Film

The British Film Institute’s Library is a Film Lover’s Dream Come True

That video above is a copy of Alice in Wonderland from over a hundred years ago. It was found and restored by The British Film Institute, an organization that has made it its mission to restore old British and World films that, left unchecked, could have been lost to us forever.

Many of the films are from the early 1900s and cover a wide range of genres from coverage of old sports events to large fairs and celebrations. There are even a few silent dramas and comedies.

These types of films are always a pleasure to study and can really be used as a marker for some of the early, fundamental camerawork that have been replaced by the CGI and digital camera tricks we are more used to today.

Taking a glance at the film above you can see some old tricks such as forced perspective to make Alice appear large or small compared to her surroundings as well as the type of rudimentary cuts used to splice the film together. Not to mention the costumes. I mean, wow. The White Rabbit is the stuff of nightmares and looks like something right out of Donnie Darko. And if you thought the kids in The Shining or Children of the Corn were frightening, nothing can prepare you for the fear induced by a large group of kids dressed as playing cards chasing an innocent young woman through the countryside.

If you’re a fan of old films and how the art of filmmaking was used in the days before sound was introduced, you should really go through some of the treasures in this library. You can find the rest here on YouTube.

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Spike Jones Directs The Late Show Intro

 

Spike Jones hasn’t made a film in a few years, so in a way, this guest intro to The Late Show with Steven Colbert acts as the first piece of work we’ve seen since 2013’s Her.

Entitled A Short Film by Spike Jones, the intro does have some similarities to Her. We find a man, lost in the world, in search of himself. Along the way he meets a muse in Sesame Street alum, Grover. Although Grover and Colbert never enter into a relationship that could be considered romantic, Grover still helps Colbert find the man he needs to be by showing him that his strength lies in the very thing that has been plaguing him, his ability to make people laugh.

Colbert eventually finds his way home to the stage where he belongs. It’s here where he can finally be himself… or wait, is he himself? What’s with all the political guests? Is this still satire? Does he even know anymore? Who is the real Steven Colbert? Did he ever even exist in the first place? Who knows? All I know is that even after three long years out of the game, Spike Jones still can take audiences on a journey that blurs the line between fantasy and reality.

It’s Ok to Dislike Great Movies

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In 1976 Martin Scorsese released his timeless classic, Taxi Driver. Arguably one of his greatest films, it’s wonderfully written, beautifully shot, and impeccably acted by Robert Deniro. My first experience seeing this masterpiece was when I was eighteen.

I’ve never had it in me to see it a second time.

Everything I said earlier I truly believe. Taxi Driver is a masterpiece, but man did it take a ton out of me. For me, Taxi Driver is like when I ran cross country in high school. I have fond memories of it, I’m proud that I finished those races, but even the thought of trying to do that again starts to give me heart palpitations.

Much like running those races depleted me of all energy, after watching Taxi Driver I remember being emotionally drained of all happiness. It’s tough to watch Travis Bickle descend further and further into madness, yet still desire him to right the wrongs of society, while also questioning whether he’s just as bad as the criminals he’s trying to bring to justice. It’s much like a rollercoaster except it’s your heart in the front seat and by the end of it it’s puked out any remaining faith in humanity.

It should also be noted that I hate rollercoasters.

Society as a whole can, at times, be a cruel companion that will tear you down at the first sight of unconformity. Want to see this in action? Next time you’re at a party conversing with a group of people, casually mention that you don’t like Star Wars. Even if you adore it (odds are you do), try it anyway, for the sake of science. I guarantee you at least 85% of that group will go slack jawed and demand an explanation, but don’t bother, there isn’t one. You might as well say you hate puppies or Tom Hanks. It’s a taboo of the highest order and in some cases the punishment for even hinting at it is nothing short of social extradition.

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But the truth is there are plenty of reasons why a person wouldn’t like Star Wars, yet still acknowledge that it’s a well made film. Maybe you don’t relate to any of the characters, maybe science fiction isn’t your thing, or maybe (like myself with Taxi Driver) you just don’t like the emotions it elicits. These are all perfectly reasonable, if perhaps solely personal, excuses to dislike a film.

Battleship Potemkin is considered one of the most influential films of all time and is routinely shown to film students as an example of the fundamental uses of the montage. The impact this film had on history is undeniable, but by today’s standards it’s a tough watch to say the least. I don’t think I’ve ever ran into a film buff who has even casually listed it among their favorite films of all time.

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The fact is, a film’s exceptional qualities are mutually exclusive to the enjoyment you get from watching it. You can outright hate a film, yet still recognize that it might have expert level visual qualities or spot-on sound design. Take Transformers, a film most serious film fans will say they despise, but suggest to them that Michael Bay has mastered the explosion and they’ll be forced to reluctantly nod in agreement. He should have by now, there hasn’t been a movie he’s made without a minimum of ten. I’m pretty sure he even managed to sneak in twelve small explosions in the background of Pain or Gain.

There is no rule that states that great films need to be enjoyed, no Amendment to the Constitution that makes it unlawful for you to personally dislike a widely accepted pièce de résistance. Just like it’s possible to accept that Michael Jordan is a great basketball player without ever taking a liking to the game, it’s perfectly fine to dislike Unforgiven if you can’t stand Westerns. It’s important as a film lover to acknowledge when greatness has been achieved, but that doesn’t mean you should have to wire your eyelids open through repeated views of a film like Alex from A Clockwork Orange to prove it.

Spotlight on Shorts: The Fly

No, not that Fly, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less dangerous.

On the surface, ‘The Fly’ is a British gangster flick in the vein of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, but with a twist. Directed by Ollie Williams, it won Best Comedy at the Plymouth Film Festival and garnered a Best Actor nomination for Jack Doolan at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival.

The plot of ‘The Fly’ is easy enough to recognize from the very first line of dialogue. A group of bank robbers are attempting a heist while the lonely getaway driver awaits their return so they can make off with their score. Simple enough, but he finds an obstacle in the most insignificant of creatures.

We get that this particular fly is going to be a problem from the dire way the title of the film is introduced. Loud and in big, bold, seizure inducing red letters, the four-second title sequence might as well be introducing  fire breathing King Kong. At first the insect is but a mere nuisance, but as the film goes on it becomes much more; an antagonizing force hell bent on ruining this heist.

Jack Doolan’s performance is done well, but it’s the camera work that really stands out. Many of the shots gives us an almost voyeuristic view of the action, with some shots taking place outside of the car looking in and some that make you feel as if you’re sitting in the back seat. The cuts between these angles come frequently. As the driver becomes more irritated with the fly’s presence, the cuts come more and more rapidly giving the film a chaotic feel to accompany the mayhem going on inside the car.

It’s a one joke movie to be sure, but at a little under five minutes, it never overstays it’s welcome; a byproduct of keeping your shorts, you know, short. ‘The Fly’ shows what you can do with a short if you keep the idea simple and the running time low.

Why You Should Support the Voice Actors Strike

When we think about voice acting, we tend to think more of animation and giving speech to CG work, but those who are not gamers may not realize that many voice actors look to the video game market for work.

Over the course of the last decade video games have proven to be as a legitimate form of narrative with big budget numbers to prove it. According to Gartner, a technology research and advisory firm, the video game industry is one of the fastest growing in the world. In 2013 worldwide video game sales reached $93 billion and it’s estimated that in 2015 sales will reach $111 billion. In 2013 Grand Theft Auto 5, one of the most popular and controversial video game titles, sold $800 million on the first day of its release. Granted games are a bit more expensive than a movie ticket (about $60 dollars compared to $7-$13) but if you compare that with this summer’s blockbuster Jurassic World which made $81 million on its first day, you can see the video game industry is nothing to scoff at.

Many of the biggest video game titles such as Metal Gear, Elder Scrolls, and Grand Theft Auto require a large cast of voice actors to bring their characters to life. Even veteran film and TV actors such as Mark Hamill, who voiced the Joker in the Batman: Arkham franchise, have turned to the industry for work. With these titles taking in millions, voice actors are now demanding more in terms of compensation as well as treatment.

SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents voice actors, is mulling over a strike in an attempt to get the video game industry to meet actor’s demands. Many prominent voice actors have also taken to social media under the hashtags #PerformanceMatters and #IAmOnBoard2015 to voice their support for the strike.

Here’s what they are asking for:

Performance Bonuses:

It’s common for film actors to receive back-end bonuses in the event a film does well. With the video game industry growing at such a high rate and popular titles rivaling blockbuster film titles, its only fair interactive performers also get a piece of that.

SAG-AFTRA outlines this as such:

“We’re asking for a reasonable performance bonus for every 2 million copies, or downloads sold, or 2 million unique subscribers to online-only games, with a cap at 8 million units/subscribers. That shakes out, potentially, to FOUR bonus payments for the most successful games: 2 million, 4 million, 6 million and 8 million copies.”

Vocal Stress:

Voice acting for video games comes with its own dangers, particularly involving characters that have loud or otherwise difficult voices. For instance, horror games may require lots of screaming and yelling which could stress the vocal chords that could lead to injury and possible loss of future work.

SAG-AFTRA is asking for stunt pay, much like film and TV actors ask for when they decide to perform their own stunts, for vocally demanding roles.

Stunt Coordinator on Performance Capture Volume:

It’s sometimes the case that video games studios will require voice actors to perform motion capture along with their vocal performance, otherwise known as a full performance capture.

Just as film and TV actors who do their own stunts are often provided with a stunt coordinator to monitor safety, voice actors who are asked to provide motion capture are demanding the same. Interactive performers have complained that they are often not told what type stunts they may have to perform, such as wirework that could cause potential injury. Voice actors are simply demanding they be provided with a safe workplace.

Transparency:

Due to secrecy regarding future game releases, game studios may not reveal to the actor what they are working on or what their role pertains. This may include vocally stressful roles and potential motion capture as stated above, but also includes things like offensive content that actors may be uncomfortable performing.

SAG-AFTRA is asking that more transparency be exercised so actors have a better idea what their job entails before they commit to a role.

It seems only reasonable that interactive performers be treated to the same benefits as their film and TV counterparts. No one likes a strike, but if that what it takes to guarantee that voice actors receive proper compensation and better working conditions, so be it.

Spotlight on Shorts: ‘Timelike’

 

Found footage films have gotten a pretty bad rap as of late. The genre has been a mainstay in horror since the popularity of The Blair Witch Project, but can be seen as far back as the 80’s with films like Cannibal Holocaust. Since then we’ve been given a slew of found footage films, such as Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, VHS and REC.

Often seen as an overused gimmick by some, “Timelike” proves that you can still use an old trick provided you do something new with it.

“Timelike” is written and directed by Richard Boylan, a cinematic designer for video game developer Bioware where he worked on the Mass Effect series.

“Timelike” starts off like most found footage films, with a cameraman who, for whatever reason, never shuts off the camera and insists on filming everything. The first character we are introduced to is Madeline, who has just been accepted to college. After receiving the good news, she and the cameraman, her boyfriend Rich, decide to celebrate with a bottle of wine. In the midst of their celebration, a stranger knocks on their door delivering a mysterious message. From there, things begin to go awry as time and space seemingly begin to unravel.

It is here where “Timelike” separates itself from other found footage films. As time begins to go out of whack, the footage we see begins to reflect this, repeating over and over as we the story is slowly revealed. It’s a simple technique that proves to be used to great effect, both telling the story and letting the audience experience the discombobulation associated with time coming unglued. What results is a film that entertains through the use of suspense rather than scares.

Those of you familiar with physics can probably decipher what happens in the film by the title. For those science lovers out there that are curious, you can try to make heads and tails of it here, but I would suggest watching the film first to get the full mind fuck effect in all its glory.

Indie Intros: Tim Burton’s ‘Doctor of Doom’

Tim Burton is one of those directors whose talents were immediately recognized, yet difficultly placed. After studying at the California Institute of Arts, he was immediately given fellowship by Disney where he worked for a short time. This led to the short “Frankenweenie,” which was never released by Disney, but was nonetheless still seen by Paul Reubens who wanted him to direct the cult hit Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. From there Burton’s story is fairly well-known, going on to direct Beetlejuice and becoming one of the most unique and in demand directors of the 90’s.

“Doctor of Doom” is one of Burton’s early shorts which he directed along with partner Jerry Rees. Burton also stars in the film as Don Carlo along with a variable who’s who from the Disney roster. Brad Bird, who won two Oscars for Disney/Pixar first for The Incredibles and another for Ratatouille, provides the voice of Don Carlo. Another Disney Oscar winner, Chris Buck, is most recently famous for directing the animated hit Frozen and plays the character of Pepe in “DoD.”

If you’re expecting some cross between the Burton style of filmmaking and Disney’s signature style like A Nightmare Before Christmas, you’ll be disappointed. “DoD” is more like something Burton’s hero Ed Wood would have devised. “DoD” is an homage to old B movies, possibly influenced by the 1963 Mexican horror film of the same name.

In it, a mad doctor is invited to dinner by a group of people who have clearly never eaten tacos before. He is shunned and decides to get his revenge by creating a creature that is a cross between an elephant and Greedo from Star Wars. The group manages to stop the creature, mainly because it’s worthless at terrorizing and because they’ve studying the fighting art of the WWE.

At first viewing the short appears to be plagued with problems. The dialogue, recorded separately, is almost incoherent. Everything is spoken as if a chipmunk on speed was called in to do ADR. There is even a moment when the cameraman attempts to shoot through a mirror, but is clearly visible for a good two-seconds. But now knowing Burton’s influences, it’s clear that many of these “mistakes” most likely done on purpose.

“DoD” does give us a sense of the filmmaker that Burton would become. The title font alone screams Burton, with that “it’s always Halloween” feel to his films. The film also combines horror elements presented as comedy which has become Burton’s signature.

Indie Intros: Ron Howard’s ‘Cards, Cads, Guns, Gore and Death…’

Some people are just born to be filmmakers, I guess.

It’s common for a child to want to pick up a camera. I remember my father filming every Christmas at the house. He would simply set our VHS camcorder onto a tripod and let the thing roll, totally static, no need to get tricky. I always wanted to get my hands on that camera, but my father wouldn’t let me even touch the remote to our TV let alone a camcorder. Still I often wonder if I had the foresight to do anything worthwhile with it. I mean, I was only a kid. Still, had I been able to get my hands on that camera, the world might have had a video record of The Great War of 1986: Greyskull vs. Cobra.

One thing I can guarantee is my film probably wouldn’t have been as good as “Cards, Cads, Guns, Gore and Death…” by a young Ron Howard.

By the time Howard had begun shooting this film he was already well established as child TV star. Shot in 1969, The Andy Griffith Show had already wrapped and he was taking roles on Gunsmoke.

I’m not going to pretend like “Cards, Cads, Guns, Gore and Death…” is some sort of amateur masterpiece by a fifteen-year-old phenom. It looks pretty much like what I kid that age would shoot if you gave him an 8mm camera. Still, it’s clear that he possesses some early film skills that aren’t common at that age that I would like to acknowledge.

The film centers around three kids dressed in western attire reenacting the famous saloon poker game. In one particularly high stakes hand, one kid lays down his cards and attempts to celebrate an early victory before another player stops him and lays down a stronger hand. Being ever suspicious (or just a sore loser), the first player calls the other a cheat and shoots him in the chest. The third player, played by a young Clint Howard who looks pretty much the same as he does now, decides he having none of it and proceeds to shoot the first player. It all seems like Clint has come out the victor till a kid in a black hat shoots him from behind because he hates gambling or is just an asshole. What we’re left with is a gory scene of bodies and blood-soaked poker chips.

Some of the interesting things to not e about this film is how Howard uses some fundamental film techniques to tell his story. The opening shot is your standard establishing shot, a close up of the poker chips as we tilt up to a shot of the first player. It’s elementary, but advanced for a fifteen year old and a better opening than some indie films I’ve seen from much older. The rest of the shot is done in one take as it pans to the second player, then back down to the chips, then to a bottle that we see the third player take a drink from and finally back to first player who shoves some chips into the stack. What results is a kind of tracking shot that introduces the characters by their interactions with the props.

The first cut we see is the smiling face of the first player as he is certain he has the best hand.

The special effects are clearly lo fi, but effective. To be honest, when the players are shot, I still can’t tell if the actors are in control of the blood or someone is shooting them with a water gun filled with red liquid from off-screen. I want to say the latter, since Clint Howard is shot in the back and doesn’t seem to be at an angle to spray himself.

The film ends with a shot of a lone poker chip lying in a pool of blood, which, even in its simplicity, is pretty cool final shot that symbolizes what the whole film is about.

I got to give it up to Ron Howard for releasing this film. It was apparently a bonus feature on the special edition DVD release of The Missing. It’s rare to see a filmmaker of Howard’s status to release their very early work, which is a shame because I believe aspiring filmmakers can learn a lot from them, even if they’re horrible.

Spotlight on Shorts: ‘Truth in Journalism’

How could I do the name of this blog justice if I didn’t do at least one Spider-Man related film.

“Truth in Journalism,” directed by Joe Lynch, follows one of Spidey’s most notorious villains, Eddie Brock aka. Venom. Those of you familiar with the comics know the story well enough, if not, you can get the overall story by watching Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3. To give you just a bit of back story on Brock, he’s an angry and envious guy who just so happens to be infested with an even angrier symbiotic organism from space. He’s got all of Spider-Man’s powers and then some, including shape shifting and the ability to manipulate his body into sharp objects.

The film follows an already defeated Brock, fired from the Daily Bugle, as he hires a film crew to rebuild his shattered reputation. They follow him as he boisterously brags about his life and career, oftentimes dodging his checkered past. Now working for a tabloid newspaper, Brock takes the film crew into the seedy underbelly of the streets, occasionally stopping a crime at his own leisurely pace. As the filming goes on, the crew becomes more and more frustrated with Brock’s lack of cooperation, focusing the film on himself and dodging the tough questions. As the crew begins to threaten backing out of the film, you can see Brock’s seething anger begin to show.

The film is an homage to the Belgium mockumentary Man Bites Dog, a dark and powerful film about a documentary crew that decides to follow a serial killer through his day-to-day routine. In it, the killer’s overbearing nature begins to manipulate the film crew, as they are pulled into his world of murder and chaos. They then begin to actually take part in the murders, becoming just like the figure they are documenting.

“Truth in Journalism” doesn’t stray too far from the formula Man Bites Dog follows. The film is also shot in black and white, with the film crew being present in most of the shots, unlike other mockumentaries like Spinal Tap, The Office, or Parks and Recreation. Brock’s personality is also much like the serial killer’s, boisterous and loud, but also very much a bully at heart. He exudes an energy that would make anyone uncomfortable, the type of person that’s always flashing a fake smile to hide his true intentions.

Some of the effects are quite interesting as well and will still manage to impress fans of the comics. At one point Brock is talking to himself in the mirror with his shirt off. He then notices the camera capturing his dialogue and shuts the door, only to immediately open it, revealing him fully clothed in a suit and tie. There are also a few hidden cuts, much like Birdman, where everything looks like it was shot in one take.

“Truth in Journalism” differs from Man Bites Dog in that the film crew never goes as far as to help Brock commit any crimes. In fact, true to the comics, Brock is more concerned with being a big shot and getting back at Peter Parker than he is at committing random acts of violence. Although, we can’t exactly speak for Brock’s other half.

Although the film isn’t shot like your traditional comic book movie, the film still manages to throw in a few things for fans familiar with the genre. Like all Marvel movies, you’ll want to wait until after the credits for that inevitable coda. There might even be a few cameos comic fans will recognize.

Indie Intros: Robert Zemeckis’ ‘The Lift’

Last week Robert Rodriguez had on filmmaker Robert Zemeckis on his excellent show The Director’s Chair. Seriously, if you love hearing filmmakers talking about their craft, this is one of the best programs (imagine Inside the Actor’s Studio for filmmakers).

Piggybacking off of that show, we’re going to take a look at Zemeckis’ first student film, “The Lift,” a film shot in black and white, much like last week’s Christopher Nolan flick “Doodlebug.

The film is about a man going through his normal day-to-day routine until he meets his arch nemesis in the form of his apartment’s elevator. The elevator is either broken, possessed by The Devil, or maybe just hates him like your cat hates you. I don’t care if he’s cuddled up next to you right now purring his little heart out, that cat hates you and plots your demise daily.

The elevator seems to have a life of its own as it escapes him, shuts on him and sometimes traps him as he desperately tries to get to work. No matter how unpredictable the lift becomes, the man seems dead set on using it despite the hassle it causes him. Perhaps he’s trying to break it the way a trainer breaks a horse, or perhaps he’s just an idiot.

The black and white stock provides a strong level of contrast, as the film is not always lit properly. I wondered if he was using the same Kodak black and white reversal stock we used in my film school days that always managed to be overexposed or underexposed, sometimes even in the same frame. Still, Zemeckis manages to do some interesting stuff with the lighting, especially later in the film. Some of his usage of shadow seems to come right out of a film noir, with hard shadows being casted on the ground by light passing through the elevator’s grates. It kind of gives the elevator an ominous feel, further giving it a kind of sentience.

Other shots are precursors to some of Zemeckis’ later work. The opening shot of “The Lift” is a series of pans and close-ups, often focusing on appliances and clocks that furnish the main character’s apartment. Any fan of Back to the Future will recognize the similarities between its opening scene and the one seen here in “The Lift.” Either that, or Zemeckis took the DeLorean, travelled back to his film student self and told him to add the shot, forever changing the course of his life to make him the powerhouse director we know today.