(Don’t) See it Again?

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Typically I try and only share films I like and try and convince others to like them, too. So what gives?

I’ve read a number of articles about Arrival and they all say something similar — this is a great movie. Most people who praise the film are saying things along the lines of “This is smart science fiction for people who are tired of explosions.” I am assuming this is targeted at the recent release of the Independence Day sequel (among other films).

One review in particular focused on the fact that this story is about a woman who uses her brain to save the world. What is not to like about this premise? A woman uses her brain (and no weapons) to save the world from an alien invasion! I wanted to love this move and sing its praises. Upon watching the film I had the depressing thought, “Did I just watch what everyone else did?”

I feel there are two major failings of Arrival.

Reason Number One: The premise of the film is excellent: aliens arrive, we make contact and realize we have to figure out how to communicate with them. Call in a linguist (with a scientist in tow) to figure out how to communicate before trying to ask the important questions. It’s a wonderful approach and makes sense and I’ve never seen it done in a film about aliens before.

Where the film falls apart, and the opening makes this clear, is that this movie is not about the interaction with the aliens. It is not about this process of learning to communicate, it’s not about the aliens at all, really. This is a movie about time travel.

When things go wrong and the world is on the brink of war/destruction/something bad our heroine is given the entire language of the aliens to decipher. In doing so she learns that understanding their language changes how a person perceives time. She no longer perceives time as linear but is able to move in and out of moments of her life. Effectively her consciousness is now able to travel through time.

So, and this is such incredibly lazy storytelling that I am amazed at the praise for this film, in order to save the day our heroine’s consciousness travels forward in time to ask General Shang what she did in the past to convince him from starting WWIII (I don’t mean to be flippant with that term, the stakes are global so I feel the term is not far off the mark). General Shang then tells her (in the future) what she did in the past to convince him to cease and desist so that her past self can then do this very thing. That the climax of this film boils down to “I just have to remember what I did in the future and do it now” should have had reviewers sharpening their knives.

Time travel doesn’t have to be overly complicated and burdened with quantum theory and paradoxes — because this is a movie. That being said when time travel is treated only as a means to move the plot forward it often feels unnecessary and unrewarding. The way it is used in Arrival is one step removed from employing the trope of “and then she woke up”.

Reason Number Two: The story being told is of how our main character, due to this change in her perception of time, is able to experience her future. What troubles me is that she makes an emotionally and morally complex decision about having a child with the knowledge of everything that will follow. What she does not do is inform her soon to be (husband?) romantic partner of this choice and that it will entail watching their only child die from an untreatable disease, until after they have had the child.

The father is not in any of the scenes from the future where the teenage daughter is dying in the hospital, or any scenes for that matter, so in a way he is spared this. I assumed that he was not in any of the future scenes because they are shown at the beginning of the film and therefore would give away the story — since everything hangs on the viewer thinking that her daughter dying happened before the events of the movie unfold. Perhaps this is not the case. Perhaps the character is incapable of living through what he knows is coming. Neither scenario seems tolerable.

Perhaps if you aren’t a parent this withholding of information is a minor issue. But imagine for a moment that you are in the shoes of Jeremy Renner’s character and try to imagine your significant other telling you that the child you had together is going to die of a terrible disease and that they knew this before you conceived the child. And now, when the child is seven or so, they have decided to tell you all of this. Perhaps I am overly sensitive but for me this turns Amy Adam’s character from a hero to something of a villian. This is an unforgivably selfish act, especially since this film is not concerned with rules pertaining to time travel (whether or not things can be changed — so that there is no debate as to whether her knowledge actually changes anything).

The voiceover in the beginning that only makes sense at the end of the film, that the aliens coming wasn’t an ending but a beginning…it all sounds really great and clever until you look at how she handles this information.

For me these were two major sticking points that took an interesting concept and turned it into an unpleasant and unrewarding experience. Forest Whitaker is criminally underused in the film. I was thrilled to see his name on the poster and upon seeing the film understood why he was in so little of the trailer. Jeremy Renner is in substantially more of the film but I’m not sure many have noticed as he is stuck firmly in second position.

Arrival has a great atmosphere and a unique premise. Ultimately using a storytelling device to cheat the audience of a proper resolution and handling the morally complex idea of having a child with someone and not telling them of the (known) horrors to come, makes this an unrewarding film.

See it Again – Jupiter Ascending

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What You Should Know

This film fits into many categories but “Space Opera” seems to work the best. How do we define “Space Opera”? Wikipedia gives us:

Space opera is a subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes space warfare, melodramatic adventure, interplanetary battles, as well as chivalric romance, and often risk-taking. Set mainly or entirely in outer space, it usually involves conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, futuristic weapons, and other sophisticated technology. The term has no relation to music, but is instead a play on the terms “soap opera” and “horse opera“, the latter of which was coined during the heyday of silent movies to indicate clichéd and formulaic Western movies. Space operas emerged in the 1930s and they continue to be produced in literature, film, comics, and video games.

This definition, as most definitions of genres, is fairly judgmental. Which is not to say it is incorrect. Jupiter Ascending features everything listed above. Does this have to be a negative? Jupiter Ascending is a – repeat after me – enjoyable film to watch. Feels weird doesn’t it? Especially in this age of superhero films that are often not enjoyable to watch.

The Wachowski’s once again made a science fiction film that delivers in terms of story and special effects. One of the things they do so well is to make special effect heavy movies that don’t call attention to the special effects (Not every time, I am aware!).

Case in point, Channing Tatum’s character wears special boots that effectively allow him to speed skate on air. This may not sound interesting or good to you, but it’s fun and if your inner child doesn’t stir while watching him glide on the air then your inner child is either stunted or boring.

Why You Should Reconsider

This film, much like Cloud Atlas suffered from negative press. I cannot point to a specific example where it was obvious but I believe this was, in part,  because of the directors personal lives’. People were very quick to judge Jupiter Ascending based on the character’s names, the basic concept, a complicated (or convoluted) plot – without seeing the film. All of which could be leveled at “The Matrix” and yet upon watching the films you see that they are incorrect.

This film is enjoyable, it is interesting and it has a heart. Notable criticisms from the online group Screen Junkies with their “Honest Trailer” focused on how the story ends. I won’t spoil the ending but to dislike and take issue with the ending is to not understand the story and what it was trying to achieve.

The acting in the film is good, it is what it should be. Characters that are supposed to be somewhat larger than life are and the everyday “normal” people are just that. Mila Kunis’s extended family feels real, which given the material is very impressive.

Which brings us to two aspects of the film I do not normally discuss, costumes and special effects. “Jupiter Ascending” is lavish, it’s lush. They created worlds and cultures and races. The things that people praised Neil Blomkamp for regarding Elysium seemed to fly over everyone’s head regarding this film. The film has moments of gritty reality and overdone pomp and they all work. They are appropriate and do not pull the viewer out of the story. The effects sequences are as seamless and perfectly integrated as those in the first Matrix. In short (if Cloud Atlas hadn’t come first) this is a return to form for the directors.

Misconceptions

I’ve stopped reading reviews for the most part so all I can glean is that people thought this would be a more straightforward story. That it would be less “Space Opera” and more…space story? I don’t know. Channing Tatum’s character is strange as other other characters in the film but given that the film addresses other life in the universe it makes sense. If we can accept this idea with Star Trek can’t we do so with a film like Jupiter Ascending?

Back when we rented our films from video stores I recall a particular phrase was used often to promote new films. Either on the box or the poster or in the trailer for a film they would say, “If you loved _______, you’ll love ______”. Which if you think about it is a pretty great way to sell a film. If I were going to use that line to promote Jupiter Ascending I would say, “If you loved The Fifth Element, you’ll love Jupiter Ascending.”

The Trap of Perfection and Being Ready

The number of projects I have not begun, have begun but not completed or have nearly finished but essentially abandoned is large. When my defenses are working properly there are many wonderful reasons for all of this unfinished work. None of them are terribly original or interesting. In nearly every case the actual reason is the same: what is/was in my head did not/will not be as good when I make it. Perfection is a trap.

Today I was looking through the folders on my computer, for what I no longer remember, and I stumbled down a rabbit hole of past projects and memories that lead me, much like Alice, on a strange and mysterious journey. The journey concluded when I went to my YouTube page and saw that the last video I uploaded was two years ago.

Now, to be fair, YouTube for me is an afterthought. If I make something and want to share it I use Vimeo. The lack of commercials and the overall straightforward nature of the site is why it has become the place where I publish video content. Yet I do try and publish on YouTube because I can use all the views I can get. I am unknown and would like to change that.

Now before you start following links or Googling me the sad truth is I have made very little content to share with the world. Largely it is because I am a stay-at-home dad who mostly shoots videos of his children. I share these videos with family members who say they watch them.

So why am I writing all of this? Where is the bit about perfection?

I came across a video I made in 2007 today. It is called Marty. I am embedding it below. It is less than two minutes long and it would make me happy if you watched it now.

I’ve shared it on this site before but since I had forgotten about it, I am sure you did, too. Now, this is a very short film with almost no story that I made when I knew much less about how to make short films. Yet, it is one of a handful of short films I have made. And I think it is okay. Not amazing but not terrible either.

This past year I have gone to a number of film screenings in Vermont and I’ve connected with numerous filmmakers and watched their work online. What I have taken away from these experiences is fairly simple – it is better to make something and have it be “okay” than to make nothing. Pretty standard stuff, I know. Yet, how many of us are not making things, not sharing things because we feel it isn’t good enough? How many times have you sat down to write but stared at the wall, picked up your guitar only to put it down again, or closed your NLE because you felt your project wasn’t good enough.

I’m not a self help guy and I certainly spend more time feeling like a failure than a success. But, if I have learned one thing in the past year it’s this – people are winning awards making things I would be embarrassed to share. Don’t take this as me being snobbish or looking down my nose at others. Take this for what it is – these people are getting recognition and awards for doing – while I am forgetting videos I’ve made and staring at the wall.

“Write it. Shoot it. Publish it. Crochet it, sauté it, whatever. MAKE.”
Joss Whedon

Film and Digital – Operation Avalanche and Workflows

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Today I read an article on the Filmsupply blog – https://blog.filmsupply.com/articles/operation-avalanche/9

It is mostly an interview about the film, Operation Avalanche, that delves into the technical aspects of how they made the movie. I won’t spoil those details here other than to say their workflow was unusual. In order to properly emulate the look of 16mm film from the 1960’s they shot on digital cameras and did a transfer to 16mm film that they then degraded.

To answer the obvious question – why not just shoot on film? The answer is cost.

Why am I sharing this? Let me post an excerpt from the interview below:

Do you think it will ever be possible to achieve the full effect in digital without the 16mm intermediate?

JR: We tried. Honestly, I think if we could do it, then we would have done it. There’s something that happens — is it the uncertainty principle? It’s that thing you can’t predict. We could have given it to Conor, and he could have re-created exactly what happened in that shot from earlier in the movie. But those mistakes never happen twice — the way the colors shift in an unpredictable way, the way the highlights go a certain way.

AA: The way a hair would lie on the scan. You can’t design for that.

JR: You could intentionally do it, but you’d just be copying something you’d seen before. People are wired to pick apart images now. We spend all day looking at images and thinking about how they originated. We’ve developed a powerful vocabulary for seeing an image and knowing where it came from and who took it. That’s in our lexicon now through how much we learn by looking at images all day long. People are savvy to the point where they can subconsciously tell — whether they know it or not — if they’re looking at something from a certain era or a modern thing that’s trying to be that thing from a certain era.

Stranger Things is a great example of that. It has the look of an ’80s movie through and through, but you know it’s not an ’80s movie because you’re not watching it on film. Film does all these weird things that look like mistakes, but you can’t plan them. Through this process, we discovered that if you want something to look like it’s on film, the only way to get that look consistently is to actually use film.

What they say here, especially at the end, is of interest. As much as shows like “Halt & Catch Fire”, “The Americans” and “Mad Men” (the later seasons) achieve a film look – there are moments where the audience knows, somehow, that these shows are made differently than works shot in the 1980’s (and 60’s). This inherent knowledge is interesting and while it does little to settle any arguments about what format you should capture your work on it does speak to another concern which is distracting your audience from the story. If the audience is thinking about how your movie looks like film but isn’t film while they are watching then you have to wonder if it is worth attempting this trickery.

Take a look at the interview, it is an interesting, albeit technical, read.

Television – Orphan Black

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To begin – this may be the best television show I have ever seen. I say may only because several other shows I discovered in this past year (which has more to do with my stubbornness than my ignorance, but that is for another time) are of such amazing quality it would be hard to select the “best” [see my post Favorite Film for my thoughts on choosing a favorite movie and apply it to television as well].

That being said Orphan Black is nothing short of outstanding. I am using some big, powerful words here and I am not throwing them about carelessly. This is a meticulously crafted show, where each aspect is handled with such care and precision that, under normal circumstances, it would be difficult to point out the one aspect that makes this show exceptional. None of the traditional sins of television apply to this show. There are no disposable characters or “retconned” storylines because the people making the show decide to go in a new, exciting direction for no apparent reason. Everything in this show is there for a reason. It is pleasing and rewarding to watch something where so much thought and effort has been devoted to the planning and execution of what you are watching.

I could and want to go on about everything this show gets right. It is simpler to say it gets everything right. I have watched the first three seasons several times now and I can say, without hesitation, that there none of those moments that the viewer has to accept, knowing in their hearts that what they are watching is wrong/bad, in order to stay with the show.

All of this being said if I had to offer you one reason to watch this show (which is horrible and unfair and should not be done) it would be Tatiana Maslany. She is out of this world, insanely good doing something no one has every done before. Don’t try and remind me of Kind Hearts and Coronets – that was a movie, not a television show (meaning the duration is much shorter and easier for a feat like this) and at no point did you cease seeing Alec Guinness and only see the character he was playing.

I have watched these episodes multiple times, I know everything coming and still, still I find myself forgetting that I am watching Tatiana Maslany playing a character. It is incredible. It is the reason why in every interview she gives people try and get her to explain the “how” of her acting abilities.

I have attempted to not spoil the show for someone who has yet to watch an episode, which is not easy to do. If I have tipped you off I apologize, but let’s be honest the show is about to start it’s fourth season and if you are still somehow in the dark you should not be reading random blog posts online. If you have a reason for not watching Orphan Black allow me to try and address it here.

  1. The title is awful. I do not care about the actual meaning and how if you watch the show you come to see how appropriate it is. Anyone who has not seen an episode comes across this title and thinks, “Orphan Black? What is that? It sounds awful. Bad things happen to Orphans? No thank you.” Or something like that. Or you think of Kevin Klein and how orphan can be mispronounced as another word and golly, wouldn’t that make for a good song. Either way – don’t let this title put you off and confuse you. Ignore the title and watch. I assure you, when you get what the title means you will no longer have feelings about the creepiness/silliness of the title.
  2. The artwork. It’s creepy. It’s weird. It is meant to be. Ignore it. Let it be. Watch the show.
  3. Patton Oswalt. In his attempts to champion this show and Tatiana Maslany he has, inadvertently, kept some people away from it. I have no proof of this, only my own feelings. Before I saw the show I followed him on Twitter and aside from teaching me that you should not follow comedians on Twitter it also taught me that one man’s fan is another man’s off-putting Internet commentator who needs to calm down and let things be.

That should cover matters. Do yourself a favor and watch this show if you haven’t.

See it Again – Inglourious Basterds

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What You Should Know

If, like me, you have been avoiding this film based on the following criteria:

1) It is a Tarantino film and the posters/things you heard have lead you to believe that this film is nothing more than “Jewish revenge porn” and/or

2) The trailer for the film gave you the sense that the movie largely consists of Brad Pitt and a group of men running around Europe killing Nazis, you need to reconsider.

Why You Should Reconsider

Aside from the last twenty minutes of the film if you were able to come across this movie knowing nothing about it you would never guess the director. The first section of the movie is unlike anything I have every seen from Mr. Tarantino (as an aside I have since seen Django Unchained and I expect The Hateful Eight fit neatly into this category as well). The locale, the pace, the dialog none of it feels like anything I have encountered from this director before.

This is due partly to the look of the film, which is very rich but subdued. The first section could be referred to as being pastoral. It’s partly due to the dialog which is much more “natural” and devoid of pop culture references and (aside from Brad Pitt) guys trying to talk tough. The pace is also quite slow so that even in sequences where there is tension concerning possible death and violence, the usual uncomfortable claustrophobic atmosphere I typically associate with Mr. Tarantino’s films is pleasantly absent.

Which is not to say that people do not die, or that the dialog isn’t snappy. Lots of people die and the dialog is certainly snappy at times. I would be hard pressed to put my finger on what, exactly, is different about this film from Mr. Tarantino’s previous efforts but there most certainly is something. Call it maturity, call it scope but what you get from this film is more rewarding and interesting than what has come before.

Misconceptions

As previously stated the trailer and reviews for this film gave the impression that this was Reservoir Dogs meets World War II. There are some wonderfully rich characters in this film, who I found myself genuinely caring for.

The sections containing Brad Pitt feel to me very much like the Tarantino we all know and love/hate/whatever you feel. Yet Mr. Pitt and his men are in very little of the film. Couple that with a significant portion of the movie not being in English – and that we spend time with some fantastic actors like Christof Waltz, Michael Fassbender and the true star of the film Melanie Laurent.

This would be a great film to show someone who has given up on Mr. Tarantino and I think for someone who has never seen one of his films. It builds on his previous works and adds new components to deliver an interesting, satisfying film. Give it a chance, I think you might like it.