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Category: Reviews (page 1 of 7)

Review: The Movie Business Book, 4th Ed.

The Movie Business Book, 4th Edition
edited by Jason E. Squire

This textbook opens with an unsupported claim: “More historic change has occurred in the movie business recently than in any decade since the coming of sound.” Perhaps it has, but I think competition from television in the 1950’s or the shift in the studio system in the 1960’s, or the coming of blockbuster economics in the 1980’s were larger historic changes than the addition of sound. But anyway, yeah, the internet has changed some things. Anyway, this book’s strength is not in telling movie history.

Even if the book’s introduction does not make a strong a case for why the pages that follow are worth reading, I will attempt to point out the elements in its pages that filmmakers may find useful. The Movie Business Book is best used to get a Rashomon-style view of the industry. Each chapter in the book is written by a real filmmaker, and the roster includes some heavy-hitter names: Doug Liman, Jay Duplass, Kevin Feige, David S. Goyer, Alan Horn, Harold L. Vogel, Linda Benjamin, David V. Picker and more. They give their own specific vantage point, from which a larger picture begins to emerge.

This book is ideal for people who are interested in the movie business, but who are unsure of what area to focus on. As you read through, you may find yourself drawn to the descriptions of producing or screenwriting or distributing. It focusses more on the business side than the “creative” side, so you won’t find essays from cinematographers or editors or costume designers.

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5 Great Political Movies to Watch This Election Eve

1. The Candidate

Robert Redford plays Bill McKay, a liberal lawyer who reluctantly makes a quixotic run for Senate under the guidance of a political Svengali played by a be-bearded Peter Boyle. McKay is the son of a popular governor, but his relationship with his father is so strained, there is a danger his dad will endorse his opponent. The best part of the film is seeing McKay pulled between speaking his mind and speaking political platitudes, how gradually and subtly the system perverts his initial idealism until his community organizer friends are ready to disown him.

Rent on Amazon, iTunes.

2. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

This Frank Capra-directed film is the Ur-text of political idealism. Jimmy Stewart plays an out-of-his-depth senator who finds himself leading a filibuster against the forces of “graft and corruption” in his home state. Although it made filibusters seem like an awesome and essential part of American democracy, we have to forgive this movie. Jimmy Stewart is just too likable!

Rent on Amazon, iTunes.

3. Recount

The made-for-HBO film entertainingly captures the seesaw battle over votes in Florida in the 2000 Presidential election. The Gore team’s leader (Kevin Spacey), is an apathetic political hack at the beginning but finds his passion in his desire to see every vote count. The Bush team’s leader (Tom Wilkinson), is a genial man who knows how to play hardball. And then there’s Laura Dern as Katherine Harris, a bizarro performance in honor of a real bizarro American character. Even though I knew how it ended, I was massively entertained by the process. You really believe it could go either way.

Streaming on HBO Now, HBO Go.

4. Primary Colors

A thinly-fictionalized account of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, based on the novel written by Anonymous (later revealed to be Newsweek reporter Joel Klein). John Travolta in drag plays Bill Clinton and Emma Thompson of all people plays Hilary, sorry Jack and Susan Stanton. If you’re looking for the real thing, check out the documentary The War Room. There has probably never been so much access, both fictional and real, in one presidential campaign.

Rent on Amazon, iTunes.

5. Dave

In the great tradition of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the movie Dave asks the question: what would happen if a normal person got unexpected political power? Kevin Kline plays the titular Dave, who is an exact look-alike for the President, who happens to have landed in a coma. A dark faction installs Dave in the hopes of keeping the President’s condition under wraps — and also implementing their own agenda. However, Dave has other ideas, including maybe falling for the First Lady, played by Sigourney Weaver. This is the kind of movie where your accountant friend can balance the federal budget overnight fueled by nothing more than some good, crunchy pickles. Dave was written by Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) and directed by Ivan Reitman and it will take you back to a kinder, gentler time in American politics.

Rent on Amazon, iTunes.

Book Review: Writing for the Green Light

Writing for the Green Light: How to make your script the one Hollywood notices
by Scott Fitzpatrick

Writing for the Green Light is not like other screenwriting books. In the first place, the author, Scott Fitzpatrick, is not a screenwriter. He is a distribution company executive.

The first advice he gives is to forget about the craft of screenwriting. Forget about writing something artistic. He suggests sticking to well-worn genres: The Family Christmas Dog Adventure, The Woman-in-Peril Thriller, The Family-Safe Teen Romance, The Creature Feature, The Aging Name-Actor Comeback Action Film, The Young Boy Action Avdenture Film. I almost threw the book across the room.

If you’re trying to be commercial, why not horror movies? Why not low-budget based-on-a-true-story dramas? Well, luckily I kept reading, because Fitzpatrick has answers. His suggested genres are more valuable. A screenwriting career is about making money as a screenwriter, not as a waiter or barista.

What this book provides that no other screenwriting book does (nor my expensive NYU Film School education did) is a practical guide. There are good, useful tips for breaking in and starting a career as screenwriter.

Smart Advice for Novice Screenwriters

Fitzpatrick tells you to forget about query letters and agents and screenplay competitions and focus on making a product that is already selling in the B-movie market. Don’t write eight bad spec scripts to hone your craft when a guy on Craigslist will pay you $500 to hone your craft on his bad script!

Truly, this is not advice for people who want to get into screenwriting for the love of cinema. This is the book for people who want to get paid to write. With Fitzpatrick’s method, you must be willing to start at the ground floor and work your way up. You must be willing to explore some hoary, old genres. You have to write fast!

If for nothing else, I recommend this book for a smart articulation of the perspective of people in the industry who buy scripts. A-level Hollywood content may offer some additional genres, but in a lot of ways the attitudes are the same. Fitzpatrick has solid advice on pitching and on focussing on the work that pays — writing — and not the work that doesn’t (query letters, contract negotiations).

Recommended.

Full disclosure: This review is unpaid but a copy was provided by the publisher.

In Defense of Suicide Squad

suicide-squad-imaxBill Simmons, on his HBO show last Wednesday, felt comfortable calling Suicide Squad a “bomb” before the movie even opened. If you haven’t been paying attention, you may be surprised to find out that it broke the August box office record this weekend, and is apace to become the third-highest grossing film of the year.

Simmons, then, could only be referring to the critical panning that the film has received. As of this writing, it stands at 26% on the Tomatometer. I’ve talked in theory about the critical group-think that sites like Rotten Tomatoes engender, but rarely have I experienced it.

However, on Sunday I went to watch this expected “bomb” and found not only a competent comic book film, but one that is pushing cinematic and cultural boundaries. The prevailing narrative on this film needs some pushback.

If you’re going to continue reading, the first thing you must acknowledge is the possibility that critics can get it wrong. Pauline Kael famously had to reverse course on Bonnie & Clyde, when it became clear that she was out of step with the youth culture.

I’m not saying Suicide Squad rises to the level of a cultural phenomenon like Bonnie & Clyde, but something is definitely happening that the critics are missing. Look at the age demographic split in the Cinema Scores:

CinemaScore crowds under 35 gave Suicide Squad an A- (76%), while 46% females gave it an A-. The pic also earned an A with the under 18 demo (28%). […]

But Suicide Squad‘s weaker grades were with the middle-age folks with 25-34 year olds (22%) and 35-49 year olds (17%) giving it a B. (Deadline)

The movie is also performing well with audiences of color, who we know are not very well represented among the plurality of older, white critics.

There is a great deal to enjoy just on a surface level with Suicide Squad. There were plenty of laughs in my audience, and even negative reviews have been citing the charismatic performances of Will Smith and Margot Robbie. (They often overlook the best performance, in my opinion. Cast someone other than Viola Davis as Amanda Waller, and the film would fall apart.) The smeary rainbow, pop-punk aesthetic carries from the opening titles to the brilliant character makeup designs to the sets to the visual effects.

I am not a personal fan of the heavily-tatted, graffiti-tagged style of underground art. (Is it the older white male critic part of me?) Yet I can appreciate when a major motion picture sticks to its guns and puts that style in the faces of the audiences. And this design sensibility carried through to the marketing of the film as well — which seems to have done its job spectacularly well, opening the film huge against exceedingly negative word of mouth.

This PG-13 movie also manages to get in several scenes portraying a sexual dominance/submission relationship (Harley Quinn / Joker) including a scene that hints at partner-swapping. Just as with the “surprise” popularity of 50 Shades of Grey, large swaths of the culture are baffled, if not completely overlooking the text, never mind the subtext.

These ideas of dominance and submission can also be seen in desire of The Enchantress to have humanity bow before her, and most clearly in the relationship of Amanda Waller to pretty much every character in the film. At one point she says she believes in leverage, not loyalty. Her idea of an unequal relationship is one based on non-consenting control. It’s a clear thematic opposite to Harley / Joker’s mutual suicide-pact pledge.

I don’t think anyone should go and write a PhD thesis about it, but it shows there are deeper levels at work beyond the pretty-ugly surface of the film.

Perhaps thanks to Kevin Feige as a mostly autonomous benevolent dictator, Disney Marvel does a great job having the films in their franchise achieve a broad consistency of tone from filmmaker to filmmaker.

The Warner Bros. DC films (save the Dark Knight trilogy) have been maligned for being more dour and serious in their approach. But it’s an obvious good idea to try to differentiate themselves in the marketplace from Disney Marvel. We already have Disney Marvel.

Sure, the powers at Warners haven’t yet gotten this tone to work with the character of Superman. But I can’t fault them for trying. And here, when the heroes are villain anti-heroes, it seems to work a lot better. There is a scene in a bar in this film that is surprisingly emotional, perhaps because it allows the characters to acknowledge some real demons in their pasts.

Much was made about the film being re-tooled in post production to match the tone of Deadpool or Squad‘s own popular initial teaser trailer, cut by the company Trailer Park. But after seeing the film, I’m inclined to believe the director, who said reshoots were done to add action, rather than quips.

If there is a Deadpool tone, it is with the Harley character. And that was already her character. I think this film has its own tone. It’s a blend of anarchy and morality, more dangerous than a Disney or Fox Marvel film, and far more emotionally sincere.

More likely any late edits reshaped a slow first half of the film into a more dynamic series of quick trailer-like character backstories, allowing the plot to kick in earlier and leaving room to add more action in the second and third acts. It may not be the type of movie storytelling we are accustomed to outside of Guy Ritchie movies, but it more than works in service of this film.

As with any film, reasonable people may differ in what they emphasize as qualities worthy of praise. I found the good parts of Suicide Squad quite worthy, and the bad parts easy to overlook. (There is nothing like the “Martha” moment in Batman v. Superman, for example.) Put aside reports of studio meddling or multiple editors and simply watch the final film as if it was intended to be the way it is. I found it to be a strong artistic statement wrapped in the costume of high-quality popcorn entertainment. I never asked or expected more from a superhero film, and in this case I was not disappointed!

Book Review: Compound Cinematics: Akira Kurosawa and I, by Shinobu Hashimoto

Compound Cinematics: Akira Kurosawa and I
by Shinobu Hashimoto, translated by Lori Hitchcock Morimoto

Legendary Japanese screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto’s memoir is drenched in nostalgia. There is nostalgia for the train stations in Tokyo and the post-war neighborhoods which they evoke. There is nostalgia for the pine forest of his youth, where he would go to cry when his parents were unkind to him, every tree of which was torn down to aid in Japan’s futile war effort. And most of all, there is nostalgia for the personalities of the Japanese film industry in the 1940’s and 50’s — chief among them: Akira Kurosawa.

Hashimoto was the sole disciple of director and screenwriter Mansaku Itami, a leading light in 1930’s Japanese cinema. Though Itami died of tuberculosis before his time, he had plans for Hashimoto — at that time a salaryman for a munitions concern who spent his free time screenwriting.

Itami’s designs lead to Hashimoto’s screenplays falling into the hands of Kurosawa and his producers. Kurosawa immediately recognized the potential of one script, which would go on to become Rashomon. Hashimoto’s third screenplay, another collaboration with Kurosawa (and this time adding Hideo Oguni, another ace screenwriter of the era) became the classic film Ikiru.

Writing advice from one of the great screenwriters

The memoir goes in depth into Hashimoto’s writing process, and it all stems, he says, from his mentor Itami’s emphasis on themes: Continue reading

Movie Review: Oscar Nominated Short Films 2015

ShortsOscar2015_PosterIf you want a leg up on your Oscar ballot, the key is to see the films in the three short film categories. Back in the day, there was no good way to do this. In the last few years, however, Magnolia Films and shorts.tv have put them together for theatrical release.

If you’re lucky enough to be near one of the 110 theaters in the US that are showing the program, get on down and see them! Seriously, there are some great, innovative films. And if you don’t like one, a new one will be on any minute.

UPDATE 17 February 2015: The Oscar Shorts are now available streaming on Vimeo On Demand.

What follows is a bit about each film and my evaluation of its Oscar potential. Enjoy!

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Movie Review: Begin Again (Society of Composers talkback screening)

Begin Again posterSpecial review from filmmaker & musician Ukelilli. Enjoy. -jo

* * *

Last Friday, my husband and I were lucky enough to get into a Society of Composers and Lyricists (SCL) screening of Begin Again, a film from this summer directed by Joe Carney, the director behind Once. (As you will recall, Once was the sleeper hit musical from 2006 that introduced the world to The Frames’ Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. It was then workshopped into a play and became a multiple Tony Award winner in 2012.)

Any-hoo, I had a lot of interest in seeing Begin Again. A) I love Mark Ruffalo and typically like Keira Knightley. B) I also happen to be a fan of British comedian James Corden and Yasiin Bey a.k.a. Mos Def, who portrayed two of the supporting characters. And C) I liked Once a lot, plus I can rarely resist a musical of any kind. So yeah, totally the target audience.

The movie was very sweet! There were some great quirky moments — for example Ruffalo’s ‘Dan’ orchestrating Knightley’s character’s song in his mind — and some beautifully-edited scenes (the opening sequence, the creation of the songs for ‘Gretta’s’ new album, the “what’s in your iTunes” montage when Ruffalo and Knightley are wandering around the city listening to Stevie Wonder’s “For Once In My Life” a.k.a. one of my most favoritest songs ever). And, on top of that, it really made me miss New York!

Not to spoil the ending, but Begin Again had a very different ‘happy ending’ than a typical Hollywood film. I liked it: it works and it left me feeling good. I wonder if they could’ve done without the tag during the credits, or perhaps they could have worked it in differently. I don’t know — hopefully you’ve all seen it or will, so let’s jump to the composer Q&A.

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Movie Reviews: Philomena and Nebraska

philomena-posterPhilomena

I generally liked this movie, especially the winning central performances from Steve Coogan and Judy Dench. I feel like the final payoff — where Dench’s character learns what has happened to her son, could have been far more dramatically powerful. Likewise, Coogan’s character’s confrontation with the “evil” nun.

The movie tries to have its cake and eat it too on the subject of religion. For those who are believers, Dench’s character embodies the “simple faith” that is true to the church. For nonbelievers, Coogan’s character represents the incredulity at the sheer ignorance of such people.

I feel like Coogan (as co-screenwriter, with Jeff Pope) cops out gives the believers the “win” in the end of the story. But that could be my own pre-conceived notions that I bring to the story. Or it could just be faithfulness to the true story on which Philomena was based.

In any case, it’s nice to see a quality “small” movie get big nomination recognition — even if it’s not the small movie I would have liked.

Nebraska

I guess this movie has divided people. Some feel it is looking down on the simple folk of the Midwest. Some feel it’s a loving satire. I guess I would fall in the former camp. If this film was not in the black and white tones of a *serious movie* I doubt anyone would be giving it a second thought. The cinematography is very good and Bruce Dern is very good (although I recently spoke to an 80-year-old woman who did not find his dementia credible).

But the script by Bob Nelson and the directing by Alexander Payne never modulates out of a medium funny mode. I was smirking or frowning, never laughing or crying. Part of this is that, although the characters are mostly believable, the filmmakers can’t resist broad comedic touches like having two buffoonish cousins “disguise” themselves in ski masks.

I prefer any of Payne’s previous films, even the much-maligned About Schmidt, which at least has an elderly male protagonist who is a hoot to watch and which excavates deeper mines of both pathos and Horatian satire.

Movie Score Review: Don Jon by composer Nathan Johnson

It’s not easy for me to separate Nathan Johnson’s work from his collaborations with his cousin, director Rian Johnson (Looper). After all, my introduction to his scores started with Brick, and, to be fair, I was more intrigued with the director at the time than the composer. But a few years went by, and I saw The Brothers Bloom. It was here that my attention was drawn specifically to the vastly dynamic score. I loved it (and still do; it’s arguably my favorite of Johnson’s work to date), and ever since then, I’ve paid much closer attention to Johnson’s beautifully unique, developing voice.

Johnson’s work on Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s debut feature Don Jon is a demonstration of just how dynamic he can be. The score elevates the film from an average romantic comedy to a poignant tale of disillusionment and rediscovery. Often times scores and soundtracks are criticized for telling the audience how they should feel, yet in Don Jon, Johnson properly reinforces the conflicted internal struggle that Levitt’s character Jon continually experiences as he attempts to conquer his addiction to pornography and idealism. Sometimes tongue-in-cheek, mocking romantic comedy — other times genuine and dramatic — the score vacillates from playful to bombastic, clubby to fable-esque. There’s a lot of heavy lifting to do, and the score seems to do it with ease.

“My Ride” is a great example of how efficient the score can be; it’s a mere 23 seconds. Not only does it provide a quick callback to Jon’s “addiction” musical motif, but it also perfectly conveys Jon’s emotional high and exactly how good he feels about his coveted car and being ruler of the road. When Jon finally meets the girl of his dreams, Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), the score swoons, somewhat reminiscent of Brothers Bloom. It swells effectively and references the romantic comedy genre, but at the same time, makes fun of it a bit. Take the track, “Facebook Stalker.” You can almost imagine Pepé Le Pew pursuing Penelope Pussycat while listening to it without the rest of the movie. The playfulness helps to maintain a tone that’s comical, but restrained. It helps to make the bitter parts of Jon’s journey easier to accept. Without these vital cues from the score, I wouldn’t have found the character or story nearly as endearing.

Keeping in tradition with Johnson’s previous work, the score for Don Jon feels fittingly introspective, warm, and personal. I have to admit, though, that I’m looking forward to more opportunities for him to work on larger scale with bigger orchestrations. More musicians and more instruments, please. I don’t doubt that those very opportunities are already in play, and I can’t wait to hear what Nathan Johnson does next.

The Don Jon Sountrack is currently available for purchase on iTunes and Amazon mp3. Full disclosure: a review copy was provided to the reviewer gratis, with no expectation of a positive review.

Movie Review: Romeo & Juliet (2013)

romeo-and-juliet-2013-posterWriter Julian Fellowes’ (Downton Abbey, Gosford Park) and producer Ileen Maisel’s attempt to make a cinematic version of Shakespeare’s play that is both “traditional” and “accessible” ends up succeeding on neither account, mostly because of the strange decision to re-write 20% of Shakespeare’s words. While the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli-directed version is starting show its age, it still exceeds this new version in acting, intelligence, staging and — most of all, music. Teen audiences who won’t know better might still prefer the 1996 Baz Luhrman modernized setting, which remains an original and dynamic spectacle.

If you, like me, are an abiding fan of The Bard, you may want to read my nerdier review at Shakespeare Geek, which goes into some detail about what the filmmakers changed (and should’ve changed) from the original text.

No cinematic version of the play to date has used much more than a third of Shakespeare’s script, so there is plenty of fresh material for a film to use. Sadly, this film does not take advantage of this, and its new scenes — a joust between knights of the houses of Montague and Capulet, a priest saving the life of a small boy — fail to add to the story of star-crossed lovers.

The lovers are played by Douglas Booth, whom I liked, and Oscar-nominee Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit), who did a better job with the Coen Brothers’ tasty dialogue than Julian Fellowes’ pastiche of Shakespeare’s. Italian director Carlo Carlei has a good eye for costume and set design but the romance paperpack lighting and treacle score make this seem more like a perfume commercial than a serious tragedy. Likewise, the headlong rush of the film’s pace means the lovers hardly have time to fall in love before making their dateless bargains with engrossing death.

However, if my cynical LA press screening audience is any guide, this story, which Shakespeare himself adapted from one or more continental novellas, still has the power to wring tears. I fear this version will supplant the Zeffirelli and Luhrmann versions in schools, despite the re-write. If it does, it will be a far greater tragedy than this film’s soggy conception of doomed love.

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