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‘The Final Project’ debuts with found footage aesthetic

(02/16/16 7:50pm)

Any aspiring filmmaker knows that the film industry is an unforgiving one. Financial- and distribution-related woes inevitably weigh down even the purest of passion projects. Even if the film manages to wring itself through the logistical nightmare, it will be splayed out to the saturated market to be torn apart by the circling critics. Under this spotlight is Taylor Ri’chard’s directing debut, “The Final Project,” in which a group of college students investigates the paranormal activity of a historic plantation in Louisiana.


Spotlight shines as unlikely Oscar contender

(02/02/16 9:17pm)

With the 2016 Oscars just around the corner, most pundits have truncated the official list of eight Best Picture nominees to an unofficial shortlist of three: the gripping “The Revenant,” the provoking “The Big Short” and the oddball – “Spotlight.” Mainstream media have largely sidelined “Spotlight,” which is a true story about the Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church child sex scandals in the early 2000s.


Zombies breathe new life into literary classic

(01/25/16 10:51pm)

In a world where matchmaking is everything and “sensible” ladies are confined to the drawing room, the last thing the Bennet sisters need is to fight off a horde of zombies, yet that’s exactly what happens in the upcoming film “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” Austen purists might object: “Subtlety is all but ruined in this heightened culture of ours.” Zombie aficionados might lament: “I find it hard to believe Lizzy Bennet can knock down an actual zombie while wearing a corset.” Notwithstanding, whether one be posh or nerd or somewhere in between, I believe there does exist a Venn diagram where the Victorian gentry and the walking dead overlap.


Oscar projections for the layman and the snob

(12/01/15 5:19pm)

The Oscars have always been a contentious bunch of awards. On one hand, there are the popular favorites that give rise to the cliched “Oscar genre” film — the deglamorized celebrity, true story-inspired biopic, orchestral score, the whole gamut. On the other hand, there are the art house films that no one else saw, but stole the hearts of film snobs everywhere. Even before nominations are announced, the fight between the layman and the snob has already taken off. To make it easy, here are my picks for films that could satisfy both sides of the aisle.Best PictureLayman pick: “Spotlight”Every once in a while the Best Picture frontrunner brings together the skeptical critic and stereotypic voter. Director Thomas McCarthy walks that fine line in “Spotlight.” The film follows the Boston Globe’s investigative team in uncovering the Catholic Church’s scandals during the early 2000s — a methodical film much like Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” But “Spotlight” stands apart in its notable ensemble cast. Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo have all been submitted to the Best Supporting category. In lesser hands, this film could have easily stepped into excessive sentimentality and condescension. Instead, McCarthy takes a fittingly balanced approach: never exploiting the victims and victimizers, but never avoiding whitewashing events either. Snob pick: “Inside Out”It has always been a surprise to me that animated films have never been given the “Best Picture” treatment. To date, only three have even been nominated: “Beauty and the Beast,” “Up” and “Toy Story 3.” The notion that “Inside Out” is a snob pick still befuddles me; animation studios have long aligned with Oscar favorites — artistic approach, on-screen grievances, the loss of innocence, etc. My theory is that voters cannot take an animation piece seriously much like how voters annual snub comedies and comic book films.Best DirectorLayman pick: David O. Russell, “Joy”At this point, saying Bradley Cooper’s and Jennifer Lawrence’s names after David O. Russell’s is really only an afterthought. We have seen this trio (and let’s also throw in Robert De Niro) before in “Silver Linings Playbook” and in “American Hustle.” Although past nominations are not an indicator of actual wins, I believe Russell’s tastes are so Oscars-tempting that the third time might just be the charm.Snob pick: George Miller, “Mad Max: Fury Road”In many ways the Academy functions to hold up the most emblematic film of the year, and given that we saw a considerable number of good action films thus far — “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation,” “The Martian,” “Star Wars: Episode VII” (fingers crossed) — George Miller’s dust-and-petroleum-fueled universe of “Mad Max” would not be such an outrageous prospect. For me, “Fury Road” represents the rare combination of auteur direction and blockbuster production quality when a major studio could just hand Miller a large wad of money to go do whatever he wants with it in the desert.Best Leading/Supporting ActorLayman pick: Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Revenant”; Tom Hardy, “The Revenant”I should preface that I have always considered Best Supporting an equivalent to Best Leading in prestige. With that, Leonardo DiCaprio proves to the Academy with “The Revenant” that once again, he would do whatever it takes to get that elusive Oscar. I wonder if voters are just curious to see to what extent they can push DiCaprio to take on roles more outrageous than the last. My personal view on DiCaprio’s acting is mixed, but given the grueling production he has to suffer through on account of “Birdman” director Alejandro G. Inarritu’s insistence to film on location in Alberta, Canada, I would not be surprised if voters would finally concede. If not DiCaprio, then at least reward his supporting counterpart Tom Hardy, an actor who has never shied away from taking on interesting roles, such as this year’s “Legend.” However, I believe that Hardy has so much ahead of him that I would not be worried if he does not get an award this time around.Snob pick: Michael Fassbender, “Steve Jobs”; Michael Keaton, “Spotlight”A lesser-known fact about the Oscars voting process is the political drama that happens off screen. Despite possessing an unrivaled filmography, Michael Fassbender has never been one to campaign for the media, an ironic contrast to the egomaniac he plays in “Steve Jobs.” At a time when Jobs’ posthumous reputation has spiralled into caricature, Fassbender manages to ground the film by making the legend (and Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue) seem relatable. The Oscars are also often criticized for rewarding the actors and actresses that chew up the most screen time. In “Spotlight,” a more insecure actor could have easily upended the entire film, but Keaton completely understands the movie he signed up for. As the head journalist, his character commands on-screen attention yet always plays to the strengths of his co-stars.Best Leading/Supporting ActressLayman pick: Jennifer Lawrence, “Joy”; Jennifer Jason Leigh, “The Hateful Eight” J-Law could be a shoo-in for best actress. If starring in a biopic with familiar colleagues David O. Russell and Bradley Cooper wasn’t enough, she has already had an outstanding year. Though it hasn’t even come out yet, if “Joy” delivers on the hype it’s already gathering, Jennifer Lawrence could easily ride her performance and wider popularity after “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2” to an Oscar. For Jennifer Jason Leigh, the challenge will be to stand out in a field of eight seasoned actors. With a director like Tarantino, the film will likely do well with critics and the public, so if Jason Leigh can shine as the only woman in Tarantino’s “Hateful Eight,” she could pick up the vote for best supporting actress.Snob pick: Charlize Theron, “Mad Max: Fury Road”; Marion Cotillard, “Macbeth” If you saw “Fury Road,” you probably already know, Charlize Theron stole the show. The film’s choreographed action is mesmerizing, and the plot is surprisingly moving, but it’s Theron’s performance that holds it all together. Convincingly hitting a range of emotions, Theron’s character is sometimes vulnerable, sometimes distance, but always the most magnetic, powerful character on the screen. As Lady Macbeth, Cotillard has a chance to reinvent one of literature’s most infamous villain. If she can pull it off, a win for her would be well deserved.


'The Altruists' blends experience, new talent

(11/04/15 3:53am)

Most protests are reactions against injustice, but sometimes, people protest for the sake of protesting itself. “The Altruists,” written by Nicky Silver, explores the lives of three such self-identified “professional protesters,” whose “sticking up to the man” mantra results in one of them being framed for murder. Directed by Rice alumna Susannah Eig (Jones ’14) and produced by Lovett College junior Mei Tan, the Rice Players Company’s performance of “The Altruists” captures the beating heart of a satirical and whimsical true story.The Rice Players chose “The Altruists” as their fall production for several reasons: First, the play is a comedy, and thus a unique departure from other works they have chosen in the past. In addition, the five-person cast and the 90-minute runtime suit their relatively small team. Finally, according to Eig and Tan, the show shares great thematic relevance to the Houston community.Eig explained that the plot, which centers on society pinning a crime on the wrong man, has special meaning in a city with one of the nation’s highest crime rates among the low-income and minorities. She said the show asks of its audience, “Are we just allowed to use people as scapegoats and say we’re good people at the same time?”Tan also noted that the play demands an examination of the way the criminal justice system affects individuals, and not just the world at large.“The play should resonate,  especially in a society where we can go on Facebook and share a cause, and we can hit ‘like’ on something that we feel is good for humanity,” Tan said. “‘Do we actually care about the people at the core of this?’ is the question that it asks.”Both directors have extensive backgrounds in theater. Eig started building her acting and directing experience in high school. Throughout her years at Rice, she continued to develop her skills by directing and assisting on plays such as “Baltimore’s Waltz” and “The Mystery Plays.” Tan’s participation in theater also began during high school and carried into college. Her freshman year, she acted in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” where she first met Eig. More recently, she has assisted with costume design for the Rice visual and dramatic arts department’s “Paganini” and “The Heidi Chronicles,” directed theater at Lovett College and assisted with a campus production of “Twelfth Night.” The Rice Players strive to achieve a professional production quality with a cast of unprofessional actors. For example, many students, including the stage manager, costume designer and set designer, had minimal to no production experience prior to “The Altruists.” To Tan, these limitations actually provide the actors and crew with more growth opportunities and freedom to develop their artistic vision.“One of the main pillars of Rice Players Company’s philosophy is that we want to be a teaching company,” Tan said. “You want [the team members] to see this as a place where they can experiment.”Tan and Eig said the production process has thus far been both plagued and blessed by surprises. At one end of the spectrum, various contractual and scheduling conflicts with professionals, including the prop and lighting designers, led to a scramble to fill gaps in the crew. At the other end, unexpected aid came in the form of an email from the playwright, Nicky Silver, who provided an updated version of the 14-year-old script, intended to fix some now-anachronistic details.Eig said she predicts that audience members will not pick up on the months of planning and preparation it took to pull off the play. She noted, however, that this is intentional.“[The audience members] literally sit there, and the lights come on, and they don’t have to think,” Eig said. “That’s our goal — to get the audience to be so lost in what’s happening in front of them that they forget their grocery list, they forget what they had for dinner — they’re just in this story.” Eig is currently working as actor and director in the theater business and applying for graduate programs in theater. As for Tan, after “The Altruists” ends, she plans to work on a production of Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice.” Rice Players will perform “The Altruists” from Nov. 12 to 21 in Hamman Hall.


“Until 20” explores life as student with cancer

(10/20/15 7:39pm)

“What would you do if you knew you were living the last year of your life?”That is the tagline of “Until 20,” a documentary following the life of James Ragan slated to premiere Oct. 30 at the Austin Film Festival. Ragan, who attended Rice in 2011 at Duncan College, lived with terminal cancer for almost half of his life and passed away in February 2014. Directed by Geraldine Moriba Meadows and Jamila Paksima Rowell, with many contributions from Ragan himself, the film explores how he was able to make the most of his limited time.At age 13, Ragan was diagnosed with a rare type of pediatric osteosarcoma. Since then, he and his family dealt with the disease the best they could, going through rounds of various treatments at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Co-Director Meadows, who herself undergoes treatment for cancer similar to that of Ragan’s, first met him through an oncologist at the cancer center. Ragan’s sister Mecklin Ragan (Duncan ’13) described her brother’s enthusiastic response when Meadows first proposed to make a documentary on his life.“We’ve always been a very private family … and James really wanted to do it,” Mecklin said. “We all talked it over a couple days, everybody thought about it, and James still wanted to do it … and that was kind of how it all started.”For those who knew Ragan, it is virtually impossible not to mention his sheer optimism. Despite the toll his treatment placed on him, Ragan always insisted on pursuing his academics and playing golf, among other hobbies. He was even known to enter the golf course with an IV bag supplying his chemotherapy while he played. Co-Director Rowell said he was taken by surprise by how often Ragan displayed positivity despite his circumstances.“He never seemed sad, he never seemed overwhelmed by this situation,” Rowell said. “And we would keep asking him questions, and the guy won’t crack.”On any given day, Ragan could always count on his support team — his family. In particular, his parents played an exceptional role in his life by stepping back from making decisions for him. Mecklin said she admired her parents for granting their son the freedom to take agency of his own life.“I think it’s very admirable that [my parents] were able to sit back and let their 15-, 16-, 17-year-old son make his own decisions when it came to his care,” Mecklin said. “That’s not something that happens all the time … It’s so much easier to make that decision for your child — I think it took a lot of willpower.”Rice played a large role in supporting Ragan. His sister noted the generosity and assistance provided by the administration, their college master, professors and golf coach Justin Emil. Not every day was smooth sailing, and he took time to process his emotions. His sister described a coping mechanism he developed and constantly referred to.“One of the things James loved to say … was that if you go to MD Anderson, and you’re sitting there more than five minutes, you look to your left and to your right and there’s always someone that has it worse than you do,” Mecklin said.Ragan’s “glass half full” mentality manifested in his project, the Triumph Over Kid Cancer Foundation, which is a foundation that fundraises for pediatric cancer research and raises awareness for kids with pediatric cancer. Unfortunately, pediatric cancer is a severely unexplored field of research, mainly because pharmaceutical companies cannot afford to invest in rare diseases; some of Ragan’s treatments have not changed for 40 years, while others were not intended for bone cancer or for children. He attended many funerals of the children he had met at the hospital and befriended.Filmmakers Meadows and Powell knew of the challenges they faced. Not only did they make a conscious decision as to not influence the story while filming, but they also took careful measures to not be manipulative in the editing room. The result was authenticity.“You cannot make this stuff up,” Powell said. “With documentary filmmaking, you get to share an authentic experience that most people don’t get to experience.”Struck by a rare disease, Ragan gave the world two even rarer gifts: the documentary on his life and his foundation, Triumph Over Kid Cancer, now helmed by his sister. “Until 20” will show at festivals this fall and a screening at Rice is scheduled for the spring.


The making of feature film a “Clinger”: A labor of love

(10/07/15 4:21am)

Not many of us can relate a personal experience to a visit from the undead. On the other hand, the haunting persistence of an obsessive first love, undead or otherwise, hits everyone close to home. This is the premise of “Clinger,” an upcoming film co-created by Rice alumna Gabi Chennisi Duncombe (Wiess ’12). As the title suggests, “Clinger” is about an overly attached boyfriend who dies in a tragic accident, only to return to the land of the living bent on killing his now-ex-girlfriend in the hopes of a posthumous reunion. The film made its debut earlier this year at Slamdance Festival. “Clinger” is the passion project of Gabi Chennisi Duncombe, Michael Steves and Bubba Fish. Duncombe worked on the film as co-writer and director of photography, and her filmography includes “Babushka,” a documentary on the lives of elderly Russian women living in Kazakhstan. “Clinger” stars Jennifer Laporte and Vincent Martella as the two leads, and the entire film was shot in Houston.The making of “Clinger” in and of itself is a story that belongs in an inspirational biopic. Three high school pals pledge to one day create a feature film together, split off to their respective colleges, and, four years later, find themselves fulfilling their pact right where it all began: their old high school. In hindsight, reunion seems inevitable.While Fish went to college in the East Coast, Steves headed for the West and Duncombe herself had not intended a film career when she began at Rice. Although filmmaking has been a childhood passion of hers since elementary school, Duncombe maintained her desire to go into medicine throughout her first semester of college. Eventually, however, she changed her mind. “The thing that I’ve been wanting to do my whole life was film,” Duncombe said. “I did a lot of soul searching.”A central theme throughout the production process of “Clinger” was the tight-knit relationship between the three friends. Nothing was done in isolation. The trio utilized an alternating system of writing, where they interchanged roles between one of two writers collaborating on a draft, while the third polished and critiqued that draft. “You need someone removed from the process to really tell you what’s bad,” Duncombe said. “It was nice actually working with friends because … we could say, ‘This doesn’t work’ without getting mad at each other.” The filming process also benefited from a healthy rapport between Duncombe and her co-workers. “What was unique about ‘Clinger’ [was that] if there was a scene that wasn’t working, we would just pause shooting for 10 minutes,” Duncombe said. “And the three of us would just go into a room and try and fix [it].” Rice students should be excited that “Clinger” is recognizably Houstonian and was made possible by the local community. She compares the warm reception of the Houston support to the jaded response of Angelenos. “For ‘Clinger’ it was definitely smarter to shoot in Houston because there’s so many people who were helping out free of charge,” Duncombe said. “In [Los Angeles], [this] never would happen.” St. John’s School, located just two miles from Rice, provided the “Clinger” team free access to its grounds, which serviced a major portion of the film. The communal hospitality worked both ways as well. Will Rice College freshman Priyanka Jain was a student at St. John’s School when she interned as a production assistant for “Clinger.” She noted that she felt included as part of the team. “Normally when you are an intern it seems like you’re not very involved on set and it’s not the vibe I got,” Jain said. “[For example,] there are a lot of handcrafted decorations in a scene that … everybody spent hours working on … so you’re really involved in all of the aspects in the film.”As with any fledging indie, the limited budget presented a challenge, yet Duncombe and her collaborators managed to work around financial obstacles and were even able to allow these restrictions to function as an outlet for creativity. In fact, the framing of the premise was in part inspired by the team’s small budget. “We wanted to write a story that was enhanced by being low budget instead of stretching our budget way too thin,” Duncombe said. “So it was supposed to be campy — the effects were reminiscent of the ’80s.”With a limited budget comes a narrow margin for error, and the daily supply of crises never ceased to end. At one point, the team learned that one of the filming locations they were initially promised was denied to them on the day before shooting. “When you don’t have a big budget you can’t just pay to fix a problem,” Duncombe said. “We had to figure another way out … It was just madness all the time.” She mentioned that sometimes these problems could be solved in the script before they escalated during production, but other times they were simply unavoidable.If anything, “Clinger” is a labor of love. It is labor in that it demands the sweat and blood of its crew and creators, or more specifically, the copious amount of Vincent Martella’s arterial blood that showers from some unhinged human sprinkler. Yet, it also epitomizes love in how we find ourselves drawn to the community that supports us, not unlike a first love. Watch “Clinger” for its heart, and if not that, then watch it for Jennifer Laporte’s delivery of: “It’s a ghost laser — it lasers ghosts.” The theatrical release of “Clinger” will be Oct. 23 at the Alamo Drafthouse Vintage Park.