Martha Marcy May Marlene

 

 

MOVIE RATING:  4 stars (B+)

One of the most surprising and intriguing films I saw in 2011 was director Sean Durkin’s debut feature film, Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011). In fact, it was one of my Top 10 Movies of 2011. I know, I know…the title is long and confusing to remember. But after seeing the movie, it becomes a lot more memorable. That’s because you WANT to remember it so you can share it with your friends. This is a film that’s really hard to talk about in terms of its story and plot. You’ve really just have to watch it and feel it and let it get into your head and move around. The less you know, the better. So I won’t spoil it by trying to talking about it in those terms.

As both writer and director of M4 (my shorthand abbreviation), Durkin has shown everyone the craft and care that’s possible from an independent filmmaker with a low production budget (under $1 Million), but a great story to tell and the passion to tell it. The real key to the success of M4 is in the excellent performances of the cast, led by newcomer Elizabeth Olsen, the relatively unknown third sister of the Olsen Twins. Olsen embodies the psychologically troubled character of Martha with chilling emotional depth. She seems to have REALLY gotten into the head of Martha, which is not the best place to be, and brought everything within her to the surface for us to feel and experience in a dreamlike manner. And with a solid supporting cast of character actors that includes John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy, Sarah Paulson, and Brady Corbet, the world of an un-named rural Northeast cult is brought to eerily rich life.

M4 is a smart, mysterious, and confusing psychological drama. While Durkin has written a story that keeps you guessing, it also keeps you an arm’s length away from understanding some of it’s details, which is both good and bad. Overall, I think it’s well-written and engaging, but there were times during the film where I had to simply let go of figuring something out at the moment and just follow along in a murky mist. If there is one major weakness in M4, I think it is in some of the seemingly abstract aspects of the story. But that may also be what makes the movie stand out from the crowd too. Only time will tell. I need to watch the film again to really talk more about it’s themes and ideas.

The visuals in M4 have a dark, gritty, and grainy feel, having been shot on 35mm film in what I assume was mostly natural light. And there is an incredible beauty in the shadows and gritty gray areas of the frame. I love crisp, clear and detailed digital cinematography, but 35mm film really worked well in telling this story. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes completely captured the perfect visuals here. I was constantly engaged in appreciating the compositions of each and every sequence, admiring the craftsmanship of the team behind the camera.

Probably the most striking filmmaking aspect of M4 is the editing. Lead Film Editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier gave us one of the most finely edited films of 2011. The transitions between the present and the past, memory and reality, are seamless and a wonder to watch. The flow and feel of the film really came together in the editing room and took this good story with its great visuals and performances and made it something more. I’m guessing that the editing team spent A LOT of time in Post putting this film together. And it truly paid off.

Hand in hand with the editing is really stellar sound work by the sound team. The moments of quiet, the moments of just sound, the music…they all come together like they should in a psychological film like this. Again, I was continually impressed as I was watching this movie at how the editing of the visuals, together with the sound, really told this story right. Not much else to say. While the production design is simple and understated, I definitely felt transported into the rural Northeast location. The farm, the lake house, and everything in between just works. Chad Keith and his team did a great job of creating the physical world of M4 and bringing all the pieces together.

2011 was a strong year for small, independent films. And Martha Marcy May Marlene is at the top of the list of those movies. It’s the perfect film to check out on Blu-ray or DVD some Saturday afternoon or evening when you want to escape into the mind of a mystery.

 

Check out details on this film and its excellent Blu-ray presentation at Blu-ray.com.

The Tree Of Life

MOVIE RATING:  4.5 stars (A-)

(Updated August 25, 2012 – Upgraded from 4 stars to 4.5 stars)

You can also read my “First Look” post on The Tree of Life.

One of the most mysterious and interesting auteur filmmakers out there right now is director Terrence Malick. No one else seems to inspire as many rumors, stories and myths about what they are up to as Malick. When will we see a new film from him? What will the film be about? What’s the title of the film? Malick’s movies tend to languish in the news for years simply titled as “Untitled Terrence Malick Film”. But 2011 saw the birth, both literally and figuratively, of a brand new Malick movie: The Tree Of Life (2011). This is only Malick’s fifth film in a career spanning over 40 years. But his five films are iconic pieces of filmmaking art. I’ve seen them all and I highly recommend you see each and every one to really understand any one of them. They cling together with a web of subliminal meaning that has taken me years to contemplate. My favorite, hands down, is The Thin Red Line (1998), the most masterful look at war, and man for that matter, ever made. It’s one of my Top 10 movies of all time. It took me years and repeated viewings to fully appreciate it.

Like all of Malick’s films, upon first viewing The Tree Of Life (in the theater a year ago), I was confronted with reconciling my very high expectations for the film with the actual film that Malick delivered. It’s taken a year of simmering inside me to really figure out how I feel about it. And after viewing it in its entirety for a 2nd time on blu-ray recently, I feel ready to discuss the film and my thoughts and feelings about it. While The Tree Of Life still makes me question its meaning and intentions, I appreciate it a little more than during my first time. It’s a movie that makes it hard for me to love because it goes way outside the box of normal narrative storytelling. I love strong dialogue driven movies. And The Tree Of Life is not that kind of movie. In fact, this movie probably has less dialogue than any other feature length movie I love. But the subtext in the visuals, music, and feel of the film really got into me during this second viewing because my expectations of wanting dialogue and narrative were gone. Instead of constantly waiting for the movie to give me what I want, like I did the first time, I accepted it for what it is and got something else. Looking back on all 5 of Malick’s movies now, I can see that they all do the same thing. None of them delivered what I wanted or expected from them the first time I saw them. But after letting that go, I was able to appreciate them on subsequent viewings. My initial rating for The Tree Of Life was 3.5 stars but I’ve since updated it to 4 stars.

I’m not going to try to provide a narrative summary or character descriptions for this film since it really means nothing to understanding this film. Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn and the three young boys (Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Sheridan) who play Pitt and Chastain’s sons are all fantastic in their performances. They are not showy performances with scene-chewing speeches, but they are powerfully quiet and subtle performances rooted in deep character development. It’s so clear that they all lived in the shoes of their characters during production on this movie. Malick’s style of shooting demands that anyways from what I understand. I think Malick really nailed the casting on this film. Pitt and Chastain couldn’t be more different yet complimentary in their roles as universal representations of “nature” and “grace”. They just work together in this story. I actually think the 3 boys did the most with their roles. Their very naturalistic performances really brought my own childhood memories and feelings to life through their eyes.

As with every Malick film, the production design, cinematography, sound, music, and editing are simply the best. I don’t know what else to say. There’s no room for improvement in any of those areas and the craftsmanship on this movie is really beyond perfection, even though I know that’s not possible. But that’s the experience I get. It really is astounding to see Malick and his incredible team provide such a meticulous and beautiful film. It has a natural and organic feel to it, yet I know that every single frame of the film and second of sound has been masterfully thought about by someone. Somehow Malick’s style of filmmaking follows all the rules and breaks all the rules at the same time. When it comes to pure technical filmmaking craft, I give The Tree Of Life 5 stars out of 5. It’s only the story and the writing (assuming there was much), that knocks this film down a start for me. But it wouldn’t surprise me that if the “secrets” of this movie are revealed to me down the road, that I upgrade my score.

While I could go on and on talking about the details of this movie, I think it’s best to let it speak for itself beyond what I’ve had to say so far. The ideas, lessons, questions, and queries that I think it poses can’t really be talked about. I believe one has to internalize them like all philosophy, psychology, and spirituality. They’re are no real answers in my mind from The Tree Of Life to the questions it asks. It’s the questions that are the meat of it’s meal.

 

This movie trailer is one of the best I’ve ever seen. It set my expectations sky high for The Tree Of LIfe. It points to a movie of such greatness that it’s hard to live up to. And it caused me to be frustrated when I first saw the movie. But now I appreciate the movie almost as much as this trailer.

 

Check out details on this film and its excellent Blu-ray presentation at Blu-ray.com.

House Call – Independent TV Show Pilot

 

Back in February, I was fortunate enough to be a part of the production and post-production teams for a local Phoenix, Arizona independent TV show pilot called “House Call”. Written and Directed by Jonathan R. Millard and Chancellor J. Lastra, and photographed by Joshua M. Lambeth, House Call is an independent production by their company, Second Chance Productions. This 13-minute video is only the first part of the approximately 45-minute full TV show pilot that Second Chance intends to film the rest of later this year. My role during production on the show was as the Boom Operator. And during post-production, I was the Sound Editor and one of the Film Editors. I designed and edited the opening main title sequence, as I previously posted here on my blog.

We recorded the sound (i.e. dialogue) on the shoot using a Sennheiser shotgun boom microphone (rented from Broadcast Rentals) attached via XLR cable to two different digital audio recorders: the Marantz PMD-661 Professional Portable Flash Field Recorder and the Zoom H2 Handy Recorder). We primarily used the Marantz recorder for most of the sound, but also recorded some sound on the Zoom H2. In post-production, using Avid Pro Tools 8 LE, I mastered, mixed, and edited the sound for the entire production. I found the recorded sound from the Zoom H2 to be lesser in quality than the Marantz unit. Now it might have been partly due to two different Sound Mixers who each provided their own digital audio recording equipment, one with the Zoom H2 and one with the Marantz PMD-661, or it might have just been the lesser quality of the Zoom H2 recorder. I’m not 100% sure, but my gut tells me that the Marantz is a better sound recorder since it’s a higher end piece of equipment from a more professional sound company. I’m leaning towards getting the Marantz recorder for my own production gear.

While not a “perfect” professional sound mix, I’m pretty pleased with what we did in a very short time and with the budget (basically zero) we had. The sound is better than most zero budget amateur/independent productions. I assisted with selecting music for the show as well. My contributions for music included choosing the opening track during the main titles, which is “Tribulations” by LCD Soundsystem, and choosing “Scheming Weasel (Faster Version)” by Kevin MacLeod from http://www.incompetech.com (a royalty free music site), which plays during the breakfast house scene. I also worked with Chance in music editing for “I Need A Doctor (featuring Eminem and Skylar Grey)” by Dr. Dre, which plays during the opening jail scene. The other music choices that we chose as a team include “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” by Aerosmith (off the Armageddon Soundtrack), “Right Round” by Flo Rida, and “Whiskey On The Mississippi” also by Kevin MacLeod from http://www.incompetech.com (which plays during the birthing scene at the end). All of the mainstream music are placeholders to give the pilot the emotional feel that we were looking for, but the rights to use that music have not yet been obtained. Obviously if this show gets picked up, alternate music would need to be selected/created, or the rights obtained to use the music we selected.

While not the typical type of TV show or film work that I would create on my own, House Call was great to be a part of the team on. The guys at Second Chance Productions are all professional, talented, and hungry to put their skills to work in Hollywood, as I am. I’m pleased and proud to have been a part of this project and hope to continue collaborating with these guys on future productions.

House Call – Main Titles

I’ve been extremely privileged this past month to be a part of the production and post-production teams for a local Phoenix, Arizona independent TV show pilot called “House Call”. Written and Directed by Jonathan R. Millard and Chancellor J. Lastra, House Call is an independent production by their company Second Chance Productions. My role during production on the show was as the Boom Operator. And during post production, I’ve been one of the Film Editors and the Sound Editor. One of my jobs as a Film Editor was to design and edit the main title sequence for the show. Co-Director and Producer Chance Lastra shot a bunch of video footage in Las Vegas, Nevada that he wanted to use for the title sequence since the show was set there. The footage was all shot in partial HD on a mini handheld camcorder. Shot at night, most of the footage had a rough, out-of-focus look, but with an incredible kaleidoscope of light and color. Upon first watching it, I immediately had the thought that this video footage looked like it was shot by someone driving through Vegas as a tourist. My concept for the title sequence was simple: to embrace the fast, choppy, abstract, and artistic look of the handheld video footage and use it in a quick-paced edit set to quick-paced music.

This 44-second main title video uses my favorite bits of Chance’s footage. The video starts with a royalty-free HD clip of time-lapse aerial video over Las Vegas from DigitalJuice.com. But everything else was shot by Chance. All the work putting together this motion-graphics video sequence was done in Adobe After Effects CS5. For the titles themselves, I chose a font called “spotlight” that had a neon sign look, apropos for the Vegas setting. The music is “Tribulations” from LCD Soundsystem, which is the “placeholder” music that inspired me for this video and what I cut too. The music will get replaced eventually since we don’t have the rights to use it for the show, but it definitely had the feel and beat that I was looking for. I’ve gotten pretty attached to it now, but I’m sure we can have something with a similar tone created for the show. Or maybe we can get LCD Soundsystem to let us use their song? You never know!

Nowhere Boy

FILM RATING:  3.5 stars

Are you a fan of The Beatles? If so, then you may want to check out Nowhere Boy (2009). While it’s NOT the story of how The Beatles got started, it IS the coming-of-age story of how John Lennon got started in life and music, including how he met Paul McCartney and created his first rock band, The Quarrymen. Nowhere Boy is a very well made British indie film by first time feature film director Sam Taylor-Wood. It was released on Blu-ray and DVD recently and I’ve been anxiously awaiting it ever since I first saw the trailer. The film barely got a theatrical release here in the U.S., but I think it will find its audience at home instead. This is a character-driven dramatic story that works very well at portraying the early roots of John Lennon, who like so many artistic geniuses, came from a broken, dysfunctional family, where he was pushed and pulled by the influential members of his family. Would Lennon have ever gotten into music if it hadn’t been for his birth mother? Or the conflict between his mother and his aunt (who was the woman that raised him)? Questions like these seem easy to answer in hindsight, but Nowhere Boy takes us through the journey of Lennon finding his voice in his teens.

While I enjoy some of The Beatles music, I’ve never been overly enamored with the the band or the stories of its members, like many obsessive fans. But Nowhere Boy’s trailer somehow got its hook into me and now I’m very glad that it did. Front and center in the film is actor Aaron Johnson, who depicts John Lennon brilliantly. While he doesn’t necessarily look like John Lennon, he embodies the energy and moody emotion of the musician as perfectly as I can imagine an actor could. Not only does Johnson provide us with juicy dialogue in his native British accent, he even takes on singing and playing the guitar quite well. Without a genuine portrayal of the music in this movie by the actors, I have a feeling the film would fall flat on its face and feel more like a made-for-television documentary. It was the music that helped tie the pieces of the story together and keep me engaged and interested. Clearly Johnson is a talented young artist who should have an interesting career in the entertainment industry for years to come. I’ve gotten the soundtrack to the film since watching Nowhere Boy and the re-creations of Lennon’s early music by “The Nowhere Boys” is quite good for a group of actors, all on its own separate from the film.

Nowhere Boy is a beautifully shot film with excellent cinematography by Director of Photography Seamus McGarvey, also known for his work on Atonement (2007). Some of the images of the U.K. are simply incredible, showcasing the beauty hidden within the details of that country, as well as the details of this production (i.e. the actors, the costumes, and the sets). The production design by Alice Normington and her incredible team in the art department gives the film a perfect look and feel that helps tell this story set in the 1950s. Much like The King’s Speech (2010), God is in all the details of this film, including the excellent dialogue and emotional body language written by screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh and portrayed by the incredible cast. Kristin Scott Thomas and the rest of the supporting actors were perfectly cast and help make the film as good as it is.

In terms of graphic design, I really love the movie poster for this film. Sometimes just a well-designed movie poster can get me enticed to see a film, and this poster definitely got me to see the trailer the first time, which then got me to see the film. I just love that image of actor Aaron  Johnson as John Lennon with those thick black horn-rimmed glasses, a cigarette poking out of his mouth, and his guitar around his shoulder. Along with the colors and textures in the poster, it’s one of my favorites from 2010.

If you’re looking for a good solid movie set in the past with interesting history into the character development of a man and a musician like John Lennon, Nowhere Boy is a new release definitely worth seeing. While I’m not sure how many repeat viewings this film will get in the future from me, my first viewing was enjoyable and well worth the time. The Blu-ray presentation is definitely the way to go here since the colors and details in the photography need the higher definition format to really sing.

 

Under The Hood – Movie Poster

I was working on editing the photos for my upcoming Under The Hood short film, when during that process, the image that you see in the above poster really inspired me. I did my usual tweaking of color and contrast to the photo, then started adding text to create some sort of promo image for the short film. Eventually after a few hours of playing with the text, I came up with this idea of aligning the title of the film with the sloping tailgate of the truck in the image. And then came the other text along side it. And then came the addition of all the extra white space above the truck to give the poster the typical vertical orientation. Plus I loved the composition of the the truck weighing down the bottom part of the poster and negative space giving the top an “airy” and light feeling.

BAM!!!…Here’s my new movie poster for this short film project. It’s got me inspired to get cranking on editing the film and getting a rough cut. I think I’ve got music selected for it too, which was also part of the inspiration for the poster design. Seems like most things I design start with music somehow. It’s music that really feeds my creative spirit and gets my artistic soul singing!

Here’s the original raw photo that I started with for comparison:

Tron: Legacy

FILM RATING:  3.5 stars

I saw Tron: Legacy (2010) on the big screen on opening day a few weeks ago. The visual architecture of the film is simply breathtaking. The music and sound of the film is deep, powerful, and incredible. Daft Punk created an incredible score for this film, worthy of checking out on its own. I’m absolutely amazed at how this digital world was imagined and created. Director Joseph Kosinski, with his education and background in architecture, was clearly the brilliant Architect of the Tron: Legacy world in his directorial debut. I can’t believe Kosinski was trusted with this massive film in his first outing as a director. There are scenes that are simply EPIC and will live on forever in cinematic history. I had goosebumps and chills at times in anticipation from the visuals and music. But as an overall film, Tron: Legacy didn’t quite live up to my high expectations from watching the trailers over the last year. It’s a good film…very much worthy of seeing on the big screen for its spectacle and digital wonderland. But beyond its eye- and aural-candy, the movie felt a bit empty. It tried so hard to have the soul of a great film. But like the lesson it tries to teach through its story, it’s imperfection that is perfect…not perfection. Perfection is actually imperfect. And Tron: Legacy tries to be a little too perfect.

I give Tron:Legacy 3.5 stars out of 5. It’s definitely entertaining in many ways, as I mentioned above. The marketing for the film worked for me, because I’ve been anticipating this film for over a year and I just had to see it in the theater opening day…even though I was never a fan of the original film. I think the biggest flaws in the movie are the writing, acting, and directing. Neither fulfill on the promise that seemed possible in the trailers for this sequel to the original Tron (1982). Jeff Bridges and Garrett Hedlund, as father and son, do their best to bring life to the story and the relationship between them. But it’s all just too cold and empty. Both actors spurt out blips and blurbs but do nothing to tie what their saying to anything. Hedlund’s lines especially are just filled with cheap one-line bits, that lose their humor after awhile.

Again, it’s like the film is so “perfectly” scripted that it doesn’t allow for emotional imperfection to be portrayed on the big screen. I don’t really buy into the stories of the two main characters or their relationship. Hedlund, as Sam Flynn, doesn’t convey any emotion with his father Kevin (Jeff Bridges). His father’s been missing for years and years and yet there is no release of the incredible tension and emotion that one would think would be present between them. They just kind of waive off all those years and move on instantly, because that get’s us into more visual effects scenes. The story worked in the first act of the film, where it attempts to develop a relationship between father and son, but midway through the plot just fell apart. It became all about the chase and the action between the good guys and the bad guys. It fell into typical Hollywood blockbuster action and special effects mode with a hollow center.

As an Architect myself, I’ve spent much of my life looking at “perfect” photos of buildings, spaces, and landscapes. And for many years, I never paid attention to what was missing in all those photos. Instead, I always oohed and awed over the building’s structure, materials, details, etc. I’d notice the furniture, the light fixtures, the plants, the artwork, the door hardware, and all the things that go into creating architecture. What was missing? People. People are imperfect…so they are almost always left out of architectural photos. But people are who use architecture. People are who design and build and enjoy the buildings and spaces that we architects create. “The Grid” in the world of Tron feels more like an architecture photo to me than a movie. I oohed and awed while I looked at Tron’s incredible structures, materials, and details. But after being satisfied as an Architect, I became dissatisfied as a Cinephile and a person. Movies ultimately are about people and their stories and their emotions and their imperfections. Architecture is an incredible art and I love being an Architect, creating things from nothing but my imagination. But it’s people who are important both on the screen, behind the screen, and in front of the screen. And it’s our stories that keep us interested in the screen. I think Director/Architect Joseph Kosinski naively got lost in creating buildings, spaces, and the world of Tron, like most architects would, and didn’t spend enough time creating the people, characters and emotions to inhabit that incredible world. I’ll be curious to see what he creates next time.