Tag Archives: action

What Fight the Panda Syndicate Means to Me.

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By Christopher Pickhardt

Just about ten years ago, in 2006, my best friends and I embarked on a grand creative journey. Out of the blue, we decided to form a production company (Crazy Elk Productions) and produce an independent film called ‘Fight the Panda Syndicate,’ an ambitious dark comic adventure film that consumed the better part of six years of our lives. It was  an amazing creative experience for us that I can look back on with a great sense of accomplishment (as I was heavily involved in its making in the form of co-writer, co-producer, actor and co-editor, among many other hats alongside director Jason J. Dale).

It was a monumental task producing an ambitious project like this on such a shoestring budget, but with that challenge came tremendous rewards. Now that the film is in the can and we are past the film festival submission wormhole, we are actively looking to get the film out into the world; which is a whole other challenge in itself, but one that has greater chances of success than it did just a few short years ago, when you consider the advent of the digital distribution age we find ourselves in. I feel good about the future of this film and look forward to the world feasting their eyes on it.

I felt it was apropos to share an essay that I wrote back in 2009 as we were knee-deep into production on this film, for it really provides a window into the world of independent filmmaking and into the soul of the grassroots artist. Additionally, make sure to check out the film’s trailer below the essay, which I have included for your joyous perusal…

  What Fight the Panda Syndicate Means to ME

We have had a motto that has somewhat guided us since we began this journey on ‘Fight the Panda Syndicate’: what we lack in budget, we make up for in creativity. Given our meager resources I am very proud of what we have produced thus far. Lacking a large nest egg to cushion us, we have been forced to really get imaginative with how we have been making this film. Whether it is stretching the dollar to limits unseen by fund raising and bargain hunting or throwing away all conventional ways of storytelling and production, we have slaved since day one to achieve our filmmaking dreams. And as we watch the film come together in the editing process, like pieces of a puzzle, we stand behind another motto, one we adopted around the same time as the prior: ‘Fight the Panda Syndicate’ is the greatest independent film ever made. A bold statement to be sure, and one ‘El Mariachi’ fans may dispute, but never the less, one I will stand behind until the day I die.

It is hard to put into words what ‘Fight the Panda Syndicate’ means to me. How do you express a love this strong in words? I can honestly say I have never loved anything as much as this film. IT is my baby, my passion and the single most important thing in my life. My best friends and I have been working on this film for over two years now, going on three this summer. We have spent countless hours producing this project: discussing, planning, shooting, sweating, problem solving, bleeding and pressing on, as obstacle after obstacle, problem after problem, and antagonist after fucking antagonist has attempted to get in our way. We will not be deterred, not by the naysayers, the worrywarts, the assorted Riff-Raff, the inevitable financial woes or any other unforeseen force that is always working against this film. But, that is the life of the filmmaker and even on big budget films; there are nothing but obstacles and problems to address. So one must just keep their chin up and soldier on.

‘Fight the Panda Syndicate’ will be finished this year and then everyone can finally see the fruits of our labor, which is an independent film like no other. It is a film that transcends genres, is rich with character, ripe with humor, filled with action and danger and is truly a passion-filled ‘labor of love’ that started with four friends sitting around a kitchen table one night discussing ‘what if?’ This grand experiment, for lack of a better word, has grown into a family of creative artists over 400 strong from all over the north east. We are building a creative revolution, a collaboration of not only artists, but friends, who together are helping each other achieve their personal goals while striving for greater heights creatively and personally. This film is just the beginning of something truly remarkable, for it signifies that anything can be done no matter how impossible the odds against its success are and that if you work TOGETHER, ANYTHING can be achieved. ‘Fight the Panda Syndicate’ is just the first of many creative endeavors we will be working on together in all artistic realms in and out of film.

I sometimes find myself in disbelief at all we have accomplished. It is truly daunting to think of all we have been through since we started this film back in 2006. I pinch myself at times just to make sure this surreal dream is indeed a reality and not a sick Matrix-type joke I have been sleeping through. My dreams are unfolding before my eyes, almost too fast, and I find myself struggling to keep my mind on anything else. I can honestly say that ninety percent of the time I am not here; I am lost in my dream world physically present, but mentally on another plain going a hundred miles a minute in the idea super-highway. It is a place I don’t ever want to leave. Why would I want to?

This has been one HELL of a ride, filled with DRAMA the likes of which I have never experienced in my life. It is as if a door was opened into another world once production began on this film, bringing forth both great and terrible experiences; leaving our lives behind the scenes resembling a movie in itself. We have been through SO much these last couple years, both creatively and personally. Almost everyone involved with this project has had to deal with some pretty heavy shit, but we are still going strong, still fighting the good fight to get this thing finished. I am happy to say we are closer to the end than ever before with a rough cut actually in sight. The excitement is starting to brew, for nobody really has any idea what is in store for them! I am so excited for everyone I know and love to see this film that I feel high all the time, like I am floating along on a current of intense positive energy.

I am very thankful to God for the amazing family and close-knit circle I have been blessed with; I could not have asked for anything better. Without my belief in God and the strength that gives me and us each day, we would not have gotten through half the madness we have overcome. It is through faith and hope and the memory of my Mom that guided us through some of the hardest and darkest days and into the bright clearing we are at today. We have learned a lot and also gained much more wisdom these last couple of years; I know I am a better person because of it all.

In the end, experience builds strength, which in turn creates wisdom, which finally influences our character and makes us the enlightened people we are meant to be. I look forward to all the wonderful experiences the future has in store for us as we embark on a continuing quest for creative Zen – a place we can truly reach if we continue to work hard and to BELIEVE. And we will, I know it…right here in northern New Jersey, right under our noses; who knew?

Below, is the link to the film’s trailer:

The Revenant

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Review:

The Revenant

***1/2 stars (of 4)

By Christopher Pickhardt

The magnificent trailer for The Revenant that was released last year featured breathtaking visuals of the American wilderness inter-cut with harrowing action, a bearded Leonardo DiCaprio, the gruff-looking Tom Hardy and a harsh story-line of revenge, all underscored by the growing sound of breathing. It is this most vital intake of oxygen that serves as the key theme of this captivating and immersive film.

As anyone who has seen the trailer is aware, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Hugh Glass (loosely based on a real life fur trapper) is attacked by a bear and left for dead by his fellow outdoors-man John Fitzgerald (played by the always amazing and ferocious Tom Hardy). This is the basis for the film’s survival/revenge tale, which slowly unfolds before us with some of the most beautiful footage you will ever see on film. Visually this film is an unparalleled masterpiece which should net a third Oscar in a row for Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who is on an amazing hot streak (having received Academy Awards for last year’s Birdman and 2013’s Gravity) and will most likely produce a second in a row award for director Alejandro G. Inarritu (who collaborated with Lubezki on 2014’s best picture Birdman).

The Revenant may also win a best picture Oscar this year as well, especially given that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association made that very proclamation themselves at this past Sunday’s Golden Globes telecast. It certainly appears as though the blood, sweat and tears and apparent misery the cast and crew endured while making this film are paying off. The accolades, praise and award chatter the film has been receiving are understandable. There is so much excellence on display throughout the film’s two and a half hours that it is almost daunting to absorb.

The Revenant is definitely one of those films that will stay with you and linger in your mind for days, as the best moments are replayed all over again like a cinematic highlight reel. I was absorbed by the film’s ghostly atmosphere, with the vast expanse of the snowy mountains and bleak dark clouds overhead. I was sucked in by the tempered music, which featured the sound of a bell that rang softly in the background, underscoring the harrowing extreme conditions of our hero’s journey – both emotionally and physically. And I was awe-struck by the gorgeous photography that was painstakingly captured solely by natural light. No artificial lighting rigs were used to make this film, so you can imagine how long it took to get some of these amazing action sequences in the can – especially the scenes that featured long uninterrupted takes! Truly this is a feat of filmmaking if ever there was one and I would wager that not many productions can match this piece of work. The technical achievements of this film are the elements that impressed me the most, as the story is fairly simple. However, it is the way that Inarritu tells this story that makes it fresh and engaging to an audience that has seen everything – except nobody has seen anything like The Revenant. Few films have featured photography this stunning (except for maybe in a Terrence Malick film) or showcased the majesty of nature to such an extreme degree or delivered a grizzly bear fight that looked SO REAL that it is hard to fathom how the hell it was filmed. Everyone on this film pushed themselves and their creativity to the limit and each and every performer (both behind and in front of the camera) was one their game.

There is a lot of Oscar buzz floating around Leonardo DiCaprio for his work in this film and I expect it to intensify now that he has won the Golden Globe for this part. It was a deserved win for a terrific performance, but a fairly quiet one. DiCaprio did most of his acting with his eyes, speaking very little and carrying the film with a relatable determination of a man on a mission. DiCaprio surely gave his all for this part; having worn that scraggly beard for two years, slept inside an animal carcass and even ate a raw buffalo liver on-screen. That is dedication. This is definitely one of Leonardo’s best performances, but not THE best in my opinion.

I really felt he deserved the Oscar for The Wolf of Wall Street. That was such a layered crazy performance that really showed a range and aptitude for comedy that we have never seen him exhibit before. If he does win this year I believe it will be a political win, given that there is a consensus that he has been overlooked and snubbed time and again. I do not disagree with that sentiment; the man is an incredible and reliable actor, who works his ass off on every film. I do not think anyone can ever accuse him of being lazy or phoning in a performance. I frankly do not get all the legions of Leo haters out there. You can’t rip someone apart continually because you did not like Titanic. The guy is a great actor.

Speaking of great actors, Tom Hardy, that powerhouse of a presence almost steals the movie, playing Fitzgerald, a ruthless rival fur trapper who cares only for himself, and manipulates the other members of the hunting party. One of his pawns is a younger naive man, Bridger (Will Poulter) who reluctantly goes along with Fitzgerald’s egregious act of abandoning Glass (DiCaprio) because he is not up to the task of standing up to the intimidating will of Fitzgerald, who is determined to get back to the fur trapping company’s fort to obtain his payment for this rough journey’s work. Hardy’s character is a guy who is not keen on authority and resents Glass, who has served as the company’s tracker as they travel through the wild in a six-month long quest for fur. Hardy’s Fitzgerald considers DiCaprio’s Glass a lousy guide who he alleges has led their party to considerable ruin and basically wants to cash out as soon as possible instead of traveling by foot through the mountains in an effort to avoid the Pawnee Indians who are in pursuit.

Fitzgerald also holds contempt for the company’s fair but stern leader, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), who Fitzgerald believes is mistaken for placing the company’s bounty of fur and their survival in the hands of a tracker that he deems incompetent. It is this building tension followed by that amazing grizzly bear attack (and one other major event I will not spoil) that serve as the catalysts for the film’s second act and eventual bloody conclusion.

In closing, I will reiterate that this is a marvelously made film with a bounty of texture and beauty, where every shot is a painting and every moment nuanced to perfection. In essence The Revenant is an art house film with a studio budget – truly a rarity in today’s blockbuster-hungry film climate. As I mentioned earlier, the theme of breathing or staying alive in other words, is a major thread throughout this film. Glass instills in his half-Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) the idea that “if you can breathe, you can fight.” And as Glass struggles to survive from one potentially fatal obstacle to another on his vengeful journey, those words are echoed all around him – especially as he sees visions of his late wife and hears her voice guiding HIM through the darkness. Perhaps we can all take that message to heart during times of crisis. There is a lot of truth to that statement. If we can breathe, we most assuredly can fight. So as long as air is passing through our lungs, no obstacles are too large. All we need is the drive to push ourselves to the limit. Just like the makers of The Revenant did.

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

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Review:
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
**** stars (of 4)

By Christopher Pickhardt

There is no other way to say it, Mad Max: Fury Road is ABSOLUTELY MIND-BLOWING! This film is EVERYTHING you have been wanting and SO MUCH MORE! If you are like me and have been eagerly awaiting another installment of the iconic Mad Max franchise with baited breath, you can now rest easy because George Miller’s long-in-development opus has finally arrived for us to consume with glee.

Let me first just begin by saying that all the waiting and false starts on the road to this film’s completion have been totally worth it. George Miller has outdone himself with this incredible piece of cinema. He has orchestrated one of the GREATEST ACTION FILMS I HAVE EVER SEEN in my life! This movie is an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride from the first scene to the very last. Stunts are pulled off on this film that I was jaw-dropped to witness. How people did not perish while making this movie is beyond me. The choreography and precision that must have been instituted to capture Miller’s grand vision must have been incredible. I would wager that each day’s safety meeting was comprehensive to say the least.

I imagine that during the pre-production meetings of the film, Miller was telling his creative team that no costume is too absurd, no vehicle too excessively impractical and no touch of oddity is off the table. ANYTHING goes in this wild vision of the worst future you can imagine. No director has had more fun executing his vision and who could blame him. This is the kind of movie director’s dream of making and the kind every actor wants to be a part of. George Miller has assembled all the right people and ingredients to bring his dream to life. The cast is spectacular, the cinematography breathtaking and the production design, costumes and vehicles SO OVER THE TOP that you will be salivating over your shirt through the biggest smile you have ever experienced. I found myself in awe whilst watching this movie and marveled at the amount of work that went into making such an extravaganza of excessive adrenaline. I wouldn’t even know where to begin such a process.

Miller is a genius and a true maestro of tension; having planned out every shot of this masterpiece over many years in his head and pasted together a moving freight train that keeps you glued to the screen for two hours. At one point I was ready to chew on my belt to get me through the intensity on screen.
THIS IS WHAT MOVIES ARE ALL ABOUT. Forget the “cause” films, the romantic dramas, the historical epics and the Merchant Ivory period pieces. THIS is why we happily allow theaters to extort our money from within our pockets. All those other genres are well and good, but this action-packed bonanza is why we go to the movies. Mad Max: Fury Road is ENTERTAINMENT in its purest form, and I have never been happier to shell out some greens.  I walked out of the theater feeling more energized, more entertained and more pleased than I can ever recall. And that is saying A LOT. Hours have passed since I left the screening and I can’t stop thinking about this movie.
GO SEE MAD MAX NOW!

Kingsman: The Secret Service

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Review:
Kingsman: The Secret Service
*** stars (of 4)

By Christopher Pickhardt

Kingsman: The Secret Service is A LOT better than I expected. I must confess I was not that interested in seeing this film from watching the trailer. It just seemed like nothing I had not seen countless times before. But after giving it a chance, I was won over – mostly due to Colin Firth, who is always excellent. Here he was no different.

Without getting into the plot, it is basically a James Bond-ish group of ultra secret agents, whose members are dropping like flies. So Firth, a veteran agent, needs to recruit a new, younger agent to join the ranks of the other Kingsmen, which are led by the “Q”-esque Mark Strong and Michael Caine as the wise elder agent.

Firth’s character finds the son of a deceased agent who is of course a rough and tough street hooligan with grand potential, but lacking in couth and refinement. But his shortcomings are greatly overshadowed of who this kid COULD BECOME with the right guidance. So this punk is recruited to join a handful of other hopefuls in a winner-take-all competition to be the next addition to the Secret Service.

Here lies the second act’s training sequences and plot revelations – most notably the nefarious tech-world Billionaire played by Samuel L. Jackson, who is using his influence from the tech industry to basically create the world anew in a plan so complex and so over the top that it winks to us in a tongue in cheek fashion. Jackson plays the part with an odd lisp, which was more distracting to me than effective. But regardless he was good in the part.

There are some fantastic action sequences on display here – especially one set in a church, which features some astounding choreography and cinematography – a lot of which was ONE TAKE! Great stuff, albeit completely devoid of believability and riddled with some delightfully-violent deaths. Director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake and X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass) handles the action swimmingly and peppers the film with his usual fast-paced style. The ending is a shout out to the early Bond films, with some ridiculous moments and some disappointingly cheesy special effects. Still, it was entertaining and worth a watch.

Narrow Margin

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DVD Review:

Narrow Margin

*** stars (of 4)

By Christopher Pickhardt

1990’s Narrow Margin stars Gene Hackman and Anne Archer. It is a tense, suspense thriller on a train with twists and turns and surprisingly funny lines along the way.

Archer is a woman who witnessed a murder and Hackman is the Los Angeles Assistant D.A. who is taking her from Canada to L.A. to testify against a mob boos who ordered the hit that she unfortunately saw firsthand. Most of the film takes place on a mountainside train along the Canadian wilderness.

As usual, Gene Hackman is great as a smart tough guy who just happens to be a lawyer. He always has a commanding presence on film and his voice is one of the most recognizable in film history. It is a shame he has retired from acting, but I hope he will at least do one more film before he passes. I am not holding my breath however, as Hackman has reportedly turned down a mountain of offers over the years since retiring from acting after making the 2004 film Welcome to Mooseport (what a sad final film for a great actor’s resume’).

Peter Hyams, who is Narrow Margin’s writer, director and cinematographer, has done a great job handling the intensity and intricacy of the action sequences while balancing the expository moments with some surprising humor. At times we are doubtful of the moments where Hackman overpowers men a lot younger than him, but his physical abilities are explained eventually and we can then, dispel our disbelief. But this genre is known for contrivances and we can happily just look the other way and allow the film to simply entertain us.

This is a good, not too famous film I have always known about but have not seen until now. It is definitely a worthy viewing, especially if you are a Gene Hackman fan as I am.

Clash of the Titans

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Review:

 Clash of the Titans                                                    

 **1/2 stars (out of 4)

By Christopher Pickhardt

Being a big fan of the original 1981 film, I was pretty interested in seeing this inevitable 2010 update of Clash of the Titans. The original was a LARGE part of my childhood, having watched in countless times throughout my early years. The practical visual effects pioneered by Ray Harryhausen that were instituted to bring the story to life back then were so memorable for me and I have a great sense of nostalgia for the excellent labor of love that was Clash of the Titans. I especially adore the Medussa sequence (more on that later) and the scenes featuring the evil Calibos. I can vividly recall those iconic images. It is hard to believe it has been 29 years since the original was released. Warner Brothers should have waited one more year to commemorate the film properly. Not waiting for the 30th anniversary is a head-scratcher for me.

This remake is basically all action and visual effects and little character development. The story-line is pretty much the same as the original film with a few modifications. I wish they had taken more time to focus on the characters instead of just thrusting us right into the action sequences. The actors are all good for the most part, making the most of what little the script has given them to work with.

Sam Worthington is the current new golden boy Hollywood is pushing on us (after Terminator Salvation and Avatar). He is a decent leading man, is fairly likable and capable, but I don’t love him. I am hoping he will get a juicy dramatic role which would allow him to really shine. In the action films he has starred in so far he is solid and believable, but there isn’t too much for him to do with the characters he has been given. Avatar to me is probably his most dynamic character to date, given American audiences have not seen his work back home in Australia.

The supporting actors all do their best, with Mads Mikkelsen (from Denmark, the villain from Casino Royale) standing out most for me as Draco, a strong warrior from Argos who accompanies Perseus (Sam Worthington) on his journey to the witches, to face the snaky-Medusa and finally to fight the mighty Kraken (the film’s climactic battle subject). The Medusa sequence is the most memorable one of the original and is the best scene in this film as well – proving that Medussa’s lair is simply a classically-interesting scene featuring one of the most memorable film and mythological characters.

Two powerhouse actors – Liam Neeson (as Zeus) and Ralph Fiennes (as Hades) are the two biggest names in the film and portray two of the most well-known characters in Greek mythology. Given that pedigree, it saddens me to say that I felt these two exceptional actors were restrained and frankly, wasted in their roles here. I did not think the characters they were given had enough “meat” for them to chew on as actors. They are both actors that are capable of great performances and here it felt like they were just coasting. Not that their work in the remake were bad, but I was just left feeling underwhelmed. However, it was cool to see their Schindler’s List reunion though.

I would recommend checking out a matinee of Titans or wait for it to come out on DVD/BLURAY. It is not worth paying full price and especially do not waste your time seeing it in the sub-par 3-D format. I saw it in 2-D and it was just fine. I am not wasting my money on films NOT FILMED in 3-D (Clash and many others are often up-converted to 3-D after filming has been completed in a cost-pinching move by revenue-hungry studios). This movie was rushed into 3-D in post-production to capitalize on the post-Avatar 3-D love, which to me is unnecessary and serves as a fleecing of the moviegoer’s pocketbook. If you are up for action, pretty decent music and an entertaining onslaught of visual effects, then go see Cash of the Titans. But do not expect it to have the allure and charm of the original.