Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Metacafe Slaps 'Middle of Nowhere' with Adult Rating, Director Ticked

Middle Of Nowhere - video powered by Metacafe

I've been experimenting lately with several video sharing sites to see who offers the best features and options. One thing that really intrigued me about Metacafe, is their Producers Rewards program. This program allows filmmakers to make money on their uploads, based on number of viewings. Some producers have made up to $25,000 using this site, so why not try it?

A little over a week ago I uploaded my short film, Middle of Nowhere, to the Metacafe servers under the Producer Rewards program. It was quickly made live, and it had some views. I didn't expect a ton of eyeballs (and probably no money) mostly due to the five minute running time. This was just an experiment, after all.

Today, I can't find my movie. After logging on, I see that my film has been dropped from Producer Rewards, and now has an 18+ tag, placing it with other 'adult material'. Now, no one can watch my movie on Metacafe without going through this confirmation:

The video you are about to watch is intended for mature audiences. Its content may be offensive. You must be over 18 to continue. Please note that this action will disable the Family Filter allowing mature content to be listed in your search results.

Are you kidding me? Did they really watch the film? Middle of Nowhere has no nudity, no sex, no bad language, and only implied violence. It may be intense but its content may be offensive? Give me a break!

I shot off an email detailing everything, and am awaiting a response before I make a final judgement on the whole deal. I'll keep you informed.

Casino Royale

Craig Forges Impressive Bond

The James Bond series of films is the longest running franchise in movie history. This an amazing feat, if for no other reason than just about all of these movies contain the same interchangeable characters, villains, and plot. There has been practically no variation on this very successful formula for almost forty years. Only the names of the lead actor have changed. I’m happy to report that Casino Royale is a change for the good, and Daniel Craig makes a most excellent James Bond.

Shortly after obtaining OO status (two kills required), Commander James Bond (Craig) quickly foils the plan of the sinister Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) to make millions from sabotage. In order to recoup the millions entrusted to him by terrorists, Le Chiffre enters a high stakes poker game at Casino Royale in Montenegro. Bond is sent to win the poker game at all costs, which would force Le Chiffre to run to MI6 for protection in exchange for invaluable information about the terrorist community.

I don’t know who selected Craig (Munich) for this role, but they should be knighted for their efforts. He is absolutely wonderful here, with his chiseled features and piercing, pale blue eyes. This guy oozes testosterone from every pore, showing intense masculinity and even a soft side! One minute he’s dragging a bad guy out of his own embassy, and the next he’s wooing the lovely Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). Even when stripped naked and tortured, the guy looks totally in charge.

Since this is essentially the origin of Bond, many of the trademarks (or clichés) we have all been used to don’t exist. There is no Q to outfit our hero with gadgets (though he does have a few), no Bond theme (until the very end), no traditional pre-credit action sequence (though we do get the famed gun barrel, in a slightly different spot), and many more. It’s a nice change of pace and fits well.

Another plus is that Casino Royale feels like a real film, and less like a comic book. Sure, there are spectacular action set pieces, but the movie actually slows down and gives Bond character development (with an arc), something unheard of in the history of Bond. His interaction with Bond Girl Green (Kingdom of Heaven) paints her as Bond’s equal, and not just a bimbo to be slept with. There is real suspense as Bond barely (and believably) skirts death, as well as in the poker game. Did I mention the torture scene? I’ve never seen this specific kind before, and speaking for all men everywhere, this is the closest I’d ever want to get to it.

Casino Royale is not just a good entry in the James Bond franchise, but a very good film, period. It’s the best Bond since Goldeneye (1995), which was also directed by Martin Campbell, who really seems to know what he’s doing with this character. So does Craig, Daniel Craig.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Stranger than Fiction

Sweet Love Story

I can’t say I’m a big Will Ferrell fan. He seems to be the modern day Chevy Chase, an actor playing himself and taking whatever role comes across his agent’s desk. He has the goofy dork thing down pat, but doesn’t ever challenge himself--until now. Stranger Than Fiction still has Ferrell playing to type, but it’s a much meatier role than he is used to. Add a good director, an unusual script, a fine supporting cast and you have all the ingredients for a good movie--which Stranger Than Fiction definitely is.

IRS auditor Harold Crick (Ferrell) is an anal-retentive numbers guy. He counts everything. One morning he hears a woman’s voice who seems to be narrating everything he does in excellent prose. This causes him to seek help, first from a therapist, who recommends he see literary expert Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman). Meanwhile, eccentric author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is having trouble killing off her lead character in her next book--Harold Crick. Harold’s boring life suddenly gets better as he meets wild thing Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), his latest audit. Can Harold make the most of his life before Kay kills him off?

What makes this film really work is the solid chemistry between Gyllenhaal (World Trade Center) and Ferrell (Talladega Nights). She hates him at first (“Get bent, tax man!”), but we all know what that means. They seem drawn together, and there is an amazingly erotic scene involving a cookie and a glass of milk that is sexier than you might expect. Gyllenhaal is great here, playing a free spirit with a heart of gold. She is the perfect counterpoint to Ferrell’s uptight dweeb.

This relationship is so good I wished it was the main thrust of the story. The other stuff involving the Hoffman and Thompson characters is fine (and has to be there to propel the story forward), but I wanted to see more of Ferrell and Gyllenhaal. Their thread is much more compelling and deserved more screen time.

Special mention should go to Zach Helm’s interesting and thought-provoking script. This is definitely Twilight Zone material, albeit with a lighter tone. It’s not something you see everyday in a mainstream film, and I was glad to see it produced for the silver screen. This concept could have been turned into a very dumb comedy, but instead we get a sweet, gentle and introspective take on life, love and what really matters. Is it more important to complete a literary masterpiece even if it kills someone? Especially if that someone is a genuinely good person?

Director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Stay) is building an interesting resume. Any film he has directed is worth watching and Stranger Than Fiction is no exception. He seems interested in well developed characters and offbeat scenarios, something I’ll always pay money to see. Here’s hoping he maintains the high bar he keeps setting for himself.


Pathetic Excuse for Humor

Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die. --Mel Brooks

No one likes to be the victim of joke, while everyone will probably laugh at the misfortune of others. I still giggle whenever I see Moe smack the crap out of Curly, or watch a show like the original Candid Camera or the current version, Punk’d. Tom Green used a similar tactic on his show, but crossed the line of good taste and just became an obnoxious jerk. The new ‘comedy’ Borat (subtitled Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan) takes a lot from Green, but goes so far over the line that I found myself simply feeling sorry for his victims, and wishing he would fall into an open sewer and die.

Borat is a “mockumentary” that follows the misadventures of fictional Kazakhi reporter Borat Sagdiyev (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his journey to America, and then across it. See the startled reactions of all those he meets as they react to his aggressive, racist, and over-sexed naïveté. Won’t that be funny?

Well, it could have been. The problem is that unknowing folks are first embarrassed by Cohen’s actions, and then humiliated when he won’t leave them alone. This is funny in tamer settings (as when he tries to greet New Yorkers on the street with a kiss), but when pushed to the extreme (he invites a prostitute to a formal dinner for example) it is painful to watch, and not in the least funny. Most of the movie is like this.

What is really disturbing is that Cohen is hiding behind his Borat character, knowing exactly what he is doing to these people. At least Green was just his obnoxious self. Cohen comes across as a coward since he can just play up his “stupid foreigner” shtick, which seems to make his actions okay. Granted, these people signed some sort of clearance (and were surely paid) to appear in the final cut of the movie, but so what? Even in interviews, Cohen will only appear as Borat to promote the film, never having to be responsible for (or answer any questions about) his objectionable and tasteless “technique”.

Borat is R-rated for good reason, as it’s a very vulgar movie. We see several instances of full male nudity (although Cohen has his own genitals blacked out--perhaps to hide something?), many references to the female anatomy, masturbation, etc., etc. The Borat character is all about sex, which culminates with his quest to Los Angeles to meet Pamela Anderson to make her his wife (which he attempts in another alarming setup).

If you haven’t guessed yet, I hated this movie. Any funny moments (and there are a few) are completely undone by the vicious prank tone. I know I’m in the minority here, but I think Cohen is a basically a bully, and his brand of confrontational comedy only left me with sympathy for his targets.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Technique: Time-Lapse Video

Time-Lapse Photography is the method of capturing one frame of film at set intervals. When played back, the subject appears to animate. Typically this is done with an anchored tripod (such as with the orchid above), to capture movement imperceptible to the human brain.

Using a film camera, one frame was exposed when a timer activated the cable release, but how is this accomplished on video? Some video cameras do have a mode for this, but this is only good for the length of the tape--about 80 minutes max.

For long-term time-lapse, a camera hooked up to a computer is needed. You can use a webcam for this, but if you want higher quality video, a program like Scenealyzer Live is needed. This software (which has a free trial followed by a $39 price tag) will let you set whatever interval you want to record those long lapses, using any camera connected to your firewire port.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Flags of Our Fathers

Noble, but Heavy Handed and Dull

The last time Clint Eastwood sat in the director’s chair, he won an academy award (and deservedly so) for Million Dollar Baby (2004). This time he tackles the events surrounding the famous photograph of the soldiers who raised the flag at Iwo Jima during World War II. It’s a departure for Eastwood, who usually concentrates on intimate characters in intimate settings. Here he goes with an epic scope and big budget to tell his intimate story. I’m sad to report that I was disappointed with the result.

Corman John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Private Rene Gangon (Jesse Bradford), and Private Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) are pegged by the U.S. government public relations department to tour the nation in an effort to raise war bonds. They are presented as three of the soldiers who raised that famous flag at the war-torn location of Iwo Jima island. Some are unsure of this new role they have been forced into, and all continually flashback to the hell that was that battle.

Saving Private Ryan (1998) is one of my favorite films of all time, and it’s hard not to compare that film to this one. Both movies have two common actors (Barry Pepper and Harve Presnell), brutal war scenes beginning with a beach head assault, color-drained cinematography, and even Steven Spielberg as a producer. All these commonalities are unfortunate, as SPR is a much better film and I kept wanting to see that one again, all while I was watching this one.

The true story here is good, and deserves to be told in a better movie. Flags does not capture the viewer, but plays long and boring. The acting is wooden and sometimes embarrassingly hammy, maybe due to the fact that there are no A-list stars (perhaps they passed?), which surprised me. The themes are so blatant and in your face (such as an Iwo Jima dessert with strawberry sauce that resembles blood, or a voiceover at the end telling you what you should already know) that I felt condescended to.

The combat sequences are brutal and effective, but they don’t transcend. In fact, every movie about war always seems to get this part right, even if the rest of it stinks (remember Pearl Harbor?), so I’m not sure if this is praise or not.

All of this may have sounded better on paper than what ended up on the screen. It has a sweeping scope and perplexing story, all of which is mishandled with sloppy storytelling and questionable casting. Flags of Our Fathers is a passable film, but I expected much more from the normally reliable Eastwood.

The Prestige

Too Much Sleight of Hand

The last time Christopher Nolan directed a script written by his brother Johnathan, one of my favorite films emerged in the form of the backwards-forwards mystery narrative, Memento (2000). They have reunited to bring an adaptation of the award-winning novel, The Prestige, to the big screen, and have done so quite grandly. Those familiar with their previous work will appreciate the disjointed narrative, rich characters, and interesting premise. Too bad they didn’t know how much was too much.

Magician assistants Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) have become bitter rivals after a horrible “accident” separates the two. They both aspire to the greatest magic trick ever conceived, especially if it is at the expense of the other. This trick comes in the form of “The Transported Man”, an illusion that allows the performer to disappear from on side of the stage and instantly appear at the other. First performed by Borden, obsession leads Angier to discover the secret and better his opponent. Both men will go to any extreme to win this contest of one-upping, even to the destruction to all those around them and even themselves.

The Nolans have created quite an elaborate tale. Set in Victorian England, The Prestige oozes gothic atmosphere. Adding to this is a very detailed script, that is constantly moving back and forth through time between the two lead characters. All the characters are nicely fleshed out, and we feel as if we know these people pretty well, even if we don’t like them all that much.

The actors are all fun to watch. Bale and Jackman (Batman vs. Wolverine!) are very good at what they do, and I am a big fan of the latter--he has proven over and over that he can play anything. There are also some nice supporting turns by the great Michael Caine (The Weather Man) and the luminous Scarlett Johanssen (The Black Dahlia). David Bowie even has a nifty cameo as real-life scientist Nikola Tesla.

So what’s not to like here? Well, my main issue with The Prestige is that it’s one of those “twisty” stories that is over-determined to keep us guessing. Just when you think you’ve figured out what twist is coming, it twists back upon itself. This is fun at first, but it happens so often (the movie has something like five false endings) that it alienates the viewer. You just stand back, and stop trusting the film to play fair.

It is still a worthy effort, however, and is big and audacious in its storytelling. In retrospect, I don’t buy everything that played out on the screen (which of course, I can’t reveal without giving crucial information away), but it was fun, inventive, and different. I just wish the Nolans would have trimmed the number of rabbits they felt had to be pulled out of their respective hats.

The Departed

Vintage Scorsese

You just can’t keep a good filmmaker down. Martin Scorsese is considered one of the best (if not the best) American filmmakers alive, yet has no Oscar for Best Directing. He’s been overlooked five times by the Academy, but I predict this will be his year. This will be the year of The Departed, an excellent crime drama rife with fine performances, an engrossing story, and masterful direction. Even if it does not win Best Picture (which it probably will) Scorsese will finally get his statuette.

Due to his criminal family ties, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DeCaprio) has been recruited by the Boston Police Department to go deep undercover into the organization of local crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Costello has his own mole in the police department, the high-ranking Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon). Both men have the same mission: to find the spy operating in their home camp. While Sullivan is only risking jail time, Costigan constantly fears that the murderous Costello will discover who he is and slowly feed him to the fishes.

I was just in awe when watching The Departed. Scorsese has such a command over this medium that it is just wonderful to behold. His control of the camera, the editing, and what he gets out of his actors is nothing short of astounding. A good screenplay helps a lot, and we have a very layered, complex (yet easy to follow), and thoroughly engaging one from author William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven).

The cast is simply wonderful. DeCaprio (The Aviator) turns in a tense performance, as his Billy is someone who could be killed at any moment, and he looks it. Damon (Syriana) has the much less showier role, but is DeCaprio’s equal, if not his better. He is much more restrained, and we can see the wheels turning as he tries desperately to uncover who the mob leak is before he’s caught himself. Nicholson is his great oily self, relishing the part of the crazy, control freak Costello. Oh, and how about the supporting cast of Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg? Amazing.

If I have any complaints about the movie, it’s that it does contain Scorsese trademarks that can be off-putting. Explosive violence is frequent and often brutal, with blood spraying all over the place. Very crude language is also par for the course, so be prepared. The Dark Side of Man is almost always on display in a Martin Scorsese film, and it sure is here. This is definitely not the “feel good romp of the year”.

If you like Scorsese’s best stuff (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas), then you’ll feel right at home with The Departed. It’s dark, gritty, gory, intense, and completely fascinating. Let the Oscar race begin!

Saturday, January 27, 2007

YouTube to Spread Wealth with Content Creators

AP is reporting that YouTube co-founder and CEO Chad Hurley has announced that the video sharing behemoth will start sharing profits with video uploaders. While no model is yet in place, this is fantastic news for video producers everywhere. With the insane amount of traffic that goes through the YouTube servers, this could be a worthwhile outlet for the starving filmmaker to not only get exposure, but even get paid for it! Only time will tell if the effort spent creating is worth the payoff--or if there really is one.

On a side note, Scott Kirsner of CinemaTech has just updated his list of websites that pay video producers for their work. Check it out to see if something on this list fits your style.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Microfilmmaker Reprints Badham's Do's & Don'ts of Directing Actors

John Badham has been directing television and movies for a long time, and has some great films to his credit (WarGames, Saturday Night Fever). Here he lists some wonderful advice on dealing with the talent--a resource that can make or break your movie.

Quotes from some very famous names are also cited, supporting each point Badham makes. The whole thing is entertaining and very valuable to any filmmaker, no matter what budget is available.

My favorite quote comes from actor Martin Sheen: “If a director is not confident, it spreads like a virus on a set...If you have a lack of confidence in your pilot, you don’t want to get on the plane. And it’s the same with a director.”

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Lance Weiler's Head Trauma in Filmmaker

Lance Weiler is one of the guys who brought us The Last Broadcast (1998), a faux documentary about a killer in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Last year he self-distributed his latest feature Head Trauma, to seventeen theaters across the country, followed by a prompt DVD release. A master of web promotion, Weiler has as wealth of knowledge and wants to share it--which makes him even more amazing.

I've been following Lance across the web for awhile, reading everything I could find on the guy and his movie. I was never able to see it in theaters (no Salt Lake City screening), but I've seen the DVD, (review coming soon) and all the special features. I've perused his blog The Workbook Project (a work in progress about open source filmmaking and distribution), and listened to all of "this conference is being recorded" (interviews with various DIY luminaries).

Now the guy has gone and written an article for Filmmaker magazine detailing everything I spent months compiling in my brain. It's there for anyone to absorb, but be ready--there's a lot of stuff to cram into your head. All of it good.

Saving Private Ryan vs. Finding Nemo

A technique employed by the late Stanley Kubrick was to juxtapose serious imagery with lighthearted music (remember in Dr. Strangelove when the world was nuked to the tune of "We'll Meet Again"?). This basic idea has resurfaced in the viral video world, with enterprising editors creating custom movie trailers that completely alter the tone of the original film, to great comedic effect. My favorite examples of this are the Shining trailer (a nod to Kubrick, perhaps?), that makes it look like a feel-good family drama, and the Sleepless in Seattle trailer that resembles Fatal Attraction.

Another example of this idea is the above mashup that takes visuals from Saving Private Ryan and inserts dialogue from Finding Nemo. It's very funny, and actually matches well! Weird and cool.

Scary Science Makes for Great Screenplay Fodder

No, it's not a diary about your latest film shoot. just published an article entitled "The Scariest Ideas in Science." Written by Laura Allen, it details several things that are being developed or already exist that are pretty freaky. While the tongue-and-cheek disclaimer reads "this is no horror movie", all of these items would make for some good ones. Great article to get those creative juices flowing.

Car Explodes in Uber-Cool Slow Motion

Here is a fantastic example of "overcranking" a film camera for a wonderful super slow motion effect. This would look great in any action movie, and makes the low budget filmmaker jealous, since slow motion is only available in high-end video cameras. Sure, you can fake it in post, but it will never look this good.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

DIY Camera Goodies for the Filmmaker with Little Money (Me)

While poking around the instructables website, I came across some cool add-ons for your camera that may come in handy. None of these are new, but they are useful and bear repeating in case someone reading this may not know about them.

PieterPost came up with this cheap shoulder mount that will be of great use if you shoot a lot of your video hand-held. It is only made up of about three parts that should be easily had from any hardware store. This thing looks like it could really steady your shot, not to mention keep your arm from falling off due to fatigue.

Sooner or later, you'll have to shoot in wet weather (rain is very cinematic!), so protecting your camera is paramount. Cheap types (myself included) use plastic baggies, but the result is usually a cumbersome, cobbled-together mess that barely works. Aneel takes this step one further, refining the baggie idea to a real workable solution. He made it for a still camera, but it will work for the video variety as well.

Ever need a fish-eye lens? So wide it distorts to a disturbing degree, these lenses can come in handy for peephole effects, general comedy (everyone looks dang funny close up), or lend to the idea of surreality. Richard Baguley at camcorderinfo shows how to attach a real door peephole directly to your (smaller) camera. Video clips are also provided.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

And the Oscar for Best Picture goes to...Who Cares!

Ugh. The Academy Award nominations are out, and no Best Picture nod for Children of Men! What the--!? I felt 2006 wasn't that great a year for movies, but when I finally saw Children of Men (which went into wider release just recently), I was blown away. It's a great film, and has several moments of undeniable power, one of which had me crying like a baby.

It did get a total of three nominations--Best Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and Film Editing. Okay, I can see the cinematography award going to this movie, since they used long takes and invented technology to stage some amazingly complex and long sequences--but Film Editing!? The thing hardly has any edits in it!

One good thing that comes from this is that due to the lack of a Best Director nom for Alfonso Cuaron, Martin Scorsese is sure to finally win for The Departed. Even if that movie doesn't win Best Picture, Marty should finally get his statuette. At least there is some justice--I hope.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Blah, Blah, Blogging

I guess it was inevitable. Making and reviewing movies only leads to endless prattle on the subject, so why not post it all? Others have done this, and I have learned quite a bit from them, so perhaps my ego is now big enough to think that someone out there in webland can benefit from my “knowledge”--and here we are.

Blogs seem to fall into two basic categories: (1) Drivel about the life of the writer that only a family member would care about, and (2) actual interesting stuff targeting a niche audience. The “interesting stuff” may be opinion or technical, but both are useful to the target crowd. This is what I’m shooting for.

I currently review about two to three movies for, a web-based magazine about running a web-based business. Only the current issue and two back issues are available at anytime on the site, leaving all my past reviews in limbo. That is one reason I started Film Flap (also the name of the review column), was to archive my old stuff. Since my other interest includes actually making movies, I thought I’d work that in as well.

The disadvantage of this setup is that reviews for The Nettle cannot appear here for three months, making them a little less than timely. This will change if my status with them changes, but I have a good relationship with editor David Congreave, and plan to keep it that way. What I can do is review other movies not scheduled for The Nettle, which can appear here when they open. Older reviews will appear after their three month run is over (which may seem odd, but think of it as timed for the DVD release!).

So there’s my niche. If you like movies, and perhaps want to make some, maybe this site will be useful to you. I don’t claim to be the next big thing, but I do love this stuff and have learned some valuable info that perhaps I can pass on. I will give credit where credit is due, and have included some great links in the sidebar (my favorite right now being The Workbook Project). I plan on posting quite frequently (five days a week), so check back often for updates.

Friday, January 12, 2007

My Short Films

I can't really babble about movies without having made a few of my own, right? So here are a some examples of what was going through my head at the time these were created. Expect additions as new projects are completed, and old ones restored.

Kind of Famous (2008) 6:12
A mini documentary about one man's almost brush with music fame. Second project created for the Film Production I class at the University of Utah.

The Payoff (2008) 6:32
A father is forced to make an important choice, but is it worth it?

Original music by Seth Neuffer.

Created for the Film Production I class at the University of Utah.

Middle of Nowhere (2007) 5:00
A couple on an all-night road trip come across something unexpected--and it won't go away.

Original music by Seth Neuffer.

I created this short as an entry for the Spielberg/Burnett reality show On the Lot. I didn't get on the show, it tanked anyway, 'nuff said.

Featured on Indy Mogul's 5 Minute Movie House, and winner of Best Picture, Best Horror/Thriller, and Technical Achievement Award.

"Nocturnal House" (2006) 4:05
Always read the fine print...

A contest entry for the Pretty Girls Make Graves' song, "Nocturnal House". It didn't win, but claimed a runner-up spot along with twenty others.

Midnight (2006) 1:25
Beware the femme fatale--and her soon to be ex-husband.

This was a contest entry to create a noir-style film no longer than one minute. It didn't win, and titles were added later.

Official Selection: 2006 Swansea Bay Film Festival

Laughing Stock TV (January-May 2005) 22:00
Are you ready to laugh? Are you ready to rock?

This was my attempt at a local TV show. It is basically a Salt Lake City Who's Line is it Anyway? featuring Laughing Stock, a local improv troupe. It ran for five months, had decent ratings (for a midnight show), but ultimately failed due to lack of money. I'm still proud of it, though.

The above is the final (16th) episode. Click on the following links to watch all the other shows: Episode 15 - 14 -13 - 12 - 11 - 10 - 9 - 8 - 7 - 6 - 5 - 4 - 3 - 2 - Pilot

Sweet Music (2000) 9:53
A guy looking for some new music gets much more than just and earful.

My first "real" attempt a short film. Now it seems to play long, but there's some good camera work, one great location, and a hot chick in a red dress. You'll have to get to the end of the piece to see that, but enjoy the rest in the meantime.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

X-Men: The Last Stand

Stands and Delivers

I like the X-Men franchise. Not only is it freakin’ cool to watch, but actually has something to say. The first two films have done well, both with audiences and critics. Now comes the inevitable third installment in the series, X-Men: The Last Stand, which may be a misleading title, since I highly doubt this will be the ‘last’ time we see these characters or this universe. It just wouldn’t be good business.

There is a new threat to the mutant population--a “cure” for the Mutant X gene. A serum has been created from the DNA of another mutant, Leech (Cameron Bright), whose power drains other mutants of their abilities, returning them to normal. When the serum is turned into weapon form, Magneto (Ian McKellen) declares war. More trouble comes in the form of the resurrected Jean Grey, who suddenly has limitless power with little means to control it. Can the X-Men intervene before countless lives are lost?

One thing I’ve really liked about these movies are the ethical questions they pose. Originally, it was “us against them” stories that focused on the themes of tolerance and acceptance. With X3 we revisit those ideas as well as another compelling turn: if you could take a drug that would allow you to fit into society better (while sacrificing everything that makes you unique), would you? For some mutants like Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose mere touch can be fatal, this solution is more tempting. It’s a perplexing story development that helps make X3 just that much better.

All of our favorite characters are back, led by the wonderful Hugh Jackman (Van Helsing) as Wolverine. He is just great as the cigar-chomping, claw-wielding, scenery-chewing Logan. Halle Berry (Catwoman) is also a lot of fun as weather-controlling Storm, who seems to have a meatier role this time around, as well as a sexy new hairdo. Patrick Stewart (The Game of Their Lives) and Ian McKellen (The Da Vinci Code) reprise their roles as Charles Xavier and Magneto, respectively, rounding out a cast that must have cost a pretty penny.

The most intense performance, however, has to go to Famke Janssen (Hide and Seek) as Jean Grey/Phoenix. She is a powerhouse of telekinetic rage who destroys anything in her path at the molecular level. The filmmakers have CGIed her up to look pretty creepy at times, and she reminded me of powers-gone-awry women in Brian De Palma films like Carrie and The Fury. She does get to showcase her acting ability (even if she does appear to be standing around for long stretches), and is quite good as this tragic character.

Probably the silliest new addition is Kelsey Grammer’s Beast, a mutant that looks like the offspring of a Smurf and a grizzly bear. I don’t care how much makeup and fur they covered him in, I just couldn’t help but think I was watching Frasier in a blue gorilla suit. Beast seemed to work much better in the comic book, but here, I’m not so sure.

Of course you have all the requisite action and adventure that is the hallmark of these movies. These sequences are first rate, and while not up to the level of realism (this is a comic book adaptation after all) set by Mission: Impossible III, they are quite good in their own right. Director Brett Ratner (taking over for Bryan Singer) does a much better job than I originally gave him credit for.

While I did like the bulk of X3, there are a few eyebrow-raisers. If the government had developed this “cure”, why not just inject it into mutant criminals instead of transporting them so they could be easily freed? Did Magneto really need to manipulate the entire Golden Gate Bridge (not a fan of architecture, I guess) to get himself and his crew to Alcatraz? Why not just take a boat? Did I mention Kelsey Grammer?

What makes this movie work is the characters. We care about them and their plight, and learn very fast that they are not above death, or being relegated to a forced “normality”. It’s this emotional core that raises X-Men: The Last Stand from standard summer fare to very good all-around movie. Check it out, Bub!

World Trade Center

Intimate Stories of 9/11 Told Well

I can tell you exactly where I was during the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. I was working my TV news production job during the morning news broadcast. After the show had ended, NBC’s Today show began with a gaping hole in one of the Tower buildings. As they were reporting live, the second plane exploded into the second tower and I distinctly remember the hearing the audible gasps from everyone behind the camera on the Today show set. It was the moment that everyone watching knew this was no accident. It was the moment that changed everything.

Now, a short five years later, we have the second film released this year concerning these events. The first, United 93, received much critical acclaim, and I regret missing it in the theaters. Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center is the next film to revisit this tragedy, and tells the story of two men trapped in the rubble of one of the towers, and their families’ desperation to see them again.

After a passenger plane crashes into the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, emergency crews are dispatched to evacuate both towers. When they collapse, Port Authority Police officers John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) become trapped under immovable slabs of concrete. When the wives of the two men (Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal) hear the news, it becomes a desperate waiting game to hear if any rescue is possible.

This is a tough movie to review. How do you separate critiquing the film from your feelings about what really happened? Many films have been made about historical disasters in recent years, but none have been made so quickly after the actual events transpired. Fortunately, World Trade Center is a decent film that respectfully pays tribute to the men and women who went through hell and came out on top, and doesn’t sensationalize the actual terrorist act that became a wake-up call for the world.

The first thing I liked is that when the first plane hits the first tower, it takes place off screen. All we see is a giant shadow passing in front of another building. We don’t even see the second plane hit, just hear about it from one character on a cell phone. This is a very sensitive approach (much like news stations who will no longer show that footage), and places the focus on the characters and not the terrible event itself.

This film is also well cast. I liked seeing Nicholas Cage (The Weather Man) in a role that demands him to underplay (“People don’t like me because I don’t smile a lot.”), which is a nice departure from his usual over-the-top self. The lesser known Pena (Crash) is also good as jabberjaw Jimeno who is the polar opposite of McLoughlin. Both men have to keep talking to keep each other from drifting into a fatal sleep, and it’s a credit to both actors who really only get their upper bodies (or in Cage’s case, just his face) to perform with.

The lead actresses also do not disappoint. Bello (Thank You for Smoking) turns in another good performance, which is the par for her course these days. I also enjoyed seeing indie queen Gyllenhaal (Trust the Man) in a mainstream role. She is effective here, and lends another emotional counterpoint with her portrayal of Allison Jimeno. I loved her courage when asked by her daughter “When is Daddy coming home?”, to which she pauses, smiles and says “I don’t know.”

As much as there is to like here, World Trade Center isn’t perfect. While there is an emotional center to the film, I didn’t feel as drawn in to their plight as I should have been. Maybe this was due to the slow second act. Maybe this was due to the painfully distracting blue contact lenses that made the brown-eyed Bello look like an alien (whoever approved those things should never work again). Whatever the reason, I wish the film would have been stronger. Maybe it’s just my feelings for what really happened getting the best of me, but I wanted to like this movie more than I did. It’s still good, just not as great as it should have been.

We are informed at the end of the film that only 20 people were pulled alive from the rubble at Ground Zero. This film is dedicated to all the Port Authority Police officers who died that day. I know there are films in the future that will tell their stories and many others. World Trade Center is a good start.


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