All posts by Ben Cahlamer

Editorial: When navigating an asteroid field, never tell Kathleen Kennedy the odds.

Forty-eight hours ago, the social media world went ablaze with the news that director-duo Chris Miller and Phil Lord were dismissed from their untitled Han Solo origin movie assignment amid creative differences with Lucasfilm prexy, Kathleen Kennedy.

Principal photography began in February at London’s Pinewood Studios and much had already been completed with Miller and Lord at the helm.  According to their press release via Deadline on Tuesday, Lucasfilm plans to stick to their May, 2018 release date.  Many questions have been asked and much speculation has occurred about what those ‘creative differences’ might have been.

According to a release by Polygon today, those creative differences might have been between producer-scribe Lawrence Kasdan and the directors, who it was claimed set out to make their own film, not necessarily a Star Wars film.  It seems they were brought on by Kennedy to bring a comedic touch.  But, Miller and Lord are more well-known to their fan base as a comedy duo, not a dramatic duo with a comedic touch.  Although their efforts were completely collaborative, it was apparent that the studio was not getting the film they thought they were.  “Not wanting to part ways with the man who has helped define the voice of Star Wars, the Lucasfilm team decided to pursue a director who would abide by Kasdan and the studio’s vision.”

More important on the minds of the fandom was who was going to replace Lord and Miller.

Variety mentioned on Tuesday that Oscar-winning director Ron Howard was in the running.  And when it was officially announced this morning, the internet went up in flames once again.

According to IMDB, Howard has 42 directorial credits to his name, including the untitled Han Solo film.  He won Best Picture with producing partner Howard Grazer for A Beautiful Mind and was nominated for Director and Picture, along with Grazer and Eric Fellner for 2008’s engrossing Frost/Nixon.

With his caliber, I would have thought that the world would have embraced his new directorial assignment, but it seems that it was anything but.  Many people I heard from wanted the Lord/Miller vision and don’t believe that Howard has it within him to bring this picture to fruition.

There was also concern voiced about how much of the film would be reshot.  According to Variety on Tuesday, the film is still in production with several weeks of re-shoots that have been in the planning stages for quite some time.

The fan boy in me has the same questions on my mind, but realty must give way – this is a business.  Disney is in the business of making money for its shareholders and has entrusted Kathleen Kennedy to steer the ship.  Kasdan, who has been involved with the franchise since The Empire Strikes Back really does have his finger on the pulse of what makes Star Wars so great.

Is it enough to simply have the pulse of a forty-year-old franchise?

I don’t think it’s a secret that I wasn’t a fan of Rogue One and that I’ve needed to watch The Force Awakens a couple of times to finally warm up to it.  Yes, they are Star Wars and they carry George’s vision forward, so I have respect for what they are.  But they also felt too formulaic with characters that we’ve seen before in many other universes (yes, I’m looking at you MCU).

Scott Mendelson over at Forbes has an interesting premise that I agree with. “In order to be all they can be, and frankly that includes hiring writers and directors who aren’t all young(ish) white guys, the Star Wars Story films have to be able to afford to fail.” My impression of the Star Wars Story origin films was that they were meant to be bold and brash, much like the original Star Wars was in 1977.

When George Lucas pitched his Star Wars in the 1970’s no established studio wanted to take a risk on his story, despite having established himself with American Graffiti and THX-1138.  We seem to be in a similar quandary today, where established directors with completely different visions for now-established characters are shown the exit because they don’t fit with the overall vision.

Mendelson makes another great point: “…as tempting as it might be to look at Kathleen Kennedy as a micromanaging producer who wants to make every Star Wars into A) her own vision of what that might look like and B) similar in tone and content to The Force Awakens, it is her reputation on the line.”

Kennedy has had a long-standing personal and working relationship with George Lucas.  She understands what this universe needs and I don’t believe she would allow it to fail.  At the same time, she needs to be willing to take risks.

Lord and Miller were definitely the risks this franchise was looking for.  They have their own built-in fan base who would have come to see this film in droves.  Yet, they weren’t necessarily fans of Star Wars and that’s where the path diverges.  The long term viability of the franchise could have been put in jeopardy.

Ron Howard, who gave us the amazing Rush, Edtv, Apollo 13, Night Shift, Splash, Parenthood, Backdraft and Willow has big shoes to fill as no other director has been asked to step in so late in to a project.  Given his impressive resume, I am confident that he can carry this movie forward.

“I’m taking an awful risk, Vader.  This had better work.” While this is still a risk for Kennedy, it is not the same level risk as Tarkin’s was by placing the homing device on the Millennium Falcon. My confidence level in this film has not changed.  With Howard at the helm, I believe Lord and Miller’s vision will be retained and that their influence in the script will give us the light touch we’re looking for.  Of course, I’m one blogger with a limited voice.  What do I know?

Did I mention that Ron Howard played the lead role of Steve in George Lucas’s American Graffiti along with Harrison Ford?

The Force does work in mysterious ways.

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Review: Michael Mann’s subversive ‘Blackhat’ is uniquely familiar.

In the past, if you wanted to steal money, you would hire a professional safe cracker or you might grab a few ski masks and AK-47’s to rob a bank in broad daylight.  In those instances, people didn’t get hurt as a result of the stolen money, only institutions.

Today, sophisticated criminals use the digital world to do their dirty work – hackers and network specialists hide their trails among the 1’s and 0’s; the bits and bytes of data.  If you’re good enough, you might even be able to affect the course of every day goods and services, thus affecting everyday people.

If both of these scenarios sound like the basis of any number of Michael Mann’s films, you’d be absolutely correct.  And, while we pay homage to Thief and Heat, we must acknowledge his foray into the digital underworld with Blackhat.

Inspired by the Stuxnet computer worm, Mann worked with former editor turned screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl to deliver a taut, if somewhat glacially-paced thriller.  Chris Hemsworth plays Hathaway, an imprisoned hacker who is furloughed when a nuclear reactor overheats and a stock exchange is hacked, causing soy futures to rise.  Hathaway’s former college roommate, Chinese captain Chen Dawai played by Leehom Wang discovers that Hathaway’s code was used to infiltrate the various affected systems.  Viola Davis plays FBI Agent Carol Barrett.

Foehl’s script is steeped in rich characters and locations that span the globe while Mann, true to his form, is authentic to his subject matter maintaining his tried and true style of filmmaking.  The result is a thriller that modern audiences can relate to.

Hemsworth’s casting was criticized at the time of the film’s release, suggesting that he looked too good to be a hacker.  However, he carries the narrative and his magnetic attraction to Chen Lien (Tang Wei), Chen Dwai’s sister, is as strong as Eady’s relationship with McCauley in Heat, Isabella and Crockett’s relationship in Miami Vice or Jessie’s relationship with Frank in Thief – each of these relationships are just as dynamic and as important to the overall story.  Mann chose to use Lien here as much as he used Isabella in Vice; each a fundamental reason why our main protagonists continued on to their logical conclusions.

If there were any criticisms here, they would be leveled at the antagonist, Sadak played by Yorick van Wageningen.  Although he was vindictive enough to have cooked up the plan, his motives were not well-laid out, though they are understood.  Sadak is not the anti-hero we are used to seeing and there is not the same dynamic between he and Hathaway, giving us only glimpses of threats under the murkiness of the Internet.  Perhaps, this is the film’s genius in that today’s society can very easily hide behind a firewall, never meeting another real person, releasing threats with just the stroke of a couple of keys.

For dramatic purposes, that theory holds water.  But we need meat and potatoes, people.

Where McCauley had a dynamic relationship with Vincent Hannah or Vincent had with Max, the virtual dynamic here is nowhere near as strong as the aforementioned visual dynamics.  For Blackhat, the visual dynamic is laid between Hathaway and Kassar (Ritchie Coster), Sadak’s henchman who also operates in the shadows, but is more representative of the worldly threat.  And, this is the film’s major downfall.  The story could not balance all three relationships.

Stuart Dryburgh carried on the photo-realistic look that permeates Mann’s films, similar to Dion Beebee’s work in Miami Vice and even more reminiscent of Beebee’s and Paul Cameron’s work in Collateral where the colors are oversaturated and the image is frenetically on the move, almost as if they smeared Vaseline on the edges of the lens and paned the camera rapidly.  The use of 2.35:1 really lent a global perspective to the film, becoming a character of its own.

Harry Gregson-Williams and Atticus Rose each contributed to the film’s score.  Reportedly, Mann abandoned Gregson-Williams’ score almost completely favoring Rose’s despite both getting screen credit.

I saw the film when it hit theaters in 2015 and I was not initially a fan. Like any good Mann film, I gave it the benefit of the doubt.  FX recently debuted a director’s cut of the film which makes one major change in the film’s timeline, but doesn’t take or add any additional scenes.  The change does improve the flow of the film.

Blackhat is a unique entry in Mann’s collection of film, authentic to its core while carrying his familiar themes.  Despite my earlier misgivings, it is better than I remember and is a worthy addition to his body of work.

Review: Disney’s latest “Pirates” entry treads familiar waters

Full of witchery, imagination, humor and a lot of water, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales finds our hero, Captain Jack Sparrow in the throes of a British jail, scheduled to be executed.  The British are also holding Henry Turner, one of their own and the sole survivor of an encounter with the cursed, undead Captain Salazar.  Salazar left Turner alive to tell Sparrow of his impending reckoning.  Turner is on a quest for the Trident of Poseidon.  While the British Navy doesn’t believe Turner, the mysterious Carina offers to help him find the Trident.  Sparrow’s ally, Captain Barbosa returns, buying him the necessary time to outwit Salazar.

Tales features the directing duo of Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, whose Academy Award – nominated high-seas adventure film Kon-Tiki, made them perfectly suited for this film. Or so we thought.

Johnny Depp returns as the bemused Jack Sparrow.  His performance treads the same waters (pardon the pun) as the previous entries only without the same stamina.  Kaya Scodelario’s Carina starts out strong and meanders in the middle, doing very little until the third act.  Geoffrey Rush’s Barbosa is an absolute hoot in the film, his function as a “middleman” is the most effective role in the film.  Javier Bardem was the perfect actor to play the villain, Salazar.  The role felt like Ahab-incarnate, but Bardem plays it to the hilt truly anchoring the film.

Terry Rossio co-wrote a revised script with Jeff Nathanson.  Rossio had a familiarity with the characters; Nathanson brought the same vigor he shared with George Lucas and their Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull script.

The result here was convoluted.  Perhaps this is why Brenton Thwaites seemed to get lost in the background unless he was onscreen with Depp.  Much like the Indiana Jones – Mutt Williams relationship in Crystal Skull, Sparrow is the protagonist yet it really felt like Turner’s story.

Tales echoes Crystal Skull and not in a good way.  The film was very effects heavy; the characters are strong, but they rely on technology to tell far too much of the story and the payoff got muddled. There is one particular special effects sequence featuring the Black Pearl where I genuinely laughed.

Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg tried their very best, but they were out of their depth.  That’s not to say that the film is a complete miss.

Javier Bardem and Geoffrey Rush rose to the challenge, elevating with and above the effects.  Johnny Depp is solid, but the character is waning.   A protégé of Hans Zimmer, Geoff Zanelli resurrects Zimmer’s famous cues from prior Pirates’ entries reminding us that we’re supposed to be enjoying our adventure on the high seas.  A lack of fresh cues pulls us out.

The overly convoluted Dead Men Tell No Tales is full of characters that don’t fully work. In an uncanny irony, Sparrow utters “I have a rendezvous beyond my horizon” at the end of the film.  Perhaps Mr. Bruckheimer and Disney will see that horizon for what it is and bring the series to a conclusion, sooner rather than later.

Review: Jack Sholder’s action-horror “The Hidden” is a diamond in the rough.

While the modern world enjoys Kyle MacLachlan in his current turn as Dale Cooper in “Twin Peaks,” I decided to celebrate his cult status with the classic The Hidden.

Recommended to me by several film friends earlier this year, Jack Sholder’s taut action-horror film features MacLachlan as young FBI agent Lloyd Gallagher on the hunt for an alien parasite that can and needs to move between hosts to survive.  Gallagher is partnered with Michael Nouri’s Tom Beck, a seasoned LAPD homicide detective.

This was MacLachlan’s third turn following his roles in Dune and the wild cult-classic Blue Velvet.  Here, he relies more on his ability to emote rather than speak, carrying a certain amount of stoicism throughout the majority of film.  Nouri’s Beck, a family man, is very much the voice of the duo, echoing the audience’s sentiments of mistrust, concern and intrigue.  Nouri’s performance was nominated for a Best Actor Saturn Award and he won in the same category at Sitges.

Jack Sholder, who had just directed A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 was an appropriate choice here.  His style is open and head-on, going for mostly wider shots.  Under the pen name of Bob Hunt, Jim Kouf’s (Money Monster) script does an excellent job of building a rich history of each character, layering in the mystery and intrigue.  Kouf disassociated himself from the project when New Line refused to allow him to direct the film.  Sholder stepped in to re-work some of the script moving it from a purely action film to an action-horror hybrid.

Many of the characters are on screen for a short while only to have their personalities altered when the parasite consumes their bodies.  Kouf’s script and Sholder’s direction make for an effective transition in each supporting character.  Of the supporting characters, William Boyett’s Jonathan Miller, who’s imposing presence was the most fun to watch.  The always scintillating Claudia Christian is a tease here.  She may be on screen for only a few minutes, but they were a blast.  A young Richard Brooks, who would go on to play the assistant D.A. in early seasons of “Law and Order” gives a very convincing performance.  I had to rewind a certain sequence twice to catch Danny Trejo’s cameo.

The most surprising turn in the entire movie is Ed O’Ross’s Detective Cliff Willis.  Mr. O’Ross is normally known for playing “rough n’ tumble” characters and here his imposing nature works for both approaches.  His character’s fate is revealed if you’ve seen the one-sheet poster, but that’s the charm of the story:  you never know who will be consumed next.

Taking advantage of the Halloween weekend, New Line opened The Hidden in 1,045 screens on October 30, 1987, taking in $2.5 million its first weekend.  It would remain in the Top 10 the following weekend, before falling off eventually taking in $9.7 million domestically.   Though it did not run very long in theaters, it’s resurgence on home video and television has certainly elevated the film to cult-classic status.

Running a tight 96 minutes, Jack Sholder’s The Hidden holds up after all these years.  The themes it explores are still as relevant as ever and Michael Nouri and Kyle MacLachlan leave a lasting impression.

Essential Viewing: James Burnett’s neo-realistic “Killer of Sheep” is timely and timeless.

In today’s flash-in-the-pan film environment where a perfectly-timed explosion, laugh, or shout punctuates a non-existent narrative, it’s very rare that I am floored by a film. Yes, I find every film to have a redeeming quality, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that something is good.

When I do find something good, that is worthy of sharing, I make it a point to do so.

That’s why when a friend mentioned a screening of Charles Burnett’s 1978 film, Killer of Sheep and ‘film school’ in the same fell swoop I knew I had to see this.

With a budget of $10,000 and a skeleton crew, Burnett wrote, directed, produced, shot, and edited what would become his master’s thesis film for the UCLA film program.

The interesting thing about Sheep is that the narrative is a series of vignettes focused on the characters and their environments.  The film nearly felt non-narrative, and yet, the vignettes work together forming a neo-realistic theme of a father trying to make a better life for his kids.

Set in the Watts area of Los Angeles, Stan, his wife and two kids are barely making ends meet.  Stan works long hours in a slaughterhouse.  Rather than turning to a life of petty crime, it’s the best work that he can find.  Stan has trouble sleeping and tries to evade his wife, while raising a son who would rather be out with his friends, getting in to trouble and a daughter who is also vying for his attention. With the help of his friend Bracy, Stan tries to buy an engine so that they can get a more reliable car.  They eventually end up worse off than they started.

Other than Stan and Bracy, Burnett did not name the main characters, but one doesn’t mind this.  He gave each of his characters a visceral richness that transcended the need for names.

Burnett shot the entire film on 16mm Black & White film in the Academy aspect ratio.  His use of close-ups was jarring at times, and at others, certain images fell partially out of frame.  Despite this, he created an intimacy out of the despair that Stan must’ve felt as he was struggling for a better life.  This dichotomy was never more prescient than during a dance scene between Stan and his wife.   In that scene, his wife was trying to be intimate while you could clearly see that Stan was focusing his attention elsewhere.

The completed film garnered a number of awards and many accolades when it was screened in 1978 at the Berlin and Toronto film festivals.  It did not receive a wide release due to complications in securing the rights to the 22 songs Burnett included in the film.

It sat for 30 years as a result.

In 2007, the UCLA Film and Television Archives and Milestone Films restored the 16mm prints and transferred them over to 35mm.  The restoration was completed due in part to a donation from Steven Soderbergh, who also paid the $150,000 to license the soundtrack.

Officially released on March 30, 2007 in select US and Canadian cinemas, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep is an austere portrait of someone who wants to do better for himself and his family, and yet he is so utterly unable to alter his life.

While I can’t say that Stan’s life worked out for the better, I can say that this neo-realist portrait is something that will stick with me forever.  The film appeared on several critics’ top ten lists of 2007; it has been inducted into the United States Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1990, and was chosen by the National Society of Film Critics as one of the 100 Essential Films.

‘Hope’ spawned an ‘Empire’: Celebrating 40 years of ‘Star Wars’.

“…There’s nothing here for me now. I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father.” ~ Luke Skywalker

sw-40th-logo696With two films under his belt, a young and relatively inexperienced director made a journey that would take him from the deep Saharan Desert, to the rain forests of Guatemala and the comfortable studios just outside London.

This young director would not only go on to revolutionize the way films were produced, but he would also develop sound techniques and visual effects systems that would allow him to tell his story, creating several cottage industries along the way.

Oh, and he would revolutionize the term ‘summer blockbuster.’

As with anyone finding their way in the world, roadblocks would ensue and a patient studio executive with an impatient board would push our young hero to his limits, and back again.

I am, of course referring to George Lucas and his small-ish Sci-fi-opera, Star Wars which opened in a limited release forty years ago, today.

By the time shooting started inImage-0 March, 1976, the story wasn’t completed with Lucas making adjustments along the way.  He also had a young, inexperienced trio of actors in the lead roles with two legendary actors who might have all questioned Mr. Lucas’ sanity more than once.

In the lead role of young Luke Skywalker was Mark Hamill who got his start in television on “General Hospital” in 1963.  He was recommended by Robert Englund for his first theatrical role.  Joining Hamill was the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, Carrie Fisher.  Fisher was 19 when she filmed Star Wars, young enough and rebellious enough to portray Princess Leia Organa.  She was stunning in her performance and held her own against the roguish, charming Harrison Ford who would play Han Solo, a fighter pilot with a few tricks up his sleeves.

Rounding out the cast were Peter Cushing as the cunning, evil Grand Moff Tarkin and Sir Alec Guinness as Obi-wan “Ben” Kenobi, a wizard of sorts with a mysticism about him that Luke very much wants to learn about, and Han tries to completely avoid.  British actors Sir Antony Daniels and Kenny Baker would play our lovable ‘droids, See-Threepio (C-3P0) and Artoo Deetoo (R2-D2), respectively.  David Prowse plays the role of Darth Vader, while an initially uncredited James Earl Jones would voice Darth Vader, a menacing hulk of blackness, threatening to anyone who would get in his way.  Peter Mayhew would play a 7’ furry, yet friendly creature named Chewbacca, the first mate on the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo’s ship.

Lucas had clout from his success with Universal’s American Graffiti but, he did not have the money to produce the film.  So he convinced Alan Ladd, Jr. at 20th Century Fox to bankroll the $8.4 million budget on the condition that Lucas would retain the rights to future sequels and the merchandising rights.

Technical and labor problems in both Tunisia and England put Lucas behind schedule several times throughout the production causing the release to be delayed from Christmas, 1976 to summer, 1977.

The first cut of the film was a disaster forcing Lucas to bring on two editors, Paul Hirsch and Richard Chew, who would tighten up the film’s pacing.  Lucas found that he didn’t have enough footage and convinced Ladd to release additional funds to cover the budget shortfall so that they could get the necessary Second Unit shots completed.

On the recommendation of Steven Spielberg, John Williams was brought on to compose a score that would be as whimsical as the images it was set to.  Scoring over 12 days in March, 1977, Williams would deliver a stunning, memorable score evoking thoughts of the Flash Gordon serials that Lucas based his Star Wars  on. Yes, he had influences from other sources, but the allusion towards Gordon is one of the most apparent.

“This will be a day long remembered….”

Fox did not initially believe in the success of the film, instead hedging its bet on Charles Jarrott’s The Other Side of Midnight.  They booked Mann’s Chinese Theater and 32 other theaters across the nation on Star Wars’ initial release, May 25, 1977.  Mann’s held the film for two weeks before William Friedkin’s Sorcerer took its place.

In an unprecedented move, Fox convinced Mann’s to bring Star Wars back on August 3, 1977, this time with all the trimmings of a gala premiere. At that time, 1,096 theaters had the film and approximately 50 theaters ran the film non-stop for an entire year.

1977-recording-of-star-wars-audience-reaction-in-movie-theater

Star Wars would go on to set or break numerous box office records during its initial theatrical run that it was re-released in 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, and 1982.

The box office take was not enough, receiving six Oscar statuettes at the 50th Academy Awards, including Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound, and Best Visual Effects.  Alec Guinness was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Lucas would get nods for Best Original Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture, losing out to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.  Not too bad for a film that no one believed in.

Lucas would revisit the film after Spielberg was able to successfully use computer generated special effects in 1993’s Jurassic Park and in 1997, Star Wars and its sequels, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back and 1983’s  Return of the Jedi received a digital overhaulSpecialEditionPoster with enhanced effects, sound and new sequences.  They were all three released theatrically during the late winter and early spring of 1997.

I was 13 months old when Star Wars was first released.  My older brother got me in to mania with the toys and the action figures.  Many days were spent with my imagination flowing.  I remember watching a badly copied VHS copy of The Empire Strikes Back and finally seeing Return of the Jedi on it’s theatrical release in 1983.  I was in college when the Special Editions were released and made it a point to see them all as many times as I could.

Fundamentally, Star Wars works because it is a story of hope and yet it’s greatest strength is in its characters and the actors Lucas found to play them.

Now, forty years later, Disney is continuing Mr. Lucas’s efforts with a sequel trilogy. Our favorite characters have returned to us and we will continue to see the ‘Adventures of Luke Skywalker’ this Christmas with The Last Jedi.

As we celebrate forty years of the Force, of Wookies, of Rebellions and dreams, we remember those who have passed before us.  The Force is strong with them.

There isn’t a day that goes by where I say “thank you” to Mr. Lucas for inspiring me.  He gave me hope.  He still gives me hope.

“A New Hope” that is.