ENJOY THE SHOW
There's a film festival kicking off this week in Poland called the American Film Festival. The AFF is the fall version of the New Horizons Film Festival (which screens mostly international films in July every year), organized by the New Horizons Association located at the Nowe Horyzonty cinema in the city of Wroclaw, Poland. This rather vibrant, distinct, energetic city is located inbetween Warsaw and Krakow, but much closer to Prague and Dresden. There's a number of big universities in Wroclaw, making it a lively university city with a student population of over 150,000. It's also the perfect place to host these film festivals, because many students love cinema and love to catch all these films from all around the world. I'm happy to be here.
After attending for my first time last year and enjoying every minute of the fest, I'm back in the town of Sitges, Spain (or Catalonia) to kick off the 51st Sitges Film Festival. It's the Spanish cousin of the Alamo Drafthouse's Fantastic Fest with all kinds of genre films playing over the next 10 days. Lots of horror and sci-fi and action and more. I'm really excited to be here. I'm really excited to see a bunch of these films. It's just an excellent film festival, right on the beach, with enthusiastic audiences that love genre films. And this year I decided to stick around the entire time (and not head up to the London Film Festival like last year) so I can fit in more films and enjoy this charming little beach town. Plus it's October - the perfect time to watch horror movies and discover something new and wild and amazing in the mix. Time to jump right into Sitges.
Acclaimed, iconic Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou is ready to release his 21st feature film since his debut as a filmmaker in the 1980s. Titled Shadow, the film is another martial arts epic yet also a drama, based on the Three Kingdoms era in Chinese history. Over the years, Zhang Yimou has won two BAFTA Film Awards (for Raise the Red Lantern in 1991 and To Live in 1994), but never an Academy Award or Golden Globe. He still keeps making films year after year, working mostly in China nowadays, though still trying his hand at a Hollywood blockbuster (The Great Wall) in addition to a war-time drama (The Flowers of War). Shadow premiered at the Venice Film Festival this year, and also played at the Toronto Film Festival. I had a chance to interview the legendary Zhang Yimou during his visit to the festivals, and I am honored I could meet him.
Give your soul to the dance. Give your soul to the cinema. The fall movie season is well underway, kicking off with all the big film festivals - Venice, Telluride, and Toronto. I returned for my second year to Venice to attend the 75th Venice Film Festival and watched a total of 26 films in eight days before flying over to TIFF to catch a few more. The films I saw in Venice really stood out above the rest, better than almost every else from earlier this year (give or take other Sundance & Cannes films). This iconic festival is known as the very first film festival, and they have a legacy to live up to by bringing the best films from around the world every year. The fest is over, the awards have been handed out, but the films will still live on. To wrap up my coverage of Venice, here's my favorite films of the festival - those films that have remained on my mind.
"The people, they were forgotten, and we suffered most of all." There's a superb documentary titled Strike a Rock that still hasn't been officially released, even though it is one of the best documentaries around. Made by a South African filmmaker named Aliki Saragas, the film premiered at a bunch of film festivals throughout 2017. I first saw it at IDFA (the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam) last fall, and it's been on my mind ever since. However, since then I haven't heard or seen any news about the film. I was hoping some distributor would pick it up for release in the US or UK but that hasn't happened yet. And it hasn't played at any other major festivals since 2017. Which is a big shame, because it's an extraordinary portrait of South African women fighting against a careless mining corporation and taking matters into their own hands. I've been thinking about it so much that I've decided to just write a post to try and help the doc.
Thank goodness for Letterboxd. I was originally going to title this article "Hitting My Mark", but I'd rather go with the catchphrase "Always Be Watching" - meaning, simply, always be watching films. New films, old films, big films, small films, just keep watching. It's my mantra and has been for years, since the early days of running this website. If I don't want to watch a film that was just released, there's always (always!) more old films to watch. And there's always something that I haven't yet seen to watch. As someone whose job it is to watch movies, my goal is to fit in a movie every day. It's not always possible, but I try. This year I decided to keep track of all the films I've seen using the wonderful Letterboxd, so I can actually keep count and look back at it all. It's the end of July and I'm already over 200 films. Do I get a medal? Nah, I just need sleep.
"It comes with a mystery attached." Infamous Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn has launched a brand new cinema website, open to the public today, called byNWR.com. The new website is essentially a specialized streaming service, available entirely for free, where Refn handpicks and highlights "meticulously restored" films. This has been his own personal hobby already that he has decided to let the public in on. And he insists there's no catch, or gimmick, or anything else, he just wants to offer up these films and enrich the world of cinema (and the internet) with these rare, long-lost gems. There is a new release every quarter, divided into three monthly chapters. For the first volume, Refn invited acclaimed biographer and journalist Jimmy McDonough to be the initial guest editor for "Regional Renegades" - all three films available now.
"I was trying to create a character that I myself would identify with." A film from Belarus titled Crystal Swan premiered at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival this year, the feature directorial debut of a talented filmmaker named Darya Zhuk. Darya grew up in Minsk, Belarus, but left at age 16 to study in the US. After graduating college and years of working in various jobs, she decided to go and study directing at Columbia University and has finally completed her first feature film - Crystal Swan, about a young Belarusian woman named Velya who is trying to get a visa to travel to the USA. The film premiered to positive reviews and is still searching for an American distributor, but I wanted to bring extra attention to this filmmaker and her film. Here is my interview with Darya Zhuk, discussing the challenges and joys of making her first feature.
"This is telemarketing. Stick to the script." One of the year's wildest, weirdest, most original films is Sorry to Bother You, from the mind of Boots Riley (watch the trailer here). This is Boots first feature film, but he has some experience making music videos and in the theater world previously. Boots is also a very successful musician, not only as a rapper and songwriter but also as a producer. His film is about a kid from Oakland, played by Lakeith Stanfield, who takes a crap telemarketing job to make some money. Using his "white voice", he works up the sales chain until finally meeting the CEO and being introduced to the glorious world of high society and rich snobs. It's already on its way to becoming a huge indie hit. With the film now playing in theaters, I had a chance to chat with Boots for an interview and couldn't pass up the opportunity.
"I've been expecting you, Mr. Bond…" There's a brand new, one-of-a-kind cinematic installation now open on the top of a mountain in Austria and it's amazing. Open to the public today (July 12th) in Sölden, Austria is 007 Elements, a new James Bond museum/experience that is a spectacular, sleek, thrilling permanent adventure into the world of 007 and its 56-year history. This installation has been under construction for two years, and it's finally open. I was lucky enough to visit Sölden earlier this week and get a sneak preview inside of 007 Elements, joining a group of the most die-hard 007 fans from other Bond websites/fan clubs all over the world. We were all very seriously impressed. Sölden's 007 Elements installation is even better than I expected, entirely worth the trek into the mountains and up to the top of Gaislachkogl to experience.
"Not man. Not machine. More." One of the biggest surprises of the year is an action sci-fi titled Upgrade, the second feature film directed by Australian filmmaker/writer Leigh Whannell. Whannell has worked in Hollywood for over a decade. He broke in with a little indie called Saw, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004 and went on to become, well, a succesful franchise and a massive hit. Whannell wrote the script for it with James Wan, and starred in it, then continued his career mostly as a screenwriter & producer. The first film he directed was Insidious: Chapter 3 in 2015, jumping in the hot seat with another horror franchise he co-created with James Wan. Upgrade is Whannell's first time going all out, directing an original screenplay he wrote, working with Blumhouse and mega-producer Jason Blum to get the film made.
It all began in 2015. After seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we started messaging each other furiously. For nearly two weeks there was non-stop chatter - on theories, ideas, things to look for, things we noticed, fleeting thoughts, any- and everything related to the movie. Two years went by, and after many many more text message debates like this, Mike and I decided to launch a podcast so we could just talk directly about everything. So in December of 2017, with the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, we launched The First Word Podcast - in-depth discussion, analysis, and interviews about the latest movies, and some old ones, too. We just released our 10th episode this week, so it's time for a recap of all the episodes so far. You know, in case you might've missed one. Or maybe you've never listened? There's no better time to start than now.