two projects. But student filmmakers who submit work to a festival at Yale — their “home base” — can share the experience with family and friends.

    De Cossy believes that alumni, too, benefit from a symbiotic relationship with current students. “You leave Yale, but you still feel connected to your time here and you want to help the people pioneering what’s happening now,” she said, adding that their presence raises the bar for undergraduate work. And although many alumni were unable to attend this year’s festival due to scheduling conflicts, the response was overwhelmingly positive, and several asked to judge or host workshops next year.

    Film & Media Studies Senior Lecturer and Whitney Humanities Center Programming Director Ronald Gregg described the festival’s atmosphere as both exciting and collaborative. The rise of the Yale Film Alliance and the festival mark a new era for a community previously characterized by insecurity and competition among filmmakers.

    “A number of energies [seem] to have come together,” Gregg said, speculating on why these changes have been made possible. In other words, we’re in the right place at the right time.

    * * *

    The result is anything but homogeneous. The festival’s projects range from documentaries to experimental tinkerings and even to works-in-progress — as Eliacin says, there’s something for everyone.

    “Yalies are doing really varied things in film, and this festival is just a small sampling of what that looks like,” Gonzalez said. Behind the pied visual styles and genres are creators who bring their own diverse sensibilities to the table.

    Take, for instance, Anamika Veeramani ’18, who had little film experience before arriving at Yale. She first learned about Bulldog Productions during Bulldog Days, and when she came to campus last fall, she soon began working with the production group.

    Her independent documentary, “In Our City,” explores the aftermath of the 2014 death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African-American boy shot by a police officer in Cleveland, Veeramani’s hometown. Composed of interviews intercut with surveillance footage of the park in which Rice was shot, the documentary juggles different viewpoints, from those of Cleveland residents to the city’s law director. Eschewing the tendency among activist filmmakers to doctor reality, Veeramani is optimistic that good documentary need not rely on spectacle.

    On the other end of the spectrum is Russell Cohen ’17, who discovered stop-motion animation on a trip to the science museum in fifth grade. Inspired, he and his friend spent the next several years making two feature-length movies starring Legos. Cohen, the vice-president of Bulldog Productions, has since moved on from the colored construction toys to live action.

    “Legos didn’t have classes or expect to be fed,” he noted.

    However, he remains drawn to more offbeat films. The experimental film “Lost and Found,” produced by Cohen and directed by Emily Murphy ’17, features a girl who leaves her watch in the library and then returns to find it gone — replaced by an umbrella. A fantastical journey around campus in search of the missing watch ensues.

    Even some individual filmmakers represent microcosms of the festival’s artistic diversity. Livia Ungur ART ’15 and Sherng-Lee Huang, a wife-husband duo, will be screening several films this Saturday that each employ notably different formal strategies.

    As a sculpture student, Ungur said that she feels particularly isolated from other filmmakers on campus; she sees the festival as a chance to connect with them and share work previously only seen by peers in her department.

    These include “And Then,” which, according to Ungur, is a playful meditation on the passage of time. “Maybe we shouldn’t say too much. It’s only a 50-second film, and if we reveal too much, there’s no point even watching it,” Huang joked. “We’ll just keep it a surprise.”

    Longer in duration is “The Listening Party,” which appropriates material from American rock documentaries to tell the story of workers listening to rock music in Communist Romania. Ungur herself grew up in Romania during the Communist period; her father’s story is at the film’s heart.

    In addition to such autobiographical influences, Ungur and Huang’s collaborations draw on their differing media backgrounds. Ungur is trained in art; Huang, in traditional filmmaking. Hybrid works emerge that challenge the pair’s assumptions about either discipline.

    “It’s sort of like an argument playing out on the screen,” Huang noted with a smile.

    * * *

    Take the above to be only a glimpse into a glimpse of the possibilities that can emerge from a single campus, and what de Cossy says rings true: “[Film] is a medium that’s exploding.”

    De Cossy sees the shifts in film production on campus as reflective of the current climate in the nation at large. She describes the attitude towards filmmaking as dynamic — the medium’s accessibility and interdisciplinary nature have become increasingly apparent. What’s new, she said, is that, in some ways, students are leading this explosion.

    Gregg says it’s a pleasure to witness such student-driven endeavors: for him, the festival is an example of what they’re working to build. The current transition on campus raises as yet unanswered questions for administrators about adequate resources — equipment, workshops and so on — to keep up with increased student interest in filmmaking. But, he said, the conversation is happening.

    The community is now in place, as indicated by the support that filmmakers like Veeramani have found. Setting aside technical limitations, Eliacin cited confidence as the big obstacle in filmmaking: putting yourself out there.

    “If there’s something you want to do, come on. We can help you,” she said.

    Cahan underscored her office’s commitment to student filmmaking.

    “I’m thrilled to see our filmmakers pursue the benefits that flow from collaboration,” she wrote in an email. “They can count on our office to support their efforts.”

    She added that, while Yale has provided opportunities in film and video production for decades, never before have student filmmakers come together to pursue the sort of collective vision embodied by the festival.

    Similarly, Gregg believes that the festival, along with the creation of the YFA and the filmmaking track in the art major, speaks to the institutionalization of film production in a wholly new way. In the past, he said, certain students might inject some life into the filmmaking community, but that energy would decline after they graduated. Something’s different now.

    “For the first time,” Gregg said, “it feels like film has arrived at Yale.”

  2. Catching "Particle Fever"

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    Science and math are the bane of my existence: After biology and calculus, it was all downhill for me. So, when I heard that the Whitney Humanities Center was screening “Particle Fever,” an independent documentary about physics, I felt conflicted. I love movies, but my high school physics class gave me a brain aneurysm. In the end, I shrugged my shoulders and decided to watch it, hoping to learn something new. Not only did I find “Particle Fever” to be educational, but it was also funny and mostly accessible.

    In “Particle Fever,” physicist-turned-filmmaker Mark Levinson follows a team of scientists as they work with the Large Hadron Collider and search for the Higgs boson — aka the “God Particle,” which supposedly holds the key to understanding the origin of all matter. This is something out of an epic science-fiction picture, and indeed, the film’s introduction to the LHC makes you feel the magnitude of the endeavor. In wide, high angle shots, the machine looms over the hundreds of scientists: Compared to it, they look like ants.

    That being said, a film just about the LHC wouldn’t be enough for the average filmgoer. We need the human element to emotionally invest us in the story. Wisely, then, the documentary follows a couple of scientists with compelling personalities.

    There’s David Kaplan, the theoretical physicist (and film producer, who approached Levinson with the documentary idea) who introduces us to the LHC and its history while peppering the picture with dry humor. During a lecture on the significance of the LHC, a self-described economist asks Kaplan “What’s the point? What’s the financial gain?”

    “What is it good for? Could be nothing except understanding everything,” Kaplan replies.

    Post-doctorate Monica Dunford is the one who, throughout the film, excitedly tries to explain the whole experiment to us commoners using simplified physics concepts. She’s also the most energetic. When the LHC fires its first particle beam, she exclaims, “We rock! First beam? We destroyed that shit!”

    In contrast, theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed remains more cautious about the whole situation. He contemplates whether the Higgs Boson supports the idea of intelligent design or of sheer randomness. If it is the latter, he posits that our whole world is built on chaos. If that’s the case, Kaplan responds, “In a sense, it’s the end of physics.”

    These are heavy questions that the film doesn’t answer — and how can it? The documentary doesn’t linger on the philosophical for too long. It knows that its strengths lie in humanizing physics. And it does that well, for the most part. In what other documentary would you see physicists popping champagne bottles in celebration of colliding particles? Or rapping physicists, clothed in lab coats and Einstein masks, spitting rhymes about the LHC?

    Still, we eventually have to dive into all of the jargon and equations that come with physics. Animations by MK12 Creative Studio attempt to translate the complex concepts into colorful illustrations complete with streamlined designs, but as informative as they were, they couldn’t make sense of all these ideas. About half way into the movie, the discussions of variables and constants began to really test my patience.

    The musical score by Robert Miller was also frustrating. Too often, the score throws subtlety out the window and bombards the audience with violins and drums, overdoing the drama when the visuals are already dramatic enough. This kind of scoring may work in a Hollywood action flick or thriller, but it doesn’t work in this documentary. At other times, the score sounds too bouncy and silly, something out of a cartoon short.

    Following the screening, New York Times science columnist Carl Zimmer ’87 moderated a discussion with Levinson, Kaplan, film producers Carla Solomon ’75 and Andrea Miller ’75, and physicist Fabiola Gianotti, who was featured in the documentary. The panel expressed their hopes that the film would reach a wide audience via word of mouth and, as Levinson put it, “convey the excitement of the scientific community.” And indeed, despite its flaws, “Particle Fever” is the kind of film that can help those ignorant of science grow more comfortable with it. Who knows — maybe if “Particle Fever” was around when I was growing up, I would have become one of those rockstar physicists!

    Probably not.

  3. Love on 35mm

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    Valentine’s Day is the loneliest day of the year for no real reason. Most of us are going to spend it without a significant other, and that’s fine, but we still won’t be able to make it 10 steps outside before spotting at least half a dozen couples holding hands — couples we conveniently never see except on February 14th.

    Because even if we don’t admit it, nobody really wants to be alone tonight. We’d much rather be at some restaurant with some beautiful face, cuddling beneath the sheets or something else to that effect. Spending the evening inside with your buddies is a lot of fun, but it’s far removed from the storybook romance most of us wish we could have. In fact, the sad reality is that fantastic tales of love are better left for the movies.

    It’s not like the cinema is the end all be all of vivid romances brought to life. But it is pretty good at it. A shot of eyes here. A shot of lips there. A close-up of two lovers kissing as music swells in the background. A dreamy, languid editing pace that sweeps you away or a frenetic chaos that substitutes cleverness for droll depictions of affection. Basically, it’s hard to do love wrong with the powers of cutting and camera angles behind you, which is why so many of the greatest films are enamored with the topic.

    Hollywood mined this material throughout the 30s and 40s — between Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Clark Gable and, well, anybody — and man, was Hollywood successful. The popular rom-coms of the last few decades have followed this model. A guy meets a girl. They fall in love despite themselves. And at the end of the day, they find a way to make it work. The book is closed. The story is over. Love is here to stay, and we walk out the theaters, smiling and satisfied.

    These are the kinds of movies we turn to on Valentine’s Day to help us get over how lonely we actually are. We take solace in their storybook romances and get caught up in the fantasies that, if just for a lucky break here and there, could all be ours. But as many people can attest, if you’re gonna fall in love with a dream, be prepared to wake up.

    A few months ago, I fell in love with somebody, and it was a wonderful whirlwind while it lasted. But just as I was getting truly caught up, the whole thing was over, and I didn’t know what to do with myself except wallow and be generally pathetic until such time as I could eventually get over it. A couple weeks ago, I leapt at the chance to catch a drink with this girl — if only to find out why things had dissolved the way they had so many months ago. Turns out, I had led myself to believe in a cinematic fantasy. To her, this was just something to pass the time.

    I learned, among other things, that you should never invest yourself in the kinds of visions you see on the screen — visions in which every love affair inevitably works out. It’s just not worth it. Stories, after all, are attempts to make rational and plain what is incredibly irrational. They are artistic diversions, and when confronted by a romance that, for all intents and purposes, should never come to fruition, we have to remember that they are potentially as superficial and flammable as the 35mm film stock on which they are printed.

    Instead, we should invest in what these movies can teach us about ourselves. “Don Jon” and “Her” are two recent examples. Here, the major points are simple: only bother with someone who will accept you for you. And you can find similarly positive messages across any movie, starring any actor, made in any decade.

    Be a good person; Open yourself to new experiences; Never let something go that you care passionately about; Put in the time and effort to make the relationship work, but never get carried away. These are lessons I can get behind. These are the counterpoints to those storybook situations we find in the otherwise crazy, anarchic arena of romantic love.

    So this Valentine’s Day, if you’re lonely, remember that you are indeed not actually alone. Pick up a book, cook a meal, see some friends, go to the movies. Find a way to divert yourself, then wake up February 15th ready to jump back on that horse. The best films wouldn’t have it any other way.

  4. If We Were Llewyn

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    This week, I finally got around to watching the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.” The film depicts a week in the life of titular character Llewyn Davis, a hard up singer-songwriter in New York’s 1960s folk music scene. Davis is struggling: His musical partner, Mike (voiced by Marcus Mumford), recently committed suicide; he has had little success with his solo album “Inside Llewyn Davis;” and he keeps off the streets only by couch-hopping at the homes of friends and acquaintances.

    “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which is loosely based on Dave Van Ronk’s autobiography, has had critics raving since its screening at Cannes Film Festival last year, where it received the Grand Prix. Many lauded it as the best Coen Brothers’ film yet, perhaps even the best movie of the year. However, the wider response to the film has been mixed, with some calling it out for its unlikable hero and absence of a coherent plot. Nonetheless, the appeal of a film focusing on folk music and its renaissance was too great for me to resist, and so this past Saturday night I dragged a friend along with me to Bow Tie Cinemas to watch it.

    I walked out of the theater with an overwhelming sense of frustration. Having purchased the soundtrack the week of its release, I had fallen in love with each and every one of the songs. From the shiver-inducing duet “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” featuring Marcus Mumford to Oscar Isaac’s melancholy rendition of “The Death Of Queen Jane,” each song beautifully evokes the soulful origins of the Brooklyn folk scene. Yet I felt let down. It wasn’t just Davis’ prickly nature that put me off; his inaction and easy acceptance of defeat made me furious. No! Go do it! Agh! I wanted to shout at the screen.

    It took me a while to comprehend my frustration with “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Beyond being bothered by Davis’ bad choices or the fact that he was repeatedly thwarted in his efforts, I saw aspects of Davis’ inertia in myself. That split-second moment when you have to decide whether to make the harder, greater choice that might change your life, or not to. Because that’s what it is — a choice. Of course, there are obstacles and limitations that can get in the way, and Davis’ bohemian poverty is no exception to this. But over and over again we see him choose not to act: the chance to follow the sign to Akron; the occasion to make things right with Jean; even the opportunity to save the stray marmalade cat — all lost.

    And we do it, too.

    With this new insight, it dawned on me: “Inside Llewyn Davis” is pure brilliance. The film itself is composed like a folk song: We are presented with an incident, completely out of context and with no such explanation to help us — here, a violent encounter with a shadowy figure in a dark alley. We then embark on a journey with the singer, a tale of woe and mishaps and wrong turns, seemingly unrelated to this first-told scene. Though we do not always agree with what our singer-storyteller chooses to do — in fact, at times we may downright dislike him — we share his emotions down to our very cores: His setback is our disappointment; his pain is our anguish. It is only at the end that the first incident is explained, and we finally understand the path to where we are now.

    “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a triumph. It is not a film with clutch-the-edge-of-your-seat action, nor is it your typical tale of overcoming hardship in the face of great adversity. It’s much more visceral than that. It’s impossible not to lose yourself in the 1961 New York of the Coen Brothers, a blue-grey world of cigarette smoke and overcast skies, and you feel every sung performance (which are, in fact, played live) as if you’re sitting right there in the Gaslight Club. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is the kind of film that grabs onto your gut and refuses to let go long after you have left the cinema. Llewyn Davis is not a Ulysses reunited with his beloved Ithaca. But as the final scenes draw to a close with the heart-wrenching solo rendition of “If We Had Wings” and the final frame of a poster for “The Long Journey,” we see that perhaps our lost hero is not so far from home.

  5. A Crazy Thing To Do

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    In Russian, the word “pochemuchka” is used to describe someone who asks too many questions. I can’t think of an English equivalent, but I kept searching for one as I sat through Spike Jonze’s “Her.” Set in Los Angeles sometime in the future, the film is at its core a love story — one between a guy (Joaquin Phoenix) and his inquisitive operating system (voiced by a girl, Scarlett Johansson).

    Jonze’s concept, this re-imagination of the “modern romance,” is absurd, the stuff that sounds like a poorly written pulp science fiction paperback. Viewers might describe “Her” as a film that captures the “zeitgeist,” with its thought-provoking focus on technology and our relationship to it — but this description is too easy and too empty to convey anything, really. The movie may take place in the future, but Jonze has gone great lengths to make everything just recognizable enough. Phoenix, donning horn-rimmed glasses and too-high pants, looks more like a Williamsburg-dwelling dad than the Terminator.

    In its script, too, “Her” is romantic and raw, not cold and mechanical. It seems to be the year of the anti-hero in film — a cranky musician, a ruthless Wall Street banker, a pudgy combed-over con artist — and “Her” is the exception. Theodore Twombley (Phoenix) is likeable. As his co-worker describes, he’s “part man and part woman,” and, if a little mopey, still moral. He’s sad and lonely, but that’s because humans are, by default, sad and lonely.

    The beauty of Jonze’s film lies in its subversion of man’s expected relationship to machine. Where technology usually suppresses our human instincts, here it reveals them. Theo loves Samantha, his operating system, and all the darker questions — How can he love a machine? Why can’t he connect with other humans? — are secondary to the sincerity of this love.

    At one point, Amy Adams, who plays an old (human) friend of Theo’s, remarks, “Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It’s like a socially acceptable form of insanity.” If this sounds prosaic, I think that’s the point. Of course love is absurd! So why should its absurdity hinge on physical form? That’s what Jonze seems to be getting at, and that’s where he succeeds — in recreating the organic chemistry of a committed couple.

    But Samantha’s physicality can only be imagined by Johansson’s husky voice. When I get nervous, I blush. This was damning as a kid, most especially when, in the second grade, I was in love with Ben Nichols and he asked me why my cheeks were red. Of course, this wouldn’t be a problem for Samantha. If you are without a body, what you have left is language. Between raspy giggles and mild mockery, Theo and Samantha fall in love with each other’s words.

    The implication is not that language is enough, but that language is everything: that what we say and how we say it is somehow the real key to falling in love. This is terrifying — more terrifying than whether I will fall in love with my iPhone. Because I could fall in love with a boy, now, in 2014. Maybe that one here in the library, with the horn-rimmed glasses and slightly floppy hair; I could slip myself slyly between words, hide my reddened cheeks, leave my body behind.

  6. Russell’s Latest “Hustle”

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    David O. Russell is the hottest filmmaker working today. Following the disastrous “I Heart Huckabees” in 2004, he took a few years off before returning to strike gold with his last two films: “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” which collectively won three Oscars from fifteen nominations. And now with “American Hustle” making the critical rounds, it suffices to say that the 55-year-old is finally starting to hit his stride.

    Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are tri-state con artists who collect their paychecks cheating down-and-out clients. When FBI agent Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper) catches them in the act, he gives them a choice: Work with him, or go to jail. They choose the former, embarking on a chaotic series of con jobs to lure politicians and mobsters into the very hands of the FBI, though personal strife threatens to undermine the entire operation.

    Like “Silver Linings” especially, “Hustle” is a movie that caters to an attentive audience. The plot drifts from one story to another, connecting all the loose threads under what passes as a plot-driven umbrella. But the improvisational, jumpy nature of the film points to another, more important focus: intense character drama. With yet another ensemble cast behind him, Russell finds a simple plot to build a story around — con artists help the FBI con “bad” men — but he lets his characters’ actions and emotions dominate the narrative.

    Rosenfeld and Prosser deal with the central problem in everyone’s lives: the search for something better. Though they may not know what that better existence is, they are constantly striving for more — more money, more power, more security. And the rest of the cast readily partakes in the crisis. Di Maso wants his career to take off; Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) wants to rejuvenate his community; Rosalynn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence) just wants someone to love, appreciate and respect her.

    As Bale’s character says at one point during the film, life is not black-and-white — it’s gray all the way through. No major character here is unsympathetic. They all have major wants because they’re human beings, and the greatest moments of impact occur when the characters begin to realize that, for one reason or another, they must turn to illicit avenues for satisfaction. Does that make them despicable? Does that make them pathetic? Not quite. There are no judge and juries in this film — only incomplete people tussling with their inadequacies, and we the audience trying to decipher them.

    The problem arrives when we try fitting this film into the context of our own narratives. If the world is entirely gray, how can we attempt to pass a sentence on anyone around us? What gives us the right to judge others for their actions or mistakes? Rosenfeld is a con man treading water in a sea of crooks, and as much as anything else, being an outright liar has kept his head above the surface.

    At the end of the day, for all the criminality, Russell’s characters still manage to move us because their struggles are tethered to love and family. Even when one couple falls out of it, the capacity to find it elsewhere never diminishes. It’s what hooks them back into a world that can be full of good and gracious people, exposing their nefarious underworld dealings for what they are: a means to an end. That end is survival, and what this particular film paints most poignantly is that survival is not necessarily for one’s own self but rather for the ones we care most about.

    “American Hustle” has already won three Golden Globes, and like its predecessor “Silver Linings,” it hopes to stock up on a few Oscars in a couple months as well. And I for one am completely expecting it. Do I think it’s the best film of the season? Do I even think it’s the year’s best white collar-crime film? These are debates for another day. But the central fact remains the same. “Hustle” is a high-quality picture built on high-quality performances: a genuine visual treat and a strong contender this awards season. Only a con man could tell you otherwise.

  7. The Cold Never Bothered Me Anyway

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    I might not be a member of the intended audience for Disney’s newest animated film “Frozen.” That honor goes to kids everywhere — and as one latter-day WEEKEND cover informed me, my childhood is over. As a Disney lover who still thinks of herself as a princess (definitely Mulan), I knew I had to see the film. So I borrowed my neighbor’s children — two rambunctious boys aged seven and nine — who had already seen the movie. On the drive to the theater, I listened to their unabashed, innocent if not obnoxious, chatter about the film’s songs, characters and animation. Their youth was my ticket in.

    The film is the story of two sisters. Princess Elsa, the elder, possesses magical powers that allow her to create ice and snow. After she inadvertently injures her fun-loving younger sister, Princess Anna, Elsa must learn to repress her powers, while Anna is made to forget them. Within the castle gates, the two sisters are isolated from one another. Elsa lives in fear of hurting her sister again, and Anna grows up lamenting the distance between them.

    The song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” arrives at precisely this crucial moment, as it expresses Anna’s attempts to connect with Elsa, who is hiding in her room. While I cry during nearly every movie I see, this song had me shedding a tear within the film’s first five minutes — something that hasn’t happened to me since “Up.”

    Another highlight of the film is the song “Let it Go,” sang by Idina Menzel (the Demi Lovato cover is also recommended). This comes at a moment where Elsa has realized that she can no longer hide from the world, and so she allows her powers to be free. Menzel is generally a goddess among mortals, and she proves it once again with this performance. But the actual stars of the scene are the animation and the song’s message. The animation, in which lies the film’s real magic, is stunning as Elsa grows a castle out of ice before shaking her hair out and fashioning a sexy dress. The message, too, is powerful. Elsa laments her past repression — “conceal it, don’t feel it” — but finally learns to let it go and accept who she is. At the risk of being too political, I venture to say that this championing of self-acceptance and ending repression falls in line with Disney’s historical support of the gay rights movement.

    The depiction of sisterly love in “Frozen” made me think of my own sister. More specifically, of which sibling each of us would be. A 24-year-old living in Germany, Lauren has already seen the film. We would both like to think of ourselves as the fun-loving, untroubled and spunky younger sister with hip highlights, but that can only be me. Lauren finally relented and let me take ownership of the character after I pointed out that she’s “like, older,” and also bad at talking about her feelings — so maybe she’s repressed like Elsa. And maybe it is true that I am guilty of the alternative, “over-sharing,” as she put it.

    While I’m a college student, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I am too smart or too old or too worldly to enjoy and learn from a film like “Frozen.” Beyond merely delighting me, the film was clever, promoted a message of acceptance and took me on an emotional journey. I probably got more out of the film now than I would have at age 7: I learned that when you “let it go,” you become much, much sexier.

  8. CINEMA TO THE MAX: Sports Movies That Put Points on the Board

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    With The Game just around the corner, Yale football faces an all-too-familiar problem: We’ve won just once in the last twelve years, and that was in 2006 — when I was a freshman in high school. But if popular Hollywood has taught us anything, it’s that, on any given day, anyone anywhere is capable of pulling out a win.

    Comebacks, upsets, victories, glory — these are the tropes upon which America’s greatest sports films are based, and in a way, these are the very elements of life that we should hopefully espouse. We want to succeed; we want to overcome; we want to win. With the right amount of skill, will and determination, we can turn those desires into realities.

    That’s the thing about sports movies: If you’ve seen one, you’ve about seen them all. This doesn’t mean we enjoy underdog stories any less. I’m just saying there’s a general predictability hovering over the whole concept, though that predictability is probably necessary, to be fair. After all, a film chronicling Michael Jordan’s one-man massacre of the NBA during the 1995-’96 season probably wouldn’t produce any feel-good message. And neither would any movie covering the abysmally bad 0-16 Detroit Lions or the 9-73 Philadelphia 76ers.

    The ultimate inspirational heart-warmer comes when an unproven team defies its doubters and wins the big game. Just see “Hoosiers,” “Major League,” “Miracle” (C’mon, it’s in the damn name!), or even “Rudy,” if you don’t believe me. They all follow this trajectory while representing the four major American sports: basketball, baseball, hockey and football, respectively. (I’m not including the embarrassment that is MLS.) But after a while, you have to inject some new elements to continue making compelling sports films.

    Racial prejudice usually does the trick.

    “Brian’s Song” is a good, and early, film that looks at the color divide in post-Civil Rights American sports. “Glory Road” is a more popular and recent take on the issue in the world of college basketball. But “Remember the Titans” is most people’s favorite, if only for Ryan Gosling’s awkward post-Mickey Mouse Club/pre-”Notebook” performance and Denzel Washington’s general gravitas.

    Another good recipe is to depict a sport that nobody really follows, as in “Chariots of Fire” (track) or “Breaking Away” (cycling), even if the general effect is the same. And of course, kids movies are always great. “The Sandlot,” “The Bad News Bears” (not the remake), and every other Disney Channel Original Movie are all just as good, maybe more so because the presence of little children makes the message all the more endearing. (“Brink” was directly responsible for most of my Rollerblading-related accidents as a child.)

    But the best sports movies seem to be the ones that don’t necessarily end in a victory on the scoreboard. “The Replacements” is a tremendously underrated Keanu Reeves movie in which everyone gets fired at the end. “The Longest Yard” is set entirely in prison. “Raging Bull” is a terribly depressing film about the repeated pitfalls of an extremely talented boxer. These are definitely not feel-good movies, but they are still very good.

    Sports movies are never supposed to bore us. We usually watch them because we love sports, or at least the potential for human drama that comes out through them. And when the elements come together in just the right way, whether or not our protagonists walk away with the W, we are sometimes left breathless. If you need proof, check out “Rocky.”

    The drama, the tension and the story need to be there, and if they are, you’ve got something amazing on your hands. That’s what makes sports movies great, and that’s why we all keep turning out for them, time after time. They teach us, above everything else, that there’s always hope.

    Even for Yale football.

  9. The Revolution Will be Televised

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    Television was always my first love. Don’t get me wrong, I love great movies — it’s why I write this column. But most young kids don’t tend to see a lot of them, typically watching the same small handful of films over and over and over again. Case in point: I’ve seen “The Lion King” anywhere between 21 and 2001 times.

    But as all kids soon discover, TV is different. In fact, it’s a wild smorgasbord bursting at the pixilated seams. And like emaciated gluttons at a buffet, when you get ahold of some new show that piques your interest, you devour it: between torrenting/streaming and this ridiculously astounding television-on-steroids device called Netflix, you can literally inhale entire seasons in a concentrated punch. My roommate did something like that with “Game of Thrones” — he watched the first season and a half in one day. He didn’t walk right for a week.

    Great movies do the same thing. You see a film like “Amour,” and next thing you know, you’re sitting in the dark for three days questioning the concept of darkness itself. In other words, movies can really trip you up. But even the greatest ones rarely go past three hours: that’s like the magic number for the best epics.

    Television, on the other hand, just goes and goes, sometimes stretching over hundreds of episodes, giving writers the space necessary to map out characters over multiple seasons. Ideally, this leads to one impressive arc after another. The end result, if it satisfies the trajectory of the series, is pretty much the same thing as that emotional bite found in the best films.

    What’s surprising is how many people are suddenly beginning to figure this all out. “The Sopranos” was an early example, holding the torch for “The Wire,” “Lost,” “Dexter,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” and everything else out there that’s good — and believe me, there is a lot. These are real narratives — ones with larger, more meaningful purposes, far from merely episodic — that, for anyone interested in character development, are something of a Holy Grail.

    But this style of television has its pitfalls, to be sure. As seasons pile up, arcs can get stale. Characters can become unbelievable. Stories can fall flatter and flatter. After all, there’s a reason shows don’t last forever. They have to end eventually, and it has to end the way the show deserves. “The Sopranos” and “Lost,” for example, captured huge critical success, but fell apart in their final episodes, leaving a genuinely sour taste in the mouths of its several doting followers.

    There’s also the issue of commitment. An audience can forgive a bad first 20 minutes of a two-hour film, sure, but if you’re going to throw filler at us for the first third of a television series, good luck keeping us around for more. It’s a double-edged sword: television might have the room for boundless character and thematic exploration that films may lack, but at the end of the day, TV shows have to hold their own for far longer than a two-hour flick — instead, it’s a years-long battle.

    At the end of the day, the reason we marvel at a film is because of its constraint. A great film is a right-handed haymaker that levels you with emotion — either comedic or depressed, or somewhere in between. But with the advent of on-demand, all-you-can-eat television, we’re faced with a new take on the moving image: a beautifully fluid prizefight. The audience tunes into each episode, week after week (or hour after hour, if you’re on a marathon), and gets swept back up in the ongoing journey.

    Both films and TV tell similar stories, but the nature of the telling is what separates the two, and the latter certainly has much uncharted territory left to explore. Even so, I don’t think one is better than the other, nor do I think one has more clout. Ultimately, cinema and television are two halves of the same coin, and no matter which side falls on a given night, you won’t see me complaining.

  10. Bringing Realism to Romance

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    When James Ponsoldt ’01 set out to make “The Spectacular Now,” released earlier this month, he sought to recreate the teen movie. Based on Scott Neustadter’s novel of the same name, the film, set in Ponsoldt’s hometown of Athens, Ga., is at once realistic and nostalgic. It bucks the trend of high-budget blockbuster films portraying the “perfect” romance, instead embracing its characters’ imperfections in an effort to create characters resonant with the emotional realities of the film’s viewers. Steeped in the aesthetic of “Anytown, USA,” “The Spectacular Now” portrays a world simultaneously familiar in its failings and uplifting in its story. The film stars Miles Teller as Sutter Keely, a hard-partying high school senior with no future plans, and Shailene Woodley as Aimee Finecky, a studious girl who has never had a boyfriend. After his girlfriend breaks up with him, Sutter finds himself on Aimee’s front lawn after a night of heavy drinking. The chance encounter leads to a romance between the two, with Sutter teaching Aimee how to live in the present and Aimee showing Sutter that life is more than partying. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “The Spectacular Now” won the Special Jury Award for Acting. Director James Ponsoldt, best known for “(500) Days of Summer” and Teller spoke with the News and several other collegiate publications about the film.

    UNCC. The theme of teenage love is extremely popular among films today. What do you think it is about this theme that attracts people to these movies?

    James Ponsoldt. There is a difference between a sentimental mentality and nostalgia. [Sentimental films] don’t deal with the same pain and anxiety of feeling that you’re going to have your heart broken. A nostalgic film embraces the vast emotional spectrum.

    YDN. How did you approach the way the film straddles different generations and the way that teenagers’ lives are different than they were 20 or 30 years ago?

    James Ponsoldt. I don’t think that teenagers are all that different than they were 20 years ago or 40 years ago. I think it’s essentially the same. Technology obviously changes some things. But the biggest thing for me in thinking about this film is acknowledging the technology that we have now, acknowledging where we are now with fashion or music, and then trying to remove all the elements that weren’t essential. I wanted this movie to hold up and still be relevant.

    University of Rochester: The definition of what romantic is has changed. Are people valuing honesty more?

    James Ponsoldt. There’s a delineation between big cartoon movies and stories that are honest. In an age of YouTube, I think we have more of an appetite [for honesty]. We are seeing movies about real people being depicted honestly. I think we identify with characters mostly in their flaws. That’s how we identify their humanity.

    YDN. You talked about when kids started drinking in your hometown of Athens, Georgia, which is where you filmed. How did that location change the film and how did your experiences influence the final product?

    James Ponsoldt. In neither case was Oklahoma (the setting of the book) the defining character. The story wasn’t about young kids who want to be bull riders, where if you reset it it would completely undermine the story. What was important was that these weren’t kids who were growing up in, say, Manhattan. They weren’t growing up in LA or Chicago. And yet they weren’t growing up in the middle of nowhere. They’re growing up in somewhere that was maybe a suburb, maybe a college town, a place where, as a teenager, you see kids that are maybe only two or three years older than you but they party like adults. I felt that we were faithful to and honored the book by bringing it to Georgia.

    University of Missouri, St. Louis. The way you handled teenage drinking was very realistic. Can you speak to that?

    James Ponsoldt. The goal is to never judge the characters, because in real life nobody sees themselves as a bad guy or as someone who’s doing bad things. I think a lot of films, bad films, that deal with substance abuse demoralize and judge the characters and deal with slogans and offer easy lessons. But those are movies that don’t deal with real life. And if you’re personally dealing with things or if you have people that are close to you, who you love, who are dealing with substance abuse or alcoholism, it’s not that comforting to see a movie where someone’s completely fixed and everything’s okay. I try to be a really great advocate [for the characters].

    YDN. What’s it like to be 26 and play a high school senior? Do you see any of yourself in your character?

    Miles Teller. For the record I was 25 when we filmed it. Obviously I wasn’t really looking to play a high-schooler. And so I thought it was a step back, but it was one of the best scripts that I’ve ever read, so I was really excited to do it. And as far as seeing myself in Sutter, yeah I see a lot of myself in Sutter. Watching it now, I don’t see as much of myself in him. But yeah, if Sutter had parents who were together and two older sisters that just showed a lot of love for him and had all the kind of stuff to succeed in life, I think we would have been very similar.

    Boston University. The film felt very natural. Can you both discuss your directorial and acting styles in approaching this?

    James Ponsoldt. The goal for me is to always create a film where the audience identifies with the characters. [The actors] can try anything they want in front of a camera.

    University of South Carolina. Why is it so difficult to make an honest movie today with flawed characters in Hollywood?

    James Ponsoldt. It’s hard to take a complicated character and complicated real people regardless of their age, whether they’re teenagers or whether they’re adults. A lot of studios have moved to a place where they’re more interested in movies that have the potential to be blockbusters and franchises. The films that all of the people in those studios love and respect, they’re not really in a place to make. Audiences are incredibly intelligent and they’re ready and waiting to see complicated characters on screen.

  11. Best Picture 2012: 'Argo'?

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    Last week I wrote that if “Argo” won the Academy Award for best picture, I’d eat a brick. Well, shit. I’m floored that “Argo” took home the Oscars’ biggest prize. Do I think it deserved it? Not really. (Of the nine movies nominated, I would’ve picked three or four others before settling on “Argo.”) But hey! Who cares what I think? Ben Affleck has completed the career turnaround of which we all hoped he was capable — shrugging off his string of horrendous late-’90s/early-’00s films to reinvent himself as a potent filmmaker with wide ambitions. So maybe there’s more to “Argo” than meets the eye. (We are astoundingly quick to criticize blockbusters, to be fair.) At the very least, I’m willing to re-examine the film.

    When I first saw the trailer for “Argo” last summer, I was completely unimpressed. Maybe it had something to do with the plot, which, if anything, initially turned me away from the idea of the movie altogether: A CIA operative flies to Iran to sneak out six escaped U.S. citizens during the 1979 hostage crisis. Their cover? A team of sci-fi filmmakers location scouting for their next big picture. Obviously the story gets a bit more complex than that, but the basic idea is the same. It was something seemingly ripped straight out of Hollywood, and I couldn’t have been more turned off.

    It’s not that I necessarily doubted the skill of Affleck, who also plays the lead role of Tony Mendez. Nor did I have a problem with the film’s other stars: Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin and John Goodman, all of whom provide great backup. I just figured “Argo” would fall down the same predictable throughways that define just about any other rescue movie: a Point A to Point B structure built on high stakes that are, in the end, meaningless and forgettable.

    So it just doesn’t seem like the journey from Point A to Point B in this film, which admittedly was one of the best thrillers of 2012, should be so captivating. After all, if you can grasp even a smidge of U.S. history you’d know that all the hostages taken in the embassy conflict were eventually returned alive. What’s more, why would Affleck (or anyone in Hollywood for that matter) invest in such a big-name film if it wasn’t going to have a happy ending? We know everything turns out all right in the end, so the scene-to-scene tension shouldn’t be more than minimal at best. But that’s the thing: Every turn is sharp. No action is wasted. Everything has a suspenseful purpose.

    I know, I know. All thrillers are supposed to work this way. But “Argo” takes it one notch higher. Found footage mixed with nostalgic camera coloring. Shots of frenzy here, shots of subdued chaos there. Screaming voices and bodies hanging from cranes. Silence in still halls just before the onslaught of a mob. Each moment is choreographed not beautifully but out of necessity, and for that you have to signal out Affleck, whose direction, while no means aesthetically genius, is nothing less than consistently smart. He understands how to throw people to the edges of their seats, and so he does precisely that right from the opening tip.

    But what’s perhaps most astounding about the film is its subtle humanity, which helps navigate it away from the pitfalls of the traditional thriller. There are no hokey one-liners, no pointlessly ridiculous characterizations, and most importantly, no completely black-and-white villains. There is only Mendez, trying to rescue the six hostages, and the government trying to stop him.

    If anything, the idea behind “Argo” comes down to a very basic principle found across borders: The protection of life and freedom is ultimately ordained by the good graces of good people. Everyone needs a little help to get by — real problems only arise when that help is hard to find. But the smallest acts of selflessness can still speak volumes, even if they are committed for complete and total strangers who themselves are fundamentally opposite to you in every way. And if that’s what we’re taking away from the latest Oscar winner, maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised at all. Now please excuse me while I go find that brick.