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Passengers – film review

PASSENGERS

The first great adult-oriented sci-fi film of the year.

Reviewed on Monday 2nd January 2017

passengers

Directed by Morten Tyldum. Written by Jon Spaihts. Starring: Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. Running time: 116 mins.

Jim Preston, a colonist travelling to a distant planet, awakens from hypersleep aboard an automated starship to fnd he has been awakened ninety years too soon. Without any hope of returning to hypersleep, Jim faces the awful prospect of living out the rest of his life alone; a castaway in space.

A highly-regarded screenplay un-flmed for almost a decade, Passengers was the writing sample which persuaded Ridley Scott to hire the hot young screenwriter       Jon Spaihts to initially develop the Alien prequel; substantially re-tooled by Damon Lindelof to eventually become the debacle that was Prometheus in 2012. Having read and quite enjoyed Spaihts’ original draft for Alien: Engineers (after it was leaked soon after the release of Scott’s Prometheus), I was intrigued to go see Passengers based purely on the fact Spaihts was the originator of the material.

The opening half hour or so beautifully conveys the deep sense of isolation and despair Chris Pratt’s everyman mechanic Jim Preston experiences upon realizing     he is fated to live and die alone aboard a starship of sleepers. With the hypersleep revival of the Jennifer Lawrence character – an aspiring young journalist named Aurora Lane; planning on writing about her round trip to the colonies, the film becomes less a study of isolation and more a traditional romance – albeit one which explores a fascinating quandary.

This revival of Aurora presents the Chris Pratt character with a compelling moral dilemma which lies at the very heart of this story; a dramatic aspect which is explored with unfinching honesty to the extent where our sympathy for Pratt’s character is (uncharacteristically for a contemporary big budget Hollywood movie) threatened. There are some who have felt the exploration of this dilemma is somewhat unsavory. But I feel, in this respect, these detractors have missed the point and this flm should be appreciated for daring to go out on a limb and not just treading the safe and easy (and bland) path of most Hollywood fare. Indeed, I can foresee people heatedly debating the moral implications this film presents in the decades to come (much like the future debates I imagine regarding Amy Adams’ equally divisive moral choices in the recent Arrival). A traditional romance such as Passengers either works or it doesn’t based purely on the chemistry (or lack thereof) between the two leads. And thankfully the on-screen chemistry between Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence is very much in evidence. Having never seen any of Jennifer Lawrence’s previous work, I was unaware just how talented a performer she really is. And Chris Pratt (another actor I’ve also never had an opinion of one way or another) is also very good.

Jon Spaihts’ keenly-wrought screenplay presents characters whose motivations we can understand. While Norwegian helmer Morten Tyldum demonstrates he is equally adept at staging thrilling action sequences as he is eliciting strong performances from his stars. And the stunning sets and visual effects depicting the enormity of the starship Avalon, as she traverses the vastness of space; truly demand this flm be seen on the largest screen possible.

Passengers is an emotionally authentic romance as well as being a thrilling survival tale which, like all great sci-fi, has something relevant to say about the human condition. Oh and it might just be the perfect date movie too; with plenty to discuss over that post screening coffee.

4 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at the Event Cinemas Megaplex Marion, Adelaide, January 2nd 2017

Greg Moss is a flm school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – film review

ROGUE ONE

Disney’s overblown fanboy fiction sidebar is ultimately superfluous.

Reviewed on Thursday 15th December 2016

rogue-one-jyn-ersa

Directed by Gareth Edwards. Writen by Chris Weitz & Tony Gilroy, based on characters created by George Lucas. Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Ben Mendelsohn and Forest Whitaker. Running time: 134 mins.

A rag-tag bunch of rebels attempt to break into an Imperial stronghold in order to steal plans for the planet-destroying space station known as the Death Star.

SPOILER WARNING: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS

I must admit, the idea of talented young directors who grew up loving Star Wars having a crack at George Lucas’ universe did seem somewhat intriguing at first. Although there was always the possibility that it would be nothing more than a cynical exercise in milking the Star Wars cash cow even further. Having enjoyed Gareth Edwards’ previous films (the microbudget indie darling Monsters and the 2014 version of Godzilla) – I was excited to learn he had been signed on to direct Rogue One. And there’s no denying this film is well directed. It’s not the direction I have an issue with – it’s the writing.

The first twenty minutes is a confused and muddy jumble of difficult to differentiate characters with no striking distinctions from one another (aside from the weapons they weild). And apart from the robot K2 – really the only truly engaging character     in the entire movie – the remainder of the characters are so bland – as to be almost non-existent. While pre-existing characters (or should that be post-existing characters) – feel shoe-horned into the narrative for no legitimate reason. Why is Princess Leia even in attendence during the battle to steal the plans? For no other reason than (much like the finale of Revenge of the Sith) – to connect this installment to the opening of A New Hope. Diehard Star Wars fans would no doubt call this nitpicking – but it all feels so contrived and clumsy; lacking in finesse.

However, the thing which irrevocably threw me out of the film – never to recover; has got to be the surprise re-appearance of the late Peter Cushing (here playing the same role he did in 1977 – before he died). Unfortunately, creepy computer-generated Peter Cushing is only just marginally less creepy than creepy computer-generated young Jeff Bridges in Tron Legacy. Every time CG Peter Cushing appeared on-screen – I felt, well – completely unnerved. Sorry, but this CG depiction of real, recognizable people is still way too ‘uncanny valley’ for my liking. And, yeah, it completely threw me out of the picture.

Finally, and I know I’m gonna receive plenty of flack for this; the most problematic issue with Rogue One is the central character. Here again we have a young woman with familial abandonment issues (a long-time Disney trope if ever there was) – who is also a kick-ass fighter; which we only saw just last year with the character of Ray in The Force Awakens – and to be quite honest, this meme is already tired second time around. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for the depiction of female empowerment on-screen. But, by the same token; little boys these days are also (probably moreso) in desperate need of strong role models. And it’s telling that both Rogue One and The Force Awakens really do present no strong male role models to speak of. Hopefully future installments in the franchise will do something to redress this balance.

On a positive note, Michael Giacchino’s rousing wall-to-wall score perfectly imitates John Williams’ style, while the authentic recreation of John Barry’s iconic production design for the original Star Wars is also worthy of note. But these things alone don’t necessarily make this installment essential viewing in my opinion.

So how does Rogue One bode for Disney’s future side-bar installments of Star Wars? Well, for me, if this ‘first out of the gate’ installment is any indication – not that well     at all. I prefer my Star Wars to be escapist fun and not have blatant sociopolitical agendas and gender politics shoe-horned into it.

2 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at the Event Cinemas Megaplex Marion, Adelaide, December 16th 2016.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

The Legend of Ben Hall – film review

THE LEGEND OF BEN HALL

Australian cinema gets back on the horse.

Reviewed on Wednesday 30th November 2016

legend-of-ben-hall-2016

Written & Directed by Matthew Holmes. Starring: Jack Martin, Jamie Coffa, William Lee, Joanne Dobbin and Lauren Grimson. Running time: 139 mins.

An historical action crime drama detailing the final months in the life of Australia’s most notorious and misrepresented bushranger, Ben Hall.

Australian cinema has been depicting our nation’s wild colonial roots from the very beginning. In fact, Australia can proudly claim to have produced the world’s very first full-length narrative feature – The Story of the Kelly Gang – back in 1906; a film which depicted our most (arguably) famous outlaw, Ned Kelly. And period dramas have always been with us; with a popular resurgence occuring in the 1970s with internationally recognized pictures such as Picnic at Hanging Rock, My Brilliant Career, The Getting of Wisdom, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, Caddie and Newsfront. This fascination with depicting the past continued on into the 80s with Gallipoli and The Man from Snowy River but pretty much ended with the release of the Sam Neil-starring Robbery Under Arms in 1985; as the next wave of Aussie filmmakers were more interested in telling contemporary stories; particulary urban melodramas; many of which where dire and depressing to say the least. Sadly, this off-putting tone of nihilism which pervaded Australian films into the 90s turned off local auds to the extent where nowadays (more often than not) – Aussie films tend to play to empty theatres; while the prohibitive cost involved in recreating period settings (with the manufacture of authentic-looking props and costumes etc) dictates that films as elaborate as The Legend of Ben Hall are few and far between (the only recent examples being the Heath Ledger-starring Ned Kelly in 2003 and the universally acclaimed The Proposition in 2005).

Several years in development, this passion project from writer-director Matthew Holmes (Twin Rivers, The Artifice) began as a proposed 25 minute short after his (still-in-developement) creature feature Territorial was unable to secure funding. As     a result of a hugely successful kickstarter campaign (which garnered more funds than were actually needed), the planned short was then expanded to 45 minutes. As interest in the project spread during production, still more funding was secured from private backers; which allowed for more shooting and an increase in the running time to feature length. Holmes’ intent with The Legend of Ben Hall has always been to present a more balanced and sympathetic portrait of the man than was depicted historically in the press of the day. For, despite the fact he was responsible for over 600 hold-ups in his short career; Hall was always respectful of those he robbed. This, along with the fact that he never actually killed anyone, is an aspect which makes his unlawful demise at the hands of reward-seeking vigilantes all the more affecting.

Holmes’ background in the precise art and science of visual effects lends the film a well-machined look. This is not to say the film is a visual effects extravaganza – it’s not. But Holmes’ (almost microscopic) eye for detail in all departments is clearly evident in every frame. Here is a filmmaker who knows precisely what he’s doing; where to place the camera, where to edit, how to stage a scene for maximum impact – it’s all here. And his skills are truly impressive in this respect. And for a relatively low budget feature sporting a period setting, production values are uncharacteristically high (with every cent clearly up there on the screen). Indeed, the film has been enthusiatically embraced by historians as the most authentic representation of this particular period ever put on screen.

Tonally, at least, Ben Hall leans more towards the gritty realism of The Proposition (sans the savage bleakness and brutality) – than it does the comic book levity of Robbery Under Arms. This is not to say the film is without its lighter moments (particularly in scenes involving Jamie Coffa’s character), but overall, the tone does echo the seriousness of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (a film which Ben Hall does indeed give a nod to; with regard to the use of dream-like familial visions to help flesh out   the titular character).

The large supporting cast are uniformly excellent; with the stand-out being William Lee; here delivering a perfectly nuanced performance as Hall’s youngest and most impressionable gang member, John Dunn. Dunn is perhaps the character who undergoes the most dramatic change through the course of the film and Lee does     an outstanding job; definitely a name to watch for in the coming years. Also very good are Jordan Fraser-Trumble (in a role remarkably similar to that of Harvey Keitel in Thelma & Louise) – as the sympathetic Sub-Inspector Davidson; a man determined to capture Hall alive and Lauren Grimson as Hall’s love interest Christina McKinnon (another new face I predict big things for in the future). Plucked straight from acting school, Jack Martin, as the titular hero, all brooding stoicism – is undoubtedly an imposing presence on-screen (although he does tend to be upstaged at times by Jaimi Coffa – as Hall’s clearly psychopathic offsider John Gilbert). And while the dialogue scenes between Ben and his estranged wife Biddi (regarding custody of their young son) can be a little too wordy and on-point to be convincing (particularly during the first half) – the bushranging scenes involving Ben and his gang more than make up for this.

The film features numerous action set-pieces and Holmes displays a keen sense     of geography during the various stage coach robberies and shoot-outs with police; skillfully immersing us within the action; while the richly-textured sound design and Caitlin Spiller’s unobtrusive and perfectly-timed editing (there isn’t a single superfluous shot in this film) – also contribute greatly to the overall impact and excitement of these scenes. The epic grandeur of the Australian outback (with country Victoria standing in for New South Wales locales, circa 1860s) are beautifully captured by DP Peter Szilveszter; demanding this movie be seen on the biggest screen possible. While Ronnie Minder’s sweeping score perfectly augments the emotion, suspense and tragedy inherent in the tale.

Minor quibbles aside, The Legend of Ben Hall is a hugely engaging and culturally important film and a movie all Australians should enthusiastically embrace and be justifiably proud of.

4 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at Wallis Cinemas Mitcham, Adelaide, November 30th 2016.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

Arrival – film review

ARRIVAL

Serious-minded sci-fi turns existential mind-bender.

Reviewed on Thursday 10th November 2016

arrival-2016

Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on the story ‘Story of Your Life’ by Ted Chiang. Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and     Forest Whitaker. Running time: 116 mins.

Linguist Louise Banks is recruited by the US government to decipher the language of newly-arrived extraterrestrials and thus learn their purpose here on Earth. It is her own memories of personal loss which hold the key to avoiding hostilities with the aliens.

It’s going to be a challenge writing about this film without giving too much away, but I’ll do my best to not to get into spoilers. Undoubtedly one of the most intriguing indie sci-fi films of the last few years, they’re calling Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival this generation’s Close Encounters, but it’s actually closer in tone to Contact – set against the re-ignited Cold War tensions of The Abyss. From the opening moments where barely-glimpsed media reports and choice sound bites gradually reveal the titular arrival, we are immediately drawn into this unfolding mystery and our investment in the outcome is effortlessly maintained throughout. Make no mistake, this is serious-minded sci-fi and about as far away as one can get from recent studio fare such as Independence Day: Resurgence. Based on Ted Chiang’s award-winning 1998 novella ‘Story of Your Life’, the beautifully-crafted screenplay by Eric Heisserer explores multiple concepts; the main one being something called linguistic relativity; a concept which posits that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ cognition and world view. In other words, its the idea that immersing oneself in learning a new language has the effect of re-wiring ones’ own brain so that one will begin thinking differently. As the aliens’ perception of time is non-linear, Louise begins to develop     an ability to ‘relive’ the future; a skill which may, if she chooses to use it, divert the world away from nuclear conflict; as escalating tensions with China (who interpret the aliens’ intent as hostile) provide a backdrop of impending doom.

The bulk of the film takes place at a US military base; with cutaways to media reports describing the world’s reaction to the arrival of the aliens. The deliberate downsizing of the scope of the film creates a sense of intimacy with the characters so we are focused on their reactions to the unfolding mystery. As Arrival is told entirely from Louise’s point of view, Amy Adams is on screen virtually the entire time – and her performance here is one of her best so far. Also very good is Jeremy Renner as Louise’s colleague and potential love interest, Ian Donelly.

Jóhann Jóhannsson’s dread-laden score is hugely effective in generating unease during Louise’s initial foray into the alien ship, while my only real issue with the film     is a purely aesthetic one as Villeneuve’s use of shallow focus, while thematically appropriate (being a visual representation of the idea of grasping at answers which     are just out of reach) – can be a little distracting at times.

Featuring heady concepts, a compelling surprise-filled narrative and a terrific central performance from Amy Adams, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is a real treat for lovers of serious-minded sci-fi and those who enjoy thinking about the film they’ve just seen     for days after.

4 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at the Event Cinemas Megaplex Marion, Adelaide, November 10th 2016.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

Travis Milloy – interview

Filmmaker Travis Milloy talks all things Pandorum and Somnio.

chris soren kelly in somnio 2016

I recently had the great pleasure of sitting down with filmmaker Travis Milloy, via Skype, for an hour-long discussion on his twenty-plus year career as a working screenwriter in Hollywood; with particular emphasis on his experience as the writer     of Pandorum and his latest soon-to-be released directorial offering Somnio. We covered a lot of fascinating territory and I’m sure fans of Pandorum in particular, will be interested to hear Travis’ story concepts for spin-offs, prequels and sequels which were talked about prior to that film’s release.

(Just a quick word on spoilers. We do go into some detail regarding the ending of Pandorum. But our discussion of Somnio is spoiler free)

In anticipation of his new film finding a distributor, we began by discussing the audience reaction to the first public screening of Somnio earlier this year:

I tell ya, I was a little nervous about the movie. You never know what’s going to work and what’s not and until we showed it to the audience in Boston; that was the first time showing the movie actually to anyone. And I watched it with a crowd there and that was quite an experience. I mean it was amazing. I was really kind of nervous because I hadn’t really thought about it. I had no idea if people were going to accept this movie or if anybody was really going to get it or if they were going to get bored.   It was really electric. It was just fantastic watching it with an audience. And it really boosted my whole confidence level. Looking back, I was expecting to get negative feedback on certain aspects of the movie – but that didn’t happen.

I was interested to know what those particular aspects were which he felt might receive a negative response.

You know I think really it’s the first act that was what I was most concerned about. You never really know what you have on the page till when you shoot it. Well, when we got to shooting and when I did my first edit of the movie – it didn’t work. I followed the script and the movie didn’t work. Just as a writer you always have the tendency to need things to move faster than it may always appear. Originally the movie opened with a dream sequence with him waking in his apartment and we see him going through the whole routine. He goes to the coffee shop. He meets Gabby; the whole sequence and then he’s shot and he wakes up in the cell. But it was about a nine minute sequence, and and I was like, wow, I’m expecting the audience to be patient here in that first twenty minutes of the movie. I sense that this culture is very impatient. I think we live in a world where when you have Netflix and iTunes and things like that which you can turn off; you don’t really have a captive audience any more; where you get people in the theatre and you get them to commit to a movie. You really kinda’ gotta move things along and if people are not interested they will switch off or pick something else. So I was really concerned about the first twenty minutes.

One of the key aspects of Somnio which truly impressed me is the film’s editing,     of which no editor is credited. Prior to our conversation, I learned that it was Travis himself who edited the picture (on the very same laptop he used for the Skype call for this interview by the way). Travis elaborated on this process:

I had a really hard time in editing. It’s tough being the editor. I never planned on being the editor. But just because of money we didn’t really have any other options. So I did an assembly edit and I always assumed I would be able to hand it off to an editor and then they could fix all my junk. But it didn’t work out that way. So I just kept editing the film and in the back of my mind I always kept saying, ‘I have to be objective’,       I can’t fall into that first time director trap of ‘oh I like this shot just because it was difficult to do, or I wanna hold onto these things’, and I think that’s the first timer’s mistake and the movie is just too slow and it drags because we’re so attached to these shots. So I really tried to separate myself from the movie and just tried to focus on what helps propel the story and everything else can go. I went through about ten different versions and then I would show it to different people and they always thought it was fine and I said if I was watching this on Netflix I would stop it. I would probably not commit to ninety minutes of this movie. So that was my goal to make it interesting enough, engaging enough. Like, okay, where is this gonna go? And I think that I’ve succeeded enough at a certain level. But it still bothers me, that first half hour or so because I think there is a point in the movie about forty minutes in where things start to get interesting and that’s where I don’t worry as much. And the last act, I think works really well and it pays off the right way. You know, I could edit this thing till the cows come home. They have to take it away from me. Every time I watch it I still wanna do this and I wanna sharpen that and now when I watch it I think oh that could be quicker or I don’t need that line; I could take a few seconds here. But I just gotta calm down and just let the movie be the movie. It’s the same with writing scripts too. You can over fix it. Actually, I did get to a point where I was over-editing the movie. But I got to a spot where I was fairly happy with it. Then I was going in and I was chopping chunks. I took out entire scenes and then somebody watched it and said no, you’re over editing now. Now you’ve lost a certain amount of magic.       I mean it seems like a certain amount of patience with scenes is needed, letting scenes breathe and have a little room instead of bam bam bam bam – getting to the point. And so I had to back off. But I guess that’s the challenge of trying to find the right balance.

travis milloy

While looking over Travis’ IMDb page, I was intrigued to find mention of a film from 1996 which he wrote and directed called Street Gun. As I was unfamiliar with this particular film, I asked Travis to give me the low down on this.

That was kinda my grad school. I was very young, very naïve. When I first started in the industry I did special effects, I did stunt work, I pretty much did everything and I worked in every department I could get into. I worked in the camera department, I worked in editing, in location scouting, you name it; I did the whole gamut. And then I said, you know what, I am going to make a movie. So everybody that I worked for and did favors for, helped me out. This very little film we shot in Minneapolis for about $100,000. It was my roommates that were in the film and we just went out and, only because I was naïve, we pulled it off. It is amazing because of how many camera set-ups we did and what we did for that amount of money. Looking back, I really didn’t put much into story, I didn’t put much into performance; like we had to get scenes in the can and move on, and it was just like I didn’t worry about that at all, we just had to finish these set-ups. So I look back at the film and, you know, I’m proud of the movie, but it was definitely my grad school.

Street Gun is not a very good movie, but we pulled off a lot of tough stuff with those constraints. The movie itself did really well financially. We made a profit after it was sold everywhere and we were over the moon and it’s what started my career; but only as a writer. And when I went to Hollywood and I sold it I met Jeff Robinov; an agent at ICM and he said I’ll represent you as a writer – but not as a director. And I was like ‘Huh, well, I’m not a writer’. And he said ‘Yeah, well you are now.’ And I was like, ‘okay’. So that’s how it all started. I didn’t intend on writing, but I started writing for him; I won a contract with Warner Brothers and I was thrown into the studio system   in my twenties. I was pretty naïve but I worked on a lot of big projects and I made     a good living. But none of the movies ever got produced. I kinda got burnt out because it wasn’t all that rewarding, since none of the films I was writing ever got made. I realized the politics of the system is so much about doing big budget films and all the moons have to align in order for them to even get made.

Out of exhaustion, really, I just stopped. I wanted to get back into production so I worked in TV; being a cameraman and all kinds of stuff. And while I was doing that I decided to write a script that I could shoot for nothing. So I was like ‘I’m not going to worry about the studios, I’m not going to worry about the demographics. I’m just going to write my own script’. And I wrote Pandorum, and then all of a sudden everyone was interested in the script and they wanted to make the movie and things just took off and I was like a lightbulb went off and I realized a huge part of the problem was that what I’d been doing was writing to make other people happy. I was writing for studio executives; I was trying to guess what other people would like. I wasn’t writing for myself. So when Pandorum took off I thought – hey wait a minute; every script I wrote I pretended like I was going to make the movie myself and all of a sudden I had real success. Every script I wrote after that was either getting purchased or was getting optioned. And all these people were interested in it. So it was kinda funny, because I’d write a movie and I’d go okay, I’m gonna make this movie and I’d go cast, scout locations, starting to put things together. And while I was doing that my agent would step in and say ‘Okay, not this one. I need to take this away from you because I have somebody really interested in this’. And so I’d go, okay, I’d start another project and I’d start writing that one and I’d do the same thing; okay, this is the movie I want to make. This is the movie. And I wrote six scripts that way. And each one of them was optioned and then I was really, like I can’t fake it anymore, I really want to write a movie I want to direct and then this is where Somnio came in.

I was like, I want to write a self-contained script that I can make very inexpensively, one actor, one location, very self-contained. And that one I didn’t give to my agent, I’m not letting this one go no matter what and that’s how it all started. The other thing I did was; the problem with film making is you always try to wait until everything is perfect. Like the right timing, do we have enough money or do we have enough interest and then I’ll make the movie. And then, when you do that, before you know it five years have gone by and you haven’t done anything. So I committed to the project by renting a space. I rented a warehouse and I started building the set. And I knew if I was spending money there was no going back. So I rented this warehouse and I started building the set myself. It took a year to build this set. I built the set while I was writing the script, so I knew that by the time I got the script finished and the set was almost complete – I had no choice – I’d be a fool to give up on everything I’d built so far. I wanted to paint myself into a corner – so I’d force myself into making the movie.

travis milloy on the set of somnio

What was the inspiration behind the concept for Somnio? Where did the spark of the initial idea come from?

You know, I did see a news article about prisons becoming automated down in Florida. That was a spark that got me interested. They were cutting down on the number of guards they had so they would have remotely controlled gates and doors, and they automated this prison. And that got me thinking – what if there were no humans left running the prisons. In my original draft there were ten characters, both men and women and they were all on death row – so their executions were also automated. So I started writing that script. But then I was like, well, it was still a big script; it was a big set; ten actors. So I thought, one night, hey – what if I just did     one guy’s story. One guy, one cell and he never sees any guards or the warden or visitors – and that’s interesting. And so that’s kinda how it came to be.

chris soren kelly as frank in somnio 2016

As I mentioned in my review of Somnio, a big part of the success of the film is the outstanding central performance by Chris Soren Kelly, who, as it transpires was instrumental in getting the film made in the first place:

I don’t think I would have made the movie if I hadn’t have found him. When I was first putting the project together I knew I wanted to go very low budget, which meant I couldn’t have a name actor. So I was going to have to find an unknown who was really interesting. Chris has a certain dark edge to him, so he’s interesting to watch by himself. I met him while I was casting for another film and he just stuck out. He’s amazing. So when I was talking to him about Somnio, he was the one who said we should just go do it. So I said Yeah but would, you know, would you be part of it and he said ‘Oh absolutely’. So that’s what started the whole ball rolling. Once I had him that was a huge relief because, you know, ninety percent is casting. You get the right people in there and that can make it work and he was just wonderful to work with.

I pointed out the similarities I see between Pandorum and Somnio – in that they     are both stories told from the perspective of a character who awakens with no understanding of his surroundings and has to figure out how he got there. This then segued into a more specific discussion of Travis’ writing process and the challenge     of not preplanning where the story is going when embarking on the initial draft of a new screenplay:

I don’t like to know more than the protagonist. And I think with a lot of films I really want to like more make that mistake; where they’re too eager to show the antagonist’s side of the story. In certain movies it works, but certain thrillers; as soon as we know more than the main character, we’re waiting for him to catch up. I think you’ve lost a certain mystery there. So with both Pandorum and Somnio we never really know more than the main character as the story unfolds. Actually, I really didn’t realize the similarities; someone waking up in a strange place and then having to try to figure out what is going on – which both movies are like. That to me, that was a writer’s challenge. I got myself into the character’s position … What would I do? What would I say? And then that made it easier writing Pandorum. Actually, Pandorum was the first script I wrote without any structure or outline. I used to, you know, I used to do a three act structure and do an outline and a treatment and that kind of stuff, but I got kinda tired of that because it didn’t feel unique – it felt forced. So with Pandorum I sat down and wrote. I literally had no idea of where I was going with it. It was as if I was in that character and I would meet characters and then things would happen and every time I would get to a spot where I thought, okay, here we would expect this to happen so I would try to take a different direction. I basically went through the whole script this way and the funny thing was, I didn’t know how to end Pandorum. I literally wrote up to the point where they made it onto the ship’s bridge and then I had no idea what was going to happen. So I took my dog for a walk and we were out at night and my dog was drinking out of a puddle and I was looking up at the stars and I looked at the water and I go, well, that’s about as opposite as that and it’s the least most expected thing. And so I ran home and wrote the big underwater reveal and then realized – it still works. It worked with the rest of the story. So it was kinda one of those happy accidents. I did the same thing with Somnio. I had no idea where it was going to go and that’s generally how I write scripts now. I generally don’t do an outline. I just throw myself into it and start writing. The problem with that though, is you can easily get yourself trapped and you can’t finish it without fixing a bunch of stuff. It’s a risk I think is worth taking though. Because then it makes the twists in the story just feel more unique because you weren’t planning ahead.

pandorum bower in cryo

As it turns out, Pandorum was almost made as a small independent film with Travis at the helm:

I wrote Pandorum with a notion of no-one ever reading it. And I was actually preparing to make that film; shooting it as a low budget movie. In fact I was actually location scouting; we were going to shoot it in this old abandoned paper mill, when my agent called and said, ‘Stop what you’re doing, I have somebody interested in the script’. And I’d heard this before, like, I’d say ‘Yeah yeah, I’m gonna keep making this movie. You let me know how it goes’. And then, when Impact Pictures got involved, he said ‘No – you really have to stop making your little movie, coz these guys really wanna make it’. And I said, like, all right all right.

I mentioned that I had listened to the director’s commentary track with Christian Alvart, where he talked about his collaboration with Travis on the screenplay             for Pandorum. Apparently their working together was heralded by a strange synchronicity:

You know, I learnt a lot from Christian. He’s German and he has a different sensibility. But I really learnt a lot from him. And it was really wild because he was coincidently writing an almost identical script before he was hired! He was writing his own script and our first ten pages were, like, identical. It was bizarre. It was, like, wow it was really similar – but he had ideas about bringing it to another level. Mine was more of a genre film. More of an Escape From New York in space. Originally it was a prisoner ship with 60,000 inmates being sent to a prison and Bower wakes up. Well everyone in the story was a prisoner, so it was more of a thriller. Less of a monster movie. Anyway, then Christian came in and said he had this idea about deep space travel; colonizing a planet and losing our own planet and it really just gave it a whole new spirit and took it to the next level. So we sat and we worked together a few times. Originally we sat in an office in Los Angeles and literally sat laptop to laptop talking about ideas; merging these two scripts into one. Which was great! He was a lot of fun to work with. And then he went off and he did another film. He got Case 39. So Pandorum kinda came to a halt for a while and then it fired back up again and then I went to Berlin when they were filming, and was rewriting scenes along the way. But it was a great experience; amazing experience to see a film at that level. I mean, you know, I was blown away because I’d seen so many movies fail. Getting a script made at a larger budget level is really a one in a million thing; all the moons have to be aligned for that to work. But to see that happen was a massive thrill.

pandorum cast

Pandorum has garnered a considerable fan base since its release in 2009 and I’m aware there is a ‘Fans for Pandorum Sequel’ Facebook group calling for another movie, so I was curious to know if there was always a sequel in mind.

Yeah, we talked about it. And we obviously prepared ourselves. So while we were     in production we talked about, if the movie is successful, what these other movies might be. So I definitely had ideas. We basically outlined a prequel which would show the launch of the ship; dealing with a whole new group of characters and the whole backstory of the Gallo/Payton character; him growing up on the ship and becoming     a self-proclaimed king; becoming an old man; going from a young officer to Dennis Quaid and then putting himself to sleep. And then a sequel was gonna be Bower and Nadia’s life on the new planet; dealing with their arrival which basically picked up right where Pandorum ended. They come to the surface and begin exploring the planet, only to find that civilizations already exist there; warring with one another. Actually it was a cool idea. It was just because of the box office it didn’t work out. But the story was that, I didn’t know if it was going to be Bower or if it was going a different character, whatever, but this character finds these two tribes at war and one tribe is   a little more tech; it has more technology and weaponry and the other tribe is a little more primal, more spiritual. So it’s kind of like a Native Americans versus Europeans type scenario and this character throws himself into the middle of this war; only to realize that both these tribes are direct descendants from survivors of the Elysium from seven hundred years ago; the ship that crashed. Some people escaped to the surface and they grew over seven hundred years into this society, and the reason why there is a war going on is because of their skewed sense of religion which they learned from Payton. There was a lot of mythology to explore and it all tied back to the origins of Pandorum. So it was a really cool idea and I wrote out these story concepts, but then it never came to be because of the poor box office. But a few of the fans have talked about it and have asked me to write it out as a book or as a graphic novel. So I thought about that and it might be something cool to do down     the road.

The other idea was telling another story that happened on the ship around the same time as the Bower story was going on. We’d have another group of characters on a completely different adventure happening at the same time – they would see Bower and Nadia go by when they’re hiding out; so we’d see these two stories are happening simultaneously. And when Payton floods the ship at the end – that would be part of the story as well. So there are these different story lines and battles going on within this huge ship at the same time. I talked with Christian about that and, if you remember, Bower finds this guy Cooper stuck in the vent, dead. I said to Christian; you know, the sequel could be about Cooper; the third guy when Bower wakes up. In Pandorum it’s Bower, Payton and Cooper, and the Cooper pod is empty. I go, what if we have a sequel where that character, Cooper, sees Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid and crawls out and he goes on his own adventure; this whole new thing; a whole other story prior to Bower and Payton waking up. And Christian said yeah that’s a cool idea, but I just want a dead guy in the vent (laughs).

As a side note, Pandorum started out as a very different story idea. When I was in college, I worked as a ground marshall at an airport in Minneapolis. And one day a plane arrived which was a real life Con-Air plane. It was a US Marshall 727 which carried convicted criminals for trials or relocation or whatever. I mean, this plane had chains; they chained all these guys in their seats and I thought that’s really cool. So I started writing a movie about this plane being hijacked while in flight and while I was writing it the movie Con-Air came out. And I was like, naw, I can’t do that anymore. So I left it on the shelf for years and finally pulled it out one day and thought, well, I could change it to a spaceship with prisoners. And so the idea got new life put back into it.

We finished up our conversation with me asking Travis about his hopes for Somnio, his upcoming plans for the future and what his advice to screenwriters starting out might be:

You know, you can’t expect every film to be a huge hit. I just hope Somnio finds its audience. I never assumed it would make a lot of money; I just hope it finds an audience and a fan base and that’s all I can hope for. If it does well, fantastic. I’d love to give the investors their money back and have that to be able to show we can make a movie that makes money. Obviously it gives us a start for the next one, but I’m not interested in going too high of a budget level. I mean, some filmmakers just want to go and become a Gareth Edwards or a JJ or get to do those huge films. But those big studio films really don’t interest me at all. I’d rather stay low budget; there’s just more freedom; you can make bolder choices and take more risks. I know how the name game works in Hollywood; how you chase after name actors and it’s just, uughh, its such a rat race and I’m just not interested in doing that. But what I am interested in is making films outside of California, coz we’ve seen California in so many different ways. It’s just fun to explore different film communities like Denver and Boston and, you know, just to go someplace else. It’s just a lot more exciting, you know, and people are a lot more accepting if you go to a different city. If you shoot in Los Angeles, nobody’s going to do you any favors, so I’d rather just go someplace else. Actually, I want to shoot my next film in Denver coz it’s a really cool city and I work with a post house there that’s just fantastic. They did all the post for Somnio in Denver.

And my big advice that I always give to other writers is don’t hang your hat on one particular project; keep writing because your writing will always get better. I mean, it’s so heartbreaking to see young writers where they work so hard on this one big high-concept project and that’s all they work on, like, just this one thing. You gotta just keep going. You gotta keep writing multiple projects because its going to break your heart regardless. I have probably about ten different projects that are out there; all at different stages of development or preproduction; Exit 147 with director Mike Figgis. Another project with Walter Hill, a script called Monstrum. So yeah, a whole bunch     of projects, all different types of movies, different directors, different production companies, so hopefully one will go sooner or later. So yeah, just multiple projects. That’s my best advice.

A big thank you to Travis for taking the time to talk with me. As previously mentioned, he’s currently in the process of shopping Somnio around to prospective distributors, so for updates on future theatrical screenings, please visit the official website here:

http://www.somniothemovie.com

Like the facebook page here:

https://www.facebook.com/Somnio-158888377602599/?fref=ts

Check out the Internet Movie Database entry here:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3839880/?ref_=fn_al_tt-1

And join the ‘Fans for PANDORUM Sequel’ facebook group here:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/101973326519796/

article copyright © 2016 Gregory Moss

Not to be reprinted either in part or in whole without prior permission of the author.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

Somnio – film review

SOMNIO

Pandorum scribe’s directorial offering keenly assured and supremely engaging.

somnio chris soren kelly

Written and directed by Travis Milloy. Produced by Laurie Sheldon and Tom Eberts. Starring: Christopher Soren Kelly, Cassandra Clark, Cajardo Lindsey and Jesse D. Arrow. Running time: 105 mins

Frank Lerner, a wrongly detained man held captive in an automated prison, is forced to relive the artificially induced memory of his arrest over and over again. While seeking solace in the embrace of a young woman existing only inside his fractured memory, Frank formulates a plan of escape.

As demonstrated with such enduring genre milestones as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, THX 1138 and Silent Running, serious-minded sci-fi has almost always been about exploring meaningful concepts and ideas over laser gun shoot-em ups and space battles. Of course there have been plenty of examples post Star Wars which can also be included in this pantheon; with many of these being independent features (Ex Machina, Moon, Predestination and Under The Skin springing to mind).

Emotionally engaging and structurally intriguing, Somnio is the latest directorial offering from the writer of cult sci-fi favorite Pandorum, Travis Milloy. Prior to penning Pandorum (released in 2009), Milloy had written and directed the little-seen crime drama Street Gun in 1996. He and his producing partner Laurie Sheldon had originally intended to shoot the script which evolved into Pandorum as a low-budget feature before the screenplay was picked up by Constantin Film and Impact Pictures and produced as a major motion picture starring Dennis Quaid.

christopher soren kelly somnio 2016

Milloy’s tightly-written screenplay for Somnio very much mirrors his work on Pandorum in terms of seeing the narrative unfold from the point of view of a character who awakens unaware of his predicament and has to figure things out for himself. And much like Duncan Jones’ Moon or Douglas Trumbull’s Silent RunningSomnio succeeds or fails based solely on the central performance of its leading man. Being on screen virtually the entire running time, Chris Soren Kelly (Ink, The Frame) displays he is more than capable of holding his own; delivering a finely nuanced performance which perfectly carries the film from beginning to end. With a talent as gifted as Soren Kelly at his disposal, it’s little wonder Milloy holds on his performance for extended stretches at a time before cutting away – making Somnio a terrific showcase for Soren Kelly’s abilities as an actor. Refreshingly, as voiced by actor Jesse D. Arrow, the prison A.I. (here dubbed Howard) is not the usual malevolent-sounding computer typically seen in films like these. Indeed, with Howard continually reassuring Frank that his sole purpose as a Life Support Operator (LSO) is to keep Frank alive, this A.I. very much comes across as a sympathetic – even endearing character in his own right.

somnio christopher soren kelly and cassandra clark

This is a film completely devoid of superfluous padding or filler; everything we         are being told or shown is there for a reason. The intricately woven narrative is conceptually rich and brimming with surprises – featuring several key moments     where the reality of certain scenes is revealed to be something else entirely – a     mind-bending technique seen previously in other films (most notably An American Werewolf in London and Brazil) – but done here in such a way as to make it appear surprisingly fresh and original. I’m also reminded of Duncan Jones’ Source Code with regard to the blossoming relationship between Frank and coffee shop owner Gabby (Cassandra Clark.) for, at its heart, Somnio is indeed a romance. Frank and Gabby interact within recurring replays of what appears to be Frank’s memory of the moment of his arrest. And much like the hero in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Frank seeks solace from the monotony of his incarceration by withdrawing more and more into his memories – real or imagined. These scenes between Frank and Gabby possess a refreshing sense of authenticity thanks in part to the chemistry between Soren Kelly and Clark (who is also very good by the way). And rising talent Cajardo Lindsey (soon to be seen in Independence Day: Resurgence) is also very good in a small but pivotal role.

While on the surface Somnio appears to be a cautionary tale of the potential for inhumane treatment of inmates within a fully automated prison industrial complex, Milloy’s film is also, at its core, a celebration of the tenacity of the human spirit. And while it undoubtedly explores serious themes, the film also possesses a lightness of tone which was not abundantly present in Pandorum – the humorous banter between Frank and Howard bringing a big smile to my face on more than a few occasions.

somnio prison cell

For an independent feature, the film’s technical aspects are all top notch; sporting crisp, natural and understated cinematography by Jason Nolte and Marty Mullin, superb and on-point editing by Milloy himself (uncredited), immersive sound design     by Mike Cramp and a terrifically emotive score by Jacob Yoffee.

Featuring assured and confident direction, a beautifully-crafted and compelling screenplay and a terrific showcase performance from the hugely talented Chris     Soren Kelly, Somnio is undoubtedly one of the most supremely satisfying movie experiences of the year.

The filmmakers are in the process of shopping Somnio around to prospective distributors, so for updates on future theatrical screenings, please visit the official website here:

http://www.somniothemovie.com

And check out the Internet Movie Database entry here:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3839880/?ref_=fn_al_tt-1

Viewed on-line as a Vimeo preview screener on Sunday June 12th 2016.

4.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

Now You See Me 2 – film review

NOW YOU SEE ME 2

Magician Impossible

Reviewed on Wednesday 1st June 2016

now you see me 2

Directed by Jon M. Chu. Screenplay by Ed Solomon. Starring: Lizzy Caplan, Daniel Radcliffe, Dave Franco, Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, Morgan Freeman, Woody Harrelson and Michael Caine. Running time: 115 mins.

It’s been eighteen months since a collective of stage magicians known as The     Four Horsemen pulled off one of the biggest heists in history and subsequently disappeared. Slighted billionaire Arthur Tressler has vowed revenge, setting a trap     to take down the Horsemen once and for all.

Upon its release in 2013, the original Now You See Me was uniformly scoffed at by the critical community, while auds around the world flocked to it in droves; seemingly alerted to its sense of fun via word of mouth; essentially making it the surprise crowd-pleaser of the summer that year.

While the original was more of a heist caper, this new installment could easily be viewed as an espionage thriller along the lines of Mission: Impossible (while still maintaining the playful tone of the original). And the balletic action sensibility of helmer Jon M. Chu (G.I. Joe: Retaliation) – here taking up where the original’s helmer Louis Leterrier left off – is again very much in evidence. The most impressive scene demonstrating this being the centerpiece Mission: Impossible style computer vault heist sequence; where the action truly ebbs and flows like a dance routine of sorts. The beautifully-staged choreography involving the covert exchange of a palying card between the Horsemen during this scene (while security staff are none the wiser) is breath-taking to behold. Playing upon the performance art of cardistry (or card flourishing), this scene alone is worth the price of admission.

Whereas the original NYSM was a straighforward sticking-it-to-the-one-percenters justice fantasy, this second installment has more of an apparent sociopoltical commentative bent; being something of a commentary on the burgeoning global surveillance state – or at least attempting to be. However, much like other big Hollywood blockbusters purporting to expose the deepstate controllers (Captain America: Winter Soldier being a prime example) – nothing much of any importance is ever really done with these concepts – other than to trivialize them as concerns of no consequence. Interestingly, the big reveal at the conclusion of the original NYSM; being that a secret society of magicians known as The Eye dabble in real magic appears to have been oddly discarded as a plot point in this follow-up. In a yen-chasing move which is becoming more and more obvious these days, much of the second act in NYSM2 takes place in the Far East (in this case the mainland Chinese province of Macau). While the low-contrast cinematography of Peter Demming (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive) does well in contributing to the otherworldliness of these locales, ultimately, there is little narrative reason to justify the setting; other than providing a mechanism for the film to be of some interest to the lucrative (and gigantic) Chinese cinema-going market.

As the lone female of the group, comedic actress Lizzy Caplan more than makes up for Isla Fisher’s conspicuous absence. Her character, Lula, is kooky, awkwardly sassy and virtually steals every scene and I look forward to further insights into her character in potential future installments. Not far behind in the scene-stealing stakes is Woody Harrelson with his dual role as his returning character’s cosmetically (and comically) enhanced twin brother. While Mark Ruffalo, whose character provided many humorous moments in the orginal film, is less amusing here; his backstory providing the dramatic trajectory of the overarching plot of this installment.

A major issue people seem to have had with the original was in the way the back-stage mechanics of how the various stage illusions utilized in the heists were achieved were never revealed to the viewer; creating an apparent gap in credibility in some people’s minds. With the sequel this issue has been satisfactorily addressed; with the nuts and bolts explanations behind the illusions being just as engaging as     the illusions themselves.

If you enjoyed the original NYSM then you will most likely enjoy this one too. And likewise the opposite also applies: if you couldn’t care less about Now You See Me, then its probably best you stay away. Me – I’m happy to say I’m an unabashed fan.

3.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at the Event Cinemas Marion, Adelaide, June 1st 2016.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.