Category Archives: Entertainment, film, art

Star Wars: The Franchise Awakens

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This blog entry is likely to get desperately lost amid the scores of reviews and videos coming out this week as The Force Awakens rages across the planet, so to separate it a bit from the pack I have decided not to make this a review of the film but rather a reflection on having seen it and what I hope this will mean for the future of the most powerful franchise in the history of show business.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first; I really enjoyed the film despite seeing it in 3D IMAX, the novelty of which has evaporated for me some time ago. I like the technology in principle but the cumbersome glasses and the uneven way 3D effects pop up in films is distracting to me and often pull me out of the experience rather than enhancing it.

The Force Awakens, as a film, is riddled with problems and inconsistencies, ones that have already set fire to Reddit and other platforms with fanatics and journalists alike crossing proverbial swords over the various unanswered questions, but the consensus still seems to be that Star Wars is “back in business” and I think this is perhaps its most important feature; it has brought Star Wars out of the muck.

We have to consider a few things when talking about this film; most of us are walking into the theatre with a huge amount of anxiety and trauma. The Prequels were a nightmare for most fans (including this one), a torrid mess of gimmicks and George Lucas oddities that left us furious and facepalming. Like most fans I sat down in the theatre practically praying that The Force Awakens will not be another misfire. This nervousness accompanied me through every scene, every line of dialogue and I think it made me more aware/sensitive to anything out of the ordinary. Because of this, a second/third viewing will be necessary before I can really process the film. Overall my assessment is that the first and third acts were the strongest, with a bit of a shaky middle.

What really stuck with me was Daisy Ridley’s soulful performance and strong portrayal of Rey, and Adam Driver’s poignant delivery as Kylo Ren. I think their chemistry is amazing and will be the foundation upon which this new generation of SW films will be built. Naturally, seeing Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker did all sorts of things to my heart, and while I don’t mind too much if we don’t see any more of the old gang in the future, I hope Luke sticks around for a while longer.

As a filmmaker I cannot but admire JJ Abrams’ (a director I don’t particularly like) courage in putting his career and reputation on the line by tackling Star Wars. This was a bigger risk for him than people realize. Screwing the proverbial the pooch on Force Awakens could have cost him a lifetime of harassment and infamy. All things considered I think he can rest easy now. Abrams has minimum delivered the kind of Star Wars film that the fans can chew on and appreciate while also wisely extracting himself from the franchise now that it’s under way.

The future of Star Wars is looking bright again, and I for one am curious to see where Disney takes it. I feel like the best is yet to come; that with a little luck we may get another young director, crew and cast that may come in and really raise the bar. My only concern is that there might be too much Star Wars coming down the road now that tFA has cracked open the vault. I pray they mind their surroundings and never underestimate the power of the dark side of overexposure (Marvel, I’m looking at you!).

 

 

 

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The First and Last Frame

Every Runner Has A Reason

Ronnie Goodman may well be San Francisco’s most unexpected half-marathoner. This is the story of why he runs.

If you are inspired, please consider contributing to Ronnie’s cause. He recently ran The Second Half of The SF Marathon to give back to the organization that helped him when he needed it most. hospitalityhouse.org/runronnierun.html

Ronnie is also a painter, and his art can be seen at ronniegoodman.com.

The End of the World as We Want It

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There seems to be something profoundly off about what we all consider entertainment these days. Don’t get me wrong, we are living in exciting times when comes to cinema, television, and content in general, but the popular themes of the day are cause for a bit of concern when one takes the time to look under the surface. If you don’t believe me just take a moment and consider the kind of programs that are currently dominating our imaginations:

Game of Thrones: A riveting, character-driven swords & sorcery epic drowned in death, intrigue and sex as various clans brutally compete for supremacy while they await a great cataclysm.

Dexter: A charming serial killer that conveniently directs his murderous impulses at “bad people” while the audience cheers on his profoundly problematic system of justice and morality (or lack thereof).

Mad Men: The depressing life and times of a handsome womanizing sociopathic charlatan and the spiritually bankrupt society that’s collapsing around him.

Breaking Bad: The rise and fall of a mundanely detestable everyday man whose dishonesty and desperation take him to the top of the criminal world, cruelly destroying everything and everyone in his path.

House of Cards: The story of reprehensibly charming manipulator and his machiavellian ascent to the highest seat of power in the free world as he routinely breaks the 4th wall to make us his unwitting conspirators.

The Walking Dead: Post-apocalyptic zombie survival porn designed to celebrate the inherent greatness but also the abject horror festering inside every human being’s psyche.

These are all brilliantly written, directed, and acted shows with lavish production values that showcase the very best storytelling in the business today, but what also binds these hit shows together is a kind of stark portrait of our modern-day preoccupations as a society. Vigilantes, antiheroes, and lovable criminals are obviously not a recent invention, but it’s hard to deny that they are more popular than ever and that their current supremacy speaks volumes about our collective state of mind.

Are we making these shows and watching them religiously because we are subconsciously praying for the world to end? Maybe we just want an end to the way things are at the present with mass corruption, war, staggering economic disparity, disease, hunger, apathy, environmental catastrophe everywhere. Storytelling has always been a kind of social therapy where we could, as a people, debate and dissect our hopes and fears. Maybe all this dark subject matter is healthy in the end, maybe we just are exorcising our social demons.

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The Empty Can

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In some ways the internet has made instant scholars and industry “insiders” of us all. Rare is the public conversation nowadays where the smartphones don’t come out for fact-checking or the eventual “have you seen this youtube video/meme”. It has had a staggering impact on show business coverage with a mess of editorials, blogs, vlogs, tweets, etc., popping up on a seemingly daily basis to cover every inch and every angle of the industry. Film studios have in no way ignored the marketing potential of this living connection with their demographics and continue to run successful viral campaigns and social media schemes that build tremendous anticipation for upcoming projects, but as anyone in the business would testify, this exposure has a darker side for film production, even a potentially damaging one.

It used to be that rumors would surface here-and-there of a book being optioned or popular classic being adapted to the silver screen with such-and-such famous actor slated to star. The trailer would arrive some time after that, maybe a few months before the release of the motion picture and then another couple of months before we could watch it at home. Rumors and announcements were still largely the domain of speciality magazines and studio websites that would work in tandem with the artist to progressively wet viewer appetites. There existed a brief period of “silence” where the imagination and anticipation of the public could organically grow into excitment.

Today film industry news has become a rampaging monster, and insatiable beast, part-investigative journalism, part-obscenely-speculative TMZ fodder. The rumor mill has become a 24/7 media guargantuan with CNN muscles, beating every shred of film news into a messy pulp before any of the actual involved parties can even draw breath. The recent debacles at Marvel are a great example of the feeding frenzy that can issue from a single internal business decision. What used to be natural fluctuations in the studio system, be it staff changes, casting changes, release date re-scheduling, or logistical alterations, have now become critical updates and “breaking” stories that are reported with the emergency of a 3rd World catastrophe.

The tabloid/paparazzi fever that is usually reserved for drunk-driving starlets and philandering rock stars has turned its Sauron-like eye on the film production industry with a zeal that borders on the ludicrous. Audience participation has further amplified these stories by another factor of ten leading into completely innocuous debates over who was wronged in Hollywood contract disputes (that no one has any actual direct link to), or generated entire news cycles of highly speculative hearsay that lack even the most basic foothold in factual data.

Blurry leaked production pics are investigated like UFO sightings, bloggers write entire opinion columns denouncing studios, slagging off actors/directors, or defending them against injustices without having the slightest clue. Meanwhile filmmakers who want to stay connected to the audience and incorporate social media realities into their craft are forced into ridiculous Twitter standoffs with the various purveyors of these rumors or they might get cornered trying to justify some random artistic decision that has been inflated into full-blown online controversy (see Ben Affleck casting as Batman). This noise cannot be positive for the filmmakers.

Maybe all this senseless reporting is a good thing, creating a kind of biosphere for cinema that somehow renders it more democratic and opens avenues for the audience to make its voice heard regarding what is produced and how it is produced. It gets people thinking and breathing cinema and that should be a plus, right? One can’t help but wonder however if the patients are taking over the proverbial ward.

Filmmaking is a delicate and time-consuming endeavor that is hard enough to carry out without the deafening drone of the media breathing down your neck the entire time. There must be a way of preserving some shred of calm to let the artists build their projects before we dissect them at an atomic level. This new obsession of spoiling scripts and exposing sets/costumes ten months before the fact is deflating films before they can even come into existence and will not contribute to better films. Studios should also strongly reconsider over-exposing their projects with never-ending trailers and tv spots.

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Only You Can Prevent a Location Fire

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Team sports, like cinema, are often home to unsung heroes who toil in obscurity while the higher-profile players make passionate speeches on the awards stage. Location managers/scouts can definitely be counted among these “shadow warriors” that operate under radar while still being extremely vital to the success of any production.

By the time the cast and crew have arrived on a location set, location managers have already made contact with proprietors, checked security, electricity grids, parking spaces, logistics, informed neighbors, and dealt with all the other minutiae that most people take for granted. This work may seem somewhat routine and straightforward, but it is everything but.

Depending on the location you may be dealing with a listed building (historically protected under a heritage act), a lived-in house where the residents remain even during shooting, a high-value property, or even a location with specific conditions like a halfway home, hospital, or university. All of these locations come with their specific challenges, but as far as the crew is concerned there are a set of very basic rules to follow that will minimize any potential issues.

There is nothing worse than burning a location. Burning means ruining the relationship with the owners or operators of a given location by being disrespectful, reckless, or generally inconsiderate of the environment that has been put at your production’s disposal. Burning a location will not only hurt your reputation and create an unpleasant atmosphere in general, you are potentially destroying further opportunities for yourself, and possibly worse, you have stunk up a location for everyone in the business from now on.

Burning a location can happen very easily, even without bad intentions or lack of professionalism. Maybe you forgot to plug back the fridges (that you had unhooked for better sound) at a soup kitchen location and end up spoiling precious food that was meant to feed homeless people. Maybe you forgot to drop sound blankets on the hardwood floor of a posh house or apartment and your grips and gaffers have scrapped the floor because they didn’t feel like taking their boots off every time they come in from the truck. Trouble can spring from anywhere if you don’t take precautions.

These things will happen even if you and your team prepare, so try to cover some of these basics in your pre-prod meetings or pre-shooting general announcements:

1. Respect the location as if it were your beloved grandmother’s house, a church, or a museum. Consider the crew, the shoot, the people who live or operate in the location on a regular day, and if all else fails, remind the crew that individuals can and will be held financially liable for recklessness. Injury or fatality is another potential danger.

2. Think about your fellow filmmakers who might one day have need of that location. You are an ambassador for the art of cinema and you should act accordingly, especially if you live in a small city where word gets around. Think about your reputation as well.

3. Consider the incredible sensitivity of your shooting schedule and what potential distractions can develop if the location is compromised by recklessness and neglect. The last thing you want is a screaming match between your AD, location manager, and proprietor as the crew looks on. Shoots have been shut down completely in this manner.

4. Assign someone, if you can afford it, to set-security to help out here-and-there while keeping an eye on the well-being of the location. They can look out for potentially dangerous obstacles, clear out clutter or garbage, and direct foot traffic in a way to minimize any chance of damaging the space.

5. No matter how tired you are at the end of the shoot, call all hands on deck for a full location check and wrap-up sweep for any remaining garbage, forgotten phone chargers, clothes, etc.. The place should look like you were barely there, if at all. It’s a small gesture but it will pay off in dividends in the long-run.

Happy shooting.

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The Horror

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Many theorists believe that there exist a set number of possible plots for any given story. The number of possibilities will vary somewhere from 7 to 20, but the main idea is that every novel or film inevitably follows one of these core concepts regardless of how they re-arrange the details.

Logic dictates that to attain any semblance of originality in storytelling today, one is better served focussing on their unique perspectives rather than trying to re-invent the proverbial wheel. This is perhaps the reason why modern storytelling seems to have veered significantly toward character-driven plots where the individual perspective/experience may provide a far fresher canvas of possibilities than the continual revisiting of man vs nature, man vs man, and other redundant scenarios.

That is not to say that we don’t crave the classics; if the track record of cinema and art in general has proven anything it’s that nostalgia never goes out of style. We love to see the medium challenged from time-to-time, but audiences will generally want a steady stream of the kind of stories they already know. There is a warm, fuzzy feeling we get from knowing that the next hour or two will be spent alongside a rugged hero that will be put to the test, but ultimately send the bad guy tumbling into a chasm with a well-placed one-liner and a devastating karate kick. It offers a kind of satisfaction akin to booting up a video game you’ve already played through a dozen times; it’s really about being in control.

Horror films, perhaps more than any other genre in cinema, rely on a very fundamental and repetitive set of directives that haven’t changed very much since their inception. The formula has been played with considerably, but the basics remain strikingly the same; the key is addressing mortality and the fragile nature of the human body/spirit. This is a prime example of a type of storytelling that does not need to be re-invented so much as infused with more character-driven plots that surprise and challenge the medium.

Horror films have unfortunately been in decline for some time now, mass-produced and diluted into tween exploitation schlock cinema with endless sequels and prequels. Even good exploitation horror in the tradition of Wes Craven’s The Thing or Hellraiser has been supplanted by hollow, mediocre franchises like Paranormal Activity and SAW that do little beyond serving up the same tepid soup of tropes and cliches with few discernible elements of originality or substance.

All is not lost however; the advent of the HBO-led television renaissance, that has been yielding potentially the most worthwhile storytelling in recent memory, is breathing life (or death?) back into the horror genre with breakthrough series like American Horror Story, Penny Dreadful, and host of other chilling series that seem to be getting back to basics. Many of the tropes and cliches can be found in these shows as well, but the style and finesse of some of these programs proves that you can go home again, hit up all the familiar spots along the way, but somehow discover entirely new frontiers of terror and entertainment.

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Can Laughter Cure Bad Cinema?

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It is tempting today to let oneself slip into a state of apathy with regards to the dire condition of big-budget filmmaking. All the evidence seems to suggest that we live times of shallow artistic bankruptcy where the box office is concerned. The big studios and their sponsors have it all down to a science; release three-four blockbusters in the summer, start dropping Oscar-bait in the fall, and sprinkle the dead months with every piece of pandering soulless garbage you have left (basically Wayans/Sandler films).

Are things worse then ever? Perhaps, but there is one tremendous silver lining to the never-ending stream of mindless drek that flows into theaters year-after-year; there has never been a better time for comedy. From memes, to animated gifs, to parody videos, to animated spoofs, to youtube supercuts, it seems like no shred of content is now safe from satire. Live events in particular have become a real joy to behold with any oddity or sidestep (usually shelved under the common perils of live broadcasting) instantly being converted into something incredibly funny. Film parodies are legion now, with entire youtube channels existing for the sole purpose of editorializing, reviewing, and demolishing bad films in the most creative ways possible.

It’s exciting to see is just how sophisticated some of these online jesters are, now no longer content with simply throwing their thumbs up or down. The extent to which some films are deconstructed can also be astounding. Seventy-minute reviews of Phantom Menace, fully-produced alternate endings for films accused of botching their third acts (a rich universe in itself), the complexity of this satire has reached territories bordering on the scientific and philosophical.

Mediocrity, it seems, can sometimes be the father of incredible wit.

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Immortal Cinema

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Cinema cannot exist without mechanical or digital technology, but what is the impact of technology in film itself? Films often serve as society’s unofficial historical records with their emphasis on current events, trends, and prevailing ideologies (or the rejection thereof). The futuristic science-fiction of the 1950’s, for instance, gives us much more insight into the 1950’s themselves than any truly sensible portrait of thing to come.

Films have always had this power; to illustrate what the current dialogue is in a given society. Even present-day exploitation films like Sharknado and Snakes on a Plane will provide, years from now, valuable information about what we were thinking about during the first two decades of the new millennium, or at least an idea about the things that made us laugh.

The point is that in a technologically-driven society it is useful for a filmmaker to be conscious of how technology occurs in his/her work because it will communicate a story of its own, beyond the plot itself. Technology talks, it has an audible voice and you need to make sure that it is serving your story, not limiting or railroading it by being topical.

The Usual Suspects (1995) is an excellent example of this phenomenon. Most people remember the climactic ending of the film where the Verbal Kint leaves the police precinct as Agent Kujan and his associate are left to ponder the dubious testimony he has given. The tension is built in this scene through a series of cuts showing the FBI agents looking over the police portrait of Keyser Soze from a surviving witness while Kujan begins to suspect that something is not right. The police portrait is then faxed from the hospital to a neglected machine in the police precinct and haphazardly picked up by Kujan and his fellows as the terrifying realization sets in about Soze’s true identity. Verbal meanwhile is given ample time by this process of portraits and faxes to clear out and make his getaway. How would this scene have played out in 2014 with instant picture messaging? What about a decade from now?

Technologies are rarely timeless and very unpredictable when it comes to what we as a society decide to embrace and what we leave behind. If you want longevity for your story then make sure the focus remains on what is fundamental in the plot. By gambling the climax of your story or crucial turning points on specific technologies, you run the risk of become dated within a matter of months. Think about what is at stake for your characters, about the human drama behind all of the artifice and pour your energies into cementing that core.

While we used The Usual Suspects as a case-study, the fact is that it is a classic now, remembered fondly by all who have seen it and never derided because of it’s glaring early 90’s feel. The story is organic, human, fundamentally timeless.

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How Criterion Collection Brings Movies Back From the Dead

Michael Hession and Nicholas Stango
for Gizmodo / 2014
Music: Twinkie by Podington Bear

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Christmas Time

Shot by Christoph Kunze and Oliver Seiler
Edited by Christoph Kunze
Cameras: Canon 60D, Canon 550D
Lenses: Sigma 10-20mm, Tamron 17-50mm
Gear: Dynamic Perception Stage Zero dolly, Velbon DV-7000
Editing: Adobe After Effects, SNS-HDR Pro

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