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Chris Esper’s Hollywood Journey Pt. 2

For Part 1 of the interview, click here.

Chris Esper at iconic Hollywood sign

Chris Esper at iconic Hollywood sign

What did writing script coverage teach you about the filmmaking process?

It taught me a lot about storytelling and having a more critical perspective when watching a movie. You think you know what to look for at first, but it truly opens your eyes to more that’s in the story. It also taught me about the development process and what it takes to get a movie made in Hollywood. It’s very difficult. Quite honestly, I think during my time at OddLot, I turned down more scripts than I actually recommended. It can be few and far between to find a screenplay that’s satisfying all across the board. Sometimes the story idea could be great, but the characters aren’t well defined or vice versa.

Who were some of more interesting/colorful industry people you encountered during your stay?

I met tons of great people out there, but perhaps the most memorable for me was meeting Kenneth Johnson, who is another director whose work I admired through the years. His credits include TV shows and movies such as “The Six Million Dollar Man”, “The Bionic Woman”, “The Incredible Hulk”, “V” and “Short Circuit 2”. I had e-mailed him a few times before so he remembered me, but I e-mailed him and told him how I was in town and wanted to meet him and maybe pick his brain a little. He was very kind and invited me to his office. I walked in and the first thing I see are a bunch of photos, posters and memorabilia from his work. My eyes lit up. Anyway, we sat down for about an hour and I talked about some of things I liked about his work and he explained how did certain things in them and had some great stories, especially working with Bill Bixby on “The Incredible Hulk”.

Chris Esper with director Kenneth Johnson

Chris Esper with director Kenneth Johnson

He also mentioned that he had seen “Still Life” after I sent him a DVD a while back and he really liked it. He thought it was heartfelt and emotional. At that moment, I didn’t think this could get any better with a high compliment like that, but it did. He invited to be his guest at a three day directing class he was going to be doing in Burbank. I had heard about the class for a while, so I was very excited for this. I went and it was great. He would show a clip from something he did and explain how he did and all the cheats and tricks of the in saving time on set, working with children, animals, bad weather, etc. Very, very useful information. He asked that I keep in touch with him, which is great.

Another great event was seeing “Life Itself” at the American Cinematheque in Santa Monica. First of all, I love Roger Ebert so I was excited to see this in the theater and it’s a fantastic documentary (the best one of the year I think.) Anyway, when the film ended, I got to briefly meet director Steve James and Ebert’s wife, Chaz. Both were very nice folks and I expressed my love Ebert and how I used to watch him on television and write my own reviews in a notebook I kept as a kid. They appreciated that. In addition, I also got to meet the director of “Dear White People”, Justin Simien, also a great guy.

What were some of your favorite professional experiences?

One of my favorite professional experiences was working at one of the major studios. I can’t really get into too much detail about the gig, but it was terrific experience that could hopefully lead to more work with them. This is all thanks to a good friend of mine out there who I met at the MPI seminar.

Another great experience was volunteering at John Truby’s screenwriting workshop. He’s a script doctor in Hollywood and has a few credits including writing the original “21 Jump Street” series. I was also given access to sit in on the class and take notes much like everyone else that paid to be there. So, that was very rewarding and I learned a lot. John is also one of the nicest guys you could meet. He was very supportive of every student and has an amazing ability of making it look so easy and letting you know that anyone can do it.

The Incredible Hulk Memorabilia, Kenneth Johnson's office

The Incredible Hulk Memorabilia, Kenneth Johnson’s office

Part of my internship was taking place at Sony Pictures since we were not far from them. For me, not only was this exciting because we would be on lot, but also because I sent my script at age ten Columbia and here I was getting to go inside. It was like it all came full circle and it was a wonderful feeling.

One last thing that was great was seeing two of my films, Always a Reason and Steak Knives, play at my first West Coast festival, Culver City Film Festival. Not only were both films accepted, but Steak Knives took home the prize for Best Comedy Short, which I was really thrilled about.

What projects do you have in development?

Now that I’m back on the East Coast, my plans are finish my latest short film, Please Punish Me, that’s been in post production and now nearing the end of it. I’m really pleased with this film. It shows a continuing growth in the work I’m doing which I’m excited about. It’s a comedy about a businessman who’s life is too good and everyone around him receives the negative side of his positive gain. So, he seeks to be punished for his “curse”.

In addition, I have some short films I wish to make, thanks to a few scripts that were handed over to me, but my ultimately goal now for 2015 is to develop and begin planning my first feature film.

Chris Esper with Dear White People director Justin Simien

Chris Esper with Dear White People director Justin Simien

What are some of your future plans?

Aside from my developing projects, my plan is stay on the East Coast for a little bit and keep working on my craft and freelance and save some more money so I can go back to LA and perhaps make it a permanent stay.

Here’s to a prosperous New Year, hopefully one full of creative endeavors.

A Day at the Museum

These days whenever I go to Atlanta, I feel like a country bumpkin entering a foreign world. My latest outing to Atlanta made me realize how much I enjoy museums and that I don’t go nearly enough.

In the midst of Midtown lies the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA), a small building that from the façade could easily escape the naked eye. Let me tell you, it is not a place to be missed. What MODA might lack in size, it more than compensates in the stellar quality of curation. Their latest exhibition on Ebony Magazine’s Fashion Show clothing from the 1960s to 2000s is a guaranteed visual feast for fashionistas, lovers of textiles, and history buffs alike.

Johnson (3rd from left). Courtesy of blackandbeautiful.fr.

Johnson (3rd from left). Courtesy of blackandbeautiful.fr.

Eunice Johnson, the director of the fashion fair, had a flair for drama and a keen ability for trendsetting setting trends. Highlights of this exhibition include a stunning yellow-gold silk Steampunk 80s gown with dramatic flamenco ruffles and mutton sleeves; a 21st century Josephine Baker-esque mini dress replete with tubey stiff chiffon ruffles; one of the few male items, a bold sequined double-breasted suit that Isaac Hayes would’ve rocked; and my favorite, a generously-patterned kimono made fresh with the addition of fur cuffs paired with a beaded light blue flapper dress.

The Johnsons gave MODA a strict stipulation that absolutely forbade photos. So you’ll have to go check it out for yourself (take the chance to go to the arresting mod red laminate bathroom while you’re at it for the sensation of being thrown into the psychedelic 60s.) And yes, the steep $10 admission for a single exhibition is totally worth it.

Across the street, the magnificent High museum (which is one of the finest cultural institutions in the world), not only allowed, but actually encouraged patrons to take photos (sans flash) to share on social media with some sort of hashtag. I’ve decided to spare the internet from my inadequate phonetography.

"Les grands arbres du Jas de Bouffan" by Paul Cezanne. Courtesy of www.christies.com

“Les grands arbres du Jas de Bouffan” by Paul Cezanne. Courtesy of www.christies.com

The High excels at laying out their exhibitions in a way that doesn’t overload the patron and showing the artists’ stylistic trajectory. This current exhibition of Cezanne and Modern Art is no different. Although I found the Cezanne works on display too soft focus, the arrangement, which presented his early sketches and landscapes, showed how his work was radically different from any other work at the time.

Nevertheless, I prefer Cezanne’s mentor Camille Pissarro as his paintings have a more vibrant and lush palette of creams and neutral colors.

"Portrait d'une jeune fille (Fille en blouse bleue)" by Chaim Soutine. Courtesy of www.christies.com

“Portrait d’une jeune fille (Fille en blouse bleue)” by Chaim Soutine. Courtesy of www.christies.com

I am partial to screamingly saturated colors, which is why I immediately fell in love with the warped pre-psychedelic portraits and colorfully cacophonous landscapes of Chaim Soutine, a painter with whom I was not familiar hitherto. Born to an impoverished Jewish family, during his career, he focused his work on portraits of the working classes. These are some of the few done of this group.

En route to the special photography exhibition, you are greeted by “the forty part motet,” a striking set-up of forty speakers, each one featuring an individual acappela voice in a 16th century choral arrangement by Janet Cardiff. Although I am tired of the influx of chamber music (especially during Christmas season), I found myself hypnotized by getting up close to each speaker and then going to the middle to hear the collective reverberation of multiple timbres.

Gordon Parks - Department Store, Birmingham Alabama (1956). Courtesy of harveyfaircloth.com.

Gordon Parks – Department Store, Birmingham Alabama (1956). Courtesy of harveyfaircloth.com.

Before Gordon Parks directed the 1971 version of Shaft kickstarting the brief, but glorious badass Blaxploitation genre, he created a similar ripple effect in photojournalism. On the surface, his series of photographs of a middle class black family in rural Alabama for Life magazine in the late 1950s are apolitical. Through the lens of living color, his presentation of black people as everyday, average people living lives like most white people disturbed and enraged whites for its relatability. While the overt segregation captured in these photos (such as the “whites only” entrances, water fountains, etc.) have disappeared, in many places, this remains in practice.

Also on display is the work of Leonard Freed, a white Jewish photojournalist who documented more overtly political lives of blacks in urban America. He takes a more traditional, but no less compelling, social activist track of a grainy, shadowy black and white lens.

Now that I’ve had a whiff of high culture, I’ll go back to my MO of TV bingewatching.

Review: Obvious Child (2014)

The Gentle Side of Abortion

Courtesy of cliqueclack.com

Courtesy of cliqueclack.com

For some inexplicable reason, a bunch of elitist fat middle-aged white men have decided to devote their energy to revive a prehistoric war on women’s bodies, namely their reproductive rights. Since the Obama election in 2008, abortion has resurfaced as a “hot potato” topic that has inspired an alarming amount of hostile, inappropriate behavior. Unfortunately, our supreme court has validated much of the shameless vigilantism masqueraded as religious freedom, with rulings such as the elimination of buffer zones for abortion clinics that make the women and the workers open targets for the angry, unruly mobs.

Following society’s non-controversial politically correct mindset of whitewashing hard truths, films and TV shows have largely ignored this subject in fears of receiving scrutiny from one or a group of vocal disgruntled consumers. Even the movies and TV shows have dealt with the subject matter have been ridiculously sheepish in their depiction of abortion. Reportedly, Girls a show that has a good reputation for dealing with hard-hitting issues concerning young women (a stance with which I personally disagree), had the character have an eleventh hour miscarriage in lieu of an abortion.

Courtesy of www.themaude.com

Courtesy of www.themaude.com

This summer, an indie comedy entitled Obvious Child has received a lot of favorable coverage from the higher end publications such as Slate, Salon, and NPR for being the first piece of entertainment since Maude or All in the Family to handle the subject in an open and honest way (and not cop out at the last second).

Contrary to my impassioned, partisan rant, Obvious Child is actually a light (but not air-headed), humorous, and intimate account of Donna (Jenny Slate), a woman pushing 30 without a steady career, though she pursues stand-up comedy on the side, where she bares all (figuratively speaking).

Courtesy of www.indiewire.com

Courtesy of www.indiewire.com

Like most current indie rom coms, it suffers from a weak first act that’s a bit too sitcomish. Instead of building character, the screenplay is preoccupied with one-liners designed for big laughs. It gives us caricatures rather than characters. For example, Donna’s boyfriend, whose eyes are callously fixated on his phone as he is breaking up with her, is so unbelievably douchy that it makes it hard to believe what she ever saw in him. The film draws out Donna’s grief, manifested in a seemingly never ending montage of her drunk messaging his answering machine and semi-stalking him, to the point that it becomes exasperating.

After another prolonged montage, this time of the drunken one-night stand between Donna and Max (Jake Lacy) a young IT man whom she met at the comedy club, the film finally settles into its groove after the revelation of Donna’s pregnancy.

Courtesy of www.audienceseverywhere.net

Courtesy of www.audienceseverywhere.net

In The last two-thirds of Obvious Child, there are two streaming plotlines that are at once connected and seperate: the brief time leading up to the abortion (on Valentine’s Day) and the blossoming romance between Donna and Max. Instead of several situations in the plot, the film finds its humor from the realistic and awkward interactions between two or three characters at a time, particularly from neurotic Donna and shy Max who stumble their way through romance.

While Gillian Robespierre’s writing and directing are good, this film is primarily an actor’s showcase.

Jenny Slate, who got her start on SNL (though she was fired after one year), has steadily built a following with her quirky, adorably crude sense of humor. Obvious Child marks her first leading role in a film. In the headlining role, Slate naturally has received a significant amount of the accolades and deservedly so. She brings a lot of charm and endearingly neurotic wit, but she also captures her character’s vulnerability. Slate is a cross between the zaniness of Gilda Radner, to whom she also bears a close physical appearance and the cutesy foul-mouth of Sarah Silverman, minus the acidic undertone.

Courtesy of www.kickstarter.com

Courtesy of www.kickstarter.com

However, there are some minor hiccups in her performance where she strains too hard for laughs, such as when Donna embarrassingly tries to hide her embarrassment when Max walks in on her climbing into a box of books.

In a low-key role, Lacy is just as good as Slate, if not better. He gives a nuanced performance that’s a gentile parody of the docile and slightly bland, but very sweet mid-westerner (who warms a package of butter for Donna on a date). Despite the stereotypical exterior, Lacy subtly injects his character’s dry sense of humor that becomes more apparent towards the end.

Courtesy of www.zimbio.com

Courtesy of www.zimbio.com

The entire supporting cast is first-rate. Gaby Hoffman, a former child and teen star who has successfully reinvented herself as an Indie supporting staple, is stellar as Donna’s sensible and supportive roommate/best friend. Polly Draper, who is always an asset, plays Donna’s no-nonsense but loving and compassionate mother who has a surprising secret to reveal. David “Tobias” Cross is amusingly sleazy as a wealthy self-involved comic who hits on Donna at a time when she is most vulnerable.

As in the case of many movies and TV shows (the exception being Louie), the standup performances in Obvious Child come across as stale. Possibly because of the dictates of the moviemaking process, standup loses its immediacy and spontaneity. Only the last routine where she announces her abortion publicly in a Tig Notaro style makes an impact.

Courtesy of www.timesofisrael.com

Courtesy of www.timesofisrael.com

While I didn’t find Obvious Child as hilarious as the lady in front of me, who busted her guts laughing, I certainly found it to be a refreshing change of pace from the childish inanity of most summer fare. If you’re looking for an intelligent, gentle comedy, Obvious Child was made for you.

Take 10/Obit: Horace Silver (1928-2014)

Courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

Courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

On June 18, we lost another jazz legend, pianist Horace Silver. His passing has been widely reported in the jazz world, but no one else seems to have noticed. Perhaps he is not as much of a household name as Oscar Peterson, who was front and center about 80% of the time in his solo work. Silver’s music doesn’t have the abstract gravity of many of his peers like Charles Mingus and John Coltraine.

His arrangements always tended towards the ensemble, giving each player an equal balance between a unison of instruments as well as a solo (even in longer live versions which went up to 20 minutes). Yet Silver’s simple and sparse piano playing underpins each song, and with a few notes, he can transport the listener to another dimension.

Silver originally began as a saxophonist, which explains why all of his compositions have a very strong brass and wood section that almost acts as the rhythm and keeps everything on balance.

Courtesy of premierehiphop.com

Courtesy of premierehiphop.com

Along with Miles Davis and Stan Getz, I think Silver is truly one of the few instrumentalists who is an auteurist. Within the first few bars, each song is immediately recognizable it as a Silver composition. While Davis had very definitive stylistic changes that could be marked in periods, Silver had a consistent and timeless sound throughout his 50+ years in music.

It would be very wrong to classify Silver as a one-note pony as there are subtle but definitive variations from song to song, especially in regards to how the rhythm swings. Very few could keep up with his lightning-speed bop.

Scholars can analyze technique till they’re blue in the face. While intellectually we may be able to listen to some of the more cacophonous abstract jazz, we (at least I) sure as hell won’t want to listen to it over and over again like I would with Silver.

Courtesy of presco.tumblr.com

Courtesy of presco.tumblr.com

The fact that he didn’t indulge in the self-indulgent jazz of the 70s (like Davis) that everybody hates or the synthesizers that massacred a lot of 80s jazz is a huge feat and says loads about his taste and good sense. However in these decades, some of his recordings were bogged down by bland theatre-trained vocalists who add a banality that isn’t otherwise in the music (the exception being jazz singer Andy Bey whose rich baritone complements Silver’s funky electric piano). Vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater’s album of Silver compositions is her best work and one of the best jazz vocal recordings in the last 20 years.

Although his later songs had titles like “Negative Patterns of the Sub-Conscious,” “African Ascension: The Gods Of The Yoruba,” as well as various movements (though each song stood alone), the music remained accessible. There was always a quirky whimsy to his music, and his early titles had great alliterative names like “Sanctimonious Sam,” “Filthy McNasty,” and “Nutville.” He even called his 1999 Verve album Jazz Has a Sense of Humor.

Courtesy of www.sweedeedee.se

Courtesy of www.sweedeedee.se

Jazz musicians are an especially notorious group for alcoholism and narcotics abuse. Though he looked a bit unhinged, as far as I can tell, Silver never seemed to have been addicted to either substance. Without sounding too Reefer Madness, this goes to show that one doesn’t need drugs to make groovy swinging music.

To celebrate the passing of one our finest musicians (and because I had a hard time just choosing 5), I will append the regular Take 5 formula in favor of 10 fantastic tracks. Get your groove on!

Nica’s Dream

A Song for My Father

Lonely Woman

Nutville

The Cape Verdian Blues

Liberated Brother

Enchantment

The Belly Dancer

The Sayonara Blues

Psychedelic Sally

Review: Chef (2014)

White Bread and Red Meat

Courtesy of www.graffitiwithpunctuation.net

Courtesy of www.graffitiwithpunctuation.net

Ever since the demise of the studio system in the 1960s, many actors have wanted to be their own boss. People like Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, and Robert Redford (though I think the latter is vastly overrated) transformed from clean cut, slightly bland leading man types to major industry players by the 1970s after they got in on the business side of developing and producing in addition to directing and starring in their own movies.

With the increasing accessibility and affordability of film equipment, virtually everyone dabbles with being auteurs across the board. As the execs in Hollywood remain rigid about the types of movies they make (apocalyptic action, zombie and vampire movies, or raunchy comedies) and the types of actors they feature (beautiful young white people), quirky and non-glamorous types such as Lena Dunham and Louis C.K. have put on multiple creative hats in their unconventional comedies, and have made it trendy.

Courtesy of www.deadline.com

Courtesy of www.deadline.com

Jon Favreau as writer, director, and star is the latest to take on the holy trinity of filmmaking duties in the movie Chef. A logical assumption is that Favreau, who is stocky and not a handsome leading-man type, commissioned this indie to give himself a chance to have his first headlining role, since his breakout with Swingers in 1996 and to veer in a less mainstream direction from the Iron Man franchise.

Sometimes, giving an individual total creative control in front and behind the camera heralds masterful work as in the case of Orson Welles’ technically and narratively innovative Citizen Kane or Gene Kelly’s clever and satirical Singing in The Rain. More often than not, vanity pieces offer very little payoff for the audience, which is indeed the case with Favreau’s Chef.

In order to enjoy this movie, you not only have to suspend a certain amount of belief, but also all common sense and logic.

Courtesy of mostlyfilm.com

Courtesy of mostlyfilm.com

Chef left me thinking long afterwards, but for all the wrong reasons. The idea that a bunch of younger and hotter group of people would idolize this droopy and hapless older white guy is mindblowing. We’re informed over and over again that he’s the Mozart of chefs, yet all we ever see him prepare is red meat and white bread (which is an apt analogy for the tone of the film).

It is especially sad to see Sofia Vergara, who not too long ago was the wealthiest female television star, stuck in a thankless, pissed-down version of her Modern Family character (though somebody might take me to task that she’s the protagonist’s ex-wife.) Here she is an eternally smiling martyr who spends all of her energy helping Favreau, even to the point of neglecting their son Percy (Emjay Anthony).

Courtesy of cocktailsandmovies.com

Courtesy of cocktailsandmovies.com

Favreau’s character, Carl, who is accused of being an absentee father, spends way more time with Percy than the supposedly doting and responsible mom Vergara. In fact, the majority of the film is the father and son relationship, as tenuous as it is. Even though Anthony is practically a co-lead, he is given nothing to do. Through no fault of his own, Anthony is as animate as a piece of kitchen apparatus.

The cliché dynamic of father who doesn’t understand social media and the son who is a wiz at it is as lame as possible in Favreau’s script. Even worse is that Carl comes off as a condescending prick endlessly lecturing at his son. Since he has to be loveable, each of these moments ends with a smile or a chuckle. There are cuss words and an occasionally raunchy-lite scene like when all the guys put cornstarch on their balls is there to make the movie seem hip and modern but it is really a bland throwback to the dull and sappy family sitcoms where everything is about the father’s ego.

Courtesy of www.movingpictureblog.com

Courtesy of www.movingpictureblog.com

As the other significant Latino character (meaning that he gets a large amount of screen time), Martin (John Leguizamo) gets in the thick of another audacious subplot as the prodigious sous-chef at the LA restaurant who gives up his cushy job to be second-banana for Favreau’s character’s Cuban sandwich food truck. From what I can tell Martin had no life outside of sous-chefing, happily staying in the cart 24/7 while Carl and Percy come and go as they please.

There’s another bit of nonsense when Martin persuades a bunch of minimum wage Latino movers to do the arduous task of setting up the food truck’s equipment (which the film makes look as easy as pie with a swift montage) for a free Cuban sandwich. Had there been one European settler who could make a killer Cuban sandwich perhaps the indigenous peoples of South and Central America would have gladly accepted colonization and could have been spared the physical and emotional abuse of the Inquisition.

Courtesy of www.apunkachoice.com

Courtesy of www.apunkachoice.com

In between Marvel gigs, Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr. phone in small roles of the restaurant hostess who is yet another Carl groupie and Vergara’s other ex-hubby who donates the grubby food truck that his stockyard workers transform into a work of art.

There have been times where having one person being the center of attention doesn’t feel like a handicap. It was always a joy to watch Joan Crawford gorge and devour the scenery and her co-stars or Groucho Marx hog all the attention in You Bet Your Life. However, Favreau hasn’t created a role dynamic enough to warrant stealing all the focus.

Courtesy of movies.cosmicbooknews.com

Courtesy of movies.cosmicbooknews.com

Favreau is enjoyable in colorful character roles like the exasperated lawyer in The Wolf of Wall Street or as Monica’s masochistic millionaire boyfriend in a six-episode arc of Friends. But like Lake Bell, who did triple duty on the indie In a World last summer, he cannot carry a picture. He plays the supposedly charismatic character rather awkwardly, somewhere between a Hollywood leading man wannabe and an indie street cred lead.

Another movie trope that has been totally mishandled is the critic (Oliver Platt) whose venomous review emotionally cripples the protagonist. Instead of using it as a way to poke fun at the protagonist or have the critic as a substantial antagonist, the subplot is merely reduced to an overlong and cloyingly heartfelt altercation between the two foes. The only saving grace is Platt, an actor who can do no wrong, breaking the monotony with a subtle gleam in his mouth showing enjoyment of Favreau losing his shit.

Courtesy of www.beyondhollywood.com

Courtesy of www.beyondhollywood.com

Chef has grossed over $17 million dollars at the Box Office, a very good profit for an Independent film. Before we call it a victory for indies, we must remember that Chef is a very safe choice, a rehash of tons of movies you’ve seen before, just with more Latinos in the cast.