Saturday, July 18, 2015

Blood and Thunder, By Sidney Lumet and Upcoming Festivals

I recently had the great honor of starring in my good friend Alex Fofonoff's first feature film, titled Blood and Thunder, which is soon to be released. The production wrapped in May after five months of shooting, and I cannot thank the fine people involved enough for such a great shoot and for giving me the acting experience of a lifetime. I am truly going to miss working on this movie.

I was lucky enough to view a close-to-finished cut of the film last month and again this week, and boy, has Alex made a great movie! I'm incredibly proud to appear in all ninety minutes of this crazy picture.

We had our last full day of shooting Blood and Thunder on May 12th, with two big locations: Melody Lanes, a great bowling alley in Brooklyn, and a Brooklyn concert venue, followed by a final day of pick-up shots on May 14th. Leading up to the shoot at Melody Lanes, I had many character research nights at the bowling alley, including many fascinating discussions with Peter, the bartender who acts in the film. He was a terrific scene partner.

We started shooting the picture on the weekend of Friday, December 5th, when the cast and crew drove down to Virginia and stayed two nights at our friend Daniel Hasse's incredible ranch. Interestingly enough, we shot both the very beginning and ending of the picture during those two days. My costars included the great Bristol Pomeroy (as my character's father), Megan Hasse (as my character's sister), and one of the Hasse family's horses.

The next weekend, on December 13th and 14th, we drove up to beautiful Beacon, New York and shot at a variety of great locations, including an antique shop, a candy store, the Beacon train station, an abandoned house, a restaurant and a scenic view by the Hudson River. It didn't hit me until I heard our assistant director say we were shooting Scene 46 that this was one big movie.

We picked back up in January for a very cold and tightly scheduled four-day shoot, where we filmed many exterior scenes in Gowanus and other sections of Brooklyn. This included a night-time murder scene in a scrap yard along the Gowanus Canal, a chilly alleyway scene that nearly froze my co-star Desi Domo and me to death, several scenes inside a Brooklyn motel room, scenes in Sunset Park, several bridges in Brooklyn and exterior shots in Harlem and Grand Central Station. It's the coldest I've been in some time (my character wears the same, not quite warm-enough costume for the entire movie), but these scenes look amazing on camera.

In February, we shot for three more days for a critical party sequence at two different Brooklyn apartments, as well as John F. Kennedy International Airport and several Brooklyn subway stations. The weather was still freezing, but again, it really gives a life to the locations and overall feeling of the picture. By the time we finally shot on a sunny day (in March, our fourteenth day of shooting) in Washington Square Park, I was surprised to get a massive sunburn from being out in the park all day.

We finished shooting in April and May with the aforementioned bowling alley sequences at Melody Lanes (which overall involved three shooting days), as well as one massive sixteen hour-day of shooting in which two critical apartment scenes (from very different points in the movie) were filmed. In total, we filmed for nearly three weeks over the course of several months, and refined performances in rehearsals along the way.

I was so fortunate to get this opportunity from Alex, who wrote a terrific script with me in mind for the leading role, and I felt free to take a lot of chances under his direction (along with the support of so many great actors, including Desi, Bristol, Peter, Megan, Kristin Parker, Pat Dwyer, Ben Kahre, Taylor Myers and more.) The crew, including cinematographer Oliver Anderson, producer Charles Malin, sound mixers Adam Boese and Nick Chirumbolo, assistant director Raven Jensen, production designer Danny Porter and many others, were a delight to work with, as well.

If this picture in any way helps jumpstart an acting career for me, I'd be overjoyed - but even if it doesn't, I'm thrilled I got the chance to show what I can do in terms of performance and carrying a feature film. I think the movie is a better representation of my skills than many other things I've helped make, and I'm very excited for people to see it.

My movie You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory will have its official festival premiere at the 9th Athens International Short Film Festival Psarokokalo in Athens, Greece as the only short film from the United States in the International Competition. I'm thrilled for my film to be among the International Competition in Psarokokalo.

Additionally, I recently heard that the movie is an Official Selection of The Hudson Valley International Film Festival in upstate New York, which runs from August 14th - 16th, and an Official Selection of the Black Cat Picture Show in Augusta, Georgia, which runs from August 21st - 23rd at Le Chat Noir.

The Psarokokalo screening will also be in August, and per their website, "for the 9th year, the International Short Film Festival Psarokokalo gathers the best short films from the most important international film festivals (Cannes, Sundance, Rotterdam, Clermont Ferrant and others) which make their debut in Greece." Well, we weren't at any of those festivals, but I'm overjoyed the movie is in such great company!

Here is a link to the Psarokokalo website, and the official list of the International Competition (as well as our film's page on their website - we screen in the Competition 5 section on August 8th), and here is a link to the Black Cat Picture Show's line-up of their Official Selections.

I won't be going to the screening in Greece, but I'll definitely be heading upstate for the Hudson Valley screening, if anyone wants information about the screening date/ time and tickets. The screening schedule can be found here.

In April, You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory screened at NYU's First Run Festival at 8:30 PM in Room 200, the largest theater at the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Film Center. It was fantastic to see my film on such a large screen at Cantor, where so many films were shown during my years at NYU. We had a great turnout for the screening (including lead actor Mike Wesolowski, cinematographer Benjamin Dewey and sound designer Bobb Barito, among many others.)

Check out the page for You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory on the First Run Film Festival website here.

I wasn't able to talk about this project for some time, but now that it's out in the open, I'm thrilled to announce that the film on which I've been working as Associate Producer and Assistant Editor, By Sidney Lumet, premiered at this year's Cannes Film Festival in May. Sidney Lumet was one of the greatest of all filmmakers, and I'm overjoyed to be a part of Nancy Buirski's wonderful documentary about him.

After its premiere at Cannes, By Sidney Lumet got its first rave review from The Hollywood Reporter. This was soon followed by a great review and an in-depth interview with Buirski by IndieWire.

With an illustrious crew including editor Anthony Ripoli, special advisor Martin Scorsese and executive producer Brett Ratner, I was deeply honored to have four credits on this great film (in addition to Associate Producer and Assistant Editor, I was also a Researcher and Bookkeeper.) After spending many months in the editing room, it continues to be a joy to work on this movie, and I never get tired of watching it. That's a testament to the fascinating interview footage of Mr. Lumet in the film, and the great archival clips from so many of his masterful films, including Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), Prince of the City (1981), Serpico (1973), Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007), The Verdict (1982), 12 Angry Men (1957), Long Day's Journey Into Night (1964) and Daniel (1983).

By Sidney Lumet most recently screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival this month, and I'm sure as we continue working on the film, I will have much more to report in the coming months. This is a very special picture.

In April, I had the honor of directing a video for the Dallas Spiders Club sketch comedy group, titled Broken Glass. Look for it online soon! The video stars my good friend Mike Wesolowski (who starred in You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory), along with Taylor Frey, Justin Danforth and Shelby Leshine, who are some of the funniest and most talented people I know.

So many of my favorite filmmakers are releasing, or have already released, new movies in cinemas this year. Any time Cameron Crowe puts out a new film, it's a cause for celebration. If you feel at home during his movies (as I do), you'll love his latest one, Aloha, which stars Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Bill Murray, Rachel McAdams and Alec Baldwin. I wish more people had seen this wonderful film, which is full of more heart than most other pictures this year. Filmmaker Alex Ross Perry wrote an excellent article about Aloha and the unwarranted criticism of Crowe's recent films, in which he correctly wrote, "I suppose it’s indicative of our rotten, cynical culture, in which the greatest appreciation of things is purely ironic, that Aloha is apparently doomed to play to empty theaters while Vin Diesel movies about flying cars not only make money but also earn the respect and admiration of people who purport to care about cinema."

Critics and audiences did themselves a disservice by shunning this movie, but I'm happy to champion the picture and its wonderful soundtrack (one of many wonderful music moments in Aloha comes courtesy of Fleetwood Mac's I Know I'm Not Wrong.) You can watch my full video review of Aloha in my previous blog post, along with video reviews of Love & Mercy, Inside Out and Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Early this year, two of my favorite directors - Clint Eastwood and Michael Mann - both released great films, one of which was widely seen, while the other didn't get the audience it deserved. Mann's Blackhat is another work of art from the master filmmaker, with shootouts as thrilling as those in Heat (1995) and Public Enemies (2009). It was the first official great film of 2015. Eastwood's American Sniper was deservedly a huge hit (it was technically a 2014 release, and just barely missed my top ten list of the year), and the legendary director's best film since Letters from Iwo Jima (2006). Bradley Cooper is astonishing in the movie, and it's doubly impressive considering Eastwood also gave us Jersey Boys last year. American Sniper is a complex picture that was over-simplified by some critics who were mystified by its success. As The Dissolve beautifully wrote, "It's been heartening to follow the quieter, more rigorous conversation about [American Sniper] among those whose job it is to treat it as a film, not a political talking point. Films mean something, and they deserve better than snap judgments and pre-determined, agenda-serving conclusions."

Manglehorn is a beautiful end to David Gordon Green's Texas trilogy, with an incredible performance from Al Pacino. Green's recent films - Manglehorn, Joe (2014) and Prince Avalanche (2013) - have more personality and rich local flavor to them than anything else out there.

Of the upcoming releases from directors whose work I love, I am most excited for David O. Russell's Joy, starring Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Isabella Rosselini and Diane Ladd, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy in Alejandro González Iñárritu's The Revenant. I will also be first in line for Woody Allen's Irrational Man, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone, coming out this summer, and Steven Spielberg's Bridges of Spies, starring Tom Hanks and written by Joel and Ethan Coen, coming out in the fall.

Meanwhile, as Noah Baumbach's While We're Young remains one of my favorite movies of the year so far (and possibly my favorite Baumbach film), he already has another film, Mistress America, coming out in August. Two Baumbach movies in the same year means he's likely taking up two of the spots on my end-of-year top ten list.

I could not be more excited for these films - I mean, who cares about the next superhero trailer when you get releases like these from our greatest directors?

Meanwhile, there's The Program, from director Stephen Frears, starring Ben Foster as Lance Armstrong, and Dustin Hoffman. And De Niro, my hero, is also starring in the new comedy from Nancy Meyers, The Intern.

On Saturday, June 27th, I had a nice conversation with Patrick Brice, director of the new film The Overnight, before he introduced a screening of the film at Austin's Regal Arbor Cinema (where I spend most of my time when visiting Austin, along with the Alamo Drafthouse.) It's a very funny film and worth seeing.

I'll write more about many other good films I've seen this year in my next post.

Earlier in July, my dear friend Lucas Loredo and I ventured to see my favorite movie of all time, Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, on the big screen at Film Forum for its 25th Anniversary in a new restoration. The movie has never looked so glorious - every time I see it, I am astounded by its power and its ability to thrill me.

There have been a number of good articles written on the film for its anniversary, including Richard Brody's article Scorsese's Achievement with Goodfellas from The New Yorker, Filmmaker Magazine's Of Tarantino and TV: The Legacy of Goodfellas, along with a Goodfellas supercut from IndieWire and 24 (or 25) Things You Didn't Know about Goodfellas.

Over the past six months, we've lost a number of wonderful and influential people in the film industry. The great film critic Richard Corliss passed away - Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and many others had wonderful things to say about Corliss, and one of his final pieces was a terrific tribute to Robert Redford for Film Society of Lincoln Center. Here are 25 Great Movie Reviews by Richard Corliss worth reading.

Albert Maysles, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, died earlier this year, as well. His film Gimme Shelter is one of the finest documentaries ever made, and I had the honor of seeing him at a post-screening reception for Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq last year.

We also lost two of the greatest producers of all time, Robert Chartoff (Raging Bull, The Right Stuff, Point Blank, Rocky) and Jerry Weintraub (Nashville, Cruising, Ocean's Eleven); The Simpsons co-creator Sam Simon, whose name appears every time I'm about to watch twenty-two minutes of joyous fun; the filmmaker Francesco Rosi; actor Edward Herrmann (so good in The Aviator, Intolerable Cruelty, The Purple Rose of Cairo and Overboard); David Carr, an amazing journalist and the hero of Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011); legendary actor Christopher Lee; Errol Brown, lead singer of Hot Chocolate (whose music Noah Baumbach uses so winningly in Frances Ha and in the trailer for Mistress America); and actor and playwright Ira Lewis.

Before I take off, here's a link to my Intermediate Narrative film The Wheels, which is now available to watch for free on Vimeo. It was awarded the Best Student Film prize at the 2012 Metropolitan Film Festival of New York, and was an Official Selection of The 2012 Coney Island Film Festival.

The Wheels - A Film By Jack Kyser from Jack Kyser on Vimeo.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Film Review - Love & Mercy

Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy is the best movie of the year so far, a caring and understanding film about mental illness, the best musician biopic since Todd Haynes’s I'm Not There (not coincidentally, Oren Moverman co-wrote both that film and Love & Mercy), and an incredibly comforting film, with the best performances and music I’ve seen and heard this year. It has moments of such stunning power that I felt compelled to see it again, as I often do with movies I love, and examine why it’s so effective and moving.

Paul Dano and John Cusack brilliantly portray Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys at two very different points in his life – Dano during the creation of the masterful album Pet Sounds in the 1960s, and Cusack in the 1980s, when Wilson was in terrible mental health and under the care of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Landy misdiagnoses Brian as a paranoid schizophrenic, and keeps him estranged from his family for years. When Brian meets his future wife, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) while buying a car from her dealership, he finds not only a soul mate empathetic to his mental illness, but someone willing to fight against the tyrannical Landy to help Brian find his way back to himself.

Jumping back and forth between time periods, the movie gives us one remarkable sequence after another, all of which feel organic and thematically connected (and not simply like a greatest-hits of major events from a person’s life, a problem in many biopics.) Just as The Beach Boys seem to be bridging apart while creating Pet Sounds, we get a perfect recreation of the music video for Sloop John B, and the power of this recreation comes not just from the beauty of the song, but from seeing the brothers as comrades – goofy, fun-loving and joyous, playing around in their backyard swimming pool.

It’s the same pool where, in another magnificent scene, while the band tries to have a business meeting, Brian barely hangs onto a raft in the deep end. His only request is that they whisper and join him on the other side of the pool, and it’s heartbreaking to watch as the meeting goes on, with Brian seemingly oblivious to the larger implications of the band’s decisions as he tries to stay afloat on his end of the pool.

Director Bill Pohlad has only directed one other film, but his directorial choices in this movie are so strong, you’d think he was one of our most seasoned filmmakers. Pohlad produced Brokeback Mountain (2005), Into the Wild (2007), The Tree of Life (2011) and 12 Years a Slave (2013), and perhaps working with such excellent filmmakers has enabled him to make a film every bit the equal of those other masterful titles.

I think of the many strong editorial and camera choices made throughout the film. In an early date between Brian and Melinda, there’s a long take where Brian describes his childhood, and the camera stays on Melinda. We catch glimpses of Brian’s face from the reflection at the back of the booth, but mostly, we’re watching Melinda slowly fall in love with him.

There’s a slow 360-shot later in the film that simply seems to take in the life and creativity flowing among the sessions band and Brian in the recording studio. Or what about the sequence near the end, in which Dano's Brian and Cusack’s Brian seem to merge when he confines himself to his bed at the height of his depression, and sees visions of characters from his past and present, beautifully set to In My Room?

Both Cusack and Dano’s performances feel free, alive and not even remotely constricted to playing to an audience’s pre-conceived idea of Brian Wilson, whatever that might be. They each create a memorable and unique character completely separate from the real-life Wilson, and that’s really what makes the character feel real (and, as I’m Not There so terrifically proved, casting more than one actor in a role like this only adds to our complex understanding of the person.)

So many films about geniuses – whether famous musicians or physicists (ahem, The Theory of Everything) – are simply content to show the genius completing an equation or being smarter than everyone else in the room, without bothering to actually explain what it is they do, or, even harder, help us understand how they’re doing it.

Here is a film that attempts to actually understand how a genius works, in large part through its rich use of sound and score (Atticus Ross uses elements of many of Wilson’s songs in his score, but breaks them down into their separate parts.) Because many of the individual sounds and notes seem distantly familiar to us (through knowing the music of The Beach Boys), we’re able to understand how Brian can isolate different elements in his head and try to piece them together as a new song.

The film is such an aural experience, which is made clear by the early shot that slowly pulls out of Brian’s eardrum. It’s as much a movie to listen to as it is to watch – attuned to the sounds and noises Brian experiences in his everyday life.

With the music, you can feel Brian reaching for something greater. Is it God? You can feel it in the songs, which are transcendent, as if Wilson made a connection through to another world of indescribable emotions and sensations. Listening to the sounds in his head becomes its own journey of discovering the notes of songs you’ve always known, which feel bigger than all of us – like music that’s always been there, it’s just been waiting for a human to piece it together.

The look of the film is extraordinary. As filmed by Robert Yeoman (who shot all of Wes Anderson's pictures), the warm palettes of the 1960s, with Brian surrounded by his family (whatever disagreements there may be among them), contrast beautifully with the later sequences, which largely take place in white, sterile spaces to which Landy has confined Brian. It’s only the presence of Melinda that gives us hope. Even in its more intense moments, though, there is a calming and comforting quality to Love & Mercy, perhaps because we view the world through such a kind and gentle man, whose only aim seems to be to make the sounds in his head make sense. May we all be granted such love and mercy.

Sitting in the Alamo Drafthouse cinema on South Lamar and experiencing Love & Mercy for the second time, I was overcome with an emotion that I only experience during the perfect match of film and movie experience (a perfect movie experience, by the way, constitutes a quiet, attentive theater in the grasp of a good story.) But I also felt this particular movie in a way I rarely do anymore – certainly not in New York cinemas, where the loudest people reign supreme. Love & Mercy is so gentle and powerful, that I was already sad for the day when my enthusiasm for the movie will wane and my energy will be directed toward another picture. As I watched it, I could not shake the feeling of how fresh and powerful the film seemed to me now – just as Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and Boyhood (2014) were films I felt deeply during earlier months of my life. And though I adore both of those movies, they have now retreated into my long list of favorite films – I will return to them again, certainly, but the period of my life that they defined is now over.

Oh, but to be there and experience a picture in that new way upon its first release. I don’t want Love & Mercy to ever be “the film from last summer.” It is how I feel now, and I find myself wanting to retreat back to that quiet cinema on that peaceful summer day. I’m not ready to move on to another feeling, because it won’t be the same as that film and that cinema on that day. That’s how it feels, at least. Perhaps it’s my nostalgia for Austin kicking in. More than likely, though, it’s just the perfect combination of cinema experience and motion picture, which we so rarely get. I suppose rather than being wistful, I should be thankful – for films as good as this, and for audiences out there willing to shut out the noise and listen.

For the past few months, I've started doing video reviews for Austin Family (for whom I've been writing a film column since 2004) - here are the three inaugural reviews, of Love & Mercy, Inside Out, Aloha and Avengers: Age of Ultron