2013 Resolution: Movies Watched this Week

As per my New Year’s resolution, here’s the movies I watched this week:

Silver Linings Playbook: It was just okay for me. I thought the script was excellent but the performances irked me. Not that they were bad or anything, but I got a bit tired of the “talking really fast over one another” thing. I really enjoyed the cinematography. I find however that mental illness and depression are rarely treated fairly on film - the movie seemed to treat them as more of a hipster quirk than an actual condition.

We Are Legion: Watched this documentary for research purposes. An expose on global hacktivist Anonymous, it really opened my eyes to the group and the new face of political activism, which is both radical and apathetic all at the same time. Incredibly fascinating and important.

Zero Dark Thirty: Time to revise my best films of 2012, as Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty instantly belongs in my top five. The argument over the showing of torture in the film is about as ridiculous the argument over Django Unchained's use of the word “nigger.” There are ugly truths, and neither film shies away from them, nor do they exploit/ glorify them. With this follow up to The Hurt Locker, Bigelow instantly becomes one of the most vital and important directors working in film today. It’s not “too soon” for this film, it is exceptionally urgent and valid to our times today. Hands down my early pick for the Oscars for Best Actress and Picture.*

*I’ve still to watch four of the nine films in the Best Picture category, which I aim to see before the Oscars.

Kerosene

Crystal Castles

(III)

Played 739 times

Music for the Weekend: Kerosene by Crystal Castles.

As a result of the interest in my short film 7x6x2 (which hopefully everyone will be able to see soon), I’ve been asked to create something I haven’t had to do for the past ten years: a director’s reel.

All of the work I’ve done in the film industry to this point has originated from two sources: my own brain and through the generosity of friends, friends who at some point I helped along the way. I haven’t had the need to put a reel together for new work. But I’ve found that in my pursuits of financing my next film, people want to see what I’ve done, and truth be told they don’t have the time to sit and watch all my films - they need something concise, to the point, and effectively displaying my talents. Hence a reel.

Being that I’ve never put a reel together before, I’ve been at a bit of a loss in terms of where to start. My writer/ director instincts keep trying to tell a story, and that’s not really the point of a director’s reel. I’ve watched countless director’s reels online (just type ‘director’s reel’ into YouTube and Vimeo) and they largely seem to be a series of images stitched together by music. There’s no narrative, and it’s all peppered by an occasional outburst of performance.

I totally understand the purpose of cutting a reel this way, which is to largely draw attention to advertising work. I’ve been told by many agencies that I’m an outstanding ‘image maker’ and that I know how to put together a composition right there alongside some of the best in the business. These are platitudes that humble me immensely, but my inner artist wants to tell stories - I just don’t want to make images for the sake of making images.

Perhaps I’m being unrealistic here. The bread and butter of many filmmakers is doing ad work, and I’ve done my share from an art direction and storyboarding standpoint. But I made the conscientious choice to focus my directing energies on narrative film; it’s the reason why I left a lucrative career in science, which is to not make Chevrolet ads, but to create my generation’s versions of Blade Runner and The Shining. As the cliche goes, what I really want to do is direct.

Taking a few much-needed steps back, I have to shelve my directing ego and see the bigger picture here, something which every stubborn indie writer/ director/ producer must do. There is a fine distinction that must be made, which is the difference between the business of art, and the art of business. The business of art is to create something truly amazing - something that stands above its competition and innovates - and to do it on a budget that guarantees a return. Think of a film like Looper or Beasts of Southern Wild or Drive - all films done on budgets ranging from modest to micro, all of them pushing the envelope of what we expect from movies and what is currently out there on the market. They all have a distinctive artistic vision that is largely uncompromised, and because of that they stand out from the pack and have garnered the attention of audiences willing to pay for a new experience.


Drive.

The art of business doesn’t care about all that. There is no such things as new experiences and artistic visions. If you tell a potential investor that you have a distinctive artistic vision, they’ll kindly show you to the door because in the world of return on investments, artistic vision is synonymous with box office poison. Business by nature is a conservative venture, and not in the sense that business people don’t take risks - they do that every day - but rather that they take risks on the things that won’t sink them in the long run. Business favors a sure thing that delivers moderately over a maverick that has potential to explode any given day. The art of business is therefore packaging a high risk venture as a calculated risk, and not as a shot in the dark. Which is where a good, solid reel comes into play.

I have to assemble my reel with the eyes of a conservative investor, which is to see narrative films existing first and foremost as advertisements, as trailers, as television spots. It’s done this way because these are the things that primarily get butts in seats. Narrative dexterity and nuanced performances aren’t what sell a film in a trailer - its beautiful images, electric pace, recognizable faces and a really kickass song/ music composition. Thinking as a conservative businessman, I know in my mind the project worth investing in is the project that I can outright sell. If the project is a hard sell, then it becomes more and more difficult to rationalize financing it.

A good reel filled with beautiful images, a memorable music track, and expert pacing is the first indicator that a director knows how to create moving images that first and foremost sell. It’s not just “this kid knows how to put a movie together,” it’s moreso “this kid knows how to sell a product.” And that’s what you need to display if you want to get money to make movies, because it takes the very rare investor - or your parents - to invest in a filmmaker who can’t demonstrate marketability.

But the art of business is also being a chimera, which is the most exhilarating challenge of all. I simply refuse to sell out - again I didn’t quit a beautiful life as a scientist to make middle of the road movies - I want to stay as bold, odd and indie as fuck. And there’s no reason not to think this way, because some of the greatest filmmakers working today - from Quentin Tarantino to Danny Boyle to Kathryn Bigelow - continue to make widely distributed films that refuse to compromise, but ultimately their films are genre films that can be sold, and sold well. These folks refuse to sell out, but if you were to cut a director’s reel together of Kathryn Bigelow’s work, it would seem like she makes ads for the US Army and Chevy trucks. Danny Boyle’s reel would look like a compilation of music videos. They don’t need to sell themselves as narrative aces, they just have to sell movies.

Amazing drama or an ad for the US Navy? On a reel, it doesn’t matter.

So now I’m on the quest to find that perfect piece of music to cut my reel to, and it’s taken me through the deepest depths of my music library. And anyone that is familiar with my music library knows that it’s pretty much a bottomless abyss of music. Over the past twenty-five years (I’ve been buying records since I was twelve), I’ve amassed a collection of over three thousand albums, ranging from northern soul to death metal to the sounds of southern baptist doomsday cults. Of course that music won’t be appropriate for a reel, but I need to find something that is not only beautiful, atmospheric and catchy, but also very true to my aesthetic. If I had a dime for every reel cut to Linkin Park’s “Cure for the Itch" then I wouldn’t need to be cutting a reel in the first place. But that shit sells, and who am I to argue with that? I’ve narrowed down my musical choices, and will start cutting in earnest this weekend. We’ll see what comes of it!

Have a great weekend!

"We’ll just fix it in post."

In the process of reviewing the footage and making notes, it’s readily apparent that aside from the standard hard work of sound design, editing, mixing and three static CGI plate shots (no animation), our post-production requirements on Lilith are actually very, very small.

This is in large part due to our budget - we have no money for fancy CGI effects - but also to our commitment to doing as much as possible in-camera and with practical effects. We could very well do things like add CGI blood and wounds, but then nothing can ever replicate the real thing. We relied on old-school camera tricks to create effects, which are still remarkably effective and make my editing life that much easier and cost-effective. I can’t imagine doing this particularly grisly scene from Lilith with CGI blood:

Now I’m not eschewing the use of CGI, as it has become a staple and extremely valuable tool of filmmakers. But I do think that there is a growing trend of turning over more and more of physical filmmaking to the computers in post-production, a trend which personally irks me.

I was recently watching the amazing extra features on the Criterion edition of David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and was incredible to see that despite the CGI-intensive work on the film, the overriding philosophy was to physically capture as much veracity as possible during photography. Fincher’s commitment to physical authenticity rings true in all of his films, and the key to this is in his planning. Fincher knows exactly what the computer must do, and what the camera must capture. He doesn’t rely upon post-production to provide things that he can’t readily capture with his camera.

I feel this is a dying mindset, as I’ve been privy to film shoots where the director so-readily declares “we’ll fix it in post.” No. You don’t fix it in post, you fix it right then and there, by re-doing it. It takes valuable time and physical resources, but it’s all about maintaining the truth of the material and the moment.

This unfortunate idea of correcting flubs in post before even reaching post-production doesn’t limit itself to photography, it’s extending to performance as well. I was on a film shoot where an actor continuously flubbed a line, and the producer of the film made the executive decision that instead of doing re-takes to get the scene right, that the actor would just ADR (re-record) the line in post-production. My jaw dropped.

Our reliance upon the technological gifts of post-production has now extended far beyond the normal boundaries, and the skills of directing, cinematography and acting are being handed over to the tech wizards in a disparate number of post houses. This is not a slam on the artists of post-production, but rather an observation of a growing complacency in physical filmmaking.

We should only utter the term “fix it in post” after all other options have been exhausted, or when we are actually in post-production and we notice a flaw that went under the radar. We cannot think of post-production as a universal fix-it solution; it’s cold and distant, takes a lot of time, and costs a hell of a lot of money. It’s a band-aid on a bullet hole.

Are there things on Lilith that I wish I could fix in post? Honestly, no.(EDIT: at least not yet!) As I go through the footage, my crew did an admirable job in covering our bases. Are there things I wish I could re-shoot or gather more footage of? Absolutely. But that’s not about fixing in post. That’s just being able to capture so much in a given amount of time.

But with filmmaking becoming increasingly post-production oriented, our responsibilities and descriptions as filmmakers are evolving. Can we call the camera work in Avatar true cinematography? Of course we can. But now we have to include CGI artists along with the traditional gaffers and grips in the lighting team. It’s all becoming very gray.

I don’t know. I’m a bit old-school in that I like to keep it as real as possible whenever I can, and if I need a character to jump flat-footed into the Earth’s atmosphere then I know I’ll need to do that in post-production. I love that filmmakers like David Fincher, Spike Jonez, Kathryn Bigelow, Jonathan Glazer, Neil Blomkamp and Darren Aronofsky, all of whom fully embrace post-production, use it only as a tool to amplify what they physically shot. It boils down to these filmmakers knowing exactly what they want and not compromising the truth when it comes to telling their stories.

But we also have to acknowledge that less than two decades ago, some of the most amazing and eye-popping sequences in cinema were created without the benefit of high-tech computerized post production, and the budgets of those films were significantly less. CGI has its place in movie magic, but it has to serve the film, and not the other way around. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button uses cutting-edge technology as a narrative tool - the aging of a single character and actor - and not as a gimmick or a patch. The original Star Wars trilogy was not a slave to post-production, unlike their dismal prequels. Compare Ray Harryhausen’s work on the original Clash of the Titans and compare it to the 2010 remake, and the ‘updated’ version lacks heart, it’s only bells and whistles, in my opinion. It’s the classic case of post-production effects driving the principles of classic filmmaking, and it is a consistent result that these films lack the depth and heart of the epics of yesteryear.

Again, I’m not poo-pooing the use of CGI, but unless it is used for an entire film (i.e. what Pixar has accomplished) it is only a tool to bolster the original captured image. As is consistently stated throughout this blog, it is my opinion that the technology works for us, and not vice-versa. This applies at every stage of filmmaking, and for that matter for our lives in general. When I see the ad for the new iPhone that states “I don’t know what I would do without my iPhone” it makes me cringe. We could, and did, do a LOT of things before there were iPhones. Some might argue that we were actually more productive before apps like “Paper Toss” and “Pocket God” were created. Just a thought. :)


P.S. I highly, HIGHLY recommend watching the DVD extras for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Many times we hear the term ‘DVD film school’ and this is one of those discs that embodies it. I might just make a list of DVDs with amazing extra features in a future blog post. These are invaluable tools for filmmakers, as it’s the next-best alternative to sitting with David Fincher in person or being on a major film set.

Overlooked Oscars.

As we enter the final week before the Oscars, I’d like to take some time out from the film to partake in the great American tradition of pontificating on the subject of “if I picked the Oscars…”

I have to admit that because of my business travel, I haven’t really had the opportunity to see that many films this year, and I find myself playing catch-up with DVDs. But I have seen some exceptional films this year, many of which have been completely overlooked by the Academy.

But let me first disclose that I am in the party of people who think that awards shows are exercises in vanity and marketing, and that they certainly exist to promote hard-to-sell films or DVD sales. It’s political and economical, yes, but I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t want to be invited to the Academy Awards or be appreciated by my colleagues. There are categories that have no connection to marketing, categories like live-action and animated shorts (of which a colleague of mine, Gregg Helvey, is nominated for his short film KAVI - go Gregg!) and technical awards which never receive any air-time but are essential to the growth and development of the industry. I understand why the Academy Awards exist, and I think they should continue to exist. The People’s Choice Awards, on the other hand…

But I digress. Let’s cut to the chase.

Let’s start with the locks. For Best Supporting Actor I think it’s universally accepted that Christoph Walz should and will win for his masterful turn as Col. Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. You won’t hear any argument from me. Also, Best Visual Effects is a shoo-in for Avatar. I would have said District 9 had far more compelling visual effects than Avatar because I felt the creatures in District 9 showed genuine, authentic emotion, but Avatar trumps it in that Cameron & Co. created an entire new 3D technology that, for better or worse, transformed our industry. And plus it’s James Cameron. I also think Mo’Nique has it wrapped up for Precious, although I feel Melanie Laurent deserved a nomination for her turn in Inglorious Basterds. She simply owned the screen whenever she was on. And hands down, the best animated film of the year was Up.

And now the debatable and overlooked:

Best Actor: all signs point to Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, which I have not seen and by boxoffice accounts not many others have seen either. I’m sure he’s brilliant in it. But I have three more candidates whom I feel should have been nominated, and one of those who should have won. I would have nominated Sam Rockwell for his double performance in Moon, a highly nuanced and very difficult feat. Rockwell carried the entire film on his shoulders, and to pull off a science fiction film requires an actor who can sell the humanity and soul of the character to the audience so that they can buy into the audacity of the plot. Rockwell accomplished this big-time. I can also say the same of Tom Hardy’s performance in the criminally underseen film Bronson. Hardy is both terrifying and charismatic, a combination that is very difficult to pull off without veering into pantomime. His is a career-defining performance.

But I would give the Best Actor award to Michael Fassbender for his portrayal of Irish republican hunger striker Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s Hunger. Fassbender’s performance has all the makings of legendary role - physical transformation and bodily disregard, passion, subtlety, truthfulness, and above everything else, honesty. Few actors can go the limits to what Fassbender accomplished, and he deserves far more recognition for his brave and fearless performance.

Best Actress: Many folks are saying this is Sandra Bullock’s year and as a person, I’d be happy for her to win. As an actress, I feel she turned in a one-note performance that lacked any kind of depth or complexity. The actress that did go there was Katie Jarvis in Andrea Arnold’s blistering Fish Tank. Like Bridges in Crazy Heart, this is a performance that few people have seen, but fans of acting and performance must seek out. Jarvis toes the line of self-destruction and hope so deftly, she allows the audience to go on her journey with her with compassion and exposing her naked, raw nerves. It’s one of those performances that comes along every five to ten years, and it is deserving of the highest praise and honors.

Best Cinematography: Two of the most overlooked efforts in cinematography were never even in the running at this year’s Oscars, but they are visual achievements that really do deserve higher praise. The first is Darius Khondji’s work in Stephen Frears’ Cheri, where Khondji draws upon the great works of French Impressionism to create a shimmering tableau of light and color. The film is an absolute visual feast, and the work of a great cinematographer working at the height of his creative powers. But this year’s highest praise should go towards Lance Acord for his work in Spike Jones’ Where the Wild Things Are. Unlike Avatar I felt Where the Wild Things Are was the true seamless amalgamation of digital and practical photography, and Acord infused a beautiful, organic warmth to the film. Where in Avatar I felt I was watching technical wizardry at work, in Where the Wild Things Are I never once thought about “how did they do that,” I was completely absorbed into the beautiful, stunning and sad landscape. The film and Acord’s deft wielding of light and camera is the most overlooked achievement of 2009.

Best Director: I want Kathryn Bigelow to win this, not because she is a woman who has for many years been been thrown under the bus with the assumption that her greatness as an action director is due to her association with james Cameron, but because she is one of the finest directors working today. But I put forth an unlikely contender, and that is Pete Docter for directing Up. Animation has never gotten its fair due as a director’s medium, but if James Cameron can get nominated for Avatar, which is essentially an animated film, then Docter deserves all praise for Up. I challenge anyone to put together a more affecting sequence than the first 20 minutes of Up, which shows an emotional complexity that confounds, stabs, caresses and ultimately lets go. It’s a masterful piece of work, rivaled only by the first 20 minutes of Inglorious Basterds, to which I owe much of its greatness to Christoph Walz. Docter managed every emotional beat and frame of Up with utmost sincerity and with the skill of a master craftsman, and he produced a work of art in the process.

Best Picture: The Hurt Locker rightfully deserves this title, but there was one film which was overlooked for this honor, and I can’t blame the Academy for its misstep, largely because the film hasn’t been seen by anyone except those on the festival circuit.

The film is Munyurangabo, directed by Lee Issac Chung. The film deals with the genocide in Rwanda through the perspective of two young, adolescent boys. The film builds its story in reverse order as we slowly begin to realize why these boys are making a cross-country trek. This is a revelatory story of many of the issues and mores of society today, told without the liberal white-guilt soapbox of Hollywood (and I say this as a bleeding-heart liberal myself), and told with unflinching honesty and objectiveness. Rare is the film that simply happens, a film that unfolds so naturally and effortlessly on screen. It is a real achievement, and worthy of the highest honor in the industry.

I know it’s presumptuous of me to award the best picture to a film that no one has seen. It’s not my being fancy-shmancy “oh look at this obscure little indie gem that I found,” rather it is simply the best film that I saw last year, and I saw it by chance, or else I would have never know it even existed. But it is on DVD and it is available for anyone to see, and I strongly urge anyone who loves or is involved in cinema to partake in what the film has to offer. It may also seem that in this post I’ve been bagging on Avatar and this is a half-truth; I am in awe of the film’s achievements from a tech standpoint, but I feel it fails in accomplishing the fundamental cornerstone of why movies are made, which is to tell a compelling story. Avatar is an experience, not a tale. Munyurangabo is, like Avatar, a peephole into a world unseen, an unfamiliar culture, a species at war, and above all, it has a beating heart.

You can find the film here: http://www.amazon.com/Munyurangabo-Jeff-Rutagengwa-as/dp/B0023VM7AU/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=dvd&qid=1267545585&sr=8-1