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Cloud Atlas (2012) Review

30 05 2013

ImageIt has been some time since I have updated this blog and for that I sincerely apologize. Between work, a new hobby that has engulfed a lot of my time and resources (pinball collecting!) and life in general, I just haven’t taken the proper time to keep up with this blog. However, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been watching movies regularly. Movies have always and will always be a very important part of my life, and I am hoping that I can find the appropriate time to at least keep this blog up to a much better extent than I have over the past six to eight months. Enough apologies, on with the review!

Cloud Atlas is a film adaptation based on the 2004 novel of the same name by David Mitchell. Somewhat famously, it has become the most expensive independent film to ever be released, having been produced for nearly $100 million outside of the studio system. The narrative structure follows six distinct and separate storylines over six different time periods, and was a co-production between the Wachowskis of Matrix fame and Tom Tykwer who helmed such films as Run Lola Run and The Princess and the Warrior. By co-production, I mean this was very literally a co-production between the three, in that the script was written and re-written by all the involved, as well as the segments being  directed by the Wachowskis and Tykwer, respectively, with two totally separate crews working in parallel.

The separate storylines take place in the following times and places: The South Pacific Ocean, 1849; Great Britain, 1936; San Francisco, Calif., 1973; United Kingdom, 2012; Neo Seoul (Korea), 2144; and The Big Island, 2321. The characters in the respective storylines are portrayed by many of the same actors in different roles. Multiple performances are given by Tom Hanks, Halle Barry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy and Zhou Xun, among others. Each storyline is separate of the others outside of the unifying theme that history can and will repeat itself, and that there is an interrelation between people, places, time and the decisions they make.

At nearly 3 hours and with much intertwine between the six stories, the film has polarized critics and managed to end up on both best and worst film lists of the year. With that distinction in mind, it is a bit of a difficult film to review for a wide audience, so I will have to be rather subjective in my approach. For me, there were individual stories I enjoyed more than others out of the six, but none of them failed to pique my interest. I was thoroughly engaged throughout the entirety of the film and actually really connected with the moral of the story and the brilliant multi-faceted performances from the main cast. In time, I could very easily see this film achieving a cult status, as many experimental films do that are originally shunned or misunderstood by the mainstream upon release.

If you don’t mind a narrative structure that interweaves heavily and is primarily held together by the overarching theme of the film, then I think you will really enjoy this movie. However, if turbulent story structure and disjointed parallel structure turns you off, then this is definitely not the film for you.

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The Great Buck Howard (2008) Review

20 08 2012

Copyright 2008 Playtone Pictures

★ ★ ★ ★

So, I was turned on to this movie by a post Roger Ebert made on his Facebook wall recommending it, and giving it a very admirable 3 1/2 star (out of four) review.  Being that it was nearing the end of its run on Netflix (it goes off Instant Watch tomorrow!), and considering that mine and Ebert’s taste in cinema actually coincide quite a bit, I planned on watching the movie last night.  However, before we pressed play, Maddie and I noticed that it was not rated very well on Netflix, and considered a second option for the evening.  Exhausting our choices, we came full circle back to this film and decided that, if we didn’t like it, we could always turn it off.  Now, I give you all this back story, as it will all come around eerily full circle by the end of this post.

The movie itself is an independent comedy that stars John Malkovich as washed up mentalist, Buck Howard (a character based on real life Amazing Kreskin).  Troy Grable (Colin Hanks), a recent law school drop out (that hits close to home!), is at a crossroads in life and decides he wants to become a writer.  Being that writing doesn’t produce much in terms of actual cash asset, he takes a job as the road manager for the “Great Buck Howard.”  Howard, once a television personality who was in high demand and appeared on Johnny Carson over 60 times in the 1970s, is now reduced primarily to touring the country with his act, a mixture of song, comedy and mostly mental illusions, in small town theaters across the United States.  As Howard plans his return to glory, Grable scrambles to keep up with the demands of the  still diva-esque celebrity.  Along the way, he strikes a romance with PR rep Valerie Brennan (Emily Blunt) who is trying to help boost media attention for Howard’s new illusion that will bring him back to the limelight.

The direction and writing by Sean McGinly are solid, but what shines the most is the subject matter and the performances by Malkovich and Colin Hanks.  Their chemistry and Malkovich’s perfect display of the Amazing Kreskin’s mannerisms really helps keep this movie interesting and unique.

Having never heard of the Amazing Kreskin before, we of course watched several videos on Youtube of the real man following the movie.  Needless to say, he is an interesting character and his act does have a distinct element of wonder to it.  For the the fun of it, we decided to look up and see Kreskin’s tour schedule.  Oddly enough, the only two dates he is playing in North Carolin are this Friday and Saturday.  With the coincidence so high, that we almost didn’t watch this movie, finally watched it and liked it, happened to look on his tour schedule, and just so happen to see the real Amazing Kreskin is in NC two dates out of the year, and those being this week, we booked tickets.  We’ll be seeing him on Saturday evening in Shelby, N.C.; however, I got to admit, he’s kind of already impressed me if coincidence has any connection.





CLAW Award for “Banks of the Vltava”

1 11 2011

Copyright 2011 Walk in the Park Pictures, LLC

Banks of the Vltava is a short film project that I shot for frequent collaborator, Dan A. R. Kelly.  It’s a very near and dear project to my heart, as every member of both the cast and crew put 110% into this project to make it happen.  From the first read through of the script, we all knew that it was going to be an ambitious film to complete.  However, everyone involved was committed to the story and the determination and drive that exuded from writer/director Kelly spilled onto all those involved.  One of the most ambitious elements of the story is the fact that it takes place in Prague in 1943, but was of course to be shot in Greensboro, North Carolina in 2009-10.  This required numerous period costumes, props and other pieces to sell the time period.  On a large budget production, acquiring these items isn’t a problem, but on a smaller budget it’s much more difficult to secure.  Furthermore, the project required a large ensemble cast, an array of visual and makeup effects (as it is a horror film) and almost a complete schedule of night shoots.

Production spanned over, I believe, about a 15-16 day shoot over nearly a one and a half year period.  As stated earlier, nearly all of these days, outside of about two, were night shoots (6pm-6am).  During the time we shot this production, the commonality of DSLRs had not yet hit the market.  If you wanted a shallow depth of field and cinematic look on a lower budget camera package, a good old DOF adapter was really the way to go.  So, the film was shot on my HVX-200 with a Redrock m2 adapter and Nikon glass; this yielded a relative ISO of about 100.  For those of you not familiar with film sensitivity ratings, it takes A LOT of light to properly expose an image at 100 ISO when you are shooting at night.  We only had HMI availability on two nights, so the majority of the film was lit with an array of 1k and 2k fresnels, 1k PARs, a pair of Blondes, a Redhead, various smaller unit fresnels, a pair of Kino 2-4ft banks and a 750 ZIP light.  There are times where all units we had access to were being powered by a set of generators out in the woods.  In the end, I feel we did a good job of pulling it all off, and some of that was validated this weekend, which is really the true point of the post.

Over the weekend, the film screened at two festivals: the Terror Film Festival in Philadelphia, Penn. and the Buffalo Screams Film Festival in Buffalo, N.Y.  We were very happy to be nominated for awards at both festivals!  At the Terror Film Festival, nominations for their CLAW Awards were given to Best Horror Short Film, Best Specials Effects for the brilliant work by Shane D. Smith, Best Actor to our lead Rami Rothstein, and Best Director of Photography for myself.  At Buffalo Screams, the film was nominated for Best Makeup Effects by the talented Gretchen Adams.  Late on Saturday night, as I was watching an episode of Storage Wars on the couch with Maddie, I got a text from Dan, who had gone to Philadelphia to represent the film at the Terror Film Festival.  Turns out, we won the CLAW award for Best Director of Photography.  Needless to say, it was very exciting news and always a good feeling to be recognized for your contribution on a film.  It was also a very special film, personally, to be recognized for, because of the extra mile that was gone on all of our crew and casts’ behalf to get the film produced.  Also, as with anything, it’s a collaborative effort and I had a wonderful crew to support me in achieving the look I was implementing for Dan.

Check out more about this film and other WiTPP productions at: http://www.walkintheparkpictures.com





Blue Valentine (2010) Review

10 05 2011

Copyright 2010 Hunting Lane Films and Silverwood Films

★ ★ ★ ★

So, this movie was kind of what I was expecting in a lot of ways, but in a lot of other ways a lot different than I would have imagined.  I knew it was going to be a low-budget indie flick, but I was not expecting the level of emotion presented in the film.  Based on the ads, it seemed like it was being marketed as a light romantic comedy; that assessment couldn’t be further from the truth.  This film is definitely an emotionally charged drama in every sense of the definition.

The premise is fairly simple: Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) are a couple; their relationship is told in a series of flash forwards to the present day and flash backs from when they first met.  Honestly, that’s exactly what the logline of this film would have to be; it’s that simple.  In present day, Dean, a painter with no education and sort of “from the streets”, and Cindy, a nurse who once had aspired to be a doctor, live a fairly normal lower-middle to middle class life.  They have a kid, Frankie (Faith Wladyka), between them and seem to have a very stressed relationship together, though they both very much love their daughter.  In the flash back sequences, we see student, Cindy, and mover, Dean, falling in love.  The two characters are vastly different from their past selves to their present selves in how they behave in general and towards each other.  Essentially, this film is the tale of Dean and Cindy falling in love and, much later, falling out of love.

Like I said, this is a very straight forward plot.  Story-wise, direction-wise and cinematography-wise, there isn’t really anything stand out about this film from any other well-made indie drama/romance.  What sets this film apart and what makes it so well revered by critics, in my opinion, are the performances by Gosling and Williams.  They truly make this film; each of them portray the characters with such vital realism that you truly feel like you are experiencing the emotions they are going through on screen.  By the time the film was done, both Maddie and I were literally mentally and physically exhausted.

This is not a perfect film, but definitely a jewel of independent cinema.  It’s films like these that come along and make the careers of some young director, this time Derek Cianfrance, that keep all the rest of us in the game, constantly forcing ourselves to create a better and better product to compete.





5 Things I’ve Learned Making Short Films

21 03 2011

I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of a variety of short films and, in doing so, have had the chance to wear many hats from production assistant all the way up to director (even acted in a few, but I will never tell the names of those to protect innocent eyes from my sub par acting abilities).  Having been a part of a lot of productions, as with anything, I’ve been able to crew on some amazing films that have won awards and screened at international film festivals and I’ve also been part of some films that I wish “Allan Smithee” could take my credit on.  In my nearly 10 years in independent filmmaking, I’ve learned a few things along the way and hope these few tips will help you in your endeavors in making a short film on a little to no budget.

Me on set of a recent short I directed. My very talented DP, Jeff Stepp in blue shirt and the multi-talented Dan A. R. Kelly, a great writer/director who was kind enough to AD/Co-Produce for me on this film in the hat.

1. Short Films DO NOT make money

This is a statement that I can’t stress enough to anyone looking to make a short film.  If you think it is going to bring you fame and fortune, you are completely wrong.  So, why take the time to make a short?  Well, firstly, if you have the drive to tell stories then you need an outlet to do so.  Most of us won’t get several million dollars to put our stories out there the first few times we attempt to make films, but like a sickness, we still have the need to express our creative desires and find said desires an audience.  Secondly, you are not going to make an amazing film the first time at bat.  Making films is a deeply collaborative effort that takes practice like anything else.  Each film you make you will learn something from your mistakes and be better for the next project you work on.  So, in a world where practice makes perfect, financially speaking, short films are a lot more viable a training ground.  Finally, the people who will give you several million dollars to make a feature aren’t going to give it to you on a script alone.  They need to see what you are made of from a visual standpoint, and what better way than a fragment of the feature you want to make or a reel of visual work?  The more festivals you enter, the more awards you win, the more buzz you acquire will all lead you a step closer to those dreams of one day making a feature (and obtaining fortune, fame, etc.).

2. Multiple Locations = Multiple Headaches

Whenever I get a script for a short film, the first thing I look at outside of whether I actually like the story is what it’s going to take to produce/make the film in relation to shooting, special effects, production design and many other factors.  The more locations that need to be dressed, moved to and lit, the more money you are going to have to spend to make that happen.  If you are wanting to make a short, do everything you can to take the amount of locations to produce the film down to as low as possible.  What’s a magic number for a short film’s number of locations?  In my mind: one.  If you can stick to one location then you are going to have the extra time and funds available to focus on performance, shot composition and story structure rather than worrying how you are going to get 10 people working for $75 a day (or less) and a meal for 16 hours a day to commit to a few more days because you cant do enough company moves in time.

What if there is no way to tell my story without multiple locations?  I can see this point, some stories need more than others.  My advice would be to consider whether this is a good story to try to tackle at the time and on the budget you are limited to or do your best to consolidate as much as possible.

3. Films are a Visual Medium, Who Needs Sound?

What’s the number one thing that usually sucks in a short film?  The sound and sound design.  Why?  Because most people are too concerned with the visuals and figure sound won’t be too big a deal to “fix in post.”  Well, you’re wrong.  Yes, we work in a visual medium and as a cinematographer at heart, I feel this more than about anyone you’ll find (hell, I think we should still be making silents!).  However, no one is making silent movies anymore and, if they are, it’s probably not a very serious one; it’s probably an homage to a certain look with sepia tone and 16fps projection.

No matter how good your film looks, if listening to it sounds like the whole thing was recorded in a turbine one minute and a wood box the next, then people won’t be able to properly enjoy it and give your story the chance it deserves.  ADR (automatic dialogue replacement) is always an option, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought, “well, we’ll just ADR this” and then in post-production greatly regretted the decision.  ADR is a difficult process that still needs to be done by an audio specialist and it’s something difficult to mix properly with on set sound unless done under a very controlled environment.  Not to mention, it’s a timely process that will probably push your production’s final cut date back dramatically.  So, in short, don’t skimp on sound!  Hire someone who knows what they are doing, even it is a boom op/mixer all-in-one type.

4.  Don’t go with the Cheapest Camera (or DP)

It’s hard to write a great, engaging story.  Look at most of the films even on multi-million dollar budgets, only a few of them are truly great stories.  If you can have a real hit screenplay every time you sit down to write though – more power to you.  However, more often than not, our stories aren’t as great as we usually think they are in the end.  What’s this got to do with cameras?  Well, if nothing else, you can at least make that short film look damn good.  How do you go about doing this?  Don’t go with the cheapest camera or DP available (the DP part is more important).

For those of you new to film, what’s a DP?  The DP is an abbreviation for Director of Photography. This is the guy (or gal) who will help the director define the visual look of the film.  On set, the DP is in charge of both the camera and lighting crews and choses the lighting schema, camera lenses, filters, instruments and makes a plethora of other decisions that will get what the director wants to see on screen to the audience.  Being on a low budget makes it easy to go with the cheapest person for the job.  But, this is who will define the look of your film.  If they aren’t qualified or don’t have a good visual sense, then your film will not come out looking good at all and, this element of making short films, I think can be one of the easiest to achieve.

Furthermore, once you have the right DP in place, give him the proper instruments he needs to complete the job.  I know on a low budget you can’t always shoot 35mm with a full lighting and grip package, but on the other hand, don’t give him a K-Mart camera and a few incadescents from Lowe’s Home Improvement either though.  Talk with your DP and figure out what he feels he needs to complete the shoot and achieve the look you want.  If it’s too much, tell him, compromise – it’s what low budget filmmaking is all about.

5.  As a Director, Always be in a Good Mood

If you are directing a short film, then you likely are the writer and producer as well (and editor, special effects, composer, cinematographer, etc. sometimes).  Being on a low budget, you probably have a lot of people working for little or nothing to help you tell the story that you want to tell.  These people are doing you a favor and the least you can do is treat them with respect and keep the mood light on set.  There are going to be long days, difficult decisions and times you wish you could pull your hair out, but you always have to remember that you are the heart of the set.  A great director is someone who understands the whole art of filmmaking, every facet, from the photography to the acting to the way its cut together.  They are a foreman, a manager, a psychiatrist, a friend, a confidant and a believer.  Your attitude alone will affect the whole set and everyone involved.  If you are angry and difficult to please, then it will show readily to everyone on set and not help your picture get made.  Likewise, if you are friendly and can face the challenges of independent filmmaking with a good heart, then you will likely have collaborators that will stick with you for a long time to come and be happy to help you create your vision for low pay, meals, copy and credits.

There are obviously many other facets of short film production that could be covered, but I feel that these five simple truths are the ones that I found to be the most important.  If you are wanting to take the dive into short film making (for the first or hundredth time) then I think that if you can remember these words of advice, your life will probably be a lot easier through the grueling pre-production, production and post-production processes.  I wish you luck and feel free to share your experiences or “life lessons” in this crazy business with me too.  You’re never too old to learn something new.








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