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Posts Tagged ‘The Hollywood Reporter’

Uncle John (2015)

Sunday, September 20th, 2015

Steven Piet, John Ashton and Erik Crary on the set of Uncle John.

As the film’s publicity materials succinctly note, “small town bully turned born again Christian, Dutch, has gone missing. Well-regarded member of the community, John, is not a suspect, but has everything to do with it. Dutch’s younger brother, Danny, has his own theory about the disappearance and it centers on John.

Meanwhile, John’s nephew, Ben, arrives in town with his new girlfriend Kate just as John finds himself confronted with threats from Danny.” And that’s just the beginning of one of the most beguiling and mesmeric films in recent memory, made by two young men in sixteen days on an absolutely minimal budget. But as David Lynch noted on his Twitter feed, “check out @UncleJohnMovie – it caught me up and held me for days!”

As Neil Genzlinger noted in a rave review in The New York Times, “the simmering mystery Uncle John is so subtle, so exquisitely paced and so determined not to go in any of the obvious directions that it’s hard to believe the film is Steven Piet’s first feature. Piet, who with Erik Crary also wrote the script, sketches some memorable characters while keeping his two-pronged story sparse, ominous and deliciously ambiguous.

John Ashton is just right as the inscrutable title character, an older fellow in a rural town where an unlikable man named Dutch has gone missing. Shortly before his disappearance, Dutch apparently found Jesus, and he had been visiting various townspeople, confessing to misdeeds and such. Dutch and John’s sister were an item long ago, but something murky happened to the sister, and perhaps now something murky has happened to Dutch.

While all of this is being slowly revealed, many miles away in Chicago a young man named Ben is becoming smitten with a new co-worker, Kate. Alex Moffat and Jenna Lyng are very watchable as this might-become-a-couple, but what do they have to do with the goings-on out in the country? Turns out Ben has a beloved uncle who raised him, a man by the name of John. And when the two young flirters head his way for an impromptu visit, all secrets will be revealed. Or will they? It’s tantalizing, sublimely creepy stuff that keeps you guessing even after the credits roll.”

Added Frank Scheck in The Hollywood Reporter, Uncle John’s “other virtue is reintroducing John Ashton to the screen in his first major role in decades. The character actor, memorable for his sardonic comic turns in Midnight Run and the Beverly Hills Cops movies, delivers an understated but career-defining performance as the title character.

Seen disposing of a body in the film’s opening moments, John is an unassuming widower who looks like he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Whether engaging in small town gossip with his buddies at the coffee shop or politely ignoring the flirtations of one of his carpentry clients, he maintains a low-key demeanor that is only betrayed by the quiet intensity of his gaze . . .

The film is an impressive dual calling card for its tyro director who keeps the tension at a simmering boil throughout both genres. And the late-career performance by the veteran Ashton (sans his usual mustache) is a revelation. The now 67-year-old actor has been steadily employed over the years, but he’s rarely had a role as good as this one and it’s a pleasure to watch him run away with it.”

You can also read an excellent interview with the director and screenwriter in Indiewire, in which Piet and Crary note that “throughout the process, we tried very hard to keep from becoming precious about the whole project. Not that its easy — trying to get a micro-budget film together is all-encompassing because it requires your non-stop attention and a willingness to ask for endless favors.

However, keeping that framed inside the fact that the rest of the world is also doing its own thing was incredibly helpful. Without proper money, way more no’s than yes’s came in. But, by keeping things reasonable and honest, the yes’s we got were for the right reasons.

In terms of production specifically, micro-budget on this one meant there would be no room for indulgence, ego or indecision because it was all going to be over in 16 days anyway. By doing what we could in extensive prep to set that up for success, and by trying to maintain a collaborative, healthy vibe on set because you are all there making a movie together, the whole experience was the most difficult but satisfying thing attempted to date. For us, the goal now will just be respecting those lessons and trying to grow from it all as the next project gets set up.”

There’s one other person who really deserves mention here – cinematographer Mike Bove. Bove’s clean, CinemaScope-ish visuals, shot with an Alexa digital camera, really bring the film to life, and take full advantage of natural light and the sparse settings of the film, which was shot on location in Wisconsin, and briefly, in Chicago.

It seems that Piet and Crary had three different levels of budgeting to work with – the dream budget, the “B” level budget, and the bare bones budget, and what happened in the end is that they mostly used the “C” schedule, shooting only what they needed. And that’s good – it’s perfect the way it is.

This is a dazzling debut film - check out the trailer here.

Betrayal on Better Call Saul

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

Never a fan of Breaking Bad – I know, I know – I’m much more impressed with Better Call Saul.

Simply because there’s not that much on television on Monday nights – and I certainly wasn’t going to waste my time watching the Justin Bieber Roast – I turned on the “Pimiento” episode of Better Call Saul, and was blown away. As everyone knows, the entire series is a prequel of sorts to Breaking Bad, and I originally thought the whole show – in which Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy is in nearly every scene – would be played more for fast-talking laughs than anything else – after all, Odenkirk can motormouth with the best of them.

But with the re-introduction, so to speak, of Jonathan Banks as Mike – first seen in a parking lot toll booth as the series kicked off, and later edging into a much deeper character – the series got darker and more challenging, and last night’s episode, in which it was revealed that Jimmy’s brother, Chuck (Michael McKean) has been working against him all along, even as Jimmy struggled to take care of him, was simply devastating.

I must admit that I was rather annoyed with the initial eccentricity of Chuck’s character – covering himself against electromagnetic fields with aluminum foil, stealing newspapers off a neighbor’s lawn, the house lit with Coleman lanterns – but McKean really pulled it out last night with a scene that brought entire series thus far into focus.

As series producer Tom Schnauz, who also directed the episode, told Aaron Couch in The Hollywood Reporter, Bob Odenkirk has “been phenomenal all year. He came in after reading the scene and knowing the importance of what it means to the series. He and Michael McKean did their homework. They studied the hell out of it. Figured out what the intricacies of it were and just knocked it out of the park.

Fortunately as a director I had to do very little guidance as far as directing the emotion of the scene. They came in, sat down. We read through it and once they started adding the emotion to the scene, they knew exactly what it needed. I didn’t have to do very much other than say put the camera here and point it at them.

The whole scene was a favorite of mine — Jimmy going after Chuck and trying to get him to break. When Chuck finally talks, the stuff he’s saying about ‘the law is sacred’ and ‘you’re a chimp with a machine gun’ and ‘you could do real damage,’ we as viewers, having seen Breaking Bad, know Chuck might be right about this. Even though what he’s done is really, really horrible, we know who Saul Goodman is. People in the future die and get hurt because of his actions.

If not for Breaking Bad, I think this scene would have another feeling to it. I think half the audience is going to listen to Chuck and say ‘what a jerk.’ I think some people will listen to him and think ‘he’s not too far off. Maybe he’s giving the correct advice.’ We don’t know — would Jimmy turn into Saul Goodman if not for Chuck’s horrible actions? Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy? Or was Slippin’ Jimmy always going to be become Saul Goodman? We’ll never know.”

Which makes Better Call Saul fascinating television.

Cinematography Roundtable – The Hollywood Reporter

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

The Hollywood Reporter’s Cinematography Roundtable is an invaluable video seminar.

As Gregg Kilday and Carolyn Giardina note in the text that accompanies this revealing half-hour discussion, “The visionaries behind some of the year’s most visually striking movies — Unbroken, Into the Woods, Gone Girl, The Theory of Everything, Noah and Mr. Turner — open up about everything from how to develop a relationship with a director to high-dynamic-range technologies

They’re sad that instead of projecting movies on film, theaters have turned to digital projection — even if it means they no longer have to worry about scratched or fraying prints. They’re resigned to the fact that reviewers never quite know what to make of their work. And especially when filming outdoors, they always keep one eye on the weather — in fact, veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, 65, confessed he has four weather apps on his phone to make sure he remains prepared.

Fortunately the sun was shining when Deakins, who recently finished shooting Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, got together at THR’s invitation with five fellow directors of photography: Into the Woods’ Dion Beebe, 46; Gone Girl’s Jeff Cronenweth, 52; The Theory of Everything’s Benoit Delhomme, 53; Noah’s Matthew Libatique, 46; and Mr. Turner’s Dick Pope, 67. They happily compared notes on their recent movies, which took them from the biblical realm of Noah to the 19th century British salons of Mr. Turner to the contemporary crime scenes of Gone Girl.

[But their work goes largely unappreciated by most observers. As Benoit Delhomme noted] ‘for me, it’s incredible to realize that what you can expect as a DP is to get one line at the end of the review saying just two words about your work.’ [Added Deakins,] ‘People confuse pretty with good cinematography. [The late cinematographer] Freddie Francis said there is good cinematography and bad cinematography, and then there’s the cinematography that’s right for the movie. I often feel that if reviewers don’t mention your work, it’s probably better than if they do.’”

Having just finished a book on the history of black and white cinematography on a worldwide basis, Black & White: A Brief History of Monochrome Cinema, which will be published by Rutgers University Press in late 2015, I can attest that this is absolutely true. As fate or luck would have it, I knew Freddie Francis very well from 1984 up until his death, and watched him at work on the sets of several films he either directed or photographed, and it’s absolutely true that most reviewers and critics have absolutely no idea of what the DP does on a film, or the degree of input they have on the final project.

Most often, from the beginning of cinema up to the present day, directors are more than content to take all the credit for the visual design of a film, when in fact the choice of a DP on any given film tells you much about how the finished project will look. I often think about the bold black and white work of DP John L. Russell on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award – but lost out to Freddie Francis for Sons and Lovers – and while Hitchcock was certainly an assured and accomplished visual stylist, it’s clear to me that Russell’s work on the film was a major factor in the overall impact of the film.

But as with the DPs discussing their work here, credit often is not readily forthcoming, and so this discussion is an invaluable look behind the scenes for those who stick to a strictly “auteurist” view of the cinema – without the DP, you wouldn’t have any images on the screen at all.

The best DPs in cinema history, such as James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Freddie Francis, Stanley Cortez, Nicholas Musuraca, Robert Krasker, John Alton, Boris Kaufman, Gunnar Fischer, Sven Nykvist, Karl Freund, Fritz Arno Wagner, John Seitz, Robert Burks and many others created an alluring and phantasmal world out of nothing more than light and shadow, transforming the real world into a cinematic trompe-l’œil which was so seductive and all – encompassing that it became an entirely new universe. It’s only right that we acknowledge and celebrate their contribution to cinema history.

You can see the entire video by clicking here, or on the image above.

Netflix Steps Into Feature Films

Friday, October 3rd, 2014

Netflix plans to make feature films that bypass traditional theatrical exhibition entirely.

As Gregg Kilday writes in The Hollywood Reporter, “Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos shook up the Hollywood status quo twice this week with a couple of announcements signaling that the streaming video service is out to up-end the existing movie business just as it’s challenged the television industry. On Sept. 29, he announced a deal with the Weinstein Co. to finance the sequel Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend, which will premiere on Netflix and in Imax theaters on Aug. 28. In a backlash from theater owners, exhibition giants Regal, AMC Theatres and Cinemark said they wouldn’t show the film on their own Imax screens.

Then, the following day, Sarandos announced an even more ambitious pact:  a deal to make four movies starring and produced by Adam Sandler (who also retains a non-exclusive, first-look deal at Sony). All four movies will debut exclusively on Netflix. Having dropped those two bombshells, Sarandos explains how Netflix’s growing global imprint has influenced the decision to begin producing original movies, why Sandler was willing to forego theatrical releases for the films and how exhibitors, resisting change, have all reacted ‘in lockstep.’”

This is a real game changer – you can read the entire story by clicking here, or on the image above.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

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