Thursday, February 28, 2008

Gott'a Love the Strange!

M dot Strange: Berlin Talent Campus 08 from M dot Strange on Vimeo.

Here is M dot Strange talking about his film. I got to give a lot of props to the guy. I like his philosphy, and his candid attitude towards fillmaking. I've seen part of his film, and I was impressed, but what I'm most impressed about is his audience. They found him, and they connected. Sometimes that's all what it takes.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Brave One (2007)

Okay I've been interested in this film since it came out, but never got a chance to see it in the theaters. I've been a fan of the "vigilante" movie genre since I was a young teenager. I remember such films as "The Exterminator", "Savage Streets", "Death Wish", and all their subsequent sequels. The one that stands above it is the original "Death Wish" with Charles Bronson. Death Wish which was made in 1974 depicted a New York City in decay, and one spiraling down into chaos. Having grown up in NY at that time I do remember the graffiti on the trains, the urine smelling subways, and the violence that seemed to happen everyday. "The Brave One" on the other hand takes place in modern day NYC. Hence the problem. Neil Jordon who is the director of "The Brave One" seems to harken back to those days, but keeps it in the present time. I'm not saying NYC is a big love fest now, but it isn't what it once was, and that's where I feel that the film fails. The days of the dimly lite streets of NYC and the story of criminals being everywhere seems to be paranoia fueled by 911 helplessness.

What made "Death Wish" more provocative was the time that it came out in. Michael Winner's depiction of NYC was spot on, and audiences tapped into that. Now with the proliferation of guns, and NYC's successful fight on crime "The Brave One" rings false. Sure there are good performances in the film, and I like how Jodie Foster devolves into a person consumed with fear to an avenging angel. Yet this movie wants to be more then a "vigilante" movie, and in reality that is what it just is. All the films I've mentioned above have things in common. Our hero or heroine is dealt a tragic blow. A family wiped out, a family member raped, or a friend savagely attacked & killed. These scenarios set us up for the pay back, which our character does. Our hero has to kill, because of the brutality of the crime. The criminals have to die, and we the audience need to condone it because of the horrible act we saw earlier.

The cinematography in "the Brave One" is slick, and the production values are top notch, but most of the films I mentioned above were done on low budgets. It's an easy genre to duplicate, and has been a successful one for a number of years. Dustin Hoffman did an interesting film called "Straw Dogs". "Straw Dogs" was directed by Sam Peckinpah, and he did a better job at showing the duality of violence then "The Brave One" does.

Another thing is that "the Brave One" wants to be an exploitative film, and one with a meaning. My argument is that you can dress up a movie however you like. You can get stars like Jodie Foster, & Terrance Howard, and you can even give it slick production values, but it's still a "vigilante" film. It still deals with the common denominator and that is revenge. Dressing it up in other clothing still doesn't make it a good film. Half the audience goes to watch a vigilante film to see the bad guys get there’s and the other half go to see how our hero comes out.

I really liked the performances in this film, but somehow the story didn't feel too real. It felt as though it was feeding the public a bunch of paranoia, which if you really wanted that all I would have to do is watch my local TV news.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Challenging the creative soul

I've been mulling ideas and writing things down in order to kick start the creative process within me. But the grind does happen and I think I've written about it here. Everyday life seems to grind those processes to nil. But that's an excuse.

If you really want something bad enough you'll find the time, and do it. It just takes a bit longer. I've always approached an idea on what type of resources I have on hand. A particular location, an acquaintance of actors, or maybe just a prop. From that I usually start building something resembling a story. The old trick is to keep on writing. I sometimes come across a scene or act that I feel is above me. I write it as if I had no limitations, and only after scale it down if I decide to move on it. Not the best way to work, but we do what we need to do, and if this is how a film gets done then so be it. I've been a member of crews throughout the years that had very little money to work with. A lot of these films feed the VCR cassette days (or is it daze) in the 80's. I was young and full of myself back then, and sleeping little, and not eating properly was a right of passage back then. But what I learned became invaluable in time. I was party to all sorts of behind the scenes drama even if I didn't want to be.

Maybe that's what soured my outlook on production. It was all dollars & cents for the top echelon of production personnel. We at the bottom were of the production food chain did it for love, or the experience. When a crew was treated well the production was a dream, but when there was hardly any money for food then rebellion ran rampant.

So that's why I start at the bottom of the line, and make sure that I have the bucks to get through production. That's why I work backwards. On "Deadly Obsessions" I put out more money on food, travel, and hotels then I did on anything else. Why did I do this? Because I wanted a cast & crew that would go the distance, and they did. Was it cheap? Compared to other productions absolutely, but we managed.

Back in my early youth moviemaking was more fun, and I'm trying to get back to that. I know I just can't call my friends and say hey let's make a movie, but I can foster an atmosphere of creative endeavor where everyone shares in the making of a film. I have to be smart. Shoot fast and efficiently. Maximize the time you have with your actors, and start turning out the pages.

I took a two day course with Dov Simen who broke down how you can shoot a movie for any amount of money. He even went down to the $5,000 range. This was before the big digital revolution. He made sense, and he made it all practical. I would recommend taking his course at least once. Go in with a project, and using the info he supplies you can easily break down your script, and make it fit your budget. Like Dov said if you’re working on the smaller end of the budget spectrum you’ll need to compromise, but it’s the reality of the game.

But of course first there is the script, and it needs to be good. How does that happen? The only way I know is by lots of input from other people, and after that know when a script is ready. You can tweak a script only so far. Then it needs to be played out and read through with actors. This is how a good film evolves. It is only in production that you begin to spend a lot of money. Food, gas, hotel accommodations, and more food.

If one thing the digital revolution has done is that tape is cheap, and more takes can be tried, and performed. Experimenting during production is easier. No longer do I hear the dollars flying through the gate of the film camera. Now I only hear the whir of the hard drive as I edit the hours of footage I accumulate while filming.

The hardest thing is that first step, but after taking that first step you’ll find the second and third are taken much more easier. Now excuse me I need to get this creative process kick started, and as the multi-talented director Spike Lee often says: "by any means necessary".

Thursday, February 14, 2008


I've been a fan of the series since it came out, and a bigger Spielberg & Lucas fan. It's good to see them invigorating the series. I know I'll be taking my boys.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What would Cassavetes do?

So instead of another review I figured I write about me, and the film, and film production in general. My objective in this blog is to excite myself about film again. In my youth I was a fanatic, but middle age or is it experience has tempered it. I still love the cinema, but I'm not filled with the same vigor as I was. Maybe because priorities change. Yet there is still a part of me that wants to say something important. Maybe not for the general audience, but for the audience of the future who may or may not find some truth in the story I choose to tell.

Some may complain about today's state of film production. How competitive it is, and how difficult it is to attract an audience in today’s market. To them I say it is what it is. You can take that attitude and just throw up your hands and say NEVER, or you could embrace the technology of today and run with it. True it is a young persons game, but that's because they grew up in such a rich media centric life. You just need an idea that you're passionate about, and then run with it. The thing I like is when others come into the picture and voice their opinions, and ideas about your idea. Ideas can grow, and so can yours. That's what I like about it. I've been reading scripts on Coppola's website American Zoetrope. I've been a member for awhile, and I've written some reviews on scripts. SOme have even said that my review has helped. I'm hoping to put up a script of mine when I'm finally satisfied that it's good enough. When I started my film "Deadly Obsessions" there wasn't a web site like this, but now there is. Good creative criticism makes a project better, and it's how I keep fresh, and involved in the movie making process.

On the other hand I've been trying to do a sort of trailer for my film "Deadly Obsessions" so I can put it up onto a website called "From here to awesome". What this includes is a snippet of me talking about why I made the film. Now I'm not really good at blowing my own horn, but sometimes you need to throw caution to the wind. After all I'd like to see "Deadly Obsessions" get out there and get seen. So I'm hoping to get that done soon.

Then again I hate working on the movie once again. It feels like I've been living with this film way too long, and I want to do something else. Hence the screen writing, and the reviewing of other peoples scripts. I can't say whether I'll be successful or not. But no matter what I do I'd still like to do another film, but something a bit more personal. Something that maybe when my boys look back at it they'll say, "yeah that was our dad", and maybe to inspire them to do what they love. After all we're not forever, and this is all temporary.

So yeah I'm getting excited, but it isn't easy or maybe it is that easy and I'm just making too many excuses for myself. For me it's about the film, and the process. I'm fortunate to be born in an era where the personal film can be made without bankrupting the artist. What would Cassavettes do I wonder. Part of me would believe that he'd pick up his camera, hand some actor friends an outline of a story, and just start shooting. Sounds great to me. It's time I do the same.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Notes on a Scandal (2006)

I'm astounded to find sometimes the number of films that just seemed to pass me by. One of these films was Notes on a Scandal starring Judi Dench & Cate Blanchett. The film is a wonderfully salacious and psychologically controlling character piece, which showcases two of the film industry's most gifted actresses. The film is about a veteran high school teacher (Dench) who befriends a younger art teacher (Blanchett), who is having an affair with one of her 15-year-old students. However, her intentions with this new "friend" also go well beyond platonic friendship.

Notes of a Scandal is like watching a car wreck. You want to look away, but you become too embroiled into the characters to look away. Dench is at her best, and Blanchett actually makes you believe why a women can become obsessed with a boy. Another actor who should be mentioned also is Bill Nighy as Richard Hart Blanchett's husband. He gives a very subliminal performance in the film and in one scene we feel very bad for his character, and Nighy does this with the most expertise. The director Richard Eyre,who is known mostly for his theater/Broadway work, seems to build this amazing film from the darkness it was written for. Patrick Marber wrote the screenplay from the novel by Zoe Heller and it all works. I didn't have the urge to fast forward through awkward moments because there weren't any. The characters went through their paces, and took me along for the ride.

Of course where you would think this film would devolve into some sort of violence it doesn't. Instead it goes to the logical conclusion where everyone shares the stain of guilt. If you want to see a good character piece watch Notes of a Scandal and enjoy the performances by some of the best performers in the biz/

Friday, February 08, 2008

The History Boys (2006)

The History Boys is a film based on the play by Alan Bennett of the same name. THE HISTORY BOYS tells the story of an unruly class of bright, funny history students in pursuit of an undergraduate place at Oxford or Cambridge. Bounced between their maverick English master (Richard Griffiths), a young and shrewd teacher hired to up their test scores (Stephen Campbell Moore). The film is wordy, and I really don't think that many adolescent boys talk the way they do in the film, but setting that aside the film is a really interesting look at educators and our youth. Easily compared to the film Dead Poet's Society, the History Boys is unable to shake its stagy origins, with claustrophobic settings and contrived dialogue. Yet what saves this movie are its actors. All are exceptional. There is Posner who is played by Samuel Barnett. Jamie Parker as the cheerful Scripps, the intense Lockwood played by Andrew Knott, the heavy set jokester Timms played by James Corden, and Russell Tovey who plays Rudge our sports enthusiast. I liked these characters, and they were worth watching. Hector is played by Richard Griffiths who is the boy’s teacher. Griffiths plays the part very well. Through his acting we see that Hector is very much an intellectual who has a tortured soul. Stephen Campbell Moore plays Irwin the other teacher who is hired to boost the boys scores for the entrance to the famed university Oxford. Moore plays Irwin as a younger version of Hector, but one with less experience. Irwin and Hector are two sides of the coin, and they play here in the film brilliantly.

The ideas and thoughts about life and history in the film is something to be taken and welcomed. The History Boys is a film that feels stagy, yet works onscreen. Maybe it's the directors use of hand held camera shots that make the shots in the classroom jump off on the screen, or maybe it's the music the director uses. The film takes place in the 80's and we hear several songs from that era. The History Boys is a film that has a lot to say, and at 109 minutes the film does fly by.

Another reviewer puts it this way:

"Anyone who can watch the rolling credits at the end of THE HISTORY BOYS without tearful eyes simply hasn't been paying attention to this intelligent, richly comic, philosophical and tender tale of eight boys ostensibly preparing for exams but also preparing for life. The writing by Alan Bennett closely adapted from his prize winning play that was on the boards of theaters around the globe before being captured for posterity on film is 'rich and strange' and so full of those values of achieving a true education that it serves not only the audience well but presents a gold standard for educators pondering how to transform their pupils into thinking, creative members of society."

- gradyharp

I totally agree on this part, and I think the film is worth watching. Sure it may be stagy and the dialogue contrived, but it all works, and the film comes alive onscreen. What better compliment for a film then it leaping off the screen and capturing our hearts. If you get a chance see this film. It is currently playing on HBO at Fri. Feb. 15 2:20 AM HBO and again on Wed. Feb. 20 12:55 AM HBO. Set the old VCR's or TiVo and watch a film I'm certain your like.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006)

I caught this film only recently, and what attracted me to it was that it was about a bunch of boys growing up in Queens during the 80's. I being from that part of the world wanted to see what the story was about. I had no pre-conceived idea about the plot or the film itself, and I was thoroughly blown away by this little film that I had heard nothing about. Dito Montiel directs this movie from his novel "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints ", and he does so with a very dramatic effect. Robert Downey Jr plays Dito in present time. His mother phones him from Astoria Queens to tell Dito that his father is sick, and he needs to get to a hospital. As Downey heads to his dad we are slowly shown Dito's past & how he got to where he is. Shia LaBeouf plays the young Dito as he grows up on the means streets of Astoria. LaBeouf does a great job at portraying an aimless youth trying to scrape by day to day in a neighborhood of tough guys and bullies. His friend and defender is Antonio played by Channing Tatum. Tatum plays Antonio with a lot of volatility and we sense in the character a lot of hostile urges waiting to be unleashed. This is no small task since Antonio is a real life person based on Montiel's friend. Chazz Palminteri plays Monty Dito's father an aging boxer who fixes typewriters. Here Palminteri knows exactly how to play Monty. Monty is a man of the streets and he admires Antonio, but he forgets to tell his son how much he loves him. The film was shot in Astoria, Queens and it has a good look to it. It's feels authentic, and the way Monteil uses repeating dialogue and jump cuts makes that authenticity real. I would also be remiss to include Dianne Wiest as Dito's mother Flori. She makes Flori come alive off the screen, and I really saw a lot of other mothers that I knew while I grew up in and around New York. How Wiest never got a nod for an award for her performance is beyond me.

First time director Dito Montiel creates a film that is based on his own occurrences. "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" is a personal picture engulfed in beautiful undertones of love, regret and forgiveness. I really liked the way this film felt, and its characters. I wanted to know more about Montiel, and his past. Rosario Dawson, & Eric Roberts make brief appearances in the film, and add to the performances. But it is the entire cast that makes this movie special. Montiel has said in interviews he wasn't originally to direct the film. Downey was originally to direct the film, but later dropped out due to conflict in his schedule. Montiel has a knack at capturing the chaos of the streets and how really teen boys think & act, and again this goes to the films authenticity. The movie takes place in the summer of 1986, and it feels like it. The cars, and the cloths all contribute to the look and feel, but it is the actors that give this film a breath of fresh air. The film won the directing award & the special jury Prize in 2006 at Sundance. It was also nominated for an Independent Spirit Award in 2007 for best screenplay. All these awards and yet I've never heard of the film. It is an amazing fact that films like these get sweept under the rug, or is it just a case of too much too fast. Long ago films arrived and stayed at your local theater for a time. Now films come and go. These films are soon relagated to DVD as soon as they fail to draw BIG box office. It is our fortune to see them, but it is unfortunate that many of these films ever get widely seen.

If you get a chance see this film, and watch some really great performances. Based on this first film I can't wait to see what Montiel will direct next, and as for the performers in this film my hats off to all of them. It's films like this that make me excited about filmmaking.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Knightriders (1981)

It's George Romero's birthday today, and to celebrate I figured I talk about one of his films. The film I choose is Knightriders starring Ed Harris. I do remember the film when it first came out in 1981. It was double billed with Romero's "Dawn of the Dead". I remember an afternoon of fun that day when my friend and I went downtown to see both films.

Knightriders isn't a perfect film, and many critics have pointed out at 145 minutes the film does drag, but it still remains one of my favorite Romero films. It's an amazing film and I'm always taken aback by the many different themes Romero tries to cover in the film. In ways the film is ahead of its time. It talks about corporate sponsorship, and being true to oneself. If you listen hard enough you can hear Romeros anthem of independence within the film. Ed Harris who gives a hell of performance in the film as Billy should be noted here that this is one of Harris' first performances on film. Before Knightriders Harris had been working extensivly in television shows such as "The Rockford Files and "Barnaby Jones. But the film is loaded with some good performances and it is a character piece made up of many different characters. The music seems sometimes dated, or out of place, but the feel of the film feels like a throwback to the films of the seventies. Knightriders is a very original film and it has a lot to say for a film that was shot for very little.

Romero came out with Knightriders after his success with "Dawn of the Dead", but instead of zombies we are given Knights on motorcycles. Billy (Ed Harris) plays the king of a small group of troubadours who live and work as people who put on Renaissance type faires. Billy lives by the code of the period, and for him it is more of a lifestyle then a business, but corporate forces are working to split up the troupe and make them an entertainment business. Sure you can put the allegory of big time studios killing the independent filmmaker, but hey the film has knights on motorcycles, and Romero doesn't hit you over the head with the theme of corporate evil against the individual. Instead Romero shows you a group struggling for it's soul, and how friendship & kinship rescue the troupe from falling apart.

To me the film looks like it was fun to make. Romeros wife Christine Forrest is even in it, and she does a pretty good job playing the grease monkey who has eyes for Morgan (Tom Savini). All the regulars are here too. Romero's company as I like to call them are all present. There's John Amplas as Whiteface, Ken Foree, as little John, Scott H. Reiniger as Marhalt, and even Tom Savini as Morgan. Romero does use his repertory of actors on a lot of his films, but here it feels like a family affair. In interviews Romero has said that he had the most fun making "Knightriders" and it shows. Maybe the editing could be tighter, but I attribute the length of the film to Romeros love of the material. The cinematography is by Michael Gornick another Romero crew member who has worked with Romero extensively, and whose photography lends itself to the feel of the film

I feel that Knightriders was a film that was miss marketed when it came out. It was trying to be the action adventure film it isn't. The film or I should say the story is about the characters in the film. That's what I liked most about about Knightriders. Each of the characters in the film I really liked, and I was willing to go with them on their journey. The film speaks to me as a film about a bunch of people who try to survive in a world of conformity, and soulessness. I liked the message, and even though there are some problems with the film I still enjoy taking the trip with them. In that sense Knightriders is a beautiful example of the individual winning against corporate conformity, and I believe it's one of Romeros most important films.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

The digital Divide

Okay I'm a realist at heart. I wasn't that way earlier in my career, but I am now, and I think you have to be in this business if you ever want to do some serious work, and make some money at it. I read an interview with John Sayles the filmmaker. His film Honeydripper is out now, and he and his long time creative producer & partner Maggie Renzi are promoting it. Now I find Sayles to be an extraordinary filmmaker & writer, and I admire how he gets his films done. Honeydripper is his 16th film he's done, and the Sayles doesn't seem to be slowing down. In the article Sayles and Renzi discuss the difficulty of getting a film financed in today’s market. Both Honeydripper and Silver City were self-financed for a little over $5 million. I don't know where you come from, but $5 million is a lot of cash, and yet it still isn't enough. Factor in advertising & marketing expenses and your costs go up. Renzi mentions that it is easier for filmmakers now to finance their films in Europe then here in the United States, and Sayles may just do that in the future.

If a filmmaker like Sayles is struggling what chance does a guy from Philly have? But that's if you think of filmmaking as it was. It isn't like that anymore. The story you tell still has to be smart, and worth hearing, but the delivery of it is different. How do you do it? How do you reach enough people to generate interest in either sales of your own DVD or downloads? That's the million-dollar question everyone is asking including the studios. Yes even the studios are craving your dollar, and they want to know how they can get more of it. But what the studios can't do and what you can do is instantly react to market forces. You can be quicker, and faster.

I myself need to step back and stop and think. This may be the year I dissolve my company. It's not an end to my filmmaking aspirations, but a new beginning of something different. Getting back to my grass roots in a way. Forming companies and getting endeavors started isn't that hard to do in today’s world. What is different is the way business is done. Hype is everything, but if the product doesn't live up to the hype then it's doomed to stumble and die.

The question is what can I do and provide that the studios can't and don't? That's your edge. That's where you'll succeed. If a studio becomes interested in you then maybe you'll get a sale out of it, and then maybe you'll be coming from a stronger bargaining position then if you were needing their help. It's been always the filmmaker who seemed to be needing the studios and thereby weakening his or her bargaining posture. Why not flip that? I think it's possible, but again you have to have a product that is strong enough to survive on its own.

The digital arena is all well and good, but filmmakers needs to factor in their own expenses in marketing & selling of their film. The Internet provides a certain freedom in that, but there are costs involved. Keeping your overhead low, and putting every dollar into the look and promotion of your film should be your only concern. So I'm sitting here thinking of all the different ways one can be a better filmmaker/storyteller. The market has changed drastically, yet it isn't as different as you might think. People still crave entertainment, and they'll spend money on good stories that deliver. You need to be loud enough and bold enough to give them what they want. The most important thing for you to remember as a filmmaker is that you need to be smarter then everyone else, and recognize your market. If you have a horror film to sell then know where the horror fans are. If you have a comedy look at trends, and successful films of the past, and see what the public likes. Know your market, and keep expenses low. If it's just you then it shouldn't be too hard to keep the bottom line low while having a kick ass looking film.

Be inspired by others, and talk to each other. Ideas don't live in a vacum. Ideas thrive on discussion, and can only get better. Learn to know when your idea or ideas have reached their zenith, and start running with them before someone else beats you. Another thing to remember is that your idea may probably not be as original as you think. The one who runs with their idea fastest and best is the successful one.