Tag Archive | "first features"

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First Features: Steven Soderbergh ‘sex, lies and videotape’

“Sex sells” is the slogan advertising executives win with. That’s why girls in bikinis advertise soda and yoked up guys appear on the cover of tampon products. Actually, the latter one probably isn’t true, but it’d be amusing if it were. Steven Soderbergh used the psychological effects of sex as a selling point for his debut feature and rode it to large acclaim. The film is credited with birthing the emergence of independent cinema, winning the Audience Award at Sundance, multiple Independent Spirit Awards, an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay and the Palme d’Or (Best Film) at the Cannes Film Festival. Quite a debut haul.

Sex, lies and videotape contains copious amounts of all three elements described in its title. Ann (Andie MacDowell) is stuck in a marriage in which sex is no longer a usual activity. She confesses to her psychologist that the act doesn’t interest her anymore, although her husband stopped trying long ago. She laughs and giggles embarrassingly when the topic of self-gratification is mentioned and admits to never trying it alone. Although she is the type of person who frets about the things in life she can’t control, like any good Freud-studied psychologist would do, the subject at hand stays firmly on sex. Only does the topic of conversation shift when Ann claims to being frustrated by her husband inviting an old college buddy to stay at their house, without asking her permission first.

Ann’s husband, John (Peter Gallagher) appears to be the root of all her unresolved psychological problems. He is in the midst of carrying out an affair with Ann’s sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), unbeknownst to his wife. He’s a lawyer and a liar, which makes rank as number one and number on the list of “lowest forms of life.” He keeps Cynthia at bay, telling her to expect him to pay all of his attention to his friend, Graham (James Spader), once he arrives, but Cynthia has him wrapped around her finger so tight, she only needs to call his office and John will immediately rearrange his schedule, no matter the importance, for her.

It looks to me like he's shaving the wrong part of his head.

It looks to me like he's shaving the wrong part of his head.

Graham’s arrival in town invokes changes within all three characters almost immediately. He has significantly changed since he and John went to college. They are so different, it seems, that Ann quickly takes a shine to him and his mysterious ways, brushing off her previous apprehension about the visit. Graham eventually moves into town and confides in Ann, stating he’s impotent around the opposite sex. His impotency doesn’t stop him from having a fetish, however, and as the triad of Ann, Cynthia and John discover what it is and how it works, it manages to pull them all apart, one-by-one.

There’s somewhat of a genius quote attributed to Cary Grant (it’s on his IMDb page) where he supposed stated: “In order to succeed with the opposite sex, tell her you’re impotent. She can’t want to prove you wrong.” It may not be Graham’s confession of impotency that gets Ann thinking about him in a way she no longer thinks about her husband, but the casual conversation about sex in general certainly piques her interest, as it does the audience. Soderbergh’s script is largely conversational, enabling the viewer to play voyeur in these characters’ lives.

Sex is never explicitly depicted in the film, merely hinted at and spoken about, but it looms over each frame like a dark cloud, threatening rain. Soderbergh doesn’t pepper his film with visual flair, but is more confident letting his characters and their dialogue run the show than the camera he operates. Some familiar Soderberghian elements can be found here however, notably his use of displaced narration, where two characters converse in one scene with the audio accompanying a separate image. This technique is readily familiar in The Limey, and is one of the few things that stand out that make this film uniquely his.

"Say the word 'sex' again and I'll hurl this drink right to the floor!"

"Say the word 'sex' again and I'll hurl this drink right to the floor!"

Soderbergh hasn’t written too many of the scripts he’s directed, thus making it somewhat difficult to pinpoint elements from his other written work, but selecting 2002’s Solaris from the bunch, it appears the man has an affinity for psychology. The science plays a large part in the latter film, as well as his first, as there is not only a psychologist character, but the potential benefits of psychoanalysis is debated between Ann and Graham. It’s unclear as to what the director himself feels about the subject, but one can deduce it’s never far from the forefront of his mind.

Soderbergh indeed made a splash with his debut film, worthy of all the accolades he received. Sex, lies and videotape is constantly entertaining, despite its reluctance to display anything too unique and inventive visually. It announced a major filmmaking talent and we can all count ourselves lucky the discovery was made. Soderbergh has stated he foresees an end to his career and no matter when that happens, his first feature will be as important a footnote in his career as any other.

Buy this First Feature here.

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First Features: Robert Rodriguez ‘El Mariachi’

Robert Rodriguez has been very busy lately lining up projects for himself and his production company, Troublemaker Studios. Not long ago, we reported that his full length version of Machete will soon go into production with some big names attached. Rodriguez has also written the script for the new Predator reboot, as well as producing it. With all that, he even has a new family film Shorts being released on August 21st. So, here at The Film Nest we are taking a look at his first feature length directorial effort El Mariachi. His first-ever film was a short eight-minute short titled Bedhead (you can see another short film Becoming Roman here), which he shot while he was a student at the University of Texas at Austin. With all the accolades he won from his short film, he then decided to shoot El Mariachi. Rodriguez used the money that he won from entering Bedhead in festivals to finance this low budget action film. El Mariachi, which is filmed entirely in Spanish with English subtitles, was produced for only $7,000 (the lowest budget for a feature length movie that I’m aware of). Rodriguez had intended for the film to be released for the Spanish-language home video market only, but once it took home the Audience Award at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival, Columbia Pictures picked up distribution of the film.

El Mariachi, story-wise, is a very simple case of mistaken identities. It’s the story of an out-of-work mariachi (Carlos Gallardo in the nameless title role) who, while traveling across Mexico looking for employment, comes to the little town of Acuna. After he stops in at a local bar (which is not hiring) he then gets a room at a local motel. While waiting to check out other local businesses to see if they need a musical act to play in their establishments, the mariachi meets a beautiful, but feisty bar owner named Domino. While the mariachi is looking for work, trouble is brewing between Azul and his ex-business partner, Moco. You see, while Azul  runs a semi-profitable business from his jail cell, it’s nothing compared to what Moco is making. Azul wants in on the action, but will settle for the money he is owed by his ex partner. Moco doesn’t want to pay Azul what he is owed and instead sends a group of his men to kill Azul. After Moco’s plan backfires, Azul sets out for revenge. Azul also carries around a guitar case  and dresses in all black just like our title character. So when Moco’s men are looking for Azul, they mistake the mild mannered mariachi for the bloodthirsty Azul. The mariachi must then take drastic measures to stay alive.

El Mariachi con una guitarra para la primer vez.

El Mariachi con una guitarra para la primera vez.

The film’s plot is a fairly simple one. The most impressive thing about the film for me is Rodriguez’s direction. Mariachi is shot with mostly closeups (Rodriguez only had two lenses on his camera). The film’s action is good, if sparse and the acting merely adequate. The cast is made up of mostly amateur actors. The film being entirely in Spanish helps to hide the actors lack of experience for American audiences. The fact that Rodriguez made such a damn good movie for less than most movies’ catering bill is mind-blowing. He used so many ingenious techniques when shooting the film to save money, such as editing in camera, using actors as his crew, and even shooting the whole movie without sound. (The sound was added in after the film was shot by the way). Rodriguez discusses at great length just what kind of creativity goes into making a movie for seven grand on the film’s DVD. If you are an aspiring director, or just a film buff like myself, its one of the most informative commentaries ever recorded. It’s definitely well worth a listen.

Robert Rodriguez also chose to shoot this movie on video instead of film. Since he had a very limited budget, with a film print can usually costing north of $20,000, he shot on video to avoid spending all the extra money (which he didn’t have). Like Micheal Mann as well, Rodriguez has since switched to lensing all his films in digital, as he did with the third chapter in the trilogy: Once Upon A Time In Mexico. In El Mariachi, as well as most of his other films, Rodriguez uses very quick cuts for the action scenes, but steadier closeups for most of the quieter, dialogue-heavy scenes.

As with Rodriguez’s other entries in what is known as the Mariachi Trilogy, 1995′s Desperado(which starred Antonio Banderas in the role of the mariachi) and 2003′s Once Upon A Time In Mexico, the movie is almost a parody of the standard spaghetti westerns of the 60s. El Mariachi never takes itself too seriously, and is a pleasure to watch because of  that fact. This guy is the MacGyver of  modern cinema. I’d love to see what kind of movie he could make with everyday household items.  Seriously, he produces movies that look as if they easily cost ten times what they do. If you want to see what $7,000 can really look like on screen take a look back at where Robert Rodriguez got started with El Mariachi.

Buy this First Feature here.

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First Features: Michael Mann ‘Thief’

It’s Michael Mann Week here at The Film Nest. With Mann’s new film Public Enemies make it’s highly anticipated debut on Wednesday July 1st, we vow to bring you a Mann-related post each and every day of the week to share our appreciation for his work.

Please cast your vote in the poll on our right-hand sidebar to let us know which Mann film is your favorite.

We’re kicking off Michael Mann Week with a look back at his first film in the director’s chair, 1981′s Thief.

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Although his resume isn’t completely full of them, Michael Mann will almost assuredly be viewed as one of the top directors in the genre of crime drama. His status was certainly cemented in 1995, with the pinnacle achievement that is Heat. That film struck a delicate balance between the criminals and men in blue pursuing them. His focus was weighed more on the side of the law in Miami Vice and he looks to continue his fascination with the dichotomy between cops and robbers in his upcoming Public Enemies. However, the label he shares today was kick-started back in 1981, when Mann made his feature directorial debut with a look at the criminal side of things with Thief.

After writing for law enforcement shows “Starsky and Hutch” and “Policy Story” in the mid-to-late 70s, Mann was given the opportunity to write and direct a made-for-television film entitled The Jericho Mile in 1979, about a prison inmate with a gift for running. Presumably, based on his success behind the camera on the job, he was given the go-ahead to write and direct Thief, based on a novel by Frank Hohimer. He also finagled James Caan to star, after the success of two Godfather‘s, Rollerball and A Bridge Too Far.

Having a gun helps you state your case with conviction.

Having a gun helps you state your case with conviction.

In Thief, Caan plays Frank, a safecracker who after 11 years in prison doesn’t care about “nothin’.” No longer living in fear of anything, he’s able to live his life freely and without recourse. He does carry a code, however, and he refuses to break into safes for anything other than jewels or cash. His friend and mentor is locked up in prison for life, but suffers from a heart arrhythmia and doesn’t want to die inside. Frank lives his life under the guise of an operator of a used car lot to offset any detective work done on behalf of his criminal side.

After a score is stolen by a low-level Mafioso, Frank goes to hunt down the stolen goods and winds up encountering the Mafia face-to-face. They apologize for the misdeed and in turn offer him a job. Frank lays down his terms and they agree. They provide the score and the scouting that’s involved. All he has to do is provide the labor. The scores are substantially larger than what Frank is used to and dividing up the profits will still give him enough money so he can provide the life he wants for himself.

While the big score is planned, Frank is involved with his longtime girlfriend, Jessie. They have dreams of settling down and when Frank reveals how he earns the big bucks to her, it does little to faze her as she’s played the role of “criminal’s girlfriend” before. They want to start a family together, but Jessie is incapable of having children. Frank wants to adopt, but no adoption agency is willing to give a child to a former convict. The Mafia Frank’s involved with is able to buy a baby for him and once Frank’s big score is over, he decides his life will be complete. Of course, the Mafia has other plans for how his life will go.

If you ever need to break into a safe, bring fireworks.

If you ever need to break into a safe, bring fireworks.

Although made 14 years before Heat, this film can be viewed as sort of a foreshadowing of the masterpiece to come. There are shades of Frank and Jessie’s relationship that can be seen in the pairing of Ashley Judd and Val Kilmer’s characters in the later film. There are less characters in Thief than in Heat, so Mann was able to focus a little more on development between Frank and Jessie and it works at a great precursor to Judd and Kilmer. Although there are law enforcement characters in the film, the balance is far more weighed toward the criminals in Thief, as the title might allude to, but even within the underworld there are good guys and bad. Heroes to root for and those to jeer. Mann fleshes both sides out equally as characters, to make no mistake in determining which is which.

Today, you’d probably recognize a Mann film without knowing who was behind the camera from the digital look he adapted in 2004 with Collateral and has continued to use for each movie since. Obviously he didn’t have the choice for digital back in 1981, but there are still some Mann-like traits in this film that can be found in future productions. The man loves his coffee shops. He obviously feels it’s a good place where characters can just have a nice back-and-forth with dialogue. The infamous first on-camera meeting between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat is set in one, as are scenes between Frank and Jessie, and Frank and his mob boss. These scenes work toward revealing exposition and character. He’s also been known to set scenes in nightclubs, like in Collateral and Miami Vice, which he does here as well. From a stylistic standpoint, Mann established a lot of the characteristics he’d continue to use from the outset with Thief.

A big piece which helps makes the film so thoroughly compelling is the score by a German group named Tangerine Dream. It’s absolutely the greatest 80′s synthesizer infused score I’ve ever heard. It’s almost constantly present and when it is, it seems like it’s always building and building toward a crescendo. The piece that covers the end of the film and the end credits is so enjoyable, I left it playing just to hear it end on its own terms. It struck me that a lot of scores in Mann films are memorable. I can hear the humming of Groove Armada’s “Hands of Time” from Collateral, you can probably recall the guitar sounds from the Public Enemies trailer without replaying it and of course the infamous “The Kiss” during the final battle in The Last of the Mohicans. Every detail is obviously particularly chosen for each moment as Mann is not merely an artist, but an auteur.

Thief is every bit as worthy an entry into the Michael Mann canon as any other film of his, as he makes a hell of a debut. The film establishes some Mann-ian traits and displays some of the great knack for crime drama he’d continue to build upon. Thief isn’t merely an oddity to be gawked at because it’s the first from a well-established director, but a great film that leaves a lasting impression. The fact that it’s Mann’s first just makes it all the more impressive. It’s an excellent way to kick off a career.

Buy this First Feature here.

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First Features: Tony Scott ‘The Hunger’

With Tony Scott’s The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 to be released on Friday, First Features takes a look at his feature directorial debut, The Hunger.

Ahh, vampirism. That horrific act of drinking another person’s blood to grant yourself eternal life which Hollywood has been obsessed with since its inception. Nosferatu, Dracula and even Shadow of the Vampire. The title characters of all those films are usually the same. The vampire has long fangs. He bites his victims on the neck, leaving two marks. He can’t go outside during the daytime. He can transform himself into a bat if necessary, as if he were a Noctobot. Strangely, Tony Scott’s 1983 vampire film, The Hunger possesses almost none of these qualities.

The dreaded mouth period.

The dreaded mouth-period.

Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) is a centuries old vampire, who must prey on the blood of humans to keep her immortality. She promises the same shot of living forever to her lovers in exchange for their blood. The catch, unbeknownst to them, is that although they live forever, their youthful appearance only lasts for so long. Once that time is up, they age faster than Robin Williams in Jack.

Miriam’s current lover is John (David Bowie). He’s content with his ability to engorge himself on the flesh of hot young things, until it’s apparent his time has come and his youthfulness wears off. Although his appearance was the product of an otherworldly gift (curse?), he decides to seek out a human doctor, Dr. Roberts (Susan Sarandon), who specializes in cases of rapid aging. Initially, she dismisses his claim as a hoax, but offers her assistance after offending him.

Dr. Roberts shows up at the Blaylock’s residence after it’s too late for John. Miriam tells her he had fled overseas, but invites Dr. Roberts inside anyway. Miriam turns up her charm toward Dr. Roberts and 25 plus years prior to Lesbian Vampire Killers, effectively seduces her. Dr. Roberts, now inflicted with the desire to suck the blood the blood of others, is none too pleased. She has to figure out a way to kill the immortal Miriam and release herself from the acquired curse.

"I've looked through all these books and can't find anything about female-female Kama Sutra."

"I've looked through all these books and can't find anything about female-female Kama Sutra."

As previously mentioned, aside from sucking blood, none of the typical vampiric traits pop-up in the film. Nobody sports any fangs, no bats make an appearance and although things are largely devoid of sun, the characters still enter the daylight. With it’s shunning of normal vampire clichés, The Hunger most closely resembles Alan Ball’s HBO series, the campy/realistic “True Blood.” It owes almost nothing to the vampire films which preceded it, which is a refreshing take on a long-in-the-blood-sucking-tooth genre.

After directing a TV episode and a couple of shorter films, Tony Scott graduated to directing features with this film. Strangely, like the film to its predecessors, the visual style bears little resemblance to the rest of Scott’s oeuvre, especially that of his next film, Top Gun. In fact, The Hunger is atrociously slow. It’s no wonder Scott would later usher in the ADD-style quick-cutting technique to adhere to the MTV generation.

Perhaps the film looks slightly larger under Scott’s tutelage than it would under someone else’s watchful eye, but there’s very little hinting toward his future career. The green tint his films have been bathed in for the past several years has no presence here. If anything, the film leans toward an amber hue. There are also a lot of flowing curtains which make it look like a music video from the era. In fact, the look of the film reminds me of the music video Jim Carrey is in at the beginning of the Dirty Harry film, The Dead Pool. The music and the whole ambience of that video seem to be directly transported from The Hunger. It’s a film for the goth chic, over a decade before The Crow.

Fans of Scott will undoubtedly feel amiss taking a gander at this film. The Jerry Bruckheimer-fueled blockbusters of Scott’s future show no traces here and the film itself provides little of interest aside from the vampire film with nary a cliché. Regardless of your opinion on Scott’s filmmaking nowadays, it’s impossible to argue that he’s improved his directorial style immensely, as well as developing a look and feel that’s uniquely his. The Hunger is as much an oddity in Scott’s resume as its leading man.

Buy this First Feature here.

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First Features: Ron Howard ‘Grand Theft Auto’

In anticipation of director Ron Howard’s new film, Angels & Demons, to be released this Friday, his 20th feature film in the director’s chair, we take you all the way back to 1977 to revisit his first, Grand Theft Auto.

The title will undoubtedly sound familiar to you, but not for the film, but rather the multi-million copy selling video game produced by Rockstar Games. Although the text on the newly released DVD of the film may look similar, the only things the film and the video game have in common are their titles and stolen cars. There are no guns in Grand Theft Auto. No gangs. No prostitutes get picked up (even though the film centers on a trip to Las Vegas). Nobody gets ripped out of the driver’s seat and beaten down to have their car stolen. You know, all the fun stuff the video game contains.

They apparently had car phones in '77. At least Rolls-Royce's did.

They apparently had car phones in '77. At least Rolls-Royce's did.

Howard’s Grand Theft Auto stars himself as Sam Freeman, alongside Nancy Morgan, who plays Sam’s love interest, Paula Powers. Sam and Paula are a bit like Romeo and Juliet. Paula comes from a rich family. Her father is on the verge of making a run for California’s governorship (Arnie would have beat him down). Her family has essentially promised away her hand in marriage to the son of another high society California family, Collins Hedgeworth. Sam doesn’t come from a wealthy background and is therefore frowned upon when Paula announces she wants to marry him. He is kicked out of the house and Paula is sent to her room (presumably, these are characters just out of high school). Paula sneaks out of a house through her bedroom window, steals her father’s Rolls-Royce, picks Sam up and they head out to Las Vegas for a quick ceremony. You’ll notice she stole her father’s vehicle. That’s stolen car number one in the movie and the number of boosted vehicles snowball from there.

Bigby Powers (Paula’s rich father)  hires a line of bounty hunters equipped with a helicopter to stop Sam and Paula from driving into Vegas and marrying. Collins Hedgeworth (Paula’s presumed fiance) is a nerdy twit, who hears the news of Paula’s flight with Sam while stepping off his horse. He hops in his Porsche, flying down the road, still in his equestrian helmet, trying to ward off the imminent wedding. He even calls local radio station TenQ to flood the airwaves of the news of his predicament and offers a $25,000 reward to the person who brings Paula back to him.

This sets off a wave of interest as Collins’ mother, Vivian, sets after him and puts out a $25,000 reward on his head. Two wrench-monkeys join the chase, as well as a preacher and anybody else who happens to encounter the young lovers on their trip to Sin City. The film is essentially It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (released 14 years earlier) with characters chasing after a mobile object and a less recognizable cast. Paula and Sam’s search for freedom doesn’t come easily when TenQ’s radio DJ, Curly Q. Brown, hunts the couple down in a traffic copter, advertising their precise location and giving a play-by-play commentary of the ensuing events. He’s not interested in the reward money, but only in delivering sleazy entertainment to his listeners.

I believe this is how they said "hi," back in '77.

I believe this is how they said "hi," back in '77, too.

There are a lot of stolen vehicles in the film, as Howard and his father, Rance (co-writers of the script), work to maintain the integrity of the film’s title. Again, none of the cars are ever taken by force, so the overall tone of the film is a fairly jovial one. Nothing dark or violent here, just an old-fashioned chase movie. There really isn’t much plot or characterization, either. The film barely stretches out to 84 minutes, and it only reaches that number because they throw so many characters into the pursuit of the purse that they all need a little screentime. Sam and Paula only have one scene of significance and it’s when Sam feels conflicted about wedding the daughter of a wealthy man who doesn’t agree with the nuptials.

The film was exec produced by the master of the low-budget film, Roger Corman. He’s granted directorial initiation rights to a number of big-name directors, some of which we’re bound to cover down the road in this column. He allows for a hint of exploitation as one of the film’s climactic scenes involves the main characters unwittingly involved in a demolition derby with Bigby’s Rolls-Royce. The script deficiencies aside, Ron Howard the director does a great job for his first time behind the camera and even succeeds in the task of directing himself. He was only 23 at the time. Howard isn’t known for visual trickery or flair as his latter films attest, but in terms of conveying a story, he does it with a minimalist approach that saves time for key moments and scenes. He jumps immediately into the story in Grand Theft Auto and the film never really stops. I think his experience working on this film and with Corman have helped shape the director he’s become.

Grand Theft Auto certainly won’t ever be one of Howard’s popular works, simply because it’s not as good as the others. However, for anybody that enjoyed It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Cannonball Run, Rat Race or any other chase film, it’s something worth checking out, even if only for the fact you can then say, “I saw Ron Howard’s first feature.”

Buy this First Feature here.

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“First Features” Begins

In our ever-evolving urge to present unique film-related topics and subjects to you, we’ve come up with our “First Features” column. The idea behind “First Features” is that every director has to start somewhere. Typically the first film they’re ever asked to helm isn’t one that rises to mass popularity. At least that’s the case for the majority of directors. It’s normally the later films a director is tasked to do, once they’ve established a name for themselves, that they and their films rise to prominence. You know Steven Spielberg. You’ve probably seen Jaws, E.T., Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report, but have you seen his first made-for-theaters feature, Sugarland Express? It’s far less known than any of the aforementioned films, mainly because it was his first. Our mission is to visit those unheralded, vastly unseen first features of major directors working today and compare them to their more popular works to gauge how they’ve grown into shaping their craft.

Not all first features are unknown or underseen of course. Sam Mendes’ first film was American Beauty, which won five Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture. We’ll let those films stand on their own two feet, but hope to unearth some hidden gems from this process.

This will be a semi-regular column, most likely written on a monthly basis and always to coincide with a newly released film by the directorial subject. With that set in place, we will get the ball rolling for Ron Howard’s new film, Angels & Demons and take you back to 1977 when he made his directorial debut with Grand Theft Auto. Check back here tomorrow (5/11) for that.

We hope you like this new column and the objective we hope to convey. Please let us know what you think of the idea and execution in the comments section. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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