Scarecrow (1973) Review

30 07 2011

Copyright 1973 Warner Brothers Pictures

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Since Doctor Who has been on hiatus for the summer after their mid season break, we’ve been watching the spin-off series Torchwood to bridge the gap.  With the new job, it’s a bit difficult to watch features in addition to a series, so I’m going to pull a little known film that I am very fond of from the back log to review: Scarecrow.

It’s been a few years since I’ve seen this film, so I’m not sure how hard the film is to find these days.  However, about 10 years ago when I first viewed this movie, it was almost impossible to locate.  In one of my cinema history books I saw a picture from the film with a young Al Pacino and Gene Hackman.  Being a huge fan of both of these incredible actors, I was immediately interested in finding a copy of this film.  This was before Netflix, so I had to make the rounds to all the local video stores; none of the stores had the film.  Months went on with no success until I came to a Movie Gallery a few towns away.  This was around the time that VHS was being fully phased out to DVDs, so they were having a huge sale on VHS movies.  The store literally had hundreds of movies for sale for about $3 a piece.  I bought properly 500 movies that summer that were hard to find, rare or foreign, of course all VHS, but still it was some way to view these films at the time.  Deep within the droves of cassette stacks, I found a lone copy of Scarecrow.  I still have it in my collection today and feel it is one of the most underrated films of the 1970s.

Directed by Jerry Schatzberg, Hackman plays an ex-convict named Max Milian and Al Pacino plays Francis Lionel “Lion” Delbuchi, an ex-sailor.  They meet on a path in California near the beginning of the film and form a partnership as friends, with plans to go into business together when they get to Pittsburgh.  Hackman’s character has a plan to open a car wash which he is sure will be a success.  Francis agrees to be his partner in business, but first wants to stop by Detroit and make well with his wife, Annie, and the child he left behind and never saw.  Essentially, the film is a road movie between these two opposite personalities and their weird friendship that develops in their travels from California to Pittsburgh.  Max is quick tempered and aggressive in many situations; whereas, Francis is calm, conservative and child-like.  Along the way, they visit several different places, get put in a work camp for awhile and go through both personal injury and triumph.

What really works with this film is the true-to-life dichotomy between the characters of Max and Francis’s relationship.  They are complete opposites, but in some strange way need each other to survive.  They learn from the other and find the only support they have ever known in life in their friendship.  The story is shot in a gritty, realist nature which only adds to the believability of the characters and their complex relationship.  Needless to say, Pacino and Hackman are absolutely brilliant in this film.  It was at the height of both of their professional abilities and the casting choices for their respective roles couldn’t have been better.

The film won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973 and has been generally well-regarded by critics since it came out.  In looking on Netflix, it seems this film is still hard to locate all these years later.  However, if you can find a copy, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with this 1970s gem.

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One Door Opens as Another Closes…

25 07 2011

An extremely pretentious shot of the author.

I officially started my new job today as a Multimedia Specialist for Novant Health. Well, kind of; I have two days of orientation before reporting to duty early on Wednesday morning, but for all intents and purposes, today was my first day. I’m excited about the opportunity to expand my horizons by working on multimedia projects in the healthcare industry and becoming a new addition to the Novant family.

For the past year and a half prior to this position, I served as the resident Director of Photography on the Multimedia Team at UNC-Greensboro’s Division of Continual Learning. I began my tenure briefly under the leadership of Multimedia Lead Greg Robbins, whom I’d worked with previously on various projects and who was a colleague in the undergraduate program of UNC-Greensboro’s Media Studies Department (in our day it was called the Broadcasting/Cinema Department). Greg took a job in NYC about two weeks after I began, where he still resides and continues to produce outstanding work. The core original team I worked with was with Bryan R. Higgins, Matt Newton and Jon Fredette. Newton, subsequently, made the trek up to NYC himself in July of last year; congruously, Patrick T. Griffin was hired as the new Multimedia Lead.

My job with UNC-Greensboro entailed shooting/lighting all the projects they shot, whether it be educational courses, marketing content or promotional material. However, because we were a small team, I also had many chances at producing, directing, editing and doing visual effects on certain courses in which I was the multimedia liaison. Yet, in looking back on my time with UNC-Greensboro, it’s not the course work that I am most proud of (though there was one nursing course that I was able to do an amusing music video for). My most satisfying work with the institution were the commercial and marketing projects that we had the opportunity to work on.

My first marketing project with UNCG was shooting the UNCG in 3 commercial that was aired throughout the state of North Carolina in 2010. This, my first project with DCL (not counting some contract work a few years prior), was Greg Robbins’s last project for the division. Following that, several months later and now under the direction of Matt Newton, we completed the Office of Online Learning commercial. It aired before movies in several theaters in Greensboro, N.C.; it also won a UPCEA Gold Award for Interactive Marketing. Another project I was quite fond of was a marketing piece for the All-Arts Sciences and Technology Camp, in which we incorporated many aspects of the various classes in fun and exciting ways using Adobe After Effects.

My final three projects worth noting with UNCG have been a series of “viral” campaign videos. Two of these videos I have already posted here and given a background write-up for: “Text Storm” and “Textris”. The final installment in these videos was shot one week before my final day at UNCG; it was shot on 16mm film with a Bolex H-16. An in depth look at this project will be posted once everything is wrapped and it is released online.

I got to work on some great projects at UNCG and immensely enjoyed working with the other members of the Multimedia Team. In addition, I got to meet and work with many other wonderful people at the DCL office and beyond. I also couldn’t have asked for better supervisors than Patrick, Greg and our senior supervisor, Chris Dunst . Sure, as with any job there were times I wanted to pull my hair out, but all-in-all I enjoyed many parts of my tenure in the position. I am looking forward to the position ahead of me and hope to continue to grow in it as both an artist and technician.





Music on Film Series Reviews: The Last Waltz

23 07 2011

Copyright 1978 MGM and United Artists

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

For those of you that know me personally, you are probably already aware of my two greatest passions.  For those of you who don’t, one is obviously film and filmmaking, the other is music.  I’ve been a guitar player for about 12 years now, have had some success in the local scene over the years with several bands, most notably with Jaxon Jill from 2007-2009.  So, to bridge the gap a bit here on the blog I’m starting a new series that will have updates ever so often.  The series will be called the Music on Film Series and include popular, and not so popular, films that have either been of live concerts, taped recordings or other instances in which music is the predominant subject of the visual image.

In starting this little ongoing series, I feel it is only fitting to begin with my favorite concert film of all time, The Band’s The Last Waltz.  I remember the first time I ever heard The Band, it was truly an hear opening experience, if you will.  I was at the local Borders in Winston-Salem, which unfortunately is currently going out of business with the rest of the chain as we speak, and I was listening to various albums they had available with headphones.  I was maybe 14 or 15 years old at this time, just beginning an interest in classic rock and roll that would continue to this day.  When I came to the CD of The Band’s Greatest Hits, which at the time had just been released on compact disc, I put on the headphones and hit play for a sample of the first track, their classic hit “The Weight”.  As I continued sampling the album through “Tear of Rage”, “I Shall Be Released”, “Up on Cripple Creek” and “King Harvest”, I became enamored with their style and musical influences.  Their sound is such a perfect blend of Blues, R&B, Rock and Roll, Country and Folk, and the voices of Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko blend so beautifully and harmoniously, that the music itself literally becomes timeless.

Needless to say, I bought the album on the spot and it continued to be a staple of my car CD system for years to come.  As I became more and more interested in their music, I caught wind of their final concert, The Last Waltz, which was filmed at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco in 1976.  The concert film was directed by none other than iconic Italian-American filmmaker Martin Scorsese.  Scorsese and The Band collaborating on a celebration of the music at a live concert was too good to pass up.  At the time nearing my birthday, it was a first choice for present from my parents; once received, I played it from beginning to end on the big screen TV with the sound system all the way up.

The film features not only a large number of iconic Band tunes, but also has a multitude of musical guests joining the band on stage for one to two songs.  Guests include Van Morrison, Neil Young, Dr. John, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan (who the members of The Band were the backing band for before going out on their own), Eric Clapton and Muddy Waters, among others.  There is nothing quite like hearing many of these songs live when the group was at the height of their fame; the energy of the performances are breathtaking.  Interspersed between the music are interviews with members of The Band about their life and times with The Band and being musicians in general.

I highly recommend this album to anyone who loves music of 60s and 70s.  This is truly a celebration of The Band’s music and the people behind the music, Levon Helm (Drums and Vocals), Robbie Robertson (Guitar), Rick Danko (Bass and Vocals), Richard Manuel (Piano and Vocals) and Garth Hudson (Keys, Organ, Sax, Crazy Musical Genius Extraordinaire).  Just to give you a sample of the film, here’s oneof my favorite tracks from the DVD:





48 Hour Film Project Greensboro Needs Some Changes

22 07 2011

Firstly, congratulations to all the winners and fellow filmmakers that produced wonderful films under such an extremely tight deadline.  I am always amazed at the level of talent located in this small Southeastern area known as the Piedmont of North Carolina.  Hopefully, one day, more producers and projects with budgets to speak of will realize the amazing potential of our local crews and locations.

Our team walked away with a couple of accolades last night, including Best Writing, but that’s not really what this blog post is about.  I don’t participate in the 48 Hour Film Project for the awards anymore; we faired well in 2007 and won for our city and went to the international competition in 2008 with a film entitled Cadence.  I participate in the project for the joy of making a film with my contemporaries and the exercise in craft.

However, this year, I am saddened with certain aspects of how the competition was run.  I will address two major concerns; one of a personal nature and one of a general nature.  For those of you not familiar with how the 48 Hour Film Project runs, I will explain.  Teams from different cities sign up and pay an entry fee to compete.  On Friday night of the weekend the project is being held, teams draw their genre, which can be a number of different things including: comedy, drama, dark comedy, thriller, suspense, musical, western, etc.  Then, all teams are given a prop, line of dialogue and a character that they must incorporate into their films verbatim.  The teams then have 48 hours to write, cast, film, edit, add visual effects, score, compress and burn a copy that must be received at the drop-off point by 7:30 p.m. Sunday night.  Films that are late are disqualified, as well as films that are missing or do not properly incorporate the given items of prop, line of dialogue and character.  Screenings are held about a week later and then a “Best of…” screening a few weeks after that, with judging done in the interim.  Awards are given at the end of the “Best of…” screening.

My personal complaint regarding our film Eat Me! is as follows: we turned in two copies of our film by 7:30 p.m. to the 48 Hour Project drop-off point.  One copy was brought about one hour before the other and included the words “Oh S%&t Copy” on the cover, meaning that this was the copy to use only if the other copy didn’t arrive on time.  This copy was most definitely a rough cut and did not include our score, proper ending credit video clip or several other sound design fixes.  Our proper copy did make it on time and was clearly labeled on the front of the copy “Preferred Copy”.  We even mentioned to our City Producer that this was the case and she said she would make sure the proper one made it at the screening.

Well, guess what?  When the screening arrived for Group C the following week, our “Oh S%&t Copy” was the one played without score, proper visuals and sound fixes.  No worries, mistakes happen.  So, we alerted our City Producer to the problem and then followed up with a series of emails from several members of our team.  She assured us that the judges would see the preferred copy and that if we made it to the “Best of…” screening, the preferred copy would also then be shown.  At last night’s “Best of…” screening, yet again, our rough copy was shown.  We alerted her to the this after the screening; she replied, “Oh, so sorry, I forgot.”

As a City Producer, it was her right to make sure that this concern was fixed.  Our composer, Jon Fredette, put a lot of time and effort into a score that no one got to hear.  Furthermore, his score at the beginning was timed to the picture to help drive the edit and create the tone for the rest of the story.  Without the score, you loose out on the fact that this is indeed a dark comedy until halfway through the film.  If you are that disorganized and aloof, then I recommend not taking on a position that requires an extreme amount of organization and stress.

Now, on to the general complaint.  For the last couple of years, there have been judges that have had conflicts of interest.  Seemingly, several people need a definition of the etymology of this concept.  A Conflict of Interest is, as defined: occurs when an individual or organization is involved in multiple interests, one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation for an act in the other.

The past two years have seen judges that have been former participants in the project and have either lost or won to present competitors.  Furthermore, there are several judges who are friends, co-workers and even co-owners of production companies with current participants.  I would not judge the character of these people, as I am sure they made the best of decisions and used their best judgement.  However, the fact alone that these judges have ties to participants that could be drawn into question is very disconcerting.  If they choose their friend or colleagues film as the best film and it is not, this is a problem; likewise, if they don’t choose their colleague’s film because they are worried that a backlash might ensue, this too is a problem.  The only way to have a properly judged competition is to put up a panel of judges where none of this is an issue to begin with.

Maybe everything was judged properly, and I’m sure, more than likely, it was.  However, why instill a situation that presents questions like this and leaves discomfort and bad tastes in other competitors mouths?  Don’t even let the questioning of such motives itself be raised.  Also, I think it is of the general opinion that two films this year were the best bet for representing our city’s interests in the international competition.  Neither of those films were my own and I only know the heads of those teams by name and acquaintance , so I have no reason to stand up for them on personal merit.  They were the best films, and they didn’t win.  Could poor organization and conflict of interest be a part of this?  Maybe, maybe not, but why even let the questions arise?

Out of my four years being involved in this wonderful filmmaking experience, I doubt I will return next year unless major changes are made.  Conflicts of interest, poor organization and poor management have no place in any judged competition that people pay good money to participate in.  So, until some things change for the Greensboro division, I hate to say I will not be a part of it.





Not your Basil Rathbone Holmes (Thank Goodness!)

21 07 2011

Copyright 2010 BBC/Masterpiece

In their down time from Doctor Who, current series head Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss set out to create a modern update on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic Sherlock Holmes.  Season One of the joint BBC and Masterpiece production aired in the summer of 2010 with three episodes, each totaling 88 minutes in length.

The first episode, A Study in Pink (an obvious take-off on Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlett”), lays out the groundwork and exposition for the characters of both Holmes and his associate Dr. John Watson.  This episode also introduces the two to each other for the first time, and has them decide to be roommates at the famous 221-B Baker Street address.  Staying very true to the books, all the idiosyncracies of the characters and their backgrounds are in tact, just with modern updates.  For instance, Watson served in the recent Afghanistan conflict in this version, where he received the bullet that injured his leg.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Holmes and Martin Freeman plays Watson; they are both excellent in their roles.  I especially enjoyed Freeman’s performance as Watson; however, I am a bit bias, as my favorite character in the Holmes’ stories is generally that of Watson oddly enough.  I mean how cool would it be to be the companion of a mind like Holmes’s, a crack shot with a revolver and an expert medical doctor all-in-one?  Plus, you get the ladies and generally stand as a voice of reason to the sometimes aloof Holmes.

Not only does the series get placed in modern London, but they take expert advantage over the situation by incorporating many technological advances into the scripts.  Laptops, cell phones and other digital media devices are made use of in all three episodes extensively, sometimes even as key elements to the plot.  In addition, the producers came up with a clever way to visually present the use of such devices.  Rather than boring shots of a cell phone screen, they have animated text appear over the image to signify various text messages, etc.

The second series will be broadcast this fall in the same manner as the first, with three hour and a half long episodes.  I enjoyed Guy Ritchie’s theatrical version of Sherlock Holmes (2009) and am looking forward to the sequel later this year, but, though fun, it wasn’t a great movie.  This modernized adaptation of the classic stories is a different story; I don’t mind at all admitting that it is a brilliant, fresh take on series.  I absolutely love it.

For all you Netflix users out there, all three episodes of season one are available on Instant Watch.





True Grit (2010) Review

19 07 2011

Copyright 2010 Paramount Pictures

★ ★ ★ 1/2

I had high expectations for this film going into it; perhaps, too high.  This is the Coen Brothers take on the Charles Portis novel of the same name.  As much as it tries to be a quality adaptation of the novel along with keeping the Coen’s quirky edge, it somewhere misses the mark in being a truly great film.  It’s not a bad film, and like I said, perhaps my expectations were too high due to all the hype at the end of last year, but this film didn’t strike me as a 10 best of the year by any means.  If that’s the case, 2010 was a worse year for filmmaking than I originally thought.

As mentioned above, the film is based on the Charles Portis novel; it is the second adaptation of the book to film, the first being Henry Hathaway’s 1969 version with John Wayne.  When an outlaw known as Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) murders young Mattie Ross’s (Hailee Steinfeld) father over a petty gambling altercation, the young girl seeks justice.  A quick witted and intelligent lad, Mattie seeks out a man with “true grit” to help track down Chaney and the outlaw gang he has made acquaintance with in the Indian Territory.  She finds her man in dirty, drunk U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges).  He reluctantly agrees to help her; they are further aided by a Texas Ranger who has a bounty to claim himself for Chaney, LaBoef (Matt Damon).  They set out for their man and, eventually, track him down after several various altercations.

The acting in the film was very good.  Jeff Bridges delivered, as usual, and the girl, Hailee Steinfeld, who played Mattie Ross was incredible in her debut role.  Apparently, the Coen’s auditioned 15,000 girls for the part before deciding on Steinfeld.  The source material seems interesting as well; it’s bare bones and fairly straight forward in plot, but seems like a good premise for a western.  However, somewhere along the lines, this film just lost steam for me.  Primarily, I think, during the final showdown, which I thought should have a level or bravura to it to make it epic.  In reality, it seemed rushed and quickly lead into the denouncement.

All in all, I didn’t dislike the film.  It was a movie I could watch and say, “Well, that was good.”  When many critics put this on their best of lists and a lot of my contemporaries recommended the movie, however, to the point of my expectations growing very high – this movie just doesn’t add up completely.





Recent Shoot Log: UNC-Greensboro “Viral” #2 – Textris

16 07 2011

Our second entry into the UNC-Greensboro “Viral” campaign was released yesterday.  To recap on the campaign ideas itself: in a world where text-on-a-page Web sites, documents, etc. are taking over our lives in this digital age, we were commissioned to design a marketing campaign promoting our multimedia-infused alternative.  The end result are a series of videos that will show text literally bombarding everyday life.

In this installment, a young woman is playing the iconic puzzle game “Tetris” on her computer in a public park.  After some intense play, she unlocks a secret level called “Textris”.  In this bonus level, the blocks form the word “TEXT”, but more interesting than that, they literally have invaded the young woman’s real life space.  These giant blocks of “TEXT” are not only coming down on the screen, but piling up in the park in front of her.

We had a bit more planning time for this one than usual and our Multimedia Lead, Patrick Griffin, was able to fully shot list and plan out all the shots he wanted.  It turns out that this was a lucky thing, because on the day we ended up shooting it was miserably hot at nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  Knowing that mid-afternoon would only see the heat get worse, we planned to meet at the office to load gear at 6 a.m., so that we could be at our location (Center City Park in downtown Greensboro) by 7 a.m.

Upon arrival, our small four man crew, which in addition to Patrick and myself included our Editor Bryan Higgins and Audio Specialist Jon Fredette, began unloading gear from the two vehicles we brought.  We found a park table that suited our needs with a proper background and foreground, and started setting up the equipment we needed, primarily a 12×12 overhead silk and a 16 ft. Snapcrane with MC-100 remote head.

The sun was beating down hard that day, so the 12×12 silk was up to help diffuse the harshness of the sunlight.  However, I did want her to have a bit of a controlled backlight, so we set up a 1.2k ARRI HMI off our actress, Lilly Nelson’s, back left corner.  That one setup was all that we used for the entirety of the shoot with several adjustments throughout the day on the overhead and HMI.

Our first shots were a series of crane shots that then moved into a series of shots on a tripod, mainly for inserts.  Though it was a hot, difficult day in the morning, by about 11 a.m., the heat was bordering on unbearable.  We were all going through entire bottles of water in minutes and energy levels were falling fast from the heat.  This strain was especially compounded by the fact that we only had four people doing double duty on a multitude of set positions.

We finally wrapped in the early afternoon and were packed up and back at the office by 3 p.m.  I think we all left early that day to get some much needed rest and re-hydration.  Though we were originally going to shoot the piece on the RED One Digital Cinema camera, we opted for the smaller, more durable Panasonic AF-100 with Nikon Primes.  With the heat and small crew, we knew we needed something more mobile than the bulky RED package.

This was our first time using the AF-100 on a shoot.  I think it came out with a good image, though in retrospect, there are a few things I would have done a bit differently.  Primarily, I would never use the SnapCrane again with a camera that uses interchangeable lenses without some kind of remote focus unit.  The Depth of Field was constantly an issue and we had no way to control focus on that crane without a remote unit.  Because of this, several of the crane shots were scrapped because of an ever so slight soft focus issue.  I did my best to remedy the situation with wide lenses, high f-stops and DoF calculations via the pCam Digital, but the calculations were hard to get precisely accurate because of the crane’s vertical fluctuations.  Secondly, some of the crane shots blew the highlights on the camera a bit.  I will admit, I like to push digital cameras because I like an image that has some bright highs and low blacks, but on several of the crane shots, I pushed it a bit much and got some blooming.

But, you live and you learn.  Also, to be completely honest, I think by noon when it was 100 degrees and humidity was at like 77%, we just wanted to wrap out for fear of getting sick from the immense heat.  Following the shoot, Bryan Higgins, our editor and vfx supervisor took the piece, cut it, and then started layering in the elements from After Effects and Cinema 4D.  Jon Fredette, our Audio Specialist, took the project from there and did an awesome rendition of the classic Tetris theme using both an 8 bit and metal mix on the iconic Russian folk song.

Our third entry into the series, which was shot on a Bolex H16, is currently awaiting processing and HD transfer at CineLab in Massachusetts.  Look out for it next month, but for now, here’s our “Textris” entry:

 








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