Gravity

This summer was a disappointing time for films. Thankfully award season has started. From now until the end of the year is our best chance for movies that hit that sweet spot of artistic integrity and entertainment value.

Most people seem to think Gravity is the epitome of that. Naturally, I disagree.

Let me start by saying I was reallyreallyreallyreally excited for this movie. I love space. I grew up reading books about NASA and the space program. I love space movies. I’m a real sucker for them. I’ll enjoy the space stuff even if there’s not a great movie surrounding it.

spaaace

I can say that Gravity is the best sci-fi of the year. It’s not inane and stupid like Oblivion and Star Trek Into Darkness. It’s not “just for fun” like Pacific Rim. And it isn’t preachy like Elysium.

So how is it, actually?

It’s very, very, very pretty. Look at that space! Space! Space!

The movie is an absolute marvel of visual effects and cinematography. The “camera” takes full advantage of the freedom provided by a zero-gravity environment. This leads to some lengthy free-flowing shots including the thirteen minute opening shot. Very impressive stuff.

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Also impressive is the sound design. I love it when there’s no sound in space, but so few movies respect this basic scientific fact. Gravity cleverly maintains scientific accuracy here. It’s only completely silent a few times. Elsewhere, the silence of space is covered by radio chatter, breathing noises, the muffled sounds of objects contacting the astronauts’ suits, and an effective score. Fair enough.

I willingly saw this movie in 3D.

That never happens.

I’ve been an avowed 3D hater for years now, but I read in all the reviews that it was worthwhile so I gave it a shot. I worried during the previews that I’d made a huge mistake. For example, the preview for The Hobbit gave me a headache. It was way over the top. And maybe it was because my eyes adjusted or maybe the effect was more subtle in Gravity but I was actually fine with it. I would be interested to see the movie again in good ol’ 2D just for comparison, but I don’t regret seeing the 3D version at all.

George Clooney and Sandra Bullock star as astronauts who become stranded in space. The acting is good as you would expect from these two though I wonder if it might have been less distracting to have had lesser-known actors filling the space suits.

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George Clooney is playing George Clooney. He’s charming and fun to watch. He’s also a hugely comforting presence in a very frightening situation. That both helps and harms the film. Bullock is the real star here. I’ve heard lots of people rave about her acting here and I find no fault in it, but it didn’t blow me away either. I never stopped seeing her as an actress in a movie.

I think the problem was the writing. In terms of dialogue – there’s not much of it, but there are things that really bothered me. Bullock’s Dr. Stone gets a bit of backstory that I didn’t connect with at all. It came off as a desperate attempt to get the audience to care about her. The film didn’t need that. I would feel sorry for my worst enemy if they were drifting alone in space. That is a completely terrifying thought.

The other distracting “problem” is the scientific accuracy. It’s really, really good in most places, but there are some egregious deviations from reality that, depending on how much you know about physics and space travel, may really pull you out of the movie.

Director Alfonzo Cuarón has freely admitted Gravity is not about being scientifically accurate. Some concessions needed to be made in order to tell the story. Okay, that’s fine. But there’s really not much of a story to tell. It’s a very basic survival story and that’s fine. But for me it isn’t a happy medium. I would have personally preferred either more science or more story.

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For whatever reason, the film never really pulled me in. It is gorgeous to look at but felt distant from it most of the time. There were only a couple times I felt frightened or concerned. It didn’t ask me to invest much and I didn’t get much out of it. It was a fun ride. But it was just a ride.

Nevertheless, Gravity is absolutely worth seeing and I’m glad it’s done as well as it has at the box office. But for me it simply isn’t the transcendent experience I was led to expect and that other people are apparently having. In terms of effects and cinematography it breaks new ground, but it falls short of inspiring my imagination like other science fiction of the past.

The Star Wars Prequels: looking on the bright side

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C’mon. You know this is cool.

Yesterday, a good friend of mine made me aware of this article: Watching the Star Wars Prequels on Mute: An Experiment.

Much has been said about the Star Wars prequels. Most of it negative. The internet loves talking about how awful they are, how much they missed the mark, how the writing’s no good, and what the heck was George Lucas thinking anyway?

Actually, I’m more annoyed with how Lucas has altered the old films than by the prequels themselves. It always seemed apparent to me that he was really trying even if he was also really failing.

Or did he fail after all?

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The drama! The horror!

This post looks at Star Wars as visual art. By watching the movies on mute you take away the terrible dialogue and the awkward delivery of said dialogue. Remove the ham-handed scripts and these films become all about the imagery and what that communicates.

Film has so many aspects to it and not all filmmakers are great at wielding every element. For some, their strength lies in writing, plotting, and working with actors. George Lucas is infamously bad at all of those things. But the man has proven himself to be a master of visuals.

We can debate his focus on innovation over proper storytelling, sure. Did he go too far with GCI? Absolutely. Did it make the films terrible? No. It gave them a different aesthetic. We may like it or hate it, but I can’t deny that there’s a certain power in the visuals of Star Wars – even in the prequels.

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It might not look real, but there’s certain fantastic quality to this shot

Like a lot of Millennials, I saw the original trilogy growing up. I watched them on VHS for the first time in the mid 90s and then saw the special edition re-releases in theaters. I was absolutely psyched when Phantom Menace came out.

I was also nine years old so I enjoyed it and thought it was good.

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Remember these, guys?

After the prequels ended in 2005 with Revenge of the Sith, I started hearing the negative talk about the movies. As I listened to the criticism and my artistic and critical sensibilities grew and matured, I began to turn on the prequels as well. I saw them as terrible movies made by a man who had lost his way.

But I could never hate them. I could never bring myself to actually dislike watching them. They were still Star Wars to me – even if a sloppy, less-than-perfect Star Wars.

Reading this article reminded me why there’s definitely still some artistic merit to these movies. There are legitimate reasons to not write them off completely and to enjoy them for what they do well.

I’m probably not going to try the exercise of watching Star Wars on mute myself. I don’t really have the time for that. But by reading this post, I have gained a bit more of an appreciation for movies that I dearly wish had turned out better. It even helped me regain some respect for George Lucas. Despite what he’s done to the films in re-releases, the man is still a visionary and he’s gotten an immense amount of hatred for something that doesn’t really make an eternal difference to anyone.

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Now if J.J. Abrams makes a bad Star Wars movie…

Just don’t, J.J.

Just don’t.

Disney-made Star Wars might not be the worst thing ever

Last week Disney shocked the nerd world by announcing their intention to acquire LucasFilm and make Star Wars: Episode VII which is due in 2015. That news came right the heck outta nowhere.

My initial reaction (aside from shock) was something like “oh great, Disney’s going to ruin Star Wars now.” And then I remembered the horrible reality in which we live. The prequels happened. Clone Wars happened. Jar Jar Binks is a thing that exists. Oh yeah.

So given that reality and the recent-but-strange return of my optimism, I decided on a different outlook. Y’know what? All joking aside, this might be the best thing that’s happened to the Star Wars franchise since George Lucas decided to stop ruining making movies. Here’s why.

Production Pipeline

Disney has money. This we know. Well, now they have a few billion less after giving some to George Lucas. But, still. They’ve got mountains of cash. Disney also has a massive amount of capital in filmmaking. They’ve got studios full of creative people and loads of experience getting films made.

All of this is essential to making films. Science fiction films are generally more expensive to make than your average movie so it’s good that the studio has the cash to invest in the films.

Mo money mo problems or mo movies?

In addition to the new movies, we might actually get that Star Wars TV show that’s been kicking around since 2005. I would love that. Ever since SyFy canceled Stargate Universe just when it was getting good, I’ve been wishing for a new sci-fi show to watch. Apparently there are a bunch of episodes written for the show, but the problem has been money. Back in 2010 Lucas said that they couldn’t find a way to make the show for less than $50 an episode and they were waiting (again) for technology to catch up the vision and make the process cheaper. Perhaps with Disney at the helm this won’t be such a problem.

Of course quantity and more money doesn’t necessarily equate to quality. In fact, sometimes it’s the opposite. On the other hand, Disney and Lucas seem like they’re willing to seek out new directions and new talent.

New Blood

When I went to see Revenge of the Sith in 2005 there was a movie called Batman Begins showing in the theater next door. That movie along with Casino Royal and J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek showed that the idea of rebooting a franchise can be more than just a cynical cash grab. They can shed new light on old characters. Recast beloved stories in new contexts or just give another creative team the chance to tell the same story in their unique voice.

Star Wars needs a reboot. It does. The outline for a great saga is in the existing six films. It just needs to be made from the ground-up. It needs to be made in chronological order so everything cohesive. It needs to be made with the emphasis on story and character first and foremost.

Okay, so that’s my wild nerdy dream.

In reality we’re supposedly getting an Episode VII. And VIII. And IX. Okay. Some good could come of these as long as they don’t get overly ambitious and just try to tell a good story in an appropriate swath of the Expanded Universe. I don’t expect masterpieces. But this is a great opportunity for fresh new takes on the franchise. They just need to make sure to not hire some stary-eyed fanboy to do them. Actually, Disney is currently in talks with X-Men: First Class director Matthew Vaughn who seems like a good choice for the task at hand. Here’s hoping they give the job to the right person.

But if the whole thing does crash and burn and they’ve milked the Star Wars utters dry after Luke Skywalker Meets the Avengers, then they can reboot it and we can get back to great Star Wars stories.

Less involvement of George Lucas

As is the case with most nerds and Star Wars fans, I have love/hate relationship with George Lucas. Sometimes when I hear his name it conjures images of a young, pioneering filmmaker fighting heatstroke and budgetary concerns shooting on location in Tunisia. That guy was cool. He worked hard for something that nobody thought would succeed. He used models and practical effects. He took advice from others. And best of all, he knew that story was paramount. Don’t believe me? Watch this.

And that brings me to the other George Lucas that I think of. An older, fatter, less cool guy who seemingly disregarded everything his younger self had to say. This was a top comment on the above YouTube video:

“I’m very well convinced this person interviewed is not the same person who made those awful CGI infested, horribly written and acted Star Wars prequels as well as making those stupid unnecessary changes to the Original trilogy. My conclusion is that he was either adbucted [sic] sometime in mid 90’s and impersonated by an imposter [sic] who resembles him, maybe an evil twin brother, or a demon possessed him.”

You know what? For once a YouTube comment rings true. Actually, my theory is that the George Lucas who made the prequel trilogy is an evil clone, not an evil twin brother.

Clone George certainly seems to have fallen off the wagon of good filmmaking in recent years. With the release of the poorly-reviewed prequel trilogy and the poorly-received Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Lucas became a man whom some blame for reviving and ruining two classic franchises he helped create. Some have pointed to these works (especially to the prequel trilogy) to say that Lucas was never that great a filmmaker to begin with, but I have to disagree. There’s a reason that the original trilogy has a place in the hearts of so many and that is because it’s genuinely good (among other reasons). Lucas had a lot to do with that even though his role might have been exaggerated in recent years. One thing’s for sure: without him the beloved franchise wouldn’t exist in the first place.

Clone George Lucas had (from what I understand) basically total creative control of the prequel trilogy. Given the way those films turned out, it’s probably best that he’s taking more of a backseat in future Star Wars productions. Lucas wrote the treatments for the upcoming film trilogy and hopefully that’s the most input he’ll have over the process. Lucas has proven to be a pretty good ideas man in the past. You can see the outline of a great story in the prequel trilogy. He just struggles with the nitty gritty of writing those ideas into a script and directing actors effectively. A new trilogy plotted at a high level by Lucas but written and directed by others could be really exciting to watch.

Re-releases

Speaking of George Lucas, one of the worst things he’s done aside from the prequels is to keep changing things in the original movies ad nauseam! From the first simple retcon of the 1977 movie’s title to the horror of the Blu-ray releases (and that’s not even mentioning the inevitable 3D release), the man just can’t leave well enough alone. For proof, see this extensive list of changes made to the movies in re-releases.

Some of the changes are just cosmetic – supposed “improvements” to the visuals using modern day computer graphics. A lot of people hate these changes and some others find them harmless. It’s the story changes that really irk people: the most heinous and well-known of them all is Greedo shooting first instead of Han Solo in A New Hope. And that’s not just nitpicking from overly-invested fans. It really does have an impact on the story and character arc of Han Solo throughout the trilogy.

But here’s the real kicker: even if you want a Star Wars without these changes, you can’t get it. It isn’t like there’s a “Director’s Cut” and a “Theatrical Cut” version you can buy. No. The only versions you can buy on Blu-ray and DVD are significantly altered. I actually don’t own any of the Star Wars films for this reason. The last time the original trilogy was released without the offending changes was on the 2006 DVD boxed set but unfortunately those versions were low-resolution with lackluster picture and sound quality.

The best thing about Lucas constantly messing with the films is that the updated versions do look nice. You know how you can tell when a movie’s from a certain era just by looking at it? The first time I saw the HD version of Empire Strikes Back I couldn’t tell it was shot in the late 70s and early 80s. The colors were vibrant, the contrast was great. It just looked really, really good. Similarly, the audio quality has been improved throughout the years. Personally, I have no problem with these kinds of changes. It’s the story changes and the extraneous silly stuff that really irks me and a lot of other fans.

Now with Disney in control of the property, will they do what fans have been wanting for years? Will they release an unchanged original trilogy with the proper restoration it deserves? Are you listening Disney? There’s money there, guys. You could even use that stupid “Disney vault” ploy to get us to buy it.

Remember, no matter what happens, it can’t really get worse.

Well. No. That’s not true, is it? That’s a failure of imagination.

Let me put it this way: it probably won’t get any worse and if it does it’ll be super entertaining.

See you at the theater in 2015!

“We Accidentally Made a Film About Addiction”

If you saw that odd film I posted last week you might have wondered what the heck it was and how such a thing got made without quite a lot of illegal substances. Despite the title of this writing, I assure you there was no drug abuse going on.

In case you haven’t seen it yet you should probably watch it or this explanation won’t make any sense. Conversely, the movie won’t make much sense without this explanation. But watch it first anyway.

The Production

This whole thing started more than two years ago after I had finished a big project. I wanted to make something smaller, shorter and with easier production logistics. I hate logistics. That’s why I don’t aspire to be a producer.

The original idea was to make a mock “art” film even though I have never seen a real art movie. I seem to have a propensity toward spoofing things of which I have only the loosest grasp. Having said that, I think this probably is the truest to the thing I’ve tried to satirize before. But that’s largely because the term “art film” doesn’t mean very much. You can slap any old crap together and call it an “art film,” right? The less understandable, the better.

To that end, I followed the principles set out in the TV Tropes article “True Art is Incomprehensible.” (By the way, don’t click on that link unless you’ve got hours to waste – it’s TV Tropes for goodness sake!) Basically our idea was this: sad, depressing, and stuffed tiger shark.

The tiger shark was given to me for my birthday several years ago around the time this idea was coming together. Andrew, the lead actor, and I thought it would be a good prop. I mean, what’s more artsy than a depressed guy carrying a tiger shark? Ooh. I know! A depressed guy carrying a tiger shark in black and white with only the tiger shark in color.

That selective color effect is what took the longest time to achieve. Selective color, as it turns out, is an immense pain. There are, I’m sure, easier and better ways to go about it than I did. Even so, it’s a very time consuming process. It basically involved me having to cut out the orange bits of the shark frame-by-frame and then lay them back on top of the black and white footage. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in my cutting back on the number of shots using this effect quite dramatically.

Way, way back at the conception of this project, it was supposed to be a longer piece with more of an obvious plot. It involved the main character having memories of a girlfriend or wife or something who was gone or dead. I donno. Some depressing nonsense like that. We ended up scrapping this part of the plot partially because we didn’t think it would be prudent to strike so close to real life but also because I wasn’t brave enough to ask any girls to be involved. This thing is hard enough to explain now that it’s made. How would I have pitched it then?

It’s interesting to note that the tone of the film started out as complete mockery during the planning stages. Neither me, nor Andrew were feeling depressed in the slightest at the time. But by the time we got around to shooting last summer, we were identifying with the tone of the film far more than we had originally thought possible. A lot of the depressed staring into the distance is not acting. At least that’s what I maintain.

We ended up doing the whole thing in just three shoots in two locations. As I said before, God is the best lighting technician because we just used natural, available light for the entire shoot. Man, did we get some nice days for it.

This was the last project I shot on my old Canon Vixia HV30: a good camera for the money, but not professional by any stretch. I was rather impressed by the results. Still am, actually. From a cinematography standpoint, I was merely trying to get the prettiest images possible when shooting.

The original draft was a minute or two longer than the final version. I knew people wouldn’t want to put up with that kind of runtime. I wouldn’t. A few shots were cut. A lot were shortened. I like the pacing of the film myself, but I know it’ much slower than the average attention span is used to.

In the second shoot we did “the Destroyers” sequence. My intention was to deliberately create a “Big Lipped Alligator Moment” (warning: it’s another TV Tropes link!) and stick it right in the middle of an otherwise totally serene film. So we gathered all the assorted stuffed animals we could get and went to the park. I think the scene turned out to be very Kubrick-esque in that it makes no sense at all but you might think that there was some sense to be made of it if you were really deranged.

After wrapping the final shoot I sat on the footage for a year. I edited and re-edited it. I was never quite happy with any of the edits and I wanted to do that color effect that was so time consuming.

At the beginning of the summer I decided I was finally going to finish the film. My last idea was to record some terrible voice over for the film. Something really faux-poetic that didn’t mean anything and only sort of corresponded with what was happening onscreen. That idea came from the narration that was added to the original theatrical version of Blade Runner. The story goes that Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford didn’t want to put it in the movie. The studio forced them to anyway so Harrison Ford purposefully did a poor job on the recording. Narration obviously isn’t necessary in la possession du requin tigre either. That’s the joke. I mean, there was nothing to understand in the first place.

Or is there? Might have been wrong. Maybe.

A Possible Meaning

After I inserted Andrew’s voice over into the film I realized something surprising. I texted him: “I think we accidentally made a film about addiction.”

That was never intentional. But it seemed really obvious to me as I watched what I’d put together. With the narration it all seemed to become clear. It came to me like the interpretation of a song or poem.

The tiger shark was addiction of some kind. The main character thinks the tiger shark is his only friend when in reality it is keeping him from the outside world. He exists in this bubble of depression. When someone comes along to break him out of it – perhaps a friend, perhaps a random passerby – i.e. “The Destroyer” his array of animals banishes him to another realm of existence. In the end, he realizes he has to give it up. He fears being without it. What will fill the void of his addiction? Will he be alone instead? But he leaves it behind and ascends into the sunset and a brighter day.

Or something like that.

Is this a crazy interpretation? I don’t know. Maybe.

Like I said, it certainly wasn’t intentional. Honestly.

I had Andrew pick a leaf and drop it because it seemed like a pathetically artsy thing to shoot. I had him walk into the sunset because it was cliche and looked pretty. I think if anything the original intent (besides humor) was about depression and recovery. But addiction seemed to bubble to the surface when I finished the film for whatever reason. And I think it fits better. Seeing the tiger shark as a recovery from depression doesn’t exactly explain the Destroyer scene in my mind.

Is it the height of pretension and arrogance that I’m discussing possible meanings of my own work? I hope not. I have nothing to be prideful about here and it was always my intention to make fun of pretension.

Still I think the fact that the meaning of this film got away from me and took on a bit of its own life is interesting.

I had an discussion with a friend some years ago about art interpretation. I was of the opinion that the viewer’s interpretation of a work is just as valid as the creator’s intent while he was arguing that, no, the author’s view is of the work is the most valid.

While I still generally hold to that opinion (although it is more nuanced than that brief explanation) I now find myself in the odd position of having created a work where my own authorial intent is no longer my primary interpretation. I guess that means I’m in disagreement with my past self which, given the process of making this film and the natural way in which time changes our perspectives, isn’t all that unusual. But it is an unusual phenomenon to live out in this way.

Of course the easiest thing to do is take this whole thing as a joke. Maybe it’s an unfunny highbrow joke; maybe it’s only funny if you know the people involved, but it’s a joke nonetheless. That’s how it was “supposed to be”.

la possession du requin tigre

I have some oddly titled films, don’t I?

Here’s another one. Yes. It’s really got a French title. Please don’t ask me to pronounce it as I would butcher the language.

This is an older film I’ve just finished. It was shot in the summer of 2011 and conceived a year or two before that. Having shot the entire thing, I decided the best course of action was to sit on the footage and not do anything with it for over a year.

No. Not really.

Several things held this up. Probably the biggest was a lack of urgency. Then I decided to do some effects work on it. That proved time consuming and soul-crushingly monotonous.

In the interest of building intrigue, I am not going to say much more about the film at this time. I will have a follow-up post soon which will give a more in depth explanation of its creation, original intent, and how I think it turned out by contrast.

If you happen to know the individuals in this film you will probably find it humorous. If, like most people on Earth, you do not, then you will probably be bored and I can’t really blame you. At least it’s pretty, I hope. (And weird. It’s really weird.)

If you do find the imagery beautiful to any degree, don’t credit me. God is the best lighting technician and set dresser.

Lincoln Trailer

Happy Friday!

It’s been a busy week. Work, paperwork, more work. Yeah. I haven’t really had time to do as much writing as I would like so you get this instead of one of the other posts I’m working on.

Enjoy the new trailer for Steven Spielberg’s latest film Lincoln. Or don’t. You could hate it too. Tell me if you do, I’d be curious.

I am indifferent, personally. I was quite excited about this movie and now I’m merely interested. The trailer’s a little too… feelgood for me. I tend to hate trailers for being silly oversimplifications of the movie or giving too much away or just being terribly cliched. I’m hoping this one is an oversimplified representation of a complex story and character.

Abraham Lincoln is a controversial figure. Maybe not in the general public, but with people who’ve done deeper research he’s either very well liked or despised, at least from what I’ve seen. History majors, poly sci people, or those otherwise obsessed with the Civil War period tend to have pretty strong opinions on the man. Some are of the opinion that Lincoln was more of a pragmatist than a great crusader. Ending slavery was politically expedient so he did it. Others believe he did it of a deep moral conviction. This trailer seems to lean heavily toward the latter depiction of the man.

I don’t know. I expect the truth is somewhere in between. One thing all historians agree on: Lincoln did not hunt vampires.

Well hopefully it’ll be good. It does have top notch production value and a slew of great actors. So that’s promising. And Spielberg’s done some great historical films in the past like Schindler’s List and my favorite war movie ever, Saving Private Ryan. I guess I’ll be cautiously optimistic for this to be really good.

What else is there to get excited about this year? The Hobbit? Pff. I was starting to get excited about that but then Peter Jackson had to go and make it a trilogy. Now I almost don’t care. I’m sure my tune will change closer to release. I have to stop myself now before I rant about that.

As a funny aside: I started typing “Lincoln vs.” into Google. The first three autocomplete suggestions were “zombies,” “Cadillac,” and “vampires.” The fourth suggestion was “Lincoln vs. Douglas.” Oh the times we live in.