I was actually going to write something…

26 08 2015

So I had grand plans to write either my Criterion Top 10 list or a piece about Marion Cotillard today, both of which tied into the Criterion Collection release of “Two Days, One Night” on Tuesday.  (Side note: Amazon.com, you need to get me this disc now, I don’t know why you can’t just put it in my darn mailbox.)

But then, something out of this world happened.  The video essay I posted yesterday popped up on IndieWire, a site that I check multiple times a day.  Needless to say, the excitement kept my mind sidetracked for a while.

Click the picture to be taken to the post itself.

The Playlist - Two Days, One Night video essay

It wasn’t just a link, either.  I hate to toot my own horn, but they gave me a truly flattering write-up as well.

“It’s hard to think that a pair of filmmakers who have won two Palme d’Or prizes at the Cannes Film Festival could be underrated, but the extent ofJean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s talents still feel insufficiently realized. Their latest work, ‘Two Days, One Night‘ — which is now available through the Criterion Collection— showcases an area of their acumen seldom discussed when praising their work: shot composition.” Marshall Shaffer’s 7-and-a-half-minute video essay begins with that big thesis.

What follows is extremely well edited video that deftly delivers on its premise, showcasing Shaffer’s astute eye for dissecting the latest work by the Dardenne brothers, known for movies like “L’enfant,” “The Son,” and “The Kid with a Bike.”

Watch below for Shaffer’s perspicacious analysis, including what he deems to be “the masterpiece of camera work and character blocking” in the Dardennes’ film.

So you could say I have been floating on cloud nine today.  Sorry if you were craving some juicy content or analysis today.  Sometimes it’s nice to just take a step back and appreciate that all the hard work pays off in some way.

But the reward is not in the recognition.  It’s in the work itself.  I love producing these video essays, and this certainly gives me some motivation to keep churning them out.  But the thrill I got from seeing my name on IndieWire does not measure up to the immense satisfaction of exporting the final cut of the video essay itself, knowing that I have truly wrestled with a film’s meaning and produced something enlightening for the benefit of the discourse around cinema.

Two Days, One Night: A Separation (VIDEO ESSAY)

25 08 2015

In honor of today’s Criterion Collection release of “Two Days, One Night,” I have prepared a video essay examining the superb use of composition in the film.  Full text of my narration can be found below – enjoy!  I hope this video is somewhat enlightening.

* As a reminder, the film is available (as of publication) to stream for free with a Netflix subscription.

It’s hard to think that a pair of filmmakers who have won two Palme d’Or prizes at the Cannes Film Festival could be underrated, but the extent of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s talents still feel insufficiently realized.  Their latest work, Two Days, One Night – now available through the Criterion Collection – showcases an area of their acumen seldom discussed when praising their work: shot composition.

In today’s cinephile culture, composition is often reduced to mere eye candy and celebrated mostly whenever the merits of a shot loudly blare their meticulous construction, such as in the films of Stanley Kubrick, David Fincher, or Wes Anderson.  To be clear, these filmmakers are all great craftsmen who create truly indelible imagery.  But the Dardennes do something with composition in Two Days, One Night of particular note – they employ it to serve as a direct compliment to the tensions present in their narrative.

Perhaps part of the reason this stylistic triumph seems relatively unheralded is that the Dardennes, early adopters of the shaky cam verité style, often used cinematography to enter the subjective headspace of a character.  In Two Days, One Night, the directors’ camera offers a direct commentary from their position outside the story.

That story, boiled down to its essence, is one of binary choices and the journey that an individual must make to move from one side to the other.  The main choice in Two Days, One Night is the decision that 16 workers must make between a thousand euro bonus or saving the job of Sandra, played by Marion Cotillard.  The head of the company allows Sandra one weekend to try and convince her co-workers to change their minds before a revote that Monday.

At the script level, this means a lot of conversations between two people, which typically restricts the visual choices available at a filmmakers’ disposal.  Most films shoot these in some variation of a shot-reverse shot technique, varying close-ups, and the occasional master shot containing both characters.

The Dardennes, however, shoot almost exclusively in that master shot that can capture two figures from a long range.  It is here in these shots, along with some spare editing in post-production, where the directors echo the choice in the narrative.  In their visuals, the Dardennes introduce a visual motif of separation and union to compliment the tough referendum Sandra must pose to her colleagues.

This motif does not appear in every conversation, which is probably for the best as the Dardennes’ subtle aesthetic decision could have become bludgeoning and thus defeating the purpose of their attempt to keep the visuals interesting.  But it appears enough to put aside any doubts that this was some kind of accident or repeated mistake.

So let’s take a look at this in action.

Sandra goes to visit as many colleagues as she can to plead the case for why they should vote for her job.  Whenever she encounters someone hostile to her request, there is usually something in the frame that puts them in a separate space from Sandra.

At her first stop, it’s a piece of wood…

Then, a stack of grocery crates…

A locker…

Later on, it’s different stones on the wall of a row of buildings.  This conversation plays out with the camera roving a little more than usual, beginning on a close up of Sandra, then pivoting to get the same shot of her co-worker, and then moving back to capture them in this two shot.  The two might as well not even be in the same shot – and were it not for the fluidity of the take, I might suspect the sides of the frame were stitched together in post-production.

Later on, when they stop to talk again, she appears against the backdrop of the street while he remains seen against the stone wall.  Call this coincidence all you want, although to have the same pattern pop up twice in the same scene seems to indicate the Dardennes know exactly what they’re doing.

But most often in Two Days, One Night, the visual separation comes from a doorway.  Sandra goes to visit these workers at their homes, and they often prove unwilling to extricate themselves from that place.  They remain comfortably situated in their space of private domesticity and thus allows to remain steeped in the concerns of their own self-interest.

For the people who do make the difficult decision of self-sacrifice for Sandra’s well-being, the visuals play out with a closely correlated complication.

Take, for instance, the case with her colleague Anne.  She decides to come outside and address Sandra directly, which is more than most co-workers were willing to do.  Still, the answer is no, and the corner of the house separates them in the frame.

Later on, Sandra returns to the house, and Anne comes outside to inform her that she’s trying to make it work financially to sacrifice the bonus.  Still, her husband yanks her back inside and yells at Sandra for daring to come and ask this of them.  But now that she has crossed the precipice, it presages this scene.

…where she shows up at Sandra’s house to proudly profess that she will vote to forgo her bonus.

Earlier in the film, she manages a much easier vote switch with Timur, who she catches while coaching soccer practice.  The two talk from opposite sides of a fence, but the Dardennes scarcely let that barrier drift into the shot as they float fluidly between mid-shots of the person talking.  While a separation may have existed between them in the past, the camera suggests the relevancy of that division is next to nothing.

The Dardennes save what might be the masterpiece of camerawork and character blocking in Two Days, One Night for the very last off-site conversation, one between Sandra and Alphonse at a Laundromat.  As he explains his tough choice not to vote for her, she stands in front of the blue-painted wall while he is positioned in front of a red door.

Then, as Alphonse moves around, he has a change of heart and declares his intent to vote for Sandra as he now stands in front of that same blue backdrop with her.

But later, after having a realization that a vote for Sandra might adversely affect his long-term employment prospects, Alphonse decides to change his vote back.  And now, a machine and some bubbles on the wall mark a line that puts them on opposite sides once more.

Fascinatingly, the Dardennes do not only make visual choices that draw separations between Sandra and her co-workers.  In the film’s most tragic moment, where Sandra has to excuse herself from a family lunch to break down crying, the camera catches her facing away from the lens.  We, the audience, are separated from Sandra’s emotions when access to them might make us feel all the more for her.

Yet, through these conversations that dynamically illustrate the power of humanity at both its most selfish and selfless, we cheer on Sandra as she makes the journey towards larger choice that has a far greater bearing on her life – the journey from the stasis of the opening shot, where she finds herself unable to summon the energy to fight for her job…

…to the motion of the final shot, towards whatever uncertain future lies ahead.

LISTFUL THINKING: Top 10 of 2014 (The Self-Aware One)

31 12 2014

Boyhood stillAnother year gone by, and what an odd and largely unremarkable one (at least for me).  That’s not to say, however, that there were not plenty of good movies to see.  Between two years – this and last – packed with film festivals as well as a summer living in Los Angels, I have racked up a shamefully high film count for 2014.

The final tally: 154.  That’s a gain of over 50% from just two years ago.  And, mind you, I still have many left to see, although only “Selma” and “American Sniper” would likely have ended up on this list.  Impressively, I have actually managed to review all of them (including one for “A Most Violent Year” which irksomely has to be held another month).

I usually try to tie my year-end top 10 list around a theme or a unifying idea, and this year is no different.  At the beginning of the month, my films were essentially set (sadly), but I could not for the life of me find a correlation or angle.  Then, I read a rather snarky piece by Anne Thompson of IndieWire called “How to Make a Ten Best List in Five Easy Steps.”

Thompson is a highly regarded entertainment reporter, and I value her insight on industry news that provides more thorough coverage than the click-bait titles.  At times, though, I find her writing contains a certain aura of superiority that verges on haughtiness.  In this reductionist list, which I believe is meant to be in jest to some degree, here are some of her suggestions for top 10 building:

“1. Include a selection of brainy consensus critical faves of the sort that are likely to be Oscar contenders.

2. Add a few popular hits as well to show that you click with the mainstream.

3. Add at least one wild blue yonder arcane title, either foreign or up-and-coming indie, that will leave readers scratching their heads, impressed with your erudition. This proves that you saw way more movies than they did.”

Pike Affleck Gone GirlI dismissed the piece at first, and then I told myself that such blind herd mentality was something to which I was not susceptible.  I don’t normally drink the Kool-Aid and tow the critics/bloggers party line – I picked “Win Win” and “The Queen of Versailles” as my favorites of their respective years, for heaven’s sake!

Yet I could not shake Thompson’s piece off, for whatever reason.  I kept thinking about it and realized that my top picks for the year might not match up with a ton of external validators, but they did meet a certain set of internal criteria.  As it turns out, I do have a couple of favorite “types” that rear their heads in my annual top 10 list.  These are not necessarily genres or styles of filmmaking so much as they are experiences.

So, without further ado, my extremely self-aware top 10 films of 2014.  I hope no one is incredibly offended by me reducing these films to merely what they meant to me, but if you want to read a pure assessment of their merits, click on the title to be taken to my original review.

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REVIEW: Two Days, One Night

1 10 2014

Two Days One NightTelluride Film Festival

In 1999, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne arrived on the world stage of cinema in a big way with “Rosetta,” a film that won them the Palme d’Or at Cannes as well as global renown.  That story, which they both wrote and directed, followed its eponymous 17-year-old protagonist as she battles for self-survival in an unfeeling Belgian capitalist system.  In spite of all the setbacks she faces, however, Rosetta always summons the strength from within to get back on her feet and scrounge around again for a job.

Two Days, One Night” arrives from the brothers 15 years later, who once again take an out-of-work female as their subject.  Marion Cotillard stars in the film as Sandra, a struggling factory worker who learns she has one weekend to convince 16 coworkers to relinquish a bonus in order for her to stay on the company’s payroll.  Such a daunting task would seemingly shock anyone out of lethargy and into tenacious survival mode.

Yet when the Dardennes first introduce Sandra, she lies motionless on her side and is content to simply let an important phone call ring until it gets forwarded to voicemail.  Throughout the film, Sandra appears to believe that going to fight for her job is a futile waste of her time and energy.  Most of the push to continue the journey, in fact, comes from her rather saintly husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione).

Much of Sandra’s lack of confidence is explainable by her personal struggles with depression (that might be a generalized description of the specific condition afflicting her, which seemed to resemble bipolar disorder).  To focus solely on the personal, however, diminishes a whole world of social commentary in “Two Days, One Night.”  This is the second time that the Dardennes have placed the imminent possibility of joblessness in front of their central character, and the response that follows has shifted from powerful pugnacity to alarming apathy.

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Telluride Film Festival Diary, Day 3

31 08 2014

8:30 A.M.: Up early to talk with Mike Leigh and then hit up one of my most anticipated films of the festival –  the Marion Cotillard-starring “Two Days, One Night.”

11:30 A.M.: Floored by “Two Days, One Night.” A fascinating look at the internal tussle between self-interest and self-sacrifice. Now headed to the noon panel!

1:00 P.M.: Ugh, nothing worse than having to leave an incredible panel that featured Jon Stewart, Gael Garcia Bernal, Bennett Miller (director of “Moneyball” and “Foxcatcher”), and Jean-Marc Vallee (director of “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild”). But now I’m about to see an obscure silent film with live accompaniment, which is certainly a cool thing. Even if the movie is a dud, it is certainly a unique experience to cross off the cinematic bucket list.

5:30 P.M.: Well, the silent film was a pretty neat thing to see. I was not entirely in the right mindset to watch that kind of a film, so I didn’t necessarily engage with it on a level I’d hoped.

Then we had student Q&A sessions with the Dardennes (who directed “Two Days, One Night”) and Morten Tyldum (who directed “The Imitation Game,” which I did even get to see). I told the French-speaking Dardennes bonjour, which was sadly all the interaction I had with them. I had a great question for them, but I didn’t get called on. The conversation with Tyldum was surprisingly interesting, considering that none of us saw the film.

Now, on to “Dancing Arabs,” an Israeli-Palestinian film that I know absolutely nothing about. And sometimes, that’s not a bad thing.

8:45 P.M.: GOT INTO “FOXCATCHER.” Festival = made. And James Gray, the director of my favorite 2014 film “The Immigrant,” is sitting two rows behind me!

Also, I ran into Ramin Bahrani, the director of “99 Homes,” while in line for the bathroom today. I told him how much I enjoyed the film, and he replied in astonishment that I was able to stay awake. I also chatted him up about Winston-Salem, where he filmed a short that played before the presentation last night. Pretty cool stuff!

Oh, and “Dancing Arabs” was mediocre, in case you were wondering.

12:11 A.M.:  Back from “Foxcatcher.”  What a cerebral, brooding film.  Definitely going to spend some time in deliberation on this one.  Reminds me of how I felt emerging from “The Master.”

Anyways, tomorrow is the day when the festival reprograms the films that had lots of turnaways – so wish me luck as I attempt to catch “Rosewater” and “Wild.”  So now I’m going to try to finish the book of the latter … which I doubt will happen.