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In the 10/09/2021 edition:

Women in a war fantasyland: ‘MAYDAY’ cinematographer captures post-trauma in metaphysical thriller

By Preston Barta on Oct 08, 2021 03:27 pm

Preston Barta // Features Editor

In Karen Cinorre’s inventive action fantasy film Mayday, audiences are picked up in a familiar modern world and dropped into a dreamlike one, seemingly set during World War II.

In the film, we meet young Ana (Grace Van Patten of Nine Perfect Strangers), whose life has been marred by violence. Following a horrific incident at work, Ana discovers an Alice in Wonderland-like portal that transports her to a rugged coastline. There, she joins a female army (including Mia Goth, Soko and Havana Rose Liu) engaged in a never-ending war with men. Though Ana finds strength within this new alternate reality, she realizes that she may not be the soldier they want her to be.

Mayday sees Cinorre’s colloborating with cinematographer Sam Levy (Lady Bird and an upcoming Greg Mottola project), who also happens to be her husband. Mr. Levy shot the film in Croatia, capturing scenic seaside cliffs and atmospheric woods.

Fresh Fiction recently chatted with Mr. Levy by phone to discuss some of Mayday’s behind-the-scenes moments, the symbolism and action of the work, and how it all compares and contrasts to shooting films with overlapping dialogue.

Mia Goth, Grace Van Patten, Soko, and Havana Rose Liu in MAYDAY, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo by Tjaša Kalkan. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The following is a transcript of an interview conducted on September 15. Some of the questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Preston Barta: Something that I’ve long admired about your work is how perfectly you marry style, form and content. Whether it’s Mayday, Mistress America, Lady Bird, Maggie’s Plan, or Wendy and Lucy, your films have a look that matches the feelings I get from the story and characters. How do you seamlessly pull those three elements together?

Sam Levy: “Because film is a visual medium, it combines so many disciplines. But when it comes down to it, it begins and ends with the quality of the script. We can deviate up to a point, but only so much. For Mayday, [Cinorre] really did create something unique that I had never seen before. I was very excited about bringing it to life. One of the reasons it was so exciting is because it’s a very organically visual story. You can just see it on the page. The first time I got on set with Juliette Lewis [who stars in the film as a character named June], she said, ‘This script is so visual,’ and it’s true. Usually, you have to put the story over the form and beauty. Mayday is the kind of story that interestingly blends the form and content.”

Because there’s so much that can be read on the characters’ faces and within the environments they’re in, were there any greater truths that gave you more perspective?

“Ultimately, Mayday is about not giving up on life when life is difficult. It’s about a survivor who has gone through incredible hardship. But no matter what, she wants to survive. I think that’s a universal theme that many people can relate to. We all have pain in our lives. And it can be humbling when you go through emotional or physical pain.”

“This is an action film when it comes down to it. Ana uses hand-to-hand combat actions, becoming a sniper, riding motorcycles, and swimming in the ocean as tools to overcome the difficulties in her life. In any of those other movies you mentioned, a lot of the characters do have difficulties they need to overcome. Still, I’ve never worked on anything where the protagonist rises to the occasion in quite this way.”

Juliette Lewis in MAYDAY, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo by Tjaša Kalkan. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Some have called this film a fantasy movie, even though the fantasy world where these characters go doesn’t feature anything that is too much of a stretch of our own reality. That said, was there anything about this alternate place that caused you to unlock a creativity within yourself that you didn’t know existed before?

“It’s funny that you say that because I never really thought about Mayday being a fantasy. The fact is I’ve never done a movie that had this much action or explosions in it. What was revealed to me was that all of that stuff is like any other action filmed in a movie. It’s just like shooting a conversation in Frances Ha, robbing a store in Wendy and Lucy, or Saoirse Ronan running around the streets of Sacramento in Lady Bird. Plotting out how to stage an explosion on a submarine or throwing Grace Van Patten into the middle of the ocean and swimming in a storm sequence is all very familiar to what I’m trying to say. That was a great, amazing surprise.”

There are some aspects to this film that are a little easier to assign meaning to than others. For instance, the manner in which Ana passes from one world to the next is something that can be stewed on and interpreted in different ways, such as passing through hellfire to find truth. Or, maybe I’m thinking too much about it. Whatever the meaning may be, do you and Ms. Cinorre know every aspect of your film, or would you ever dangle anything out there that you don’t understand but you find fascinating?

“Yes. This is the part where she looks into the oven and is transported to the ocean? Yeah. I’ve asked [Cinorre] about it a lot because it’s completely her idea and creation. I would direct you to look at some of [Cinorre’s] short films because many of these devices are things she’s already done. Like the oven that Ana passes through, that’s something [Cinorre] put into a student film. It’s on her website (karencinorre.com). It’s the first film she made, which I didn’t shoot. There are only a few things she made that I didn’t shoot. We met in college.”

“You see [Cinorre], herself, in the film. She opens an oven, and she gazes into it. This is a moment that she has been examining for years. I kind of intuitively understand. We both love watching dance, and we see a lot of dance here in New York, where we live. And a lot of it is just the physical act of opening an oven and gazing into it is fascinating to both of us.”

“I am always thinking about how the tempo of a sequence is going to play? What it actually means is not important in a way. But it’s another one of these things that we don’t talk about that much when we’re making it. Now, I’ve definitely asked [Cinorre], ‘What does it mean when she goes into the oven?’ And the fact is, it means whatever the viewer wants it to. And that’s really the truth. There’s nothing she’s told me outside of this conversation that is a secret, or that she doesn’t want people to know, or that I’m withholding. It’s just a very physical act that, hopefully, people are engaged in the progression of movement, the way you would be when you go to see dance.”

Before I ask about shooting overlapping dialogue, I wanted to focus briefly on parallel imagery. For example, a shot of a wedding cake topper at the film’s beginning has a full circle moment by the end. They are the details that can be easily missed, but they can produce very profound moments for the audience if you catch them.

“I’m so glad you picked up on that, I have to say. Honestly, it’s written exactly as you see it. There’s a bride on a cake. She’s kind of split in two. Max, who is the pastry chef, is really furious about the problem. But the deeper meaning of it is to highlight the intense pain in this story. It speaks to the characters’ pain that the bride topper is split. That’s my interpretation of it.”

Now, before we end, I have to ask about shooting concurrent conversations in film. It’s when characters are all speaking at once and the viewer and camera are bouncing around like a true conversation would.

“I love doing that. I love it because it’s not obvious. Most movies and television shows never do that. They always chicken out. The best possible example of this is Robert Altman. Almost every Altman movie features overlapping dialogue. It’s really straightforward. You just need to think through the scenes and beats and figure out whether or not they need to play out in wider shots.”

“Mistress America has a ton of overlapping dialogue. A lot of it plays out in single tracks that are choreographed around people’s movements. And that is probably my favorite way to do it. But sometimes, that’s not appropriate. The dialogue may fall flat, and you need different pieces to accentuate the rhythm.”

“I always ask directors, ‘Hey, how do you feel about overlapping some of these?’ Just kind of what happens in life. People don’t always wait for someone else to finish talking. And it’s just really fun.”

“It’s tricky for sound, though. I think Altman and his sound team developed a special recording mixer machine to add more tracks to isolate all the dialogue.”

“There wasn’t a call for that with Mayday. There’s significantly more visual storytelling in Mayday than lots of the other things I’ve done. A little less dialogue and more story told through action.”

Mayday is now playing in select theaters and available to rent or purchase at home on demand.


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Fresh On Blu Ray: A couple popcorn flicks FREE GUY and ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS offer up lighter thrills for audiences

By James C. Clay on Oct 08, 2021 10:37 am

James Clay// Film Critic

FREE GUY

Rated PG-13, 115 minutes.
Director: Shawn Levy
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Joe Keery, Taika Waititi, Lil Rel Howrey

When Shawn Levy’s FREE GUY hit theaters, it was the first original movie not based on a preexisting property at the top of the box office in years. Ryan Reynolds cemented himself again as a bonafide movie star after his false starts in the 2000s as a comedic actor and with Deadpool. Levy also is in a unique position with this career now that he finally has a hit that (most) critics and audience members can agree upon. For a good reason, FREE GUY is an effervescent piece of pop entertainment that establishes a tone, a world with humor, recognizable actors even if there are several burps and blunders along the way. 

Reynolds plays Guy, a nonplayable character NPC in a Grand-Theft Auto like a computer game. He wakes up, talks to his goldfish, orders a medium coffee with cream and two sugars, and then goes to work as a bank teller to get robbed at gunpoint every single day. When Guy spots a sunglasses-wearing hero named Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer, the movie’s highlight) searching for a specific hidden sector within Free City he realizes there’s a lot to learn about the world. 

FREE GUY is a delightful movie; it’s challenging to be utterly immune to the charms of an interactive world where anything goes, and cops wear bunny suits. But there’s a part of my cinephile brain that cynically rejects the film’s overly earnest narrative about finding yourself. Maybe I’m broken, but audiences love this film, and it’s not just due to the star at its center, which ends up being the weak link in the cast. Reynolds never makes exciting character choices, unlike his costars Jodie Comer, Lil Rel Howrey, Joe Keery, and Utkarsh Ambudkar. On the other hand, Taika Waititti pops up an hour in playing the villain and serving up the most baffling acting choices of his career. 

FREE GUY does its best to please its audience and survive on the pure entertainment factor, which it can do quickly. Levy and screenwriter Zak Penn add a bit extra baking in a story about keeping your artistic integrity in a crippling corporate environment. Ballsy for sure, given the studio is 20th Century Studios subsidiary of Disney. 

BUY/RENT: Studio releases primarily aren’t loading with anything too special in terms of background information about the film. Other than a little unique feature here and there filmed around the craft services table, the landscape is relatively rare. However, the special features are loaded up pretty hefty with deleted scenes, gag reels, and other specific features with FREE GUY. These include Taika’s World, Dude VS. Guy, Creating Free City, and more; the specificity on the disc adds more of a background for the fans, something actually of substance. The special features are genuinely solid for this type of release. My advice is to rent it first, and if you vibe with it, go ahead and give it a snag. 

Grade: B

ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS

Rated PG-13, 88 minutes
Directed by: Adam Robitel
Starring: Taylor RussellLogan MillerThomas CocquerelIndya MooreHolland RodenCarlito Olivero

The first ESCAPE ROOM was the rare January movie that was a sleeper hit with the mainstream and succeeded in finding a critical audience. In addition, director Adam Robitel’s movie was one of the last original films to be a box office hit before the pandemic crushed all movie-going experiences. So in a way, its a bit historic being one of the previous successful mid-budget films to be released exclusively in theaters. 

ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS is more of the same, and honesty, that’s a good thing. The movie only has one thing on its mind; escape rooms are going to kill you. That’s it, but with the latest entry, the series brings back Taylor Russell (WAVES), and Logan Miller (SHITHOUSE) in a sequel that’s evocative of HUNGER GAMES, meets SAW. Still, instead of working against each other, the victims are inclined to work together. It’s a nice spin when stressed-out minds stuck in a death trap are combining their brains instead of trying to murder each other. Adam Robitel talks about seeing the films as more psychological thrillers than straight-up horror movies on the special features. I’d say he’s correct; while people do die in these crazy games, the joy of TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS comes straight from watching these people solve a crazy riddle while lighting is striking all around a broken-down subway car. 

TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS showcases a series of rooms that have to find inventive ways to put the victims in horrifying situations. This film largely succeeds, and part of the enjoyment is figuring out what each room will entail. Robitel leaves things open for the series itself to continue trapping Taylor Russell in rooms, and honestly good for her. The series takes itself seriously enough to keep you engaged and goofy enough to be comfort food for genre enthusiasts. 

BUY/RENT: Since the special features are lacking, ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS is a rental. 

Grade: B-


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[Fantastic Fest] ‘THE FOUND FOOTAGE PHENOMENON’ documentary overviews a unique cinematic style

By freshtv on Oct 08, 2021 06:23 am

Travis Leamons // Film Critic

THE FOUND FOOTAGE PHENOMENON

Not rated, 101 minutes.
Directors: Sarah Appleton and Phillip Escott
Featuring: Stefan Avalos, Lance Weiler, Eduardo Sánchez, Jaume Balagueró, Kōji Shiraishi, Patrick Brice, Rob Savage, Michael Goi, Leslie Manning and Stephen Volk.

Found footage is a turn of phrase I find humorous. It sounds like going through old keepsakes and coming across a collection of old home movies, boxed away to transfer to the latest technology to hold on to those visual memories a little longer. As for its place in film, it’s a bit different. Depending on your age, you might think found footage movies began in the summer of 1999 – a time when the Internet required a dial-up modem, Mark Zuckerberg was still in grade school, and the LAW & ORDER spin-off, SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT, was set to premiere in the fall.

The movie most closely associated with popularizing the “found footage” concept was Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, a horror project about three student filmmakers who hike into the hills near Burkittsville, Maryland, in 1994 to film a documentary about the legendary Blair Witch. They go missing, but their equipment and footage are found the following year. The supposed recovered (ahem, found) footage is what audiences would see when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1999, followed by a summer release that broke records for an independent feature.

BLAIR WITCH is, not surprisingly, one of the major titles discussed in Sarah Appleton and Phillip Escott’s documentary THE FOUND FOOTAGE PHENOMENON. Cinema has always reflected the times the films were produced, regardless of genre or style. Mostly tied to the horror genre, found footage and its elements are drawn from literature and the epistolary novel, including works written by Bram Stoker (DRACULA) and Mary Shelley (FRANKENSTEIN). That’s kind of a big reach to tie the two together to persuade people to believe something to be true. Early cinema shorts and documenting of events – a better comparison – were exercises in what was to come when fictional narratives developed.

Appleton and Escott delve into a cinematic phenomenon that never gets phased out by tracking its origins and influences (including Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ WAR OF THE WORLDS). Found footage movies spike, and when they do, distributors search the market to ride the wave and cash in with the newfound popularity. At least, that’s what occurred when PARANORMAL ACTIVITY arrived in 2007. Its release, plus the advent of YouTube two years prior, helped speed up developing found footage movies.

What THE FOUND FOOTAGE PHENOMENON gets right is acknowledging how technology has fueled the style. The medium may remain the same, but moving from film stock to iPhones to Zoom has kept the found footage movie relevant, again adhering to cinema being a reflection of the times they were made. When filmmaker Ruggero Deodato talks about his film CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and how the significance of the Vietnam War played into its creation, the weight of his product feels heavier in spite of overall content. The film’s distasteful depiction of true animal cruelty in selling the idea of human killings also gives adherence to the impact images can have in subverting fiction and reality.

Deodato was a trailblazer to a style that different filmmakers would use, many of whom appear in the documentary. This includes Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler (THE LAST BROADCAST), André Øvredal (TROLL HUNTER), Jaume Balagueró ([REC]), Patrick Brice (CREEP), Michael Goi (MEGAN IS MISSING), and Leslie Manning and Stephen Volk (GHOSTWATCH). The combination of the not-quite-as-discovered found footage works with movies that have defined the style – up through HOST, a 2020 horror feature that incorporates “screenlife” (where the film occurs on a computer monitor) during a video call on Zoom – highlights the documentary.

As far as enjoyment goes, it really depends on the viewer. I enjoy watching and reading about the evolution of movies, but THE FOUND FOOTAGE PHENOMENON runs too long for the material it explores. The content is good, but the stories told start to repeat and become redundant. Repetitive and unfocused at times, Appleton and Escott skip around on some of the films they highlight before trying to keep things chronologically. While talking heads are quick to weigh in on how the likes of George Romero and Brian De Palma jumped on the found footage bandwagon with their films DIARY OF THE DEAD and REDACTED, the documentary breezes through how their earlier works and techniques influenced the found footage style.

THE FOUND FOOTAGE PHENOMENON is an OK exploration for a subject that will likely be lost unless it finds its intended audience.

Grade: C

A release date is TBA.


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