Jesse Hawthorne Ficks

Talking with 'Compliance' director Craig Zobel: a spoiler-free interview!

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No film at this year's Sundance Film Festival festival encountered as much controversy as Craig Zobel's Compliance. At the first public screening, an all-out shouting match erupted, with an audience member yelling "Sundance can do better!" You can't buy that kind of publicity. Every screening that followed was jam-packed with people hoping to experience the most shocking film at Sundance, and the film does not disappoint. (Beware: every review I have happened upon has unnecessarily spoiled major plots in the film, which is based on true events.)

Compliance aims to confront a society filled with people who are trained to follow rules without questioning them. Magnolia Pictures, which previously collaborated with Zobel on his debut film Great World of Sound (which premiered at Sundance in 2007), picked up the film for theatrical release (it comes out Fri/24 in Bay Area theaters); if you dare to check it out, prepare to be traumatized as well as intellectualized. You'll be screaming all the way home about one of the most audacious movies of 2012 — and that's exactly why the film is so brilliant.

San Francisco Bay Guardian I have attended Sundance since I was 11 years old, and there have been a handful of particularly volatile screenings in which audience members passed out, threw up, stormed out of the theater, or berated the filmmakers during the Q&A: Bryan Singer's Public Access and Rémy Belvaux and André Bonzel's Man Bites Dog in 1993; Mary Harron's American Psycho and Kim Ki-Duk's The Isle in 2000; Gaspar Noe's Irreversible in 2002; and Johan Renck's Downloading Nancy in 2008. Now, you've joined the ranks of the infamous Sundance elite. Were you prepared for how vulnerable your film Compliance was going to make audience members?

Craig Zobel Absolutely not. It really caught me off guard.

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Killers, brothers, and the just plain weird: SFIFF recap!

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The 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival wrapped up last week, but we're still basking in the glow of cinema overload. Festival correspondent Jesse Hawthorne Ficks chimes in with part one of his fest impressions. (And if you're feeling post-SFIFF withdrawal, fear not: Frameline is just around the corner!)

Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece, 2011) This follow-up to 2010's beyond-disturbing Dogtooth falls right in line with director Yorgos Lanthimos' motifs: young teens following the demands of off-kilter adults, resulting in utterly confusing and deeply disturbing scenarios. Some audience members left feeling mystified ("That's it?! That movie was a complete waste of time. I hate this festival!") but oddly enough, I was hypnotized by every left-of-center shot, each non-sequitur cut, and all of the character's desperate decisions. This world is a dark and troubling place, and I can't wait for Lanthimos' next film.

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Talking with "We Need to Talk About Kevin" director Lynne Ramsay

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As I sat in a hallway at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, waiting for director Lynne Ramsay to finish a photo shoot with We Need to Talk About Kevin star Tilda Swinton, I realized that Kirsten Dunst was stepping over me. I quickly stood up, apologetically, just in time to let a sunglasses-wearing Kiefer Sutherland pass by. They were both doing interviews for Lars Von Trier's Melancholia.

But there was no time for stargazing: I was about to chat with one of cinema's most important filmmakers, the creator of Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar (2002). As Swinton, Ramsay, and I headed down the hallway, passing paparazzi, I reached out for Ramsay's coat and said, "Don't lose me!" Ramsay grabbed my arm, pulled me into the crowd and said, "We're sticking together."

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Calling all Kevin Smith fans (you know you're out there)!

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At the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, Kevin Smith created one of festival's biggest sensations for audiences and film buyers alike by announcing he was going to auction off his film Red State after its world premiere screening.

Added to that, the hate-spreading publicity junkies known as the Westboro Baptist Church announced they would be staging a protest in front of the event with their usual "GOD HATES FAGS" signs, which in turn inspired Smith to stage his own protest of the Kansas-based church as a self-proclaimed "FAG ENABLER," which in turn inspired hundreds of people from Park City to make their own signs. Tickets to the movie were rumored to have been scalped for close to a thousand dollars, and the buzz surrounding the situation was truly something I have rarely felt at Sundance.

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Sundance Diary, volume eight: the final countdown

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In a series of posts, Midnites for Maniacs curator-host and Academy of Art film-history teacher Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports on the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Check out his first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh entries.
 
No film at this year's festival encountered as much controversy as Craig Zobel's Compliance. At the first public screening, an all-out shouting match erupted, with an audience member yelling "Sundance can do better!" You can't buy that kind of publicity. Every screening (public and press) that followed was jam-packed with people hoping to experience the most shocking film at Sundance, and the film does not disappoint. (Beware: every review I have happened upon has unnecessarily spoiled major plots in the film, which is based on true events.)

What is so impressive about Zobel's film is how it builds up a sense of ever-impending terror. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the film steps into Psycho (1960) terrain, specifically in the final act of the film. Compliance aims to confront a society filled with people who are trained to follow rules without questioning them. Magnolia Pictures, which previously collaborated with Zobel on his debut film Great World of Sound (which premiered at Sundance in 2007), picked up the film for theatrical release; if you dare to check it out, prepare to be traumatized. You'll be screaming about one of the most audacious movies of 2012 — and that's exactly why the film is so brilliant.

Read more »

Sundance Diary, volume seven: up all night!

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In a series of posts, Midnites for Maniacs curator-host and Academy of Art film-history teacher Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports on the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Check out his first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth entries.

Park City at Midnight is what excites me most about each Sundance Film Festival. Yet, many other films screen at midnight that aren't technically part of the actual category, which brings up the dilemma of what type of film warrants the designation of "Midnight Movie." Late-night audiences range from the inebriated to the intellectual (and often both combined). This year's crop of midnight films, in and out of the Park City at Midnight category, was genuinely one of the most eclectic and enjoyable group of films presented in years.

Quentin Dupieux's Wrong — his follow-up to 2010's unstoppable cult hit Rubber — is an absurdist journey where everything and nothing can happen, as long as it's what you'd least expect from a narrative. The reactionary rules of this wandering wonder (don't read any spoilers about it!) seem to have expanded David Lynch's quietest, most awkward moments into a web of surrealist silliness that I immediately wanted to watch again as soon as it was over. As audiences were exiting at two in the morning, half of them were bleary-eyed from laughing hysterically, while the other half were in groggy, drunken stupors. For me, this confirms that Dupieux has achieved exactly what he wanted (to make the obvious joke, something so Wrong it's right).

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Sundance Diary, volume six: dramarama

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In a series of posts, Midnites for Maniacs curator-host and Academy of Art film-history teacher Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports on the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Check out his first, second, third, fourth, and fifth entries.

So Yong Kim's character study For Ellen is only 93 minutes long, but the experience of watching it felt like it took an eternity. But — even though the film did not win awards at this year's festival — it resonated; it was filled with many memorable, quiet moments. Paul Dano (never before so vulnerable) takes the reigns as a struggling musician who, while taking a break from touring to sign the papers for his long-overdue divorce, is forced to confront his own selfish tendencies when his custody rights start slipping through his fingers.

Writer-director Kim (2008's Treeless Mountain) uses long, handheld takes that often prevent the viewer from seeing the actual feelings of our anti-hero. This subtle slice-of-life portrait never wavers from its sullen tone, which might explain why many critics seemed underwhelmed after its screening. For Ellen doesn't give its flawed protagonist an easy way out, in a way that's reminiscent of Darren Aranofsky's The Wrestler (2008). 

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Sundance Diary, volume five: it's Mark Duplass' world, we just live in it

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In a series of posts, Midnites for Maniacs curator-host and Academy of Art film-history teacher Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports on the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Check out his first, second, third, and fourth entries.

Colin Trevorrow's quasi-romantic quirkfest Safety Not Guaranteed, which won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, also achieved a near-miracle by coaxing smiles out of some of Sundance's grumpiest audiences. Speaking of wonderfully grumpy, this movie stars Parks and Recreation fave Aubrey Plaza and Jake M. Johnson of The New Girl; their priceless personas are in big-screen effect as their characters hunt down a man who posted a classified ad in search of a time-travel companion.

What makes this film truly work is the sheer sincerity of Mark Duplass (as the would-be time traveller). His performance not only hilariously channels Michael J. Fox in 1985's Back to the Future, but he genuinely achieves a level of poignancy that perfectly fits the film's motif of loneliness. Safety Not Guaranteed looks to have the same mainstream crossover appeal that Miguel Arteta tapped into last year with Cedar Rapids.

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Sundance Diary, volume four: more docs!

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In a series of posts, Midnites for Maniacs curator-host and Academy of Art film-history teacher Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports on the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Check out his first, second, and third entries.

Winner of both the World Documentary Audience Award and the Special Jury Prize for its celebration of the artistic spirit is every musicologist's dream film: Malik Bendjelloul's Searching for Sugar Man. This larger-than-life tale is about obscure Detroit singer-songwriter Rodriguez, who created two brilliant albums, Cold Fact (1969) and Coming from Reality (1971), which some have compared to Bob Dylan's greatest works. Yet virtually no one bought either of the records ... except South Africans. The film reveals a fan base of millions, comprised of multiple generations who have viewed Rodriguez's songs as political anthems for 40 years. And that's just the first 15 minutes of the film!

Rodriguez's lyrics and lifestyle celebrated a working-class hero mentality that seems to be as precious as the songs themselves, and Benjelloul's film about his impact on a seemingly far-removed audience is a standout. But here's a warning: be careful while reading any reviews of this film before you see it! Every single critic I've read has spoiled major dramatic points in the film, so try your best to catch it before you come into contact with any spoilers. Read more »

Sundance Diary, volume three: docs!

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In a series of posts, Midnites for Maniacs curator-host and Academy of Art film-history teacher Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports on the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Check out his first and second entries.

Jeff Orlowski's Chasing Ice, which won this year's Excellence in Cinematography Award for a U.S. Documentary, manages to sidestep the frivolous argument between liberals and conservatives as to whether or not the polar ice caps are melting. In fact, this beautiful documentary is so jaw-droppingly visual, you end up interacting with and understanding the planet's ice structures as if they were your own grandparents. Trekking out to the furthest spots in the Northern Hemisphere, National Geographic photographer James Balog, his hard working-crew, and director Jeff Orlowski have created a document that will force the world to actually see what is happening as opposed to arguing assumptions. What I found even more unnerving is how beautiful I found crumbling ice caps to be. Am I part of the problem?
 
Doc fans will recognize the name Kirby Dick; his previous works include This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006), which exposed the MPAA (the highly-secretive, surprisingly small group which has been censoring cinema since 1968), and his controversial 2009 film Outrage, which aggressively outed closeted gay politicians who have and continue to vote against gay rights.

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