Making the Movie

22Jan/15Off

Movie Review: Selma

Selma is about a later chapter in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyewolo). The film opens with Dr. King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Stockholm for his work in ending segregation. But the work of civil rights is not finished.

As he later puts it to LBJ (Tom Wilkinson), nothing will change in the racist communities without self-determination. He and his sometimes fractious coalition will make their stand in Ferguson, Alabama -- not because it is particularly worse for black voters there than other places in the South. They will do it there because they can count on the violent local sheriff and the racist governor to make it into a scene.

With the events of Ferguson, Missouri and the failure to indite the police officers who strangled Eric Garner in the news it's hard to imagine a historical film that feels more relevant to today. But of course, most relevant is the 1964 Voting Rights Act that the Selma marches galvanized. It was just repealed by the Supreme Court.

Director Ava DuVernay, apparently working from her own script instead of credited British writer Paul Webb's, delivers the goods. Historical moments come to life with emotion and power, and the Kings -- Martin and Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) -- both come to life as complicated, conflicted figures, not to mention the other names from history that live and breathe on screen: Joe Lewis, Malcolm X, Mahalia Jackson, Jimmy Lee Jackson, and so many more.

As for the controversy over not getting a Best Director nomination... totally justified. This was one of the best-directed films I saw all year. While there are a few moments where the camera angles don't edit together smoothly, the direction was otherwise first class. DuVernay got 10,000 times better performances and more emotional impact than Bennett Miller did with Foxcatcher. (Sorry, Bennett. I still love Moneyball.) The movie is truly epic. Scenes with hundreds of extras play just as well as two-person chamber scenes. You feel the righteous power of the Selma marches. You feel the swift brutality of the violence. You feel the weight of history. And yet the characters don't feel stuffy and arch. It's incredibly well directed.

DuVernay's boosters (of which I am now one) can console themselves with the thought that she is only three films into what looks to be a long and promising career. I look forward to the work, whether the stuffy old Academy Awards voters recognize it or not.

22Jan/15Off

Your Thursday Links: Sundance/Slamdance Preview

Sundance 2015 starts today. Here's Vanity Fair's preview. Here's Kenneth Turan for the LA Times.

We don't know which film will be next year's Whiplash or Beasts of the Southern Wild, but there's a good bet one of them will be a breakout hit.

Few people pay attention to the short films in Sundance, but I believe both Beasts' Benh Zeitlin and Whiplash's Damian Chazelle began their successful Sundance features as Sundance shorts. The Slashfilmcast podcast has a must-listen interview with British short filmmaker Ben Aston, whose short "Russian Roulette" was shot for under $200 and made the 2015 fest. You can watch it online right now.

As for Sundance's rebel cousin film fest, Slamdance, I'm sure there will be a number of cool shorts emerging. Filmmakers Jeremy Osbern & Misti Boland, profiled on this site before, have a short in the fest called "Courtesan". Here's a (very brief) teaser:


And here's Jeremy's blog post about shooting using the
Digital Bolex D16.

What are you looking forward to seeing in Park City?

27Dec/14Off

Your Weekend Viewing: The War Machine Sequence

The Thief and the Cobbler is a sort of holy grail of animated film. I hadn't heard of it until recently, probably because its obsessive creator, Richard Williams, never quite finished the film. Wikipedia, as usual, has more detail:

After his success as animation director on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Williams signed a deal in 1988 to have Warner Bros. finance and distribute the film.[4] However, negotiations broke down when production went over budget and behind schedule and Williams was unable to complete the film on time. As Warner Bros. later pulled out, a completion bond company assumed control of The Thief and the Cobbler and had it finished by producer Fred Calvert without Williams's involvement, and in a very different, almost unrecognizable form. In the process, Calvert completely re-edited the film, removing many of Williams's scenes and adding songs and voice-overs that he felt would make it more marketable. The new animation produced under Calvert was not up to Williams's standards. Calvert's version was released only in Australia and South Africa in 1993 as The Princess and the Cobbler. This was further reedited with additional voice-overs by Miramax in the United States in 1995 as Arabian Knight.

Over the years, people and companies including The Walt Disney Company's Roy E. Disney, have discussed restoring the film as closely as possible to its original intended version, but none of these projects have come to pass. Video copies of an unfinishedworkprint made during Williams's involvement in the film often circulate within animation subcircles, and this workprint gives a good idea of Williams's original intent for the film.[5] In 2006, an unofficial restoration known as The Recobbled Cut was released on the internet, intending to create a high-quality edit of the film which would mirror Williams's original intent as closely as possible. Edited by independent filmmaker Garret Gilchrist, The Recobbled Cut was revised three times gaining the attention of animation fans and artists from the film.[6] In 2013, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences archived Richard Williams' own 35mm workprint of the film and screened a digital transfer, billed as "A Moment In Time." Williams himself appeared to break his 20-year silence about the film by participating in Q&As after the screening. What survives of Williams's original vision for his unfinished film has given the film a legendary status among animation professionals and fans, who consider it a cult filmand every bit the masterpiece it was intended to be. Williams himself acknowledged the film's rehabilitated reputation, thanks to fan projects like The Recobbled Cut and a 2012 documentary of the film's production, Persistence of Vision.[7]

All I've seen of it is this except that is available on YouTube, and it's a doozy.

For this new year, I'm hoping for less absurdity of war and more absurdity of animation. Here's to the obsessive filmmakers, recklessly pursuing their vision, even whilst avoiding being ground up in the gears of commerce. Have a happy, creative, bountiful 2015!

26Dec/14Off

Movie Review: Inherent Vice

It's a battle between Inherent Vice and Birdman for my favorite film of the year. Something about this linguistically-dense, narratively-denser, hilariously-performed private eye tale really tickles my buttons.

Adapter/director Paul Thomas Anderson has always worn his Altman influences on his sleeve. Here he evokes not just Altman's The Long Goodbye but also the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski. Joaquin Phoenix, as the perpetually high gumshoe Doc Sportello, has a decidedly Lebowskian way of investigating the tangled mystery at the heart of Inherent Vice. That is if Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), as Doc's buzz-cut conservative cop bette noire, doesn't just haul him in for the disappearance of Jewish neo-Nazi Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts) first.

When it isn't going into the 1970's counter-culture's wackiest L.A. locations, Inherent Vice also manages to be a rather sweet and sexy love story. It turns out Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), the ex-girlfriend who brings Doc the inciting case, may still be keeping her flame for Doc alight. His real burning desire for solving the case is finding her and finding out if they still have some chemistry.

Like Birdman your mileage on this film will vary. A Paul Thomas Pynchon joint ain't gonna smoke easy for everyone. The plot is actually trackable, if you feel like remembering some names that get tossed around. Or don't. As I said, the real mystery at the heart of this is adult relationships. What makes our narrator Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) send Doc off into the rain with her romantic rival Shasta Fay? That's the impenetrable secret that even drugs can't pry loose.

25Dec/14Off

Movie Review: The Interview

the-interview-poster1The Interview is a funny movie. How do I know? I went to a movie theater and saw it opening day with a bunch of other (brave?) souls and laughed my ass off. Is it extra funny because of the "Sony hack" news which threatened to scuttle its release entirely? Yes, I think so.

Which is not to diminish it. I hate people who think making a smart, funny comedy is somehow easier than making a repetitive tale of suffering. What might've been dismissed as another bro-love James Franco/Seth Rogen comedy suddenly had proven satirical bite, not just theoretical. The movie successfully Trojan horses in all kinds of real info about dictator Kim Jong Un -- that he keeps a fake grocery store to show to visitors, that he claims not to urinate or defecate -- while also making you laugh at a scene where a character is trying to have sex without touching his partner with a hand that has a deadly ricin strip on it.

As in Tropic Thunder or M*A*S*H, for that matter, the humor goes to some darker, gorier places. It gleefully strides past the boundaries of what many must consider good taste. It does what comedy should do, which is test those boundaries. One of them, depicting the death of a current head of state, turned out to have raised considerable controversy beyond what any honest observer might've predicted. Whether the hack was actually ordered by Kim Jong Un, or just used as a cover by a disgruntled employee (or pick your theory), it raised some serious issues with how the film industry will deal with movies that have a hint of edginess. Of course, it is the independent exhibitors who have stepped up and shown their willingness (for the umpteenth time) to support the free speech of artists.

I would support writer/directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and their fellow writer Dan Sterling, even if the film wasn't funny or politically trenchant. Luckily it is and it is -- if in a slier, sillier way than many critics are giving it credit for. It's not every day you get to support free speech just by buying a movie ticket and laughing for 112 minutes. Thanks, hackers!

25Dec/14Off

Your Yuleday Links: Free Speech Edition

Most of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you'd like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter.

Today I did what earlier this week would've been unfathomable: I saw The Interview at an actual theater. A packed one, in fact. Kudos to independent Vintage Cinemas chain for supporting free speech. I was worried the film wouldn't be worth risking a vague-reference-to-9/11 threat, but it was actually pretty damn funny. A full review is forthcoming.

The links to the Sony hacks from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream been overtaken by actual events, but here's a recent one that contradicts George Clooney's story about circulating a petition, which seems to be an ongoing story.

As far as I've read, there's no definitive news on why precisely Sony made the call to stop the release of The Interview and why they abruptly about-faced on that call. It may have something to do with the PR wizard that the show Scandal is based on. Speculations about insurance, or the Sony company's political connections in Japan, or President Obama's comments, or commerce at malls on Christmas are just that: speculations. We don't even know which hacks (if any) were at the behest of North Korea.

It's a rare day where you get to be brave while also going to the movies to laugh. If there aren't any kick-ass movie distributors in your area, you can still watch the film on YouTube right now for $5.99.

In other movie news, the memorable percussion-driven score for Birdman has been denied eligibility for an Academy Award. And filmmaker Thad Nurski, recently interviewed here, successfully funded his short film.

YOUR WEEKLY WISDOM:
"Together with a group of art house theaters across the nation, in solidarity against censorship, the film will be played in spite of threats from the hackers who attacked Sony Pictures. The film will play on the big screen all week with six shows a day. Join us as we defy tyrants, oppose censorship and ring in Christmas with a big dose of freedom!" - American Cinematheque e-mail newsletter

OLD POSTS UPDATED:
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - HFR 3D and Standard 2D Comparison

24Dec/14Off

Movie Reviews: Unbroken and Foxcatcher (Spoilers)

unbroken-movie-poster-2Unbroken

What everyone wants to know, is this one of those good marquee projects, or one of the Oscar bait ones? Directed by Angelina Jolie from a script by the Coen Brothers, Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, The Ref) and William Nicholson (Gladiator, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom), based on the book by Lauren Hillenbrand, Unbroken tells the survival story of Louis Zamperini.

Zamperini was a first-generation Italian immigrant in an era when that meant instant bullying. Then he was an Olympic athlete, finishing a strong 8th in the final lap of the 1936 Berlin 5000 meter race. (This earned him a personal audience with Adolf Hitler, an event not shown in the film.)

Read more (spoilers!)...

23Dec/14Off

Movie Review: Into the Woods

into-the-woods-poster1You either like musical movies, or you don't. With a few exceptions (All That Jazz, Singin' in the Rain, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut), I don't. Within the sub-genre of musical-lovers, it has been my experience that you either love the work of Stephen Sondheim or you are obsessed with the work of Stephen Sondheim.

Even after seeing Into the Woods, about which many a Sondheimista has enthused rapturously, I still don't get the appeal. (My favorite Sondheim film remains his non-musical murder mystery, The Last of Sheila.) There are some clever lyrics and some softly-subversive takes on modern fairy tales; there is a wonderfully woven plot that brings all but one strand together for a midpoint happy ending, then undoes the status quo as a way to symbolize life's habit of letting happiness go flit.

But in the end, isn't this a story about how society must band together to take down a justifiably wronged, powerful woman? Maybe the original ending was less misogynist. Rapunzel and her Prince disappear from the plot entirely in this film version (they had to cut something from the 3-hour stage show).

I liked that the music in this show was less talk-singy than other Sondheims I've seen. (I believe the term of art is operetta.) I liked the humor in the show. I did not, however, find myself wildly whooping and cheering during the song "Agony" like much of the rest of the audience I saw it with.

As with Chicago, director Rob Marshall seems to have done a fine job translating a stage musical to film, provided you're a fan of this sort of thing. I wish he had done more to ease us into the world of the film. It more or less starts with every single character belting directly into the camera their deepest wants and fears, and rarely gets more nuanced from there. The scuttlebutt is that Disney objected to the pubescent sexuality referenced in some of the lyrics in Little Red Riding Hood's song. Sondheim stuck to his guns and refused to let them change the words, which hogtied Marshall into trying desperately with the visuals to de-connote the context. He makes a valiant effort, but it still comes through loud and clear in a distinctly un-Disney way. Sondheim and his co-writer James Lapine also manage to work in the original ending to Cinderella, which sees the wicked stepsisters get their eyes pecked out by a parliament of pigeons.

Standout performances include James Corden as the Baker, Emily Blunt as the Baker's Wife and Daniel Huttlestone as Jack. The crowd I was with also seemed to go for Meryl Streep as the Witch. Meh. At this point, I'm beyond measuring Meryl Streep against her peers. The only actress who can touch Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep. And I think there's a hypothetical Meryl Streep who could've been more memorable in this role.

The less said about Lilla Crawford, who plays Little Red Riding Hood, the better. Apparently she's a big Broadway star. Charitably, I'll assume that Marshall failed to get her broad stage mannerisms small enough to fit into the camera frame. And that the voice coaches actually encouraged her to sing like that. Or maybe it's one of those Sondheim things that just doesn't appeal to me, but really tickles the musical-lover's fancy.

The bottom line is this: if you know you like Sondheim, you will probably enjoy and possibly love Into the Woods. If you are like me, and are thinking, hey, is this the Sondheim I should give a chance...? Stay out of the woods.

23Dec/14Off

Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies HFR 3D Cinemark XD

the-hobbit-the-battle-of-the-five-armies-poster-bilboTaken with the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, the three Hobbit movies are a staggering achievement. They manage to be true to the spirit of J.R.R. Tolkien's rich, mythological fantasy world of Middle Earth, while also giving way to the grotequeries, humor and unbridled capaciousness of imagination evident in the non-Tolkien work by writer/director Peter Jackson & his frequent collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. The Hobbit series has the added advantage over The Lord of the Rings with Guillermo del Toro's influence. He was originally slated to direct, and undoubtedly his knack for creating believable (and frightening) fantasy designs is one of the reasons The Hobbit film series has taken the creatures and locations to an even higher level. The specificity of the battle-scars and lack of dental hygiene on some of the nasties in this film is quite astounding.

The story, on the other hand, I don't find as engrossing. Perhaps it is because Jackson et. al. have withheld no furbelows in stretching out Tolkien's slimmest tome to the same length as his most epic work. As I realized when watching the first film of the series -- or Jackson's King Kong for that matter -- one has to give over to the utter extremity of the storytelling. The heroes will not just cross through a treacherous mountain pass, they will witness fighting rock giants. They will not just escape their orc pursuers in barrels, but have an extended cartoony battle in doing it. Here, the logic of more-bigger-longer has never made more sense. Tolkien has arranged for a battle of not two, not three, not four, but five armies (maybe even six or seven, depending upon how you count it). I can think of no directing/writing team that is more up to such a task baroque.

This penchant for excess has spilled into the cinematography, as each of these films has been released in a 48fps/per eye HFR (High Frame Rate) edition. (more…)

2Dec/14Off

Stick true to the stories you want to tell: An Interview with Thad Nurski

thad_nurskiI recently saw some test footage for a short film that knocked my socks off. It combines blacklight makeup and costumes to create an otherworldly, almost bio-luminescent visual effect unlike anything I've ever seen. And its all done in-camera!

The film is to be called "A Dimly Lit Room" and the writer/director/editor, Thad Nurski, is currently raising funds on IndieGogo to shoot the project. Check out the pitch video to see some of the stunning test footage:

I interviewed Thad via email about how he created the effect, his fundraising strategy and his cinematic influences. Read on...

Making the Movie: Tell me a little about who you are and how you came to filmmaking...

Thad Nurski: I was born and raised in Missouri. I had a big imagination as a kid, and I would dream up elaborate worlds when playing with my toys, drawing photos, or writing short stories. I loved to come up with these elaborate worlds and display them -- some way, somehow -- even if it was just talking to people about them. Film caught my imagination very early on. I remember as a kid watching the distinct visual worlds of Beetlejuice and Sleeping Beauty. They really stuck with me, and I was fascinated by them and what they were showing me. In Beetlejuice, the practical effects took me aback, and the gorgeous animation of Sleepy Beauty drew me in. I remember at the end when Aurora’s dress keeps changing from pink to blue and blue to pink. It was all so visual and I loved it. That type of storytelling was very visceral to me, it stuck with me. At a certain point I said very early on, “I want to do that, I want to make films,” and I've never looked back.

As people will see when they watch your Indiegogo video, the plot of "A Dimly Lit Room" is top secret. But what can you tell us about the project without spoiling anything?

I have been rather illusive about the specifics of our short, but I wouldn’t say it’s top secret. When people have reached out to me and wanted to know more, I have told them. However, a lot of people have told me they enjoy the mystery of it all and don’t want to know more, that they want to wait for the finished film. [If that's you, reader, skip ahead. - JO] Without giving away too much, I can explain our story like this...

Our protagonist, Asher (John-Michael Carlton), meets our antagonist, Persephone (Jamie VanDyke), in a gloomy room where Asher learns that what surrounds him will directly affect his future. A simple conversation with Persephone teaches Asher that his existence is in jeopardy with grave consequences to follow if he does not solve his situation before it is too late.

The movie is based on a series of revelations; the more you get into the story, the more that is revealed, and all of these revelations lead to our final climatic moment.

Most people have compared the premise of our film to a very famous Ingmar Bergman film, which is a wonderful compliment, but our films are not at all alike. They just have some similar tropes. When people have read my script, the nicest feedback I receive is that they didn’t know where it was going and they were compelled to keep reading because they wanted to find out what was going to happen. So generally we like to sell the mysterious nature of our film, because that is what people enjoy when they read the script.

These makeup effects look amazing. Talk about your makeup and camera tests and how you arrived at these surreal, dramatic visuals.

(more…)