Friday, May 30, 2008

Diary of a Short Film I: The Script

For reasons too lengthy to go into, I've found myself back in school to get a degree in Film Studies. In some ways I'm just spinning my wheels, but a refresher will be very good for me and force me (and others) to be more analytical toward my work. One of my first assignments in my Film Production I class is to make a short film with no dialogue. This exercise is to help you tell your story with visuals, so you can't rely on the spoken word (voice overs are allowed, but I'm sticking to the letter of the law). It's essentially a silent film, something I've never done before.

Anyway, I thought it might be educational to post my progress on this assignment which may help others who are trying to do something similar. I also hope to get feedback from you, which can only help me to be a better filmmaker. The due date is June 24, so I had better get cracking.

The other criteria for this project is that you have to shoot it yourself, you can't star in it, and it can't be over five minutes. I have no problem with the first two items, and there is no way I even want to approach the five minute mark. I just don't have the time to craft a film of that length. I want my story to be about three minutes, which is will still be tough, but doable.

The first thing I needed was an idea and one came to me while getting out of the shower. Oddly enough, the bathroom is a place I often get inspired and this time was no different. I wanted to do something more character driven and less plot-heavy than my previous work, and I think I hit on it with Payoff, a short story that plays like the tail end of a prodigal daughter tale.

I wrote a first draft of the script pretty quickly, and it came in at just over two pages. It's all action (of course), which may mean that it plays longer than written. I should be able to get my three minutes with ease.

Read the screenplay for Payoff...

Please click on the above link, and feel free to give me your input below. My schedule is pretty compressed (casting and shooting next week), but I am always open to good ideas. I've had pretty good collaborative experiences when shooting, but have resisted this at the writing phase. Now's your chance to make a difference! Tell me what you like and why! Tell me what sucks and why! Just make sure you tell me!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

Not Quite a King

Three years ago, I had an unexpected surprise in viewing the first film of Disney's The Chronicles of Narnia series, based on the C.S. Lewis books. I didn't expect anything above decent, but what I got was spectacular. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe became my favorite film of 2005. Now comes the next tale, Prince Caspian, which reunites almost all the same talent to continue the saga. While equally impressive in scope, this sequel suffers from a weaker story and underwhelming villain.

One year has passed since the Pevensie children unexpectedly left their beloved world of Narnia. Summoned back for unkown reasons, they discover their former home now an ancient ruin. 1300 Narnian years have passed in their absence and an evil king now reins. The true heir to the throne, noble Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), has fled to avoid being murdered at the hands of his wicked uncle. It is the prince who has magically called the Pevensies to save Narnia and return it to it's rightful citizens. With the odds against them, they must form an alliance and find the only one who can save them all: Aslan.

The look of this film is simply breathtaking. Returning director Andrew Adamson and his new cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub (Georgia Rule) have crafted a vivid canvas full of epic scope and lush detail. When the kids first return, they arrive on sparkling beach with water that looks so inviting you can almost smell the salt water. The forest is rich and very green, and the fields of battle are majestic and deep as far as the camera can see. It's all very impressive.

The CGI work is again excellent. With many a mystical creature filling this universe, they all appear realistic. From warrior centaurs to flying gryphons, it all comes across well. Aslan again projects himself as the regal Lion, the spiritual leader who we really believe is there (Liam Neeson's voice work doesn't hurt, either). There is a spectacular dream sequence where Lucy envisions flower petals carried upon the wind that form human shapes and faces. Beautiful.

All of the actors playing the Pevensie kids return, with only young Lucy (Georgie Henley) showing signs of growing up. I love these characters, and they have such good chemistry together that I could watch them for hours on end. Henley still steals every scene she's in, but I also liked the fact that older sibling Susan (Anna Popplewell) has feelings for the Prince and is no longer a kid, but a budding young woman. Another character I really enjoyed was the dwarf Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage), who's sarcasm is much larger than his tiny body should allow.

So why the so-so rating? As much as I found to like about Prince Caspian, I had almost as many dislikes, which I am disappointed to report. A large part of this is the story--it's just not that interesting. While Lion had a great slow-brewing plot that culminated with an exciting battle sequence, Caspian seems to just be about the battles themselves. There are more of them, but they are without tension or drama. I was bored during most of these segments (with the exception of Susan using her bow to great effect), which became bigger as the movie went along, but never seemed to get better or more engaging.

Another gaffe is the bland villain. King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto) is not very menacing, and never generated any worry inside of me for our heroes' fate. Add to that the very lucid memory of Tilda Swinton's wonderfully evil White Witch from the first film (she makes a cameo this time), and the letdown continues. In any kind of thriller you simply must have a great baddie to initiate jeopardy, but the limp one we get here doesn't do the job.

I really wanted to like Prince Caspian. I love those kids, and the world Adamson and company have created is a vision to behold. It may be unfair to compare it to the far superior first film, but even on its own merits, this movie comes up short. And I haven't even brought up the sword-wielding mice...

Monday, May 19, 2008

Your Tripod is Really a Dolly/Crane?

Prolost just turned me on to this excellent micro-budget trick that should be in everyone's quiver. To get a smooth dolly or low angle crane move, simply shorten the front leg of your tripod and push or pull while tilting. It's stupid simple, but can yield some very professional results. Check out the video above for some very convincing examples. Sure, you still need a tripod, but you own one of those anyway, right?

Monday, May 12, 2008

"You have to be very, very, very good at film making to entertain people for 90 minutes with string and a webcam."

There's a great debate going on over at $1000 Film concerning the possibility of making money with a micro-budget movie. This is, and always has been, the mantra of Clive and his excellent blog, but it is a radical concept. It boils down to this: you can make something great for a paltry sum, as long as you know what you are doing. It's a philosophy I completely agree with.

Click on the link and read what others are posting (and Clive's responses) for a very informative read. $1k rocks!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Iron Man

Heavy Metal

Did we really need another superhero movie? We seem to be inundated with them as of late, and while some do the job well (the Batman reboot, and the Spider-Man series), most have fallen pretty flat (Daredevil, Hulk, Fantastic Four and its sequel). I grew up reading my share of comics from the Marvel universe, but haven't been as excited about the latest villain-smasher as in previous years. When I heard that ol' Metal Head was coming to silver screen, I was mildly interested. When I discovered Robert Downey, Jr. was going to play lead Tony Stark, I was very interested. Fortunately, they really got it right this time--Iron Man is a very good movie in almost all categories.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) has it all. Brains, money, women, all the booze he can drink, and the most powerful weapons manufacturing corporation in the world. While showing off his latest creation in the Afgani desert, he is abruptly captured by a terrorist army armed with his products. Locked in a cave with the man who saved his life, he must build his latest missile from spare parts or face certain death. Stark has other plans, however, and learns that he must give back to all the lives he has indirectly taken over the years. He shuts down weapons production and creates a high-tech suit of armor that gives him super powers. But will his own company and partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) sit still for such radical action? Does Tony Stark care?

This is a great story that flies in the face of just about every rule we've been taught about movies of this ilk. Instead of already being a straight arrow type, Stark is a selfish man of the world, who has a change of heart. He's not a mutant of any kind, but creates his powers through the ability of his creative engineering chops--he's a DIY Superman. He even lacks the typical alliterative name that we usually associate with superheroes (personal assistant and love interest Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) does have one, however). The film carries this theme right down to the last line of dialogue which lets us know this ain't your mom's comic book movie. I love it.

All the characters are well-devleoped, but this is Downey, Jr.'s movie. He is so good here, bringing a snarky likability to the shallow-turned-deep Stark that you totally root for him. He fights not only the obvious baddies, but also the corporate America he helped create. A great script from the writers of Children of Men, fleshes Stark out and gives him lots of funny dialogue (As he gets in an Army vehicle: "I'll be here in the Funvee, while you're back in the hum-drumvee"). Who better to cast as Stark than a guy who himself has turned his life around?

There are three relationships in the movie, but two are critical and effective. Stark and Potts have several great moments, including a potential kiss on a balcony and another where she must perform impromptu surgery on him. It's funny, tender, intense, and perfect. The second involves Bridge's character and he is wonderfully sinister here. I've never seen him play someone this dastardly before, but he nails it. Every comic book movie needs a great villain, and Iron Man has one, thank you very much.

Of course you gotta have action, and director Jon Favreau (Zathura) gives us just enough to keep us happy. Iron Man flies, shoots repulsor beams from his palms, micro-missles from his forearm, and can take out hostage-holding bad guys with one shot. The CGI work really excels, looking realistic enough to suspend our disbelief and keep us in the movie. My only qualm is that while the action is good, it doesn't blow your socks off. Considering how high the bar was set by the rest of the film, I was hoping for more, but didn't really get it. This is just a minor knock on an otherwise excellent movie.

In my book, Iron Man ranks right up there with (but doesn't surpass) the very best of superhero cinema, the first Superman (1978). It's got a unique, well-acted character in Tony Stark, an engaging plot that never feels boring, good relationships, and decent action. It fulfills every requirement of the genre and then some. It sets a very high standard for the rest of the summer, and here's hoping that's a good omen rather than all downhill from here.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Speed Racer vs. Lexus: Yeah Right!

This past weekend I had the great joy of experiencing the wonderful Iron Man (review coming), which ranks right up there with the best of the superhero movies, the original Superman (1978). Since it was the first big movie of the 2008 season, I was excited to see the new crop of trailers that would tease audiences about what this summer might be like (as if we didn't know already).

One of the best is the goose-bump inducing Speed Racer which looks visually stunning and super exciting (let's hope there's a story to go along with all the flash). Here's what I saw:

This trailer made me want to test drive the nearest sports car and stomp hard on the gas pedal. The tempting thrills presented in these few minutes were immediately dampened by this laughable commercial from Lexus:

This typical slo-mo car ad, quickly became a joke due to unfortunate placement. What about this boring spot makes you want to drive their fancy car? Not much. I want a Mach 5 instead! I wonder if it comes with a white helmet...


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