Making the Movie

24Dec/130

Movie Review: Her

Her is one of the great cinematic sci-fi films. It may seem narrowly confined to a few characters and locations, but it is grand in philosophical scope, interrogating big questions like the nature of human relationships, the nature of consciousness -- really the entire nature of humanity, come to that.

Joaquin Phoenix is Theodore Twombly, a lovelorn writer who activates a new computer interface, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson, dubbing over Samantha Morton, who performed the role live on set). Samantha begins as a servile Siri-like AI but soon becomes very human. For many intents and purposes (love, comfort), the arc of Theodore's relationship with Samantha is indistinguishable from his previous relationship with his estranged wife (Rooney Mara). Meanwhile his neighbor (Amy Adams) is experiencing a deep friendship with another "conscious" OS.

The OSes at first are jealous of the people they interact with, wishing they could inhabit physical space. Eventually, they embrace the otherness of their form, moving to places beyond what Theodore and his fellow humans can understand.

All this is told with beautiful, very digital-looking cinematography (Hoyte van Hoytema with additional scenes by Spike Jonez regular lance Accord). The imagining of a future world and it's design elements is impeccably done, but all nicely tucked away in the background while characters and their emotional lives take the foreground.

The soundtrack choices are as impeccable as impeccable the design elements. I'm sure there are some who will find them, like the film itself, too twee. But not me. Other than a short sequence involving a character played by Olivia Wilde, I can think of nothing about the film that could be profitably altered. It's a remarkably sincere film that is nonetheless often hysterically funny.

As a bonus, it proves that grand, romantic sci-fi need not be a baffling slog. (I'm looking at you, Solaris.) Her should be seen immediately. I'm worried something this fragile and beautiful will evaporate -- or suffer the fate of most sci-fi, falling into retro kitschiness. The idea of falling in love with a talking OS seems so on the cusp of both possibility and absurdity at this very moment. Eventually it will teeter and fall to one side, leaving this film but a fraction of its former self.

14Dec/130

Movie Review: Liv & Ingmar

Movie Poster - Liv & IngmarFans of Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman -- and the films that they made together -- should put the new documentary Liv & Ingmar on their radar. Returning to Fårö island, to the house Bergman built on the site where they first fell in love, the still-radiant Ullmann opens up about the joy and the darkness of their headline-making love affair. And, like a late-career Bergman film, the story continues after the love affair and the breakup into a new and deeper territory: the intimacy of long friendship.

Director Dheeraj Akolkar using clips from Svensk Filmindustry's Bergman/Ullmann films -- Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Cries & Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage, Saraband (and others) -- beautifully to illustrate the story, aptly demonstrating how autobiographical these films were for both of them.

Ullmann is a polyglot, but she does the entire interview in English, sometimes translating the letters she and Ingmar wrote to each other. These letters are clearly deeply personal, as is the coded diary that they kept on a door of the house, but the film omits interpretation, leaving them mostly mysterious.

As a viewer, I wish the filmmakers had pushed even further into the inmost thoughts and feelings of these two artists. (Maybe it is unnecessary, since it is already embedded in their films.) As a filmmaker, I wish there had been much more discussion of their working relationship and how these great works of art were made. As a fan of both Liv and Ingmar, however, I am grateful that this document exists.

The filmmakers have succeeded in making something deeply moving. When Liv says the greatest compliment she ever received was when Ingmar called her his Stradivarius... wow. Maybe its the way she says it, or maybe it's just her blue blue eyes. Whatever it is, it's another powerful cinematic moment born from their great collaboration.

Liv & Ingmar opened this Friday, December 13th at the Elinor Bunin Munroe theatre in New York and at the Nuart in Los Angeles. This review is based on a DVD screener.

13Dec/130

Movie Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

Yes, The Wolf of Wall Street, directed by Martin Scorsese, is much like his earlier film Goodfellas -- except with a financial industry backdrop instead of the mob. According to Leonardo DiCaprio, the star and producer, Goodfellas was the express template used by screenwriter Terrence Winter. "The script was tailor-made for Marty." What differentiates Wolf is not so much the plot or the film techniques but the tone: satiric and absurd instead of nostalgic.

Funny movies don't win many Oscars, which is too bad for Wolf, because it is hilarious. A scene where DiCaprio's Jordan Belfort has a delayed reaction to some quaaludes, for example, allows one of our great matinee idols to inch along the ground like a demented earthworm. Most scenes clearly incorporate improvisation -- the dialogue has an Apatovian feel. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker expertly uses single-shot cutaways as punchlines in the manner of 30 Rock.

DiCaprio had initially set up this true tale of the rise and fall of a fast-talking stockbroker around the 2008 financial crisis. Scorsese delayed several years until Red Granite Pictures came on board, promising full creative freedom. The delay is not a problem; the film still feels fresh and relevant.

Nevermind that the movie was quickly trimmed from four hours to three -- Schoonmaker said they did not have to lop off any scenes whole, likening that to losing a limb, and she says that Marty fully supports this cut. The whole movie, long as it is, has a rushed, hyperkinetic pace anyway.

What I want to know is how -- with drug use and/or sex in nearly every scene -- did this film pass the MPAA? Truly this is where the creative freedom was spent: there hasn't been a film this open-eyed about sex and drugs since the 1970's.

It's hard to know where to rank this in the Scorsese cannon. On one hand, it feels derivative of Goodfellas and The Aviator. On the other hand, most directors work in a single style their whole careers. Can we blame the chameleonic Scorsese if he spoofs himself this time out, instead of homaging other filmmakers, as he normally does?

Deep down, I suspect this is DiCaprio's movie, much in the same way Raging Bull was a passion project for DeNiro. I normally find Leo Dio hard to believe except in very particular roles, and this is one of those roles. His brashness and mischievousness work toward the performance, rather than against it. Scorsese has praised DiCaprio's utter fearlessness and here we get to see that put to use for comedy, going absolutely-balls-to-the-wall, embracing the selfish, self-destructive side of humanity. Whatever its merits as a work of art, it's a 100% entertaining film. No small feat, and something I hope the Academy recognizes.

11Dec/130

Movie Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis is film about grief. It's a movie about suicide in which the suicide happens off-screen, before the film even begins. It's a circular tale, but not like James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. It is more like James Joyce's Ulysses, which is like Homer's Odyssey, which is like the Coen Brothers' earlier collaboration with music producer T. Bone Burnett, O Brother, Where Art Thou?. But if it is like another Coen brothers movie, it is most like the Talmudic parable that is A Serious Man. And it may also be, as The Dissolve's Matt Singer suggests, about how bleak life would be if the Coens didn't have each other.

All this can be easily forgotten as one bathes in the mood and atmosphere of the 60's folk scene. Llewyn, in the form of actor Oscar Isaac, seems fully-formed as a real person, perhaps because he is based on a real self-sabotaging folk singer who once served in the merchant marine. Meanwhile, he's surrounded by the Felliniesque character faces we've come to know and love from the Coens. The old couple who manage Davis and John Goodman's voodoo jazz daddy are two highlights of a teeming, Simpsonian world.

For those who enjoy their ironies exquisite, I can hardly think of a finer film. I have little else to say, except a small note about the metaphorical cat that got away -- spoilers...

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4Dec/130

A Newcomer’s Take on Motion Picture Distribution, Part 2

More thoughts on the present state of movie distribution from USC film student Paul Snow. For Part 1, go here. -JO

Other formats and what they can teach us

You’ve probably heard about the current Golden Age of Television. Yes, much of the success of daring shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones owes to lower budgets and more open-minded executives than the current movie studios, but television has always had a key advantage over movies: addiction. TV sits in your house to use whenever you want, and you can sample as much or as little of any program available without the psychological pain of putting up money for each individual viewing, as in a theatrical setting. Movies are unable to immerse viewers in the same way and for the same stretch of time as TV.

This sampling means that, instead of relying on marketing to determine whether a show is appealing, people can watch a bite-sized piece of content for themselves, and, as the actual content disseminates through the market, word-of-mouth builds and the higher-quality shows often win out. Once a viewer is locked in through these social and economic forces, they are committed to watching hours of content, allowing for revenue from advertising, VOD, and home video sales to reach the producers. Presumably, if everyone were able to sample the quality of a movie like Planes and the true fans of the film then all committed — in advance — to purchasing the entire associated toy line, the movie studios would behave quite differently.

But why do viewers get locked in, especially in episodic drama? (more…)

4Dec/130

Your Wednesday Links: The Sex Scene Double-Standard

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

Script Shadow: Confessions of a Failed Screenwriter

Library of Congress: Only 14% of U.S. Silent Films Survive - These are amazing historical documents, if not artistic masterpieces. Kudos to the people working to save them.

Movie Morlocks: Accentuate the Accent... or Don’t - I'm one of these people who is driven crazy by dodgy and illogical accents. I like to think I can put that aside and enjoy films on their other merits. I haven't seen the two films discussed here.

"...while just 13% of producers who produced a low budget film go on to make another one." - Filmmaker Magazine takes a look at the stats of independent filmmaking.

Movie franchise meter - Nice chart of the critical reception of franchises over time.

Gif compilation: Background actors who have no idea what they are doing

Screenwriter Frederic Raphael in the Times Literary Supplement: Nazism was a triumph not so much of the will as of modern sales techniques, especially film...

IndieWire: Evan Rachel Wood Calls Out the MPAA for Sex Scene Double Standards on Deleted 'Charlie Countryman' Scene

FilmDrunk: Spike Lee Was Spectactularly Unhelpful to Oldboy’s Allegedly Plagiarized Poster Artist - It is hard to know if Spike really didn't understand how this would look or is just using one of his brilliant marketing techniques.

27Nov/130

A Newcomer’s Take on Motion Picture Distribution, Part 1

The first part of a two-part essay from USC film student Paul Snow. Enjoy. - JO

* * *

Cars toysHollywood isn’t in the movie business anymore

Much has been written over the last year about the questionable stability of the blockbuster, but the fact is that even if event movies run losses on a regular basis the studios will continue to make them because they aren’t just movie studios, but divisions of massive media conglomerates. Regardless of how successful Captain America is as a film, it establishes revenue streams in video games, comics, toys, and other branding deals that will more than pay for the production cost. The Walt Disney Company has famously made more money from Cars merchandise than on all of Pixar’s films combined. After such a success, films like Cars 2 and Planes seem to exist for no other reason than to perpetuate the toy line. The blockbuster is necessary, but rarely an end in itself.

Even when Hollywood tries to sell a movie by itself the old-fashioned way, a close look reveals that it is really only selling tickets. After you buy your ticket at the box office, Hollywood’s responsibility to you ends. Studio marketing clearly demonstrates this.

Marketing and audience satisfaction

Because Hollywood sells tickets and merchandise rather than movies, its marketing focuses on putting butts in seats, rather than planting the seeds for good word-of-mouth by preparing the audience to be satisfied by the film itself. As a result, the trailers today are filled with money shots – to the point where the recent trailer for Ender’s Game shows the climax of the movie (which anyone who knows about the story beforehand will be able to identify).

Instead of having the marketing team work creatively to show the unique merits of each picture, movies today are made to conform to the marketing and to play well in one of the two templates for a studio trailer: exciting or lighthearted. When a film defies easy categorization, the marketing group tends to misrepresent it in some inappropriate genre, setting the public up for disappointment and confusion when they go to see it. Blade Runner, Fight Club, and Where the Wild Things Are – sold as a shoot-em-up, a wrestling movie, and a family-friendly kid’s movie, respectively – were all famous financial disappointments for this key reason.

I see indie filmmakers falling into traps too. The biggest pitfall today in independent cinema is belief in the fantasy that the festival circuit and crowdfunding are reliable paths to success and financial rewards. In reality, these are only different forms of marketing for the film. Still, filmmakers get enchanted about stories of a time gone by when big producers scanned the festivals all day for new talent. Today, most of them prefer to keep a tab open on Twitter or YouTube – if they want to seek out anyone at all. Only 1% of movies submitted to Sundance are accepted, and 4% or 5% of those (about 5 feature films films out of 120 on average in the last 3 years) receive any kind of theatrical distribution deal. To most filmmakers, festivals are at best a publicity opportunity.

Similarly, thousands of filmmakers run crowdfunding campaigns with the hope of six-figure paydays like the biggest success stories publicized online. Most of the crowdfunding “experts” will tell you, however, to prepare to work full-time for at least a month on a campaign and to set a modest goal. (SideKick reports that the average successful campaign for “Narrative Film” on Kickstarter collects less than $40K.) Understand that a significant portion of that goal will be spent just on the rewards given to donors rather than the film itself. At best, crowdfunding can provide long-term audience engagement and perhaps a set of small additional funding for a major independent project.

If studio filmmakers only care about getting the audience into the theater and independents are willing to place the labor of several years of their lives completely on chance and festival tastes, then these methods are fine. There will always be a balance between art and commerce, but nobody needs to shoot themselves in the foot. So where do we go from here?

My thoughts on distribution with continue in Part 2.

25Nov/130

Book Review: The Film Scripts Series, Volumes 1-4

I'm someone who firmly believes screenplays should be treated as literature. For a guy like me, I this Film Scripts Series from Applause Books is dead on the money. Great scripts, great writers, published as shooting scripts with formatting correctly preserved -- unlike so many screenplay books out there, with their tiny pages and non-monospace fonts. Ick! Those who have studied screenwriting know the trouble that writers go to have their story flow visually on the page and how essential it is to see the original formatting.

An update of the 1971 series edited by George P. Garrett and O.B. Hardison, Jr., this re-issue, under the editorship of Jane R. Gelfman, offers three classic scripts in each volume. Each volume also contains an identical introduction which covers film history and the screenwriting process, an appendix with pages from a shooting schedule and a glossary of terms, making any of them appropriate as textbooks.

A minor quibble: this series does omit the original page numbers. While they could be back-calculated, other screenplay collections, like the excellent Preston Sturges compilations, do keep the page numbers.

But any quibbles are minor considering the caliber of scripts represented in this series; classic screenplays faithfully published are quite difficult to find. That makes these volumes well-worth adding to the gift list for any aspiring screenwriter or film history buff. I applaud Applause for doing right by some great material.

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22Nov/130

Your Weekend Viewing: Aningaaq, A Side-quel to Gravity

Co-writer of Gravity, Jonas Cuarón, directed a short in Greenland that shows the other side of Sandra Bullock's character's distress call. If it gets nominated for an Academy Award for Live-Action Short, it could mark the first time both a film and a spinoff short are nominated together, according to the Hollywood Reporter. You may recall that "Hotel Chevalier" and The Darjeeling Limited formed a similar movie/short pair, though neither managed to get nominated.

The reported budget for the shoot was $100,000 and drew upon both Cuarons' love for the desolate landscape of Greenland. Jonas apparently learned of the inhabitants' attachment to their sled dogs and incorporated that into the plot.

18Nov/130

Book Review: Fosse by Sam Wasson

"Don't dance for the audience; dance for yourself."

Bob Fosse, legendary Broadway choreographer and stage director, was also one of the great film directors. Even though he only made a few films, after seeing Lenny and All That Jazz (Cabaret not so much), I became convinced he is one of the masters.

Biographer Sam Wasson, likewise, fell into his Fosse obsession through the autobiographical riff on Fellini's 8 1/2 that is All That Jazz. The result is this new book, Fosse, a novelistic tour of the man's life worthy of Updike.

Wasson begins with Fosse's funeral — beautifully depicted with lots of witty tributes from the talents of stage and screen, ending with a heartbreaking dance from the women in his life, his wife Gwen Verdon, his daughter Nicole, his many girlfriends — then flashes back to review his life in chronological order.

Fosse began young, hoofing it in a child's double act in some seedy night clubs. It was here that he was sexually abused by strippers, an event both Fosse (in All That Jazz) and Wasson invest with Freudian supersignificance. An incredible dancer but a shy actor, Fosse finds minor success in New York before a short tour in Hollywood under contract with MGM.

He washed out at MGM, but not before choreographing and performing a 45-second routine in Kiss Me Kate that stands out as something new and exciting even today. It was this little clip that helped convince Broadway impressario George Abbott to give him a shot at choreographing The Pajama Game. Although established choreographer Jerome Robbins also helped on the show, the numbers featuring Fosse's style, like "Steam Heat", made his name and won him his first Tony. He was just 27.

While Wasson is also a film critic, he does not shortchange Fosse's stage career. It makes up the bulk of the book. I was most interested in Fosse's filmmaking methods, and how he became, as critic Pauline Kael said, "a true prodigy." Wasson puts it down to an almost maniacal obsession with technique. On his first film, Sweet Charity, Fosse pestered d.p. Robert Surtees continuously about camera technique, even making flashcards of film terms. Later, working with editor Alan Heim and assistant editor Trudy Ship on the TV special "Liza with a Z", he dove deep into the art of editing, experimenting with form and movement in an obsessive-compulsive manner.

Wasson tells a great story about Fosse, editing one of his famous TV commercials for his stage shows, finishing a cut at two in the morning, then insisting the editor go back through all the outtakes to see if anything had been missed. When he finds a slightly better leg position in a take, he insists it be cut in, throwing off the timing for the rest of the cut, necessitating a recut of the whole piece.

Fosse's attention to detail and epic workdays were facilitated by a methamphetamine addiction, his psychiatrist's prescribed Dexadrine, which he chased with downers — barbiturates and alcohol — and late night sexcapades.

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