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Friday, May 31, 2013

Silver Screen Surprises Coming in June

Between the Explosions: The Potential Hidden Gems Being Released This Month

By Chris Sabga

"Man of Steel" and "World War Z" are among the many blockbusters slated for June, but there are also several other options that are more off the beaten path.

I haven't seen any of them yet, so I'm merely projecting what looks good to me. Inevitably, one or two – or all of these – could end up being duds. However, I'd like to think that my radar is refined enough that I'm on target more often than not.

A few of these are limited releases, which means you might not get them right away – or at all. If you have a budget theater, your movies of interest could pop up there a few weeks after their initial release date. Otherwise, you may have to wait for video.

For example, "Before Midnight" still hasn't come to my area. Do you smell that? It's the smoke coming out of my ears. But such is life when it comes to certain types of films – especially during the blockbuster summer months.

Here's what's on the docket for the next 30 days:

The Purge (June 7th): Yes, this also appeared on last month's list. With the competitive summer season in full swing, release dates tend to shift around as every movie jockeys for position. To recap: For one night of the year, people are legally allowed to commit any crime they want. A family – led by "Before Midnight's" Ethan Hawke – has to protect themselves from the madness just outside their doors. It's a tantalizing idea. Horror movies these days are usually hit or miss, but Hawke rarely appears in junk. 

Much Ado About Nothing (June 7th): Joss Whedon gathers his friends together for a modern day retelling of Shakespeare's classic tale. Instead of taking a vacation, Whedon shot this in twelve days (in black and white), in his own house, with a hand-picked cast of actors: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Reed Diamond, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Fran Kranz, Sean Maher, and Jillian Morgese. Seasoned "Whedonites" will recognize those names from his other television and film projects. If you're not sure why you should be excited about this, you're not among the rabid converts familiar with the "Whedonverse."

Rapture-Palooza (June 7th): This will either be a complete train-wreck or downright hysterical. The rapture has occurred and now it's raining blood, locusts have appeared, and the devil (played by Craig Robinson) has come to Earth. Anna Kendrick proved she could handle wacky material well in "Pitch Perfect." This time, she's joined by comedy stalwarts John Francis Daly ("Waiting...") and Rob Corddry ("Hot Tub Time Machine"). Ken Jeong ("The Hangover") is also in the cast.

Violet & Daisy (June 7th): Alexis Bledel ("Gilmore Girls") and Saoirse Ronan ("Hanna") portray a pair of teenage assassins who set their sights on a new target, played by James Gandolfini. The premise sells itself, but it's far from a sure thing. Subplots about pop idols and terminal cancer could weigh it down. Still, I'm definitely curious.

Tiger Eyes (June 7th): Like many of you, I grew up reading Judy Blume. It's almost impossible to believe, but none of her books have ever made it to the silver screen – until now. She teams up with her son, director Lawrence Blume, for this film adaptation of her bestselling 1980s novel (which I haven't read) about a girl who moves to New Mexico with her family after her father is shot.

Vehicle 19 (June 14th/July 23rd):  After a long flight, a recent parolee (played by Paul Walker, "The Fast and the Furious") unwittingly rents the wrong car. There's a woman tied up in the backseat and the entire police force is after him – in South Africa. The international location might give this "Vehicle" some juice – or it could end up being bargain bin schlock. We'll soon find out. It comes out on video July 23rd – only a month after its limited theatrical release – which means that most of us will probably catch this one at home.

Byzantium (June 28th): Two strange women (Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton) seek shelter at a coastal resort named Byzantium, but they have a secret: they're 200-year-old vampires. Ronan's specialty seems to be playing mysterious girls who are slightly off-kilter.

I'm So Excited! (June 28th): Most of us have been stuck on a plane at one time or another for far too long because of some vague technical mishap. That's the idea behind the newest project by acclaimed Spanish writer and director Pedro Almodóvar. The flight attendants do everything they can to distract their passengers from possible danger. Naturally, the plane is filled with various eccentric personalities. This foreign-language film could potentially be one of the surprise comedies of the year.

Redemption (June 28th): Jason Statham plays a homeless former soldier who assumes another man's identity to seek revenge and redemption. The strange trailer makes this seem like more than just the typical Statham action flick. "Redemption" may end up being a beefier dramatic role than usual for the underrated British actor.

Blockbusters: The Internship (June 7th), Man of Steel (June 14th), This is the End (14th), Monsters University (June 21st), World War Z (21st), The Heat (June 28th), White House Down (28th)

To be honest, I can't bring myself to care about zombies ("World War Z") or an Englishman playing the American icon Superman ("Man of Steel") – is he fighting for truth, justice, and tea and crumpets? – but I'll keep an open mind, of course. The only June blockbuster really grabbing me is "The Internship" with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson. I didn't even love their previous outing, "Wedding Crashers," but the idea of two 40-something men interning for Google sounds like it could be fun. My expectations are modest. "Monsters University" might end up in my rotation if I ever get around to watching "Monster's Inc."

Which ones are you looking forward to? Comment below or discuss it on Facebook or Twitter.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Review: Dark Skies

An Insidious Alien Invasion

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: February 22, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Horror, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Running Time: 97 minutes
Director: Scott Stewart         
Writer: Scott Stewart
Cast: Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton, 
Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett, 
J.K. Simmons

What if an alien invasion already happened and their hidden presence is now a fact of life like death and taxes? That's the situation facing the Barrett family in the sci-fi horror hybrid, "Dark Skies."

It begins with a mess in the kitchen and an open sliding door – a typical break-in scenario. But something seems off right away. It feels bizarre.  

The situation continues to escalate over the next few nights. In response, security systems are installed – first an alarm and then cameras – but those only leads to more issues and additional mysteries. The investigating officer wonders if there are any problems in the family. Maybe one of the children is acting out for attention?

Lacy (Keri Russell) and Daniel (Josh Hamilton) have been under stress because he has been out of work and their income is dependent solely on her success as a realtor. They have been arguing – which their two little boys, Jesse (Dakota Goyo, "Real Steel") and Sammy (Kadan Rockett), can't help but overhear.

Jesse is about 13, hangs out with an older boy, watches porno videos starring the world's ugliest performers, and has entered that rebellious, hormonal stage where he notices girls and doesn't want to be treated like a little kid anymore.

Sammy is several years younger and still fears mythical creatures that exist solely to harm children. No one pays him much mind when he has bad dreams and claims to be receiving visits from the "Sandman."

It's only when Sammy wets his pants and has a screaming fit do his parents realize that something is amiss. Perhaps he needs therapy?

But it isn't long before a series of strange occurrences sweep over everyone else in the household too.

Desperate for help and answers, Lacy and Daniel turn to an eccentric "expert," Edwin (J.K. Simmons), who lays out the bare facts for them. His approach is blunt and matter-of-fact, and his information is not at all comforting – but the plain, cold truth never is.

"Dark Skies" uses unsettling dream sequences, blackouts, strange bodily marks, animals, tripped alarms, and distorted video footage to create a genuinely spooky atmosphere and dreadful sense of foreboding. The movie succeeds because it takes a fantastical situation and approaches it in a completely realistic manner.

However, the ending comes out of nowhere, and in retrospect, the overall plot structure is nearly identical to another recent horror movie (which I won't name). My initial reaction to the final scene was: "That's it?" It almost seems like only half the story has been told and a sequel is being set up on the spot. Yet, it also works in a way – by leaving the viewer with a feeling of lingering darkness. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Review: The Hangover Part III

Barely a Buzz

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: May 23, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Comedy
Running Time: 100 minutes
Director: Todd Phillips         
Writers: Todd Phillips, Craig Mazin, 
Jon Lucas, Scott Moore
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, 
Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, Ken Jeong, 
John Goodman, Melissa McCarthy, 
Jeffrey Tambor, Heather Graham, Mike Epps

It's almost impossible to imagine now, but Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis weren't always massive stars. The original "Hangover" took the world by complete surprise when it was released in 2009. It remains a comedy classic. The sequel, which came out two years later, hardly felt original or fresh – it rehashed the formula almost exactly – yet, it still managed to be side-splittingly hilarious. "The Hangover Part III" brings back almost every major character from the series for its grand finale, but it isn't nearly as funny.

As the movie begins, Alan (Galifianakis) is cruising down the highway with his new pet – a giraffe. It's a funny sight gag at first, but it quickly becomes desperate and overwrought. It's impossible to suspend your disbelief for the scene's ridiculous "punchline." That ends up being a recurring issue in "Part III." The first "Hangover," even with its wild and crazy antics, was at least mostly plausible.

After Alan's giraffe gaffe, his friends – including his "Wolfpack" buddies Phil (Cooper), Stu (Helms), and Doug (Justin Bartha) – stage an intervention. He obviously needs severe mental help. It took them this long to come to that conclusion?

The Wolfpack hits the road. Everything is going according to plan. And then Black Doug (Mike Epps, reprising his role from the first film) runs into them – literally. This time, his boss is with him: Marshall (a menacing John Goodman) is looking for Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) and strongly "persuades" Phil, Stu, and Alan to find him.

Their journey will take them into Tijuana and back to Vegas where it all began. Along the way, they'll meet Cassie, a foul-tempered pawn shop owner (Melissa McCarthy), and reunite with Stu's "ex-wife," the prostitute Jade (Heather Graham).

I smiled and chuckled many times during "The Hangover Part III," but unlike the first two movies, I rarely felt myself succumbing to uncontrollable laughter. No deep, guttural belly laughs. You know the kind I mean.

(With that said, don't leave when the credits start rolling – or you'll miss by far the best and funniest scene in the film.)

However, there is one surprising area where "Part III" succeeds: emotionally. After three adventures, it's impossible not to feel a connection with these characters and recall their wild antics with a degree of fondness. This final outing brings everything back full circle. If nothing else, it's nice to spend time with these people again. However, I remember thinking the same thing about "Cocoon: The Return" and it's not like that was a great movie.

If "The Hangover Part III" had been able to combine its gooey emotional center with gigantic laughs, it would have made for a deeply satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. Only a few hours after seeing it, very little sticks out in my mind. I'd call it a hangover, but I'm feeling barely a buzz. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

Review: End of Watch

Two Cops Bleeding Blue

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: September 21, 2012 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Action, Drama
Running Time: 109 minutes
Director: David Ayer           
Writer: David Ayer
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, 
Natalie Martinez, Anna Kendrick, 
David Harbour, Frank Grillo, 
America Ferrera

The previews make "End of Watch" seem like a buddy-cop movie. It's actually a whole lot more than that.

Shot almost like a documentary, the film chronicles two police officers – Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) – as they go from case to case. Some of their assignments are routine and others are decidedly less so. The story is actually very basic, very minimal – just a slice in the lives of these men.

"End of Watch" is very much a slow-burner, but because of that, the relationship between the two police officers is allowed to develop to a much deeper degree than I think we've ever seen before in a movie of this type. You come to realize how much they rely on, protect, and love each other as friends, partners, and "brothers." Gyllenhaal and Pena really sell the camaraderie between the two characters and deliver completely natural, absolutely outstanding performances.

Family is important to both of them, which is a theme that runs alongside their work on the streets. Zavala is married to Gabby (Natalie Martinez) with a second child on the way. Taylor is in a serious relationship with Janet (Anna Kendrick) and looks to his fellow officer for advice and guidance.

Also on the force are Orozco (America Ferrara, "Ugly Betty"), Sarge (Frank Grillo, "The Grey") and Van Hauser (David Harbour, "Quantum of Solace"). Grillo and Harbour – two "I know those faces" actors – and Ferrara have strong supporting roles.

The only real flaw is Kendrick. As much fun as she is in "Up in the Air" and "Pitch Perfect," she seems badly miscast here. I kept waiting for her character to turn into a shrew or have questionable motivations of some sort, but that never happened. Kendrick's surprisingly limited performance sends unintentional mixed signals. That's a minor issue though; the rest of the movie more than makes up for it.

"End of Watch" is very gritty and has some extremely disturbing and graphic scenes, but that "reality" is what makes it so special.  

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Review: Gangster Squad

Aims, Shoots, Misses

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: January 11, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Action, Drama
Running Time: 113 minutes
Director: Ruben Fleischer                
Writers: Will Beall (screenplay), 
Paul Lieberman (book)     
Cast: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, 
Emma Stone, Nick Nolte, 
Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, 
Michael Peña, Robert Patrick, 
Mireille Enos

"Gangster Squad" is a major mixed bag. It features some of the best actors working in Hollywood today, absolutely beautiful backdrops that transfer the viewer right back in time to vintage Los Angeles circa 1949, and it's based on the fascinating real-life story of mobster Mickey Cohen. What could possibly go wrong? As it turns out, a few things...

The premise: Notorious criminal Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has taken over L.A. with a dangerous mixture of money and force. He has police officers, judges, and city officials in his pocketbook; anyone who can't be bought off is violently disposed of. Police Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) wants to take back his town. He enlists former World War II sergeant John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) and orders him to put together a secret army to bring Cohen down.

O'Mara's wife, Connie (Mireille Enos), is pregnant and worried, but she ultimately surprises him by scouting out potential candidates.

Soon, the "Gangster Squad" takes shape: its initial recruits are Coleman Harris, an African-American detective who is tired of wasting time on lowly drug pushers (Anthony Mackie); Conway Keeler, a family man who also happens to be an expert at surveillance and bugging (Giovanni Ribisi); and Max Kennard, a famed marksman nicknamed "Hopalong" for his incredible shooting skills (Robert Patrick). They're soon joined by Kennard's partner, Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña), and finally another sergeant, Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling). Wooters complicates things by falling in love with Cohen's "tomato," Grace Faraday (Emma Stone).

Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Peña, and Robert Patrick have enough charisma between them to set off fireworks. Yet, they dial it down to almost nothing; their performances for this movie are strangely subdued.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, who sizzled as on-screen couple in "Crazy, Stupid, Love," once again play lovers but completely fail to recapture the same magic. They have the chemistry of brother and sister in this film.

Sean Penn, one of the most talented and versatile performers of his generation, comes across as a cartoonish caricature – more reminiscent of a "Dick Tracy" villain than the serious criminal Mickey Cohen was.

I have to believe these were all conscious stylistic choices by each actor – particularly Penn. Cohen is presented as a man-child who wears a bib at five-star restaurants, doesn't know which fork to hold during meals, and throws tantrums like a toddler when things don't go his way. All of these little details would make for an interesting character study of Cohen's psychological makeup if Penn's performance wasn't so one-dimensional and downright hammy otherwise.

The pacing isn't much better. "Gangster Squad" limps along, sliding the pieces into place but never really going much of anywhere for a while. The big turning point comes near the end with a scene set in Chinatown. It's beautifully shot and packed with action and drama. The grand finale, in a hotel, is even more spectacular – with guns blazing. Even if it does take far too long to get there, "Gangster Squad" doesn't falter at the finish line. The payoff is absolutely worth it, and that is almost but not quite enough to redeem the rest of the movie.

And yet it has its moments, even in the early-going – as few and far between as they may be. The squad recruitment scenes and spy setup stuff, for example, are somewhat fun to watch. Overall, "Gangster Squad's" reliable mediocrity might serve as comfort food in repeat viewings. You know the type of movie I mean. Still, it could have been great. The fact that it's anything less is a colossal disappointment. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review: The Last Stand

Arnold Schwarzenegger's Comeback Role

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: January 18, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Action
Running Time: 107 minutes
Director: Jee-woon Kim
Writer: Andrew Knauer
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, 
Johnny Knoxville, Rodrigo Santoro, Luis Guzmán, 
Jaimie Alexander, Eduardo Noriega, Peter Stormare, 
Zach Gilford, Génesis Rodríguez, Harry Dean Stanton

Arnold Schwarzenegger is old. It's impossible not to notice. But he wears his age well in "The Last Stand," his first starring role in ten years. It's a wild ride that was well worth the wait.

Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger) is the sheriff of a small town: Summerton, Arizona. Before that, he was a Los Angeles police officer – until he eventually decided that he could take no more of the violence and bloodshed he had to face on a daily basis. In quiet, quaint Summerton, a car illegally parked in a fire zone is what passes for a major crime scene.

As the movie begins, Ray is ordering breakfast in a diner when he notices a suspicious pair of truckers (the main one is played by Peter Stormare, who would look shady even at his own autograph signing). The sheriff orders his inexperienced, inept team of deputies – Jerry (Zach Gilford), Sarah (Jaimie Alexander), and Figuerola (a paunchy Luis Guzmán) – to run the license plate on the computer.

Jerry has a bandaged nose after accidentally shooting himself bloody during target practice. Not only is he incapable of handling a gun, he is also incompetent around technology. Figuerola sighs and tells him to pay attention. A few keystrokes later and they find out the truck is registered to Burrell (Stormare's character).

How would these clueless Barney Fifes ever cope with a real crime?

Of course, it doesn't take long for them to find out. The milkman is murdered (Harry Dean Stanton in a brief appearance). Figuerola thinks it's a burglary gone bad. The sheriff knows better.

Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, a dangerous Mexican cartel boss has just escaped. Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) pulls out all the stops to make his getaway: an airlifted van, shooters in ninja outfits, several decoys running around in orange prison jumpsuits, and a souped-up racecar. In other words, just another normal night in Vegas!

It's up to an FBI team, led by Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker), to track and stop Cortez. The escaped cartel leader – "a psychopath in a Batmobile" – may be headed to Summerton. Bannister calls the sheriff to warn him of the possibility, only to later to dismiss the idea outright.

It must be a movie rule that the big city FBI agent is always wrong and the small town lawman has all the answers. Then again, to be fair, would you believe a "pissant county sheriff" with an Austrian accent babbling about a temporary bridge the bad guys have built to cross the border? The Oscar-winning Whitaker brings depth and credibility to what could have been a one-dimensional role on paper.

Sheriff Ray prepares for war by bringing out reinforcements: a flaky former Marine (Rodrigo Santoro) and a country kook (Johnny Knoxville) with a large collection of vintage guns that just happen to be perfect for an Arnold Schwarzenegger flick. Oh, and there's a school bus too. Just another pleasant morning in Summerton!

"The Last Stand" is vintage Schwarzenegger: witty one-liners, over-the-top action, and just plain fun. It never quite scales the heights of his all-time classics, such as "Total Recall" and "T2," but it's a worthy addition to his filmography and a great welcome back party. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Review: Django Unchained

The D is Silent – The Movie Isn't

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: December 25, 2012 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Action, Drama, Western
Running Time: 165 minutes
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, 
Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, 
Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, 
Don Johnson 

"Django Unchained" is an exhilarating experience from beginning to end. From the moment Dr. King Schultz (Oscar winner Christoph Waltz) appears, he owns the screen with his calm, cool demeanor and whip-smart intellect. This is a man that knows exactly who he is, what he wants, and how to get it. And what he wants, as the movie begins, is a slave: Django (Jamie Foxx), to be specific.

Two years before the American Civil War, slavery is big business. It's a booming industry monetarily. Morally, it's an institution so deeply engrained in everyone's mindset that it's never considered a matter of right and wrong. Owning slaves isn't seen as evil or unjust – it's just the way things are. If King Schultz wants a piece of the pie, well, that would be nothing out of the ordinary for the times he lives in. But, as it turns out, the good German wants to free Django.

Dr. King Schultz is a bounty hunter, and he needs Django's help to locate a pair of brothers. Schultz doesn't know what they look like, but Django used to be owned by them. In exchange, Django wants to find his wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington). Schultz agrees. After all, how can he resist helping a fellow "German"? (Broomhilda is actually African-American, of course, but she was raised by Germans and knows a little of the language.)

Upon hearing the name of Django's wife, Schultz recounts the German legend of Broomhilda and Siegfried – which, as you might expect, foreshadows the events of the film quite nicely.

They meet an interesting cast of characters along the way – literally, because King Schultz tells Django at one point to play a "character." It's a clever scene – one of many that paints Schultz as the smartest man in every situation. Fortunately, Django is a quick learner himself.

A slave-owner known as "Big Daddy" (Don Johnson) is first on their list. Johnson plays the role with racist relish, sporting a gleeful sparkle in his eye. If he wasn't so hateful, he'd be almost likeable. It's a great piece of work by the former "Miami Vice" icon. He seizes the opportunity and gives it everything he has. 

Later on, they make their way over to another plantation – ironically called "Candyland." But there's nothing sweet about what Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) has to offer: imprisoned, abused slaves. Candie's racism is just like his teeth: rotten to the core. DiCaprio combines charm with malice, mixing both together in equal measure to create a truly unsettling character.

Candie is assisted by his devoted house servant, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who is fiercely loyal to his "master" and unapologetically keeps the other slaves in line. Jackson is often accused of playing every role the same way, but that's certainly not the case here. The white-haired, wild-eyed Stephen is like no other character he has ever portrayed. He makes Morgan Freeman's meek chauffeur in "Driving Miss Daisy" seem like a radical – at least on the surface.   

Throughout the film, everyone has a startled reaction to the freed Django (who is eventually given the last name of Freeman – any relation to Morgan?) and his equal treatment at the hands of Dr. King Schultz. However, green trumps black every time – as in the color of money. Jamie Foxx handles all facets of his character perfectly. Will Smith was originally slated to play Django, but it's impossible to imagine anyone but Foxx in the role. His Django carries with him an anger bubbling under the surface that seems true-to-life. As talented as Smith is, I can't see him handling this essential characteristic as well as Foxx did.

It goes without saying that slavery is a controversial topic – and "Django Unchained" doesn't shy away from its worst aspects, some of which are jaw-dropping. Yet, at the same time, the film is undeniably entertaining. That's bound to be a troubling juxtaposition for some. Spike Lee wasn't shy about expressing his displeasure on Twitter: "American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western.It Was A Holocaust.My Ancestors Are Slaves.Stolen From Africa.I Will Honor Them." It's hard to argue against Spike. His feelings are perfectly justified. However, in Quentin Tarantino's defense, there is more than one way to approach the same topic. We've all been exposed to numerous "serious" treatments of slavery through history books, television, and film. "Django" casts those atrocities in a different light. Yes, it's a "fun" movie. But you can still enjoy something and learn from it. That, in some ways, seems like the most effective teaching method of all. No, this technically isn't history – these people never actually existed – but the realities of slavery are still very much present in "Django Unchained."

Friday, May 10, 2013

Behind the Scenes of Mud

An Inside Look From the Set

By Mike Sabga
Hollywood Correspondent,

Note: Mike Sabga – known affectionately as "3D Mike" in Hollywood – has over thirty years of experience in the industry. He has worked on many major motion pictures and television series – including "Ocean's Eleven," "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "CSI: Miami," and "Brothers & Sisters." His most recent project was "Mud," for which he did Video Playback and Assist. He goes into more detail below and shares some great anecdotes from the set.

Working with Matthew McConaughey

I thought I'd seen it all. In all the 30 years of working in movies I thought I had seen professional actors. However, I must confess that working with Matthew McConaughey took the meaning of professionalism to yet another level!

For starters, let's consider the fact that Matthew was filming both "Mud" and "Magic Mike" at the same time. He would be in Tampa, Florida for "Magic Mike" during the day and then fly out to the White River in Arkansas at night while we were filming "Mud." That alone is stunning.

To add insult to injury, the movie was shot in late November, at the start of the bitterly cold Arkansas winter. This means that Matthew had to wear the skimpy white shirt and blue jeans all night long in temperatures almost below zero, while all the rest of us had our warm ski outfits on!

Even when director Jeff Nichols suggested to Matthew that we should stop for the night, Matthew would insist on finishing the shot list. I thought I had seen it all, but this was beyond greatness. Folks, I was ready to die freezing my backside!!!

Much respect, Matthew...

Filming in Arkansas

The colorful people in the small towns of Dumas and Dewitt, Arkansas, were very excited to have so many famous stars and big time crews coming into their towns and so they treated us very well. They made sure that Reese and Matthew had everything they needed. Considering that there were no five-star hotels in the area, this was not easy to accomplish, but I never heard either Reese, Matthew or anyone else complain about anything.

The Kids: Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland

Undoubtedly, my two favorite people of the film were the two child actors, Tye Sheridan (Ellis) and Jacob Lofland (Neckbone). They were incredible to work with: highly professional for their age, very well-mannered, and brought up properly – the old-fashioned way.

I thought to myself, these kids are not your standard city kids. So it turns out they live in Southern states, in areas where there is plenty of wildlife, trees and rivers – and this explains why the casting director, Francine Maisler, didn't have any problems picking them for these roles. The accent was there, the Southern attitude of growing boys, the curiosity of that age, the explorer spirit... No wonder these two kids had such a great chemistry in "Mud." They were instantly friends forever! You feel it throughout the film, and at the end, you know they are friends for life.

Southern Cuisine

The food was simply incredible. There is no way for me to explain with words how incredible and soulful the food was. You will have to go there yourself to find out. Matthew and Reese loved it. (Of course it helps that they are from the South!)

One incredible anecdote about these kids is that Tye brought a special treat for the cast and crew during the filming of the final shoot-out sequence between Mud and the bounty hunters, and this treat consisted of something called "Venison." It is a type of salami or sausage made of deer or elk – in this case a deer that Tye himself had hunted a few days earlier, and so he was very proud to bring something to the movie set that he had made himself. Everyone was very pleased, and I couldn't stay away from eating it!

A Word about Writer and Director Jeff Nichols

He is a native of Little Rock, Arkansas; a rising star in the world of independent films; a highly talented writer and down-to-earth director who drags you into the story by using the simplicity of life. This film, I feel, is his "baby." He wrote about his native land. He painted beautiful scenes for us with the camera and decorated them with amazing local music. Although not well-known yet, this director will be a household name in a matter of time.

Meanwhile, "Mud" and Jeff have picked up a "Palme d'Or" at Cannes, other awards as well, and are poised to pick up one or more Oscars in February 2014 – so we hope…

Working on "Mud"

I had two types of effects. One is called "Video Playback" and it pertains to the scene where the bounty hunters are in the small motel room and the old man walks in to have a chat with them. If you remember, there was a cartoon playing on an old television set. That is what I did for that scene sequence. I basically provided the old television, the cartoon, and I went to Arkansas to set it up and to "playback" the video of the cartoon during the filming of the scene.

The second video effect was what is called "Video Assist." This consists of a hi-tech video cart that holds various hi-def monitors and computers, which record what the film cameras see through the lens – and then this "video" is played back for the director and for Matthew during the final "shoot-out" sequence at the house boat. This is done so that they can review the stunts, the guns shooting, the angles, etc., and to make sure they "got" everything on film before they move onto the next scene. (This part of my job is one that saves them thousands of dollars.)

This is also done to match camera angles when doing the stunts (like when Matthew rolls on the floor inside the house as they are shooting at him, then when he jumps into the river, etc.).

These two types of video effects are just a small sample of what I do for a living.

In this film, they only required these two types of effects; but in other films, like "Ocean's Eleven," I also did many 3D animations for the computer monitors and TVs you see as part of the scenes.

If you haven't had the chance to see "Mud" yet, go see it! You will not regret it. I sometimes wait for years to have a great script like this fall on my lap, and I didn't hesitate to go out into the Deep South, braving some incredibly dangerous weather, to be part of this amazing film and to see it through. Enjoy it!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Review: Mud

Matthew McConaughey Stars in What is Sure to Be One of the Year's Best Films

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: April 26, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 130 minutes
Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, 
Jacob Lofland, Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon, 
Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Michael Shannon  

"Mud" tells the story of a man who lives in a boat up on a tree. If that sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale, it's anything but; the movie is very realistic and gritty. The titular character (played by Matthew McConaughey) is hiding out in an island off a river in Arkansas. He's discovered by two boys, Ellis and Neckbone (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland), who take an interest in his boat before realizing that someone is living in it.

The man with the boat introduces himself as Mud. He's quite a sight to see: his hair is wild and stringy, his face is unkempt and unshaven, his teeth are cracked and crooked, and his clothes are ragged. Curiosity gets the best of the boys, and it isn't long before they are regularly visiting Mud – and striking deals with him.

Mud explains that he's waiting for the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who is the prettiest girl he's ever seen. She has nightingales tattooed on her hands, which is how Ellis is eventually able to recognize her. He spots her outside the Piggly Wiggly – which sounds like one of those great movie names for a store, but believe it or not, it's actually real.

I began to wonder: What kind of person would refer to himself as Mud? Everyone already in his life calls him that, and he asks anyone new he meets to address him by that name as well. What does that say about him and how he feels about himself and views the world? What did he do to become Mud?

As details from Mud's background come to light, Neckbone's uncle (Michael Shannon, in a smaller role after starring in Jeff Nichols' previous film, "Take Shelter")  and Ellis's parents (played by Ray McKinnon, also from "Shelter," and Sarah Paulson) and grow more and more concerned. And then there's the old man who lives across from Ellis's family, Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard).

Almost every character, big or small, ends up affecting the plot in some significant way. Like a great novel, there are no wasted moments. The writer and director, Jeff Nichols, has finely crafted a tight, compelling script.

The setting of rural Arkansas is a critical component of the film; it completely transports viewers to another world. This is the America that most people don't live in.

In order for a movie like this to truly work, it has to be an actors' showcase. Thankfully, the performances are outstanding – particularly by the three leads. Matthew McConaughey has taken interesting chances over the past few years with a string of roles in independent movies like "Bernie" and "Killer Joe." That trend continues here, and it's some of the best work he's ever done. The two children, Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, are just as spectacular. Their performances are completely natural, unforced, and true-to-life. That's all the more amazing when you consider that Sheridan has appeared in only one other film ("The Tree of Life") and Lofland has never been in anything else. The success of "Mud" really hinges on the kids. It is up to them to carry it, and they do, meshing seamlessly with McConaughey and everyone else they share scenes with. The supporting cast more than carries their weight too. There isn't a bad performance in the bunch – but Sam Shepard's character is especially enjoyable.

Without spoiling anything, there's a dramatic sequence near the end, and I could actually feel the rest of the theater getting excited around me. It was exhilarating. The movie is a slow-burner, but it builds and builds with each scene until it pops.

"Mud" features multiple mysteries and several love stories. It's a film that will linger in my memory for some time to come. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Some Silver Screen Surprises Coming to Theaters in May

Beyond the Blockbusters: Movies Off the Beaten Path

By Chris Sabga

Everyone knows about the massive blockbusters coming our way this summer. This month, "Iron Man 3," "The Hangover Part III," and "Star Trek: Into Dreams" will be among them. Beyond that, there's "Man of Steel," "The Wolverine," "Monsters University," and many others to look forward to. But there's more to summer than just the "summer blockbuster." There are many other movies being released in May – and beyond.

Some of these you might have heard of; others you might not have. A few of them are limited releases, which means they may be a pain to track down right away if you don't live in a major metropolitan city. If that's the case for you, check to see if you have a second-run theater in town. They start showing movies a few weeks after their original release date. The ticket prices are usually significantly cheaper (but then again, so are the amenities).

The following films are just the ones that have caught my eye. Of course, I have no surefire way to guarantee that all of them – or any of them, for that matter – will actually be good. The only way to know for sure is to see them – or wait for me to see them and check this site after I have. I go out on a limb with a couple of these choices (including one being promoted as "Tyler Perry Presents"), but what fun would it be if I didn't?

And now, here are some of the potential Silver Screen Surprises being released in May:

The Iceman (May 3rd): Michael Shannon ("Take Shelter," "Premium Rush," the upcoming "Man of Steel") will bring his steely gaze to the true story of Richard Kuklinski, a father and husband who worked hard to provide for his family. That isn't anything out of the ordinary, except for one thing: Kuklinski was a contract killer. With Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, and James Franco also in the lineup, Shannon will be going against some pretty heavy-hitters.

Peeples (May 10th): Craig Robinson ("Zack and Miri") makes a surprise appearance at the Peeples Reunion to ask Kerry Washington for her hand in marriage, but her family isn't even aware of their relationship. The movie is being marketed with the tagline "Tyler Perry Presents," but that sort of advertising language is usually misleading. He didn't even write or direct it (he does have a producer credit). The actual writer and director, Tina Gordon Chism, was mentored by Perry though – who just about everyone seems to have a strong opinion on – but with a cast that also includes David Alan Grier ("In Living Color"), S. Epatha Merkerson ("Law & Order"), Diahann Carroll ("Dynasty"), and Melvin Van Peebles ("Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song"), "Peeples" certainly has the right people(s) involved. 

Before Midnight (May 24th): My most anticipated film of the summer! Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) met in the original "Before Sunrise" eighteen years ago – all the way back in 1995 – and then reunited nine years later for the improbable sequel, "Before Sunset." They spent the entire duration of both movies walking around and chatting, and it was mesmerizing. I wrote more about all three here.

Now You See Me (May 31st): Magicians robbing banks! The premise practically sells itself. I predict this will be the surprise hit of the summer. The trailer shows an elaborate three-part magic trick. 1. A group of magicians perform in Las Vegas. 2. During the show, they somehow simultaneously rob a bank three thousand miles away in Paris. 3. And then they give that money away to their audience in Vegas. How? Like all great magic tricks, I'm hooked and want to find out. "The Social Network's" Jesse Eisenberg leads a cast that includes Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Woody Harrselson, and Isla Fischer.

The Kings of Summer (May 31st): A group of teenage boys (Moises Arias, Nick Robinson, and "Super 8's" Gabriel Basso) run away from home and build a house in the woods. A concept like that really could go either way (the silly character names – such Joy Toy and Biaggio – aren't exactly promising), but the movie looks like it could be light fun.

The Purge (May 31st): For one night of the year, people are legally allowed to commit any crime they want. A family – led by "Before Midnight's" Ethan Hawke – has to protect themselves from the madness just outside their doors. It's a tantalizing idea. Horror movies these days are usually hit or miss, but Hawke rarely appears in junk. 

The East (May 31st): Major corporations are being attacked by a group of anarchists, which include Alexander Skarsgård ("True Blood") and Ellen Page ("Juno"). It's up to Brit Marling ("Arbitrage") to infiltrate them. The movie seems to have a very creepy vibe. Patricia Clarkson ("Good Night, and Good Luck") and Jason Ritter ("A Bag of Hammers") are also in it.

Blockbusters: Iron Man 3 (May 3rd), The Great Gatsby (May 10th), Star Trek Into Darkness (May 17th), Fast & Furious 6 (May 24th), The Hangover Part III (24th), Epic (24th), After Earth (May 31st)

Of these, I am most excited about "The Hangover III" and "Star Trek Into Darkness," but the "Iron Man" Trilogy is on my to-see list as well. "Gatsby" is growing on me, too – my bad memories of the tepid Redford version notwithstanding (the book, of course, was better). I'm about half and half when it comes to the Jaden Smith-Will Smith vehicle "After Earth" (and yes, they're billed in that order).

Which ones are you looking forward to? Comment below or discuss it on Facebook or Twitter.