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Awards Chase: Hostiles

Director / screenwriter Scott Cooper doesn’t believe in off-camera rehearsals. He’ll block out a scene loosely with his d.p. and the actors, but he wants the first performance captured on film. And I do mean film. “I’ll shoot on film until they tell me I can’t,” Scott tells Backstory magazine interviewer Jeff Goldsmith after a screening of Hostiles I attended at LA Film School.

Cooper doesn’t even believe in table reads. It gives the producers a chance to second guess things. Whatever his method, it allows for some powerful performances. Cooper made a big splash directing Jeff Bridges to an Oscar in Crazy Heart. With Hostiles, the period story of a US Army captain ordered to escort a former Cheyenne enemy chief to his Montana homeland, there are again Cooper-directed performances in the conversation.

Christain Bale, as the captain, and Rosamund Pike, as a woman who witnessed her family killed by a renegade band of bandits both get big acting moments of the kind that have drawn awards. Bale, as the lead of the film, is all meaningful grunts. I wish his character’s arc from hatred of the chief (Wes Studi) to grudging respect had been a more carefully drawn. I also wish the movie was either from more of the Native American perspective or didn’t seem to absolve the atrocities committed by the US Army.

Cooper’s script adapts an unpublished manuscript from the late (great) Donald E. Stewart. Although it is set in the American West, it has unmistakeable resonance with the present moment’s wars, which Cooper said was quite intended. The story has too much both-sides-ism for the present cultural moment, which I’m guessing will keep it from the marquee awards categories. If the Native characters had been allowed more screen time and #bigactingmoments, it might be a different story.

Beyond acting, the guild categories are a better bet. The production design, by Donald Graham Burt, evokes the late 1800’s in an unflashy and lived-in way and the grand American landscapes are photographed beautifully by Masanobu Takayanagi. Perhaps the best aspect is the carefully attention to Cheyenne language and custom appropriate to the time. There is not an award for cultural recreation, sadly.

Awards Chase 2017: December Update

Here are some quick thoughts on awards movies I’ve seen lately, the ones I’m allowed to talk about any way:

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Possible nomination for Frances McDormand but I would be surprised if it gets anything beyond that. While writer/director Martin McDonagh has a cult following, I don’t think many of them are Academy members and, anyway, this isn’t his best work. The screenplay has a weak ending and some lazy coincidences that probably cancel out the clever flips of who the audience is rooting for.

Lady Bird

This is a great movie on many levels: writing, directing, acting. Many are saying it could be this year’s Moonlight. That’s possible, but I’d say it is still a major underdog. This is a very small and contained movie that will have difficulty against something as grand as Dunkirk. The editing is not flashy but it is excellent and I would love to see a nom there.

Darkest Hour

I really had my hair blown back by this. Strong for nominations in all the major categories, especially the tech ones. The screenplay couches Churchill as a writer hero, so look for the writer’s branch especially to champion this one. There is room for two movies about Dunkirk to

The Big Sick

This is a lovely rom-com which unfortunately is a category the Academy has historically snubbed. However, I can see the writer’s branch nominating the very personal script from Kumail Nanjani and Emily V. Gordon. If you have Amazon Prime, this is now available to watch for free.

Last Flag Flying

There is a contingent that really wanted to see writer/director Richard Linklater win for Boyhood. That might help this film which purports to be about the current Iraq War, but which is really about the Vietnam War. The acting is strong with all three main leads: Steve Carrell, Laurence Fishburne and Bryan Cranston getting their moments. I think Cranston has the best chance of getting nominated, since his character is the one that undergoes the most change. The politics of the film are pretty wishy-washy, which I think will hurt with Academy voters, even though it does have a strong Boomer appeal.

Murder on the Orient Express

Fun movie. It may have a shot in the Costume and Makeup categories.

Your Wednesday Links: How Shoot a Film for 10 Dollars

WNYC’s On the Media had the best take on Disney’s ill-advised attempt to bully the LATimesThor: Ragnarok is great, by the way. If not number one then very close in my personal ranking of Marvel movies.

D4Darious: How to shoot a film for 10 Bucks

CBC: First Haida language film offers rare, powerful glimpse of Haida people – I’m a big fan of films that preserve culture and language — and also entertain. Last year’s Tanna was a beautiful example.

Vulture: The Novice Screenwriter Whose Spec Script Launched an Oscar Campaign

Forbes: Gerard Who? ‘Geostorm’ Worked In China Because It Was Billed As A Daniel Wu Movie – Deadline offered a debriefing on how Geostorm happened.

Vanity Fair: NYPD detective investigating Weinstein says Paz de la Huerta has provided them with enough to arrest Harvey – I think most agree Harvey Weinstein should rot in jail if he is found guilty in a fair trial. The matter of Louis C.K. does not seem to have the same consensus. What is an appropriate punishment? Jail? Total loss of career? Or something less?

Deadline: Louis CK’s (former) manager has issued a public apology

Soundworks: The sound design of Blade Runner 2049 (video) – See also Co.Design’s piece on how movie spacesuits are made.

Mind-bending short film with trippy makeup effects: A Dimly Lit Room – The making of this film was previously reported here.

Flavorwire: The 30 Harshest Filmmaker-on-Filmmaker Insults in History


Awards Chase: War for the Planet of the Apes

Last night I had the good fortune to see the last of the modern Apes trilogy at Arclight theaters, followed by a talkback with some of the crew. Writer/director Matt Reeves, actor Andy Serkis, VFX Supervisor Joe Letteri and editors William Hoy and Stan Salfas talked about the three year process of bringing the story to the big screen.

Reeves spoke about how he manages to preserve his vision, even on big-budget studio films. For him, this involves an attitude from the get-go of, “I only know how to make my vision of the movie, not 60% my vision and 40% someone else’s.” He internalizes studio notes as pointing to problems, not necessarily to solutions.

Every time Andy Serkis does an impressive mo-cap performance, there is a push to see him nominated in the acting category. Moderator Pete Hammond played some side-by-side footage showing Serkis performing in a mo-cap suit and the final result with the all-digital character, Caesar. (Letteri noted that, while all the apes are 100% digital, they did use Serkis’ real tears in one scene.) Reeves stressed that it was Serkis’ performance that let the editors do their cut, and it was Serkis’ performance that all of the digital animation was pushed to equal.

The editors spoke about how difficult it was to find the right balance in the VFX versions of Steve Zahn’s performance as Bad Ape where the character was believable instead of cartoonish. The important thing always was to honor the performance of the actor.

I, for one, am on the side of nominating motion capture acting performances alongside the analog ones. Filmmakers have always enhanced actor performances, from makeup prosthetics to a whole array of editing tricks. These days, an editor might use an actor’s body from take 3 and their head from take 6 and their voice from take 9 in a single shot. They might add digital makeup to the point where most of an actor’s face is digitally re-created. Where you draw the line in what should be recognized and awarded as screen acting is not clear. It may very well be that in the future the vast majority of screen performances are more like Serkis’ in the Apes movies.

Well, enough of my soapbox. War for the Planet of the Apes is an epic film — with a great assist from Michael Giacchino’s epic score. Add it to the other two recent Apes films and you have a yet more epic achievement in filmmaking. It’s hard to think of a film where the visual effects technology is so central to telling the story, yet disappears so completely. War for the Planet of the Apes may not reach the promised land of awards recognition, but it looks ahead to a future where such work gets the recognition it deserves.

War for the Planet of the Apes is available on Digital and arrives on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray on October 24.

Wednesday Links: Ask Jerry Bruckheimer Anything

Jerry Bruckheimer answers questions on Quora – How did Captain Jack Sparrow become such an iconic character? What’s happening with Top Gun 2?


On the Scriptnotes podcast, screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin talk about the vicissitudes of the summer movie box office

Vox: The Kingsman movies’ not-so-secret conservative politics – My brief review of Kingsman 2 can be found on Letterboxd. I was not impressed. The movie was apparently 3+ hours in the original cut. That explains why many parts felt shortchanged. Still, it pleased many fans of Kingsman 1, including my wife.

The Whole Plate: Framing Megan Fox – Whether or not you care about Megan Fox’s character in the Transformers movies, this a textbook lesson in how the visuals of a film can subvert the narrative of a film.

NYT: In New Zealand, a Translated ‘Moana’ Bolsters an Indigenous Language – A great reminder of the power of films to shape and bolster culture.

Newsweek: Netflix, Streaming Video and the Slow Death of the Classic Film – It seems classic movie streaming is migrating secondary platforms like Warner Archive and Filmstruck. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Both of those services can offer deeper and wider classic catalogs by centralizing the audience.

Your Wednesday Links: Venice Reviews Are In!

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

Hollywood Reporter: ‘Shape of Water’: Guillermo del Toro on Why America Needs a Cold War Fairy Tale Today – Pumped to see this.

Variety: Venice Film Review: Downsizing – Lots of good reviews for this film coming out of Venice.

RibbonFarm: A Beginner’s Guide to Immortality – If your life was a movie, how would you like being stuck in Groundhog Day?

BBC News: Has Star Wars reached peak prequel? – Time will tell if Rogue One turns out to be the pinnacle. Somehow I doubt it.

Hollywood Reporter: Summer Box Office Suffers Historic Decline in U.S. – I’m pretty sure it is actually within the normal range of variation. Let’s see what the numbers are at the end of the year.

No Film School: Final Death Comes to Final Cut 7 – RIP. Seems like the Final Cut X transition pushed a lot of younger editors to Premiere. Feature films and major TV productions are still mainly Avid MediaComposer.

SlashFilm: Why Netflix Was The Only Place to Make Scorsese’s The Irishman, According to Robert De Niro

Crash Course Movie Production Series #1

BoingBoing: How to make a good lighting rig with a hamburger box and a flashlight

TrueFilm subreddit: Michael Haneke’s recurring names – Ingmar Bergman did the same thing with his character names: Anna, Karin, Henrik, Marianne, David, Isak.


Dunkirk and the Problem of War Movies


In 1930, All Quiet on the Western Front won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It is based on the famous anti-war novel of the same name, set during World War I, the so-called War to End All Wars.

The Variety review for the film stated: “The League of Nations could make no better investment than to buy up the master-print, reproduce it in every language, to be shown in all the nations until the word ‘war’ is taken out of the dictionaries.”

Neither the book nor the film prevented World War II.

Bad Wars and Good War Movies

War is by its very nature a high-drama enterprise. The stakes are not only life and death, but the fate of nations. It is natural for filmmakers to be drawn to stories set during war.

However, war is absolutely awful. As the book and documentary series Five Came Back recently showed, filmmakers who have experienced war firsthand are profoundly changed, perhaps even traumatized.

Even filmmakers who never served — say Steven Spielberg with Saving Private Ryan or Francis Ford Coppola with Apocalypse Now or Stanley Kubrick with Full Metal Jacket — are wary of making movies that glorify war.

Continue reading

Wednesday Links: Visions of Another Hollywood

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

Kottke: The infinite auditory illusion that makes the Dunkirk soundtrack so intense (and good) – More on Shephard tones here.

WhatCulture: 10 Mind-Blowing Hidden Clues You Never Noticed In Classic Movies

The Atlantic: How Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky Can Bring Back the Mid-Budget Movie – I thought the trailer felt… different. Soderbergh cut it himself. Or should I say Mary Ann Bernard cut it herself.

NYT Mag: Why Hollywood Is Trying to Turn Everything Into Movies, Even Mindless Games Like ‘Fruit Ninja’

IndieWire: Netflix vs. Christopher Nolan: Why Movie Theaters Have Gotten so Bad – The Hollywood studios should be very concerned about how bad some theatrical presentations have gotten. I can’t believe how dark the projection is at some theaters I’ve been to, and the comment about the buzzing speaker is right on.

SilentMovieGIFs: Before CGI, they used mirrors

MUBI: Ingmar Bergman’s Favorite Films – Victor Sjöström was a mentor of Bergman’s. Here’s a video interview of him talking about their relationship.

Monique Jones: Revisiting Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes Remake

Inverse: Neill Blomkamp Wants to Reimagine Hollywood. He Just Needs Money. – Who do you think is more likely to succeed in re-writing the Hollywood game, Soderbergh, Nolan or Blomkamp?

A Plea to Ignore Rotten Tomatoes Scores

Rotten Tomatoes is a review aggregator website. It was founded in 1998. There were previous sites that did — and still do — the same basic thing, like Metacritic. For lazy journalists, the Rotten Tomatoes score has become a shorthand for quality of a film. Headlines proclaim Wonder Woman 97% Fresh and The Mummy 23% Rotten.

In fact, the method by which these scores are generated is unscientific, arbitrary and ultimately harmful to movie-making. Let’s break it down…

Continue reading

This Glow-in-the-Dark Cinematography Will Have You Straight Trippin’

In a recent thread on Reddit, filmmaker Jonah Haber discussed how he created a simple but striking visual effect:

I bought a roll of glow in the dark paper from Aliexpress and asked my friend to dance in front of it. This is the result of that

Not mentioned but key is the use of a strobe flash. Haber says timing the final hits took weeks of setup.

I actually had a toy similar to this when I was younger. It was a small piece of glow in the dark fabric and a small little strobe (think disposable camera size flash) where you would create “shadow art” with it. I recently visited my parents and was reminded about it when I was there and thought it would make a cool video!

The shadow-capture effect is haunting, at least for me, evoking as it does the etched shadows of Hiroshima. Haber said he was mainly inspired by a Jon Hopkins music video. It also uses dancers and negative space, but in a way I’d say is less fluid:

Some other commenters chimed in with a Soft Bullets music video that’s in a glow-in-the-dark vein:

I love the idea and the execution! Not only is glow-in-the-dark photo paper readily available from craft supply stores, but also glow-in-the-dark paint and even makeup. What that brought to my mind is Thad Nurski’s short film “A Dimly Lit Room” which uses blacklight-reactive makeup to create some hypnotic low-light visuals. “A Dimly Lit Room” just had its premiere at Dances with Films in Los Angeles. I hope it will be available online in full soon. EDIT Oct 2017: Here it is:

Even with a medium as old as film, people are creating new visual effects. I have to think that as low-light cinematography gets better and cheaper, we’ll start to see more exploration of filming with alternative light sources. Who’s afraid of the dark?

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