Flattened Tribes

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I know some gray haired dudes in the industry that talk about the good ol’ days when budgets apparently flowed like water out of some magical unending spring. Then they come to today and have nothing but complaints about how the industry changed, their dollars are short and their backs are definitely sore.  I used to wave off that notion that business in the creative arts world was that bad.  Then I look back at my body of work and realize I was a walking breathing compromise when it came to budgets and client expectations. However I am a firm believer that limitations churn creativity. Can’t afford that $10K dollie shot…build a dollie. Need some CG but can’t afford Maya…learn Blender.

So I was presented with an interesting production challenge in creating another trailer for The Studio Theatre. I had 30 minutes of actual filming time in a 2 hour session to use a play’s actors due to union rules. If you have ever worked in production, that is not a lot of time to do anything. So instead of using a video camera, I went to a trusty still camera. Shoot some hi-res tableau shots of the actors and then “fix it in post”.

Well it was not really a fix that happened in post but rather the bulk of the creative process happened there in front of my computer rather than in live motion. Out of several still shots selected by the theatre, I cut and pasted the characters and made something frenetic to showcase some of the show’s themes. Not too shabby!

Blackberry Storm, I loved you.

Blackberry Storm

The iphone had been released sans any type of app store, and the thing was insanely expensive, but if you had eyes, working fingers and loved tech toys, more than likely you wanted one.

A year later RIM, sitting atop their high mountain of mobile dominance, noticed something was changing in the market place. A first inkling that their reign might have a contender. A year after the iPhone’s release RIM came up with the Blackberry Storm, its first touch screen device that included “revolutionary” haptic feedback in the screen (basically the feel of pressing a button without a button). The rumor mill called it the iPhone killer. Then it got released.

What a sad little device it was in comparison but amongst all the hype and the harsh reviews, the world was in a much stranger place technologically than most of us care to remember. At that time and for a few years to come, the iPhone was locked into AT&T. A cellular network that had grown too quickly for its own britches and left a trail of disgruntled subscribers in its wake. Then the current major selling point of the iPhone, the app store, was not even in existence yet, but this was still the device that you and anyone you ever knew wanted, craved and in some cases would kill for.

Then there was every one else, still locked into a contract with Verizon or other cell networks. The Blackberry Storm was really the only option if you were on Big Red. I received mine along with my father as we were on a family plan and we both liked the idea of new phones. Thinking about it now, had RIM released this same phone a month or two before the iPhone I strongly believe the outcome of the mobile marketplace would have been different today. Blackberry might still be in the game. So if a person were to turn a Blackberry Storm on, would their universe suddenly suck? Would the stars fall and cats and dogs finally make peace? Nope, we have what is now known on the interwebs as a first world problem: my smart phone is not as cool as yours.

For myself and my father who was a government employee at the time, and locked in the Blackberry infrastructure anyway, we honestly kind of liked the Blackberry Storm. Heaven forbid I write such blasphemy as there is tech editor wearing really tight jeans in a coffee shop somewhere in New York City, ready to kill me. Wipe away everything you know about Android, iOS and the arguments that both sides like to piss into each others yards. There is an App for this, there is a game for that. Our “smart” phones have so quickly made us forget the main reason we have these devices and love them so much; they let communicate from wherever we are.

I tend to make a lot less phone calls than I used to. I can make a phone call from wherever I want now, I just choose email because its easier. I can say what I need to say and have time to think about it. Sometimes I just don’t want to talk to people or only need a “yes” or “no” response without the conversational pleasantries. I know, I’m such a hermit. And this where Blackberry got it right; that silly phone was damn good at emailing and managing my calendars. Those are the two essential apps over any phone on any OS and for the two years that I used the device I was content, sometimes even giddy. That haptic feedback screen was a novelty of an idea but once you got used to its functions and using the two button keyboard in portrait mode, I was a typing machine. Long emails written on the train were no problem. To this day I wouldn’t even attempt something like that on iOS’s archaic keyboard.

So where does that leave me in the cellular marketplace considering the tension and close knit relationship most of us have with our devices? Still on the outside. I enjoyed the Storm also because it was different than everyone else. I was adding diversity despite so many people giving me fake vomiting face when they saw the device I used. Again so many people were using that App abundance as a selling point when in reality most people probably use 5 to 10 apps from the app store on a regular basis. The other million or so apps in that marketplace are just plain old garbage waiting for time or the app store police to come and end its languishing misery. Who remember when Fat Face was all the rage?!

I recall a much echoed sigh of relief from Jon Stewart on ‘The Daily Show’ when the iPhone was finally on Verizon. A year or so later people were trying to communicate with Siri, despite her being a cold hearted bitch. We all discovered Google, other big tech and the NSA were stealing our data and invading our privacy. So I decided to  be different again and reignite my love affair with Microsoft. Windows Phone Nokia Lumia 928, check. Blackberry Storm, I’ll still miss you.

Five Breathless Moments in Film

 

The Night of the Hunter

I’m not normally a person of lists, but I have considered several lists over the years which I felt needed to be collected. In this particular case it is a collection of moments in movies which I have deemed as amazing visions from a director. Some films are ‘great’ and not in the status of IMDB’s coveted top 250 list but for a few minutes I believe they achieved greatness either through character development, story twists or artistic composition.

 

1. Signs

People are way too hard on poor M. Night. To be honest he is one the only filmmakers in the business working with original ideas. I think his biggest problem is that they never get beyond the good idea part of conception. The back to back goodness of ‘The Sixth Sense’ and ‘Unbreakable’ put too much weight on his fan base. Sadly every movie he did suddenly had to have a great twist ending, and if there was no grand finale then the movie was obviously terrible. ‘Signs’ is a movie I really enjoyed because it used an alien invasion to discuss a man’s faith. For me that’s where most people missed the point, the “signs” of the title are aren’t about aliens, its about the “signs” of faith. In the case of this list, my breathless moment is the loss of a man’s faith. Mel Gibson’s character, a pastor, must see his wife for the last time. She was in an accident and is now pinned between a tree and a car. Her life is hanging by the proverbial thread. When they move the car she’ll die but they wait for Gibson’s character to arrive at the accident and have a last moment with his wife. What does any one say to a loved one in that horrible and unimaginable instance? A tragic and touching scene.

2. A Simple Plan (SPOILER!!)

There is a twist to the ending of this movie but not the kind you are thinking of. The twist is from an extremely brave narrative choice the filmmakers took. They set it up and leave you knowing that there really isn’t a better option. It was the only option. Hank has to kill his own brother, Jacob. The saddest part of it all was that Jacob asks Hank to do it. Almost begging. I cannot for the life of me think of a more heart breaking scenario. Yes in Godfather Part II Michael has Fredo killed, but this was different, so much more personal and necessary. Jacob’s setup as a character is of such great despair and helplessness. He has all these grand fantasies about what money could bring him. Then at the end of the film all he gets is a cold snowy forest where is own brother will execute him. For his parting words all he can say is “I’m tired.”

3. The Fisher King

Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’ is my favorite film of all time. Its a tough cookie to crack but its the first time I watched a film realizing the possibilities of an auteur’s imagination at work. Gilliam seems to sway between independent films and one with more studio backing. ‘The Fisher King’ seemed to find him in the middle. He had two big name actors, Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges, but a script I could just see a studio exec taking deep breaths while reading. It is not the strongest of Gilliam’s films but has his signature style of mixing fantasy with reality. In this case Robin William’s character is a homeless guy who thinks he’s on the quest for the Holy Grail. Its funny in scenes, weird in others and at some points just down right depressing. Thanks to William’s pseudo dementia he imagines things that aren’t really there, sometimes very beautiful things. In this case, he sees a storm of people in rush hour going too and fro in the underground subway, but what he actually sees is a ballroom dance. This had to have been one of the most difficult things in the world to choreograph. At one moment we see people on a mad dash then they effortlessly turn into a collective of ballroom dancers then back to rushing around. As far as I can tell there was no CGI at the time to accomplish this task. This is the canvas that Gilliam’s brain works in. Simply amazing.

4. In the Bedroom

I love getting people to watch this movie. So many people have not seen and its one of the best character noir films ever made. The setup is like a meat hook in the eye, at one moment we are watching a tense family drama and in seconds we are being taken down a dark path of murder and revenge. Early in the film a young man is murdered by his lover’s ex-boyfriend. The brilliant Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, as the young man’s parents are given a mountain of grief to deal with and while they try to take it out on each other, it simply isn’t enough. To make things worse their son’s killer gets off due to a technicality. They see him around town and at the same grocery store. Awkward does not even begin describe these scenes. Where the film ends up you will have to experience for yourself. I often take independent movies for granted but in one unexpected moment of violence, I dare any one to try and take your eyes from the screen.

5. The Night of the Hunter

One may recall the tattoos on Robert De Niro’s hands in Cape Fear (which in itself was a remake of an older movie). His hands were tattooed with ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’. This eerie body art choice originated from ‘The Night of the Hunter’. Robert Mitchum stars the titular ‘Hunter’ as he chases down his very smart step-children. Mitchum’s Preacher Harry Powell is a character for the ages. A false religious man driven by the greatest of all sins; Greed. He marries a saddened but wealthy widow, Shelley Winters, seducing her with his faith in the God, only to be secretly plotting her death so that he may claim her money. One final road bump however is that the money is left first to her children and so begins one of the most gorgeously filmed chases on celluloid. The director Charles Laughton, who, for the record’s sake, directed nothing else after a poor box office, had an incredible eye for creating ominous sequences and eerie shot compositions. When viewing the ghostly figure of Shelley Winters drowned under water, it is the unquestionable mark of a master, one can only wonder what other masterpieces he might have directed.

 

 

Fear of Contagion

 

Contaigion

I haven’t liked every film Steven Soderbergh has released but I will always admit he is good at what he does. He is probably the most successful indie director working in Hollywood today. Somehow he still manages to bring that small crew sensibility to any film he’s working on.  The huge amount of A-List talent he manages to pull in, even for bit parts, is a testament to how good a director he is.

His latest foray is called ‘Contagion’ and that is pretty much the story in a nutshell. It is the only type of horror film that I could see Soderbergh making. A horror that is based all to close to reality with people in really horrible situations. I recall some interesting interviews when he remade ‘Solaris’ which was completely against his common directorial choices. He chose the movie because it wasn’t so much about the science fiction as it was about human nature. In the case of ‘Solaris’ it was human frailty in the face of devastation. The same theme seems to run rampant in ‘Contagion’ but at a much larger scale. What happens to the world when an incurable disease hits the air? How do people react? How does it affect a government and the surrounding medical industry?

One may recall that this film sounds like ‘Outbreak’. Soderbergh’s version takes it a step further and removes itself from many of the melodramatic mistakes its predecessor made, and I liked ‘Outbreak’. This film takes no mercy on its main characters and has no last minutes miracles to save their lives. People die without dramatic interludes. There is human drama but it focuses more on human reactions to how a deadly disease on a worldwide scale might affect people from various walks of life. Also how the medical industry might try to make a profit off of something so horrible.

There is a very large cast of characters and we follow from all over the world. They hunt the disease, its host and the method from which it spread. While the film’s tagline calls itself an action thriller, there is no real action in the sense of Michael Bay. Its thrills manifest themselves in the way a disease could spread so easily in our modern society. Thanks to the unnerving soundtrack and a superb cast of actors, you may find yourself with many more bottles of Purell after watching this film.

 

When Seeing the Devil

I Saw the Devil

A few years ago a friend and I were talking about the postmortem effects of watching Chan-wook Park’s ‘Oldboy‘. We came to the conclusion that it felt almost necessary to take a shower afterwards. This is by no means a negative review of this film. Dare I say it is one of the greatest films ever concieved. I think that it speaks to the power of the film. When a movie leaves a viewer physically ill, in love, or with a happy sense of euphoria the filmmaker has done his job. ‘Oldboy’ was an entrance ticket to the wonderful world of pulp Korean cinema. For a long time I thought the likes of Fruit Chan and Takashi Miike were the bees knees of twisted asian cinema. Truth be told, the Koreans hold their own.

I Saw the Devil‘ has a bit of fun with the concept of revenge. It starts with the heinous murder of a secret agent’s fiance. We meet the killer quickly and the secret agents finds him even quicker. In essence the movie should be over as the secret agent can get swift revenge to heal his ailing soul. Quite the opposite. He beats the craps out of the killer then leaves him a wad of money, egging him on to keep killing. So begins a psychological game of chase.  The secret agents begins to cross the very lines that separate him from the killer. Both are willing to go to extreme ends but they share one vast difference which I often overlooked: motive. The secret agent has no more righteous a motive than revenge, but the killer has none or so it would seem. The idea of killing a killer is much too simple, too easy. So the devilish task is to find out what breaks man with no soul. Fascinating, violent, pretty damn entertaining.

Its a bloody film, no doubt, but again I cannot stress more that films like this and ‘Oldboy’ hold so much more than the American splatterfests that seem to be invading our screen space for cheap thrills. I keep watching Korean cinema because I am looking for the next great film that gets under your skin. There are murders but they hold more presence than just slicing a person up. Look beyond the blood and you will two very fascinating characters. The title is misleading in that you should be wondering which character actually believes he is seeing his own devil.

Venus in Fur – Teaser

I received a very cool opportunity to work with DC’s Studio Theatre just recently. They were looking to do more advertising for their plays using all the wonderful marketing tools that the web provides. In this case they were hoping to do a movie like teaser for their upcoming play called ‘Venus in Fur’. DC is a town built on documentary and news filmmaking so the chance to do something a bit more narrative in nature was something I couldn’t pass up. Plus it gave me the opportunity to work with some new digital camera gear, namely the Panasonic AF-1oo and a collection of 35mm Nikon prime lenses. The depth of the field and color in every shot was phenomenal. I work regularly with Sony’s EX-1, which is very compact and produces lovely images, but to do anything with a bit more artistic flare can be difficult. Being able to switch out lenses based on what I was trying to compose in a shot is something I will greatly miss when I return to my fixed lens war horse.

In Which Rutger Hauer Discovers His Second Amendment Rights

Hobo With A Shotgun

It takes a special kind of person to make the film ‘Hobo with a Shotgun‘ and  I am happy to say I got to listen to director Jason Eisner talk about his film over a Skype Q&A. Sure I had a mounting list of questions for him about what in God’s name was running through his head when he made this film, but I was quickly enlightened. During the audio only Q&A, there was a loud collection of sounds eminating from the director’s end of the skype call. He was watching ‘Babe 2: Pig in the City’. The imaginary dots were connected and I suddenly knew so much about this director and his film.

‘Hobo’ might as well have jumped from the textbook pages of 70’s grindhouse cinema. It is an exploitation film, and very much a tribute to that expressive time in film history. It was made for a particular type of audience and it delivers exactly what it promises. Much like its title, there are no subtleties or need for deep thought and contemplation. Should one character be armed with a lawnmower and another a gun, exploitative logic would assume that some one is going to lose an arm or have their head explode in a rather excessive way. If my memory serves me I think they actually showed both scenarios with a loving touch only a horror fanatic could provide.

The color processing throughout the film is over-saturated and full of unnatural neons. Almost every shot is with a wide angle and I could feel the sickening vertigo as the titular hero arrives in a town he should never have stopped in. ‘Hobo’ starts off as nod to those peculiar 70’s films featuring a stranger getting off a train. Rutgar Hauer arrives in town with nothing but the cloths on his back. He is trying to start his life again believing that by some how obtaining a pawn shop lawn mower, it will give him back some sense of humanity. It is by far one of the stranger MacGuffins I’ve seen in a film and one that of course becomes a weapon later on. He quickly discovers that this strange town on the wrong side of the tracks is run by a ruthless crime guy named ‘The Drake’ (honestly they never really explain what he is so he is just a crime guy). To add to his menace he is also shadowed by his equally ruthless sons dressed as Tom Cruise rejects from ‘Risky Business’. They basically own the town, raping as they please and killing people in some surprisingly clever ways. As far as the story, the tagline and title pretty much sum it up in a nice little package.

While it appears that I am giving this film a positive review, that is not the full story. I put myself in the shoes of a cult film fanatic and hope that this peculiar slice of celluloid will find its home on a circuit of midnight film screenings. Given enough booze, drugs and good company this is a film that will make you laugh and shout silly things at the screen.

The director told us that Rutgar Hauer was always his first choice of actor. Some how a script made its way to Hauer and against his agent’s wishes, he took the role. There are more than a few moments where I cannot help but wonder if the actors said their lines and spent the next few days wondering what the hell they had just spoken to the camera.  My suspicion is that Hauer knows the secret to watching movies; quietly love the bad ones so you know when you have seen a good one.