Making the Movie

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Movie Reviews: Unbroken and Foxcatcher (Spoilers)


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.)

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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.

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. Continue reading

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.

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

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

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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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Your Wednesday Links: 70mm is Hard Work 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.

FilmDrunk: An IMAX Projectionist Shows What It’s Like Preparing A Massive 70 MM Print Of ‘Interstellar’

Movie Title Typos – Cartoonist Austin D. Light brings a Reddit thread on mis-spelled movies and brings it to life.

BBC Health: Watching stressful films can endanger weak hearts

No Film School: Afraid of Recording ADR? Don’t Be! This Sound Tutorial Will Show You How

New York Times: Hollywood Ending Near for Orson Welles’s Last Film

Medium: The Evolution of the Rom-com

Hollywood Reporter: Jill Soloway: How a Detour Into Indie Filmmaking Led to Amazon’s ‘Transparent’

Chg: HDTV Manufacturers: Please STOP making “smooth motion” the DEFAULT setting on all HDTVs.

David Bordwell analyzes the plot of Gone Girl – See also Making the Movie’s review.

“The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” –Orson Welles

Movie Review: Nightcrawler

nightcrawler-posterNow that the bright light of summer has receded, the worthy films are slinking out from their dark holes. From the slick surfaces of Gone Girl to the virtuosic staging of Birdman. And joining them is the creepiest dark hole dweller: Nightcrawler.

‘Nightcrawler’ is slang for independent news gatherers who listen to police scanners and vie to be first to shoot video of scenes of murder and mayhem. Those looking for a movie about a teleporting mutant or worms used for fishing will be disappointed. Instead, a sallow, sunken-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal plays the titular role. And he makes it iconic. A petty thief with a gift for gab and unscrupulous self-improvement, Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom quickly finds he has a hidden talent for the gruesome job, not least of which is figuring out how to sell the footage to the highest bidder.

The fearmongering bloodlust of local news is an easy target, and while Nightcrawler often invokes Network in its dark vision of a media landscape devoid of ethics, it is the capitalist system that is the film’s real target. Characters again and again sell their bodies and their souls to make a bargain with small-business owner Lou (short for Lucifer?) Bloom.

Written and directed by a Gilroy (Dan), produced by a Gilroy (Tony) and edited by a Gilroy (John), this film might make me think twice about attending their family Thanksgiving. As skewed as the view is toward business dealings, someone knew how to make a deal on the producing team. For a reported $10M this film has some tremendous talent, not least cinematographer Robert Elswit, who makes Los Angeles at night shimmer like firelight over a storm-tossed ocean.

Acting standouts besides Gyllenhaal include Riz Ahmed as Rick, the quasi-homeless “intern” hired by Bloom, and Rene Russo as the struggling local news producer Nina. The best thing about the performances is how they sell Gilroy’s script. You feel filthy after watching this film, but then you realize the real world isn’t much cleaner.

Your Wednesday Links: The Coming Superhero Surplus

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

ScreenRant: Over 40 DC & Marvel Movies Will Hit Theaters In The Next 6 Years – Is there any scenario where the public doesn’t burn out on superhero movies? Already the Spiderman franchise is showing fatigue. I think Marvel has demonstrated demand for franchises that involve loosely-connected stories in the same world. We already knew franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean, which involve one-off or interlinked adventures of the same characters, were popular. Hollywood has long dined out on sequels, from Chaplin’s Little Tramp movies to the Thin Man series to, yes, Aliens and Terminators and Batman and Superman and even Jaws the shark.

Canon PR: Canon Introduces The World’s Longest 4K Ultra-Telephoto Zoom Lens For Large-Format Single-Sensor Cameras – The 50-1000mm motorized CINE-SERVO comes in EF and PL mounts. If you’re going to buy one lens…

Quora: What is the one film that changed Hollywood the most?

Go into the Story: The ‘shortening’ of movie scenes – I hate when people make blanket pronouncements that could be easily tested by data. Scene length can be sampled and tested both on the page and as edited. But let us grant it. Even so… so what? I would not be surprised if, in any storytelling medium — including stage plays — as audiences get more familiar with the mechanics of the medium, the storytellers are able to ‘shorthand’ more and more.

SlashFilm: How to Shoot a Nightclub Scene Using Almost No Money and see also No Film School: 5 Things You Should Think About After You Pass on Your Distribution Deal for more tips from the same $6,000 film.

Vulture: Is This a Clip From a Trent Reznor Score or a Household Appliance?

“Simplicity of approach is always best.” – Charlie Chaplin

Award-winning Short “Flesh Computer” Now Online

Ethan Shaftel on the set of Flesh Computer“Flesh Computer” — the weird and amazing sci-fi short we profiled earlier — is wrapping up its festival run and is now available to view on Vimeo.

In honor of the web premiere, I asked writer and director Ethan Shaftel to give us an update on how the film fared fest-wise, and what he’s learned…

Filmmaker Ethan ShaftelWhen my feature Suspension hit festivals in 2008, the landscape was very different. The internet wasn’t as central to the experience of production and exhibition yet, basically because speeds were not high enough for handling large video files routinely. There was a lot of DVD-burning and -mailing involved. On the post side, many tape formats were still in use for masters and copies — which means a lot of expense at post houses and dubbing companies to make professional formats for festivals or distributors.

Entering your film into festivals is easier now, since almost all have gone to online screeners instead of mailing in DVDs. The problem is that it’s hard to decide which festivals to enter and which not to enter. With entry fees ranging from $20-60 a pop, you just can’t enter everything and stick to a reasonable budget. I’ve been going to festivals with my films since I was a teenager, so I have festivals I’ll enter because of a history there. Others I just select case-by-case, usually because I would like to attend in person or they are close by where family, friends, or collaborators live and I know they would go if the movie is screened there.

I have some ambivalence about film festivals. There are so few that are game-changers for a project. I’ve never been to any of those festivals with my work. But I do genuinely enjoy festivals and in some cases have met long term collaborators only because of attending them. I think the key is to think of them as something for you as much as for the project, something to celebrate the movie after all the work you’ve put into them.

In terms of distribution: since “Flesh Computer” is a short film, no other distribution besides putting it on Vimeo was ever a goal. I just can’t conceive of a distribution “opportunity” for a short that is worth the trade off of having the film seen by far fewer people, or having it be much harder to find online. The deterrent effect on the online audience of having to pay for a short film (or maybe anything) is totally disproportionate to the actual amount you might charge — you could charge 25 cents and the views would fall off as steeply as if you charged $2.99. So what’s the point? Getting a quarter per view of the much smaller audience is not going to get you anywhere, and it’s not why you made the short in the first place. Short filmmaking is not a profit-making venture on it’s own. It’s only a business decision if you consider it an advertising cost for yourself as a filmmaker or media professional, which is perfectly legit. But mostly it’s a passion to make a particular film.

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Flesh Computer is also currently being featured on the Short of the Week website. So hop on over there to learn more about how it was made.

Movie Reviews: Birdman and Gone Girl

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman is my favorite film of the year so far. Right out of the gate, it is 100% manic energy. The gunfire bursts of drumming mixed with the half-cocked sneers at Hollywood, Broadway, and the whole enterprise of entertainment hooked me immediately. Sure, the masterful use of “seamless” editing is showy, but it’s the kind of showy that a great stage show wants and deserves.

Of course, the pace can’t always sustain. To wit: the first scene where Amy Ryan’s character showed up was when the tone started shifting a bit more serious, and I found myself disengaging a bit. Emma Stone’s eyes sure are preternaturally ginormous…

Not that a daydreaming, meandering mind isn’t welcome in the film, which is almost certainly meant to emerge from the inner thoughts of Michael Keaton’s washed-up movie star, Riggan Thompson. I guess it would be gauche to call Mexican-born director Alejando González Iñárritu’s approach magical realism? In any case, the script — by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo — is some kind of unique blend of realism and surrealism. It shouldn’t work, but it works like gangbusters.

I went to a screening sponsored by the Editor’s Guild, so I had the good fortune of hearing top gun Stephen Mirrione and longtime colleague Douglas Crise talk about the process of making the film. (Mirrione took the lead during pre-production and at the end phase of post, and supervised throughout. Crise, it seems, did the bulk of the cutting.)

Mirrione asked Alejando to shoot the rehearsals (which were done with Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki and the cast mostly in the same locations). This allowed the editors to make comments like “that line is redundant” or “I would probably go to a closeup of Ed Norton here”. So the reason the pace is so rapid, even though the takes are long, is that the “editing” was front loaded, as much as possible, before shooting. The sound team was also allowed to rehearse microphone placement, allowing for clean sound in many locations where booms were impractical.

Crise and Mirrione were cagey about where the cuts were hidden, but they praised Lubezki’s smooth camerawork (much of which was hand-held and digitally stabilized) and the actors’ ability to sustain long takes. They were also cagey about the meaning of that final shot, turning the question back on the audience. “How did you interpret it?”

I’ll tell you what I think. SPOILERS AHEAD! Continue reading

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