Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Monday, January 28, 2008

FIREFLY Filmmaker Peter Marcy

One of the most interesting films making the rounds on the international film festival circuit is Peter Marcy’s Firefly. An enigmatic and hypnotic tale of four people who find their lives intertwined by a mysterious incident on Halloween night, Firefly displays a genuine command of cinematic craft which often eludes even the most seasoned filmmakers.

It is a low-key film driven by storytelling, through the withholding and releasing of information at exactly the right moments. Its structure is mysterious at first as the film leisurely crosscuts the daily lives of four separate characters, all of whom seem headed for some kind of mystical epiphany on Christmas Eve.

Susan (Lindsay Hinman) believes she was raped on Halloween night and is frustrated in her attempts to get anyone to believe her. Brandt (Pete Marcy) suspects that his girlfriend Rachel (Sara Persons) is cheating on him, and goes to desperate measures to find out. Del (Chris Marcy) is a roofer and amateur filmmaker who makes schlocky sci-fi films with his ever reluctant friends. The fourth character is the most mysterious of all: Arnie (Devon Jorlett), a bald young man who seems committed to using his powers of clairvoyance to save lives.

All four stories come together brilliantly in the last 10 minutes to reveal the meaning behind the intricate pattern of clues strewn throughout the film. From Susan’s obsessive morning jogs to Arnie’s violent coughing, random details suddenly reveal to be part of a masterful narrative plan that’s executed with great confidence and skill.

Shot in Marcy’s hometown of Minnesota for the low budget of $5,000, Firefly is a testament to creativity, ingenuity, and plain hard work. That’s something that’s not often spoken of when independent films are discussed. Without the large crew and other resources that can be provided with Hollywood backing, filmmakers are forced to do much, if not all of the work – raising funds, directing, editing, PR, administrative work, etc.. There’s a kind of DIY street cred that comes as a fringe benefit from such work, but the real benefit is the freedom to create as artists are meant to, freely and without compromise or consultation from a committee. The drawback, of course, is the dearth of financial resources.

Financial pressures often force filmmakers to work 9 to 5 jobs and shoot on weekends, sometimes over years in order to shoot all the scenes required to tell a feature length story. Commitments from actors and friends may dwindle after long days of volunteering, and hairstyles may begin to defy any attempt at continuity. When the shooting is done, hours and hours in front of the computer are ahead, laying in each of those pieces, each carefully designed sound effect or music track to a film that may never see the light of day let alone the silver screen.

A strong sense of self-confidence, powered by a willing self-delusion, is an absolute requirement for the lone filmmaker. How else can someone obsess over a project that may be the worst film ever made, starring no one in particular, from a filmmaker no one’s ever heard of and perhaps never will? Digital filmmaking has provided independent filmmakers with the tools to produce watchable films – but then there’s the matter of enticing people to actually watch them.

Hopefully, Firefly will be an exception. Back in ‘97 or ‘98, it could have been the toast of Sundance with a front page article in Variety, reporting on its $1.5 million sale to the Weinsteins. But the current state of independent cinema is full of more creative opportunities than financial rewards. Distribution dollars have dried up and films with higher profiles than Firefly are finding it hard to get released.

Edward Burns’Purple Violets, which stars himself and Debra Messing, received strong reviews at the Tribeca Film Festival but could not close a deal. Rather than accepting a small theatrical run and DVD release for a meager return, Burns is now releasing the film himself as a digital download on iTunes.

Marcy is part of a group of artists, filmmakers, and musicians who call themselves the Failure Boys. Some are his friends and several are his own brothers. All are very talented and contributed greatly to Firefly. It is precisely this personal, hand-crafted touch that gives the film its real charm. With a story that is as gripping as a Hollywood thriller, Firefly also displays a genuine personal style and wit. Recently, talked with me about Firefly, making films in Minnesota, and the ups and downs of doing it all yourself.

To read the interview at, click HERE

Sunday, January 13, 2008


I'm sure many of you have already seen this mock trailer elsewhere but it's worth putting up here to talk about how much one can do when editing to create an effect on the audience. I'm in the middle of editing my own trailer so this is very much on my mind. The work done here by editor Chris Rule uses every technique imaginable, from filtering the audio to the slow fade ins and outs, and the use of musical stingers to create jolts. There's been lots of these trailer mashups done lately, like transforming The Shining into a romantic comedy but I think this one seems to be the closest to actually looking like a real movie. If you never heard of Mary Poppins this might look like a really spooky late '60s-early 70s horror movie about a demonic nanny with telekinetic powers who terrorizes her wards. All of the tools of horror filmmaking are largely plastic and can be placed onto images to create the efffect as you can see here. Is it me or doesn't Julie Andrews look really creepy when she looks in the mirror? I've watched this several times and there seems to be an odd effect here that makes her head turn really unnatural.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

AWESOME Indie Festival Announced

Lance Weiler, the self-distribution pioneer and director of The Last Broadcast and Head Trauma(Read my Review and Interview with Lance for, has teamed up with colleagues M. dot Strange(We are the Strange and Arin Crumley(Four Eyed Monsters) to create a new online film festival that's designed specifically to find outlets for distribution. It's called FROM HERE TO AWESOME and it certainly sounds like an awesome opportunity for filmmakers. Weiler states that, "We’ve been working on a new social experiment for the last six months and this coming Thursday it will take its first steps. From Here to Awesome is a discovery and distribution festival. The hope is that by bringing together audiences, films, promotional partners and distribution outlets, FHTA can create opportunities for filmmakers that enable them to control their own rights and receive a direct financial return from their work. The festival will screen films in theaters, living rooms, online and via mobile devices starting in April.

We’ve tried to bring our collective DIY experiences and resources into the mix. Myself, Arin Crumley (Four Eyed Monsters) and M dot Strange (We Are the Strange) built FHTA as an outlet that encourages filmmakers and audiences to interact directly. In a sense the festival assists filmmakers in building audiences and in the process turns audiences onto new films. FHTA has attracted a number of excellent promotional and distribution outlets. There are NO submission fees and we don’t take a percentage of anything. All sales and deals are handled directly between the filmmaker and the distribution outlet.

The driving force behind the fest is to experiment with how work finds audiences, ways to distribute films directly and how to sustain as a filmmaker in a rapidly changing industry.

We need your help to make this social open source film festival work.

WANTED: films, panelists, keynote speakers, panel topic suggestions, volunteers, comments and suggestions on how to better improve FHTA."

What I really like about this idea besides the obvious benefits of media exposure is that it makes use of existing systems to control the floodgates. Initial submissions are uploaded to YOUTUBE and/or MYSPACE for the general public to view and vote before making it into the festival. This is very smart thinking and a perfect example of turning the web's outlets to your personal advantage. Of course the fact that there are NO submission fees is fantastic. The only excuse I have for not submitting my feature is that I, of course, am not finished the damn thing. Maybe next year.

For more details on the festival visit FROMHERETOAWESOME.COM

3:10 to Yuma Review

Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is a notorious outlaw, the kind that inspires tall tales of incredible carnage and brutality. His gang of ruthless thieves and murderers have been laying siege to the Southern Railroad for months when Wade is suddenly captured. Civil War veteran and struggling rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale), desperate for money and his family’s respect, volunteers to escort Wade to the town of Contention where he’s to be placed on the 3:10 train to Yuma on his way to a swift trial. Evans joins an old Pinkerton man (Peter Fonda), the railroad’s representative (Dallas Roberts) and a timid veternarian (Alan Tudyk) brought along for first aid. Their journey becomes especially dangerous when Wade’s gang, led by the intensely loyal Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), vow to free him and kill anyone who gets in the way. When Evans’ oldest son William (Logan Lerman) joins them, full of naive admiration for Wade’s guts and prowess, the rancher must deal with his own fears and the self doubt that he will be able to get them through the mission alive.

The western has been buried and revived so many times in recent years that it’s beginning to resemble one of George Romero’s stale zombies, stumbling about with only a trace memory of it’s former self. The trouble lies in the very idea of a “revival”. As director James Mangold mentions himself on the DVD commentary, this inspires contemporary filmmakers to make westerns that are about other westerns and the genre itself rather than simply going about the business of telling their own story. The films end up being crushed by the weight of their own self-importance, filled with empty and soulless homages to The Searchers or A Fistful of Dollars instead of inspiring anything real.

To read the rest of my review click HERE

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, and Helena Bonham-Carter have made so many films together that they’re starting to resemble each other. Depp has now made 6 films with Burton and it always seems as though he’s playing some hyper-real and slightly paler version of the ghostly director. As for Bonham-Carter, this is either her fourth or fifth round with Burton depending on whether you consider her voice acting in “Corpse Bride” an appearance and as his “life partner” and mother of his two children, she’s on her way to becoming the living embodiment of one of his cadaverous drawings.

All three seem like a traveling band of Grand Guignol performers just looking for the right gloomy play that requires frizzy black hair and dark circles under the eyes. Luckily, they found Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant 1979 musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and lucky for Sondheim that he found them. Not since Francis Ford Coppola signed to direct “The Godfather” has there been a more perfect match between artist and material.

To read the rest of my review at, click Here

Tuesday, January 08, 2008


At Scott Kirsner's blog CINEMATECH yesterday, Kirsner wrote about the new Cinital system for real time greenscreening. As Scott points out the novelty of the company's approach is that, "the camera can move anywhere it wants -- or change focus -- and the background responds appropriately."

This makes the use of green screen more attractive in that filmmakers can no longer complain about the lack of spontaneity in the process. A filmmaker can now shoot actors in front of a simple greenscreen set up, place them anywhere in the world or beyond using a single background plate, and then just shoot it like it's a real location, going handheld, zooming in, out, panning around and the program deals with making the background change to fit the image.

This should have immense effects on low budget films and the television industry as pretty much anything that can be imagined can be effectively composited in real time on the set.

In many ways this could bring back the studio control employed by filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock. In almost all of his films, scenes taking place outdoors or in crowded resturaunts were shot on rear screen projection stages with just the principal players sitting at a table or park bench. This way the actors and director could focus on getting the best performances and the cleanest sound recording since the crowd and outdoor ambience would be added later. Watch the following video to see how this effect worked then and how it could be done with much more precision now. Besides the opening shots of Bergman and Grant in the car where the use of rear screen is obvious, the scenes on the park bench and at the racetrack are very interesting, with the use of a handful of on set extras to fool the eye.

Notorious - Use of Rear Projection

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Stanley Kubrick also used this method for some shots in EYES WIDE SHUT particularly one in which Tom Cruise is seen walking in a tracking shot on a NYC street. Kubrick put Cruise on a treadmill while greenscreening a moving plate of the sidewalk and street behind him creating the impression of a perfect, smooth backwards track.

Of course this also allows a filmmaker to easily grab a reshoot since there is no need to build an elaborate set or bring a large crew on a location that must be blocked off or lit. I'm not suggesting that everyone turn into George Lucas and shoot their films on stages, but for certain scenes or for certain projects it may be just the right technique.


The serious space movie is one of the most limited genres around, with virtually the entire ground having been covered by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001:A Space Odyssey”. The rest being taken up by Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Ridley Scott’s Alien. You get pretty much what you expect each time out:

1. The loneliness of space travel.
2. A pleasant but suddenly disobedient talking computer
3. A technical malfunction that threatens the lives of the spacemen followed by a tense spacewalk to repair the damaged ship
4. The tragic death of one of the protagonists who sacrifices his or herself for the greater good of their colleagues and/or humanity itself.
5. Cabin fever tension between the shipmates courtesy of Jean-Paul Sartre
6. A touch of the spiritual in probing that which “man-was-not-meant-to-know”

Sunshine fulfills all 6 of these expectations but within a more intensified context. Alex Garland’s screenplay sets the story 50 years from now as, yet again, mankind faces extinction; not from a meteoric Armageddon, or the inconvenient truth about the environment, but from the death of the sun itself. A second ice age threatens to end life as we know it and so mankind looks to its last hope for survival, a spacecraft christened the “Icarus II”, which carries a nuclear device the size of Manhattan intended to be fired into the center of the dying star to relight the burner.

Since the “Icarus I” clearly failed in its maiden attempt, only a single nuclear device remains. If the crew of the “Icarus II” fails as well, there will be no more chances. Understandably, the weight of this responsibility hangs heavily on the multi-racial multi-national crew. These seven men and women know that they are nothing but expendable. It causes them to question every decision in a philosophical light. Anything or anyone who stands in the way of the success of their mission must be avoided or stopped. But must Mankind prevail? If there is a greater plan, what exactly is man’s place within it?

To read the rest of my review, click HERE


Most serial killers operate in the shadows, simply wanting to satisfy their homicidal urges in anonymity. Any notoriety they receive is due to the quantity and/or gruesome depravity of their crimes. However, there are others who may not reach a particularly high body count or perversity but become notorious due to their desire to communicate with the public at large. Jack the Ripper, for example, not only sent letters to the police proudly claiming credit for his deranged crimes but also came up with his own distinctive tabloid signature.

The Zodiac was another of this breed of epigrammatic killer. Beginning in July of 1969, the Zodiac terrorized the San Francisco Bay area, killing at least five people while taking credit for many more through his letter writing campaign to the San Francisco Chronicle. It was the letters with their complex cryptograms that really put the spotlight on the Zodiac as a frightening West Coast boogeyman. It was less notable as a murder spree than a cat and mouse game of psychological warfare, the clues in the cryptographs creating a labyrinthine puzzle for a handful of obsessive detectives and journalists to get lost within. David Fincher’s film is really about how these increasingly desperate investigators chased shadows and phantoms for decades while trying to solve the elusive mystery, a case which “officially” remains unsolved to this day.

To read the rest of my review, click HERE

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Scarlet -- RED Pocket Professional Camera?

Well, the net's abuzz with the leaked "announcement" of the RED ONE's junior sized model, dubbed the "Scarlet". This is to be unveiled at NAB 2008 and is being referred to as a "pocket professional camera". "Pocket" suggests a small and possibly prosumer model, but it's possible that this is a real tweener, something less than the RED ONE's US$17,000 plus price tag but still more than the US$7,000 range marketed by Sony, Canon, JVC and Panasonic. If it comes with variable frame rates and some of the bells and whistles of the RED it may win the Pepsi challenge for many indie filmmakers. Here's the question: What features would it have to have to be worth more than US$7,000?