Film Project Update 12/5

Okay guys I know it’s been a while, but here’s an update on my film project that I talked about back in October. (Pictures are from the shoot)

Film Project 2

The trailer for my short film, Reacquainted, is currently in the editing process. The footage has been collecting metaphorical dust for a while, but, hey, life gets in the way sometimes. Besides the point, I think it’s a good idea to get some distance from your work every once in a while. This way, you can come back with a fresh pair of eyes, which is important, especially for a trailer. You’ll notice things that you didn’t before. New and interesting ideas will come to you that probably wouldn’t have before your brief hiatus. However, take too long of a break and you may never finish it, so moderate your time off.

During the filming process, someone in the cast turned to me and asked, “Is it turning out just like you imagined.” I thought for a moment and politely answered, “No.”

I went on to explain that from my experience as a writer and director, the final product (for worse or for better) is always different than you first imagined it in your head. As an artist I believe you shouldn’t get married to your original vision. Of course use as much of it as you can to inspire you throughout the creative process, but be open to change and adjustments. Some projects stay stagnant because the people running the show are unwilling to change anything in their original script. The difference between those people and me is that, at the end of the day, I want to get something made. I will have a product that I can show off to the world. They will have their “perfect” vision, but nothing tangible.

Sound guy

Now I’m not saying you should compromise the integrity of your work. By all means, keep whatever makes your art unique, but, especially when working on a collaborative project, some of the best ideas are spontaneous and what you didn’t originally plan.

This will also help during the revision process. I’ll always remember a saying that one of my undergraduate writing professors used to repeat constantly: “Be prepared to murder your darlings.” You may have some great ideas but if it’s holding your piece back, be prepared to cut it and think of something better. This is especially true with screenplay writing. A line of dialogue or an action may read well on paper but if it doesn’t sound natural or look right when filming, be prepared to adjust. Writing on paper doesn’t always translate well to the screen or stage. Don’t worry though, you’re creative. You’ll think of something.

Film Project 3

Change. Love it. Hate it. It’s here to stay and something everyone should get used to.

I am also currently discussing a shooting schedule for the full film early next year with my crew. Exciting stuff!

No matter what genre of writing or art you pursue, stop talking about doing it and just do it! You’ll be surprised at what you’re capable of.

-The Critic

Advertisements

The Company You Keep (2013) Review

the company you keep

Robert Redford’s film adaption of the novel, The Company You Keep, explores themes of loyalty and decision making with a historical background. Without giving too much away, it’s about a a former revolutionist (Redford) and his run from the police after his true identity has been revealed. The movie is advertised as a drama/thriller and while it uses the latter term rather loosely, there are some genuinely tense moments. I have not read the book, so this review is purely based on the movie.

Redford chose an effective cast as he was clearly focusing on the baby boomer generation. People from this era would remember the tensions that the war in Vietnam presented in America. With such names as Susan Sarandon, Julie Christie, Sam Elliott, not to mention his own, Redford chose a cast that an older audience would feel familiar with. The casting of younger actors like Shia LeBeouf and Anna Kendrick was probably an attempt to snag some younger viewers as well.

One of my biggest complaints was lack of conflict for LaBeouf’s character. The “top secret” information that he obtained just kind of fell into his lap. I can understand that being a journalist, he would be familiar with “unorthodox” methods of obtaining information, but it seems too easy when he single-handedly cracks a case in what seems like an afternoon’s time that the FBI has been on for 30+ years.

I enjoy when a film raises the stakes and builds the tension and certainly The Company You Keep has moments like this, especially when Redford is on the run from the police. However, one of the most effective scenes in the movie was a simple conversation in an interrogation room. While LaBeouf questions Sarandon about her involvement in the 1970’s rebel group, The Weather Underground, Sarandon, the prisoner, takes control of the scene. She defends her actions by talking about the unjust actions of the government at the time. Her revelations about how children and family can change a person were good insight into her character.

sarandon

She deserves an Oscar for this scene, seriously.

Another complaint that I had with the movie was that there were too many flat characters. LaBeouf’s character is an unlikable workaholic that the audience can’t really relate with. The head of the FBI is the same way. He is focuses only on getting ahead and we don’t see his humanity. LaBeouf’s boss is another character that is always busy and miserable. Even after LaBeouf makes the startling discover that Redford’s character has been hiding under an alias, the boss continues to be short tempered and unhappy.

The dialogue was constantly original, witty and packed full of subtext. When Redford meets Christie after so many years, Christie starts by saying, “You look older.” Redford pauses for a moment and responds with “You look the same.” Redford is really saying, “I’m your old friend and I know what you want to hear.” Lines like this stay in a viewer’s head. It shows that dialogue can’t be generic or direct. Characters must never say exactly what they’re thinking. A character’s thoughts and what they actually say must be two separate things. It’s a challenge, but it’s possible.

Another aspect that worked for the film was the constant shifting scenes. Not even two minutes into the film and Sarandon gets arrested. Immediately the everyday action is interrupted and we are thrust into the story. It isn’t long before Redford’s character is on the run after his true identity comes out. These rapid scenes changes and plot developments kept the film from feeling like a slow, stagnant experience.

Overall, The Company You Keep was a decent attempt at making a historical thriller for an older audience. While the novel probably does a better job at developing the characters, the unique dialogue and great acting help the film to be an above average experience.

3 out of 5

-The Critic

Screenplay Review: The Usual Suspects (1995)

the usual suspects

I have yet to find a script that is as engaging or suspenseful as Christopher McQuarrie’s crime drama, The Usual Suspects. It’s no wonder that McQuarrie won an Academy Award in 1995 for ‘Best Original Screenplay’.  This response is going to be an evaluation of the script only. Although the acting and cinematography is excellent in the movie, the script is its own experience that deserves recognition. The script is the foundation; where everything begins

McQuarrie’s attention to detail is outstanding. He finds the perfect balance of dialogue and narrative. Despite what some people believe, a screenplay is not simply all dialogue with a line about the setting here and there. Like a recipe, a successful screenplay should be equal parts dialogue and narrative.  We need vivid descriptions of characters and locations to give the dialogue weight and context. In The Usual Suspects, one of the first characters to be introduced is Fred Fenster who is described as a man “dressed conspicuously in a loud suit and tie with shoes that have no hope of matching” (4). Before this character even utters a single word, we immediately understand that this is a person with his own sense of style; an eccentric character with an outward personality to match his appearance. All of this came from one line. The descriptions don’t have to be long, comprehensive paragraphs, just a line or two that leaves a lasting impression in the reader’s mind.

Without spoiling anything, the movie is about a group of five criminals told primarily through flashbacks by one of the members: a man named Roger “Verbal” Kint. People call him Verbal because he “never stops talking” (See! More specific, stand out details). Verbal and the gang were involved in a series of jobs that led up to a shoot-out on a dock. He is one of the only survivors that isn’t in critical condition. The jumping back and forth between the past and present leaves things feeling fresh. Before we can get tired of one story, we are thrown into the other.

McQuarrie holds our attention by keeping the action constant and masterfully building up to the finale. At the start of the script, we are given a description of war torn dock. A man takes a final drag of a cigarette and then there is a gunshot. Not even two pages go by and someone might be dead. This is how you hook an audience. We then learn about the man on the dock, Dean Keaton. Through flashbacks, we see the kind of man that Keaton was before the shoot-out occurs. The action is continued by Verbal recounting the jobs that he and the gang pull off. With each job, the stakes get higher and the conflict grows larger. It propels them further toward the climax of the piece.

The-Usual-Suspects script

Good writing conveys the best suspense

Another aspect that this script excels in is having a large, distinguishable cast without confusing characters, which can be difficult to pull off. The script introduces a few characters at a time and lets the audience observe how they act and how they talk. Good characterization is essential here because without it, every character will end up sounding and acting the same. In a script with unique characters, we should be able to read a line of dialogue without looking at the name and be able to tell which character is talking. The characters each have their own distinct voice. The hot-headed and foul mouthed McManus is a completely different character than Keaton who is usually calm and collected.

The dialogue in the script is equally as interesting and unique as the descriptions. Rarely do characters give direct responses to each other. They let their attitudes and subtexts do all the REAL talking. When the intimidating Special Agent Kujan asks Verbal a fairly obvious question, Verbal fires back with blunt, sarcastic answer:

                             KUJAN

                     (smiling)

You know a dealer named Ruby Deemer,  Verbal?

                             VERBAL

You know a religious guy named John Paul? (35)

Verbal’s subtext in that line is saying “No shit, Sherlock. Everyone knows Ruby!” Compare that to all the other less interesting but more obvious answers that McQuarrie could have given Verbal: “Yes!” “Maybe…” “I’m not answering.” The trick is to go for the least obvious response possible.

Another area where McQuarrie goes for the less obvious description is when Agent Kujan rushes out of the building into a crowd of people. Instead of simply stating “Kujan bursts out of the office looking dazed,” we get:

“A moment later, Agent David Kujan of U.S. Customs wanders into the frame, looking around much in the way a child would when lost at the circus” (120)

By using this simile the audience can instantly get a vivid image of what’s happening or how a character is acting.

Early on in the script we are introduced to the idea of this criminal mastermind who may or may not exist. Everyone is the script is asking: “Who is Keyser Soze?” Much like “Who is John Galt?” in the novel Atlas Shrugged, the mystery behind this particular character keeps the audience engaged. We learn of Soze’s supposed backstory; his brutality and cunning wit. The gang goes from doing simple heist jobs for Soze to plotting his execution.

The aspects of good storytelling that this script gets right like characterization and specific descriptions are lessons that writers of any genre can take advice from. The only thing that is unique to screenwriting is the rapid pace that scripts must follow to keeps an audience’s interest.  But even then, writers can learn how to trim their pieces down and keep only the most essential details that move the story along. It’s possible to turn a good script into a bad movie, but nearly impossible to turn a bad script into a good movie.

Now go be awesome!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

-The Critic

Summer Wars (2009)

cover summer wars

(Left) Virtual World, (Right) Real World, but I probably didn’t have to tell you that

Summer Wars is a Japanese animated science fiction film directed by Mamoru Hosoda who is most well-known for his 2006 animated film The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Summer Wars is a decent family film that boasts impressive visuals and light comedy. The familiar, sometimes bland characters and a loosely strung together plot hold this film back from being something truly great.

Summer Wars takes place in a futuristic Japan, where many of the citizens partake in a virtual world called Oz. Oz is similar to some of the virtual worlds that exist now, like Second Life or World of Warcraft except Oz is far more advanced. It’s an incredibly colorful and cartoonish environment where its players can play games, battle, shop, even eat or buy real estate. People link everything to their Oz accounts from credit cards, to medical records, oh yeah and one guy links the pass-code to launching a nuclear bomb to his account…so there’s that…

The story starts when high school girl Natsuki invites her friend, a typical, bashful boy, Kenji to her grandmother’s 90th birthday party. When they get there, Natsuki’s hidden agenda comes out as she introduces Kenji as her fiancée. Kenji is moonstruck but agrees to play along when he hears Natsuki is only putting on the act to please her ailing grandmother.

Things get even more complicated when Kenji solves a mysterious algorithm sent to his cellphone and accidentally ends up aiding a hacker in taking over the world of Oz and, in effect, control of the actual world. The hacker, a sadistic AI (artificial intelligence) known only as Love Machine, begins wreaking havoc on the real world by controlling traffic lights, satellites, government machinery,  hospital equipment, firemen, and other emergency personel.

king kazma fight

(Left) Love Machine, the main villain, fighting (Right) King Kazma, the mysterious avenger, over Oz Central Terminal

The visuals are a major reason to see this film. The beautifully hand-drawn landscapes of the Japanese countryside to the candy-coated, neon-lit, 3D environments of Oz are sights that rival even the efforts of Studio Ghibli. Seriously, you’ll think you’re watching a Miyazaki movie. That’s a pretty high compliment for those of you who don’t know.

Natsuki has a large family and all their distinct personalities are amusing. The problem is that we get through the movie learning almost nothing about the main characters and as a result, cease to care. The personalities just feel like generalized archetypes, like the shy boy, the bubbly, extroverted girl, the overprotective cousin/brother, the mother who is always complaining, the fired up uncle, etc. This cast feels more like caricatures than relatable, human characters.

setting

The real world environments are just as stunning as the virtual ones

The dynamic of older traditions (honor, reverence) held by the adults mixed with the new generation’s priorities (dating, technology) is an interesting concept. Especially when the monster that is threatenting to destroy them is also the solution to their division. Whether Hosoda intended it or not, this movie says a lot about the reliance that humans have on technology and its relation to nature, another common theme in Miyazaki movies.

This movie would have been a lot better if we got to explore the world of Oz a bit more. The segments it shows us never last long enough and you’ll be pining to go back just to re-experience the thrills of Oz. The action sequences are cool, but the film doesn’t rely of them too often. Hosoda is trying to say violence isn’t the answer; outsmart your opponent.

Like I said before, this is a light, comedic, family movie that’s worth a watch, at least. The visuals are colorful ecstasy that are sure to impress. I could see this movie turning a lot of people on to the animated movie genre. Just be warned the characters aren’t anything special and you’ll have to suspend your disbelief quite a few times.

Could’ve been better, could’ve been worse.

3 out of 5

-Critic Sensei  (先生)

Save The Cat by Blake Snyder (Craft Book)

save-the-cat

I was always more of a dog person

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder is a great reference for newcomers to screenwriting and veterans alike. Snyder has written and co-written over 75 screenplays and even worked directly with Spielberg on the film, Nuclear Family. Snyder has a very down-to-earth voice that finds the perfect balance of humor and practical advice. His unique take on the common rules and points of screenwriting keep this book feeling fresh. Snyder offers exercises at the end of each chapter to help with various facets of screenwriting from testing out a log line to making sure that the writer understands and develops the characters thoroughly.

I found the chapters on log line and premise to be very helpful when a person is in the early stages of screenplay formation. Before reading this book, I used to start writing screenplays with a couple of loose ideas in mind, hoping that the rest of the story would follow once I began writing. Snyder makes clear the importance of a log line and how a person should be able to “see” the entire movie in just one or two lines. This is also helpful when pitching to a producer or agent. A strong and interesting log line is the foundation of a successful screenplay. The entire story fits in those few lines; it’s just a matter of expanding it. The hook, the twist, and the main character’s major struggle should all be stated in the log line.

This book is what got me to start using a storyboard when mapping out scenes. What Snyder refers to as “The Board” is a simple board that a writer can use to break down the acts of the screenplay and organize the scenes that occur in each act. Snyder also suggests that that there is an emotional change in every scene. This helps ensure that only the best and most worthwhile scenes get into a script.

When referring to genres, instead of using tired phrases like horror or comedy, Snyder has invented his own genres like “dude with a problem” or “monster in the house.” These terms that sound oddly specific actually encompass almost any movie title out there and Snyder challenges the reader to prove him wrong. He discusses what makes these genres so successful and the driving force of each. For example, “monster in the house” is any movie where the main point is the primal need to survive in an enclosed area. Obvious titles like Psycho, Silence of the Lambs fall under this category, but also movies like Titanic that the reader wouldn’t automatically assume.

It’s no secret that Snyder lives by structure. He references Syd Field multiple times as his biggest inspiration and like many people he refers to Field as the “godfather” of screenwriting. As a result, Snyder is very insistent when it comes to the basic structure and what should be occurring on each page. For example, Snyder insists that the catalyst for the story occur on page 12 and exactly page 12. Not page 11 and not page 13. Page 12! He even goes as far as to say that when he reads a script, he will turn to certain pages to make sure something specific is happening on that page. If Snyder doesn’t see this then he will have doubts about the particular script even before reading its entirety. Personally, that’s a little ummm crazy, neurotic, high strung…

the board

“The Board,” a very helpful tool in plotting

While I believe good structure is important to a well-executed script, some of Snyder’s rules seem a bit too rigid at times. Aside from Snyder’s obsession with major things happening on certain page numbers, Snyder also has some unbreakable rules for characters as well. For example, Snyder says that every character in the script must go through a change by the end, except for the bad guy. According to Snyder, the bad guy never changes, ever! Also, the main character must never ask questions. Snyder believes the main character must be the leader of the story for the entire time and he/she can’t do that if they’re asking questions. Yeah… main characters are humans too. Let them ask away.

While I may not agree with everything Snyder says, this book is a great guide to have, especially at the beginning stages of a script. It challenges script writers to find the weak parts of their work and turn them into strengths. It’s a quick read so take a look.

-The Critic

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006) Review

guide_to_recognizing_your_saints_ver5

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is a coming-of-age drama that successfully conveys the gritty street life of hardened teens, but is held back by unoriginal, often exhausting dialogue and a handful of scenes that weigh down the overall experience. With some clearer direction, this could have been a real hidden gem of the genre.

The film flashes back and forth between the present and past life of the main character Dito Montiel (Robert Downey Jr.). The past segments focus on Dito as a seventeen-year-old boy (played by Shia LaBeouf) and his group of friends living in New York City. The present scenes show Dito’s return home after 15 years of living in California.

While a majority of the movie is set in the past, I enjoyed the flashing back and forth between the past and present that the film employs. We get to see how decisions in the past affect the future of Dito and his friends. This adds variety to the storytelling that keeps it from feeling like a linear experience. This film starts in the present and we learn how the characters ended up there through deductive storytelling.

There are four boys in Dito’s gang, including Dito. Throughout the film only two of these characters get developed, Dito and Antonio (a young Channing Tatum). The film mostly revolves around their friendship and the relationships they have with their parents. The writer adds subtle details that give us information about these characters, like Antonio’s bruises from his father. By the end of the film the audience can easily feel an emotional connection with Dito and Antonio. If the writer had only spent more time developing the other characters, this film would have had a more all around solid cast.

The dialogue was the most disappointing aspect of this film. It was repetitive, which led to predictable and uninteresting scenes.

“LAURIE: I do

DITO: You do?

LAURIE I do.

DITO: You sure you do?

LAURIE: I’m telling you I fucking do.”

The dialogue can be exhausting and overwhelming at multiple times throughout the movie. The boys and Dito’s parents argue at many points in the film. In these arguments they constantly talk over each other, which normally adds authenticity to a scene, but it felt cluttered here from overuse. When five people are talking at once, the audience does not know who to listen to and cannot fully take in what is being said.

There were also some scenes that did not add significance to the story and could have been left out entirely. For example, near the end when Mike and Dito visit Manny to get paid. Manny, a highly undeveloped character, talks about music and abstract concepts like “being outside yourself”. The writer was probably trying to get some message across, but having such a flat character try to explain complex concept seemed out of place.

channing

Before ‘Step Up’ and ‘Magic Mike,’ he was just your average street thug

Luckily the cinematography had a clear direction that worked well with the other aspects of the film. This is a good example of artistic unification in a production. The shaky, handheld camera shots added to the rough, grainy tone of the film. The color pallet (dark browns and grays) helped add to the emotion.

For three actors I usually can’t stand, Downey Jr., LaBeouf, and Tatum, do a pretty good job. I wouldn’t call it a hidden gem per say, more like a hidden dollar bill. A nice surprise, but something you’ll probably forget about in a few hours.

3 out of 5

-The Critic

Gravity Reactions (2013, Spoiler-Free)

gravity

Don’t let go

This post contains my thoughts after seeing the movie Gravity. It is not a review and is completely spoiler-free for those who’ve yet to see it. Hopefully this will help you make up your mind if you’ve been debating on whether to see it or not.

I’ll admit that I went into Gravity a bit skeptical. Although almost every major critic has given it glowing recommendations, I wasn’t sure how thrilling a realistic, two character film about space could be. I mean, when we hear the words “space” and “thriller” you can’t help but picture aliens with sharp teeth, dripping acid that make their introductions by bursting out of an unsuspecting peoples’ chests. This movie doesn’t have aliens, laser guns, or super futuristic space crafts. It doesn’t need that stuff because the realism is engaging enough. Now I realize that this movie isn’t completely scientifically accurate. When I say realistic, I mean it isn’t in the same vein as Alien or Star Wars. No Jar-Jar and thank God for that.    

This movie is atmospheric bliss. Gravity proves how peaceful yet unsettling space can be. The silence is probably the most chilling aspect. When oxygen is running low and you can’t even control which direction your body is spinning, panic sets in fast. It’s the type of place where death sneaks up and takes you slowly. You can’t see it, you can’t feel it, and before you know it, it’s over. Now that’s creepy.

The two main characters played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are well defined. Even though we’re only given two real characters in this film, they’re interesting and likeable. I didn’t get tired of either of them. Though we don’t get as much backstory from Clooney’s character, his voice is clear and his character is always cool, collected, and uplifting. Definitely someone you want to have around when things go bad.

Sandra Bullock

Just an average day in the office…..NOT

The backstory that we get from Bullock’s character is brought on naturally and never feels like blatant exposition. The film gets you to care about its characters in quite a short amount of time without it feeling like some kind of character development easy bake oven.

There’s not much I can say about the plot without spoiling anything. Routine satellite repair goes wrong. That’s all I’ll say. But the thing I like most about this movie is the theme: how far would you go to survive? And that even after tragedy we must continue forward. Life goes on. I know we’ve all heard it before but this movie really drives that point home without getting overly emotional.

No one is going to pity you if you just give up and lie still. Keep moving on and growing and learning. SEE? This is what I’m talking about! When a movie makes you think, it’s a wonderful thing!

Space is fascinating, but it will make you glad that you’re sitting in your comfy chair here on Earth. Gravity isn’t a perfect film, but it’s a rare experience that should be savored. We don’t see something like this often. Drop all your expectations and just take in all that it has to offer.

-The Critic