“What we’ve got on our hands…is a dead shark”

1977’s Annie Hall was a turning point for Woody Allen as a filmmaker, marking as it did the transition between his “early funny films” and the more serious (but often no less funny) later “relationship” movies. (Allen’s previous film was 1975’s Love and Death, a broad satire of 19th-century Russian literature that, among other things, involved a plot to assassinate Napoleon. A more jarring juxtaposition of films there has never been.) Annie Hall was also a turning point in that it was Allen’s first Oscar nod, winning Best Picture, as well as Best Screenplay and Best Director.
Allen’s original title for Annie Hall had been Anhedonia, a psychoanalytic term that means “the inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable.” It’s hard to imagine why United Artists had a hard time coming up with a marketing plan for that! Interestingly, what became Annie Hall was originally planned to be a murder mystery, although that element was jettisoned in favor of a straight romantic comedy. It was revived almost 20 years later for Allen’s 1993 film Manhattan Murder Mystery which re-teamed Allen with Diane Keaton (the titular Annie Hall).
Although Annie Hallwould mark a departure for Allen (more fully realized in his next film, 1978’s Bergman homage Interiors), it doesn’t lack for comedy. The Marshall McLuhan cameo, the lobsters, the “spider the size of a Buick,” “a large, vibrating egg”…Annie Hall is still one of the funniest movies ever made. But, like the old joke that ends the film—“two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of them says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know; and such small portions’”—there is a more serious message lying below the surface.
See what you think. The Film Forum will be screening Annie Hall Monday night, February 6, at 7:30 in the Spring Street Gallery (110 Spring Street) as part of the Monday night “Countdown to Oscar” Best Picture Winners series. 

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Marginal Revolution

There has been no shortage of documentaries about the 2008 financial meltdown and related issues. Inside Job, which the Saratoga Film Forum screened last year, was perhaps the highest-profile of these. 2009’s Collapse was another, and the Enron-collapse doc The Smartest Guys in the Room dates from 2003. But “financial dramas”—let alone financial thrillers—have tended to be few and far between. 2010’s The Company Men was a bit of a flop and got mixed reviews (including only a 67% on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer). HBO’s Too Big to Fail, based on the nonfiction book by Andrew Ross Sorkin, has been described as a dramatized version of Inside Job. (Metacritic has a pretty thorough roundup of recession-themed films here.) Speaking of HBO, one of my favorite “finance films” was 1993’s Barbarians at the Gate, which, though not without its suspense, was played more as a black comedy, thanks to a screenplay by the late great Larry Gelbart. There is also Trading Places, speaking of dark financial comedies. (Wall Street and Boiler Room round out the master list of Wall Street flicks.)
The idea of a “financial thriller” may sound somewhat oxymoronic, although in the book world, it is a growing genre. One of the challenges of this genre, is grokking the lingo. Even after reading the explanation of a margin call, it’s still a bit of a mystery. So the challenge of a good financial thriller is to ramp up the suspense while keeping exposition sounding less like an MBA thesis.
About 20 minutes into Margin Call, Peter Sullivan, a fairly junior member of an investment bank (loosely based on Lehman Brothers), begins the initial explanation of what is happening that will end up triggering the financial meltdown. “It’s fairly complicated,” Sullivan begins. “Simplify!” urges trading floor head Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), who no doubt speaks for the viewer. That Sullivan is played by Zachary Quinto, whose most famous role (arguably) is that of Mr. Spock in the 2009 Star Trek reboot, perhaps lends a tone of “technobabble” to the proceedings, but it gives us just enough to let us know what’s happening without offering “too much information.” Emerson then tries to further explain to his boss Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), who says, “Just talk to me in English,” a sentiment repeated by the Boss of All Bosses John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) in an early morning meeting. “Speak as you might to a small child or a golden retriever.”
“Look at these people,” says Sullivan, as he and his colleague Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) drive through the streets of Manhattan, “wandering around with no idea what’s about to happen.”
And that’s the issue with movies like Margin Call, particularly post-Occupy Wall Street. With the effects of the 2008 financial crisis still profoundly affecting many of us, is it too soon to accept moral ambiguity on the part of the folks that helped cause it? Can the bankers be humanized?
Director J.C. Chandor wrote Margin Call in the days after Lehman’s dramatic failure, and, as he told the New York Times, wanted to understand the human side of a financial crisis, or “the decision-making process that got us into this mess….Everything in my gut said don’t lie here.” Chandor’s father was a Merrill Lynch investment banker, and he got to see the human side of the “Wall Street banker” firsthand, the ups and the downs. Thus, Margin Call is not intended to condemn the system, and if nothing else, it aims for a calm, realistic portrait of the industry. From the Times:
“A lot of what our film is really exploring is that it’s easy to vilify, it’s easy to moralize and judge and blame people for what happened,” Mr. Quinto said. “And not inappropriately, completely! But there’s also a whole swath of people who were just doing their jobs, who weren’t complicit in the decision-making process that led to all of this.”
That is, do we paint everyone in a large industry with the same brush?

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Oh, Oscar!

This year’s Oscar nominees were announced earlier this week. In February, the Film Forum is screening the Oscar-nominated short films. Check out the updated roster here.

As ever, the nominees were not without controversy. Feel free to use the Comments section to share your thoughts—which nomination was deserved? Who got robbed?

Speaking of Oscar, in February, the Saratoga Film Forum is presenting a countdown to Oscar night. Each Monday night the Film Forum will screen a past Best Picture Oscar winning film. See the schedule here. All Monday night screenings are at 7:30 at the Spring Street Gallery, 110 Spring Street, and are free and open to the public.

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Milling Around

Calling all art lovers. After the Saratoga Film Forum’s Friday evening screening of The Mill & The Cross, Rachel Seligman, Associate Curator at the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, will lead a discussion about the film. “I have taught Bruegel in the past and have always loved his work,” Rachel tells us. “The conceit for this film is such an unusual one that I was very intrigued and curious about it. And the more I’ve read about it, the more excited I am to see it.”
Rachel and the Film Forum go a long ways back—and in fact she was the Film Forum’s first paid employee. Friday’s screening starts at 7:30 p.m. For more information, please visit the Saratoga Film Forum’s Web site or Facebook page.

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While You Were Art

Those of you who may have been fans of the old 1960s TV show Wild Wild West no doubt recall the episode where the evil Dr. Loveless invents a device that lets people travel inside paintings. The device is used for nefarious purposes (inhabited paintings placed in royal houses were designed to facilitate the theft of royal jewels, etc.), but having seen the episode at an impressionable age, I have always thought it would be pretty cool to travel inside a painting (of course, this would depend on the painting…). While those of us who require glasses often have the experience of being in an Impressionist painting, generally, though, we can only imagine what the oil-on-canvas-based life would be like.

Now, however, Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski takes moviegoers inside a painting, specifically, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1564 painting The Way to Calvary. The movie is The Mill & The Cross, which will screened at the Saratoga Film Forum this Thursday, Friday, and Sunday. This is not a first for Majewski, who is himself a painter; his 2004 film The Garden of Earthly Delights involved reenactments of scenes from the titular triptych by Hieronymus Bosch, which sounds like it would put the “trip” in “triptych.”
The Mill & The Cross goes even further than simply reenacting a painting—it uses computer graphics and heavy-duty compositing to simulate Bruegel’s visual style and place the actors within extrapolations and interpolations of what is on the canvas, in some ways “finishing” Bruegel’s work. The film brings the 16th-century Flemish master into the 21st century, and this “bringing Bruegel forward” is not just visual, but thematic as well.
Bruegel the Elder(so-called in retrospect to distinguish him from his son, also a painter, who became known, cleverly enough, as Bruegel the Younger) was known for what has been called “genre” painting; his works often featured peasants and the daily life of a fairly typical village. This was quite rare at the time, and Bruegel’s works have been important documents of 16th century Flanders. Part of this “everyday” life also unfortunately involved torture and execution, and the painting—and film—depict victims strapped to Catherine wheels, ravens pecking away at them. At the time, Flanders was occupied by Spain, and by all accounts it was a brutal occupation. As a result, the crucifixion of Christ depicted in the painting is performed not by the Romans, but by the Spanish. Bruegel invented a style of painting perhaps known as “protest art.”
Bruegel’s The Way to Calvary
And yet if you look at the painting (click here for a higher-resolution version), you’ll notice the milling crowd (as it were) going about their business blind to many of the horrific events around them, as if they have become immune to them.
Majewski spoke about Bruegel’s attitude toward the subjects of his painting in a recent interview:
[H]e is a realist in looking at human conditions. He is a profound observer. I feel a lot of compassion in his paintings, a softening for Flanders and its people. He is compassionate in his depiction, but realistic…it is the inbred condition of human beings, that’s the way it is…to be cynical you have to be on purpose, so to say.
His message is timeless, anything important happens, you most likely won’t see it because you just don’t see beyond your own nose…the foreground is less important…Bruegel’s attitude is truthful, I mean people go after the incidents that catch their eyes, but that’s not necessarily the most important thing happening around them.
Times have changed, but not too much:
People have to be particularly stronger today as we are attacked by many aggressive disruptions, whether we like it or not. Disruptions to our train of thought are constant; if you want to communicate with yourself there will be constant interference – radio, TV etc.
And, above everything, the mill. For Majewski, the mill is the primary symbol of both the painting and the film, representing the divine. There is a scene in the film when the blades stop and the world stands still. What should we make of this?

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Cult Following

When we hear the term “cult film,” the first thing that comes to mind is something along the lines of an old John Waters film, Plan 9 From Outer Space, or perhaps the quintessential cult film Rocky Horror Picture Show. So when we hear that Martha Marcy May Marlene is a “cult film,” the first question we may ask is, “Do I have to stay up until midnight to see it?” and/or “What did I do with those old fishnet stockings?”

Martha et al., however, is not that kind of cult film but is instead a film abouta cult—and, rather than midnight, it will be screened at the Saratoga Film Forum Thursday and Friday, January 19th and 20th, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, January 22nd at 3:00 p.m.  

Films about cults are surprisingly few and far between, at least beyond those TV “movie of the week” tales common in the 1970s and 80s about brainwashing and deprogramming. Dramatically, 1981’s Ticket to Heaven was the product of a late 70s/early 80s “cult mania” as the Moonies, Guyana, and others were in the news at the time, while 1999’s Holy Smoke!(starring Harvey Keitel and Kate Winslet) takes a more Eastern route.
Martha et al. takes a different approach, and becomes much more of a psychological—perhaps even existential—thriller than a cautionary tale about brainwashing. Newcomer Elizabeth Olsen (she is the younger sister of Mary-Kate Olsen and Ashley Olsen) stars as all three title characters: her proper name is “Martha,” while “Marcy May” is the name bestowed upon her by the leader of the cult she has found herself a member of, and “Marlene” is the generic name all the women use when they answer the phone. So right off the bat you can see there’s a bit of an identity crisis in the making.
Martha was led to join the cult—which is based in the Catskills—because of things that had gone wrong in her earlier life, although we don’t really know a great deal about what those things might have been. All the women in the cult are damaged psychologically in some way, and those kinds of damages are often what lead people to join cults.
The other thing that lures impressionable people—particularly young people—into cults is a charismatic leader. Let’s face it, few cults would be successful if they were run by complete shlumps. So Patrick (John Hawkes) is the charming Svengali, playing the guitar, extolling  a seemingly appealing countercultural philosophy, and knows how to push all the right buttons of impressionable young girls (and a few boys).
We only see the workings of the cult in retrospect, and in pieces. Martha has escaped the cult and fled to the home of her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Lucy’s husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). It’s not the most comfortable of reunions, especially since Martha is silent on where she had been and what she had been doing; for all Lucy and Ted know, she just ran away from a boyfriend. However, as she readjusts to living with Lucy and Ted, she has flashbacks to her life in the cult, triggered by everyday activities. Her experience of cult life was at such an impressionable age, she is now unsure how “normal” people behave. To wit: in the cult, sex was a communal activity, and at one point Martha freaks out Lucy and Ted by, um, joining them. Awkward, to say the least.
Martha Marcy May Marleneis the sister film (so to speak) of director Sean Durkin’s 2010 short film “Mary Last Seen” which, like Martha et al., also played Sundance and Cannes. The two stories, while related, evolved together. Said the press notes for the Cannes screening of Martha et al. (via In Contention.com): 
The script for MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE took time to evolve. “I started in 2007 and was writing for a couple of years before we started to think about making it. It takes place in the summer and we wanted to shoot it in New York, so we had a three to four-month window. We tried to get it going in 2009 and the script wasn’t quite right. I had never done anything as a director to show people, either. I’d made a student short but it wasn’t something I wanted to show people since it wasn’t representative of what the feature film would be.”
Durkin decided to shoot a short instead that summer, MARY LAST SEEN, casting actor Brady Corbet in a role that he would reprise for the feature film, as a cult member who becomes Martha’s boyfriend. “I wanted to direct a short that was related,” recalls Durkin, “but I didn’t want it to be about Martha. I had all this rich material about how people get involved in cults, but that’s not what the script was about. I knew Brady Corbet was going to be playing Watts [in the feature] and wanted to do something with him as the same character. That’s where the short came from.

What makes people join cults and, perhaps more importantly, why do they (usually) stay, often to live in ways that are at odds with conventional morality—or even legality? Why do cult members give themselves over so willingly to their leaders (if Jim Jones comes to mind, well, he should)? I have never been a member of a cult, so it is only through movies such as Martha Marcy May Marlenethat I can get some idea. But as unusual (or horrific) the cult’s actions may seem to us as outsiders, think about how our normal activities may seem to someone who has been so conditioned by a cult. What is “normal” anyway?

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Kidding Around

In this age of computer-generated animation à la Pixar, it’s nice to see that some “old-school” techniques are often still the best school. Wallace and Gromit are two animated characters—a man and a dog, respectively—created by what is colloquially known as “claymation”—plasticine modeling clay is applied to metal armatures, and the figures are filmed using stop-motion photography, or one tiny movement at a time. It’s a time-consuming and laborious process, but the results speak for themselves, as you’ll be able to see on Saturday night, January 14, when the Saratoga Film Forum screens three W&G short features as part of the “Family Flick” series.
Wallace and Gromit were the brainchild of the UK’s Nick Park, who has a long history in animation. In 1985, he was hired by Bristol-based Aardman Animations (which produces the W&G films), and one of his earliest claims to fame was working on the cutting-edge stop-motion-animated music video for Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” (the dancing chickens were his). In 1989, a short film about talking animals living in a zoo (“Creature Comforts”) was spun off into a much-loved series of advertisements for the UK Electricity Board, which have since been named among the top 20 TV ads of the past 50 years.
Park created Wallace and Gromit in 1989 and the first W&G short was A Grand Day Out with Wallace and Gromit which, along with The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave, will be screened on Saturday. The series has gone on to win numerous awards, including three Oscars.
An extensive interview with Nick Park can be found by clicking here.
By the way, the Film Forum Family Flick is a new series launched last fall in which the screening is run entirely by kids who choose the film, man the projection booth, sell the concessions and generally run the show. If you happen to know any kids who might be interested, let us know at films@saratogafilmforum.org. The Family Flick series is sponsored by the Nordlys Foundation and all proceeds will be donated to charity.

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