Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

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Movies That Made Me #1- “Hard Target”

January 26, 2018

In what I hope will be a repeated, if not entirely regular, series, I thought I’d look at some of the films that have influenced me as a filmmaker. Now before people get all commenty in the comments section (best place to do it other than a toilet wall somewhere), most of these are not going to be undisputed classics. In fact most of these films would prompt an expression of confused disgust from many filmmakers and movie aficionados. But, good or bad, they have had an effect on me and the way I perceive and make films to this day.

These are the movies that made me.

First up to bat, it’s the slow motion Jean Claude Van Damme action vehicle and mullet enthusiast’s propaganda film, “Hard Target.”

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For a teenage boy growing up in the early 90s, the local video rental shop was a godsend. I’ve mentioned it before, but my Dad knew a good deal when he saw it and for £10 a month, we could rent any three tapes we wanted, for as long as we wanted and swap them out as and when we felt like it. This meant that I saw pretty much every action movie ever made in the early years of that decade and for a boy who’d developed something of a fascination with martial arts (even before he took his first karate class), that was a lot of small screen inspiration.

I’d been a fan of Van Damme ever since I saw the first Universal Soldier, but it was Hard Target that really cemented him as an action star for me. It was also the film that introduced me to one of my greatest directorial influences, John Woo Yu Seng. It’s only in recent years that I can look back on Hard Target and see how profound an effect it had on me as a filmmaker.

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Don’t eat all your snake, Van Damme, or you won’t have room for your scorpion tortillas.

If you haven’t seen the flick, it’s John Woo’s first American movie and while it’s a mixed bag compared to his previous Hong Kong outings like The Killer and Hard Boiled, it was a tour de force for a thirteen year old boy who had never seen anything like Woo’s flavour of balletic action before. The remarkably thin plot is about a group of mercenaries turned entrepreneurs hunting homeless veterans for sport in New Orleans, with Van Damme playing one such vet trying to help a young woman find her previously hunted father. And while that might be an awkwardly long sentence, it does pretty much sum up the story of the movie in one breath.

New Orleans makes for an interesting backdrop, even if it’s usually just used as a generic “small town America” and the Deep South references are relegated to soundtrack cues and architecture, but it makes a change from the usual L.A/New York setting most 90s action flicks find themselves in. It helps give the film a bit of character- something most of its contemporaries on the straight to video shelves lacked.

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The acting itself is exactly what you’d expect from a 90s actioner directed by a man who didn’t speak English all that well- it’s pretty pish. Lance Henricksen and Arnold Vosloo are the best performers in the flick, Yancy Butler is alright but has very little to work with and JCVD… well, dialogue was never his strong suit, certainly not at this point in his career. Kicking people in the face, however, was, and while the movie isn’t overflowing with Van Damme’s usual bootwork, there are enough kicks mixed in with the gunplay to showcase what he can do.

Which brings me on to the action…

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Wide angle spinning split kick- the best moment in the film and possibly in JCVD’s entire career.

As a 14 year old boy, this film blew me away. I’d seen action films before obviously, but this was refreshingly different, high energy and balletic compared to the Schwarzenegger-style flicks I’d seen previously. Bad guys flew through the air when shot, guns held about seventy rounds per clip, everything exploded when hit and diving sideways while doves flew past was the preferred mode of locomotion. I fucking loved it. And looking back on it, it had a huge effect on me as a filmmaker.

What made this film stand out for me at the time was the way it’s shot and edited. Woo’s style uses double cuts, replays and changing film speed (in particular, his often-cited slow motion) to enhance the feeling of an action sequence, making them a thing of beauty as well as a visceral experience. But he also uses frequent big close-ups, smooth dolly shots and mirrored compositions to tell a story- such as when Van Damme and Vosloo have a mid-gunfight conversation back-to-back against a wall. A lot of the story is told visually- characters don’t explain their feelings in dialogue, they show it in their eyes and the way they react to the things around them. This is one of the things that I notice a lot in my own work- a story told through when and how characters react to events in the scene. Little looks and gestures given decent screen time to highlight them. Obviously, Woo wasn’t the first to do this- it’s kinda filmmaking 101- but for a kid who was only just starting to notice movies for the craft involved, Woo’s work was a revelation.

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So this is a “face.” But can it come “off?”

But probably the biggest takeaway for me was how Woo shoots and edits action. Action sequences rely on audiences understanding the geography of the location and having certain elements set up and paid off within the scene. For instance, the big finale takes place in this abandoned warehouse full of carnival floats, providing both a nice nod to the New Orleans setting and an interesting splash of colour to what could’ve been a drab and dingy location. The warehouse is a maze, full of all this junk and Woo sets up the size and creepy chaos with a suspenseful sequence where the bag guys led by Henricksen and Vosloo hunt for JCVD before all hell breaks loose. And it’s this suspense-release pattern that stood out amongst all the straight-to-VHS action films I’d been used to.

So, yes, it’s not the greatest film in the world and its not the greatest film in Woo’s catalogue, but Hard Target will always be the film that taught me how action design and editing worked. If you get a chance, it’s worth a look!

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The Great Filmmaking and Directing Book Review

June 25, 2013

While I’m more an advocate of experience-based training and learning-by-doing, there’s a certain amount of knowledge that can be fast-tracked by reading, watching and being lectured at. Since I’ve sadly been quite quiet on the production front, I’ve had little chance to learn by doing and in an effort to keep learning (and stay sane), I’ve been reading a fair bit recently. I’ve got tons of filmmaking and directing books, many of which I’ve never read properly or fully, so I thought it was high time I put eye to paper and read some of them.

I also get asked quite a bit about what good books and other resources there are for filmmakers and directors and I’ve wanted to do a post like this for a while, but couldn’t be arsed. I tend to be one of those people who buy books under the assumption you can absorb their wisdom by osmosis as opposed to, you know, reading them… so I have a quite a few to get through. Here are a few of my recommendations.

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Now I know most people are reading books on Kindle or ibooks now, but I prefer paper just like I like buying CDs and eating actual food as opposed to tofu. Why? Because it’s hard to flick through an ebook (and you look like a twat for trying), but for those who love the idea of books with fonts as big as your eyesight and pretention can take, I expect some of the books below are available in digital formats. Probably. If not, then just buy a paper copy, scan it to pdf and upload to your e-reader doodah of choice, you tech-loving freak, you…

 

Voice and Vision by Mick Hurbis-Cherrier (Focal Press)

9780240811581I wish I’d had this book at college. It would’ve been a great companion to the course. As it is, I discovered it well after I graduated and already knew and had internalised half of the info it held. If you’re an aspiring director, one of the best things you can do is get at least a basic working knowledge of everyone else’s job, from lighting and sound recording to editing and colour grading. This book covers the lot, not always to an overly in-depth level but enough to understand the various disciplines and thus the requirements of each role on set, making it ideal for the director looking to improve their technical understanding and communication, but also an excellent resource for the one-man- band filmmaker.

It’s well-written, nicely laid out so as to not get dull and, unlike most filmmaking books, can actually be read from cover to cover if desired rather than picking through it looking for knowledge or inspiration like a child searching for marshmallows in a bowl of Lucky Charms. It’s illustrated throughout- even if some of the images are a little lacking in clarity or detail- and there are frequent box-outs explaining technical terms, highlighting film examples or sharing bite-sized Q&As with various filmmaking figures. Because of its technical nature, the information can become out of date quickly, so it’s probably worth seeking out the most recent edition (the author seems to knock a new version out every year or two!), although most of the contents are timeless and valid regardless of the technical advances the industry dangles in front of it. At about £30, it isn’t a cheap purchase, mind, but you’ll save a chunk of money by not needing to buy any other general production books.

Amazon link

 

The Filmmaker’s Eye by Gustavo Mercado (Focal Press)

9780240812175Together with Master Shots, this is one of those ideas books that you dig into when working through a script and need some ideas for great shots or coverage. The Filmmaker’s Eye goes through all the major shot types (and a few that you’ve never really thought about and/or are tenuously called “shots”) from the humble close up to dolly and tracking shots and describes how and why they work, their uses and effect for the audience. It also discusses technical considerations, lenses and potential pitfalls to make the shot work and illustrates with a paradigm example from a well-known film.

One of the more interesting things is the “breaking the rules” section where an innovative variation on the shot is examined, where the compositional rules are bent or broken yet work well for the film. While it might be a little too shallow for the experienced cinematographer, the glossy, full-colour look and an easy layout make this great book for the director looking for visual ideas.

Amazon link

 

Master Shots vol 2 by Christopher Kenworthy (Michael Wiese Productions)

image.phpYou know those long, narrow paperback filmmaking books Michael Wiese Productions keep churning out? Yeah, this is one of them and while it might not fit well on the bookshelf, it is still a necessary addition to the director’s library. Another visual ideas book, this one focuses on the one thing that’s very hard to get right or make interesting- dialogue scenes. I’ve mentioned it before, but I struggle with these a lot- making a two person page of dialogue come alive visually is harder than it looks. Fortunately, a quick flick through this book gets the brain thinking about ways to tackle staging, blocking and cinematography.

A hundred variations of two, three, four and more-person scenes are laid out, organised into groups based on the emotional and dramatic nature of the scene, such as “power struggles,” “intimacy” and “revealing plot.” This is unorthodox but brilliant for the director because it means you can look at compositions and staging based on what you need the scene to accomplish dramatically and the relationship between the characters. Like most books of this ilk, each shot or approach is explained using an example from a (vaguely) well-known film, together with screen shots and a computer model showing camera positions. There’s also another CG image showing a variation on the scene- although in most cases this is less a variation and more a CG version of the filmed shot, making it somewhat pointless. That aside, it’s a pretty good “flick through” book and somewhat unique in its content.

Amazon link

 

I’ll Be In My Trailer by John Badham (Michael Wiese Productions)

412Z8cgDmVLNow this one is a little different. It’s somewhere between a director’s survival guide and a book of anecdotes from the long career of director John Badham. It focuses on the working (and not-so-working) relationships between the director and actors, but there’re also bits about working with the studio and producers- basically, any potentially-career-or-project-destroying relationship a director might have to work with is detailed here. It’s an enjoyable read, particularly when you see behind the scenes of classic films like Saturday Night Fever, Short Circuit and Stakeout.

Is it a necessary book for the filmmaker? No. But if you’re looking at becoming a professional director, working with actors and producers alike, then this book will give you an inkling of some of the pitfalls that may lie ahead.

Amazon link

 

The Working Director by Charles Wilkinson (Michael Wiese Publications)

51GvgLJqwKL._SY445_Don’t be fooled by the cover depicting a bald man with neck pain (not sure what that’s trying to say about the director’s job), this book is about directing rather than chiropractic medicine. Unlike other directing books, though, this one is about a director’s career- how to get one and how to keep it. Interview technique, dealing with writers and producers, how to behave on set, maintaining cast and crew relationships, compromising, picking your battles, the ins and outs of the professional job, how to behave after your film is rightfully declared “shit”… Wilkinson goes over all the little things the professional director would normally learn through non-fatal career fuck-ups on their first few years of gigs, pointing out the pitfalls and survival tricks. It’s a great subject matter, particularly since the path to being a director is hardly well-charted and definitive. The only downside is it’s geared to the US industry, which can be a bit distracting when the TV network process and how a director works within it is discussed because it’s not quite the same as the UK equivalent.

That aside, if your serious about being a professional director (who gets paid to do it as their job) rather than a backyard auteur and closet Spielberg, this book is highly recommended to get you into the professional, career-focused mindset.

Amazon link

 

Now, I’ve got more film-related books on my bookcase- some I’ve read and some I’ve just looked at the covers, some are awesome additions to any director’s library and some are just space fillers full of samey material. I’m also reading a good one at the moment called Directing the Story so stay tuned over the next few weeks as I put together part two of The Great Filmmaking and Directing Book Review and recommend yet more things to buy on Amazon with the money you don’t make from directing!